Swift, Jonathan: A Modest Proposal (1729)

If you have so far not come across this piece of satiric glory, you definitely have some catching up to do. (The full text can be found here – one of the perks of reading texts from centuries past: They’re usually available for  free 😉 )

The full title should enable you to guess what Swift is getting at in his Proposal:

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

If you have not guessed what Swift is proposing by now, you’ll have to find out for yourself – the Proposal consists of less than 10 pages of text and it is worth it, I promise. 🙂 *

In his Proposal, Swift addresses the most pressing problem the Irish faced at the time: crippling poverty. The Proposal was written shortly before the outbreak of the famous Irish famine when large parts of the land belonged to British absentee landlords (meaning landlords who owned land in Ireland but did not actually live there to look after it) who managed their estates inefficiently and exported a large percentage of the produce out of Ireland on top of that, leaving little to no subsistence for their tenants.

The proposed measures may appear cruel, but the way in which Swift presents his argument – in a sober and analytic manner – makes it easy to follow his compelling logic. Of course Swift, who was born an Irishman himself, meant mainly to draw attention to the nature and causes of the problem at hand, namely the corruption, inefficiency and injustice that had caused the miserable position of his fellow-countrymen. Swift even addresses these shortcomings of the society he describes when he dismisses alternative solutions to the one he advocates in his Proposal, such as a fight against corruption, as unrealistic and therefore not to be hoped for.

Maybe he should have held his sarcasm sign up a little higher though, because the reception of his Proposal indicates that not all intellectuals of his time actually grasped the fact that the only thing that is serious about Swift’s proposal was the tone it was written in and the underlying issue he wanted to address.

However, in the end Swift’s Proposal was – thankfully – dismissed as a bit too extreme by most of the people who actually ventured to discuss his proposition seriously.

*If you read it and don’t think that it’s hilarious, I challenge you to imagine a similar proposal  being read out in your own parliament today. If you then still don’t think it’s funny, we can probably no longer be friends, just saying.


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