Jonathan Swift’s Views on Sacred Texts

Jonathan Swift was one of the premier voices of England during the Enlightenment. At his height, his pen was thought to be the most powerful force in England and was widely feared. An ordained Anglican minister, he became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. While he is widely known for his attacks on the political system in England, he also wrote extensively about religion. A Protestant in a Catholic country, he could not help but be affected by the competing religious systems. A Tale of a Tub explains most of Swift’s outlook on sacred texts and his views on the word of God.

Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667 and was educated at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin. He served his political apprenticeship under the Whig statesman, Sir William Temple. Swift was secretary to Sir William at Moor Park, in England from 1689 to 1699. It was here that Swift met Stella (Esther Johnson). Stella was stepdaughter to Sir William’s sister and it was to her that Swift dedicated his journals. Although they never married, Stella and Swift maintained an active correspondence; she was to become Swift’s constant muse.

Swift’s political career spanned forty years and three monarchs – Queen Anne, George I, and George II. Although he was exiled to Ireland, Swift remained a potent force. Through a series of pamphlets and circulars he undertook to explain the cause of his Irish neighbors in their struggle. A friend and contemporary of Alexander Pope, the two wrote a series of scornful and very successful reviews of those whom they considered poor writers, often writing the reviews in the same style of the authors they were lampooning. His greatest work, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), was a scathing attack on corrupt politicians, philosophers, and scam artists. In his last years, Swift was plagued with frequent attacks of vertigo. This heralded a period of mental decay. He finally died on October 19, 1745 and was buried in St. Patrick’s beside the coffin of his beloved Stella.

One of the greatest of Swift’s works is A Tale of a Tub. This was published, with The Battle of the Books in 1704. The majority of the novel is concerned with the quarrels of churches. They are represented by three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, representing Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists/Puritans respectively. The tale concerns the proper wearing of a coat given to the brothers by their now departed father. Their father has left a will explaining the proper wearing of the coat. Each brother interprets the will in a way advantageous to himself. After a time, they each devise a way of wearing it and take portions of the will out of context to justify wearing it in this way. Eventually, the brothers lock the will in a strong box and then debate the significance of the will.

Swift was attacked for his alleged “Non-Christianity” after the piece was published, but this is a misnomer. As he says in his “Apology” in later editions of the book, “we are taught by the tritest maxim in the world that Religion being the best of things, its corruptions are likely to be the worst” (63). His intention was merely to highlight the “corruptions” and not religion itself. Nowhere in the piece does Swift attack the existence of the father or that the will was written by the father. He only lampoons the sons’ misinterpretations of it. The crux of the problem is that the will does not seem to be clear enough. He is directly parodying that aspect of humanity that seizes any ambiguity in order to make the will (or Constitution or Bible or other sacred text) say whatever it is most advantageous at that moment for it to say. As Terry Castle says in his essay, “Swift, Satire, and Fear of the Text” (1980), “given its inescapably material status, every writing is a site for corruption, no matter what authority we may invest in it” (64). Swift is not, however, lamenting an unclear sacred text. Swift is lamenting the loss of the voice of God in established religions that he is parodying. He is lamenting a sacred text which, due to innumerable additions and deletions buy the hand of man, has become removed from the original source. Castle comments on this, “what has been lost in the process of transmissionâÂ?¦is not an originally pure manuscript, but truth itself, specifically located in the voice, the words of the speaker” (61).

Swift was most upset by this reliance on what has been handed down, the traditions and dogma of religion. He feels that by trusting to these religions and dogma, instead of the actual Word of God, humanity is missing the essential truths that Christianity was established to disseminate. Swift compares the religions of the world with that of the wild Indian and finds the Indian comes off better in grasping the essential truths of existence. After discussing the enthusiasm of the Indian for his religion and its attendant revealed truths, Swift turns to the religions of England.

Not so with us�[who] have discovered a gross ignorance in the natures of good or evil, and
have most horribly confounded the natures of both. Of like nature is the disquisition before us,
it hath continued�an even debate whether the deportment and cant of our enthusiastic preachers
were possession or inspiration, and a world of argument has been drained on either side, perhaps to
little purpose (Tale, 104)

One of the premier tenets of the Age of Reason was that all truth would reveal itself to a reasoned, logical investigation. Swift was lamenting the loss of basic truths of religion (the nature of good and evil) in favor of a debate whether the enthusiastic sermons of the time were God speaking directly through the preacher (possession) or were God speaking through the filter of the preacher (inspiration). Swift feels that by debating the minutiae of the preacher’s sermons, humanity has lost sight of the truths the sermons were written to reveal. This can be extended to the wrangling between the religions of Swift’s time. He feels this wrangling is similar to the debate of the source of the preacher’s enthusiasm. This is the genesis of Swift’s allegory of the squabbling brothers. Each brother is more concerned with the wearing of the coat (the forms of worship) than what the actual will says (the message of Christianity).

