Saturday, May 21, 2011
A Modest Proposal - An Example for Us Today
In the early Eighteenth Century, the poor of Ireland endured crushing depredation and humiliation. Jonathan Swift’s essay of 1729 is one of the most powerful pieces of English literature with its use irony. With a few short pages, he calls on the British people to look at themselves and how they treat their fellow man, but he does so in such a striking way that “A Modest Proposal” remains unsettling even today.
He quickly alludes to the problem known by all of Ireland: The Poor. A problem which lingers with us today. One can imagine that the reader is at once in agreement with Swift’s estimation and then more than ready to hear of his “fair, cheap, and easy method” of correcting the problem.
In paragraph three and later asserted again in paragraph thirty—three, he assures the reader that this proposal holds not only for the beggars on the street, but also for the farmers, cottagers, etc., “who are beggars in effect,” and in need of assistance. This enlarges the later effect of the proposal and its utility. In paragraphs four through seven, Swift relates many computations, as a scientist might review undisputed facts, thus bolstering the modest proposal to come. Within these same matter—of—fact paragraphs, he injects obvious biases of the time held by the upper classes.
The proposal: A “healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most nourihing, and wholesome food,...” The essay outlines how this idea cou1d be performed and how it will facilitate many positive outcomes. The lengthy descriptions of how one might enjoy eating the young children of the poor, and how the poor themselves will benefit, not to mention the country, are extremelY unsettling.
Dialogue about older children and the elderly or sick adds to the completeness of the theme, but what strengthens the paper most is the use of many of the commonly held prejudices about Catholicism, marriage and family of the poor, etc. offered beside the despicable plot to eat children, or rather the offspring of “savages.”
Swift’s essay is far too replete with examples to begin relate them all, but they worked together beautifully to support his claim that all would be better if we decided to eat the young of the poor. Paragraphs twenty—one through twenty—six recap succinctlY the overall positive effect from nourishing meals, decreasing the burgeoning Catholic population, improve the nation’s stability, offering the rich a fine “new dish” for their tables, and improving the lives of the poor by offering them recompense for what would be otherwise a burden and also inducing greater familial harmony through the profit.
Lastly, Swift warns not to offer him the same old remedies of “honesty, industry, and skill,” taxing absentees, “parsimony, prudence, temperance,” and so on. He has been promoting these virtues for years and no one has given them anything but lip service, and the “perpetual scene of
misfortunes” has just continued.
It may be that the final paragraph truly summarizes the exact sentiment of the paper best, yet in a unique and oblique manner:
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing.
This could easily have been offered today in our own Capital Building on the Hill in the usual implacable way offering newer and more formidable techniques to alleviate problems and benefit society as a whole - and it is yet not in such grotesque terms. Behind such cool, calculated words lie the hard, cold truth that what we do truly affects the lives of people, and the misuse of words can perpetuate continued suffering by those who can least protect themselves. Listen BEYOND THE WORDS of our politicians and their innumerable soultions and see the effect of their votes on our lives.
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