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30 Nov

The quotable Swift – is that his only relevance today?

Jonathan Swift, by Francis Bindon, oil on canvas, circa 1735.

Three and a half centuries after his birth, we’re still quoting Swift. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” was a byword in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish trade war of the 1930s, and his advice to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year” was revived after the Celtic Tiger collapsed. In these days of Brexit, both leavers and remainers quote him, perhaps pointing out that “[i]t is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom” or that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”.

While Swift might provide a quote for all seasons, some applications of his words might have enraged him. The reworking of “[r]easoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired” against religion is a case in point: Swift made the remark against freethinkers (such as the man who shared his birthday, John Toland.) Yet it would not have surprised him. Swift was as cynical about the world he lived in as he was hostile to the forces he saw stirring within it.

It may seem strange that the father of microcredit and the father of mental health care in Ireland should have been hostile to progress. Perhaps his family motto Festina Lente (Swiftly, Slowly) gives a clue. Swift saw the wisdom of the past being rejected in favour of the new philosophy (much of which we would call the new science.) All too swiftly, traditional ideas in politics, religion and society were being overturned indiscriminately.
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21 Nov

Voltaire and Swift

SIR,

I sent the other day a cargo of French dulness to my lord lieutenant. My lady Bolingbroke has taken upon herself to send you one copy of the Henriade. She is desirous to do that honour to my book; and I hope the merit of being presented to you by her hands, will be a commendation to it. However, if she has not done it already, I desire you to take one of the cargo, which is now at my lord lieutenant’s. I wish you a good hearing; if you have got it, you want nothing. I have not seen Mr. Pope this winter; but I have seen the third volume of the Miscellanea; and the more I read your works, the more I am ashamed of mine. I am, with respect, esteem, and gratitude, sir, your most humble and most obedient servant,

VOLTAIRE.

John Nichols (ed) 1801 The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, DD, Dean of St Patricks Dublin, arranged by Thomas Sheridan, Volume 12, London, p. 269.
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16 Nov

The Mindful Asking of Essential Questions

The charge of lack of progress can also be equivocal. If philosophy is the mindful asking of essential questions, perhaps there are never ready-made answers that can be encapsulated in univocal categories, hence packaged and transmitted through time, like mail handled through the post. […] No genuine philosopher can accept answers ready-made from others: this is simply the nature of the philosophical enterprise as a metaxological dialogue. This may seem to confirm the prejudice that philosophy is just sophisticated, not to say sophistical garrulousness. The deeper meaning is that each age and every individual must struggle, in the overdetermined ambiguity of the middle, to renew for itself a mindfulness of the essential questions. Nothing, not even scientific method, can stand proxy for this struggle.

William Desmond (1990) Philosophy and Its Others, Albany NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 31-2.
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