Jonathan Swift, the Iconoclast:
Criticisms on Christianity, Colonialism, and Corruption
by Robert Russell
Scholars have long debated the works of Jonathan Swift and the birth of satire, often citing his acerbic wit, virtuosic penmanship, and his uncanny ability to subvert the institutions that largely govern society. Swift, in his work, leaves no stone unturned: once he sets his attention to a specific societal issue, whether it an immoral grievance, contradiction, or even minor annoyance, he writes without relent nor restraint and lambasts with ease, criticizing the subject in ways that spur change, inspire reformation, and foment insurrection. Of the plenteous topics that are inescapable of Swift’s critical eye, there are three in particular that serve as the objects of his greatest criticisms: the religious institution of Christianity, of which, though a follower himself, he sought to expose the hypocrisy therein; the emerging colonialism of Ireland and the shift from an agrarian economy to capitalistic; and the corruption of London, particularly that which resulted in the filth that ran rampant through the streets and in the apathy of its inhabitants. It is in his three greatest works, essays “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” and “A Modest Proposal,” and poem, “A Description of a City Shower” that Swift’s acerbic wit, virtuosic penmanship, and subversive intuition shine forth, all attributes which deservingly contribute to Swift’s status of iconoclast.
Christianity, the very religion which Swift followed fervently and piously, is the object of some of his harshest criticisms. In his 1708 satirical essay “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity,” Swift, under the guise of a counterargument defending the sacred institution, delivers a scathing critique on the church and in particular its very followers themselves. To understand how Swift is making commentary on the institution of which he himself is a member, it is imperative to establish the context from which Swift approaches such a subject. Swift, while a Christian, is also an empiricist, and he inquires, contemplates, and seeks knowledge through means of reason, a mode of perception that Swift claims is bestowed upon man by God. In his essay “Thoughts on Religion,” he writes,
“I am not answerable to God for the doubts that arise in my own breast, since they are the consequence of that reason which he hath planted in me, if I take care to conceal those doubts from others, if I use my best endeavours to subdue them, and if they have no influence on the conduct of my life” (Swift 710).
Though it is with the belief that God is the creator of all things including philosophical and scientific advancements, Swift is still able to operate from a perspective of logic and reason which is subject to change with the education of new information. He writes, “I am in all opinions to believe according to my own impartial reason; which I am bound to inform and improve, as my capacity and opportunities will permit” (Swift 709). However, Swift being the grand inquisitor that he is, cannot help but direct his reason to Christianity itself, investigating the various aspects, conundrums, contradictions that arise within the institution and which permeate the community of its members. Swift has dedicated many a discourse to this subject of Christianity and even opens his 1711 essay “Thoughts on Various Subjects” with the axiom: “We have just Religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another” (Swift 700); and such a statement is at the crux of his famous defense of Christianity.
In “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity,” Swift, while overtly defending the church against the “free-thinkers” who may wish to abolition such an ancient institution, citing the various many ways in which the church is able to create a sense of community as well as a source of conversation, he also, albeit more subtly, critiques various contradictions that arise within the institution itself, particularly among members of the church. One of the arguments that Swift addresses in his essay is the argument that abolishing Christianity will open up another day of the week for business and trade. He writes:
“ANOTHER Advantage proposed by the abolishing of Christianity, is, the clear Gain of one Day in Seven, which is now entirely lost, and consequently the Kingdom one Seventh less considerable in Trade, Business, and Pleasure; beside the Loss to the publick of so many stately Structures now in the Hands of the Clergy; which might be converted into Theatres, Exchanges, Market-houses, common Dormitories, and other publick Edifices” (Swift 139).
