Thoughts on “A Tale Of A Tub” and the “Battle of the Books”

A Tale Of A Tub is Jonathan Swift’s inaugural published work “written for the universal improvement of mankind.” This amusing little allegorical satire’s title refers to a fictional practice among old seafarers of tossing a tub over the side of a ship when spotting a hostile whale “by way of Amusement to distract him from laying violent Hands upon the Ship.” The metaphor is of Thomas Hobbes: the whale refers to the Leviathan, the ship refers to the commonwealth, and the tub refers to Jonathan Swift’s distracting satires, intended to divert the Hobbesian partisans from attacking the ship of state.

However the text does not continue the story of seafarers. It is about a man on his deathbed with three sons: Peter (representing Catholic Church or “Popery”) –he is the most stately and book-learned brother who is also a very capable businessman but who becomes a tyrant and alienates his other two brothers: Martyn (or Martin Luther), and Jack (or John Calvin). Their father bequeaths each lad a coat with the explicit commandment not to alter the coats in any way. Seven years go by and the brothers go abroad on various adventures slaying dragons –but these stories are glossed over. Naturally each of the brothers alter their coats in unique ways, defying their father’s injunction. Each interpretation of Christianity is shown to be bankrupt in certain respects. In his preface, Swift defends the idea that any Clergyman should stand up to the “Follies of Fanaticism and Superstition exposed,” however, Swift also seems to pay deference to piety for the sake of the commonwealth contra Hobbes. In the end, the only brother with a coat remotely resembling his father’s wishes is Martyn. Though the satire is unresolved, Swift is a defender of the High Church not because he favors its existence in any meaningful, but merely because any alternatives appear far worse.

At any rate, there are numerous digressions throughout the text that seem to pettifog the meaning. The digressions concern modernist diatribes about all manner of things –critics, modernity, human nature, a digression in praise of digressions, idols and other gods, madness in a commonwealth, and so on. However, the digressions and footnotes show us an important piece of the text: the points of departure and return highlight certain key moments wherein the author decides to suddenly lob a tub overboard and divert the audience’s attention. While the text (apparently written by a self-professing madman) offers no solutions nor resolutions, instead it disentangles its readers from any settled opinions (it is a satirical inversion of Aristotle’s treatises which proceed from common opinions upward toward a higher, more nuanced perspective on the questions).

Jonathan Swift has often wrongly accused of being a misanthrope, but in truth he is a writer who magnifies the pettiness of human pride and vanity (themes which also recur in Gulliver’s Travels) but this magnification is made explicit in Swift short satire “The Battel of the Books” –which was attached to the publication of “A Tale Of A Tub.” It was written while Swift was under the patronage of a distinguished retired diplomat, Sir William Temple, who was embroiled with the cross-Channel debate about whether or not the moderns were superior to the ancients. This ‘Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns’ had a particular French character to it. In France, intellectual culture began to wonder whether or not modern science had surpassed the works of Plato and Aristotle, leading to a pamphlet war between defenders of either the ancients or the moderns.

Jonathan Swift found himself squarely on the side of defending the ancients, however he also mocked the whole debate, from the pride of the moderns to the vanity of the ancients. “The Battel of the Books” is a response to criticism of Sir William Temple, a defender of the ancients, in which Swift showcases bound books coming to life at St. James Palace in order to engage in an epic battle. He notes that quarrels generally begin with riches which produce pride –and there was great riches in the ancient world and there are also great riches in the modern world. At any rate we witness this farcical Homeric battle as the ancients muster their forces under Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Homer, Pindar, Euclid while the moderns gather a massive herd of 50,000 troops including Descartes, Hobbes, and Bacon (there is also an amusingly confused bunch of books like Aquinas and Scotus who lack arms, courage, and discipline). The battle itself is brutal, consider the following passage:

“Then Aristotle observing Bacon advance with a furious Mien, drew his Bow to the Head, and let fly his Arrow, which mist the valiant Modern, and went hizzing over his head; but Des-Cartes it hit; The Steel Point quickly found a defect in his Head-piece” (106).

As with Homer’s Iliad, Swift leaves the final victory of the battle ambiguous, however the poverty of the moderns is made apparent throughout the fight (the classical gods play an important and influential part in the war –there is no central universalist god). The whole setting takes place in a Homeric context, and thus there is an unacknowledged debt the moderns owe to the ancients, a fact which 18th French elites apparently failed to recognize.


For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition (paperback) of Jonathan Swift’s Essential Writings.

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