Not only does “A Modest Proposal” satirize the casual evil of the English rich and the hopelessness of the Irish poor, it also satirizes the culture of pamphleteering and political grandstanding that flourished in response to the crisis in Ireland. In 18th-century England and Ireland, it was common practice for the civic-minded to write short essays on all matters of politics, which they would then distribute among the public in the form of cheaply printed pamphlets. Many of these pamphlets tried to engineer simple solutions to extraordinarily complex and pervasive social problems, often making use of shoddy statistics and wild speculation to support their claims.
Swift uses the character of the Proposer to satirize this tendency towards social engineering. The Proposer arrives at his solution through a series of calculations which may or may not have any basis in reality. He seems obsessed by numbers, and constantly refers back to the math of the situation—how many poor children are born annually, how much an average infant weighs, how much money the Irish collectively owe in debt to their English landlords—to support the perfect rationality of his morally reprehensible suggestions. In one sense, it seems that the Proposer’s methods, which are abstract, mathematical, and hyper-rational, have actually led him to his monstrous conclusion. In his excited pursuit of the best possible fix, the Proposer seems to have forgotten the most basic assumptions of human morality.
The Enlightenment, during which Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” was a period of renewed faith in the powers of human reason. Following the incredible advancements and discoveries made by scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and David Hume, intellectuals across Europe began to trust that man could cure all of society’s ills, and, indeed, that the world could be perfected. Jonathan Swift didn’t by any means lack faith in reason, but his outlook was ultimately much bleaker than that of most Enlightenment thinkers. As he famously wrote to his good friend, the poet Alexander Pope, Swift saw man not as an animal rationale—an inherently rational animal—but as rationis capax—an animal capable, on occasion, of reason.
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality ThemeTracker
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Quotes in A Modest Proposal
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation.
The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about 200,000 couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract 30,000 couple who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom;) but this being granted, there will remain 170,000 breeders. I again subtract 50,000 for those women who miscarry or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain 120,000 children of poor parents annually born.
I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above 3l. or 3l. 2s. 6d. at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout.
I grant that this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies; and who stay at home on purpose to deliver the kingdom to the pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.
Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at 5s. a pound: of using neither clothes nor household furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance: of learning to love our country, in the want of which we differ even from Laplanders and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: of being a little cautious not to sell our country and conscience for nothing: of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants: lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers…