The PLEA: Reconsidering A Modest Proposal

The PLEA: Reconsidering A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift and A Modest Proposal

What motivates a person to write one of history’s greatest satires?

In his youth, Jonathan Swift was a student at Ireland’s Kilkenny College. Kilkenny College teachings were rooted in an idea called political arithmetic. Political arithmetic was a view in the 17th and 18th centuries that statistics and numbers alone can explain society, economics, and politics. This numbers-based approach emphasised “rationality,” but ignored our less-rational human qualities such as passions, opinions, and appetites.

Jonathan Swift didn’t buy into political arithmetic. He believed that a rational idea taken to its limit would produce an irrational result. This led him to write books and essays that challenged the pure rationalism of political arithmetic. The most famous example was A Modest Proposal.

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An early edition of A Modest Proposal. Swift feared persecution for his writing so did not put his name on the pamphlet.

A Modest Proposal made a rational economic argument to propose something unthinkable: have poor Irish families—who mostly were Catholic—sell their children to the rich to be eaten. Swift argued that:

  • eating children would reduce the Catholic population. This would encourage the return of wealthy Protestant Anglo-Irish landowners from England, who had left Ireland rather than “pay tithes against their conscience”;
  • children could be “liable to distress,” meaning they could be used to pay rent to landlords;
  • in addition to freeing up £50,000 of government money that would otherwise be used to support the poor, “the profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom” would circulate in the local economy;
  • the poor would gain from the sale of their children and “be rid of the charge of maintaining them”;
  • a new national dish would induce tavern keepers to create innovative recipes and make them “as expensive as they please”; and
  • husbands would treat their wives better because child-rearing held the potential for an “annual profit instead of expense.”
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The Bell Tower at Trinity College, Dublin, the university where Swift earned his Doctor of Divinity.

As a purely economic argument, eating poor Irish children makes sense. It returns landlords to Ireland to pay tithes; it provides incomes and incentives for both the poor and the rich; and it absolves the government of social welfare expenses. Together, this would reduce Ireland’s poverty and famine.

At no point did the essay consider the moral and ethical issues surrounding cannibalism.

Admittedly, Swift’s argument also dabbled in human considerations such as appetites. At one point, A Modest Proposal said that children were both wholesome and delicious. However, at no point did the essay consider the moral and ethical issues surrounding cannibalism.

Of course, Swift wasn’t serious about eating children. He was using satirical irony to expose the narrow-mindedness of political arithmetic. Put another way, Swift was telling us that pure economic arguments make for poor public policies.

Exposing political arithmetic was not Swift’s only motivation for writing A Modest Proposal. The way England ruled over Ireland in Swift’s time also motivated him.

English Rule of Ireland

In 1729, Ireland’s ruling class were the Anglo-Irish. The Anglo-Irish were Protestants associated with England, Ireland’s colonial ruler. The Anglo-Irish held positions of power in Ireland’s church, government, and business community. They used this power to rule over and discriminate against Ireland’s Catholic majority.


Power in Ireland during Swift’s time.

Jonathan Swift was a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Like most of the Anglo-Irish, Swift was no friend of Ireland’s poor Catholic majority. In fact, Swift believed that the poor’s problems were largely the result of their own shortcomings. He preached in St. Patrick’s Cathedral that Irish Catholics were uncivilised and ignorant.

While the Anglo-Irish were the most powerful people in Ireland, they were not free to rule Ireland however they pleased. Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and the government back in London constantly meddled in Irish affairs. The meddling left the Anglo-Irish unable to independently govern Ireland.

The Anglo-Irish believed that if England just got out of their way, they could solve all of Ireland’s problems. In fact, ten serious ideas to solve Ireland’s poverty problems are embedded towards the close of A Modest Proposal. Each proposal had at one time or another been proposed by the Anglo-Irish elite. And each proposal was ignored or shot down by England.

Of course, the lunacy of a society that leaves the poor to starve is clear to most readers of A Modest Proposal. However, Jonathan Swift did not write A Modest Proposal simply to expose the cruelty of leaving people to starve. He also wrote it as a reaction to a colonial government in England that would not empower his own class—the Anglo-Irish elite—to independently solve Ireland’s problems.

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Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the church where Swift preached after 1714.

An Unlikely Irish Patriot

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. His father died before he was born, and he and his mother moved to England shortly after his birth. Swift returned to Ireland for his education. He received a Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin in 1702.

Following his education, Swift preached, wrote, and involved himself in Irish politics. However, he frequently visited London, where he kept company with influential writers and politicians. In 1710, he moved there for a job with England’s Tory government. He hoped the job would be a stepping stone to a bishopric at an English church.

Unfortunately for Swift, Queen Anne did not like his writing, being particularly annoyed by A Tale of a Tub and The Windsor Prophecy. Her dislike of Swift was a reason why he never received a bishopric in England. Instead, Swift was sent back to Ireland in 1714 to be the Dean of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At first, Swift was disappointed. Ireland was viewed as a colonial backwater. However, the move ultimately worked to Swift’s advantage. Being slighted by English colonial rulers opened Swift’s eyes to the dark side of power and authority.

Chew on This

  1. Consider the economic arguments for eating children in A Modest Proposal. What does the essay tell us about taking a single idea too far?
  2. The Anglo-Irish elite believed if they were given the chance to govern Ireland without English interference, they could solve the problems of Ireland’s poor Catholic majority.
    1. Does this solution empower the poor majority?
    2. Who is better equipped to solve problems? People living the realities on the ground or the elite above?
  3. When absentee landlords evicted poor Irish people from their homes, they also tore down their houses. If neighbours offered them shelter, they too would be evicted.
    1. Is this fair?
    2. Do you see similar injustices taking place today?
    3. What should the government’s role be in preventing injustices such as poverty and homelessness?
  4. Some people believed that Ireland’s Catholics were so poor, they were engaging in cannibalism. Because Swift lacked sympathy for the Catholics, people have speculated that A Modest Proposal was meant to be taken seriously. Do you think Swift was being serious?