Jonathan Swift, the British clergyman, moralist, satirist, poet, and political journalist, was born in Dublin, a few months after his father’s death. He was educated at Kilkenny Grammar School and received his MA speciali gratiâ from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1686 and MA from Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1692.
Periodically, from 1689 to 1699, he acted as secretary to Sir William Temple at Moore Park, Surrey. Ordained deacon and priest in the established church of Ireland, he was left by Temple’s death in 1699 to make a career for himself. As domestic chaplain to the earl of Berkeley, lord justice of Ireland, he returned to Dublin and was granted the DD degree in 1701 by Trinity College.
In 1704 there appeared anonymously (his customary mode of publishing) A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, brilliant satires upholding the ancients against the moderns; assaulting both Catholic and Puritan theologies while upholding the via media of the Anglican Church; and castigating the shallowness of contemporary scholarship and literature.
|Sir William Temple|
Thereafter Swift associated with the Whiggish wits in the circle of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, contributing to the Tatler and laughing the astrologer John Partridge out of business in the hilarious Bickerstaff Papers (1708–1709). Gradually, however, when the Whig ministry displayed no interest either in the welfare of the Irish church or in Swift’s own ecclesiastical preferment, he veered toward the Tories.
His literary friends now included Alexander Pope, John Gay,William Congreve, Matthew Prior, and John Arbuthnot, many of whom later joined with him in the famous Scriblerus Club dedicated to eternal warfare against the dunces.
In 1710 Swift assumed the editorship of the Examiner, thus becoming party spokesman for the new Tory ministry of Robert Harley and Lord Bolingbroke. He shortly resigned this post to work on The Conduct of the Allies (1711), a pamphlet designed so to sway public opinion as to bring about the end of the “Whiggish” War of the Spanish Succession, an event that occurred in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht.
Swift was unable, however, to reconcile the ever increasing animosities between Harley (now Lord Oxford) and Bolingbroke, each of whom was surreptitiously treating with both Jacobite and Hanoverian claimants to the British crown. The death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the accession of George I (of Hanover) led to the downfall and disgrace of the Tory Party.
Swift, having been installed the previous year as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, retired to Ireland, a country whose people he despised. A fascinating record of events and personalities of the turbulent years of ecclesiastical and political intrigues, 1710–1713, is preserved in his letters to Esther Johnson, known as the Journal to Stella.
During the long years of “exile,” Swift, paradoxically, became the national hero of Ireland, rising to her defense against the ruthless exploitation by the English. Two works are especially notable in this campaign.
First, there was The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland (1724), which caused the king of England, the prime minister, and the Parliament to back down from the insult to the people of Ireland in the proposed coining of William Wood’s copper halfpence.
And second, there was A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children Of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, And For making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729), which employed shock technique to apprise the Irish people of the fact that slaughtering and dressing infants for the dinner tables of English absentee landlords was really little different from prevailing conditions, which allowed them to die of starvation.
In the Proposal and other politicoeconomic publications Swift advocated what was later to be called the boycott. In 1726 the immortal social and political satire Gulliver’s Travels was published in London. Minor works—economic, political, and satirical—continued to appear until about 1739.
In 1742 Swift’s health had deteriorated to the extent that, for his own protection, he was declared of unsound mind and memory and incapable of caring for himself or his estate. Today it is recognized that Swift was suffering from labyrinthine vertigo (Ménière’s disease), a purely physical disease, and that in modern terminology he was not insane.
He lingered on until 1745, when he died in his seventy-eighth year and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ironically leaving most of his estate for the founding of a hospital for the insane. His last words were “I am a fool.”
He had prepared for himself an epitaph in Latin that is translated “When savage indignation can no longer torture the heart, proceed, traveller, and, if you can, imitate the strenuous avenger of noble liberty.” “Savage indignation” and the fight for “noble liberty” are truly the prime characteristics of Jonathan Swift.
Religion and Morality
|Religion and Morality|
Never professing to be a philosopher, Swift was nevertheless a serious thinker on the problems of religion and morality; however, because of his pervasive use of irony, his writings in this area have not infrequently been misunderstood and maligned. Swift always maintained, and quite properly, that he was not attacking religion but the corruptions and excesses of religion and the abuses of reason.
As dean, he performed all the functions of that office and was in every respect a sincere Christian. In his surviving sermons, only eleven of which are unquestionably authentic, he takes a commonsense (derived from the funded experience of humankind) approach to theology.
The lingering Trinitarian controversy, which caused such bitterness and name-calling among the “orthodox” that Parliament prohibited further publication on the subject, Swift found thoroughly repugnant.
In A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately enter’d into Holy Orders (1720), Swift advised that the Christian mysteries should not be explicated by divines but should remain incomprehensible, for otherwise they would not be “mysteries.” Though God-given, human reason is not infallible, because of the interests, passions, and vices of the individual.
Although there is clearly a skeptical bent in Swift, he is not to be regarded as a skeptic.Mysteries (for instance, the Trinity) are to be accepted on faith (which is above reason) and asserted on the authority of the Scriptures.
As Swift stated in a private letter, “The grand points of Christianity ought to be taken as infallible revelations.” It was this orthodox insistence on revelation that made Swift the intractable enemy of the English deists, who maintained that knowledge is prior to assent or faith.
Swift’s religious antirationalism, anti-intellectualism, and fideism are well illustrated in his writings against the deists: John Toland, Matthew Tindal, and Anthony Collins were his chief butts.
Collins who, in his Discourse of Free thinking (1713), had twice taunted Swift by name, is subjected to Swiftian irony in Mr. C——n’s Discourse of Freethinking; put into plain English by way of Abstract, for the Use of the Poor (1713). Grossly unjust to Collins though it is deliberately intended to be, Swift’s work is a witty exploitation of antirationalistic and anti-intellectualistic arguments.
The optimistic apriorism inherent in deism was repugnant to Swift, who as an essentially Christian pessimist was always less concerned with philosophical and theological niceties than with the practical problems of morality.
Swift’s vital interest in morality is observable in An Argument against Abolishing Christianity (1711). This masterpiece of irony attacks the rationalistic deistical concept of a self-sufficient religion of nature that needs no special revelation by assuming the position that “real” Christianity is no longer capable of justification to a sophisticated age.
However, “nominal”Christianity is justifiable on grounds of expediency: It may help to preserve pride, wealth, and power and, possibly, to prevent a drop in the stock market of as much as 1 percent.
A Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners (1709) urges Queen Anne to lead a moral crusade against existing vices in the nation. That Swift was not ironic but completely earnest in this project is certain because of the abhorrence of human vices and the necessity for reformation he expressed in many other writings.
Believing that man is not animal rationale but merely rationis capax, Swift discerns a negative philosophy of history in the human tendency to degenerate after a certain degree of order and virtue has been achieved. In this restrictive sense only is he to be called a Christian misanthrope or simply a misanthrope.
Swift devoted his life to exposing cruelty, inhumanity, inordinate love of power, pride, corrupt politics, and political oppression and to inculcating integrity and virtue in its major aspects of magnanimity and heroism—yet with no illusion that human nature is capable of reaching virtue in an eminent degree.
This satiric-moralistic aim, enhanced by Swift’s comic vision, finds its most brilliant literary achievement in Gulliver’s Travels, a work that always has, and always will, vex, shock, divert, and entertain the world.