Lines on the Birthday of Dr Swift

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

It is my birthday this week. People have already started celebrating. Because for the last 350 years I have been vexing the world, they still gather to talk about me, to talk about my books. They write books about my books. One of my younger fellow-countrymen once said that he was writing ‘To keep the critics busy for three hundred years’. This is what I have done.

I have played a number of tricks on my readers, of course. They have read my texts, not always sure whether they were serious or ironical, thinking that they were parodies but not always sure parodies of what. Sometimes it seems simple. My ‘Meditation upon a Broom Stick’ was sometimes referred to as being ‘According to The Style and Manner of the Honourable Robert Boyle’s Meditations’. It mocks Boyle’s famous meditations, or it mocks perhaps the infatuation of Lady Berkeley for Boyle’s meditations. It tells us that a broom-stick is a tree turned upside-down, the Branches on the Earth, and the Root in the Air, the perfect companion to Man, this topsy-turvy Creature (his Animal Faculties perpetually mounted on his Rational; his Head where his Heels should be, groveling on the Earth). The joke may also be on the reader, who, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, fails to recognise his own picture.

Sometimes the jokes are more complex. I remember when poor Partridge, the astrologer, was being particularly irritating with his views on the relation between Church and State. I created the persona of Bickerstaff, parodied the form of the prediction, to attack him of course but also to dismiss the practice of almanacs. He tried to fight back but couldn’t; I predicted his death and confirmed it. He stood defeated. The problem is of course that, when I wanted to be serious, no one was quite sure whether I was, or not. For instance, I was determined to correct, improve and ascertain the English tongue; but some people argued that I could not possibly be putting forward such a project, having made fun of projectors throughout my writings.

Most of the time they could see that I was indulging in irony, but then they were ensnared, and could not dismiss my writings as simple fun. Because I force my readers to consider all the implications of my literary schemes. Take my modest proposal to Prevent the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick. It’s a wonderful plan, one that, as my new persona tried to explain, is based on scientific evidence, as communicated by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance: a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food. The children of needy people could therefore be sold to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom, to provide delicious nourishment. I computed that Dublin would take off, annually, about Twenty Thousand Carcasses; and the rest of the Kingdom the remaining Eighty Thousand. Had it been implemented, this scheme could have solved the problems of Ireland, reduced the numbers of Papists, brought money to the poorer part of the population, improved the activity in taverns, etc. Of course, I had nothing to gain by this scheme, for I had no Children, by which I could propose to get a single Penny; and my supposed wife, Esther Johnson, being past Child-bearing.

In A Tale of a Tub, I changed my voice again, adopting the persona of a modern to attack the moderns. This is one of my favourite devices, I am the enemy within. I use the other’s speech and I turn it inside out. No one quite knows, of course, with the Tale, what’s happening. It is a political tale. It is a religious tale. It is a tale about learning, which takes a stand in the battle of the books, which I also described, as it was happening, in St. James’s Library. It is an encyclopaedic text, with its myriad references, including to fictional texts, and perhaps the shortest encyclopaedia ever. There was even room for a digression in praise of digressions.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray, 1803.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray, 1803.

But then everybody’s favourite is Gulliver. The book of course is called Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World and penned by Lemuel Gulliver, who has perhaps become even more famous than me. Isn’t it odd that this book, which my friend Alexander thought I had made as bitter a pill for the public as possible, has also become one of the most widely read of children’s books? Of course children tend to read only the first two books, probably like Samuel Johnson who, apparently, said: ‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest.’ They watch the cartoon by Dave and Max Fleischer (1939) or the more mediocre recent film versions, they read countless adaptations. And as I write, the novelist Jonathan Coe is publishing a book for children whose model is Gulliver’s Travels: The Broken Mirror. My book of course is a bitter satire, a mirror in which we see everyone’s face reflected but our own. Perhaps this is why it still is so successful. Political factions among the little men, Gulliver’s fascination for war, the illusions of modern science which have taken hold of the projectors, not to mention Gulliver’s desire to negate his human passions and to become the model of rationality embodied by Houyhnhnms, all point in one direction: the stables, where man’s dreams and aspirations end up, where Gulliver is left to converse with his horses.