If the sacred texts and traditions of the church cannot be trusted, how is humanity to discover the true Word of God? In section VIII, with its tongue in cheek discussion of Aeolists and their dogmas of air, Swift describes how humanity got to this point. Starting from a postulate that air exists, the Aeolists develop an extensive dogma with their own version of angels, devils, and the afterlife. In his introduction to the volume Modern Critical Views: Jonathan Swift, Harold Bloom agrees, “Swift’s principal victims, all high priests of digression, he calls ‘the Learned Aeolists’âÂ?¦among whom he counts: ‘all pretenders to inspiration whatsoever” (3). A more explicit condemnation is contained in his “Apology”.

If the clergy’s resentments lay upon their hands, in my humble opinion,
they might have found more proper objects to employ them on� I mean those heavy, illiterate
scribblers, prostitute in their reputations, vicious in their lives, and ruined in their fortunes, who, to the
shame of good sense as well as piety, are greedily read, merely upon the strength of bold, false,
impious assertions, mixed with unmannerly reflections upon the priesthood, and openly intended
against all Religion; in short, full of such principles as are kindly received, because they are leveled to
remove those terrors that Religion tells men will be the consequence of immoral lives. (Tale 63-64)

It is in Section VIII, that Swift explains how to determine the Word of God. He utilizes the metaphor of a flayed woman to show that any philosophy looks attractive on the outside. It is in looking at the “inside” of a philosophy that ugliness arises. “The outside hath been infinitely preferable to In” (Tale 145). As Claude Rawson says in Order and Cruelty: A Reading of Swift, “the Outside looks better than the In and create inappropriate complacency” (84). The question is how to determine which Outside masks an equally attractive Inside. In his sermon, “On the Trinity,” Swift warns of those who are “zealous to bring over as many others as they can to their own opinions, because it is a comfort to have a multitude on their side” (151). Swift’s solution is to warn of self-deception and fancy.

When a man’s fancy gets astride his reasonâÂ?¦common understanding, as well as common sense is
kicked out the doors, the first proselyte he makes is himself and when that is once compassed, the
difficulty is not so great in bringing over others.�for cant and vision are to the ear and to the eye, the
same that tickling is to touch. (Tale 143)

Swift never specifically explains how to see the truth. He only suggests that common sense should be our guide (A key philosophy of The Enlightenment) when determining if a philosophy makes sense. A false philosophy, he promises, will tickle our ear and eye, should we care to pay attention. To use Swift’s own words from the conclusion of A Tale of the Tub, “as to the business of being profound, thatâÂ?¦as with wells; a person with good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest provided any water be there” (163). He also warns that, “often when there is nothing in the world at the bottomâÂ?¦it shall passâÂ?¦upon no wiser a reason than because it is wondrous dark” (163).

Finally, this leads to the question of whether or not corruption of sacred text is inevitable. Is it an inevitable consequence of humanity’s search for the word of God? Swift’s answer is yes. He says this is implicit in human makeup. As Claude Rawson says in his critique, “The Character of Swift’s Satire” (1983), “Swift realizes that sectarianism and free thinking arise not solely out of moral badness, but also out of an innate mental perversity that is a psychological feature of the human condition”
(30).

In order to return to the true word of God, Swift does not advocate, as the Methodist representation in Tub does, going back to the sacred texts. The text is flawed. The hand and mind of man have corrupted it. The Aeolists have taken it and have used it to justify their spurious dogma. Ultimately, he agrees with his friend and contemporary Alexander Pope, “For modes of Faith let graceless zealots fight/his can’t be wrong, whose life is in the right” (III 303-306).

True to his Enlightenment background, Swift believes the Word of God is self-evident. It will reveal itself to a thoughtful search. Simply adopting the text wholesale is not sufficient. Swift feels that humanity must use the gift of Reason to discover the truth. He contends that the Word of God is self evident. It is not contained in Aeolist rites and rituals, it is in the heart and reasoned mind of Man.

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