Justifying the Ways of God with Humor

by | Academic, Rhetorical Analysis

I’ve always been a big fan of Jonathan Swift despite frequently disagreeing with him. I wrote this piece for Dr. Incorvati’s English 280 class at Wittenberg. I think it was called “Survey of British English” or something like that. It’s the class that convinced me to stop working full time while pursuing my bachelor’s. The B+ I received in the class was my worst grade at Wittenberg and it really annoyed me. At the time i was also writing a piece about The Great Gatsby for another class and I put too much of my energy into the other piece. Personally, I think this paper makes a more unique and interesting argument, but it wasn’t as well written. This version is lightly edited to fix some of the more glaring mistakes that doomed me to a B+.

Jonathan Swift fashioned humor into a weapon. With that weapon he relentlessly attacked with such a passion that he left none unscathed, including himself. One would never guess without being told that the author of Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub, or any number of his bawdy poems would hold a clerical position, much less a somewhat prestigious one such as the Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin. A devotion to theology and the temperament required of a priest seem wholly incongruent with writings that insinuate mankind deserves no better than to be a slave to beasts.1 Yet Swift not only devoted the majority of his life to the church, he even came close to ascending to bishop, foiled only by his own words in A Tale of a Tub, which offended Queen Anne. Although many of Swift’s attacks are purely political or social, he frequently takes up religious issues, most notably in An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand Today, be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby, hereafter referred to as An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity. Regardless, even in An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, Swift refuses to take a serious tone. The piece is multilayered in its satire; Swift takes the position of defending Christianity but his defense is facetiously for all the wrong reasons. As usual, Swift is on the attack. He attacks those who might be willing to marginalize, change, or eliminate religion’s role in society, such as atheists, Freethinkers, and deists. But those who claim to be Christian while consciously violating its tenets are depicted with equal disdain. Swift notably remains on the offensive not only in this piece but in all of his satirical works, using an attack on his opponents as a defense of his own unstated position. Swift attempts, and fails, to justify the ways of God using satire, because he refuses to clarify his own convictions, which would make them vulnerable to counterargument.

It’s important to note that politics and religion at the time were so intimately intertwined that Jonathan Swift’s political and religious arguments are often one and the same. The two major political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, came about during Swift’s childhood and the issues that polarized them largely dealt with religious issues such as a religious mandate for royal succession and the amount of power held by the Anglican Church (Borus 1). The Tories opposed a religious mandate for succession, supportive of Catholic heir to the throne James II, which likely explains why Swift began as a Whig. His conversion to the Tories coincided with the crowning of Queen Anne, who was an ally to the more conservative party, so it has often been suggested that Swift’s political affiliation was inspired more by opportunism than by conviction. If one were to give him the benefit of the doubt, it could be argued that because Queen Anne was Anglican and the threat of Catholic or Calvinist succession had vanished, the issue that made Swift support the Whigs no longer existed. The Tories, with their pro-Anglican stance, appealed to Swift. It can also be said in his favor that after the Whigs came to power soon after the coronation of George I, he continued to write pamphlets for the Tories that persistently attacked the Whigs.

An Artificial Intelligence Rendition of Jonathan Swift Angrily Preaching in an Irish Church in the Style of Rembrandt
Image by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence. I told it to make a picture of Jonathan Swift angrily preaching in a church in the style of Rembrandt

Concerning his religious beliefs, one can divine little from Jonathan Swift’s published works. Like his political writing, which relentlessly attacks the Whigs while doing little to prop up his own party, Swift’s religious writings such as An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity do much to denounce his enemies while saying little about the views Swift believes ought to supplant them. Part of this is Swift’s rhetorical style, which relies heavily on irony and sarcasm, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this is a strategic attempt to shield himself from attack. Swift’s work was published under various pseudonyms, such as Isaac Bickerstaff or Lemuel Gulliver, or they were simply published anonymously. In Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, he states that “[s]ome people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly.” This epigram truly seems to reflect Swift’s attempts to argue by way of condemnation rather than asserting a case for the way things ought to be. Like a guerrilla fighting rhetorician, he assaults his adversaries with invective satire only to retreat and hide his own ideas behind the masks of pseudonym and anonymity.

