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 is Euripides’s Cyclops, and though we have a limited perspective on these tetralogical comedies, we believe they originated from Dionysian drunken revelries, and that they once concluded a trilogy of high tragedies. 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.

On 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 colloquial 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 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 over, 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 had 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.


For this reading I used the 1947 re-publication of Gulliver’s Travels featuring an introduction by Jacques Barzun.

Aristotelian Mimesis: The Conflict Between the Friar and the Summoner

In the “General Prologue,” Chaucer describes the Summoner. He has a ‘fire-red face cherubim’s face’ that is pimpled and disfigured. He is a lecherous man whose hair is falling out, and the mere sight of him brings fear into the hearts of children. He is a drinker of strong wines, and he is a bit of a rascal. His trickery and mischievousness mirrors the character of the summoner in “The Friar’s Tale.” At the time, summoners were the enforcers of the ecclesiastical courts of Christendom. Naturally, their offices were prone to corruption as they doled out threats of excommunication in exchange for bribery and profit.


The Summoner, now enraged at the “Friar’s Tale,” offers a brief prologue of an imagined dream, a story about a Friar and an angel who takes him down to hell. Upon arrival, the angel shows the Friar a swarm of friars, all emerging from Satan’s “ers” (or “arse”), just as bees swarm out of a hive. This is the true ‘natural heritage’ of friars.

His tale is equally as vulgar as others thus far. It takes place in East Yorkshire in Holderness (a coastal region that was once marshy but was drained in the Middle Ages). A beggar, or rather a friar, goes about preaching and begging for money, food, and supplies from church-goers, but he serves the people with ‘tricks and falsehoods’ -here, the Friar interjects and accuses the Summoner of lying (notably he did not interrupt during the part about begging, only when he is accused of trickery).

At any rate, the friar in the Summoner’s story goes to the house of Thomas, a well-known charitable man. On this day, Thomas is ill at his home but that does not stop the friar as he begs for a meal from Thomas’s wife, and she shares that they recently lost a child, so the friar claims he had a vision that their child is now in heaven, but he scolds Thomas, claiming his illness is a result of giving so little to the church. When Thomas gets upset at the incessant friar’s begging, the friar tells an odd story about a knight who returns to his castle, but is condemned to death by the king who believes the knight killed his comrade. Nevertheless, his comrade arrives but the king, oddly, still orders their deaths. Then we hear about another king, a drunk named Cambises (recall Herodotus’s depiction of the insane Cambyses in his Histories). Oddly, the drunk Cambises then shoots an arrow, accidentally killing a knight’s son. Then the friar tells another story about Cyrus, the great Persian emperor, as the river Gyndes is destroyed by a horse belonging to Cyrus which drowns in the river. The friar offers odd stories that somehow relate to his request for funding from Thomas. Because there is no discernible connection

Needless to say, Thomas grows upset and he tells the friar that he (Thomas) is sitting upon a gift for the friar. Now the tale degenerates further into degradation. When the friar reaches behind Thomas, he lets out a fart and the friar swears vengeance, but he is chased away by Thomas’s servants. The tale ends on a ridiculous note with the friar approaching a wealthy magistrate about re-dealing Thomas a cartwheel of flatulence because it can be distributed equally. The lord’s servant suggests that it can be divided equally. Every person, save for the friar, praises the servant -even suggesting he speaks as well as Euclid or Ptolemy (interestingly his name is Jankyn, the same name as the fifth husband as described by the Wife of Bath in her autobiographical prologue).

On the surface, the Summoner attacks the Friar for his practice of beggery. On a much deeper level, we see a desire for truth revealed in the conflict between the Friar and the Summoner -both want their stations in life to be accurately represented, even in meager stories that are only intended to “amuse.” Thus, accurate representation in art is a kind of mirror held up to nature, as Aristotle claims in the Poetics. People hold wholly fabricated stories to a certain standard of truth (i.e. verisimilitude). Perhaps Chaucer reveals himself to be an Aristotelian, even in silly, vulgar tales like the “Summoner’s Tale.”


