Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise

By Kathleen Williams | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries constitute our great age of satire, the period when irony and obliquity seemed to many writers the most appropriate way of presenting their views on the subjects important to them, and it was appropriate because of certain conditions prevailing in the various spheres of life with which writers were concerned. Inheriting the Renaissance positives of nature and reason, the absolute standards of goodness and truth, which their predecessors had confidently celebrated, they found their positives inadequately interpreted and their beliefs assailed from all sides. In this situation a firm presentation of positive values was a hazardous undertaking, and difficult to achieve on any but a small scale. The most profound and inclusive statements of value to be found in the literature of the time are satiric: the close of The Dunciad, "Of the Use of Riches," "Of the Characters of Women," the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels. Traditional acceptances can now be best supported and expressed by attacking what is hostile to them, and by a shifting process of adjustment, compromise, balance. The single truth can be neither grasped in thought nor embodied in words; singleness and simplicity now only exist in the false abstractions of modern thinking. But a modest approximation to truth, a modest certainty, can be achieved and expressed by that strenuous and agile effort which issues in the serious Augustan wit. Positive truth is now best presented by implication, through the deployment of negative materials.

Among the great Augustans who looked to the integral life of the past and strove to protect and to adapt what still survived against the inroads of the Enlightenment, Swift is the most indirect, most shifting, yet most inexorable, of all. He is deeply conscious of the disturbing tendencies of the age and very earnest in carrying out the task that seems so urgent to him as the moralist he always -- and rightly -- claimed to be and as a man whose personal need to feel himself in control of experience is peculiarly strong. His materials and their organization, the form and content of the satires, are his response to a particular situation at a

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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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