Dean Swift: The Satirist and his Faith

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

The Satirist and his Faith: an Overview

Brean S.Hammond, Professor of English Studies, University of Nottingham

Readers fresh to Guliver's Travels might imagine, on the basis of some of its episodes, that Swift was an apostle of religious toleration. This paper argues that all such episodes have, however, a sinister, darker side, much more consonant with Swift's non-fictional writings, in a range of which it is shown that Swift scarcely treated Dissenters, in particular, as Christians at all. What was the nature of his own fundamental commitment to Christianity? What relationship subtends between Swift's opinions on the politics of church and state, and his views on faith itself? This paper concludes by commenting on the difficulty for twenty-first century readers of Swift in approaching 'an undeniably great writer who stands in opposition to tenets of Christian faith, or to political inferences from them, that underlie democratic freedoms now held to be inalienable'.

New readers of Swift most often encounter him for the first time through a reading of Gulliver's Travels. What is to be learned about the satirist and his faith from a reading of Swift's fictional masterpiece?

In Lilliput, there is endemic social division, exploited by the Monarchs of neighbouring Blefuscu, over whether eggs are to be broken at the larger end the 'primitive Way', we are told, where the word 'primitive' has positive connotations as in 'primitive Christianity' or whether the edict of the present King's grandfather, that eggs will be broken at the smaller end, should be obeyed.

In chapter 54 of the Brundrecal, Lilliput's holy book, it is written that 'all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the convenient End: and which is the convenient End, [adds Gulliver] seems, in my humble Opinion, to be left to every Man's Conscience, or at least in the Power of the chief Magistrate to determine'. (1.4).

Readers don't need super powers to spot the analogies being drawn between Lilliput and England in the reign of Queen Anne. The big-endian and little-endian controversy figures that between Protestantism and Catholicism that fissures Swift's own society. To reduce this to a ludicrous quarrel over the breaking of eggs is to suggest that nothing hinges on the difference. Did Swift really think that nothing hinged on it?

The two solutions proposed, though they are connected in Swift's sentence by an effortless grammatical conjunction, the reader might consider to be dramatically disjunct: there seems all the difference in the world between leaving such a question to 'every Man's Conscience' and leaving it 'in the Powers of the chief Magistrate to determine'. To Swift, however, the former needs the corrective of the latter because, as he writes in a sermon 'On the Testimony of Conscience':

"Hence have likewise arisen those Mistakes about what is usually called Liberty of Conscience; which, properly speaking, is no more than a Liberty of knowing our own Thoughts; which Liberty no one can take from us. But those words have obtained quite different Meanings: Liberty of Conscience is now-a-days not only understood to be the Liberty of believing what Men please, but also of endeavouring to propagate the Belief as much as they can, and to overthrow the Faith which the Laws have already established...And this is the Liberty of Conscience which the Fanaticks are now openly in the Face of the World endeavouring at with their utmost Application."

Gulliver's elevated detachment from the petty squabbles of the Lilliputians is not, then, quite the broad-minded tolerance that it appears to be.

In Brobdingnag, Gulliver gives it as his opinion that bishops are chosen "...by the Prince and wisest Counsellors, among such of the Priesthood, as were most deservedly distinguished by the Sanctity of their Lives, and the Depth of their Erudition; who were indeed the spiritual Fathers of the Clergy and the People' (2.6). But the King asks whether those holy Lords I spoke of, were constantly promoted to that Rank upon Account of their Knowledge in religious Matters, and the Sanctity of their Lives, had never been Compliers with the Times, while they were common Priests; or slavish prostitute Chaplains to some Nobleman, whose Opinions they continued servilely to follow after they were admitted into that Assembly...".

The King's question is suspiciously complex and acute. Did he really need both adjectives, 'slavish' and 'prostitute', to make his point? Behind it lies a narrative voice unconvinced that in Georgian England, priests are really advanced for their piety and learning. At the end of Book III, Gulliver posing as a Dutch merchant tries to enter Japan, a country that, since 1638, had closed its ports to all nations except the Dutch. Gaining ingress requires compliance with the ritual of Yefumi, or trampling upon the crucifix, which, it seems, the Dutch are perfectly cheerful about doing. Gulliver asks to be excused, and the Emperor 'seemed a little surprised; and said, he believed I was the first of my Countrymen who ever made any Scruple in this Point; and that he began to doubt whether I were a real Hollander or no; but rather suspected I must be a CHRISTIAN' (3.11).

