Here’s today’s literature lesson. Most people know that an essay titled “A Modest Proposal” (see the Pope Bono essay immediately below) is written tongue-in-cheek or is even outright BS. Perhaps I’m showing my literary ignorance here, but I didn’t know the origin of the phrase “A Modest Proposal” until tooling around the internet during lunch today. It comes from Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who in 1729 wrote an essay (text here) with the full title of A Modest Proposal For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public (gotta love those long 18th-century titles!). In it, Swift famously argues that in order to make Irish peasant children “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth,” they should be fattened and sold to the wealthy for consumption, thereby ending overpopulation and unemployment, reducing the number of Roman Catholics, and sparing poor families the burden of raising more children. He informs the reader, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled…”. The essay is clever and delivered with the seriousness of a scholar.
And I can’t help but be disturbed a little by it. Writing about the utility of a human life strikes a bit too close to home given contemporary debates over abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and what exactly it means to be a “sound and useful member” of modern American society. Someone doesn’t have usefulness to the market or are too much of a burden to their families? Get rid of them! The utilitarian approach to human life has serious implications if taken to the extreme. Yes, I’m seriously overstating the case here, but maybe what Swift intended as satirical has perhaps turned out a little too prophetic.