Dean Swift: The Satirist and his Faith

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and Christianity, St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, October 19 2002

Public Certainty, Private Doubt: Swift in and out of the Pulpit

Michael DePorte (University of New Hampshire, USA)

Prof. DePorte has been a prominent commentator on Swift since his Nightmares and Hobbyhorses: Swift, Sterne and Augustan Ideas of Madness appeared in 1974.

As a spokesman for the Church of Ireland Swift's views are hardly ambiguous. He was a fierce defender of church doctrines and prerogatives. He saw the church as besieged by secular and sectarian enemies. He never tired of arguing that the church must prevail if society were to survive intact. He urged anyone who questioned the importance of an established church to think hard about the English revolution. And he identified Christianity so strongly with the church that toward the end of his life he wrote his friend Charles Ford that opposition to the church in both England and Ireland had made him give up "all hopes of.Christianity" (Correspondence 4: 505).

Dissenters, he insisted, were not motivated by theological or liturgical concerns, but by the "Spirit of Opposition" (Prose Works 2: 34.) They aspired to power, not purity. He refused to acknowledge that freethinkers might be engaged in honest inquiry, afflicted by honest doubts, in search of greater clarity. All they really wanted, he said, was freedom from moral restraint.

Swift preached sermons on the superiority of Christianity to Greek philosophy and on the need to believe in the Trinity whether one understood it or not. He wrote that the biblical account of Creation seemed "most agreeable of all others to probability and reason." He was uncompromising in his support of the Test Act and scornful of republican governments for "treating Christianity as a System of Speculative Opinions, which no Man should be bound to believe" (Prose Works 3: 49).

In his Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately entered into Holy Orders, Swift argues that Christianity triumphed over Greek and Roman philosophy because it could draw on a source of power greater than intelligence or firmness of character. "The true Misery of the Heathen World," he said, was "the Want of a Divine Sanction; without which, the Dictates of the Philosophers failed in the Point of Authority" (Prose Works 9: 73). The ancient philosophers had no notion of "relying" on Providence; they would not have understood what it meant to place one's trust in God; they "trusted in themselves for all things," and therefore, Swift said, had no sure recourse in hard times: "upon every blow of adverse fortune, [they] either affected to be indifferent, or grew sullen and severe, or else yielded and sunk like other men" (Prose Works 9: 245-46).

More importantly, the ancient philosophers were never able to posit a compelling reward for virtue. "Human nature is so constituted," he argued, "that we can never pursue any thing heartily but upon hopes of a reward." As for the notion that virtue is its own reward, Swift said that if there was "any thing in this more than the sound of the words, it is.too abstracted of general use" (Prose Works 9: 244). But Heaven and Hell are concepts even the simplest person can understand; they are, Swift insists, in one of his sermons, "the great Principle for Conscience to work upon" (Prose Works 9: 156), and essential to the welfare of society. "Great Abilities, without the Fear of God," are most dangerous Instruments when they are trusted with Power. The Laws of Man have thought fit, that those who are called to any Office of Trust should be bound by an Oath to the faithful Discharge of it: But, an Oath is an Appeal to God, and therefore can have no Influence except upon those who believe that he is...a Rewarder of those that seek him, and a Punisher of those who disobey him." (Prose Works 9: 156-57)

As a public spokesman for the church, then, Swift's views are absolutely straightforward. He sought to secure its position from attack, to discredit the motives of those who took part in such attacks, and to demonstrate that Christianity itself, particularly the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments, is the only sure foundation of moral life. Elsewhere in his writings, though, we run up against more problematical reflections. Consider this strange entry in the disgruntled journal Swift kept at Holyhead while waiting for the weather to clear so he could get a ship to Ireland:

