A Modest Proposal and Other Satires

The period from the late 1600s through the 1700s is known as the Enlightenment, a time when many writers promoted scientific reasoning as a means of solving social problems. Swift was often critical of such writers. How is this historical context reflecte


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The most famous of Swift's essays—perhaps the most famous essay of satire in the English language—is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents of Country; and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.” This essay was published anonymously in 1729, a year in which Ireland suffered from poverty and famine. “A Modest Proposal” suggests, as a method for dealing with the destitution, that the Irish eat their babies.

Swift, of course, was not serious. His essay exposed the prejudice against the Irish poor by taking that prejudice to an extreme with a shocking suggestion. Swift also intended to lampoon a series of proposals that were being published at the time about solving Ireland’s economic problems, although many of them were unfeasible and unhelpful. By asserting, like these other pamphlets, to have a cure-all solution, Swift exposed the naiveté of such a view. “A Modest Proposal” was also satirizing the new trend in political thought that applied scientific innovations to political questions. Many British thinkers of the day, including economist Sir William Petty (1623-1687), believed that simple mathematics was all it took to solve society’s ills. Swift intended to mock this idea with “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that it isn’t merely numbers, but people’s lives that are at stake in political and social decisions.