A Comparison between a Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift and a Treatise of Ireland by Sir William Petty

Categories: A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729) provides a satirical proposal to fix the many problems that plagued 18th-century Ireland. He creates a persona, known by critics as the Proposer, who finds a fix for those problems. The best way to address poverty, the Proposer decides, is to sell one-year-old babies from poor Irish Catholic families as a delicious luxury food that can be served at celebrations or simply to the families of the rich. “Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled”, the child is a “most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food” (Swift 232) he declares with relish.

The essay continues, growing constantly more detailed in the preparation of infant flesh and the many advantages of following this inhumane proposal. These advantages include the ability of the families of the infants to pay rent, the steady elimination of the Irish Catholic, and the ability of Ireland to finally have a commodity of her own (235).

The new dish would also encourage husbands to be nicer to their wives (235), a social fix based on the stereotype (one of many negative ones in this essay) that all Irish Catholic husbands beat their wives.

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As the Proposer continues with his justifications, Swift’s own voice also begins to creep into the proposal. This is first seen through an occasional snarky comment before his voice becomes more visible through the detailing of lists of problems (such as the lack of clothing, shelter, and food) faced by the poor (235). Next, lists of other fixes for Ireland, such as taxing absentee landlords and eliminating luxury imports, also appear.

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Those lists voice Swift’s true goals: the implementation of more reasonable ways to alleviate the issues faced by the Irish Catholic (237). As Swift pushes the Proposer’s voice aside in favor of his own at the most crucial moments, the pamphlet raises a question. If Swift would rather use another voice at the key moments of the essay, why does Swift choose to use the voice of the Proposer in the first place? What does the Proposer’s voice accomplish that Swift’s own cannot? In order to determine what the Proposer’s voice does, who the Proposer actually is and what his goals are must first be examined. It can be argued that the Proposer is a satirist himself: perfectly aware that his idea is utterly ridiculous, barbaric, and impossible to implement.

As irony is the result of contradictions that are so blunt that they cannot be taken seriously, the reader can easily conclude that the Proposer is a satirist. One of these contradictions can be seen when he claims that women who abort illegitimate children to avoid the expense “would move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman Beast” (231). Yet somehow the consumption of infants given up for the same reason is not even the slightest bit unsettling. The Proposer’s claim that he is completely against cruelty (234), is another example of such a logical contradiction as his proposal is nothing but cruel. When the Proposer is viewed as a satirist, his arguments, calculations, and dehumanization of the Irish Catholic are not his true thoughts. They are laced with sarcasm as he is a concerned party, well educated and in touch with the problems of Ireland.

This reading of the Proposer’s voice creates a persona that is identical to Swift, albeit separated by a degree, similarly to putting a play within a play. As a result, the reader can argue that the reason Swift opted to use the voice of a satirical Proposer was to separate his proposal from him by claiming a different identity, one where he is unable to profit from his proposal as his youngest child is nine and his wife is “past Child-bearing” (239). “A Modest Proposal” was, after all, published anonymously without any association with Swift during a time period where those who caused political controversy could, and would, be arrested for their writings. Furthermore, the claim about the Proposer’s family would make it unlikely that any single unmarried men, such as Swift, would be selected for persecution.

Despite that, in the reading of the Proposer suggested above, Swift could still simply choose to write the essay entirely in his own voice while claiming to be another rather than taking on an inconsistent and sometimes confusing voice of the Proposer combined with his own. In fact, if the Proposer was to be read as a satirist, Swift would never need to shove his own voice into the essay as all the points of view between him and his persona would line up entirely. This is a problem that cannot be addressed through the reading detailed above.

Examination of Sir William Petty’s proposal, “A Treatise of Ireland: An Essay in Political Arithmetic” (1687), one of the many pamphlets that aimed to fix the problems of the Irish Catholic in the 18 century, offers an alternate reading of the sort of proposer Swift creates. Sir William Petty, who was a projector, which was a writer of political pamphlets suggesting projects for the England, proposes that each year, boats sent by the English can cart most of the Irish to England, leaving only enough people in Ireland to tend the lands and rake in money for the Anglo Irish landlords. Petty uses a series of calculations, which he calls Political Arithmetic, to show that his proposal is feasible, addressing the possessions and the general existence of the Irish Catholic in a monetary sense, declaring that “The Freight per head need not exceed Two Shillings” (Petty 129). In response to the objection that the Irish will not want to leave, Petty offers a series of calculations demonstrating the profit for the landowning class and the ways in which the implementation would generally improve the British economy.

This shows that Petty does not care at all about the Irish. His primary focus is the Anglo-Irish, the English, and the upper class and what can be done to insure that they profit. At the end of his response, he adds a quick declaration that England would be justified in using any method to complete this proposal just as “kind parents may correct the Children whom they Love” (131). The entire proposal contains no understanding of the situation in Ireland and simply chooses to address the Irish Catholic as animals that can be transferred where ever the Anglo Irish decide to put them. There are several parallels between the ideas put forward in “A Modest Proposal” and the ideas put forward in “A Treatise of Ireland”, especially in the wording of the two projects.

