The products of the modern American public education system cannot help but gain at least a passing acquaintance with the figure of Jonathan Swift, the Hibernian master satirist who could very well be considered a spiritual predecessor to Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central fame. Swift had a keen sense of the absurd, and could easily inhabit the positions and reason of his targets, subtly turning them outward or applying them in different ways to show the absurdity of their consequences – this he did most famously in his Modest Proposal, which skewered both the cold-hearted Malthusians who believed the ‘Irish problem’ to be the result of their own shiftlessness and carnality, and those who would hear of no remedy to the problem which would deliver the slightest inconvenience to wealthy Englishmen and -women. Of course, his ‘modest proposal’ to solving the problem of Irish vagrants in England is to use them as breeding stock and slaughter the children for meat, a delicacy to be enjoyed by the English landed class – but he so deftly uses the language of the ‘political economy’ of the time that the fact that he is savaging it from within becomes apparent only once you’re well into the thick of the essay. In this, it seems, Colbert took quite a few leaves from Swift’s book in cultivating his on-screen persona.
A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels are very well-known in the English literary canon, but Swift’s life and career are perhaps not as well-known. Swift received a clerical education and became the secretary to Sir William Temple (a Whiggish nobleman in good odour with the 1688 Revolutionaries and their new King William of Orange), but desired a career in the (Anglican-affiliated) Church of Ireland, which caused a falling-out with his patron. He lived as an Anglican vicar in northern Ireland for a couple of years before reconciling with Temple and returning to his household. Here he fell devotedly in love with Esther Johnson, his young playmate and pupil during his first stay with Temple, and also began his career in writing satire.
Swift was a political satirist – although his first inclinations were toward the Whigs (following Temple, his patron), most of his better-known work (including Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal) was written after he had completed his transformation into an ardent Tory. His first and strongest inclination was always to the Church of Ireland, and by extension the Church of England with which it shared communion; for this reason he supported the Whigs and the establishmentarian William of Orange against the Catholic James II. However, when the Whigs began associating with the Dissenters and curtailing the privileges of the established Church, Swift quickly severed his links with the party to join the opposition. After the Whigs rose to power in 1714, Swift was essentially thrown out of the country and returned to Ireland in disgrace; he would not put pen back to paper for five years after that. However, even in his earliest Whig-era writings (Battle of the Books particularly), we can see the foreshadowing of his Tory turn: he sides against the intellectual fads and innovations of the elites of his time in favour of tradition and of the ancient ways of thinking and doing.
Battle of the Books pits the books of ancient thinkers (Homer, Aesop, Plato and Aristotle) against those of a set of modernist critics, joining a controversy in which his patron, Temple, asserted the centrality of the ancient authors and philosophers in Western learning against the moderns. The centerpiece is a dispute between a spider (representing the moderns – never leaving his corner of the world and spinning elaborate, mathematically and architecturally ‘ingenious’ webs out of dirt and poison) and a bee (representing the ancients – visiting many places out of curiosity and using what he finds there to create honey and wax, or ‘sweetness and light’). Aesop points out the parallels, provoking the moderns to battle; it is joined by the horrid goddess Criticism, ‘who’ (as she describes herself) ‘ha[s] deposed wit and knowledge from their empire over poetry, and advanced myself in their stead’, and who intervenes on behalf of the moderns (giving particular aid to Temple’s critics Richard Bentley and William Wotton). It is unclear who wins the battle, as the piece was left deliberately unfinished.
What is clear, however, is the critique of the contemporary mania for empiricism as a method for gaining power. The disconnected accumulation of unrelated ‘facts’ which is the project of the hyper-specialised spider is a send-up of the work of the newly formed Royal Society, and it is against their radical Baconianism and in favor of a more moderate Aristotelian approach to science that this portion of the satire is directed. Read in this way, Battle of the Books anticipates some of the critique of Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver’s lambasting of modern missteps in philosophy. The Baconian heresy that Swift rejects here is clearly descended from the nominalism of William of Ockham, with its rejection of coherent universals in favor of an addiction to disconnected particulars.
Through this critique we can gather that Swift possesses a keen sense of order, and a sense of aesthetics which will not permit place to any new form of thinking which degrades the highest aspirations of human dignity and art, as understood and championed by the Church of which he was a part. It is often difficult if not impossible for the average present-day American reader, inclined to mistakenly read ‘Tory’ as ‘conservative’ in the current sense of the word, to understand that the very same priority upon order and orthodoxy and classical thought (over-against ‘modern’ thought) which moved Swift to lampoon and castigate moderns, ‘free-thinkers’ and Dissenters, also led him to rail in undisguised outrage and bitter mockery against England’s ruling class, predatory colonialists and political economists on behalf of the degraded and exploited common people of Ireland.
When we read Drapier’s Letters, or A Modest Proposal, or Gulliver’s Travels, we are faced with a much angrier, much more direct, much more caustic Jonathan Swift than the one who penned Battle of the Books, Meditation on a Broomstick or Tale of a Tub. But there is more continuity between Swift’s first period of political writing in England and his second in Ireland than is often assumed. Swift was contemptuous of the way in which the Irishmen allowed themselves to be led into ignorance and squalor, but even more so he was indignant at the Englishmen who led them there for no other reason than their own convenience. He decried the Whig-legislated destruction of Ireland’s manufacturing sector and trade in wool, and Drapier’s Letters further exposed the use of privately-minted base coin to defraud the Irish public. The state of affairs in Ireland elicited his compassion for the widows, the orphans, the penniless and the starved; the rebellion, mass emigration and resentment amongst the Irish which the economic condition of the island portended deeply offended his love of order and his desire for political unity; and the strains of thought he knew justified this exploitation at each and every step – Malthus, Hobbes and Locke – served to whet his pique.
In the end, Swift’s later satires, pamphlets and letters nucleated an Irish national feeling. Though Swift was no friend to the Catholic Church, and showed (to say the least) no particular affection for Ireland or its people, the concern to which his Anglican conscience provoked him, and the written fruits of that concern, turned him into a seminal Irish patriot. More importantly for our purposes, Swift’s satirical writings provide a window back into Anglophone history, by which we can look at the ‘wrong steps’ made by the dominant tradition of modernism even in its infancy and by which we can re-imagine an alternate modernity bypassing those colluding ideologies of state and market which have ever served as the handmaidens of violence and fraud.