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

A Story of “Joy after Woe” in The Man of Law’s Tale

The Man of Law’s Tale is an episodic story of “Custance” (or Constance) that can trace its literary origins to the Anglo chronicles of Nicholas Trivet, as well as in the poetry of John Gower. In his tale, The Man of Law presents the group with a more noble tale than the bawdy stories from both the Miller and the Reeve. The Man of Law agrees with the Knight to an extent, as both men’s tales reaffirm “joy after woe” and defend the virtues of Western Civilization, however whereas “The Knight’s Tale” delivers a classically-rooted narrative of love and chivalry which is set in ancient Athens, “The Man of Law’s Tale” presents an early pre-modern Christian story about a pitiable yet saintly woman who has been wronged and sent away from her home in Rome to marry a Sultan in Syria, only for him to be murdered by his own mother. Custance, our saintly protagonist, is then cast adrift in a boat that leads her from Northumberland, to Spain, and eventually back to Rome. Though she is a long-suffering princess, Custance endures it all for the sake of her noble Christian faith and the belief that “Joy after Woe govern us in his grace.” The tale is like a picaresque adventure, only unlike Don Quixote or Gulliver’s Travels, Custance is a somber, noble, and more dignified main character who endures various episodes of great suffering only to find joy at the end of her woes. She is a somewhat wooden character whom the Man of Law offers as the perfect figure of early Christian womanliness. His tale is a life-affirming story that echoes the Knight’s in many ways, while also drawing swords with the Knight’s lack of Christian ethos. In his tale, the Man of Law reaffirms contemporary traditions and divisions between East and West, Christian and Muslim, Pagan and Faithful, Peace and War, and Good and Evil.

The Man of Law is a promise-keeper. He holds oaths as sacred and he is willing to suffer for the sake of joy. He is a Christian, and pities those in poverty most of all. In marriage, he advises spouses to be of the same religion, and to be wary of their mother-in-laws. He is a believer in ‘miracles and wonders’ as they are evidence of divine promises kept. Justice, to the Man of Law, is a man who pays his debts and fulfills his contractual obligations.

In Chaucer’s “General Prologue” the ‘Sergeant of the Lawe’ is described as a prudent and wise attorney who spends much of his time with other attorneys at St. Paul’s in London. He exudes great dignity and honor, and he is a successful investor in land as well as a near perfect writer. He is austere, to say the least, and gives the impression of being very busy. Both the Host and the Narrator have great admiration for the Man of Law, and Chaucer spends little time discussing his garb, because the Man of Law is a conceptual, abstract man. He wears a colored coat and a silk belt.

The introduction to the “Man of Law’s Tale” begins with the Host noticing the close of day on April 18th. He cites Seneca in remembering that time is a great thief, and he calls upon the “man of lawe” to tell a tale. The man of law, abiding by his promise, agrees to tell a new tale because ‘a promise is debt’ and he is nothing if not a debt-keeper. Amusingly, Chaucer breaks the fourth-wall with the Man of Law, who hopes to tell a new tale never told by Chaucer before, even though Chaucer is ‘ignorant of meters and rhyming’ and has told of ‘lovers up and down, more than Ovid made mention of.’ The Man of Law lists a variety of classical mythological stories that Chaucer has already written about:

Ceyx and Alcyone, the ancient Greek spouses who incurred the wrath of Zeus by impiously referring to each other as “Zeus” and “Hera” (Chaucer wrote about this tale in “The Book of the Duchess,” his earliest known surviving complete poetic work).