The Proposer created by Swift uses the same political mathematical approach Sir William Petty uses when he calculates the number of infant carcasses that can be harvested per year (Swift 231). Next, he treats the Irish Catholic as things and finds a mathematical solution that would eliminate the problem, without taking that he is dealing with humans with brains and thoughts of their own into consideration. Like Petty, the Proposer also examines the monetary value of the food and rags needed “per head” (infant heads in this case), declaring that 2 shillings is all that is necessary for the first year (Swift 231). The language in Petty’s writings is highly dehumanizing; he refers to “Beastlike habitations” (Petty 131) and “teeming Women” (133). The Proposer’s word choice is just as dehumanizing, full of vivid sentences depicting the Irish Catholic infants as livestock.

The Proposer declares that children under twelve years old are “no saleable Commodity” (232) and decides that “Twenty thousand [infants] may be reserved for Breed; whereof only one Fourth Part to be Males” (Swift 232), viewing himself as generous as that would be more males than are allowed for livestock. He also suggests that it would be possible to make fine gloves and boots out of the skin of an infant (233) which allows for the reader to momentarily imagine fine luxury goods before the imagery switches from the pleasant description and becomes one that is gruesome to picture, contradicting with the Proposer’s innocent tone.

While examining the purpose of the Proposer and his role of his voice within “A Modest Proposal”, there are two primary conclusions. First, the Proposer can be seen as a satirist that allows for Swift to separate himself from the controversy of the topic he is addressing, and second, the Proposer can be seen as an oblivious projector who is being satirized by Swift in order to demonstrate the problems within the proposals written by people like Petty, who completely brush aside the humanity of those they are addressing. By adopting the second reading, the reader is given an alternative point of view that allows for the Proposer to be the focus of satire criticizing the existence and attitudes of ignorant projectors. This is an interpretation that can not be made through the adoption of first point of view since the first point of view would make it impossible for the Proposer to be satirized as he would instead be viewed as the creator of satire.

As the purpose of the entire essay is to point out problems and causes of problems within Ireland, it seems likely that Swift would instantly hone in on the chance to address another issue with the situation in Ireland and only view the additional separation of accountability as an added benefit rather than the reason for assuming the point of view of a satirized character, which would support interpretation two. The second viewpoint also offers Swift more possibilities for his critique of Ireland. One such possibility that is impossible under the first reading is as follows: The Proposer’s voice can be concluded to be an exhibit. Swift’s creation of the Proposer reflects the sort of projector Sir William Petty was: out of touch and uninvolved with the Irish people.

The Proposer is completely serious in all his ideas and is unable to see how his proposal is inhumane, a point of view that Swift is completely unable to express while acting as himself. Swift is putting those sorts of projectors on display and demonstrating to all who read and write political pamphlets what is wrong with their approach. “I can think of no one Objection, that will possibly be raised against this Proposal; unless it should be urged, that the Number of People will be thereby much lessened…” (Swift 237) the Projector declares, demonstrating one of the sentiments also displayed by Petty where all objections to the proposed project were carelessly addressed, thrown aside, and then ignored.

Rather than acting as an easily dismissed critic (of which there were likely many) of these actions, Swift allows the reader to decide how these projectors should be viewed while using his own voice to demonstrate his own opinions. Swift thus satirizes the projectors of the time by taking their attitude and tone towards the Irish Catholic one step further through the existence of the Proposer, who is merely a more extreme version of the projectors of the time, exposing the cruelty within their thought processes when those processes are continued past the point written in the proposals. The pleasant and excited tone of the essay seems even darker than before as the Proposer can no longer be viewed as sarcastically cheerful but is rather genuinely loving his plan. “I think the Advantages by the Proposal which I have made, are obvious” (235), he declares, before proceeding to list all the ways his proposal “improves” the nation. This effectively makes the situation in Ireland appear more desperate as Swift draws our attention to the fact that many projectors who claim to seek to fixes to the problems would “be glad to eat up our whole Nation (Ireland)” (238) through the given exhibit of the Proposer.

Works Cited

  1. Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” A Modest Proposal and Other Writings. Ed. Carole Fabricant. London: Penguin Books, 2009. 230-239. Print.
  2. Petty, Sir William. “Treatise of Ireland: An Essay in Political Arithmetic.” Jonathon Swift: The Contemporary Background. Ed. Clive T. Probyn. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. 127-134. Print.

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A Comparison between a Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift and a Treatise of Ireland by Sir William Petty. (2021, Sep 15). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-comparison-between-a-modest-proposal-by-jonathan-swift-and-a-treatise-of-ireland-by-sir-william-petty-essay

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