Swiftly Speaking

On October 19, 1745, Jonathan Swift, the Irish author, died at age 78.  Swift is famous for writing Gulliver's Travels.  It is often considered a book for children, with Gulliver visiting first a land where he is a giant among the Lilliputians, and then a land where he is himself a miniature in a land of giants.  But adults recognize the satire striking nearly every pretense of Swift's society and, for that matter, our own.

Jonathan Swift was a man who became increasingly morose and unhappy with human company as he grew older.  He seemed to sour quite completely after he lost the love of his life to death.  But he was not an unkind person.  He gave generous gifts to needy associates and, realizing that he was himself plagued with some sort of mental affliction, he bequeathed most of his own fortune to found a hospital for what were referred to in his day as "idiots and lunatics" — those who we today would call the mentally disabled and mentally ill.

Knowing these things about Swift helps us to evaluate a work of his that was highly controversial and misunderstood in his day.  It was published under the title, A Modest Proposal and was a thorough-going study of how to rid Ireland of poverty by killing, and selling as food, the one-year-old infants of poor Irish Catholics.  From a literary standpoint it is a masterful satire.  But its gruesome content was not found amusing by many of his contemporaries.  Why did he write it?

He wrote it in order to perform what is called in argumentation "a reduction to the absurd."  Here is how it works: You take a position that you believe to be incorrect and then follow it as far as you can down the length of its implications, its logical consequences.  Your intention is to come to some point where the consequences are so patently absurd that even the proponents of the position will recoil from them.

 Well, who was it that Swift was trying to shock then?  It was the upper classes in Ireland and England who talked and wrote about the poor as though they were a mere statistical economic problem: there are just too many of them and they breed like rabbits.  What Swift did was take this analysis, purely statistical and viewing human beings as means rather than as ends, to its logical conclusion, capping it with his own brilliantly barbed wit.

This was two centuries before the Nazi holocaust, when people could still be shocked by barbarous proposals.  Perhaps we are beyond that.

In his book, Freakonomics, published a couple of years ago, economist Steven D. Levitt theorized that the violent crime rate had gone down in recent years because there were fewer violent criminals and there were fewer violent criminals because Roe v. Wade had gotten rid of a large number of people who would have turned out to be violent criminals.  Levitt didn't say that his statistics (which other economists have marked as flawed) should be used to support abortion, so it leaves the question open.  If we find that legalizing abortion really does cut crime, is that a good argument for it?

What if legalizing abortion cut poverty or some other social ill?  Would that be a good argument for it?  Well then, what if aborted fetuses could supply us with products — I mean really useful products?  Or not merely useful products, but necessary products — life-saving products?  What about that, huh?  That would make it okay, wouldn't it?

What if we find out that if we wait just a little longer until those fetuses have become infants and then harvest the life-saving products that the life-saving products are even more effective and save even more lives?  I mean, after all we were going to harvest them anyway.  What difference does a few months make?

Don't look at me like that.  After all — it is just a "modest proposal."

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  • Guest

    Too right!  The parallels are clear and obvious, but most if not all will ignore and refuse to draw them.

  • Guest


    I really don't like salty, tear-laced coffee for breakfast!  The magnitude of the  world-wide abortion slaughter (I've read 18 million babies a year) would drive me to Jonathan Swift's hospital for the insane but for my belief that we all rest in God's mercy and His power and might will overcome the massive evil around us as His Providence decrees.

    Thank you for your essay.  I, Parent One, who we now refer to as "coffee cup"—since you wouldn't want to infer that A) there is superiority with a number and B.) products of conception have parents—need to pour a bowl of Cocoa Crispies for my "sponges" (no children allowed, they're consumers of world resources so I'll make sure it's a small bowl!) 

  • Guest

    I just reread A Modest Proposal.  You can download it from various sites including:  http://emotionalliteracyeducation.com/classic_books_online/mdprp10.htm


    I'll read it with my older kids later today. 

  • Guest

    Hey, Elkabrikir, you should feed them oatmeal instead. You can buy a six gallon bucket of the stuff for about $15 — about one 20th the cost of Quaker. Very cheap, nutritious, and none of the sugar that makes them bounce off the wall. In the winter do the hot oatmeal and in the summer make granola. Plus oatmeal cookies with raisins and nuts year round.

    And thanks.

  • Guest

    Today "idiots and lunatics" — those who we would call the mentally disabled and mentally ill are not institutionalized they are in positions of public service and their twisted way of thinking is already public policy and law. We better identify them by name and defeat them in the public and political arena. Mkochan your article chills the spine, it needs to run in the non-Catholic media, desperately.

    I think I'll have oatmeal this morning.

  • Guest

    Ha! Great job. I'm having Irish oatmeal. Michael
    "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried"

    "The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." – GK Chesterton

  • Guest

    Well done, Mary.  Every so often I think of Dr Swift and this exact progression.  It shows that the seeds that lead to the insanity of modern politics is already present when people are reduced to statistics, by others who separate us with false distinctions.  (Did you know that the root of the word diabolic is "to separate"?)  I believe the modern world is going to try to overwhelm us with despair before this is all over.  But we must not give in.  From the point of view of the fetuses who are being killed, the world is full of despair, the same as it was for those gentiles facing the oppression of the insane Romans and their Emperors.  They knew about despair, and that's why they recogized and chose hope, and love, when they heard the Gospel.  The world may present us with undeniable hate and wreckage, as God saw in Eden, but the Truth will overcome and outlast it all, and is the answer to the yearning of every human heart.  We must learn the lessons of suffering, and help one another. 

    Sorry for the bleak stuff.  God Bless. 

  • Guest

    Thank you qhrpfu.  I hadn't thought of    the modern world is going to try to overwhelm us with despair before this is all over in the way you put it.  To recognize the enemy's tactics is an important step in overcoming them.

    My bishop took as his motto, "Rejoice in Hope!" I cling to it and frequently sign notes etc… with it. 

  • Guest

    Dear Mary,

    Once again, an exellent article. I now will add 'A Modest Proposal' to my ever growing reading list.