Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and the Politics in his Age

Conducted at The Deanery of St. Patrick's, Upper Kevin Street, Dublin 8, on 18 October 2003, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Swift's Thoughts on Religion

Denis Donoghue

[Denis Donoghue is Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. An internationally-acclaimed literary scholar for over four decades, he is the author of over twenty books of literary criticism, including Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, 1967)].

Jonathan Swift was installed as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral on June 13, 1713. Much to his dismay, indeed: he had hoped for a much greater appointment. In one of his letters he referred to "the deanery they thought fit to throw me into.." (Corr: I: 380). "At my first coming [to Dublin]," as he wrote to Esther Vanhomrigh on July 8, 1713, "I thought I should have died with discontent and was horribly melancholy while they were installing me, but it begins to wear off, and change to dullness." (Corr: I: 373). But he felt no pleasure at the prospect of passing his years in Dublin.

Swift took up his duties on his return from England several months later. His main duty, as he construed it, was to defend the interests of the Church of Ireland against attack by sundry dissenters, papists, deists, freethinkers, and mischievous men in high place. He did this work mainly in pamphlets, but also, more cautiously, in sermons. He did not take his sermons as seriously as sermons should be taken: he didn't bother to print them or even to retain them for a later day. Many of them were lost when they should have been safely in his keeping. It is unlikely that the lost ones contained much that he did not include in his more formal writings, but they should have been preserved.

Swift did not regard preaching as a crucial part of his vocation. Sermons were expected to be useful, though more often the preacher was content to have them commonplace: they were no longer the strenuous activity they had been in the days of John Donne and Lancelot Andrews. It was widely felt, after the settlement of 1688, that the best thing an Englishman or an Irishman could do was live a decent life and a quiet one. If he had doubts of conscience and belief, he should keep them to himself. "The want of belief," Swift said, "is a defect that ought to be concealed when it cannot be overcome." (1) In a sermon on the martyrdom of King Charles the First, he asserted that if a man had "any new visions of his own," it was his duty "to be quiet, and possess them in silence, without disturbing the community by a furious zeal for making proselytes." (2) There was enough contentiousness at large without adding the acrimony of theological dispute.

Besides, Swift turned himself into a moderate man on questions of religion. In the sermon "On Brotherly Love" he took pains to distinguish true from false moderation: "A Man truly Moderate is steady in the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church, but with a due Christian Charity to all who dissent from it out of a Principle of Conscience; the Freedom of which, he thinketh, ought to be fully allowed, as long as it is not abused, but never trusted with Power. He is ready to defend, with his Life and Fortune, the Protestant Succession, and the Protestant established Faith, against all Invaders whatsoever."

The main characteristics of false moderation were indifference to all religion and contempt for the clergy. The man of false moderation "thinks the Power of the People can never be too great, nor that of the Prince too little." His devotion consists "in drinking Gibbets, Confusion, and Damnation; in profanely idolizing the Memory of one dead Prince [King William III] and ungratefully trampling upon the Ashes of another [Queen Anne]. (3)

In The Sentiments of a Church-of-England Man, written in 1708, Swift said that "in order to preserve the Constitution entire in Church and State; whoever hath a true Value for both, would be sure to avoid the Extreams of Whig for the Sake of the former, and the Extreams of Tory on Account of the latter." (4)

Swift's Christianity insisted on principles, but kept itself resolutely distant from hard questions in theology, divinity, and doctrine. He was prepared to leave to others of a more metaphysical disposition the elucidation of problems and definitions. "I have been better entertained," he said, "and more informed by a Chapter in the Pilgrim's Progress, than by a long Discourse upon the Will and the Intellect, and simple or complex Ideas." Others again, he said, "are fond of dilating on Matter and Motion, talk of the fortuitous Concourse of Atoms, of Theories, and Phaenomena; directly against the Advice of St. Paul, who yet appears to have been conversant enough in those Kinds of Studies." (5)

Swift had virtually nothing to say about God, and was pleased to observe that Christ, too, was silent on that august theme. "Neither did our Saviour think it necessary to explain to us the Nature of God; because I suppose it would be impossible, without bestowing on us other Faculties than we possess at present." (6)

The only sermon in which Swift commented on a mystery of the Church was one "On the Trinity." He took as his text the first epistle of St. John, chapter 5, verse 7: "For there are three that bear record in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these Three are one." The text is doubtful: it is taken from the Vulgate, but it does not appear in any of the early Greek manuscripts, or any early translation, or in the best manuscripts of the Vulgate.

