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

The 'radical' Swift: The fullback's dilemma

Christopher J Fauske (Salem State College, Massachusetts)

[Christopher Fauske is Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences at Salem State College, Massachusetts. Author of Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland, 1710-1724 (Irish Academic Press, 2002) he has also edited Archbishop William King and the Anglican Irish Context 1688- 1729 (Four Courts Press, 2003).]


Ladies and gentlemen, Dean McCarthy, Bob:

I want to thank you for this opportunity to return to the deanery and say something about Swift, after last year happily sitting near the back of the audience reflecting on how little I knew. I hope this time I might have a few ideas to add to the discussion, but I'm wary to suggest this might be so, for as D.J. Enright says about Swift in his wonderful book, The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony, 'everything has been said already'. Of course, he offers hope to those like me, and a reason to be here today, when he points out that nonetheless 'we can scarcely not say something ' about Swift.

So here goes - Or, rather, doesn't -

Because I don't particularly want to say something about Swift. I'd like, instead, to say something about some of the people who have said something about Swift, not so much as a way of understanding them, nor to reflect on the chimera-like qualities of satire, which is a kind of glass wherein we observe every face but our own, which you knew. Rather, I'd like to consider why it is that satire, which should be occasional, can resonate through the years.

For, as the 'Dane' put it, the ironist:

"Knows only that the present does not match the idea. He is the one who must pass judgment - The ironist - has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it."

- Not Hamlet, but that other great contrarian Dane, S°ren Kierkegaard. What was offered as a definition of irony works just as well as a definition of satire.

Swift himself seems at times to conflate the two terms, as when in his verses on his death he suggests that:

Arbuthnot is no more my friend,
Who dares to irony pretend;
Which I was born to introduce,
Refined it first, and showed its use.

But either way, the interesting point, at least for me, and at least for the purposes of this talk, is the idea that the ironist 'knows only that the present does not match the idea. He is the one who must pass judgment.'

And pass judgment Swift does. Again. And again. And again. You can't miss the judgment. You can miss the proposed solution. It often is not there.

Sometimes, as in An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, a solution is implied. More often not there's just judgment. Swift perhaps knew that Dane, Hamlet, well enough to avoid the self-paralyzing connecting of the recognition of a time out of joint with the self-absorbed reflection 'O cursŔd spite that ever I was born to set it right'. But perhaps not.

In any case, it's not entirely clear Swift ever intended to set anything right. For what use an ironist when the time matches the idea?

I want to use Kierkegaard's definition of irony, which skill Swift claimed for himself, not to ask, or answer, the question: who was Swift, 'about whom everything has been said already'? but to look briefly instead at something we once knew but have largely forgotten: Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's, Dublin, might have claimed for himself the title scourge of the oppressor, vindicator of liberty - to make not too liberal a translation of his own epitaph - but he was no radical, as that towering Whig of a later generation demonstrated by 'a single fact - While [Swift's] friends were in power, we hear nothing of the grievances of Ireland; and to the last we hear nothing of its radical grievance, the oppression of its Catholic majority.' And he was right, was Francis Jeffrey, writing in 1816.

So why, irony of ironies, was Swift's reputation preserved for us for so long not by those with whom he would have claimed kinship but by those he would most have despised, the social, political, and cultural heirs of that fine Ulsterman, John Toland?

The answer lies in Kierkegaard's definition, in the fact that Swift wrote on the cusp of mercantilism and before modern economic theory was a settled discourse, and, of course, in Swift's power as a demagogue.

Mark this, though, William Hazlitt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and others knew their Swift. Knew him and used him as surely as Jeffrey did in another cause. Used Swift as they saw fit, and did not let that bother them one bit. It was not a trait confined to a particular period of the nineteenth century.

Listen to these words:

"He had a horror of state tyranny and - an uncanny presentiment of totalitarianism and all the torture it would brand on body and mind - He knew what crawling self-seekers politicians could be, but he knew too that politics was concerned with the great question of the rich and the poor."

Perhaps it is that last qualifier which gives away that these are the words of a man whose wit and learning - in both the classic and the modern sense - offer a stark reminder of their absence among so many of his ilk, the former leader of the British Labour Party, Michael Foot, always a champion of socialism and of personal dignity, a shining rebuke to those who would conflate socialism with tyranny. A man who offers the most resounding defence of Jonathan Swift I have ever read.

Foot, in this same essay, dismisses Jeffrey's attack on Swift as a 'brilliant libel'. But the passion of Foot's defense still leaves unanswered the great question: how did the radicals see in Swift what they saw?

