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What “Irish Enlightenment”? The case of Jonathan Swift
"It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.""Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others." --Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was another lion of the Irish Enlightenment, but—like philosopher/theologian John Toland, profiled in the first article in this series—Swift’s was a “different” Enlightenment from that of Europe at large.
Swift, as we will see, settled into the Anglicanism of his parents becoming an ordained priest in the Established Church of Ireland and, as it were, “kept faith” with that commitment. He did become a fearsome crusader for reasonableness, a qualified tolerance, civility, and Whig politics. He explained that as “a lover of liberty, I found myself to be what they called a Whig in politics ... But, as to religion, I confessed myself to be an High-Churchman." In his "Thoughts on Religion" he expressed apprehension, if not alarm, at the intense strife inhering in partisan religious belief and wrote that "Every man, as a member of the [English] commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private." He came by that justified apprehension early in life.
Swift was born in Ireland to a family that had moved to Dublin from Herefordshire a year earlier after their Royalist family estate had been brought to ruin during the English Civil War. Swift’s maternal grandfather soon fled to Ireland, too, as a vicar convicted of “Puritan practices.” (Both Tolland and Swift commonly are labeled Anglo-Irish Enlightenment men, with Tolland at times called “English.”) Swift’s father, also a “Jonathan,” died when Swift as less than a year of age and his mother returned to England, leaving young Jonathan in the care of first a nurse, then his uncle, Godwin Swift. He sent young Jonathan at age 6 to Kilkenny College and, at 15, to Trinity College for what is often characterized as a “Middle Ages” (actually, Aristotelian) curriculum preparing for the priesthood.
This article is not chiefly about the details of Swift’s life. But it is important that Swift, studying for an advanced degree in Dublin, felt forced to flee the country because of “the troubles” occasioned by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which deposed King James II and VII of England and Scotland, a Catholic in two Protestant-majority countries. A political, military, and religious coalition replaced him with his daughter, Mary, a Protestant, and the powerful Protestant ruler of Holland, William III. Together, with Parliament’s sanction, they ruled as William and Mary.
In the end, Swift, after years of seeking preferment, years during which he had become an ordained priest of the Established Church of Ireland, made one final try for a high-level English appointment by approaching King William with whom Swift believed he had good connections. It came to nothing, and Swift returned to Ireland for good. He brought with him what turned out to be a lifelong illness characterized by severe vertigo (now thought to have been Meniere’s disease). First, however, he completed a final project in England, editing the memoirs of his deceased patron, and began a first book of his own, a satire entitled The Battle of the Books (not published till 1704).
Back in Ireland his writing career begins
In Ireland, Swift entered upon a series of meager “livings,” one with just 15 parishioners. He longed for the centers of power and influence in London, consoling himself in part with gardening and a romantic involvement. As chaplain and secretary to Lord Berkeley, however, he did spend much time in Dublin, and visited London repeatedly for almost 10 years. During this time, he published (anonymously) a political pamphlet, A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome. It exhibited the savage satire that made Swift one of the greatest satirists of all time, with his target the politicians and peers in England whose acceptance he had sought in vain. He established a residence, after 1700, in County Meath, just north of Dublin, and obtained his Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College. There, in the environs of Dublin, he spent most of the rest of his long life with his companion, Esther Johnson.
Swift’s final official “career move,” as he settled down to a life of writing, was to become Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. In time, he acquired the unofficial title, “Dean Swift,” by which he still is known today. It is worth mentioning that the appointment was the best his friends could get him—in part because he had outraged Queen Mary with the classic Swiftian barbs in his supposedly anonymous political pamphlet. It was the beginning of a markedly different—and greater--“influence” than that Swift had sought.
Satires of “Savage Indignation”
Swift had shaped a startlingly original brand of satire in The Tale of A Tub (published 1704) and shorter pieces. Now, his writing took up the Irish cause. In doing so, addressed questions that set apart the Irish Enlightenment: Can there ever be tolerance? What is the evidence that man is innately good? Is complete freedom from prejudice an illusion? In a sense, they were Irish questions posed to the Enlightenment.
In addressing these issues, Swift’s satires assailed the worlds of politics, royalty, high society, and religion in which in England he had sought to win honors. Those worlds are all targets of the satire that won him fame in his lifetime and to all appearances imperishable literary immortality: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (now, of course, called just Gulliver’s Travels) published anonymously in 1726.
Swift chose, as the vehicle, a parody of the then popular travelogue. Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon and sea captain (a combination of two positions then common on ships) who visits remote regions of the world—a total of four different adventures during which readers see a progression of revealing social orders. Shipwrecked in Lilliput and captured by people less than six inches tall, Gulliver is taken to their capital city—a metropolis of men as ludicrously small-minded as they are short in stature. Their customs and debates are as petty and pointless as…well…a lot of politics and religious controversy. Their political divide is between those who wear high-heeled shoes (“high” church Tories) and low ones (Whigs) and appointment to the royal court is awarded to those who excel at jumping rope. Thus it may have seemed to Swift in years he bid for royal preferment.