The problem with this strategy is that everyone at the time knew the author’s actual identity. Jonathan Swift’s pseudonym did more to safeguard him from legal liability than to actually keep his identity secret. Had the authorship truly been a mystery, Queen Anne may not have prevented Swift’s career ambitions from coming to fruition. If Swift’s opponents sought out a true assertion of his religious views undisguised by irony and delivered in a straightforward fashion, they had only to walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral on a Sunday morning to listen to one of his sermons, where Swift berated the poor on account of their unfortunate circumstances. In, “’The Idlest Trifling Stuff That Ever Was Writ,’ or, Why Swift Hated His Sermons,” Todd C. Parker quotes one of Swift’s sermons entitled, “On the Poor Man’s Contentment,” as prototypical:

Last, As it appeareth from what hath been said, that you of the lower Rank have, in Realty, a greater Share of Happiness, your Work of Salvation is easier, by your being liable to fewer Temptations; and as your Reward in Heaven is much more certain, than it is to the Rich, if you seriously perform your Duty, for Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven; so your Neglect of it will be less excusable, will meet with fewer Allowances from God, and will be punished with double Stripes. (58)

Jonathan Swift

Such a sermon, which condemns the poor for “aspiring to sin above their station” (Parker 58), seems rather incompatible with the voice behind A Modest Proposal, in which the author appears to be using satire to come to the defense of the poor. In Swift’s “Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland,” another acrimonious sermon, he makes an even more heartless declaration regarding charity schools for the poor:

In these Schools, Children are, or ought to be trained up to read and write, and cast Accompts; and these Children should, if possible, be of honest Parents, gone to Decay through Age, Sickness, or other unavoidable Calamity, by the Hand of God; not the Brood of the wicked Strolers; for it is by no means reasonable, that the Lewdness of those profligate, abandoned Women, who croud our Streets with their borrowed or spurious Issue. (Parker 67)

Jonathan Swift

It seems impossible to interpret A Modest Proposal as an entreaty for sympathy for the multitudes of poor Irish children considering Swift’s actual stated views regarding those children. In fact, one may be more inclined to think that despite the facetiousness of the piece, Swift actually does view the vast majority of poor Irish youth in such a contemptible light that the best they could hope to be is a meal.

The sermons also compel one to wonder what type of Christianity Swift is truly advocating for in An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, when he states:

I hope no reader imagines me so weak to stand up in the defense of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times (if we may believe the authors of those ages) to have an influence upon men’s belief and actions: to offer at the restoring of that would indeed be a wild project; (2)

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift mocks society for abandoning “real” Christian values when his own sermons seem to mock those values as well. Jesus of Nazareth was condemned by his contemporaries for keeping the company of undesirables such as prostitutes and the core precept of Christian theology is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31), yet Swift asserts that not only are vagrants unworthy of charity, but the children of vagrants are unworthy of charity due to their biological origin. Calling them “the Brood of the wicked” insinuates that from the moment of birth they’re completely beyond redemption, that the doors of heaven are closed to them from the start. The God of Swift’s sermons acts punitively rather than mercifully, an Old Testament God rather than a New Testament one.

Perhaps this is why, in An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, Jonathan Swift attacks practically anyone with any opinion regarding the religion. His own opinion is so incomprehensibly hypocritical that he shares it only with himself. He attacks atheists, calling them “great wits” (2) who require some entity to rail against, suggesting that without the church they will simply renounce the government or some other social institution. He also attacks Freethinkers, asserting that if clergy funds were diverted to support them the money would surely be squandered and they would end up in “disagreeable marriages” (3). Swift also ensures that his argument attacks non-Anglican Christians, making it clear that he uses the word “Christianity” to mean Anglicanism the entire time. He claims that abolishing the Anglican church would lead to another denomination filling the void, such as Presbyterians or Anabaptists or Quakers. True to the region and the times, however, he especially warns of the dreaded Catholics, saying,

…supposing Christianity to be extinguished, the people will never be at ease till they find out some other method of worship; which will as infallibly produce superstition as this will end in popery. (8)

Jonathan Swift

The strange thing about Swift’s anti-Catholicism is that he firmly asserted that the clergy, albeit Anglican clergy, was a direct source of knowledge. One would imagine that a fierce, anti-Catholic Protestant would rely on scripture as a primary source of knowledge, but Swift’s denigrating sermons about the poor demonstrate that he does nothing of the sort. The Roman Catholics enjoy the claim that papal authority has been passed down by Jesus himself when he anointed St. Peter as the founder of the church, but even with this justification for the divine providence of priests the Catholics still lean heavily on gospel and theology. Anglicanism is a unique form of Protestantism as its genesis was more political than theological, but despite the lack of Papal Primacy, it stays close to its Catholic origins. Swift scholar Brian A. Connery examines how Swift fought to keep the church free of any speculative theology, saying, “[f]or Swift, the Church’s institutional authority was primary, the doctrine secondary” (78). As James Ward points out, the Anglican catechism defines neighborly duty as, “[t]o submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters” (147). Jonathan Swift, as a “spiritual pastor,” viewed himself as a moral authority who wasn’t beholden to Locke’s reason or theological rules. Swift seemed to be less interested in justifying the ways of God than justifying the church as a social authority.

