Mrs. X
Honors 12
3 February 1997
Jonathan Swift: Misguided and Incorrect Criticisms
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is quite possibly the greatest satirist in the history of English literature, and is without question the most controversial. Infuriated by the moral degradation of society in the eighteenth century, Swift wrote a plethora of bitter pieces attacking man's excessive pride, and the critical reception has been one of very mixed reviews. While few question Swift's skill as a satirist, his savage, merciless attacks on the foibles of mankind have led more than one critic to level negative accusations against him. His beliefs have led to allegations of heresy, an anti-government attitude and a devotion to freeing man's right to passion. His most famous work, Gulliver's Travels, has resulted in attacks on his writing style, and his cruel, invidious assaults on sin have led to cries of egotist, misanthrope and sadist. Every one of these accusations is false. Jonathan Swift's critics are misguided and incorrect in their attacks on his beliefs and writings.
Jonathan Swift is falsely accused of heresy for attacking human life. Swift infuriates some critics for criticizing something that they feel must be divine since it is the chief instrument of God. These critics argue that human nature must be dignified if it is the key theme of Christianity. They, however, are wrong, and are guilty of being naive. Swift and his supporters counter their attacks by pointing out that it is hypocritical of them to revere such vices as corruption, greed, and immortality, and these critics need to take a serious look at this (Knowles 34-35). Swift himself has answered these charges of heresy, explaining that he has never been anti-Christian and only disagrees with the concept of original sin. Throughout his life and in his writings, Jonathan Swift has always been a devout man of religion (Tuveson 103, 3).
Critics falsely claim that Jonathan Swift sees God as much too great for humans (Dennis 58). Swift's writings prove that he has always been a firm believer that only God and Christ are capable of absolute moral perfection, but he also strongly believes that man is definitely capable of shortening the gap (Tuveson 129). Swift has said that he normally has no belief in theories or systems, due to the fact that they are driven by man and therefore cannot operate perfectly. Christianity, he feels, is an exception to this rule, because the system guides man just as man guides the system (Bloom, Swift 15). This belief also counters the allegations of heresy.
Jonathan Swift has often falsely been accused of being anti-government. One of Swift's many attackers, Leslie Stephen, assails him for tracing "every existing evil to the impostures and corruptions . . . of government" (Bloom, Gulliver 33). While parts one, two and three of Gulliver's Travels are written partially as attacks on the Whigs, Swift only does so because of his allegiance with the Tories, an opposing party. It is a grim portrayal of officials, and Swift's supporters believe it is an accurate one (Knowles 33-34). It is written out of a hope for change, however, not of hate. Swift makes it clear that he is not opposed to government, and he looks down upon radicals and firmly supports government and "established institutions" (Tuveson 5). Swift is an incredibly moral man, and would never believe that government could be a truly moral body. Nevertheless, he feels it can encourage virtue among its people, even if that is not its actual motive (Bloom, Swift 14). Swift sees a necessity for government if man is to ever realize good sensibility. With the help of government, people can be pushed in the direction of good sense through rules and regulations and eventually, after being forced to act wisely over and over, be able to make good decisions on their own (Tuveson 11).
Critics have claimed that Swift's chief goal is to free the world of passion. This is not the case, as a passionless society would render Swift incapable of satire, and he realizes this (Ward 6). Swift only wants man to realize that he is made up of two parts: passion and good sense (Knowles 36). Swift believes, as Kathleen Williams points out, that man's "mind and body are at odds