In introducing the custom of the Sabbath, Swift is not only able to introduce a counter to what is certainly a popular argument, one build on reason and which appeals to the average “free-thinker” who would certainly be in support of another day for businesses, markets, theaters, and various others trades to open, thrive, help the economy, and entertain the community; but he also draws attention to the contradictory nature within the followers of the church itself. The Sabbath is an important day for Christians, most assuredly the most important day of the week, as the day itself is one on which people gather, the community comes together and unites under one same cause which in turn makes the day a source of sociability. Swifts argues that without religion, the significance of Sundays, its social element, goes away, and with it a sense of community. However, by such an argument in favor of the Sabbath, Swift reveals the arbitrariness of the sentiment therein–the absurdity that it is only on one day of the week that Christians can come together and create such a sense of community. While there is indeed a sacrosanct connotation associated with Sunday specifically, one borne of religious history and scripture, Swift exposes the problem that Christians could still congregate and socialize on other days of the week besides the Sabbath, and the fact that Christians choose not to when they easily could is in itself an act of hypocrisy. For Swift, the Sabbath should not be significant only because it is a day of socializing, even if it is under the guise of spirituality and religious worship, which, though subtly approached, is a scathing critique of a well-establish institution and undeniably the work of an iconoclast.
But Swift continues in his criticism of the church, turning his attention to the rest of the days of the week, the ones in which Christians forget the sermons and homilies they heard the preachers deliver at mass the previous Sunday–the sentiments, lessons, and important moral messages that in the moment they vowed to remember and apply to their lives in the incoming week, but completely failed to do so. The criticism comes in the counterargument to the objection that preachers should be hired to speak to congregation, especially if said words will be forgotten or dismissed immediately following the conclusion of mass. He writes:
“IT is again objected, as a very absurd, ridiculous Custom, that a Set of Men should be suffered, much less employed, and hired to bawl one Day in Seven, against the Lawfulness of those Methods most in Use towards the Pursuit of Greatness, Riches, and Pleasure; which are the constant practice of all Men alive on the other Six” (Swift 140-141).
Shifting his attention to what is undeniably an irrational situation–that the preacher’s uplifting speeches are made in vain because the people listening from the pews are the same people acting against the sentiment and guidance of the preacher’s words on every other day of the week–Swift reveals yet another major hypocrisy among the members of the Church. It would appear that these followers who act against scripture, against the preacher’s word, against the rules of the Church, and against God, are not themselves actually Christian but feign being Christian. This is the nominal Christianity that Swift appears to defend earlier in his essay when he writes, “I think this Caution was in it self altogether unnecessary…since every candid Reader will easily understand my Discourse to be intended only in Defence of nominal Christianity” (Swift 137). However, by addressing those that fall under the umbrella of such a title, those that consider themselves Christian but do not act as true Christians, Swift is formally speaking to the intended audience of his criticism. Swift subverts the notion of a defense, and instead indicts those readers who “easily understand [his] discourse,” those nominal Christians who read with the impression that Swift is speaking on their behalf. By subverting the term “defense” and redirecting the emphasis toward the “candid Reader,” nominal Christians become the object of Swift’s satire. Swift cunningly lambasts those of his faith who undervalue such a sacred establishment, those who profit from the mere appearance of being Christian. It is a subtle attack, one that is easily overlooked, yet still a caustic critique that contains the iconoclastic characteristics that trademark Swift’s wit and critical eye.
However, religion is not the only institution on which Swift turns this critical eye of his: in his 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal,” Swift condemns colonialism and Ireland’s transition from an agrarian economic state to a capitalistic, specifically revealing the undervaluation of people which is not only inherent and inevitable under such economic conditions but which is an inhumane and immoral act within itself. It is important to note that the essay is most frequently referred to by its truncated title; the entire title of the essay is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick” (Swift 295). The unexpurgated title not only introduces the subject matter, but also sets the tone of the essay: it alludes to the scathing critique of colonialism and capitalism as the title carries the connotations of exploitative conditions that have rendered the children of Ireland poor and a burden to their families, conditions only inevitable in such an economic transition from agrarian to capitalistic. A critique of the awful conditions, the poverty of the country, and the dehumanization of human beings is at the core of Swift’s famous essay, and the source of his satirical criticism stems from his method of approach on the subject: turning the reader’s attention to empathy and morality.