Pyramus and Thisbe, the ancient Greek lovers who shared a wall in Babylon, but their family’s rivalry forbid them from being together. They whisper their secret love to one another through a hole in the wall and arrange for a secret trist outside of town under a mulberry bush, However, when Thisbe arrives she sees a lioness with a bloody mouth so flees in fear leaving behind her veil. Pyramus arrives soon after to find her veil and a trail of blood, so he kills himself by falling on his sword, splattering the mulberry bush red. When Thisbe finds out, she does the same. This is the story of why the mulberry bush leaves are red (Ovid wrote about this story, and Chaucer reworked it in the 1380s in his “The Legend of Good Women”).

Chaucer also wrote of Dido and Aenaeus (in allusion to Virgil), as well as Demophon, ancient Greek king who marries Phyllis en route to the Trojan War; and Deianire, wife of Heracles and unwitting killer of her husband (see Euripides The Women of Trachis); and Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and betrothed to Orestes as a girl, but whom Menelaus promised to Achilles to send to his son Neoptolemus in Phthia after the end of the war. Eventually she married Orestes. The Man of Law goes on to cite many other classical stories: Ariadne, Hypsipyle, Leander, Hero, Helen, Briseis, Laodamia, Medea and Jason, Hypermnestra, Penelope, Alcestis, Canace, Apollonius, Antiochus. He amusingly ends his high-minded introduction by concluding that all these stories are ‘not worth a bean’ and that he will tell something completely different.

After the close of his introduction, The Man of Law delivers a prologue: a lament about poverty before he begins his tale, and a reminder not to blame Christ for suffering. The Man of Law mentions that a merchant once taught him this tale.

His tale is about a Syrian merchant company that learns of a renowned beauty: Lady Custance, daughter of the emperor of Rome. The Sultan of Syria regularly hosts these Syrian merchants when they return home from business. After hearing of Custance’s noble qualities he orchestrates to have her brought to Syria. They discuss magic and deception, eventually arriving at marriage, but there is a flaw: Custance is Christian and he is Muslim. So the Sultan decides to christen his whole house and become a Christian. Custance painstakingly marries him, and lamentably he is sent away to Syria, a foreign land.

Consider Chaucer’s beautifully crafted lines about the sultan’s lament for not possessing his lover:

Paraventure in thilke large book
Perhaps in that large book
Which that men clepe the hevene ywriten was
Which men call the heaven was written
With sterres, whan that he his birthe took,
In stars, when he was born,
That he for love sholde han his deeth, allas!
That he because of love should have his death, alas!
For in the sterres, clerer than is glas,
For in the stars, clearer than is glass,
Is writen, God woot, whoso koude it rede,
Is written, God knows, whoever could read it,
The deeth of every man, withouten drede.
The death of every man, without doubt.
In sterres, many a wynter therbiforn,
In stars, many a winter before then,
Was writen the deeth of Ector, Achilles,
Was written the death of Hector, Achilles,
Of Pompei, Julius, er they were born;
Of Pompey, Julius, before they were born;
The strif of Thebes; and of Ercules,
The strife of Thebes; and of Hercules,
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The deeth; but mennes wittes ben so dulle
The death; but men’s wits are so dull
That no wight kan wel rede it atte fulle.
That no person can well interpret it fully” (190-203)

During Custance’s marriage celebration to the Sultan, his mother becomes angry about his conversion to Christianity. During the wedding feast she hatches a plan to massacre her son and all his newly Christened compatriots. She only spares Custance, whom she sets adrift in a boat loaded with treasure sailing for the Strait of Gibraltar. At this point in the story, the religious imagery turns exclusively toward Christianity as Custance looks to the cross of Jesus to guide her to safety. Custance washes ashore in Northumberland.