Lilliput is at war with the empire of Blefuscu, a fight to the death over which end of an egg should be broken. Can the giant help to defend Lilliput and smash the religious unbelievers? Gulliver deals with the attacking naval fleet but will not help the emperor of the right-end-of-the-egg to subjugate the heretics. After other adventures, the most famous being saving the royal palace from fire by pissing on it (right goal, wrong method, like some treaties reached by the English), the Lilliputians decide to blind and starve the giant, who now flees to the equally preposterous Blefuscu. There, he finds a huge (normal-sized) boat to use to return to England.
The next voyage finds Gulliver in Brobdingnag among a race of giants. After an adventure or two, he becomes a court favorite, although when he describes achievements of his civilization, and a bit of its history, to the king, the king concludes the English must be “odious vermin.” Gulliver wants to make himself useful by making a cannon and gunpowder, which, described to the king, horrifies him. An eagle as oversized as the inhabitants, snatches Gulliver one day, drops him into the sea, and he is rescued by his own kind.
The next stop, courtesy of pirates who set Gulliver adrift, is the flying island of Laputa. Laputans have two eyes, but one points inward and the other upward. They are scholars and academics. The challenge is to remind them to pay occasional attention to reality, not just their own thoughts. Much of their attention, in fact, is on mathematics and music, but their theories have no applications of any kind. On a side trip to Lagado, beneath the continent of Laputa, Gulliver finds only ruined fields and squalid dwellings. Actions there are prescribed by the city’s academy of learning, which conducts investigations such as the best method for extracting sunbeams for cucumbers. An unhappy minority in Lagado, the struldbrugs, are blessed with immortality but age like mortals. Gulliver sails to Japan and thence home to England.
The fourth and final visit is to the famous land of the Houyhnhnms, a species of intelligent horse who are in all ways superior—in cleanliness, rationality, community, and benevolence—to the humans, called Yahoos, with whom they share their world (sometimes taming the brutish, filthy, greedy, degenerate humanoids). Gulliver appears to the Houyhnms to be an exceptional Yahoo, but when he describes English civilization and history to the master Houyhnhnm, he is sent packing back to England. There, disgusted with humanity, he avoid even his family and buys horses who become his confidantes.
Swift’s masterpiece has its humor and imagination, but also the bitterest satire. Swift is viewed as having succeeded (the book became an instant bestseller and remained so) by forging a new species of satire. Its tone is soberly journalistic and matter-of-fact, arguably comic but also relentlessly deprecating. Never was this literary technique more telling than in Swift’s 1729 “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,,” now called, “A Modest Proposal.” The anonymous essay proposes in the most reasonable and uninflected prose, as generations of students have learned, that the poorest Irish might deal with their economic difficulties by selling their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies.”
Swift seems to have enjoyed 10 good years of celebrity and influence, as he had wished, but is recorded as displaying symptoms of madness by 1738. Guardians kept him from harming himself. It is said he had a grotesque inflammation of his left eye, which crazed him with such pain that he had to be restrained from tearing it out. He lapsed into silence for a year or more, uttering not a word. His beloved Esther Johnson died and was buried under the aisle of the cathedral. In 1744, his best friend, Alexander Pope died, and, the next year, Swift, almost 80, died. After lying in view for people of Dublin to pay their respects, he was buried beside Esther Johnson. His final coherent act was to leave his fortune of £12,000, worth £2.85 million pounds today, but with more actual purchasing power in 1757, to found St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, which today still exists in Dublin as a psychiatric hospital.
The Irish Enlightenment and its “difference”
Is Swift’s work then a whole-heartedly embracing of the European Enlightenment? To draw that conclusion is to miss entirely the distinctive character of the Irish Enlightenment. In fact, Swift can be seen as seized with agonizing doubt about the very foundations of the European Enlightenment: Is man innately good? Guided by modern science, will he progress? Does that progress depend upon jettisoning all beliefs that do not pass the test of reason? Or is it all mere hubris leading humans to catastrophe by presuming to usurp God’s role?
Every one of those questions, stated as a proposition of the Enlightenment, is vivisected in Gulliver’s Travelers—laid bare to the test of its consistent projection in the “thought experiment” of an imagined world. When we laugh reading Swift’s satire it is because we recognize ourselves and our world. In the end, it is the complexity and fundamentality of its targets that makes Swift’s satire a classic for the ages.
It could said that the Irish Enlightenment honored all the propositions of the pan-European Enlightenment while challenging them from the point of view of a victim of England as it was—not the ideality of its philosophers.
The questions and doubts have not gone away. And neither has Jonathan Swift’s work.