"...Last night I dreamt that Ld Bolingbroke and Mr Pope were at my Cathedrall in the Gallery, and that my Ld was to preach. I could not find my Surplice, the Church Servants were all out of the way; the Doors were shut. I sent to my Ld to come into my Stall for more conveniency to get into the Pulpit. The Stall was all broken; the[y] sd the Collegians had done it. I squeezed among the Rabble, saw my Ld in the Pulpit. I thought his prayer was good, but I forget it. In his Sermon, I did not like his quoting Mr. Wycherly by name, and his Plays...." (Prose Works 5: 205-06)

Looked at one way, this dream is a major psychic affront, a nightmare of impropriety, violation, and loss that assails Swift's dignity on several cherished grounds. His pulpit is usurped by Bolingbroke, who, though a friend, was also an outspoken deist. Worse yet, Bolingbroke quotes Wycherley. Meanwhile, Swift not only loses his surplice, he loses control of the Church servants, who vanish just when he needs them. As if this were not bad enough, undergraduates from his old college advertise their disrespect by wrecking his stall, leaving him to hear the offensive sermon 'squeezed among the Rabble.'

But we should not forget that while Swift is the authority mocked in this dream, he is also the one who conjures up the mockery. In dreams, Addison observed, the soul "converses with numberless Beings of her own transported into ten thousand Scenes of her own herself the Theatre, the Actors, and the Beholder" (Spectator 487). Johnson once dreamt that someone got the better of him in argument.

He brooded over the defeat till it dawned on him that the dream was, after all, his dream. "I should have seen," he told Bennet Langton, "that the wit of this supposed antagonist, by whose superiority I felt myself depressed, was as much furnished by me, as that which I thought I had been uttering in my own character." Swift himself wrote, in memorable imitation of Petronius, that dreams are never sent downward from Jove or up from the Devil's "infernal Mansions"; they are "mere Productions" of our own brains ("On Dreams," ll. 1-5). It is perhaps worth recalling here that when an undergraduate at Trinity, Swift was cited for an unusually large number of disciplinary infractions, once for starting "tumults" in the college and insulting the junior dean, whose pardon he was forced to beg on bended knee.

So in this dream we may say that Swift is not only the insulted dean, he is also those agencies of anarchy and irreverence: Bolingbroke, the neglectful servants, the rowdy students. However scrupulous Swift's public behavior, however militant his service to the church, in the dream he goes on holiday, makes mischief in the pulpit, "loses" his surplice and refuses to look for it, creates havoc in the stalls, then squeezes in among the rabble where he is safe from detection. This final touch seems an apt metaphor for the way Swift's irony often dissociates him from unseemly thoughts.

Swift's dream of cathedral monkey business epitomizes the problem of gauging his true religious convictions. In his satires, we often rub up against things that don't square with the orthodox assertions of the religious tracts and sermons. In his ironical attack on the famous free thinker Anthony Collins, for example, Swift spectacularly ignores his own advice that clergymen should not preach against atheism. To do so, he said, is to risk perplexing "the Minds of well-disposed People with Doubts, which probably would never have otherwise come into their Heads" (Prose Works 9: 78).

Here are a few of the things Swift gives "well-disposed people" to think about as he parodies Collins: first, that many other cultures in the world have scriptures they believe to be divinely inspired, and that some of those scriptures contain striking parallels to the New Testament: "the Bonzes in China have theirs, written by the Disciples of Of-he, whom they call God and Saviour of the World, who was born to teach the way of Salvation, and to give satisfaction for all Men's Sins"; the clergy of Siam "have a Book of Scripture written by Sommonocodum, who, the Siamese say, was born of a Virgin, and was the God expected by the Universe; just as our Priests tell us, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, and was the Messiah so long expected" (Prose Works 4: 32); second, that the Bible itself is so complex a work that a bishop said he thought it more "a Trial of our Industry than a Repository of our Faith" (Prose Works 4: 33); third, that learned Christians cannot even agree about such central articles of faith as original sin and the resurrection of the dead.

