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Jonathan Swift and Philosophy


Edited by Janelle Pötzsch


Lanham (Maryland): Lexington Books, 2017

Hardcover. xi+260 p. ISBN 978-1498521536. $95


Reviewed by Alain Morvan

Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3)




One of the contributors to Jonathan Swift and Philosophy observes that “Swift had a strong philosophical background” [69]. This learned collection of essays abundantly proves the point. The book follows a neat three-part organization, with sixteen chapters distributed into three sections : ‘Ethics and Social Philosophy’, ‘Philosophy of Science’, and ‘Political Philosophy’. If Gulliver’s Travels not unexpectedly takes pride of place among the texts considered (it might have been less disconcerting for the reader, be it said incidentally, had the same edition been referred to throughout), all major works by Swift are duly scrutinized: A Modest Proposal, A Tale of the Tub and The Battel of the Books, among others, provide ample ground for discussion.

In ‘Topsyturvy : Jonathan Swift on Human Nature, Reason, and Morality’, Michael Hauskeller examines reason’s subservience to passion, and quotes a social psychologist’s witty aphorism : “reason is like a tail that is being wagged by an emotional dog” [3]. Focusing on Gulliver’s voyage to Houyhnhnmland, after conceding that the Houyhnhnms may have the appearance of noble reasoners, the critic, much to the present reviewer’s relief, not unconvincingly submits that their perfectly reasonable nature is tantamount to perfect evil. He later defines A Modest Proposal as a horrendous “win-win proposal” [6] and calls upon Hannah Arendt, whose comments on the banality of evil tally with the technocratic nightmare the project boils down to.

‘How Socratic is Swift’s Irony?’ asks Chris A. Kramer, who defines Socratic irony as “a virtuous mode of being” [16] and the awareness of one’s own (and others’) limitations when confronted with ethical values. Turning to Swift’s Modest Proposal and An Argument against Abolishing Christianity, he shows that the Dean’s complex irony cannot be reduced to the rhetorical trick of antiphrastic discourse (if it were so, one might add, his satire would be reduced to what François Mauriac, in a different context, called ricanements mécaniques). Kramer concludes that owing to his heavy-handed reliance on dogma and theology, Swift’s irony fails to be entirely Socratic.

Starting from such thinkers as Antisthenes or Diogenes, Will Desmond’s ‘Gulliver among the Cynics’ offers a careful and detailed survey of some of Swift’s satirical butts, and shows the author’s indebtedness to the ancient Cynics’ onslaught on war, honour and abstract knowledge. In Desmond’s eyes, the king of Brobdingnag embodies the outlook of the Cynics – quite a reasonable view, even though one begs to differ when he adds that the sovereign “anticipates the view of the Houyhnhnms” [34]. In point of fact, it all looks as if Gulliver, through his unqualified admiration for the hyper-rational horses, carried the virtue of cynicism to the point of madness and alienation.

The title of Steve Van-Hagen’s contribution, ‘ “His foul Imagination links / Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks” : Masculinity and Obsessional Disorder in The Lady’s Dressing Room’, aptly summarizes the contents of his highly stimulating reassessment of one of Swift’s most challenging (some would say notorious) writings. Van-Hagen argues that the poem, ungenerous though it seems to femininity, keeps clear of misogyny, Swift’s upsetting remarks on bodily functions being part of his discourse on “disordered mental states” [40] – in particular what psychologists call obsessionality. Strephon, the male character, is a remarkable example of the crisis of masculinity (a crisis triggered off by a growing sense of man’s loss of influence in modern culture). Van-Hagen’s carefully uses feminism as an ideological authority, since laying the stress on female physicality (as Swift so heavily does in The Lady’s Dressing Room) can be understood as a way of deflating some excessively idealized (and consequently dangerous) visions of womankind. As to Strephon, he is one of the targets of Swiftian satire here and, in contemporary terms, suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder (or OCD).

In the following chapter, ‘Kantian Ethics from the Horse’s Mouth’, Janelle Pötzsch, the volume editor, draws a thought-provoking parallel between Kant’s definition of man in his Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals as a “sensual rational being” and Swift’s famous animal rationis capax. Focusing on Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels, she sensibly rejects the theory that Swift endorses his persona’s idolizing of the Houyhnhnms. Swift’s description of the mores of these totalitarian exponents of rationalism and eugenism is an apposite reflection on man’s postlapsarian hubris. What the Königsberg professor and Swift have in common, she shows, is their conviction that man’s vices and shortcomings originate in his dual nature : man is “a being which possesses reason without being governed by it” [61].

