Jonathan Swift is today known as perhaps the one of the greatest satirists of all time, due to his (initially) anonymous publication of A Modest Proposal, which proposed cannibalism (among other things) as a solution to overpopulation, poverty and famine in Ireland. It was, to his amusement, taken seriously.

Swift also wrote Gulliver's Travels, which is more sharp political commentary disguised as a children's book (see saint's writeup below for correction). He also pulled a couple of social engineering hacks, such as having a political rival of his declared legally dead, complete with mocking obituary.

Jonathan Swift was born on November 30 1667 in Dublin, Ireland to Anglo-Irish parents. His father died before his first birthday. He was blessed with the best education available at the time, and upon the invasion of Ireland by William of Orange, fled to England. There he became heavily involved in politics.

He became a staunch supporter of the Protestant Church, and worked hard to publicise the plight of his fellow Irishmen, who were being treated despicably by the English at the time (with the results still visible today). He died on 19 October 1745, aged 78, after a stroke, and suffering from 'senility'.

He kept his edge to the last - his last will and testament provided funds to establish in Dublin a hospital for "ideots & lunaticks", because "No Nation needed it so much."

Selected works include:

There are plenty of biographies that are far more detailed than this one, and go in to detail regarding his politics, religious affiliations, love life (or lack of it) etcetera, but most of it said better by other writeups in this node, and at the following locations, which is where the above came from:

One correction for Jetifi's otherwise comprehensive write-up: Gulliver's Travels is not a children's book. Interestingly, when it first came out it was printed as Gulliver's Travels by Lemuel Gulliver - that is, it was meant to be taken as a genuine travelogue. People wrote letters outraged at the barefaced lies Mr Gulliver was telling, whilst some actually believed it! (Most, of course, got the joke.) If one examines the supposed geography of his trip it becomes clear that all the places he visits were in unknown parts of the world: noone would have known if he had visited them. Also, the ending is sufficiently dark that any wee kiddlywink would be pretty damn disturbed by it. One major part of its significance is the fact that it was one of the first major texts which played on our conceptions about authorship and the trust we place in the narrator.

Sooner or later I'll put a more detailed discussion of the book under Gulliver's Travels.

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.

Ubi Saeva Indignatio
Cor Lacerare Nequit
Abi Viator
Et Imitare Si Poteris
Strenuum Pro Virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem

Above is Jonathan Swift's Epitaph, in its original Latin. Swift wanted the words to be inscribed deep, dark, large and bold. He wanted a statement to be made. Below, is William Butler Yeats' translation of the epitaph. The use of the words "If you dare" is pure Swift, referring, I think to Swift's merciless humour and satire.

SWIFT has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

tr. W.B. Yeats

(These epigrams were written by Swift around 1706)

We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another.

No wise man ever wished to be younger.

Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly.

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this infallible sign: that the dunces are in confederacy against him.

Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.

A nice man is a man of nasty ideas.

If a man will observe as he walks the streets, I believe he find the merriest countenances in mourning coaches.

The latter part of a wise man's life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.

The power of Fortune is confessed only by the miserable, for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit.

Apollo was held the god of physick and sender of diseases. Both were originally the same trade, and still continue.

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