Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise

By Kathleen Williams | Go to book overview

Chapter III
REASON AND VIRTUE

For Swift, the consideration of reason as a moral force takes the traditional shape of the relation of reason to the passions and senses. The reconciliation of mind and body possible to the Neoplatonist Spenser was not, of course, possible for Swift in the age of dualism, and he adopts the more orthodox view of Christian classicism, that reason is the controller of the passions. Here again considerable dexterity and flexibility of mind were required if die wisdom of the past was to be upheld, for this was an age when for some thinkers reason alone, and for some feeling alone, was the source of the good life. Those who, like Swift and Pope, regarded either extreme as a dangerous simplification, attempted to follow a middle course more in accord with their inherited view of the nature of man, and to guide themselves safely between opposed dangers. Swift's task was to maintain the power of mind over the chaos of passions and senses, but to point out that it was a strictly limited power. To assert that the passions could be eliminated or quenched by the power of reason would be to take up a position nearer to the Stoics than to the fathers of the Church, and as well as being unorthodox it would be unrealistic. Swift, like Dryden, knew well enough that there were aspects of modern thought that he must accept, and the power of self-love, no less than the weakening of reason, had become a part of the consciousness of his age. It could not be simply ignored. His conception of reason as a moral faculty can be fairly summed up in these quotations from two of his sets of "Thoughts," or maxims:

Although reason were intended by providence to govern our passions, yet it seems that, in two points of the greatest moment to the being and continuance of the world, God hath intended our passions to prevail over reason. The first is, the propagation of the species, since no wise man ever married from the dictates of reason. The other is, the love of life, which, from the dictates of reason, every man would despise, and wish it at an end, or that it never had a beginning.1

The motives of the best actions will not bear too strict an inquiry. It is allow'd, that the cause of most actions, good or bad, may be resolved into the love of ourselves: but the self-love of some men, inclines them to please

-43-

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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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