Monday, February 9, 2009

Swift's "Argument Against Abolishing Christianity" (1708)

Reading through the novels of Dostoevsky during the last few months, I got to thinking about Swift's satiric Argument. I'll have to try to explain the connection later. Here, for now, is some of the purest satiric prose ever written:

Swift begins his satiric 'argument' by apologizing to his readers for being so foolish as to oppose the opinion of the majority on this matter, which--he says--is like opposing "the voice of god." Yet, though "it may be neither safe nor prudent to argue against abolishing Christianity at a time when all parties appear so unanimously determined on the point, I know not how, whether from the affectation of singularity or the perverseness of human nature, but so it unhappily falls out, that I cannot be of this opinion. Nay, although I were sure an order were issued for my immediate prosecution...I should still confess that in the present posture of our affairs at home or abroad, I do not yet see the absolute necessity of extirpating the Christian religion from among us. This perhaps may appear too great a paradox even for our wise and paradoxical age to endure; therefore I shall handle it with the utmost deference to that great and profound majority which is of another sentiment.

And yet the curious may please to observe how much the [character] of a nation is liable to alter in half a century: I have heard it affirmed for certain by some very old people that the contrary opinion was [once] as much in vogue as the other is now, and that a project for abolishing Christianity would then... have been thought as absurd, as it should be at this time to write or discourse in its defence.

THEREFORE I freely own that all appearances are against me. The System of the Gospels, after the fate other systems is generally antiquated and exploded, and the mass or body of the common people... are now grown as much ashamed of it as their betters--opinions, like fashions always descending from those of quality to the middle sort, and thence to the vulgar, where at length they are dropped and vanish.

But here I would not be mistaken [i.e. misunderstood] and must therefore be so bold as to borrow a distinction from the writers on the other side [i.e. defenders of Catholicism, perhaps] when they make a difference between nominal and real Trinitarians. I hope no reader imagines me so weak-minded as to stand up in the defense of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times (if we may believe the authors of those ages) to have an influence upon men's belief and actions: To offer at [argue for] the restoration of that would indeed by a wild project; it would be to dig up foundations, to destroy at one blow all the wit and half the learning of the kingdom, to break the entire frame and constitution of things, to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences and the professors of them: in short to turn our courts, exchanges and shops into deserts . . . .

THEREFORE, I think this caution was in itself altogether unnecessary, since every candid reader will easily understand my discourse to be intended only in defense of nominal Christianity, the other having been for some time wholly laid aside by general consent as utterly inconsistent with our present schemes of wealth and power.

And so the trap is sprung, the poor reader is left hanging, and the 'argument' proceeds, in which the material advantages of preserving the appearance at least of Christian faith, virtue and integrity are thoroughly and exhaustively demonstrated. And the reason why Swift's satire hurts, even today, is that its seemingly preposterous premise (the irrelevance of real Christianity) is essentially true. That's how satire works.

By 1700, England had become the first relatively 'modern' nation and state; to put it as crudely as possible, the state of one's soul had become politically and socially irrelevant; what mattered was the size of one's wallet or bank-account. Money, believe it or not is an equalizer--over time: the old rule of thumb in England was that it took three generations to make a gentleman.

1 comment:

  1. As my wife, Carol, says, "A person who is up for sale need never be all bad." Hitler was incorruptible. The fact that he desperately wanted atomic scientists could not tempt him to let Jews live. Nasrallah is incorruptible. He said about Jews, according to the Lebanon Daily Star in 2002, "It they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide."

    You can't find a Christian or a Jew today who advocates executing witches or homosexuals, despite what the Bible says.