Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667 in Dublin, Ireland, the son of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents: his ancestors had been Royalists, and all his life he would be a High-Churchman. His father, also Jonathan, died a few months before he was born, upon which his mother, Abigail, returned to England, leaving her son behind, in the care of relatives. In 1673, at the age of six, Swift began his education at Kilkenny Grammar School, which was, at the time, the best in Ireland. Between 1682 and 1686 he attended, and graduated from, Trinity College in Dublin, though he was not, apparently, an exemplary student.
In 1688 William of Orange invaded England, initiating the Glorious Revolution: with Dublin in political turmoil, Trinity College was closed, and an ambitious Swift took the opportunity to go to England, where he hoped to gain preferment in the Anglican Church. In England, in 1689, he became secretary to Sir William Temple, a diplomat and man of letters, at Moor Park in Surrey. There Swift read extensively in his patron's library, and met Esther Johnson, who would become his "Stella," and it was there, too, that he began to suffer from Meniere's Disease, a disturbance of the inner ear which produces nausea and vertigo, and which was little understood in Swift's day. In 1690, at the advice of his doctors, Swift returned to Ireland, but the following year he was back with Temple in England. He visited Oxford in 1691: in 1692, with Temple's assistance, he received an M. A. degree from that University, and published his first poem: on reading it, John Dryden, a distant relation, is said to have remarked "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet."
In 1694, still anxious to advance himself within the Church of England, he left Temple's household and returned to Ireland to take holy orders. In 1695 he was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland, the Irish branch of the Anglican Church, and the following year he returned to Temple and Moor Park.
Between 1696 and 1699 Swift composed most of his first great work, A Tale of a Tub, a prose satire on the religious extremes represented by Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, and in 1697 he wrote The Battle of the Books, a satire defending Temple's conservative but beseiged position in the contemporary literary controversy as to whether the works of the "Ancients" — the great authors of classical antiquity — were to be preferred to those of the "Moderns." In 1699 Temple died, and Swift traveled to Ireland as chaplain and secretary to the Earl of Berkeley.
In 1700 he was instituted Vicar of Laracor — provided, that is, with what was known as a "Living" — and given a prebend in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. These appointments were a bitter disappointment for a man who had longed to remain in England. In 1701 Swift was awarded a D. D. from Dublin University, and published his first political pamphlet, supporting the Whigs against the Tories. 1704 saw the anonymous publication of A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, and The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit.
In 1707 Swift was sent to London as emissary of Irish clergy seeking remission of tax on Irish clerical incomes. His requests were rejected, however, by the Whig government and by Queen Anne, who suspected him of being irreligious. While in London he he met Esther Vanhomrigh, who would become his "Vanessa." During the next few years he went back and forth between Ireland and England, where he was involved — largely as an observer rather than a participant — in the highest English political circles.
In 1708 Swift met Addison and Steele, and published his Bickerstaff Papers, satirical attacks upon an astrologer, John Partridge, and a series of ironical pamphlets on church questions, includingAn Argument Against Abolishing Christianity.
In 1710, which saw the publication of "A Description of a City Shower," Swift, disgusted with their alliance with the Dissenters, fell out with Whigs, allied himself with the Tories, and became the editor of the Tory newspaper The Examiner. Between 1710 and 1713 he also wrote the famous series of letters to Esther Johnson which would eventually be published as The Journal to Stella. In 1713 Swift was installed as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin — a promotion which was, again, a disappointment.
The Scriblerus Club, whose members included Swift, Pope, Congreve, Gay, and Arbuthnot, was founded in 1714. In the same year, much more unhappily for Swift, Queen Anne died, and George I took the throne. With his accession the Tories fell from power, and Swift's hopes for preferment in England came to an end: he returned to Ireland "to die," as he says, "like a poisoned rat in a hole." In 1716 Swift may or may not have married Esther Johnson. A period of literary silence and personal depression ensued, but beginning in 1718, he broke the silence, and began to publish a series of powerful tracts on Irish problems.
