Jonathan Swift was considered a member of the group of intellectuals, philosophers and writers that helped to define The Age of Enlightenment. Although there were many satiric writers in the Enlightenment, Swift is perhaps one of the most apt representatives of the time period. Jonathan Swift is an important Enlightenment writer because of his use of satire, which was intended to be a vehicle for social change, during the turbulent religious and philosophical upheaval of his time.
In this era, thought was more important and significant than emotion, and the literature of the day reflected that change. The key concerns of the new Enlightenment philosophy were perfection of society, optimism, reason vs. rationality, order, and individualism. Swift’s writing was a reaction against the rapidly changing viewpoints of the seventeenth century.
The new science raised serious doubts in the minds of those moralists who did not share the optimistic assumptions of the new natural scientists, because they thought it threatened the important concept of virtue. This reaction is linked to many of the greatest writers in English literature. A few of the most famous were Jonathan Swift, an Anglican cleric, Alexander Pope, Roman Catholic, and Samuel Johnson, an orthodox Anglican. Swift, among others, was largely against the modern trends. His favorite method of attack was satire and his mood was largely pessimistic or cynical.
Swift was one of the members of the Scriblerus Club, a group of satirical writers. The club was associated with Robert Harley, who was a large influence on Jonathan Swift. Arbuthnot, Gay, Parnell, Pope, and Swift were the club’s chief members. The group met from January to July, 1714, though various members later collaborated on joint projects. The Club's activities resulted in the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, which Pope published in 1741. The club also influenced other writings by the individual authors, including Gulliver's Travels in 1726.
Swift did not buy into the great hopes of the new theoretical science and rational philosophy. He did not think that it would contribute to the moral improvement of human beings. On the contrary, he saw it as a very dangerous display of pride and confidence in the powers of human reasoning. This undermined what he believed was the most important point of traditional Christian faith, the belief that human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures.
Despite his tendency toward traditional Christian beliefs, Swift was not an advocate of a return to the sixteenth-century’s stringent religious viewpoints. He directed his satires mostly at those who were urging a more "irrational" approach to religion, namely the overly enthusiastic preachers. He wanted society to find moderation between the extreme irrationality of the new religions and the excessive rationality of the new natural philosophy.
For Swift and the other satirists, the new natural philosophy was a dangerous show of human pride and the rejection of the traditional wisdom. Swift distrusted the philosophy’s optimistic confidence that human problems were capable of human solutions by using appropriate methods. Thus, he was openly hostile to the growing hopes of theoretical and experimental science. He believed that human beings were not on this earth to be knowledgeable, happy, and powerful, but rather to be as morally virtuous as possible; and the central and most difficult challenge as a human being should be the quest for spiritual goodness.
Swift’s satiric writings took widely held beliefs and stretched them out of proportion with the intent of making them look absurd. Not only was this style pointing out that certain views were unacceptable, it also was entertaining the reader. Perhaps the best example of one of Swift’s more entertaining exploits was a satire he wrote in the form of an almanac.
In one specific case, Swift attacked the absurdity of astrology and simultaneously played mind games with his readers. He wrote under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff to parody an almanac that was published. John Partridge, a cobbler who claimed to be an astrologer, had published predictions in the form of an almanac. In the beginning of 1708, Swift produced a parody entitled Predictions For the Ensuing Year, by Isaac Bickerstaff. In the almanac, he foretold the death of Partridge on March 29th. He published a letter giving an account of Partridge's death on March 30. Partridge angrily protested that he was still alive, but Swift retorted in a Vindication proving that he was really dead. Other writers saw this golden opportunity and took up the joke. Steele, when he launched The Tatler in 1709, adopted the name of Bickerstaff for the supposed author.
Swift’s satire not only criticizes the church and philosophers, it also criticizes the reader. He approaches them as representatives of all people who calmly accept the wrongdoings of the world. He makes his readers uneasy by pointing out their own moral inadequacies. At the same time, his humor and extreme approach to presenting his opinions makes his writing amusing to read. It was this approach to dissidence that helped make Jonathan Swift one of the most popular authors of his time period and beyond.
Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed.
Critical Survey of Long Fiction, 2nd Revised Ed. Volume 7
The Oxford Companion to English Literature.
The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: The Western Tradition Seventh Ed. Volume 2.