Ethos, Logos and Pathos in a modest proposal by Jonathan Swift
Pathos is what the Irish survive and thrive on, so Swift begins her proposition with that. He presents a melancholic image to his readers in the opening lines of A Modest Proposal, recalling the beggars and urchins at the gates of Ireland, the women followed by three, four or six children. The first paragraph also contains seeds of his logical and ethical arguments, mentioning the importunity of handouts as a social evil, presumably because the practice offends certain wealthy people who are the ‘importuned’, and the unpatriotic practice of leaving Ireland to fight for an English Enemy. He then awakens the emotions of his audience once again, preparing his own nest for later inclusion in the deal, saying that whoever offers a cheap and easy solution to this dilemma should have a statue erected in his honor.
Presented a pathetic argument, the author moves to a much more ethical one. Considering a definition of Ethos as the ‘character and definition of a community’, Swift’s reference to the substitution of venison for boys and maidens is a place in A Modest Proposal that focuses on the ethical part of the argument. He does so by allowing Swift to bring up what he considers a truly outrageous idea, offered by a friend of his, a true lover of his country, who like others of his breed has lost all his deer. The guy’s solution is to replace the deer with boys and maidens not exceeding fourteen years old. With her tongue firmly installed on her cheek, Swift is legitimately disgusted at such an idea, citing the fact that such children’s flesh would be tough and wiry, therefore unacceptable for such refined palates. Let Swift be so wary of the tastes and sensibilities of the only people who matter in Ireland, like the highly esteemed gentleman, a so deserving patriot.
But the idea is reversed, as the author clearly summarizes the values and ethics of the community that, at least considering the reproductive potential of the females, would constitute a loss to the public. It continues to save the energies and sensibilities of scrupulous people who, unfairly in their opinion, would censure the practice as cruel. This has always been Swift’s personal opinion, so her ideas are in line with community ethics. Clearly there have been other similar practices, in his opinion unethical, and he abhors them. He says.
So Swift goes on to pick the idea, claiming that his friend got it from a fellow Formosan, who says that those in his country who are considered rabble for whatever reason indulge in Quality People as top-notch delicacies. Always the ethical one, Swift reflects on this, mindful of the economic interests of communities naturally, and then allows eating girls who don’t have a single Groat for their fortunes, may not be a bad idea after all. The Kingdom would be no worse. He says.
As for the logical considerations of A Modest Proposal, its appeal to reason, we refer to the detailed list, beginning with the presence of too many Papists. Logic asserts that they pose a danger to the country, with their annual number of more of their kind, their sinister political leanings, and their financial allegiance to the Catholic Church through tithing, none of which, of course, found their way into the Rev. Swift’s basket from a Sunday collection.
Second, again more logical, the proposal would give the poor something they have no experience with, that is, their own money, and therefore a way to pay their rent! This can be seen as an appeal to logos or pathos, as landowners, being subject to certain emotions, are likely reluctant to evict their non-paying clients. The idea of tenants having money, of course, would allow landlords to increase the rent, so this is a good idea, since the corn and cattle have already been confiscated. It is obvious that Swift concedes certain ruthless, therefore unethical, behaviors to the owners, which must have been a favorite target of his pen. However, the statement seems perfectly logical and unassailable. He says.
The third in the line of logical arguments focuses again on the public coffers. Given that the expense is so great to keep children poor and unfortunate, why not use the proposal not only to enrich Ireland, but to give the country something it lacks, an industry of its own? The irony is rich; Swift goes from a discussion of cold, hard financial matters and economic concerns, straight to new dishes and restaurant concepts. Of course, the only people who can benefit are the English aristocracy (lightly veiled), those Knights of Fortune in the Kingdom, who are evidently not lacking food, but enough imagination to come up with new recipes.
Fourth, and perhaps the most logical argument, it refers to the very poor themselves, the so-called constant breeders. Swift introduces them to the argument, assuming they also understand the need for his proposal. Think, he says, once this idea takes root, you will be free of the burden of raising these children once they are one year old. Plus, you’ll have eight shillings a year! Who can deny the logic of this? Swift obviously has little respect for the Irish peasants, even though she seems to include them in her grand scheme. This is, perhaps, the way the Irish have been treated all along by another dominant entity, the English government across the water.
Fifth, he returns to the culinary aspects of the proposal, citing the gastronomic possibilities of the wealthy, whom winemakers may be able to scalp with increasingly high prices. So Swift has not only made his logical appeal to the patriots, the religious and the wealthy, but he extends the proposal to commoners and even beggars. How is it possible that it deviates? He asks.