In 1720 he began work upon Gulliver's Travels, intended, as he says in a letter to Pope, "to vex the world, not to divert it." 1724-25 saw the publication of The Drapier Letters, which gained Swift enormous popularity in Ireland, and the completion of Gulliver's Travels. The progressive darkness of the latter work is an indication of the extent to which his misanthropic tendencies became more and more markedly manifest, had taken greater and greater hold upon his mind. In 1726 he visited England once again, and stayed with Pope at Twickenham: in the same year Gulliver's Travels was published.
Swift's final trip to England took place in 1727. Between 1727 and 1736 publication of five volumes of Swift-Pope Miscellanies. "Stella" died in 1728. In the following year, A Modest Proposal was published. 1731 saw the publication of Swift's ghastly "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed."
By 1735, when a collected edition of his Works was published in Dublin, his Meniere's disease became more acute, resulting in periods of dizziness and nausea: at the same time, prematurely, his memory was beginning to deteriorate. During 1738 he slipped gradually into senility, and finally suffered a paralytic stroke: in 1742 guardians were officially appointed to care for his affairs.
from Gulliver Travels: Part 4, Chapter 5
The author at his master's command, informs him of the state of England. The causes of war among the princes of Europe. The author begins to explain the English constitution.
The reader may please to observe, that the following extract of many conversations I had with my master, contains a summary of the most material points which were discoursed at several times for above two years; his honour often desiring fuller satisfaction, as I farther improved in the HOUYHNHNM tongue. I laid before him, as well as I could, the whole state of Europe; I discoursed of trade and manufactures, of arts and sciences; and the answers I gave to all the questions he made, as they arose upon several subjects, were a fund of conversation not to be exhausted. But I shall here only set down the substance of what passed between us concerning my own country, reducing it in order as well as I can, without any regard to time or other circumstances, while I strictly adhere to truth. My only concern is, that I shall hardly be able to do justice to my master's arguments and expressions, which must needs suffer by my want of capacity, as well as by a translation into our barbarous English.
In obedience, therefore, to his honour's commands, I related to him the Revolution under the Prince of Orange; the long war with France, entered into by the said prince, and renewed by his successor, the present queen, wherein the greatest powers of Christendom were engaged, and which still continued: I computed, at his request, "that about a million of YAHOOS might have been killed in the whole progress of it; and perhaps a hundred or more cities taken, and five times as many ships burnt or sunk."
He asked me, "what were the usual causes or motives that made one country go to war with another?" I answered "they were innumerable; but I should only mention a few of the chief. Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern; sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration. Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more.
Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
"Sometimes the quarrel between two princes is to decide which of them shall dispossess a third of his dominions, where neither of them pretend to any right. Sometimes one prince quarrels with another for fear the other should quarrel with him. Sometimes a war is entered upon, because the enemy is too strong; and sometimes, because he is too weak. Sometimes our neighbours want the things which we have, or have the things which we want, and we both fight, till they take ours, or give us theirs. It is a very justifiable cause of a war, to invade a country after the people have been wasted by famine, destroyed by pestilence, or embroiled by factions among themselves. It is justifiable to enter into war against our nearest ally, when one of his towns lies convenient for us, or a territory of land, that would render our dominions round and complete. If a prince sends forces into a nation, where the people are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to death, and make slaves of the rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous way of living. It is a very kingly, honourable, and frequent practice, when one prince desires the assistance of another, to secure him against an invasion, that the assistant, when he has driven out the invader, should seize on the dominions himself, and kill, imprison, or banish, the prince he came to relieve. Alliance by blood, or marriage, is a frequent cause of war between princes; and the nearer the kindred is, the greater their disposition to quarrel; poor nations are hungry, and rich nations are proud; and pride and hunger will ever be at variance. For these reasons, the trade of a soldier is held the most honourable of all others; because a soldier is a YAHOO hired to kill, in cold blood, as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.
"There is likewise a kind of beggarly princes in Europe, not able to make war by themselves, who hire out their troops to richer nations, for so much a day to each man; of which they keep three-fourths to themselves, and it is the best part of their maintenance: such are those in many northern parts of Europe."
"What you have told me," said my master, "upon the subject of war, does indeed discover most admirably the effects of that reason you pretend to: however, it is happy that the shame is greater than the danger; and that nature has left you utterly incapable of doing much mischief. For, your mouths lying flat with your faces, you can hardly bite each other to any purpose, unless by consent. Then as to the claws upon your feet before and behind, they are so short and tender, that one of our YAHOOS would drive a dozen of yours before him. And therefore, in recounting the numbers of those who have been killed in battle, I cannot but think you have said the thing which is not."
