More Than a Misanthrope: Johnathan Swift’s Philosophies

From its onset, Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has a misanthropic tone. A reader can reason that Swift is a misanthrope and that he holds nothing but hate for humanity. However, “It is true that Swift proclaimed himself a misanthrope in a letter to Alexander Pope, declaring that, though he loved individuals, he hated ‘that animal called man’ in general” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature 1056). Swift goes on in this letter to say that man is not a rational animal but an animal capable of reason. “This he declared, is the ‘great foundation’ on which his ‘misanthropy’ was erected” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature 1056). It is wrong to simply declare Swift a misanthrope when there is so much more to his ideologies.

We can see in his reasoning that Swift does not really hate man but man’s nature. It is important in understanding Swift’s work to comprehend his philosophy and where it originates.  

In his article “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver” Samuel Monk takes a look at these same letters that give so much insight into how Swift actually thought. “Swift’s life and letters support his assertion that he could and did love individuals. His hatred was directed against abstract man. Against men existing and acting within semi-human or dehumanized racial or professional groups. Apparently, he felt that when men submerge their individual judgments and moral beings in such groups, they necessarily further corrupt their already corrupted natures” (Monk 52). The corruptibility of man is not an idea of Swift’s own. Alexander Pope was also well aware of man’s delicate position in the world order. This world order was known in the enlightenment as the “chain of being.” Monk details this idea. “The whole of living creation was conceived to be carefully ordered and subtly graded in one vast ‘chain of being,’ descending from God, through an almost infinite number of pure intelligences, to man, and thence through the lower animals to microscopic forms of life, which finally end in nothing” (Monk 55). Man’s position in this chain is a tragic one. On one end we are linked to animals who are driven purely by the sensual and are limited to the physical. On the other end, we are connected to God who is omnipotent and omnipresent, not bounded by physical limitations. Man can either fall and become more like an animal, a slave to the sensual, or man can transcend the physical and become closer to God. Swift believes man exists further down the chain and rejects the notion that man is capable of exceeding its place on this chain. This is the root of his misanthropy.

Man’s precarious place on the chain is best revealed in the juxtaposition of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The horses represent what man should strive to immolate though he will never achieve it and the Yahoos are what man should fear becoming. Swift hates no individual but loathes man’s tendency to stray more toward the Yahoo side of the chain.

“As a clergyman, a spirited controversialist, and a devoted supporter of the Anglican Church, he was hostile to all who seemed to threaten it” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature 1055). Swift was always writing to oppose the ideas that he thought to be misinformed by these concepts of transcendence. Gulliver’s Travels was written at the height of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is defined by Britannica as “a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics” (Duignan). Swift detested the consequences of many of these so-called great advances. Some of these grand ideas such as

Rationalism and theoretical science were in direct misalignment with Swift’s ideas. “He detected with uncanny prescience the implications of such characteristic ideas as the following: Rationalism, especially Cartesianism, with its radical tendency to abstract truth into purely intellectual concepts, and its bold rejection of the experience and wisdom of the past. Swift doubted the capacity of human reason to attain metaphysical and theological truth. A safer guide in this life seemed to him to be what he called “common forms,” the time-approved wisdom of the race” (Monk 50). Furthermore, Swift found controversy with theoretical science that was propagated by the Royal Society. “Science gave sanction to the idea of progress, deluding men with the promise of an ever-expanding and improving future, which to Swift seemed necessarily chimerical, man being limited as he is. And finally, science unwittingly fostered the secularization of society and of human values, promising men mastery of nature and the abolition of all mysteries, and, by implication at least, of religion” (Monk 51).

Both of these disagreements with popular thought can be seen in part three of Gulliver’s Travels in Gulliver’s journey to Laputa when he visits their grand academy. This academy is home to many supposedly learned men who are essentially wasting their time in the pursuit of some outrageous experiment. This is all time that could have been spent actually helping the people, but the scientists are perhaps too vain to notice their folly. This should resonate as similar with Swift’s own problems with modern science.

Johnathan Swift has an incontestable place among the great satirists writers. However, to say that his work boils down to mere misanthropy is plainly wrong. Swift showed love in his letters to friends such as Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, John Arbuthnot and many more. He also had a couple of quasi-romantic relationships with women in which he exchanged letters and poetry as well as genuine care. Swift was motivated by a devotion to the Anglican church and strict interpretation of man’s place in the world. He saw real problems in society and offered criticism to help shape what should be done next. Johnathan Swift’s misanthropy recognized that man held an unfortunate place in the world. Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels about that very position. In an article referencing John Stubbs’ biography about Swift, Washington Post writer Matthew Adams writes that Swift is portrayed as “not the gloomy ogre described by the likes of Thackeray and Orwell. Nor is he sanitized or over-celebrated. Rather, he appears as the darkly complicated figure he was: endearing, repellent, amusing, formidable and always full of the characteristics one would expect of a man who — as he once put it to Alexander Pope — considered it his duty ‘to vex the world rather than divert it’” (Adams).

Works cited

Monk, Samuel H. “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 63, no. 1, 1955, pp. 48–71. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27538407.

Lipking, Lawrence, and Noggle, James, editors. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, 1055 – 1056.

Swift, Johnathan. Gulliver’s Travels. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Darmosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J. H., Pearson, 2012, 2371 – 2380

Swift, Johnathan. Gulliver’s Travels. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Darmosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J. H., Pearson, 2012, 2381 – 2426

Adams, Matthew. “Jonathan Swift: Not (entirely) the misanthrope you thought you knew” The Washington Post, 27 Feb. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/jonathan-swift-not-entirely-the-misanthrope-you-thought-you-knew/2017/02/27/5b0554b0-fd00-11e6-8f41-ea6ed597e4ca_story.html?noredirect=on. Accessed September 2019

de Valadés, Diego. The Great Chain of Being. 1579, Rhetorica Christiana. The Empire of Films. Word Press. https://theempireoffilms.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/the-great-chain-of-being/

Jervas, Charles. Johnathan Swift. 1718, National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Place, London. National Portrait Gallery, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw06171/Jonathan-Swift

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