At this time, Northumberland is a pagan land, and Custance converts her caretakers to Christianity. However, two miraculous events occur: the wife of Custance’s rescuer, Hermengyld, heals a blind person; and an evil Knight murders Hermengyld (out of a sick and lustful desire for Custance) and he tries to frame Custance. The evil knight is then suddenly struck dead when he swears upon holy books, attesting to Custance’s guilt. Based on these two miraculous events, the regional king “Alla” (based on Chaucer’s knowledge of Ælla, the first known Anglican king of Daella), decides to convert to Christianity and they are married. Custance gives birth to a son. However, Alla’s evil mother, Donegild, does not approve of his conversion (a parallel mother-in-law to the Sultan of Syria’s mother) so she fabricates letters between Custance and Alla, while he is away at war. Horrified at these messages, Custance again sails away with their son. Upon learning of this loss, Alla has his mother executed.

Custance returns to her boat and sails away, landing in Spain. She narrowly avoids an abusive man, until she is rescued by a Roman Senator sailing for Rome en route from “Barbary” (Syria). He was avenging the Sultan’s murderous mother at the behest of Custance’s father. Later, King Alla, lamenting the loss of Custance, goes on pilgrimage to Rome and he miraculously reunites with his wife and child. Custance and Alla return to Northumberland, but he dies shortly thereafter. Custance then returns to Rome where, upon the death of her father, her son, Maurice, becomes the future emperor of Rome.

The Host concludes by praising the tale and asking the Parson to ‘preach’ a story to the group next.


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

The Story of Jerome’s Vulgate

Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, or “Jerome,” is likely the most significant Biblical translator in history. He was born in northeast Italy in 345, and by the time he was 29, Jerome had become a devout and ascetic Christian. He claims to have had a dream chastising him for being a follower of Cicero, not of Christ. Following this dream, he left his home to live alone in the Syrian desert, reading and translating the Hebrew scriptures. When he returned to civilization, Jerome was the greatest translator of his epoch. In 382, he became administrative secretary to Pope Damasus. (Pictured left is an 8th century version of the Vulgate, the Gospel According to John). In Jerome’s day, Greek was widely spoken and read in texts. All the Biblical texts could be read in Greek. There were varying translations available of Coptic and Syriac and others, many of which were varying in content. Aware of this problem, Jerome wrote to the Pope requesting the opportunity to produce an authoritative text. A similar problem arose many hundreds of years later during the creation of the King James Bible -the need for authority.

The Pope responded in 382 by commissioning Jerome to compose the masterful “Vulgate,” The editio vulgata or “common version.” First, he translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, and then began translating the Psalms, Job, and several other texts from the Old Testament into Latin from the Greek Septuagint. However, he soon became aware of the Septuagint’s failings, so he endeavored to translate the Old Testament directly from the original Hebrew manuscripts. He completed this massive undertaking in about 405, and his translations of the Psalms from the Septuagint (the so-called “Gallic Psalter”) was widely praised and continued to be used for years alongside his original Latin translations. The Vulgate was Jerome’s great accomplishment.

For the next one thousand years, Jerome’s authoritative Latin compendium was edited, revised, and superseded numerous times throughout Europe. It was not until the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 that the Vulgate was decreed the authoritative text for the Church. In 1965, at the second Vatican Council, a commission was established to revise the Vulgate. The Psalters were widely read and distributed among Christian households, and they were turned into contemporary hymns and songs.

Jerome died around 420, and he was later made a Saint by the Catholic Church. His Feast Day is September 30.


Here is a wonderful example of a Latin ‘Gallican Psalter’ by Jerome. Although he later discarded his translations from the Greek Septuagint as being inaccurate, they are nevertheless powerful. This is Psalm 23 (verses 1-4), in both Jerome’s Gallic Psalter Latin translation, alongside the beautiful King James translation. This is one of my favorite Psalms:

Jerome’s Gallic Psalter of Psalm 23
“[1] canticum David Dominus pascit me nihil mihi deerit. [2] in pascuis herbarum adclinavit me super aquas refectionis enutrivit me. [3] animam meam refecit duxit me per semitas iustitiae propter nomen suum [4] sed et si ambulavero in valle mortis non timebo malum quoniam tu mecum es virga tua et baculus tuus ipsa consolabuntur me.”

King James Translation of Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.