Jonathan Swift is well-known for his political writings, of which A Modest Proposal surely does not disappoint in its satirical gravity. A Modest Proposal not only addresses the cruelty of the times, but self-imposes them with such mockery and disdain in the belief that you will question your own role. This Juvenalian essay was first published anonymously in 1729; otherwise his works were always published under pseudonyms. Typically his writings were pamphlets, a tool greatly used for mass-production at the time, but he also wrote some novels, most famous of these is the now named Gulliver’s Travels. He was truly a master of satire, and is even perhaps the foremost satirist in prose (of the English language). “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick,” as it was originally known, practically reads as an epic as Swift flawlessly introduces the more unusual aspects of his rhetoric. The titles aids this maneuver by sounding so reasonable, but is actually filled with such condescension.
At first his bizarre proposal slips in so unobtrusively it hardly registers, but soon after one is flung about aboard this most instructional trip on the merits of selling babes as the latest cash crop. Why not? “their [the Irish] corn and cattle being already seized and money a thing unknown,” the impoverished Irish were not ignorant of the harsh reality of being subject to political strife ("I grant this food may 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."). This new measure: encouraging the breeding of infants purely, or especially for financial restitution, albeit harsh and irreversible, would garner results—history, time and time again shows humans as capable of nearly anything given the appropriate circumstances. Beyond simply surviving, improving one’s quality of life is certainly a strong motivator “and the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.”
Perhaps most effective was Swift’s grasp of our perceptions and how easy it can be to override our senses. He never ceases in his speech, using all in his arsenal to stupefy you. By painting such a terrifying scene and really not one so impossible in theory, he really derides your own preconceptions and allows you to fully take in the core of his argument: the failure of social and political structure by the hands of the empowered few. With such an extreme situation he allows the voice of the real issue to be heard. “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” He must first bring this principle to mind, and what better way than to astonish you with such a grand display of human’s oft defective nature.
His strategies are made possible by the early usage of detaching the reader from the topic. He takes away his subjects’ humanity with labels, such as: breeders, charge(s), and food. Swift also likens the mother’s to animals on a few occasions, notably when pregnant, and the children being prepared for the slaughter. Such monikers allow for the reader to bypass the individuals in such roles, and perceive the grand scheme pragmatically.
Swift was irrefutably a well-educated man, but his numerous mathematical examples boasted the so-called authenticity of his claims. His argument was otherwise persuasive, but the addition of such evidence had to be all the more convincing. It isn’t coincidental that such measures are still in use today, and in many cases totally fabricated. He also took advantage of the over-all outlandish setting and infiltrated this with his true ideals, following “let no man talk to me of other expedients…”
Through his political substitution (turned away from the Whig party in favour of the Tories who were far more sympathetic toward his aims), Swift hoped to better the lives of the poor and mentally ill. However, in the case of ‘A Modest Proposal’ it was the timing of Queen Anne’s refusal to reward him for his political services that must’ve goaded his writings for the Irish cause. In turn he did not shy away from announcing his grievances with the current social standards of Ireland, nor the English government’s involvement (“…I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation…”).
It shows that his works have lived through the test of time remaining a topic of discussion even today, some two hundred years later. The true scope of satires as an art form may have diminished in time, but critics are still pouring over every syllable applied from Swift’s hand. The original target may have been his fellow Anglo-Irishmen but I doubt he’d mind the expansion. Swift became known as an Irish Patriot after this essay, with his attention to brutality at the time and well-argued standpoints it’s easy to see why he gained this status.