Jonathan Swift's Irish father died seven months before his son was born in 1667. His English mother, a vicar's sister, was said to have returned to England leaving Jonathan, still very young, to be brought up by his father's family.
Thanks to the care of his generous uncle Godwin, he was educated at Kilkenny School then Trinity College, Dublin (1682) receiving his BA in 1686. (He was later to receive his Doctor of Divinity degree also from Trinity College, in 1702).
James II's abdication and Irish invasion caused Swift, with other Anglo-Irish, to leave for England where he was lodged by kinsman Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat and acquaintance of King William.
It was when he later resided in Moor Park, London, that he met eight year old Esther Johnson, the daughter of a house-maid. Swift became her tutor and mentor, giving her the nickname 'Stella' and they remained very close, to a mysteriously and controversially degree, for as long as Esther lived.
As a young man Jonathan Swift read a great deal, and as he decided without much enthusiasm on an ecclesiastical career, he took orders. During this time he also discovered his own gifts as a satirist. It's thought that between 1696-97 he wrote his satires on corruption in religion and learning.
He returned to Ireland when he was 32 years old as chaplain to the Lord justice, Earl of Berkeley, and already fully conscious of his gift as a writer, he devoted the rest of his life to religion and politics which were still correlated at that epoch. He was a staunch defender of the Anglican Church against the many who then seemed to threaten it.
Appreciated for his services, including his brilliant political journalism, (for the Tories as well as the Whigs) he was granted a deanship in Dublin, (St. Patrick's Cathedral) although he would have preferred a post, if not more prestigious, in England. This was in 1713, a year before Queen Anne died, and the Tories were defeated.
In 1724 he became leader of the Irish resistance against English oppression. He wrote under the pseudonym of 'M. B. Drapier'. All of Dublin knew who 'M. B. Draper' really was, but no one ever claimed the reward of £300 offered by the government for information that would lead to revealing the writer's true identity.
Swift is still regarded in Ireland today as a national hero. He fully merited the title he wrote for his own epitaph, '(...) vigorous Champion of Liberty'.
His final years were more gloomy, also due to what is now known he had always suffered from: Ménère's disease, causing deafness, vertigo and nausea. This with old age cast the final shadow on his duties as dean, as well as on his social life. Symptoms of madness were also manifest and he suffered terribly from what may have been an abscess in his left eye (1742). He died the 19th October, 1745.
His famous 'Gulliver's Travels' has been thought to express fierce misanthropy. It's true that he considered himself a misanthrope. He declared however, that he loved individuals, but hated "that animal called man": 'animal rationis capax' (an animal capable of reason).
He regarded human nature as being permanently defective, and was persuaded that nothing could be done to remedy this until man's moral and intellectual limitations were recognised.
He is considered to be one of the greatest writers of prose in the history of English literature.
As much of today's world seems to be engorged and swept along in a moving mire of tedious religious turmoil, fundamentalist fatwas, jihads, dogmatic doctrines and papal faux-pas, perhaps some of the 'Irish holy-water' of Swift's satire could, if not dilute things down a little, at least provide some light refreshment.
Here, for example, is an excerpt and conclusion from his- "An argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England may, as things now stand, be attended with some inconveniences, and perhaps not produce those many good effects proposed thereby". (Swift's argument against the 'Test Act' of 1673).
'(...) I confess, if it were certain that so great an advantage would redound to the nation by this expedient, I would submit and be silent: but will any man say that if the words whoring, drinking, cheating, lying, stealing, were by act of Parliament ejected out of the English tongue and dictionaries, we should all awake next morning chaste and temperate, honest and just, and lovers of truth? Is this a fair consequence? Or, if the physicians would forbid us to pronounce the words pox, gout, rheumatism, and stone, would that expedient serve like so many talismans to destroy the diseases themselves? Are party and faction rooted in men's hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles?
And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them? Are envy, pride, avarice, and ambition such ill nomenclators that they cannot furnish appellations for their owners? Will not heydukes and marmalukes, mandarins and patshaws, or any other words formed at pleasure, serve to distinguish those who are in the ministry from others who would be in it if they could? What, for instance, is easier than to vary the form of speech, and instead of the church, make it a question in politics whether the Monument° be in danger? Because religion was nearest at hand to furnish a few convenient phrases, is our invention so barren we can find no others? Suppose, for argument sake, that the Tories favored Margarita, the Whigs Mrs. Tofts, and the Trimmers Valentini,¹ would not Margaritians, Toftians, and Valentinians be very tolerable marks of distinction? The Prasini and Veniti,² two most virulent factions in Italy, began (if I remember right) by a distinction of colors in ribbons, which we might do with as good a grace about the dignity of the blue and the green, and would serve as properly to divide the court, the Parliament, and the kingdom between them, as any terms of art whatsoever borrowed from religion. Therefore I think there is little force in this objection against Christianity, or prospect of so great an advantage as is proposed in the abolishing of it (...).'
'(...) And therefore, if notwithstanding all I have said, it still be thought necessary to have a bill brought in for repealing Christianity, I would humbly offer an amendment; that instead of the word Christianity may be put religion in general; which I conceive will much better answer all the good ends proposed by the projectors of it. For, as long as we leave in being a God and his providence, with all the necessary consequences which curious and inquisitive men will be apt to draw from such premises, we do not strike at the root of evil, though we should ever so effectually annihilate the present scheme of the Gospel. For of what use is freedom of thought, if it will not produce freedom of action, which is the sole end, how remote soever in appearance, of all objections against Christianity? And, therefore the freethinkers consider it as a sort of edifice wherein all parts have such mutual dependence on each other that if you happen to pull out one single nail, the whole fabric must fall to the ground. This was happily expressed by him who had heard of a text brought for proof of the Trinity, which in an ancient manuscript was differently read; he thereupon immediately took the hint, and by a sudden deduction of a long sorites,³ most logically concluded, "Why, if it be as you say, I may safely whore and drink on, and defy the parson." From which, and many the like instances easy to be produced, I think nothing can be more manifest than the quarrel is not against any particular points of hard digestion in the Christian system, but against religion in general; which, by laying restraints on human nature, is supposed the great enemy to the freedom of thought and action.
Upon the whole, if it shall still be thought for the benefit of Church and State that Christianity be abolished, I conceive, however, it may be more convenient to defer the execution to a time of peace, and not venture in this conjuncture to disoblige our allies, who, as it falls out, are all Christians; and many of them, by the prejudices of their education, so bigoted as to place a sort of pride in the appellation. If upon being rejected by them, we are to trust to an alliance with the Turk, we shall find ourselves much deceived: for, as he is too remote, and generally engaged at war with the Persian emperor, so his people would be more scandalized at our infidelity than our Christian neighbours. Because the Turks are not only strict observers of religious worship, but what is worse, believe in God; which is more than requires of us even while we preserve the name of Christians.
To conclude: whatever some may think of the great advantages to trade by this favorite scheme, I do very much apprehend that in six months time after the act is passed for the extirpation of the Gospel, the Bank and East-India Stock may fall at least one per cent. And since that is fifty times more than ever the wisdom of our age thought fit to venture for the preservation of Christianity, there is no reason we should be at so great loss merely for the sake of destroying it.'
° The column which commemorates the Great Fire of London.
¹ Singers in the popular Italian opera.
² Rivals fiercely supported by the people in the Roman chariot races
³ An argument when one proposition is accumulated on another (Johnson's Dictionary)
Text by Mirino. Sources and Swift's citations- Norton Anthology English Literature. Wikipedia. Gulliver illustration by Louis Rhead. Portraits (modified by M) by unknown artists, with grateful thanks. February, 2011.