Jonathan Swift’s 1729 text A Modest Proposal (full title: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick) is arguably one of the most notorious texts in English literature. This is because of Swift’s explicit subject matter: in the essay he argues that impoverished Irish should, in order to remedy their situation, sell their children as food to the affluent. Of course, the satirical notion of Swift’s text lies in precisely this absurd “modest” proposal: what Swift really wants to accomplish in this text is to show the dire situation that the poor Irish classes were in at the time of his writing. Nevertheless, the text is controversial because of Swift’s refusal to pull any punches: he does not attempt to somehow use any euphemistic devices to describe the plight of the Irish underclass, but rather uses a visceral and absurd main thesis to point out these desperate inequalities. The following essay will thus argue that Swift’s decision to approach the subject matter from this violent and absurd perspective is the result of the extreme nature of this subject matter: namely, Swift sees satire as a crucial socio-political tool to be utilized against existing dominant social structures. In other words, for Swift satire most vividly shows the hypocrisies and injustices of a ruling class by exposing their own convoluted logic through an internal disparaging of their system.
Swift starts out his essay with an appeal to empathy, although one that is drenched in satire. In this case, he describes poor Irish mothers, who, in his words, “instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants.” (52) Swift clearly here is using rhetoric and satire to critique class difference. First of all, he notes the idea that time could be better spent working. This is a clear critique of the labor system, which prioritizes wage labor over familial life. In Swift’s satire, family life is not the apex of society, but instead is a burden towards labor. This is a clear use of rhetoric and hyperbole to critique the class system: Swift is essentially saying the inverse, questioning what kind of society exists in which wage labor is viewed as more important than taking care of a family. Swift’s use of satire therefore becomes weaponized as a form of social critique.
Swift continues his barrage against the existing social structure through subtle allusions to its mercantile foundations that prize capital above all other forms of life. For example, Swift writes, “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 three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange.” (4) Swift here is clearly criticizing the phenomenon of market economics: by comparing the worth of a human life to the markets, Swift is showing the perverse ethical values of such a system, thereby pointing out that human life itself may be commodified. Satire thus allows Swift to formulate a situation in which the morals of the society, however depraved they may be (and in this case they certainly are, since they are a social structure based on money as opposed to the value of human life), are now presented in a vivid manner. Namely, such ideas as the importance of the market and commodities are taken by granted by a society. They are ideological values of which the public is perhaps not even conscious of. Satire allows Swift to change perspectives on the subject matter, taking the underlying meaning of this system from a new point of view, which then reveals to the reader the questionable nature of such a system.
In this case it is important to underscore that Swift’s satire is at the same time making an argument. This means that satire in Swift’s hands is not merely a comedic device, but becomes a form of thesis. Cioffi notes this when he writes about Swift as follows: “sometimes writers abandon the familiar shape of argument and, still, staying in the general realm of nonfiction, find new ways of making their points….a parody of an argumentative paper, presenting an outrageous position but using elements of argument, makes the strongest statement.” (111) Swift does not want to merely rehearse arguments about social justice. Otherwise, he could merely advance an ethically informed paper that rationally argues why such class differences are wrong. But Swift wants to create a more powerful form of argument, one that will shock and grab attention: satire is perfect for such a scenario. Swift does not want to participate in the rational, well-argued discourse of the system, because this would in a sense concede the rationality of this same system. Thus Swift writes: “I grant this food willl 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.” (6) Swift here uses a hyperbolic call to cannibalism to show the absurdity of the existing class system: if he would try to rationally argue against the system he would be giving the system a degree of respectability which he feels it does not deserve. This is why exaggeration becomes such a tool through satire: he wants to show the absurdity of the system, and the best way to do this is to take an absurd as opposed to rational form of argumentation.
Accordingly, Swift’s use of this approach becomes an effective form of argumentation. Satire can become a valid form of social critique by drawing out the absurd conclusions of a given set of normativities. A Modest Proposal remains infamous to this day because of precisely its uncompromising use of the logic of the system to turn the system against itself.
- Cioffi, Frank. The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
- Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. New York: Plain Label Books, 2013.