Well, one answer, Foot suggests, is found in Sir Herbert Grierson's account of Byron's publication of Don Juan, for, as Byron had said in Canto III, 'words are things'. And, says Grierson:

"Milton and Swift are the only other Englishmen of Letters whose writings have been not only literary works but deeds - Swift was a pamphleteer, but his pamphlets ended a European war and shook the government of Ireland, and it was not the satire alone which did so but the personality, the fearless pride and strength of the man who launched them."

I'm not sure Swift's pamphlets did achieve any such political results, but, as Grierson says, they accomplished something far more important than that; they suggested words and actions are potentially commensurate.

It was this which inspired Byron, Hazlitt, and, later, of course, George Orwell, to claim Swift for their camp: these writers who were, or dreamed of being, men of action.

But while the motive for the radicals' adoption of Swift as a mascot might be clear, the means was surprisingly uncomplicated for a man who had a coherent center, one that was conservative not reactionary, principled but occasional. Hardly a centre of gravity conducive to radical sympathies, except that Swift was most certainly opposed to what today we call the establishment, at least the establishment post-1714, opposed to what William Cobbett called 'the Thing'.

The 'Thing' was the political idea of the time in which he lived, manifested in economic and political restructuring that Swift was unwilling to condone and unable to collaborate with. The present did not match the idea. Which is exactly the claim that Byron, Hazlitt, and their ilk wished also to make.

Here is Byron on the death of Castlereagh:

"Of the manner of his death little need be said, except that if a poor radical - had cut his throat, he would have been buried in a cross-road - In his death [Castlereagh] was necessarily one of two things by the law - a felon or a madman - and in either case no great subject for panegyric - It may at least serve as some consolation to the Nations, that their Oppressors are not happy, and in some instances judge so justly of their own actions as to anticipate the sentence of mankind."

Hardly more temperate that Swift of Chief Justice Whitshed who had 'libertas & natale Solum [liberty and my native country] written as a Motto on his Coach, as it stood at the Door of the Court, while he was perjuring himself to betray both.'

Swift had a point of view and he expressed it, even when decorum might have suggested otherwise. It is hard for the dedicated oppositionist not to admire that trait in another.

But the sympathy of the radicals for Swift was not simply about my enemy's enemy being my friend. There is another matter: language changes, ideas change. And in those changes lies the opportunity for misreading, whether intentional or not.

On 25 August 1816, that most appropriately named journal, The Examiner, published a letter from William Hazlitt on the subject, supposedly, of Edmund Burke and the ignorance of the world: 'One reason we do not grow wiser,' Hazlitt cautioned, 'is that we forget what we have learned.' Burke might well have read Gulliver's Travels, Hazlitt conceded, but when he pointed out that ' "if the poor were to cut the throats of the rich, they would not get a meal more for it" he seems not to have recollected what that very popular Author says on the subject.' Which author was Swift, whose sixth chapter of the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms, Hazlitt writes, 'may show that Swift's Toryism did not, like Mr Burke's Anti-Jacobinism, deprive him of common sense.'

Hazlitt knew his man. Knew at least his politics, was 'even prepared to forgive him for being a Tory'. But I don't think Hazlitt spotted a greater paradigm shift than the possibility that a Tory might retain his common sense.

The passage Hazlitt has in mind is that wherein 'my master was yet wholly at a loss to understand what motives could incite this race of lawyers to perplex, disquiet, and weary themselves by engaging in a confederacy of injustice'.

Gulliver goes on to observe that:

"England (the dear place of my nativity) was computed to produce three times the quantity of food more than its inhabitants are able to consume - and the same proportion in every other convenience of life. But in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, from whence in return we brought the materials of disease, folly, and vice - Hence it follows of necessity, that vast numbers of our people are compelled to - beg, rob, steal, cheat, pimp, forswear, flatter, suborn, forge, game, lie, fawn, hector, vote, scribble, star-gaze, poison, whore, cant, libel - and the like."

Which may well sound like the sort of argument heard outside the halls of wherever the WTO last met, a damning counter-argument to the rational economics of the Chicago School. But it is not. This is not the argument Swift was making.

And radicals of almost every generation since Swift, from William Godwin to Michael Foot, have taken advantage of the language and have ignored the intent, whether deliberately or not.

If he had a point of view when it came to finance and markets, Swift was a full-fledged mercantilist. Land and people were wealth, sound money a measure of them only. In modern economic parlance, Swift would have thought M0 mattered, might have considered M1 significant, but certainly would have held M2, and M3 to be chimeras of fabulists. But that's an anachronistic argument.

He did believe this: people were an asset. Labour was wealth producing and so had value. Full-employment was not just a worthy goal. It was a moral fundamental.