Swift was not at ease – nor should he have been – in commenting on the mystery. He recited the doctrine, "as it is positively affirmed in Scripture: That God is there expressed in three different Names, as Father, as Son, and as Holy Ghost; that each of these is God, and that there is but one God. But this Union and Distinction are a Mystery utterly unknown to Mankind." This much is enough, Swift says, "for any good Christian to believe on this great Article, without ever enquiring any farther: And, this can be contrary to no Man's Reason, although the Knowledge of it is hid from him." Why God thought fit to "communicate some Things to us in Part, and leave some Part a Mystery," it is impossible to know. God has pronounced the fact, "but wholly concealed the manner." We are not commanded by God to believe "any Doctrine which is contrary to the Reason he hath pleased to endow us with; but for his own wise Ends has thought fit to conceal from us the Nature of the Thing he commands; thereby to try our Faith and Obedience, and encrease our Dependence upon him." Faith is therefore "an entire Dependence upon the Truth, the Power, the Justice, and the Mercy of God; which Dependence will certainly incline us to obey him in all Things." (7)

Swift was clearly ill at ease in that sermon. He was relieved to be done with it. He was ready to talk about religion, so long as religion meant actions, how his flock might be encouraged to live from day to day. Religious principles were available through the collaboration of conscience and church. In a sermon "On the Testimony of Conscience" Swift maintained "that there is no solid, firm Foundation of Virtue, but in a Conscience directed by the Principles of Religion." Considerations of reward or punishment in the next life are also vital. "When Conscience placeth before us the Hopes of everlasting Happiness, and the Fears of everlasting Misery, as the Reward and Punishment of our good or evil Actions, our reason can find no way to avoid the Force of such an Argument, otherwise than by running into Infidelity." (8)

In the sermons, as in the pamphlets, we find religion becoming indistinguishable from politics. Swift does not keep the categories of discourse separate. It is hardly surprising that he ends his sermon on the martyrdom of King Charles by showing where the middle ground between the two alluring extremes is to be discovered: "..To avoid all broachers and preachers of new-fangled doctrines in the church; to be strict observers of the laws, which cannot be justly taken from you without your own consent. In short, to obey God and the King, and meddle not with those who are given to change. (9)

Even for Swift, it is a bold collocation, God and the King together in a short sentence. If you take one further step along that road, you find yourself thinking that religion is indistinguishable from morality, law, civics, sociology, and –why not? –psychology. If you add Swift's belief in the degeneracy of the age --"men degenerate every day, merely by the folly, the perverseness, the avarice, the tyranny, the pride, the treachery, or inhumanity of their own kind--" (10) you are inevitably seeing him as a personage, an image, perhaps an emblem of a terrifying fate.

At this point in Swift's "Further Thoughts on Religion" we are moving close to the Dean who has become a lurid if charismatic personage in the folklore of Dublin. We find him in Yeats's play The Words upon the Window Pane and in his early story "The Tables of the Law" where the narrator says to Owen Aherne: "It is not necessary to judge everyone by the law, for we have also Christ's commandment of love"; and Aherne answers, looking at the narrator with shining eyes: "Jonathan Swift made a soul for the gentlemen of this city by hating his neighbour as himself." (11)

James Joyce was an early reader of Yeats's story and he recalled it in the third chapter of Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus is walking along Sandymount Strand and thinking of the days he spent in Marsh's Library "reading the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas." Think of the terrible Dean: "The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close. A hater of his kind ran from them to the wood of madness, his mane foaming in the moon, his eyeballs stars. Houyhnhnm, horsenostrilled…Abbas father, furious dean, what offence laid fire to their brains?" (12)

It would be impertinent to attempt an answer to that question. Maybe it was the offence, on Swift's part, of telling himself, hoping against hope, that everything in life could be tamed, domesticated, by a rational, Augustan prose, common sense, moderation, and as much silence as possible; till he came to the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels and discovered that these devices were not enough to subdue what Yeats called "the terrors that pass before shut eyes."

1. Jonathan Swift, Irish Tracts 1720- 1723, edited by Herbert Davis; and Sermons,edited by Louis Landa (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), p 261.
2. Ibid. p 277.
3. Ibid. p 178.
4. Jonathan Swift, Bickerstaff Papers and Pamphlets on the Church, edited by Herbert Davis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), p. 25.
5. Swift, Sermons, p 77.
6. Ibid. p 73.
7. Ibid. pp 162, 164, 165, 167.
8. Swift, Sermons, pp 154-155.
9. Ibid. p 231.
10. Ibid. p 264.
11 W B Yeats, Mythologies (London: Macmillan, 1962), p.301.
12. James Joyce, Ulysses, edited by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Clause Melchior (New York: Random House, 1986), p 33.

[Back to Table of Contents] [Back to Home Page]

(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2003; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.