Justifying the church’s authority also functioned to justify Swift’s personal authority, which may have been the point all along. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s profile of Swift, he depicts the priest as one who “bullied, scorned, and insulted” (9) social inferiors or equals and while being the “most delightful company in the world” (10) to those able to help him advance financially or socially. He provides evidence of Swift’s unfettered ambition in the form of a letter Swift wrote to Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, containing this damning passage:

All my endeavors to distinguish myself were only for want of a great title and fortune, that I might be used like a lord by those who have an opinion of my parts; whether right or wrong is no great matter. And so the reputation of wit and great learning does the office of a blue riband or a coach and six. (10)

Jonathan Swift

Swift’s vision of a theocratic Church of England makes sense when his true concerns are unveiled. His disdain for arguing theology becomes clear as such arguments may not advance the idea that a government ought to be subservient to religion. Non-Anglican forms of Christianity were an equal threat to the power of the church, and all threats to the power of the church were a threat to Swift’s personal power. Jonathan Swift fought hard to protect the practice of legally enforced tithing in Ireland (Ward 151-152), an attempt to assert the church’s authority at a time when religious diversity proliferated. Deists, Freethinkers, Catholics, Presbyterians, and all other non-Anglican religions challenged the authority of the church Swift was attempting to exploit. Thus Swift’s justification for the ways of God was to declare that God didn’t require justification and to attack those who would think otherwise.2 Even those who attempted to introduce theological speculation within the context of the Anglican church, such as some deists, could threaten the Church’s ability to dictate what is perceived to be true. Connery succinctly paraphrases a letter by Jonathan Swift saying, “such writings, especially in dialogue form, which offer dignity instead of ridicule to dangerous views, should not be published” (92). Accordingly, Swift resorted to ridicule. He sought to bully his point across, shaming others into believing he had justified his own position. To quote Thackeray, “[t]he Queen, bishops, and the world, were right in mistrusting the religion of that man” (17).

Swift’s failure wasn’t just a failure to develop a cohesive argument, it was a failure to achieve any of the aims he so desperately fought for. His own words squandered away his opportunity for a position as bishop, and his political gambit of fighting for the Tories left him excluded from the government. Thackeray notes that several despicable human traits lampooned by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels are vices that “describe Swift the best” (23). Swift’s writing perhaps told more than he intended. The quality of Swift’s work is entirely independent from his quality as a person and some of his attacks are valid and, of course, hilarious. In Part III of Gulliver’s Travel’s he indirectly mocks Isaac Newton on several occasions, depicting the man’s theoretical concepts in mathematics and science to be of no practical use. Nothing could better underscore Swift’s shortsightedness or his fear of change better than Gulliver’s trip to Laputa, but throughout it all his sense of humor never dimmed. George Orwell argued that Swift was one of history’s best writers, despite being wrong on nearly every account, and this is due to the fact that he wrote with conviction and a rhetoric that never ceases to entertain. This summation seems accurate. It’s easy to imagine that if Swift were alive today in the United States, he would work as a pundit on Fox News, using his wit and a barrage of logical fallacies to humiliate his foes. He may fail to convincingly argue his point and while one suspects that he has ulterior motives, the failure is rather beautiful in a way as it never fails to entertain.

End Notes

1This is a paraphrase of William Makepeace Thackeray’s description of Act IV of Gulliver’s Travels, in which he says, “…of which the meaning is man is utterly wicked, desperate and imbecile, and his passions are so monstrous, and his boasted powers so mean, that he is and deserves to be the slave of brutes, and ignorance is better than his vaunted reason” (23).

2Viscount Bolingbroke, “To Jonathan Swift,”: “[Y]ou say…Christianity ought to be taken as infallible Revelations…” (Mahony 39)

Works Cited

Borus, György. “Political Parties Before and After the Years of the Glorious Revolution.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), vol. 13, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 121–130. www.jstor.org/stable/41274387.

Connery, Brian A. “’Wild Work in the World’: The Church, the Public Sphere, and Swift’s Abstract of Collin’s Discourse.” Swift as Priest and Satirist, edited by Todd C. Parker. University of Delaware Press, 2009.

Mahony, Robert. “Certainty and Irony in Swift: Faith and the Intermediate.” Swift as Priest and Satirist, edited by Todd C. Parker. University of Delaware Press, 2009.

Orwell, George. http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/swift/english/e_swift. “Politics vs. Literature— An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels.” Accessed December 1st 2016.

Parker, Todd C. “’The Idlest Trifling Stuff That Ever Was Writ,’ or Why Swift Hated His Sermons.” Swift as Priest and Satirist, edited by Todd C. Parker. University of Delaware Press, 2009.

Sykes, N. “Queen Anne and the Episcopate.” The English Historical Review, vol. 50, no. 199, 1935, pp. 433–464. www.jstor.org/stable/553552.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. “Jonathan Swift.” Essays English and American, edited by Charles W. Eliot, LL.D, P.F. Collier & Son, 1938.

Ward, James. “Pasture and Masters: Swift the Pastor and the Politics of Pastoral.” Swift as Priest and Satirist, edited by Todd C. Parker. University of Delaware Press, 2009.


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