So the point of this episode is to satirise the Dutch? Dutch Protestants are not Christians, or at least are willing to traduce their faith in the interests of trade? Is the animus, though, really against the Dutch, or does it glance at what Swift took to be an unholy alliance of the Orange dynasty with the ruling Whig elite, who permitted such freethinkers as John Toland to prosper, Toland who was ordered to leave Oxford for "...Trampling on the Common prayer book, talking against the Scriptures, commending Commonwealths, justifying the murder of K.C[harles] 1st, railing against Priests in general.."?

In Book 4, the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms, there is a reprise of the kind of satire that we have already seen in Book 2. Gulliver informs his Houyhnhnm 'Master' of the 'State of England' and explains the most common causes of war:

"...Difference in Opinions hath cost many Millions of Lives: For Instance, whether Flesh be Bread, or Bread be Flesh: Whether the Juice of a certain Berry be Blood or Wine: Whether Whistling be a Vice or a Virtue: Whether it be better to kiss a Post, or throw it into the Fire: What is the best Colour for a Coat, whether Black, White, Red or Grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. (4.5)...".

This is more disturbing than the reduction of two major religions to a controversy over the breaking of eggs. Here, Gulliver deliberately vacuums out the meaning of the differences between Anglicanism, Catholicism and the various dissenting sects in the way he presents the case to the Houyhnhnm. The symbols of religious difference are substituted for the substance of religious difference, and the reader feels like leaping into the text to protest that this is not fair, that Gulliver is leaving too much out. From a conventional eighteenth-century religious standpoint, one of the most disturbing aspects of the sardonic utopia that is Houyhnhnmland is the attitude to death evinced there:

"...If they can avoid Casualties, they die only of old Age, and are buried in the obscurest Places that can be found, their Friends and Relations expressing neither Joy nor Grief at their Departure; nor does the dying Person discover the least Regret that he is leaving the World. (4.9)...". We are told that a Mare and her two foals ('a Mistress and her two Children') give as an excuse for being a little late for an appointment with Gulliver's master that her husband died late in the morning and it took a little time to determine his place of rest. This sanguine attitude to death, doing away with all Christian rituals and customs, might be impeccably orthodox if there were any mention of a future state of punishments and rewards beyond the life on earth. Refusal to consider the existence of such a state was of course one of the primary objections to the writings of those same Deists and freethinkers that Swift excoriated throughout his early writings. Houhyhynm death customs, their solemn leave-takings of their friends, seem to be represented as consummations devoutly to be wished in GT 4.

So-called 'soft' readers of GT, who consider the Houyhnhnms to be objects of satire, might not have much trouble with this, but I have always thought hardline soft readings, so to put it, unconvincing. Swift does intend this no-nonsense attitude to death to be seductive, but it is a dangerous, lotos-eaters pull that is being exerted.

The neophyte reader of Gulliver's Travels could be forgiven for thinking that its author was one of the most tolerant men who ever lived; a figure of the early enlightenment who, looking down with Olympian detachment at the petty squabbles and controversies of the age, urges us to see the characteristic differences between faiths and churches as 'matters indifferent', occluding the fundamental Christianity that we all share. But I have tried to indicate that in all the places singled out above, Swift's liberalism is more apparent than real. Clues are planted in the text for the careful reader. The King of Brobdingnag, for instance, appears a smiling, good-natured, 'easy' monarch:

"...He laughed at my odd Kind of Arithmetick...in reckoning the Numbers of our People by a Computation drawn from the several Sects among us in Religion and Politicks. He said, he knew no Reason, why those who entertain Opinions prejudicial to the Publick, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And, as it was Tyranny in any Government to require the first, so it was Weakness not to enforce the second: For, a Man may be allowed to keep Poisons in his Closet, but not to vend them about as Cordials. (2.6)...".

In other words, there should be no known, declared dissenters. The state should repress them. It is difficult to imagine that Swift really believed it possible to maintain such a distinction as this between privately-held and publicly-expressed views, but in fact it is entirely consonant with statements made in many other places in his writings. Attacking the Freethinkers in The Sentiments of a Church-of-England Man (1708), Swift relates them to dissenters and to Whigs, 'because They likewise preach up Moderation, and are not so over nice to distinguish between an unlimited Liberty of Conscience, and an unlimited Freedom of Opinion'. You can think whatever you like, believe whatever you like, as long as you never anywhere express your views and in so doing rock the boat of state. 'Fair Liberty was all his Cry', Swift famously said, summing up his own career in an autobiographical late poem.

Was it? Ruth Herman's paper has eloquently shown running through all of Swift's early writings a hardening of the line against the dissenters. It's only momentarily surprising that Swift's main animus should be reserved, not for the Catholics, but for those whose beliefs were in fact closest to his own church. Dissenters were traitors within the gates. They had brought civil society towards the verge of collapse during what Swift terms, following Clarendon, the 'rebellion', and now, in the first decade of the eighteenth century, owing to their influence in trading circles, they form part of a diabolical alliance with the Whig financial paladins.

