English satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Ireland of English parents. He was educated in Dublin but before he could fix on a career, the troubles that followed upon the subsequent invasion of Ireland drove Swift with the other Anglo-Irish to England. During these years, Swift read widely and discovered his astonishing gift as a satirist (Abrams 1976).
For the rest of his life, Swift devoted his talents to politics and religion – not clearly separated at the time, and most of his works were written to further a specific cause (Abrams 1976). In 1714, he returned to Ireland, became identified with the Irish life, and through such brilliant pamphlets as Drapier Letters and A Modest Proposal (1729), became virtually a ‘national hero’ (Hornstein et al 504).
Ireland suffered from a number of social, political and religious crises that time when Swift reached a clear sense of his genius; famine, over-population, Irish’ materialism to English goods, Protestant’s suppression of Catholics over estate ownership and the Irish government being filled by English appointees resulting to irresolution and inaction of the gripping condition.
Swift who saw the Irish suffering for its cause collaborated with his contemporaries for whom he established a good friendship. In a letter to Alexander Pope, he declared himself a misanthrope; a hater of mankind.
He opposed to the prevailing definition of man as a rational animal and offered his new definition of man as simply an animal capable of reason (Abrams 1978). He antagonised the optimistic view of human nature being essentially good and proclaimed it to be deeply and permanently flawed unless humanity would learn to recognize its moral and intellectual limitation.
ANALYSIS: The Misanthrope Mind
Jonathan Swift intended his works to be an absolute savage attack upon man and his institutions. His most celebrated works Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal expressed that personal indignation with moments of comedy and light-heartedness, though both written as much to reform the readers and satirize issues.
Swift was a man of the Age of Reason; however, he used his reasoning to oppose the people’s overindulgence to reason so as to let it dictate all courses of human life – thus advocating to the Restoration of the 18th century.
In Gulliver’s Travels, he made fun of the English society by using satirical symbols that represent the crooked civility of the time.
Gulliver observed the shrunken humanity through the Lilliputians who have shrunken concerns. For example, in Lilliput, candidates for public office go through their fantastic acrobatic rope and stick dances in order to obtain appointment and hold office. “Whoever jumps the highest succeeds while the chief ministers are commanded to show their skill to convince the Emperor that they have not lost their faculty” (Swift Part I Chapter IV p38).
It must be noted though that the author’s “greatest disappointment was his failure to become a bishop in England” (Hornstein et al 504). The system of favoring those of nobler descent in appointing for office seat must have influenced the Lilliputians’ ridiculous and circus political system.
On Part I Chapter 7, p 74-75, 77, after the court declared Gulliver’s cruel execution, he tells the readers of “his Majesty giving many marks of his great lenity and ….mercy for which he was so justly celebrated”. Swift was obviously satirizing the sweet words of those in power to cloak their evil deeds.
An interesting angle could as well be derived from the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Both states were prosperous and have enough to supply the citizens’ needs. Yet they did not live in peace with each other. In fact, when Gulliver learned of the plan to accuse him of high treason, he made an escape to Blefuscu where he was received (his exile from England to Ireland satirized).
In exact contrary to his travel to Lilliput was his voyage to Brobdingnag – the land of giants wherein all of human flaws are magnified. There he realized that a human characteristic, whether physical or by manner, becomes ‘ugly’ when put to scale. The King, who prided on his ability at arithmetic, was a calculating leader who objected the knowledge on navigation, music, military affairs, laws and politics. Yet, upon Gulliver’s account of his country, remarked a conclusion of Gulliver’s “natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth” (Swift Part II Chapter VI, p147). This is a serious, direct last to the English society.
Then Gulliver led us to a meeting with the Houyhnhnms – a horse race of the most rational mind and ideals who employ the Yahoos – human brutes who are incapable of reason and are therefore employed as animals (Gale 370). The Houyhnhnms were considered to be the wisest of all creatures and taught Gulliver the notion on truth and falsehood.
The Master Houyhnhnm argued that “the use of speech was to make us understand one another and to receive information of facts” (Swift Part IV Chapter IV p273). Lying then defeats the purpose of speech. Given this, Gulliver accounted the Houyhnhnms or horses in his country, being tamed and trained from young years through cruel beating, in order to make a good tamed horse for the Yahoos (humans). He as well described how the horses are castrated in order to ‘hinder them from propagating their kind’ (Swift Part IV Chapter IV p 275). This savagery appalled the Houyhnhnm saying that in their country; even the Yahoos were less cruelly treated.
This intellectual interaction between Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms could be a parody between Swift and the Enlightenment proponents. With the transcendentalists being too logical and ideal, learned of their flaws through the principle of truth and logic.
But Swift’s most savage satire came out in 1729 with the pamphlet – A Modest Proposal. After almost two decades of constant battle against the English oppression towards the Irish Catholics with futility, he resolved to side with the English in a proposal any reader will be caught unprepared; the English to devour Irish children.
He was angry with the English absentee landowners who bleed the Irish of everything they have leaving the Catholic peasants of Ireland hungry and hopeless. He was angry with the Parliament and the English aristocrats who see these impoverished as eye-sores in the street. The proponent, who appears to be naïve yet logical and kind, devised a superb plan to lessen the filthy population of the Papists and increase economic gain.
Swift pointed the following as causes of the Irish poverty; the inability of the parents to provide their children with their needs, the attitude of the English aristocrats towards these unfortunate people, the government’s failure of providing a substantial solution to these problems and the uncontrollable population of papists that tend to have the largest families.
Yet, the savagery that Swift presented in the pamphlet established a more grave argument and thus, only made the whole proposition more compelling.
This made Swift a hero to the Irish, the official defender of the oppressed Ireland.
However, much to his skeletal chagrin, Gulliver’s Travels TODAY is read with delight by children who are enchanted by its imaginative tales about strange creatures rather than its satire for which it was written for. In fact, instead of an adult audience, today’s children know more about this satire because of the prolific distribution of its cartoon version. While A Modest Proposal will remain an isolated commodity for import, appreciated solely as the first and finest of the satire only a master like Jonathan Swift could deliver.
Jonathan Swift is an example of a writer that we cannot study in isolation from the social, political and religious events of his time. First, his only goal as a writer is to advance his social, political and religious ideologies. Second, he himself is a parody of his time. Like what Immanuel Kant observed that though his age was an Age of Enlightenment, it was not an enlightened age at all (Gay 53). Thus, Swift used his genius, not to support the ideology in vogue, but to challenge the lack or excess of logic in all of human activities.
In his characters in Gulliver’s Travels, he implied that humans in whatever form, whether Lilliputian, giant, horse or brute – are all flawed. Lilliputians with their shrunken ways of doing things, the giants in their misplaced vanities, the horses’ superfluous rationality on everything and the brutes’ incapability to reason – all described humanity as essentially imperfect.
After reading his works, a momentary analysis may let us believe we have penetrated the mind of the genius. But after some moments of careful thinking, it feels futile to even try. Indeed, only after a repeated reading will a contemporary reader reaches maturity and learns to appreciate this greatest satire in literary history.