Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise

By Kathleen Williams | Go to book overview

Chapter II
THE ORDERING MIND

Among the tasks with which the more traditional thinkers of the late seventeenth century were faced, perhaps the most difficult and the most pressing was that of maintaining the responsibility of man in various spheres, his power to shape circumstances. Swift no doubt felt the problem to be especially urgent, because his own personal need to assert his control over circumstances and over his own mind was markedly strong. Only thus could he hope to rise above his natural apprehensiveness, or overcome the dread of madness, and it is perhaps a sense of personal urgency which gives so sharp an edge to his pronouncements upon various ways of thought that might rob man of his human responsibility. Again a personal predicament vitalizes an intellectual position; but in any case the neoclassic tradition which Swift inherited had always stressed the importance of the ordering mind of man. Alone among the creatures, man was honored and burdened with the task of imposing unity on the multitudinous world, of finding some approximation to the order and meaning intended by the Divine Mind itself. For early and confident classicists like Sidney, and for Milton later, the process was related in its lesser way to the creative power of God, and though further philosophic developments prevented such a comparison in the Augustan period, the strenuous assertion of order, the interpretation of the flux of experience, remained up to Dr. Johnson's day an essential part of literary and also of moral activity. But the task, always an heroic one, became overpoweringly difficult in the situation in which the neoclassic tradition found itself at the turn of the century. Diyden's poetry and prose provide an epitome of the turmoil of the age: he inherits the high Renaissance classicism of the Elizabethans, with whom he has a certain temperamental affinity, but he is faced with the formidable influence of Hobbes and of the scientific movement at the moment of their greatest power. Dryden, with his lucid quick intelligence and his sensitiveness to the current of ideas in his time, was very well aware of his position

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Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents *
  • Chapter I - The Need for Compromise 1
  • Chapter II - The Ordering Mind 19
  • Chapter III - Reason and Virtue 43
  • Chapter IV - The Treasure of Baseness in Man 64
  • Chapter V - The Individual and the State 91
  • Chapter VI - Giddy Circumstance 118
  • Chapter VII - Animal Rationis Capax 154
  • Conclusion 210
  • Notes 219
  • Index 235
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