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

I have written so much more—poetry of course, I have preached sermons as Dean of St Patrick, in Dublin, I have published political tracts, I have engaged in fake and real correspondences. There is not a single literary endeavour where I haven’t left my mark. And I have often used these writings to engage with the condition of the Irish, to remind the London government of their unfair policies towards Ireland (remember ‘the Wood’s halfpence’?). But I believe that people in Ireland have continued to see me as the great defender of Irish liberties, as one of the shapers of Irish identity. I was hoping this might be the case, when I wrote my own obituary in verse:

He gave what little Wealth he had
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.

– Alexis Tadié


Adam Smith: poverty and famine

Adam Smith, drawing by John Kay, 1790.

Adam Smith, drawing by John Kay, 1790.

My Besterman lecture was a highly critical assessment of Adam Smith’s views on famine. In The Wealth of Nations (1776) Smith claims that in a free market economy famines will never occur. The famines that do occur are, according to Smith, the result of misconceived government interventions to prevent famine – a striking example of unintended consequences. Smith’s argument is that grain harvests never completely fail (as potato harvests do – but Smith does not consider the potato, which was not yet the main crop in Ireland). In a year of relatively bad harvest, price rises serve to ration the consumption of grain, and thus make the limited supply last through the year. Famines occur when governments artificially lower prices and thus cause supplies to run out.

Two texts have stayed in my mind as I have tried to get a grip on Smith’s views on famine. The first is Edward Thompson’s extraordinary essay, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” (1971), which introduced the term “moral economy” which has taken on a life of its own. Thompson’s article was a vigorous defence of those who rioted in support of demands for reductions in grain and bread prices – he and Smith are, two hundred years apart, arguing on opposite sides of the question.

E. P. Thompson (1924-1993)

E. P. Thompson (1924-1993)

The other is Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines (1981). Sen argued that famines can occur when there is no shortage of food if particular groups within the population lack the resources to access food. His classic study was on the Bengal famine of 1943 where more than two million died, even though the harvest had been adequate. On Sen’s account inflation caused by the war economy was the primary cause of famine, but the famine could easily have been prevented if the government had distributed grain to the starving. Sen’s argument is directly opposed to Adam Smith’s in that it shows that markets do not work to produce the best possible outcomes when it comes to the distribution of food.

Smith claimed to know a good deal about famine, and he wrote when the question of whether there should be a free market in grain was being vigorously debated. In France the physiocrats had argued for a free market, a policy which had been tried and had failed. In England 1774 was a year of bad harvests, accompanied by food riots.

Smith was quite right to think that England, where there was a relatively free market in grain, had not seen anything resembling a famine in his lifetime. But he completely failed to consider Ireland, where severe famines happened frequently. Worst of all was the famine of 1740-42, which killed 10% of the population, or 300,000 people. Smith had every reason to be familiar with Irish famine, for Jonathan Swift was one of his favourite authors and he had surely read Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729 – there were two copies in his library), suggesting that the Irish poor should breed children as livestock, to be consumed by the wealthy. Swift’s solution to the problem of starvation in Ireland was (in appearance) a perfect example of free market economics in practice.

Edmund Burke, c.1767, studio of Joshua Reynolds

Edmund Burke, c.1767, studio of Joshua Reynolds

Why did the Irish starve? For reasons that would have been familiar to Sen: because neither the government nor landlords intervened effectively to prevent the famine taking hold. In England, on the other hand, there were elaborate interventions, not only to feed the feeble and the unemployed, but also to subsidise bread for the poor and to distribute it free. If we turn from Smith’s Wealth of Nations to a slightly later text, Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on Scarcity (written during the near-famine years of 1795-96, and published posthumously) charity is given a central role in preventing famine.

Burke, Thompson and Sen have very different views, but all acknowledge precisely what Smith denies, the need for intervention to prevent famine in years of bad harvest. Smith himself published tables showing just how extreme the movement in grain prices was in bad years. Smith was right – the harvest very rarely fell more than 25% below the average, and there was always just about enough food to go round. But Smith was also fundamentally wrong: the working poor could not afford to feed themselves in bad years, and were dependent on charity to survive. Why was Smith unwilling to acknowledge the role of charity in preventing famine? I am afraid the answer has to be that his commitment to free market arguments was so dogmatic that he was unwilling to look with an impartial eye at the evidence. Smith was wrong, and his mistake had extremely serious consequences as it influenced policy towards famine through the nineteenth century.