William Goodwin provides an excellent starting point to the second section of the volume. His contribution, ‘Volatile spirits : Scientists and Society in Gulliver’s Third Voyage’, revisits Swift’s anti-intellectualist discourse in the Laputa episode. For him, Swift’s distrust of science proceeds from a general scepticism based on careful epistemological reflection. One is grateful to Goodwin for his brief but apt reference to the notorious episode of Wood’s halfpence (which Swift addresses in The Drapier’s Letters). The Wood controversy, he argues, triggered off Swift’s resentment against Newton and anticipates twenty-first century examples of scientists unadvisedly invading the public sphere. Scientific arrogance still prevails today, he concludes.

Not unlike Goodwin, Kurt Edward Milberger tries to read Swift in the light of today’s debates. His paper, ‘Gulliver in Stable : Anti-Cartesian Satire and the Bête-Machine in Part Four of Gulliver’s Travels’, considers not only Descartes, but Malebranche and Mersenne as well. Milberger stresses the high degree of coherence of Swift’s critique of the animaux machines theory, and submits that the Voyage to Houyhnhnmland tends to blur the human-animal boundary which serves as a justification for Descartes’ views on the subject. Gulliver’s Travels could thus be read as a prologue to later vindications of animal rights ethics. If this is not the most obvious interpretation Swift’s work lends itself to, it certainly is not the least fashionable.

Dutton B. Kearney’s chapter, ‘Swift’s Critique of Philosophical Materialism’, starts from Swift’s endorsement of Aristotle’s opposition to the philosophical materialism theorized by the Pre-Socratics. Kearney, whose demonstration relies chiefly on The Tale of a Tub and, incidentally, on ’A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d into Holy Orders’, rightly emphasizes the theological foundation of Swift’s morality, and he further argues that all the systems of thought which he rejects are sub-products of materialism – i.e. the belief in the materiality of the soul. Since materialism links up with determinism, it necessarily follows that such materialists as believe in the freedom of the will labour under a self-contradiction. Kearney extends his survey to a fairly sizeable discussion of Locke, Aristotle, Bacon, or Epicurus and brilliantly deciphers the intricacies of the Bacon vs. Aristotle debate. The end of the paper emphasizes Swift’s kinship with Renaissance humanism. (Owing to some technical error, note 35 is an almost verbatim repetition of a passage in the article on pp. 112-113.)

In ‘Gulliver’s Creation of Reality through Disability : Swift, Idealism and the Act of Perception’, Nicolas Michaud approaches Gulliver’s Travels as a commentary on Locke’s empiricism (the analysis of which the critic seems to oversimplify) and he contends that the Travels and Berkeley have much in common. Swift, he says, ridicules the Lockean conception of substance, which Michaud mischievously calls “metaphysical glue” [132]. An obvious upholder of political correctness, Michaud very nearly holds Locke responsible for discrimination of the disabled. If the progressive reader has the grace to disregard potential anachronisms (to say nothing of Swift’s staunch conservative views), he will be delighted to hear that the man who invented Gulliver actually paved the way for the development of transgender and gay rights.

The next two articles are felicitously devoted to a work often referred to but rarely discussed. In his second contribution to the volume, Dutton B. Kearney’s ‘How to Historicize Thumos : Swift’s The Battel of the Books’, offers a welcome analysis of The Battel, written in defence of Swift’s protector Sir William Temple, who had taken sides with the Ancients in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Taking the example of translations from the classics, Swift pokes fun at some “modern” commentators’ trick of depersonalizing the original with an oversized and pedantic apparatus – a rambling kind of scholarship (Swift calls it Dulness) which is responsible for the thumos (spiritedness) being unfairly expelled from what the Ancients had achieved.

In ‘Weaving the World : The Spider in The Battel of the Books’, Janelle Pötzsch starts from the moment in Swift’s text when confrontation between books ancient and modern is interrupted by a bee vs. spider duel. She scrutinizes the episode with great care and intuition. Stressing the derogatory connotations the spider is endowed with – haughtiness, mechanism and rationalism – she deciphers the arachnid and its web as standing for the excesses of New Science in Swift’s eyes. She recalls Ovid’s treatment of the spider in his Metamorphoses, showing that the Latin poet’s version of the Arachne myth emblematizes the story of “human emancipation from the gods and their fight for supremacy” [158] – a romantic boldness which Swift, like other followers of Ovid, fails to live up to.

