A MODEST PROPOSAL – JONATHAN SWIFT – 1729
From Sparks Notes
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Commentary on PARAGRAPHS 1 - 7
Swift's opening paragraph offers a starkly realistic, although compassionate, portrait of families of beggars in Ireland. The first sentence gives a fairly straightforward and un-ironic description, but by the second sentence the author begins to offer judgments and explanations about this rampant beggary: the mothers are unable to work, and have been "forced" into their current poverty and disgrace. Swift's language here reverses the prevailing sentiment of his day, which held that if beggars were poor, it was their own fault. The reader is unsure at this point whether to take Swift's professed compassion for the beggars as earnest or ironic. The issue never becomes completely clear. In this passage, and in the tract as a whole, he tends not to choose sides; his stance is one of general exasperation with all parties in a complex problem. Swift is generous with his disdain, and his irony works both to censure the poor and to critique the society that enables their poverty. The remark about Irish Catholics who go to Spain to fight for the Pretender offers a good example of the complexity of Swift's judgments: he is commenting on a woeful lack of national loyalty among the Irish, and at the same time critiquing a nation that drives its own citizens to mercenary activity. He makes a similar stab at national policies and priorities with the aside that takes for granted that poor Irish children will not find employment, since "we neither build Houses,...nor cultivate Land."
The reader is inclined at first to identify with the "proposer," in part because Swift has given no reason, at this point, not to. His compassion in the first paragraph, the matter-of-fact tone of the second, his seeming objectivity in weighing other proposals, and his moral outrage at the frequency of abortion and infanticide--these characteristics all speak out in his favor as a potential reformer. Yet the depersonalizing vocabulary with which he embarks on his computations is calculated to give us pause. He describes a newborn child as "" and identifies women as "Breeders." Against this language the word "souls" (which ought to make sense as a way of talking about hapless human beings) takes on a wry tone when applied to Ireland's now strictly statistical population. This language offers an early indication of the way the author's proposal reduces human beings alternately to statistical entities, to economic commodities, and to animals.
It becomes clear fairly quickly that this will be an economic argument, although the proposal will have moral, religious, political, and nationalistic implications. Despite his own moral indignation, when the author suggests that most abortions are occasioned by financial rather than moral considerations, he assumes that people's motivations are basically materialistic. This is not, of course, Swift's own assumption; he presents a shockingly extreme case of cold-blooded "rationality" in order to make his readers reexamine their own priorities. Swift parodies the style of the pseudo-scientific proposals for social engineering that were so popular in his day. His piece is partly an attack on the economic utilitarianism that drove so many of these proposals. Although Swift was himself an astute economist, here he draws attention to the incongruity between a ruthless (though impeccably systematic) logic and a complexly human social and political reality. Part of the effect will be to make the reader that the argument is bad, without knowing quite where to intervene--to pit moral judgment against other, more rigidly logical kinds of argumentation.
PARAGRAPHS 8 – 19
PARAGRAPHS 20 – 28
The author identifies himself as a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, who were predominantly Anglican. His picture of embattled Anglicans forced to leave the country is an ironic one, however. Swift is denouncing the practice of absenteeism among Irish landlords, who often governed their estates from abroad, thus funneling all the fruits of Irish peasant labor out of the Irish economy and into the English coffers. The proposer's allegiance is to the interests of the wealthy, and it is at the upper classes that Swift aims his sharpest barbs. Swift's contempt for the irresponsibility, greed, and moral indifference of the wealthy is matched only by his disgust at the utter failure of Ireland's political leaders. Swift begins moving away from the faux-economics of child-breeding in order to hone in on the realities of Ireland's economic crisis. Many of the arguments the proposer advances here have to do with the very real problem of building a viable Irish national economy. Swift reveals that his objection is not so much with the basic mercantilist idea that the people are the most valuable resources of a nation, but rather with Ireland's failure to value that resource in any meaningful and nationally constructive way.