Swift castigated the English administration because of the effect of those policies on the Irish economy, not because of pity on behalf of those who deserved better. He was outraged not so much by the consequences of the policies as by the fact that the policies so flagrantly violated the ideas he thought should form the basis of sound government. The suffering he saw around him proved only that the present was out of synch. The anger of A Modest Proposal is so startlingly vituperative precisely because it lashes out at a polity so insane as to make the rearing and eating of babies appear logical. It wasn't the hunger that moved Swift half as much as it was the cause of the hunger. That the ideas he defended by implication had run their course and the beast slouching toward Babylon to be born would become modern economic policy was of no import to him. He knew 'only that the present did not match the idea'.

Here is not the place to consider just what exactly changed in 1688, D.W. Jones does that quite handily in his short essay 'Sequel to revolution: the economics of England's emergence as a great power'. Suffice it to say, as Jonathan Israel demonstrates exhaustively and lucidly, the Dutch Republic, whether by design or by necessity, reconceptualised the ideas of wealth, society, and property, and in 1688 England and, soon thereafter, Scotland seized hold of the experience of the new economics, if not yet fully aware of the consequences of such a wholesale rethinking of social structures.

[If any of Swift's contemporary polemicists saw it coming, by the way, it wasn't so much Bernard Mandeville, whose Fable of the Bees is as much a moral allegory as it is an economic argument, but Daniel Defoe, whose writings on political economy are badly in need of a decent modern airing.]

Swift did not understand, and did not wish to understand, the whys of the destitution and, to his mind, financial failures of his time. He simply intended to use those failures to his own ends. He knew the problem, even if he did not understand the cause of that problem.

And for the radicals of later eras this interest of Swift's in the value of labour was vital. But to understand how separate was the contemporary understanding of people such as Swift from later thinkers, it is instructive to look at what Swift's peers were saying.

Here is David Bindon arguing in 1738 that:

"It is certain, that the power and Riches of a Nation depend not upon its having Mines of Gold and Silver, but upon its having a numerous and industrious People.Č

Bindon is quite clear about the ill consequences of a supply of the former and a dearth of the latter:

"Spain and Portugal are rich in Mines - but thin of inhabitants; and the few they have are idle or luxurious: Therefore neither of them has any great Power, and the Riches their Slaves dig from the Bowels of the Earth, are yearly sent out for supporting the Idleness and luxury of their people. On the contrary, Britain and France have no Mines of Gold and Silver; but they have Multitudes of People usefully employed, and consequently are rich and powerful."

It does not matter here whether Bindon is right about wealth or power, still less whether his analysis of the causes of wealth, poverty, power are right. What matters is the clarity with which he makes his case, and the fact that this opinion was the dominant trope of the period and so the one least in need of analysis and elaboration.

Here is archbishop King in a 1721 letter to archbishop Wake in Canterbury:

"Ye South Sea [Bubble] - has surely made us miserable to the highest degree, if starving be a misery - I was of the opinion before that one Third of this City needed Charity; but [I find] that at least one Half are in this lamentable state - & the cry of the whole People is loud for Bread."

Notice how King connects speculative, stock-market capitalism with destitution.

[I should pause here for one moment, if I might, to observe how frequent is the phrase the 'whole people' in accounts of this time in the papers of King, Synge, Stearne, Brodrick, and others. Swift's use of the phrase in the fourth Drapier's letter was not some radical innovation. Nor, even, was his appending 'of Ireland' to the first two words.]

Anyway.

The political and economic ramifications of the South Sea Bubble to Irish polity were not the same as in England and Scotland, and this can perhaps be seen most clearly in the debate over the Bank of Ireland, which debate also helps demonstrate the crucial significance to modern understanding of Patrick Hyde Kelly's point that:

"The unquestioning assumption of earlier scholars that sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and early eighteenth-century writers were simply grasping with greater or lesser success after the categories which came to dominate [modern economic theories] - has given way to a realisation that there is a radical discontinuity between the two forms of discourse."

This 'radical discontinuity' was not apparent to those who later claimed Swift for their own radical agendas. It is too often overlooked today.

Two 1723 tracts from Ireland highlight the nature of that disconnect. Their titles make their premises clear, but to today's reader their arguments are shockingly at odds with their anticipated content. Viscount Molesworth offered Some Considerations for Promoting the Agriculture of Ireland and Employing the Poor. Francis Hutchinson wrote A Letter to a Member of Parliament Concerning the Imploying and Providing for the Poor. Molesworth's solution, anticipating by some considerable period Gresham's Law (if labour and wealth are co-terminous in a mercantilist analysis), was to deport any indigent labourers. Hutchinson thought this view extreme, preferring instead (vide Swift) to badge beggars, employ them upon public works, and confine them to their home parishes unless they had gainful employment elsewhere (when, presumably, they would cease to be beggars).

