Jonathan Swift and the Idea of Satire

The term “satire” comes down to us from the Classical Greek word for “satyr drama.” The best example of a surviving satyr play from is Euripides’s Cyclops, and though we moderns have a limited perspective on these tetralogical comedies, we believe they originated from Dionysian drunken revelries, and that they once concluded a series of high tragic performances. After the death of Hellenism, the Greek word for “satyr” was converted into Latin as “satura/satira” meaning something akin to a “poetic medley.” Of course, the great Latin satirists were Juvenal, Horace, and Persius, and their poetic medleys continued the tradition of Bacchic revelry. In contrast, a modern satire, makes painfully explicit the distinctions between serious and ridiculous things. It often employs the use of comedy to bring ideology to its absurdist conclusions. Satire brings to light the goodness and badness of things in an obvious manner. Thus, understanding the authorial intent of a satire is critically important to its vitality.

One the surface, Gulliver’s Travels is Jonathan Swift’s absurdist satire of the picaresque and survivalist novel genres, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published only seven years prior. On a much deeper level, however, Jonathan Swift -the former Whig turned Tory and High Churchman- makes explicit the quarrel between ancients and moderns. Swift reveals his greater purpose in his first published work, the Tale of a Tub in 1704. In it, Swift claims to explain the origins of a common expression using the imagery of whalers who, when coming upon a whale in the ocean, suddenly cast a tub overboard as a distraction for the whale. However, we know there is no common phrase about casting a tub over the side of a ship. Instead, Swift is drawing swords with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. The ship is a metaphor for the commonwealth, and the whale is a metaphor for Hobbes’s political philosophy. In casting a tub overboard as a distraction, Swift sees himself as a defender of the church and state, against the amoral, materialistic, and atheistic philosophy of Hobbes and other moderns, who are burdensome and troublesome with their heavy philosophy.

Swift also includes an amusing essay in most editions as an introduction to the Tale of a Tub called “The Battle of the Books.” In it, Swift makes light of the quarrel between ancient and modern literature, with the books, themselves, coming to life and battling one another corporeally. Of course, the whole plot is set within a mock ancient heroic battle. So, the very idea of a ‘battle of the books’ is ancient in origin. Try as they might, the moderns cannot emancipate themselves from the foundation of classical antiquity.

At any rate, Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, takes up his defense of the church and the ancients in Gulliver’s Travels. Whereas Hobbes is a partisan in favor of the moderns, Swift comes to light as a defender of the ancients, much like his friend William Temple, who engaged in a famous public debate in the early 18th century between ancient and modern literature.

Allan Bloom, in his masterful essay on Swift, posits that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the last books to engage in this quarrel between ancients and moderns. Today, the quarrel is popularly believed to be settled. In an annotated book featuring his conversations and interviews, Seth Bernardette also suggests the whole of Bloom’s reading of Gulliver’s Travels is taken from Leo Strauss, namely that Book I of Gulliver’s Travels is modern political practice, Book II is ancient political practice, Book III is modern philosophy or theory, and Book IV is ancient Utopian political philosophy. In all cases, Gulliver eagerly returns home, only to venture forth again, neglecting his wife, and children to satisfy his inquisitive mind.

The novel is filled with esoteric and indecent jokes. Everything from from Gulliver’s initial mentor and master, Dr. Robert Bates, or “Master Bates,” whose name is intended to mirror the activity of philosophy without action as merely self-pleasure, in the same way that Gulliver travels from place to place, learning and becoming a more rational person. Also, when Gulliver first arrives at the tiny (six inch tall) Lilliput people, he is famously tied down but must soon have a bowel movement, and when he does, it requires many carriages from the Lilliput people to remove the “offensive” material. Contra the materialists, not all matter is equally agreeable. Our senses, gifted by Nature, experience certain odors or tastes as offensive, and others as pleasant. This gives us a certain natural delineation between pride and shame.

In another famous scene at Lilliput, a fire breaks out at the castle in the kingdom so he decides to quench the flames by urinating on them. Gulliver has, in effect, urinated on the idea of the modern state, and rescued it from certain destruction naturally, but he has committed an indiscretion. This offends the queen for urinating on her chambers.

In contrast, when Gulliver goes to his second regime, the Brobdingnag, he is very small and everyone else is very large. Yet, once again, he has another bowel movement, only this time he is offered a discreet and secluded area. Swift is constantly referring to human excrement in the novel. This has a deeply philosophical consideration about the nature of pride and vanity, and the ways in which the philosopher must consider the non-philosophical aspects of life.

The idea of proportion runs throughout the first two books. Modern science can only see things through a microscope or a telescope. It cannot behold true beauty or wonder with the naked eye. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver is very small (in a strange reversal of his experience in Lilliput). He is recognized by means of natural right – he attempts to communicate in a language, and he has the form of a human being. Of the seven places Gulliver visits, only one is real: the seventh, which is Japan, in which Gulliver defends Christianity.

Swift touches upon political “science” as he compares four different regimes in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver embodies the modern scientific spirit to discover, he finds himself disgusted by a great many people and things wherever he goes, like the naked women, because in modern science, the beauty of form must be reduced by means of a microscope to mere atomic ugliness, incapable of seeing form (he rejects his family on numerous occasions back home). Nature is a friend to humans by allotting us the experience of natural proportions, and those who can see proportions have a calm soul.

Whereas Rabelais’s Pantagruel was revised and edited many times, leaving open the question of authorship, Swift deliberately obfuscates authority with a fabricated letter from Gulliver noting certain inaccuracies in the text.

While modern philosophy, particularly enlightenment thought, is full of complex systematizing and gravitas, Jonathan Swift reminds us of the rapture that comes from laughter and living lightly. After all, at the end of Gulliver’s Travels (Part IV, Chapter 12), he has Gulliver quote Virgil’s Aeneid in the Greek words of Sinon, the Greek who advanced the ‘Trojan Horse’ at Troy (Virgil’s Aeneid, II, 79-80), in which he says something to effect of: ‘every single word I have said is true’ -though we know that Sinon was, of course, lying. You cannot deal with the highest things in life, like political philosophy, without remembering the lowest of things. Comedy, and particularly satire, teaches us this truism.

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