Swift was, of course, writing under cover of satire. In later years, Pope would tease him about the effectiveness of that cover: "your method of concealing your self puts me in mind of the bird I have read of in India, who hides his head in a hole, while all his feathers and tail stick out" (Correspondence 4: 217-218) From no work of Swift's do more feathers protrude than from A Tale of a Tub. As Voltaire recognized, the central religious allegory in which a father leaves coats to each of his three sons, with instructions not to alter them in any way, has subversive implications. The father's most striking quality is not rectitude, or love for his children, but determination to exercise power over them after he is gone. The will he leaves instructs his sons on the care of the coats, threatens them with penalties for "every Transgression or Neglect," and warns them that their "future Fortunes will entirely depend" on following his wishes to the letter (Prose Works 1: 44). The will does not explain why such exacting care of the coats should matter.

In the "Apology" he wrote for the fifth edition of the Tale Swift said he could not understand why anybody should think the it dangerous when other books "are kindly received, because they are levell'd to remove those Terrors that Religion tells Men will be the Consequence of immoral Lives. Nothing like which is to be met with in this Discourse..." (Prose Works 1: 2). His footnotes to the story of the coats, however, tell us straightout that the father represents "the Divine Founder," and the will, "the Doctrine and Faith of Christianity" (Prose Works 1: 44).

Considering that the brothers never seem to suffer any of their father's threatened penalties, it is hard to see how the allegory really supports belief in those salutary "Terrors" Swift says are so essential to religion. One can argue that going mad, as do two of the brothers, is penalty enough. But one can just as well argue that Peter and Jack would never have lost their wits had their father left them the coats to wear as they saw fit, or had the brothers ignored the will and gone about their business. One hard-headed moral of the story might be that the father has no power except the power his sons accord him in their minds.

Did Swift privately believe eternal rewards and punishments--that "great Principle for Conscience to work upon"--exist only in the minds of believers? Perhaps he did. In his Thoughts on Religion, Swift describes love of life as an extraordinarily irrational impulse. Were people guided by "the dictates of reason, every man would despise [life], and wish it at an end" (Prose Works 9: 263). But if there truly are terrible punishments for vice in the hereafter, and if the world is as full of knaves as Swift continually assures us, why would it be rational for "every man" to wish life at an end?

When preaching, Swift argues that the "excellency" of Christianity is that it enables ordinary people to achieve a nobility they would never otherwise attain by making virtue and self-interest one: "the primitive Christians...were altogether the product of their principles and doctrine," whereas "the great examples of wisdom and virtue, among the Grecian sages were produced by personal merit, and not influenced by the doctrine of any particular sect" (Prose Works 9:249). While it is true, he says, "that there hath been all along in the world a notion of rewards and punishments in another seems to have rather served as an entertainment to poets, or as a terror of children, than a settled principle, by which men pretended to govern any of their actions. The last celebrated words of Socrates, a little before his death, do not seem to reckon or build much upon any such opinion" (Prose Works 9:245).

Yet it is precisely the individual merit of men like Socrates (fellow master of irony) that most attracted Swift. He owned a signet ring with the head of Socrates, and often used this seal when signing important documents. Swift preached that the doctrine of future rewards and punishments was important for ordinary people, but it is by no means clear how much real efficacy he thought that doctrine had. The most immoral people Gulliver encounters on his travels, the Lilliputians, are also the only people said to believe in Divine Providence, an afterlife, and a system of rewards and punishments.

Their case for making belief in God a prerequisite for public office sounds exactly like the case Swift often made: "since Kings avow themselves to be the Deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd than for a Prince to employ such Men as disown the Authority under which he acteth" (Prose Works 11:44). No one else Gulliver visits even seems to have a religion, except for the Brobdingnagians, who, to judge from the description of their great temple, "adorned on all Sides with Statues of Gods and Emperors," are polytheists (Prose Works 11:98). As for the Houyhnhnms, they regard death just as Swift said reasonable people should, without "the least Regret" (Prose Works 11:258).