The emphasis of Swift’s essay is on children, the poor children whose parents are unable to provide for them under the impoverished conditions of the state. He writes,
“There only remain an Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children of poor Parents, annually born: The Question therefore is, How this Number shall be reared, and provided for? Which as I have already said, under the present Situation of Affairs, is utterly impossible, by all the Methods hitherto proposed…” (Swift 296).
However, Swift’s intended audience is not those in live in destitution and poverty; and contrary to expectations, his intended audience is not the tyrannical England who proceeds to strangle Ireland for its resources. Swift takes a more cunning approach: his intended audience are those who reside in between the two extremes of the small poor and the large rich–those with whom he knows he has a better chance of imparting change and resolution. Swift addresses those of the middle to upper class who “walk through this great Town…[and] see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars” (Swift 295). Swift directs his satire to those forces who benefit from a system that exploits and dehumanizes the lower class by pandering to their sensibilities via empathy and guilt. In his essay “Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal,” scholar Robert Phiddian writes:
“The Proposal is deliberately addressed not to oppressing England (who would not care) or to all the Irish (most of whom could not read), but to the Anglo-Irish, a class debilitated in part by English colonialism and in part by its own fecklessness. The members of this class are being called to their responsibilities and reminded of the guilt they share for the condition of their country” (Phiddian 617).
It is not simply colonialism that Swift is critiquing in “A Modest Proposal”; his essay is an indictment on the Anglo-Irish, the audience to whom Swift addresses, the class who benefit from the industrialization of Ireland and the exploitation of labor. Unlike his strategic maneuver in his essay “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” wherein he exposes the hypocrisy within the Church with a degree of subtlety, here Swift overtly addresses his audience, condemns those that benefit from the dehumanization of human beings, and reveals the immorality and deviance that enables a person to do so without a hint of guilt. With such a strategy in place, Swift then expounds his argument, placing cannibalism and capitalism on the same plane, implicating those readers who are devoid of morality. Swift, through his virtuosic skill with satire, reveals the inevitable contradiction in supporting capitalism while simultaneously recognizing the intrinsic value of life. Swift seizes his audience and drags them to the level of cannibals in the attempt to enact change, and such a strong and risky maneuver only exemplifies the characteristics that grant Swift the title of iconoclast, as it is only with the insight, intuition, and bravery that such a scathing criticism against an entire body of people could be made in the first place.
Furthermore, Swift’s satirical criticism extends beyond the form of the essay. In the poem “A Description of a City Shower,” Swift shifts his critical gaze from Dublin to London, revealing the horrid conditions and corruption that impact all Londoners, regardless of their socioeconomic status. However, before exploring the content of the poem, it is important to consider its form. In “A Description of a City Shower,” Swift subverts the literary tradition of the pastoral poem, creating what is commonly referred to as a “mock georgic,” an imitation inspired by Virgil’s Georgics. Scholar Brendan Hehir writes, “In fact the entire first Georgic, from its turning-point at the description of the storm until its end, is the setting for most of the classical details imitated in Swift's poem” (Hehir 196). Such a form inherently carries with it a satirical tone which permeates the work and implies a deeper meaning through the subversion of tradition. Swift, in his decision to write in such a form, instills into the reader the sense that there is more than meets the eye; “If the ‘City Shower’ is a mock georgic, the inference is reasonable that its mockery has a target, the poem a satirical or moral aim” (Hehir 196). The target of Swift’s satirical poem, revealed in the content of the work, is undeniably the citizens of London, particularly those of the upper classes and the elite, for whom the awful conditions of the city not only appear insignificant, but even negligible.
