Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise

By Kathleen Williams | Go to book overview

Chapter VI
GIDDY CIRCUMSTANCE

It has been the purpose of the preceding chapters to suggest that Swift, both by nature and by reason of the confused and transitional age in which he lived, was disposed to see the conditions of human life as chaotic and difficult. Desiring the order and unity and simplicity of traditional aspiration, he saw little hope of attaining it in man's world of deceit, and the ways of achieving order that were being tried in his lifetime could only succeed by leaving out half the truth about man and his world. Faced by extreme philosophies, extreme moral and political systems, each with its own neat little parody of completeness, Swift assumes a position between them, follows the middle way which will allow him to take advantage of the partial truths on either side and to drop what seems to him valueless. This necessity affects the form and the content of his satires alike. Swift is one of the most difficult writers of the very allusive and complicated satire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because he is trying to perform a particularly difficult task. For the problems which he saw, there could be only a tentative and partial solution: he is concerned to hold the precarious balance of a traditional view of man, his nature, his relation to his fellows, his God, and the world about him, in conditions increasingly hostile to it. To know that truth exists, but to acknowledge the difficulty of attaining it, to weigh the claims of mind and body, of eternal truth and inescapable "circumstance," was to be assailed from all sides. Extreme rationalism and enthusiasm, the determined optimism of Shaftesbury and the cynicism of Mandeville, all these divergent attitudes were in some way upsetting the balance, oversimplifying the complex and difficult reality and so moving further into the dangers of deception, making still harder the lot of man struggling to know himself and such truth as he may grasp. Swift's satire, consequently, is of a very complicated kind, for the extremes which he attacks are aberrations from a norm which is itself a compromise difficult to express in positive terms and existing in avoidance of error, that error of stressing one aspect of the human situation to the detri-

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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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