If several contributors to this volume regard Locke as one of Swift’s major satirical targets, Jesús Varela-Zapata’s paper, ‘Swift’s Fantasy as a Vindication of Tolerance’, argues that the authors of Two Treatises of Government and Gulliver’s Travels have much in common. The critic rightly mentions Swift’s indictment of colonialism as well as his tough (but far from unambiguous) vindication of the Irish against a Laputian England, but his acceptance of Swift as a proponent of toleration occasionally seems a trifle too sanguine. Swift’s outlook on some religious and political squabbles falls short of real toleration: in the Lilliput episode, Reldresal tells an admiring Gulliver that the ways and means of putting an end to the Big-Endians vs. Little-Endians controversy should be “left to every Man’s Conscience”, which sounds tolerant enough, or – and here crops up an essential qualification, the implications of which the critic very nearly overlooks – “at least in the Power of the Chief Magistrate to determine”. Varela-Zapata duly refers to The Drapier’s Letters and A Tale of a Tub but it is hard to concur with him when he submits that, in the Tale, the differences between Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans are “minor” in Swift’s eyes. More generally, one wishes this interesting survey had more closely scrutinized the philosophical and ideological history of the concept of tolerance, which cannot be taken for granted or simply equated with anti-establishment satire. And it is a pity that Locke’s Epistola de Tolerantia should not feature among the works cited.

The following three chapters explore the Swift-Plato connexion. In ‘Gulliver’s Republic’, Greg Littmann, who regards Swift as a reformer, argues that he draws heavily from The Republic and that moral corruption is in his eyes the foundation of all social evils. While claiming that Gulliver reaches a form of wisdom at the end of his travels and that copying the Houyhnhnms is “more or less Swift’s project” [190], the critic refreshingly observes that “we cannot always take Gulliver’s opinions for Swift’s” – one only wishes this essential methodological warning had been taken more seriously. The kind of judgment Swift passes on the Houyhnhnms is discussed in a lengthy note, the outcome of which is that author and character would basically agree on the matter. Admiring the hyperrationalistic horses and setting them up as paragons of virtue, however, does not seem consistent with Swift’s conviction that religion, not reason, is the cornerstone of morality. The final section of the essay attempts to provide a wholesale assessment of Plato’s and Swift’s views on each major moral issue, which somehow reads like a school record, the two men’s respective positions being called “right” or “wrong”, “good” and “bad” according to their deserts. One suspects that Littmann is more familiar with the Greek philosopher than his eighteenth-century “disciple”.

In ‘Gulliver’s Travels and Philosopher-Kings’, Will Desmond refers to Plato’s recommendation that philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers and observes that the eighteenth-century avatar of the concept, i.e. despotisme éclairé, is one of Swit’s satirical targets in Gulliver’s Travels. If the king of Brobdingnag appears as the epitome of political wisdom, his European counterparts put up a very sad show. Desmond’s estimate of the four parts of Gulliver’s would-be travelogue is nicely balanced since he regards it as a downright debunking of Enlightenment ideals. The traveller’s worship of the Houyhnhnms is tantamount to madness but, the critic hastens to say, it may be a “divine madness” [216]. Desmond also suggests that Swift’s conservative outlook anticipates Burke’s misgivings about the “geometrical thinking” of the philosophes.

Pritika Nehra, in ‘Political Vision[s] in Plato’s Republic and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels’, shows how both works, by focusing on the nature of human discourse, do their best to elicit active reader participation. The critic provides a minute analysis of the cave metaphor in Book VII of The Republic and compares it with Gulliver’s peregrinations. She stresses the relevance of the vison metaphor in Gulliver’s story, showing that Gulliver is unable to use his eyesight properly. Pritika Nehra draws a highly interesting list of parallelisms and contrasts between the Platonic and Swiftian outlooks, and she offers some stimulating definitions which neatly encapsulate the political import of each phase of the Travels: she calls the Brobdingnag episode “the reverse of Gulliver’s advocating of ‘Realpolitik’ ” [231], while Laputa is “a Cartesian paradise where there is no place for creativity, fancy and imagination” [231-232]. In the last analysis, Swift’s work would highlight the inadequacy of Plato’s outlook. Incidentally, one is not a little pleased to observe that Pritika Nehra is about the only contributor to stress Swift’s interest in the concept of relativity.

Though the final chapter by John Price, ‘Modernizing Augustan Satire on Screen : Gulliver’s Travels [1996]’ may seem a little remote from philosophy, it nevertheless provides quite a stimulating approach to Swift’s text. Price selects for special study Ted Danson’s 1996 TV version of Gulliver’s Travels – a far from uninteresting rendering of Gulliver’s adventures since the character, confined to a lunatic asylum, revisits his voyages by means of flashbacks, the genuineness of which is occasionally left in doubt. Price combines a thorough understanding of the rhetoric of satire with a keen awareness of what a successful visual representation requires. It all looks as if the very difficulty of adapting Swift’s work to the screen, once duly explained, allowed one to better grasp its implications. A fitting epilogue to this scholarly and wide-ranging volume, which pays an appropriate tribute to Jonathan Swift, born 350 years ago.



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