– David Wootton
The University of York

The Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes across the Channel: Swift and Voltaire


Our book Ancients and Moderns in Europe: comparative perspectives is a collection of chapters covering three centuries of European quarrels over the legacy of classical Greece and Rome. With such a broad range of reference, it is inevitable that some key players in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes have lost the leading roles they played in earlier accounts. Voltaire, the tutelary spirit of ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’, is a case in point. His article on ‘Anciens et Modernes’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie is mentioned only once in the volume, in Ourida Mostefai’s essay on Rousseau’s critique of modernity (p.243-56), yet it is the clearest testimony we have of the Enlightenment’s conflicted sense of the quarrel as both inconsequential and absolutely unignorable. Let us therefore examine his article in more detail.


Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, detail

In ‘Anciens et Modernes’ Voltaire is himself guilty of certain omissions. Of the great voices of the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, Voltaire gives Fontenelle a good hearing, while Sir William Temple gets rough handling for his hatred of his century (‘Il possédait de grandes connaissances: un préjugé suffit pour gâter tout ce mérite’ [1]). Voltaire clearly saw the quarrel as a pan-European phenomenon, something that happened as much between Fontenelle and Temple as between Fontenelle and Boileau, or Temple and William Wotton. The comparative perspectives taken in Ancients and Moderns in Europe fit well with this vision of the dispute.

It is, furthermore, curious that Voltaire left Jonathan Swift, the author of ‘The Battel of the Books’, out of his article on the quarrel. There is, of course, abundant evidence of how largely Swift loomed in Voltaire’s literary imagination. On several occasions Voltaire called him ‘le Rabelais d’Angleterre’ (Voltaire to Nicolas Claude Thieriot, 13 February 1727), and always gave Swift the advantage in the comparison. Swift represented a particularly powerful, if not unambiguous manifestation of the qualities that Voltaire most admired in the British: ‘que j’aime la hardiesse anglaise!’, he wrote to the Marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759, thinking of the range of Swift’s satire, ‘que j’aime les gens qui disent ce qu’ils pensent!’. Why would Voltaire miss the opportunity to bring this most hardy of authors into the most celebrated of early-modern literary tussles?


The answer, perhaps, is that Voltaire knew Swift’s writing too well to mistake him for a quarreler. What Swift did was to adjudicate controversies, loudly and with much bias, from the sideline. In the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ [2] that Voltaire kept in 1726-28, the years of his residence in London and of his acquaintance with Swift and his circle, there is an entry in English with the Swiftian title ‘A Tale of a Tub’. In commonwealths and free countries, notes Voltaire, traders of all religions are welcome to argue with one another’s religion, so long as they continue otherwise to deal with one another ‘with trust and peace; like good players who after having humour’d their parts and fought against one another upon the stage, spend the rest of their time drinking together’ [3].

Swift by Jervas

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, detail

It is strange to see this Addisonian, cosmopolitan vision of modern Britain associated so closely with Swift. But the association happens consistently whenever Voltaire writes about him. It has long been understood that Zadig (1747) owes its high satirical relish for foolish disputes to Gulliver’s travels (which appeared in London in the same month as Voltaire himself), and particularly to the quarrel of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. As late as 1768 Voltaire returns in Pot-pourri to the world of ‘A Tale of a Tub’, and of hypocritical, energetic, and ultimately evanescent quarrels touched upon in that entry to the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’. Gulliver’s travels is so extremely funny, Voltaire told Nicolas Claude Thieriot in 1727, ‘par les imaginations singulières dont il est plein, par la légèreté de son stile, etc. quand il ne seroit pas d’ailleurs la satire du genre humain’. For Voltaire’s Swift, the disputes of his enemies are only ever a sideshow: his great quarrel, and the only one really worth having, is with the human animal itself.

– Paddy Bullard

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, 1968- ), vol.38 (2007), p.340.

[2] ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ in Voltaire’s Notebooks, ed. Theodore Besterman, Geneva, 1952, p.43.

[3] Ibid.