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Jonathan Swift Essay, Research Paper

Jonathan Swift: An Enlightenment for the Masses

In an age of where rationality and morals were held to the accepted values, Jonathan Swift stood out as a champion of humanism. All his life he attacked pretense and begged people to see that life is not always what it seems when you look harder and think deeper. In addition, Swift was one of the most powerful writers of his time; able to rally people and nations around the caustic and moral views expressed in his works. His political writings for the Tories exposed the corruptions of government and paved the way for his acclaimed satires. Swift’s great strength lied in impressing people into believing his ideals without blatantly professing them or becoming preachy.

Swift was raised in Dublin, and was schooled well despite getting just average grades. After getting a job as a secretary, he moved on to being a priest in Ireland. By this time, Swift was already approaching thirty, but still had not published anything of much worth. His years of reading in the church libraries and his growing acute eye for the vices of society were honed at this time, and his great works were about to come.

Swift had the power to easily implement new ideas and insights into people with his writings. A great satirist has explicit convictions about right and wrong, but he must be able to make these convictions sound convincing in words. Swift had a sharp perception into the delusions and hopes of people’s everyday lives, so he often filtered his ideas through characters and tales that were easy for common people to relate to. When we read Gulliver’s Travels, it almost seems like a straightforward adventure story, filled with tales of new creatures and distant countries. On further inspection, it can be seen as a biting satire on society, an attack on the Whigs, or a tale of the foolishness of human nature.

Swift’s genius lies in the way he weaves his satirical motives into stories like Gulliver’s Travels indirectly. We do not merely agree with the moral evaluations implied; we have lived, in our imaginations, through a moral experience (Williams 4). Swift doesn’t simply tell us his beliefs; he makes the reader sort it out through the context of the story. By placing his ideas and morals upon other characters, Swift himself stands distant from these scenes he writes about. In doing so, he artistically, yet implicitly, defines the interval between the normal and the absurd. We attain normality by guarding against pride, and this we could do easily by observing the distorted figures in comedy and satire (Quintana 39).

An example where Swift uses his satire in a crafty, implicit way is in one of his first major works, A Tale of A Tub. The book is about exposing the corruption and abuses of religion at the time. In section VI of the book, Swift takes the form of an earnest storyteller but in fact he is telling the history of the major Christian Churches. The three main characters are obviously personas for the three main churches at the time. There is Peter, who in truth represents the Roman Catholic Church; Martin, who is named after the Protestant/Lutheran/Anglican Church; and Jack, who is named after Calvinism and the other nonconformist Christian religions. Swift, as the narrator, is asserting to be telling this story just like it happened, and not drawing any conclusions or seeing any symbolism. The actions of the three brothers, however, are in direct reference to the actions of the church.

In this story, the will (which represents the gospel) left by the father of the brothers instructs them not to decorate their plain coats that they wear. Over time, Peter, the eldest and leader of the brothers, ornaments and adds layers of embroidery over the coat. This is a sly reference to the way Christian religions have gotten increasingly worldly over the years. For example, they were having lavish ceremonies, selling indulgences, and becoming more and more involved in political and government matters. The story continues by saying that Jack becomes furious with the new flashy coat and tears off all the decorations on it, ripping off most of the original fabric as well. This symbolizes the Calvinist break from the Christian Church, but it also represents the destruction of necessary and rudimental Catholic beliefs and practices (the fabric being destroyed). Martin is shown as being very sedate and reserved, and his resistance to follow anything infuriates Jack to a point where he leaves the house and is later reported to be in the mental home. Swift is making fun of how Anglicans are strictly middle of the road, not willing to do anything. Martin is dull compared to his two brothers, who are more extremist in nature. The notion of Jack going crazy is Swift laughing at the pomposity and stupidity of Calvinism. In general, Swift is mocking all the Christian religions, indirectly showing the limits of each religion in a masterful way.

Swift’s personal ethics were now fully developed after the satirical writing found in A Tale of a Tub. He is notoriously known for his constant indictments on human life, nature and society. It was well known that Swift despised the rationalism that people had in his time, because people’s feelings and instincts were mostly made up of “innate ideas” and other moral “ideas” from past philosophers. With all ideas coming from the senses, how do we develop ideas of [what is really] good and evil? (Gilbert 7) is the question Swift is basically asking.

There are many times when Swift clearly states that man is a selfish, incurable creature. He believes even the good natured human beings get eaten away by corruption like iron eventually gets eaten away by rust: “So with every form and scheme of government than Man can invent, some vice, or corruption creeps in with the very institution, which grows up along with, and at last destroys it.” (Gilbert 13).

The tension in Swift’s thinking results from his admiration of the noble and the great, who act for principle against interest, and from his distaste for the neglect of one’s own well-being or the well-being of society (Gilbert 27). As he writes in A Tale of a Tub: “But the self-love of some men inclines them to please others; and the self love of others is wholly employed in pleasing themselves. This makes the distinction between virtue and vice”. This would prove to be one of his main ideals that he kept his whole life.

Swift would reiterate this notion that virtue lies in public action throughout his career. To Swift, virtue in a man equaled someone who was publicly spirited, unselfish, and courageous. During one of his sermons at mass, he tells how the Christian teaching of “love thy neighbor” really means to “love the public”. He continues to say that this love is “a duty to which we are more strictly obliged than even that of loving ourselves” (Gilbert 40). His devotion to promote this ideal of his is extraordinary.

