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

The quotable Swift – is that his only relevance today?

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.

Illustration from Swift's Battle of the Books (1705), showing the ancient authors doing battle with the moderns, while a spider and a bee argue in a corner above the scene
Illustration from Swift’s Battle of the Books (1705), showing the ancient authors doing battle with the moderns.
Wikipedia, Public Domain
Swift’s early Battle of the Books (1704) supports his mentor Sir William Temple in the championing of the value of ancient over modern authors. The satire describes a war between the books of modern authors, who want to sweep away the elevation on which the ancient writings (ie the Greek and Roman classics) stand blocking their view, and the great battle the books have in the Kings Library. Just as the battle lines are drawn, over their heads a bee escapes a web and debates with the spider who should have the greater standing. Is it the bee, who has no home but roves the fields for nectar, or the spider who (“to show my improvements in the mathematics”) has built his castle with nothing but the materials from his own body? The bee retorts that in fact the spider only produces anything though eating up insects (like the bee), and its products are only excrement and venom, unlike the honey and wax produced by the bees “long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things.”

Below, Æsop of the ancients draws the parallel to the quarrel of the book. The spider is the exemplar of the moderns, who proclaim they have no debt to the past, while in fact they feed on it, using it to create fantastic constructions displaying “great skill in architecture and improvement in the mathematics” but ultimately as fragile and impermanent as a web.

While Swift included the likes of Harvey and Gassendi in the ranks of the moderns, he doesn’t mention Newton, who is a problem for his criticism. Can Newton really be said to be simply regurgitating the ancients or ignoring nature? Will his work really dissolve like a web? Swift address this question satirically in part three of Gulliver’s Travels describing his voyage to the floating island of Laputa and the country it floats over, Balnibarbi.

This chapter contains many sly references to Britain and Ireland: for example, the rebel city that defies the rulers in Laputa is Lindalino (Double-lin or Dublin). Laputa is a centre for the “new philosophy” and is scientifically advanced: they have discovered Mars has two moons, for example. However, the knowledge they have isn’t of practical use and the scientists themselves lack common sense. The situation is far worse in Balnibarbi, however. Under the influence of the Academy of Projectors (enthusiasts for Laputian learning, who have little real knowledge of it), project after project aimed at improving agriculture, productivity and manufacturing is tried out. Each fails, only to be replaced with a new scheme, resulting in the whole land lying waste (except where the “old ways” based on long practice are still used.)

This is a satire on real life Projectors, the creators or planners of political, social, financial or scientific schemes. The Hartlib Circle, which contained a large number of members associated with Ireland, floated projects to be applied to Ireland. One member, William Petty, memorably suggested transplanting large numbers of Irish to England, and vice versa (pp. 12-3): an example perhaps of why Charles II accused him of “ayming at impossible things”.

From the perspective of the first half of the 18th century, this take was not unreasonable. A large proportion of early agricultural innovations failed, for example. But not all and clearly from our perspective, after the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, many innovations were very successful. Swift could not ignore the pointed question of successful innovation, and his reply came in his most sharp-edged satire, A Modest Proposal (1729).

Sculpture of an ogre devouring a baby.
Detail of the Ogre Fountain in Berne, Switzerland
Andrew Bossi/Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA-2.5)
A Modest Proposal reads like a pamphlet written by a projector, including information from other countries and analysis of costs and benefits. It is calm and scientific in tone. In fact, it bears a striking similarity to the writings of Sir William Petty. There is no indication that, like the foolish schemes of the Academy of Projectors in Balnibarbi, that it would fail. The problem is that, if it succeeds, it is even more horrific than the Balnibarbian failures.

That is Swift’s point. In his Proposal, the emotional and moral is sacrificed to the economic, without acknowledgement. The question of what it would be like to systematically kill your child every year doesn’t enter into the equation. There is unacknowledged costs in the theoretical scheme, just as there as unacknowledged consumption by the spider.

This broadly conservative stance led Yeats to link Burke and Swift against “A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind”. However, while Burke highlighted that ideological pursuit of freedom could cost people real freedom, Swift’s argument is wider: schemes based on theory may be aimed at helping people, but may hurt people instead. There is a need to move from the theoretical into the practical, and into lived experience. Does the scheme that improves the economy turn people into mere units to be consumed (in the case of the Modest Proposal, literally)? Does everyone win? If not, what happens to the losers? Is a benefit to be felt in decades time worth the suffering felt now? To determine this takes the wisdom of the bee: “long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things.”

We are told that the Chairman of an Irish company once said (in a line worth of Swift), “That works very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?” Swift warns us that too often, the theory comes first and the practice is disregarded, a warning still as relevant today as any of his quotes.

Jonathan Swift, by Francis Bindon, oil on canvas, circa 1735. Featured Image: Jonathan Swift
by Francis Bindon, c. 1735. NPG 5319
© National Portrait Gallery, London.

Further Watching and Listening

RTE Nationwide – Swift’s Dublin (22/11/2017) on RTE iPlayer (video)

BBC Radio Four: In Our Time – Swift’s Modest Proposal (podcast)

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