In the Examiner essays, Swift deploys the same breathtaking forcing of logic as he used to persuade the very much alive almanac-maker John Partridge that he had died, to show that the Whigs and their vanguard troops the dissenters and the freethinkers, are in fact the only true Jacobites. Supporting toleration through the Declaration of Indulgence and now through the abolition of the Sacramental Test Act, they are the backdoor through which the Pretender will creep into power. Swift's fanatical support for the Test Act was based on the conviction that writers who were foolish enough to express views at variance with those of the established, state-sanctioned church, should not have civil rights. This paragraph from Examiner 30 for 22 February 1710 sums up Swift's views on the question of keeping stumm:

"...a Man may perhaps have little or none of it [Religion] at Heart; yet if he conceal his Opinions, if he endeavour to make no Proselytes, advance no impious Tenets in Writing or Discourse: If, according to the common Atheistical Notion, he believes Religion to be only a Contrivance of Politicians for keeping the Vulgar in Awe; and that the present Model is better adjusted than any other to so useful an End: Although the Condition of such a Man as to his own future State be very deplorable; yet Providence, which often works Good out of Evil, can make even such a Man an Instrument for contributing towards the Preservation of the Church...".

The question begged by all of this is the one raised by Ruth Herman at the end of her paper. What relationship subtends between Swift's opinions on the politics of church and state, and his views on faith itself? It is raised in an acute form by Swift's finest satirical pamphlet pre-Modest Proposal, An Argument [against] Abolishing of Christianity.

Swift's satiric strategy here is to claim that "....real Christianity, such as used in primitive times...to have an influence upon men's belief and actions.." is beyond the pale of any possible discussion. We are so far out of touch with real Christianity as preached in the Gospels, the argument implies, that only a madman would attempt to re-establish contact with it. We can only debate whether to preserve, or not to preserve, nominal Christianity through the preservation or repeal of the Sacramental Test and the continuation or cessation of occasional conformity. Proposed by Swift's satirical tactics is a radical split between the institution of the Church on the one hand, and a structure of belief underlying that called Christianity, on the other:

"...I am far from presuming to affirm or think that the Church is in danger at present, or as things now stand, but we know not how soon it may be so when the Christian religion is repealed...".

But what exactly is this residue of Christianity? In all of Swift's early writings, and even in the Argument itself, the sincerely-held view is inferrable that Christianity, indeed religion of any kind, is entirely coextensive with the doctrines and practices of the church as by law established. Swift writes so often as if to be a dissenter or a Catholic is to be no kind of Christian at all.

If we were looking to define Christianity irrespective of all the specifics of worship, we would probably fall back on a stripped-down creed, and beyond that on cardinal virtues - charity in particular. Christ's teachings as expressed through the Parables and the Beatitudes again and again stress the need to turn the other cheek, to love one's enemies, to interpret the idea of the 'neighbour' as inclusively as possible. That is why it is disturbing that there is so little charity in what Swift has to say about his clerical/political enemies. His attitude towards them seems to be, in a word, unChristian.

If we turn, for example, to the sermon that Swift preached in this very Cathedral on 1st December 1717 on 'Brotherly Love', we find the cause of the 'great Want of Brotherly Love among us' to be that:

"...This Nation of ours hath for an Hundred Years past, been infested by two Enemies, the Papists and the Fanaticks, who each, in their Turns, filled it with Blood and Slaughter, and for a time destroyed both the Church and Government...".

Whereas the Papists are hobbled by the law, and have no 'Advocates or Abettors among Protestants', the 'Fanaticks are to be considered in another Light; they have had of late Years the Power, the Luck, or the Cunning, to divide us among ourselves'.

Such words issuing from the pulpit probably have more power to shock in Dublin today than they did in Dublin in 1717. At the present juncture in the twenty-first century, we would like our great writers to be apostles of liberal toleration and freedom of speech. We would like them to be charitable to their polemical opponents, like Voltaire defending to the death his opponents' right to say those things that he rejects. Swift disconcerts because, as I have tried to show even in Gulliver's Travels, the work in which one is tempted to find an ostensible commitment to some kind of ecumenical toleration, he is an undeniably great writer who stands in opposition to tenets of Christian faith, or to political inferences from them, that underlie democratic freedoms now held to be inalienable.

Brean S.Hammond
Professor of English Studies
University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham NG7 2RD United Kingdom


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