Swift goes on to denounce the zealots and clergymen in religion for regarding only their own interests by saying: “no opinions are maintained with so much obstinacy as those in religion, especially by such Zealots who never bore the least regard to religion, conscience, honour, justice, Truth, Mercy, or common morality, farther than in outward appearance; under the mask of hypocrisy, to promote their diabolic designs.” (Gilbert 23).

Even for a government, Swift believed once again that only people who rule with a public interest should be elected into a government office. He also believed in Locke’s principle that people have the right to be governed only by laws to which they consent to (Gilbert 90). Swift makes another interesting point about men in an early pamphlet of his: “When bounds are set to men’s desires, after they have acquired as much as the laws will permit them, their private interest is at an end; and they have nothing to do, but to take care of the public” (Gilbert 86). He is declaring how people will be more likely to be patriots for the public good when they have no more self interest left to gain. It is this self-interest that Swift loathed mostly about men.

Although many people dismiss Swift as an utter pessimist who had no regard for human goodness at all, not many know of Swift’s zeal for finding good-natured, virtuous people. “Swift loved merit wherever he found it, and never seemed more delighted, than when he could draw it out from obscurity, into an advantageous light, and exalt it there.”(Gilbert 37).

In 1710, Tory ministers recruited Swift to write for them. The Tories realized that their control of the country depended upon how well the presented their case to the public and the government. There was no better man for this job than Jonathan Swift. His four years writing with the Tories were extremely prolific, but very representative of the era, and that era only.

His first political writing job was a column for the Examiner newspaper. For this column, he wrote Tory propaganda that reproached the Whigs and boasted the merits of his party. Swift’s writings were energetic and powerful statements of purpose that made the Whigs seem like hypocrites, while he still retained an aura that the piece was being written from a neutral point of view. This apparent neutral standing gave his ideas more substance, as he sounded like he had been convinced that the Tories were naturally superior.

Although Swift was publishing his articles anonymously, he became well- known around England’s courts and social circles. Discovering this influence, he influenced some London printers and showed off his affection for helping the poor and needy by arranging special care for people in need.

Swift greatest challenge to date came in 1711 when he was asked to write The Conduct of the Allies. This pamphlet was a carefully planned piece of government propaganda that persuaded people to rally for peace with France and to avoid war. Swift now had to speak for the country of England in this critical issue. The pamphlet turned out to be a huge success, as it sold nearly 20,000 copies. People enjoyed it’s confident and comprehensive demand for peace, and rallied behind the anonymous author (Swift) of it. This work took the Whigs by surprise, as they demanded to know who wrote this while they struggled to defend their case for war. While Swift was nervous for a bit, he was able to elude the Whig witch-hunt for him. Swift continued to write many more anonymous pamphlets that derided the Whigs harshly while protecting himself from certain hostility and backlash. This was Swift’s most productive and demanding writing period and it made him a well-known writer throughout the country despite his attempts to cover himself up in anonymity. Although many of these writing have no relevance today, they were extremely important when they were written. Swift showed he could write for nearly any occasion: under pressure, without exclusive control over the work, for the country, for the Tories and so on. The exceptional thing is that Swift did it all very convincingly and powerfully, like each style was his forte.

Swift returned to Ireland after his writings for the Tories, and began work on his most popular works. At this time, a financial businessman named William Wood secured a patent for coining money for the Irish economy. Outcry and protests came from everywhere. Swift responded to this by writing a series of letters (later to be called The Drapier Letters), each to a different hierarchy of Ireland, that denounced Wood’s coining as well as stirring up a strong, sorely-needed sense of nationalism by making the British out to be the enemies. Although Ireland was facing some tough times, Swift helped keep the public at bay, encouraging them to look at what was going on. After Wood’s patent was revoked, Swift began work on his most popular work, Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver’s Travels is essentially a satire on the contradictions that occurred in the current English politics of the time. Gulliver is trying to justify these political ideas to the people that he meets on distant islands and the results are rather embarrassing for him. The book can also be seen as a parody on the pretensions of the literary travel/adventure genre, which was very popular at the time. The most extraordinary aspect of the book is the tension between its structural simplicity and its thematic ambiguity (McMinn 120). Critics still argue how to interpret the novel while many people read it just for the pleasure of the stories. After his two most famous works, Swift began a spiral into desolation in his later life.

The final years of Swift’s life were very depressing. He appeared less and less in public and many of his friends passed away. He constantly grew mentally and physically weaker, and upon his imminent death he was a bitter and cold man. His quiet latter years cannot disguise the impact of his extensive body of work, which had enormous effect in its present time and is still read today. His works remain popular satires, but they also make for amusing and entertaining stories when the context of the satire is detached. Many people today enjoy and look at Gulliver’s Travels as a story for children, while many critics are still analyzing its many satirical implications. The many ways Swift’s works can be still read and interpreted is another tribute to his accomplished writing style and form.

Jonathan Swift spent his life exposing the corruption and the charlatans of society, but he did it in such an artistic and powerful way, that his works and thoughts are still imbedded in many people’s minds today. Swift is a satirist who compels us, by the complexity and indirection of his ironic methods, to be alert and aware at every point (Williams 5). Ultimately, Swift’s greatness lies in his skill to make us think and feel for ourselves in new ways.


1. Cook, Richard. Jonathan Swift as a Tory Pamphleteer. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1967.

2. Gilbert, Jack. Jonathan Swift: Romantic and Cynic Moralist. Austin : University of Texas Press. 1966.

3. Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1967.

4. McMinn, Joseph. Jonathan Swift: A Literary life. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1991.

5. Quintana, Ricardo. Jonathan Swift: An Introduction. London : Oxford University Press. 1955.

6. Williams, Kathleen. Jonathan Swift. New York: Humanities Press. 1968.

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