I could not forbear shaking my head, and smiling a little at his ignorance. And being no stranger to the art of war, I gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea fights, ships sunk with a thousand men, twenty thousand killed on each side, dying groans, limbs flying in the air, smoke, noise, confusion, trampling to death under horses' feet, flight, pursuit, victory; fields strewed with carcases, left for food to dogs and wolves and birds of prey; plundering, stripping, ravishing, burning, and destroying. And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, "that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators."
I was going on to more particulars, when my master commanded me silence. He said, "whoever understood the nature of YAHOOS, might easily believe it possible for so vile an animal to be capable of every action I had named, if their strength and cunning equalled their malice. But as my discourse had increased his abhorrence of the whole species, so he found it gave him a disturbance in his mind to which he was wholly a stranger before.
He thought his ears, being used to such abominable words, might, by degrees, admit them with less detestation: that although he hated the YAHOOS of this country, yet he no more blamed them for their odious qualities, than he did a GNNAYH (a bird of prey) for its cruelty, or a sharp stone for cutting his hoof. But when a creature pretending to reason could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that, instead of reason we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill shapen body, not only larger but more distorted."
He added, "that he had heard too much upon the subject of war, both in this and some former discourses. There was another point, which a little perplexed him at present. I had informed him, that some of our crew left their country on account of being ruined by law; that I had already explained the meaning of the word; but he was at a loss how it should come to pass, that the law, which was intended for every man's preservation, should be any man's ruin. Therefore he desired to be further satisfied what I meant by law, and the dispensers thereof, according to the present practice in my own country; because he thought nature and reason were sufficient guides for a reasonable animal, as we pretended to be, in showing us what he ought to do, and what to avoid."
I assured his honour, "that the law was a science in which I had not much conversed, further than by employing advocates, in vain, upon some injustices that had been done me: however, I would give him all the satisfaction I was able."
I said, "there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbour has a mind to my cow, he has a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now, in this case, I, who am the right owner, lie under two great disadvantages: first, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which is an unnatural office he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will. The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law. And therefore I have but two methods to preserve my cow. The first is, to gain over my adversary's lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by insinuating that he hath justice on his side. The second way is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he can, by allowing the cow to belong to my adversary: and this, if it be skilfully done, will certainly bespeak the favour of the bench. Now your honour is to know, that these judges are persons appointed to decide all controversies of property, as well as for the trial of criminals, and picked out from the most dexterous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy; and having been biassed all their lives against truth and equity, lie under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known some of them refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty, by doing any thing unbecoming their nature or their office.
"It is a maxim among these lawyers that whatever has been done before, may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice, and the general reason of mankind. These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities to justify the most iniquitous opinions; and the judges never fail of directing accordingly.
"In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the merits of the cause; but are loud, violent, and tedious, in dwelling upon all circumstances which are not to the purpose. For instance, in the case already mentioned; they never desire to know what claim or title my adversary has to my cow; but whether the said cow were red or black; her horns long or short; whether the field I graze her in be round or square; whether she was milked at home or abroad; what diseases she is subject to, and the like; after which they consult precedents, adjourn the cause from time to time, and in ten, twenty, or thirty years, come to an issue.
"It is likewise to be observed, that this society has a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply; whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong; so that it will take thirty years to decide, whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me, or to a stranger three hundred miles off.
"In the trial of persons accused for crimes against the state, the method is much more short and commendable: the judge first sends to sound the disposition of those in power, after which he can easily hang or save a criminal, strictly preserving all due forms of law."
Here my master interposing, said, "it was a pity, that creatures endowed with such prodigious abilities of mind, as these lawyers, by the description I gave of them, must certainly be, were not rather encouraged to be instructors of others in wisdom and knowledge." In answer to which I assured his honour, "that in all points out of their own trade, they were usually the most ignorant and stupid generation among us, the most despicable in common conversation, avowed enemies to all knowledge and learning, and equally disposed to pervert the general reason of mankind in every other subject of discourse as in that of their own profession."