Swift's last, and most moving poem to Stella, written when she was gravely ill, acknowledges the importance of future rewards, then side-steps the doctrine to offer consolation of a more immediate sort:

Were future Happiness and Pain,
A mere Contrivance of the Brain,
As Atheists argue, to entice,
And Fit their Proselytes for Vice...
Grant this the Case, yet sure 'tis hard,
That Virtue, stil'd its own Reward...
Should acting, die, nor leave behind
Some lasting Pleasure in the Mind,
Which by Remembrance will assuage,
Grief, Sickness, Poverty, and Age
And strongly shoot a radiant Dart,
To shine through Life's declining Part.
Say, Stella, feel you no Content,
Reflecting on a Life well spent?
(ll. 19-22, 25-26, 29-36)

The allegory of the coats in A Tale of a Tub raises unsettling questions about the "Divine Founder's" arbitrariness and the nature of his power; the "Digression on Madness" in the Tale raises potentially unsettling questions about the origin of Christianity: "if we take a Survey of the greatest Actions that have been performed in the World," one of which is "the contriving, as well as the propagating, of New Religions: We shall find the Authors of them all" to be mad (Prose Works 1: 102). No sane person would dream of "subduing Multitudes to his...Visions" (Prose Works 1: 108).

Indeed, the importance of preserving established religion is so persistent a theme in Swift's later writings, that he insists even a change to a new, "more pure and perfect [religion] may be an Occasion of endangering the publick Peace; because, it will compose a Body always in Reserve, prepared to follow any discontented Heads, upon the plausible Pretexts of advancing true Religion, and opposing Error, superstition, or Idolatry. For this Reason, Plato lays it down as a Maxim, that Men ought to worship the Gods, according to the Laws of the Country; and he introduceth Socrates, in his last Discourse, utterly disowning the Crime laid to his Charge, of teaching new Divinities, or Methods of Worship." (Prose Works 2: 11-12)

But what of the new divinity and method of worship taught by St. Paul? Claiming certain knowledge of "things agreed on all hands impossible to be known" (p. 166) is the sure sign of madness. How are we to distinguish Jesus from other propagators of new religions? The predictable answer, and the answer Swift gives in his sermons, is, of course, that Christianity is not the vision of a single man, but the revelation of divine will. A common response to this question in the period, was to argue that we can know the apostles were divinely inspired, rather than deluded enthusiasts, because their claims had empirical support: miracles.

In his sermon On the Trinity, though, Swift reverses the argument, saying not that miracles prove the authenticity of Scriptural revelation, but that miracles are so contrary to the "Rules of Nature and Reason" we would never believe them unless they were affirmed by Scripture: "It is against the Laws of Nature, that a Human Body should be able to walk upon the Water...or that a dead Carcase should be raised from the Grave after three Days...Yet these Miracles, and many others, are positively affirmed in the Gospel; and these we must believe, or give up our Holy Religion to Atheists and Infidels." (Prose Works 9: 165-66)

In other words, we should believe because the consequences of disbelief are unthinkable: "Men should consider, that raising Difficulties concerning the Mysteries in Religion, cannot make them more wise, learned, or virtuous; better Neighbours, or Friends, or more serviceable to their Country; but, whatever they pretend, will destroy their inward Peace of Mind, by perpetual Doubts and Fears arising in their Breasts" (Prose Works 9: 166-67). This is as close as Swift gets to discussing the need for religion from the inside. He talks about God as the ultimate authority for doctrines of imperative social importance, about crimes against social order being crimes against God, but about individual relationships to God he says remarkably little.

