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Rhetorical Devices in A Modest Proposal

Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” remains famous for its rhetorical sophistication. The speaker explicitly asks the audience to accept his proposal that poor Irish citizens sell their children to the rich for food in order to solve Ireland’s economic crisis and food shortage problem. He uses logos, or logical reasoning, to make unrealistic, hyperbolic claims sound like legitimate reasoning. However, while on the surface the speaker argues for the reader to agree with his point, the reader is supposed to be horrified by his proposal and reject it. Therefore, the speaker must simultaneously get readers to accept and reject his proposal. This is a form of satire that mocks the haughty attitude of the Protestant aristocracy and the passivity of the impoverished Irish. It is meant to highlight the serious problems of the country and push readers to despise the speaker and the social context from which that speaker comes.

Rhetorical Devices Examples in A Modest Proposal:

A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift

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"The question therefore is,..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

In the characteristic way of projectors, Swift presents these calculations as facts before asking his rhetorical question. Doing so allows him to appear thorough and methodical to readers, which is known as an appeal to logos, and helps build his case before he presents his thesis.

"Popish..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Swift uses this term, along with papist later to disparagingly refer to Roman Catholics. In the satirical character of his narrator, Swift uses these terms to appeal to anti-Catholic sentiment in London and illustrate attitudes towards Irish Catholics at the time.

"by law may be made liable to a distress..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Swift is adding support for his proposal by pointing out that the since the landlords control the agriculture and livestock, the poor would now have a valuable commodity that could be taxed to help pay their landlord's rent.

"the famous Salmanaazor..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

In an attempt to add credibility to his friend’s claim, Swift recalls a conversation with Salmanaazor—Swift’s pseudonym for the historical person George Psalmanazar, a Frenchman who impersonated a Formosan (Taiwanese) and wrote a completely fictitious and gruesome account on the culture of Formosa. By the time Swift published A Modest Proposal, Psalmanazar had confessed to the fraud. Incorporating “Salmanaazor” into his essay as an authority figure further highlights the irony and ridiculousness of his proposal.

"I think it is agreed by all parties..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Notice here that having made an appeal to pathos and the sympathy of the readers, Swift moves on to supporting his argument through effective reasoning and logical progression. This is his appeal to logos in which he attempts to rationalize his argument with logical supporting evidence.

"by which I can propose to get a single penny..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Swift's final portrayal of his projector shows readers how he has no financial stakes in his own proposal, and that he is offering it out of his altruistic love for the country. As a conclusion, ending with an appeal to ethos would normally help enhance a rhetorical essay; however, given the subject matter, it is doubtful how effective this appeal is at this point.

"for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician,..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

In an effort to improve his argument, Swift utilizes another rhetorical strategy by appealing to an authority to add credibility to his plan. This is an ethos appeal. Despite the satirical nature of the essay, Swift is following all of the standard conventions to make his essay as persuasive as possible.

"humbly propose..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Prior to proposing his solution, Swift does two things with this line. As the projector, he is sincerely hoping no one will object to his proposal. However, Swift is also clearly being ironic, because he knows that everyone will object. Perhaps the most powerfully ironic aspect of this essay is how this proposal is anything but modest.

"which would move tears and pity..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

As the projector, Swift take the moral high ground in this paragraph. In an effort to improve his credibility and the strength of his forthcoming proposal, he claims his scheme will solve the issue of abortion in Catholic Ireland. He not only continues to appeal to the readers and raise the stakes of his argument, but he is also trying to convince them that he's acting solely out of his concern with doing helping Ireland.

"a child just dropt from its dam..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

While Swift still hasn’t stated his main claim regarding poverty in Ireland, this metaphor foreshadows what he eventually proposes by comparing children and their mothers to domesticated animals and consequently devaluing the lives of the poor. Note how he refers to mothers of children as breeders later on.

"As to my own part..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

For Swift's satire to work, he creates the persona of a projector (an objective, disinterested scientist) who seeks to solve problems regardless of politics or private interests. In doing so, he is simultaneously satirizing projectors by showing how their solutions are out of touch and, often, morally repulsive.

"It is a melancholy object..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Swift begins his satirical essay by presenting the horrible conditions of the poor in Ireland in an effort to generate sympathy or pity—a rhetorical device known as an appeal to pathos. However, the sympathy he establishes at the beginning with the audience quickly disappears after a few paragraphs once his claim is introduced.

"that it will prevent those voluntary abortions..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

The "projector" here is taking the moral high ground.  Using children as a food source will encourage women not to abort their children, thereby avoiding the moral problems of abortion in a Catholic country.  Swift's projector, after all, is only concerned with doing what is right for Ireland.

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