Swift's third Drapier's letter would be addressed to Molesworth and, in Some Arguments Against Enlarging the Power of Bishops - , Swift would describe Molesworth's Considerationsas an 'excellent discourse'.

The Londonderry MP Hercules Rowley took full advantage of the popular conception of economic reality in his Answer to a Book Entitled 'Reasons Offered for Erecting a Bank in Ireland':

"Whenever the importation of consumable commodities destroyed at home exceeds the exportation of the manufactured or unmanufactured products of any country, then it must be daily impoverished. Lessening our Importation and encouraging our manufactures would feed the hungry, clothe the naked and relieve the oppressed."

Or, as Swift put it in A Short View of the State of Ireland:

"The first cause of a Kingdom's thriving is the Fruitfulness of the Soil, to produce the Necessaries and Conveniencies of Life; not only sufficient for the Inhabitants, but for Exportation into other Countries."

In modern parlance, this is the argument of the autarkist, and Nicolai Ceaušescu's Romania and modern North Korea demonstrate the deficiencies of autarky in a contemporary setting, but precisely because the discourse of Swift's time was mercantilist not capitalist these failings were not only inconceivable but theoretically impossible. Then, as now, the failure of an economy was proof only that the idea had been inadequately applied to the problem, that the present did not match the idea. Hence, David Bindon again:

"Both [wholesale and retail drapers] are a Sort of Middle-Buyer, or what Mr Locke calls Brokers between the manufacturer and Consumer, it is, according to that great Man's Opinion, inconsistent with the public Good, to encourage their Trade, or increase their Numbers."

Bindon talked of economies dependent upon slavery - corrupt, indolent, impoverished and, more importantly, injurious to their own people. Molesworth, Hutchinson, Rowley, and Swift of the need for work, of the value of labour, not simply for its own sake but for the public good.

Recall Jeffrey's damning dismissal of Swift: 'to the last we hear nothing of [Ireland's] radical grievance, the oppression of its Catholic majority'. True, as I said, but also fundamentally wrong.

As King wrote toWake, as Swift would famously say in the fourth Drapier's letter, the 'whole people of Ireland' were an integral part of any financial analysis of Ireland. Catholic, Anglican or Dissenter, a man's production added value to society.

As the industrial revolution dawned, as cities grew, land was enclosed and the rights of the old yeoman class as imagined by William Cobbett during his Rural Rides vanished. It was no wonder the radicals found something to admire in Swift's language. [Though here I should point out that Cobbett derided Swift as 'an eccentric sort of misanthrope - and a disappointed politician of great ambition'. Which, actually, might not be too ill-considered a description of that Tory turned radical, William Cobbett himself.]

Swift shared with the likes of Hazlitt, Byron, and Shelley a remarkable ability to claim to speak on behalf of individuals in a society gone mad, while at the same time demonstrating some quite unappealing cant on the matter of particular individuals. More to the point, however, later radical writers recognised a fellow stylist and polemicist of great accomplishment when they saw one, and - here's the rub - gleefully presumed that although his sentiments and motives might have been unbecoming, the argument still sounded, even resounded, for was it not Swift who had pointed out that the 'question is whether People ought to be Slaves or no'? That he asked this question in defence of the right of the Church of Ireland Convocation to meet, presumably to seek to undo social and political changes he saw as inimicable to preserving the power of the church, did not matter.

This sentiment could be co-opted, even if the cause had changed. But, then again, Hazlitt who was no friend of the established church was not shy about reflecting of catholicism that 'nothing is to be said against [it] but that it is contrary to reason and common sense'.

- You are wondering, perhaps, about the title of this talk or, at least, about the sub-title, 'the fullback's dilemma'. The explanation for that lies in these concluding thoughts: I was asked last year by the fullback of the university rugby team I coached, a propos of what, I don't know, 'was Swift a radical?' This is not an easy question to answer at the best of times, and most definitely not when you have wandered over from the pack to consult with your fullback about the possibility of catching at least the occasional high ball. But I could not quite put the question aside, perhaps not only because of its unlikely provenance.

A few days later, I mentioned to a friend and colleague, who had been a prop, that I had been taken aback by the question and its circumstances. His response, quite wisely, was that that's the problem with fullbacks, they have way too much time to think about things. Which is probably true of all of us here today.

Was Swift a radical? It might well be too complex a question for all but the fullbacks of life. But what some of the radicals saw in Swift, that we might be able to answer.

Thank you.


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