Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise

By Kathleen Williams | Go to book overview

Chapter V
THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE STATE

No one, I think, would claim that Swift was at all a profound political thinker, though much may be claimed for his honesty and sincerity of purpose. But his political ideas, particularly those which bear upon the individual and his relation to the state, are interesting because they arise from the same attitude to man's nature as do his ideas on morality. It would not have occurred to him that political convictions could arise from any other source than one's conceptions of what sort of creature man is. Living in an age when political parties were only beginning to divorce themselves from opposed religious and moral positions, and when government was only beginning to need specialized knowledge and techniques, Swift remained in the older world. We know that government always seemed to him a matter not for the expert but for the well-informed and well-disposed man, and that he believed the politicians, by their deliberate secretiveness and knowing airs, made it seem far more difficult and specialized a thing than it really was. Swift's political allegiance turned, really, on the affairs of the church; he saw Whig and Tory in terms of tolerance or orthodoxy, and uppermost in his mind were the threats of Catholicism, Deism, and Dissent. The strength of the Anglican Church was his main concern, and the Church must be strong because man, being what he was, stood in desperate need of it. Among the conflicting ideas and "systems" of the age, in the midst of doubts and dangers, the one thing that stood firm and must continue to stand firm was the Christian truth embodied in the Church of England.

There is, however, a more precise relation between Swift's moral and political ideas than this general one of the weakness of man which makes a strong church essential. Like Mandeville, he is much concerned with the relation between the good man and the state in which he must live, and when he writes on religious subjects he often devotes much thought to goodness as it is seen in a public, a social context. This is a common enough practice in the period, perhaps because the problem which Mandeville stated so

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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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