Swift, Jonathan

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Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745). Anglo-Irish Satirist.

Jonathan Swift was one of the eighteenth century’s great writers. Alert to all manner of phoniness, endowed with remarkable talents for parody, and skeptical of modern trends, Swift was a deadly satirist who exposed the moral failings of his age and presented a formidable critique of Enlightenment thought.

Swift was born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish Protestant parents and belonged to Ireland’s “ascendant” class, which ruled over a poor, largely Catholic population. After attending Trinity College, Dublin, Swift entered Sir William Temple’s household in England in 1689, serving as his secretary and tutor to Esther Johnson. These two became important figures in Swift’s life. Temple, a writer and statesman, became Swift’s mentor and Johnson a life-long friend. His letters to her written later in life (1710--13, publ. as the Journal to Stella) provide a fascinating look at Swift the private man and his world.

While with Temple, Swift decided on a career in the Church and was ordained deacon in 1694. In 1700 he was made a Prebend of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and became Dean in 1713. Up to 1714 Swift was often in England and hoped to build his career there. Though disappointed he received no ecclesiastic appointment in England, he emerged as a major figure in English political and literary life. He advised the leaders of the Tory party (Henry St. John and Robert Harley), wrote influential political articles in The Examiner and pamphlets, and helped formed the Scriblerus Club, a literary society that gave rise to important works, such as Pope, Alexander’s Dunciad and Swift’s own Gulliver’s Travels. After the Tories fell from power in 1714, Swift returned to Ireland, working for the Church of Ireland and Irish causes. Later writings--such as The Drapier Letters (1724), which protested England’s introduction of debased coins into Ireland, and A Modest Proposal (1729), the famous satire attacking Anglo-Irish failure to deal with the suffering of the Irish peasantry--attest to his allegiance to Ireland.

Swift’s first significant satire, The Battle of the Books, appeared in 1704. Cast as a mock-epic, Battle treats a European-wide debate (one Temple had entered) over whether modern learning was superior to ancient learning. Swift sets the dispute in the Royal Library where volumes humorously take on the lives of their authors and fight out the quarrel. Though Swift burlesques both sides, his sympathies are with the ancients. His chief satiric victim is Temple’s foe Richard Bentley, Keeper of the Royal Library and pioneering philologist, whose new methods of scholarship, Swift believed, were creating confusion. This skepticism of modern learning would constitute a major theme in Swift’s writings.

Swift also published in 1704 A Tale of a Tub, considered his finest satire by many. A Tale presents an allegory of religious history through the lives of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, who respectively represent the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and Non-Conformism. The story of the quarrelsome brothers illuminates the troubled history of organized Christianity. Swift singles out Peter and Jack as satiric targets for their tendency to go to extremes of self-glorification and self-abasement. He also continues his critique of the moderns: the Tale’s confusing prefatory material mirrors the confusion of modern learning; and the narrator himself, who launches into wild digressions, reveals a mind warped by modern ideas.

Swift developed the persona of the misguided modern thinker in An Argument . . . [against] Abolishing Christianity (1708), a brilliant satire that treats another Swiftian theme: the Church under siege. In Abolishing Christianity, the narrator concedes that Christianity is an antiquated, illogical belief system, but urges that it not yet be abolished for it still serves useful political purposes. The satire strikes at those seeking to repeal the Test Act, which required that state officials declare allegiance to the Anglican Church. Swift saw any repeal as an attack on the Church and felt that the beliefs espoused by the repeal’s advocates--especially Deists and free-thinkers--threatened society’s Christian foundation. Swift also blasts nominal Christians, embodied in the narrator himself, who pays lip service to the Church, but does not truly support it, and who, like the free-thinkers, sees the gospels as just another set of ideas having no special truth value.

In 1726 Swift published his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels. Divided into four parts, each recounting one of Gulliver’s voyages, the book offers different analytic perspectives on England, history, and humanity. Part I narrates Gulliver’s shipwreck on Lilliput, a land of tiny people that symbolizes contemporary England. The Lilliputians’ diminutive stature speaks volumes about Swift’s assessment of his contemporaries: like the English, they have an inflated sense of themselves, a morally debased political culture, and a limitless lust for power, all of which makes them contemptible and dangerous.

Part II examines the past. Here Gulliver finds himself in Brobdignag, a land of giants, where he is treated as a pet, something not human. His goal is to convince the king that he is indeed human. After long interviews with Gulliver about European civilization, the king concludes that Gulliver and his ilk are odious vermin. The king bases his judgment on moral grounds. Technologically, Europe surpasses Brobdignag, which represents an earlier stage in history, but since Swift views human development within a moral framework, part II suggests that Europe is in decline and not progressing as modern thinkers claim. The Brobdignags’ superiority is proven in the scene where Gulliver, like the serpent in Eden, tempts the king with forbidden knowledge (the secret of gunpowder) that would make him all powerful. The king refuses the knowledge, knowing it would only cause woe and death.

Part III constitutes a direct assault on Enlightenment fantasies. Here Gulliver finds himself in futuristic landscapes run by scientists. Far from being utopias, these landscapes predict civilization’s further regression. Thus in Lagado Gulliver surveys a land governed by an academy that mirrors the Royal Society, Europe’s first scientific society. Given free reign to implement their schemes, the scientists end up turning productive lands into desolate ones. Such episodes show that demoting practical and traditional humanistic knowledge (ethics, religion) below modern knowledge as exemplified in the emerging sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) results in disaster.

Part IV, in which Gulliver discovers a land inhabited by animal-like humans (Yahoos) and rational horses (Houyhnhyms), deepens Swift’s critique of modern man. The savage Yahoos represent what humans can become, but Swift also suggests that Europeans are worse, for they have all the Yahoo vices but have institutionalized and magnified them (e.g., whereas the Yahoos squabble, Europeans wage wars). The ultra-rational Houyhnhyms seem to represent an ideal, but their passionless lives and readiness to exterminate the noxious Yahoos suggest otherwise. That Gulliver’s decision to emulate them leads to profound alienation--from his family and all humanity--indicates they are a false ideal and that reason alone, without compassion and religion, cannot guide adequately us.

At the heart of Swift’s major writings, which are unmatched in imaginative ingenuity, lies a profound anxiety over the Enlightenment. Swift subjects to devastating satiric treatment the central tenets of thought--that man is innately good, that guided by modern science human beings will progress, and that progress depends upon deliverance from old beliefs that do not meet the test of reason. Swift believed such thinking was leading humankind terribly astray and constituted a monstrous act of hubris in which man attempted to usurp God’s role. Further Reading:

K. Crook, A Preface to Swift, 1998.

H. Erskine-Hill, Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels, 1993.

C. Fabricant, Swift’s Landscape, 1982.

Terence Bowers