Presentation on “A Modest Proposal”

April 6th, 2017

Beaumont in his article “Swift’s Classical Rhetoric in “A Modest Proposal” ” argues that the essay is modeled after five part classical oration:The Exordium (Paragraphs 1-7),The Statement of Facts (8-16),Classical Digression (17-19),The Proof (20-28),The Refutation (29-30),The Peroration (31-33)


  • “The classical form of the essay is itself an important constituent of Swift’s irony, for the projector’s addressing his readers through an ancient and learned form helps allay any suspicion of radical newness” (307). Because Swift uses a respected traditional form, the absurd and radical proposal that the projector advices comes off as ironic.

Classical Rhetorical Devices that Create Irony:

  • Aristotle identifies three kinds of proof for a speech: the ethical, emotional, or the logical proof. Swift relies on the ethical proof, “which springs from the moral character of the speaker” (307). The projector of this modest proposal is characterized by Swift as humane, competent, reasonable, and weary and exhausted from his attempts to improve his native kingdom. Beaumont asserts, “In creating his projector, Swift faced a rhetorical problem that required careful balancing of these contrasting characteristics in one person. He had to make his projector humble enough to gain the reader’s approval and sympathy and assured enough to gain the reader’s confidence. Further, Swift had to keep the projector sufficiently dense to sustain the irony” (308).
  • The self-confidence of the projector is revealed in the second paragraph when he states that he looks forward to seeing himself commemorated with a statue. His sureness of himself and the efficacy of his proposal is further revealed in the Statement of facts. And he speaks out boldly in giving his proofs. But the projector is also humble. The proposal is introduced in modest terms “I shall therefore humbly propose…” “I do humbly offer to publick consideration.”
  • “Swift has blended these two qualities of his projector in such a way that both are convincing and neither quality overshadows the other. The result is a pleader whose humility is justifiably tempered by the sure knowledge that he has something to offer Ireland” ( 310).
  • These are the explicit indicants of the moral character of the pleader; they are reinforced and dramatized by the whole tone of the essay.


  • Classical Rhetorician use the device of diminution, “the use of lesser term to name a thing” (311).
  • The most obvious use of diminution is the use of lesser noun to refer to people. So Swift refers to mothers as “beggars of the female sex”
  • Couples are referred to as ”breeders”
  • ” Rhetorically, the projector’s varying the normal term with the animal term serves to keep the reader off guard, with the result that if the reader begins to expect the animal term, he is fooled. The effect is that one term is just as normal as the other” (312).
  • Furthermore, Beaumont asserts “As if the diminution of human beings to animal were not strong enough, the irony is intensified by a species of redoubled diminution. The animal becomes food. The progression than becomes man to animal to food” (312).
  • “If such man-to-animal diminution stood alone in the essay, it would no doubt be so offensive that it would defeat its intended purpose of persuading the reader. However, as Swift has blended the operation of this device with the functioning of the several devices, the whole resultant fabric of the irony is made so tightly knit that this particular use of diminution is one highly successful and basic to the whole essay” (313).


  • Refining is the third most important rhetorical device that Swift uses in this essay. Refining “consists in dwelling on the same topic and yet seeming to say something new.” Swift uses this device in a subtler form. Swift varies the word until the word or phrase has new meaning/definition.
  • The proposal is designed “for the children of professional beggars” (313). Swift uses the term in paragraph three, but here children of professional beggars and infants of the poor are two separate groups. In the next several paragraphs he refers to children of the beggar as “the children of the poor” and the noun, beggar, is dropped. It is in fourteenth paragraph that he identifies the infants of the poor as beggars. So as the essay progresses, the two groups, infants of poor and children of beggars is conflated”

Main Points:

  • “For “A Modest Proposal” Swift uses ethical proof, diminution and refining as the major rhetorical devices to construct irony” (315).
  • Swift’s ironic norm is established by the pervasive tone of diminution (human beings to animals) and by the projector’s sustained point of view as an economist.

Secondary Article: Swift’s Classical Rhetoric in “A Modest Proposal” by Charles Allen Beaumont.


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