What comes across most powerfully in Swift's references to God is a sense of God's remoteness and unknowability. Swift dismisses people's claims to have had direct experience of spiritual agencies--good or evil--as intoxications of pride: "I laugh aloud to see these Reasoners...engaged in wise Dispute...whether they are in the Verge of God or the Devil, seriously debating...whether certain Passions and Affections are guided by the Evil Spirit or the is a Sketch of Human Vanity, for every Individual, to imagine the whole Universe is interess'd in his meanest Concern. Who, that sees a little paultry Mortal, droning, and dreaming, and drivelling to a Multitude, can think it agreeable to common good Sense, that either Heaven or Hell should be put to the Trouble of Influence or Inspection upon what he is about" (Prose Works 1: 180).

One of the few altogether personal religious rituals we know Swift observed was to read the third chapter of Job every year on his birthday. That it should be the third chapter, rather than the explanatory prologue or the celebratory epilogue, is telling. For it is in the third chapter that Job curses the day he was born and asks "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid,/ And whom God hath hedged in?" In a sermon, Swift might hold up Abraham as exemplifying the power of faith, extoll his readiness to believe "that God would raise from him a great Nation, at the very same time that he was commanded to sacrifice his only Son, and despaired of any other Issue"(Prose Works 9: 163).

But Job is a figure to touch his heart. Job epitomized the kind of undeserved suffering with which Swift identified so readily. Swift's letters and private writings are filled with complaints of unearned misfortune--from the great fish that dropped off his line when he was a little boy to the preferment that eluded him in England. The weaknesses he confesses to friends are less moral failures, than failures of power visited on him by sickness or age: loss of memory, of stamina, of invention, of the ability to do serious work. It is impossible to imagine Swift standing four hours in the rain, like Johnson, to atone for some long ago act of thoughtlessness. It is easy to imagine him asking Job's questions--"Wherefore do the wicked live,/ Become old, yea, wax mighty in power?"--and hearing in return something like that voice of inscrutable power out of the whirlwind: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" In the Essay on Man, Pope continually reminds readers to "presume not God to scan." But he reminds them with an assurance that suggests he pretty much knows what God had in mind for the world:

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly. (I, 193-94)

The God of Swift's poem "On the Day of Judgment" is much like the God of Job: aloof, implacable, something of a trickster.

Of all the stories that bear on Swift's religious outlook, I think the most haunting is Deane Swift's account of a Sunday visit to Swift two years after he had been declared of unsound mind. Swift was sitting in a chair, and when he reached for a knife that lay on the table, his housekeeper moved it away. Deane Swift recalls that Swift shrugged his shoulders, and, rocking back and forth, said, "I am what I am, I am what I am: and, about six minutes afterwards, repeated the same words two or three times over" (Correspondence, 5: 214).

The words may mean nothing. They may mean only that despite loss of powers Swift still knows who and what he is--more than can be said of Gulliver, who at the end of his travels studies himself in a mirror yet continues to think himself what he is not: a Houyhnhnm. But inasmuch as the words are St. Paul's, who Swift cites more than perhaps any other figure in the Old or New Testament, they invite a larger reading. Paul had been speaking of the promise of eternal life offered all people through Christ's Resurrection, and of his own place among those who witnessed it:

"...And last of all he was seen of me also, as one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all" (I Corinthians, xv, 8-11)

It is tempting to see flitting across Swift's mind, some deeply personal and darkly ironic sense of kinship with Paul. Like Paul, he had been "born out of due time." Like Paul he had not come early or easily to the Church. Like Paul, his writings had been misunderstood. And he, too, had tried to make up for his lateness by laboring "more abundantly than they all," fighting, as he had told Lady Worsley ten years before, "with Beasts like St. Paul, not at Ephesus, but in Ireland" (Correspondence 4: 79). This labor might well have seemed abundant to Swift because he appears to have performed it without Paul's experience of personal revelation, without Abraham's faith, which embraced impossibility and contradiction, and without clear expectation of that personal reward he assured his parishioners was the very basis of Christianity.

Michael DePorte
Department of English
University of New Hampshire
Durham, New Hampshire U.S.A.

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