Ethos, Logos & Pathos in Jonathan Swift’s a Modest Proposal
February 6, 2019
February 6, 2019
Pathos is what the Irish survive and thrive on, so Swift begins his proposal with it. He presents a melancholy image to his readers in the first lines of A Modest Proposal, calling to mind the beggars and urchins in Irish doorways, the women followed by three, four, or six children. The first paragraph contains seeds of his logical and ethical arguments as well, mentioning the importuning of alms 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 elicits the emotions of his audience once more, preparing his own nest for subsequent feathering into the bargain, saying that whoever offers a cheap and easy solution to this dilemma ought to have a statue erected in his honor.
Pathetic argument presented, the author skips to a rather more ethical one. Considering one definition of Ethos as the ‘character and definition of a community,’ Swift’s reference to the substitution of young lads and maidens for venison is one place in A Modest Proposal that focuses on the ethical part of the argument. It does so by allowing Swift to mention what he considers a truly outrageous idea, proffered by a fellow of his acquaintance, a true lover of his country, who like others of his caste has lost all his deer. The fellow’s solution is to replace the deer with young lads and maidens not exceeding fourteen years of age. With tongue firmly installed in cheek, Swift is rightfully chagrined at such an idea, citing the fact that the meat of such children would be tough and sinewy, thus unacceptable for such refined palates. Leave it to Swift to be so cautious of the tastes and sensibilities of the only people who matter in Ireland, such as the highly esteemed gent, so deserving a patriot.
But the idea is turned back, as the author neatly summarizes the values and ethics of the community which would, at least considering the breeding potential of the females, constitute a loss to the public. He goes on to spare the energies and sensibilities of scrupulous people who would, unjustly in his opinion, censure the practice as cruel. This has always been Swift’s own personal opinion, thus his ideas are in keeping with community ethics. There have clearly been other such, in his opinion, unethical practices, and he abhors them. He says.
Then Swift continues picking at the idea, stating that his friend got it from a fellow from Formosa, who says those in his country considered among the riffraff for whatever reason are given over to Persons of quality as prime delicacies. Ever the ethicist, Swift ponders this, mindful of the communities economic interests, naturally, and then allows that eating girls who are, without one single Groat to their Fortunes, may not be a bad idea after all. The Kingdom would not be the worse. He says.
As for the logical considerations to A Modest Proposal, their appeal to reason, we refer to the itemized list, beginning with the presence of far too many Papists. Logic states that they pose a danger to the country, with their yearly issue of yet more of their kind, their sinister political leanings and their financial loyalty to the Catholic Church through tithing, none of which, of course, found its way into Rev. Swift’s collection basket of a Sunday.
Secondly, again more logic, the proposal would give the poor something they have no experience with, i.e. money of their own, and thus a way to actually pay their rent! This can be seen as either an appeal to logos, or to pathos, as landowners, being subject to certain emotions themselves, are likely reluctant to evict their non-paying clients. The idea of renters having money would, of course, allow landlords to raise the rent, thus a good idea, since corn and cattle have already been seized. It’s obvious that Swift concedes certain ruthless, thus unethical, behaviors to landlords, who must have been a favorite target of his pen. Yet the statement seems perfectly logical, and unassailable. He says.
Third in line of logical arguments centers again on the public coffers. Since the expenditure is so great to maintain the poor unfortunate children, why not use the proposal to not only enrich Ireland, but to give the country something it lacks, an industry of its very own? The irony is rich; Swift goes from a discussion of financial matters and cold, hard economic concerns, directly to new dishes and restaurant concepts. Of course the only people who stand to benefit are the (thinly-veiled) English aristocracy, those Gentlemen of Fortune in the Kingdom, who evidently lack not food, but sufficient imagination to create new recipes.
Fourth, and perhaps the most logical argument concerns the very poor themselves, the so-called constant breeders. Swift brings them into the argument, assuming that they understand the necessity of his proposal as well. Just think, he says, once this idea takes root, you’ll be free of the burden of raising these children once they reach a year old. Plus, you’ll have eight shillings per annum! Who can deny the logic of this? It’s obvious that Mr. Swift has little regard for the Irish peasant, even though he appears to include them in his grand scheme. This is, perhaps, the way the Irish have been dealt with all along by another overbearing entity, the English government across the water.
Fifth, he returns to the culinary aspects of the proposal, citing the dining possibilities for rich people, whom the vintners can perhaps scalp with ever higher prices. So not only has Swift made his logical appeal to the patriots, the religious, and the rich, he extends the proposal to commoners, and even beggars. How can it possibly be turned aside? He asks.