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Ethos, Logos & Pathos in Jonathan Swift’s a Modest Proposal

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.

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