Swift describes the quotidian details of life in London as citizens prepare for an oncoming storm: “Saunt-ring in Coffee-House is Dulman seen” (line 11), “Brisk Susan whips her Linnen from the Rope” (line 17), “To Shops in Crouds the daggled Females fly” (line 33), etc. He leaps from one place to another, painting the city and its inhabitants alike, positioning them in relation to one another and unifying them under the imminent storm. Rain is an equalizer in the poem; however, rain, as a cleansing symbol, reveals the hypocritical nature of the affected citizens therein which in turn exposes the corruption of the city that Swift ultimately critiques. As Hehir writes,
“The city's corruption is betokened in the omens of rain–the stink of sewage (5-6), the throbbing of corns and toothache (9-10), the splenetic ‘Dulman’ enacting the eponymy of his race (11-12)–but still more radically in the behavior of the citizens caught in the downpour. Hypocrisy, or falseseeming, is the essence of their natures. The ‘daggled Females’ crowd the shops for shelter, ‘pretend’ to bargain for goods, ‘but nothing buy’ (33-34)” (Hehir 202).
Swift exposes the contradictory and corrupted nature of the inhabitants of the city by “washing” away the pretenses that conceal such grievances, and, in turn, positions them within the same frame of context: that regardless of socioeconomic status, each person is still affected by such filth and destitution. While the emphasis of his depiction lies with the unification of disparate classes, Swift is still criticizing those who either fail or refuse to act within their power to assess or change the situation. In particular, he singles out the elite. He writes,
“Box’d in a Chair the Beau impatient sits,
While Spouts run clatt’ring o’er the Roof by Fits;
And ever and anon with frightful Din
The Leather sounds; he trembles from within” (lines 43-46).
A wealthy man sits sheltered within the enclosure of his sedan chair, safe and dry from the tempest outside of which he is unaware. He hears the “clattering” of raindrops on his roof but knows not whether the sounds are of a squall or a brawl, and all the while his servants are being soaked and battered by the rain. Swift paints the absurdity and outrageousness in such a juxtaposition, that the wealthy member of the elite is so unaware of the conditions, the oppression, and the destitution of the city, the receptacle for the detritus and the recipient of the brutal forces of nature. The gap between him and the rest of the city is so large a gulf it serves to illuminate the other discrepancies in class and status. It is through Swift’s satirical portrayal that he is able to simultaneously criticize the elite upper-class, as well as reveal the ridiculousness that hinders Londoners from acknowledging the very issues that affect them all. If any changes are to be made, any improvements on the conditions that impact everyone from the pauper to prince, the first step is in the recognition of the issues at hand. Swift’s poem not only illuminates the necessity for such a collective acknowledgement but inspires awareness while also criticizing the hypocrisy that preclude such an acknowledgement in the first place–hypocrisy which particularly affects the upper and elite classes. It is not simply the filthy conditions that Swift directs his critical eye, but the corruption that worsens the conditions.
Swift is an iconoclast not simply because he critiques the establishments that govern, the various institutions and economic systems that impact the populace, as well as the awful conditions that such systems inevitably entail, but because Swift is able to direct his criticism unto all aspects of society, not simply those that oppress and control. It is to be expected that the institutions which profit from the exploitation of the proletariat would be the object of heavy criticism; that those who sits comfortably while other beg in the streets would be the subject of Swift’s critique. But for Swift, those at the top are but a fraction of the problem, one that is significant nonetheless, but one that cannot solely be the object of criticism. For Swift, the systems in place are more complex than meets the eye, and an in-depth analysis is required in order to enact any form of change, which is why Swift leaves no stone unturned. Alongside the larger subjects such as colonialism, capitalism, and corruption are the smaller, localized subjects, the Christian and the commoner; none is impervious to Swift’s critique. Swift is indiscriminate, and any establishment, any institution is open to criticism, which not only elevates him to the status of iconoclast, but also cements his reputation in the annals of literature.
Hehir, Brendan O. “Meaning of Swift's ‘Description of a City Shower.’” ELH, vol. 27, no. 3, 1960, pp. 194–207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2871879. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.
Phiddian, Robert. “Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 3, 1996, pp. 603–621. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/450801. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Description of a City Shower.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010, pp. 515- 516
---. “A Modest Proposal.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010, pp. 295-302.
---. “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010, pp. 135- 145.
---. “Thoughts on Religion.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010, pp. 709-711.
---. “Thoughts on Various Subjects.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010, pp. 700-706.