Swift’s Real Argument

God only knows from whence came Freud’s theory of penis envy, but one
of his more tame theories, that of “reverse psychology”, may have its
roots in the satire of the late Jonathan Swift. I do not mean to assert
that Swift employed or was at all familiar with that style of
persuasion, but his style is certainly comparable. Reverse psychology
(as I chose to define it for this paper) means taking arguments that
affirm an issue to such a degree that they seem absurd, and thus oppose
the issue. Swift, in “An Argument Against The Abolishing Of
Christianity In England” stands up for Christianity, and based on the
absurdity of his defense, he inadvertently desecrates it. He sets up a
fictitious society in which Christianity is disregarded and disdained,
but nominal Christianity remains. The author writes to defend this
nominal Christianity from abolition. The arguments that the author uses,
which are common knowledge in his time, if applied to Christianity in
Swift’s time would be quite dangerous allegations. Indeed, the reasons
that Swift gives for the preservation of the fictitious Christianity
are exactly what he sees wrong with the Christianity practiced in his
time. By applying Swift’s satirical argument for the preservation of
this fictitious religion to that which was currently practiced, Swift
asserts that their Christianity served ulterior motives, both for the
government and for the people.

If we are to prove that the government was using religion for selfish
purposes, we must be sure that it was not serving its intended purpose,
the assurance of the moral sanctity of its policies. This is quite
evident in the author’s comment that if real Christianity was revived,
it would be, “destroy at one blow all the wit and half the learning of
the kingdom; to break the entire frame and constitution of things.”
This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christianity has no
influence on the government’s current policies. It even seems as if the
government established Church isn’t completely rooted in Christianity,
as the author weakly suggests that, “Abolishing Christianity may
perhaps bring the church into danger.”
The ways that the government actually uses Christianity are completely
selfish. One such purpose is the consolation of allies, “among whom, for
we ought to know, it may be the custom of the country to believe a God.”
He later goes on to suggest the abolition of Christianity in peace-time
in order to avoid the loss of allies. It also seems as if the
government uses Christianity to pacify the commoners. Although Swift
sarcastically interjects, “Not that I agree with those who hold
religion to have been the intervention of politicians to keep the lower
part of the world in awe,” he also says that religion is, “Of singular
use for the common people.”
In other instances, the government does not use, but certainly benefits
from Christianity. In several ways Christianity is a buffer from
dissension, in that it takes a blow that might have instead landed on
government. Many of the reasons that the author’s opposition has given
for abolishing Christianity deals with the settlement of unrest that
comes from religious disputes. One such example they give is that if
Christianity were abolished, there would be no more persecution of
“blasphemers”. Swift answers that these people are naturally inclined to
rebel against establishments. Therefore, if the church, their favorite
object of rebellion, was taken away, they would resort to rebelling
against the government. This statement suggests that ,”deorum offensa
diis curae” (offenses against the gods are the god’s business). If
applied to the English government, it accuses them of only punishing
“blasphemers” in the interest of protecting the government. Another
argument that the author counters is that upon the fall of Christianity,
Protestants and other dissenters would be able to again join in
communion with the Catholic church. To this, the author retorts that
while this may take away one reason for dissension, “spirit of
opposition” would still remain. Thus, when these Protestants found
themselves unhappily thrust back into the fold, they would simply find
another area in which to dissent, and this time it may be an important
area like government. While reaffirming the government’s selfish
motives, this accuses the Protestants of separating from the Catholic
church not because of moral differences, but in order to quench their
desire to rebel. Another unity that the author’s opposition predicted
would come from Christianity’s fall would that of political and
religious parties. Swift answers that these parties used religious
differences as an excuse to argue, and that, if necessary, they would
find any number of other matters to argue about. One very lilliputian
example that he gives is that of two Italian factions that spawned from
a dispute over the color of some ribbons. The author asserts that, much
like the Protestants, these parties used religion as an excuse to
fulfill their selfish desire to argue.

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Like the politicians, the people also have disposed of Christianity as
far as letting influence their actions. The Christianity then practiced
has no relation to real Christianity, “Such as used in primitive
times”, “to have an influence upon men’s beliefs and actions.”
Apparently, even belief in a god, “is more than is required of us”
(Christians). Also, “By an entire change in the methods of education,”
“the young gentlemen who are now on the scene seem to have not the least
tincture of virtue, honor, etc..” This new generation, while not
believing in the morals associated Christianity, still gain from their
existence. While they disobey the laws associated with these morals,
Swift asserts that breaking the rule wouldn’t be nearly as fun if it
wasn’t considered wrong.

The people also value church for selfish reasons. As Swift explains,
church is many things for many people, none of which include spiritual
fulfillment. For social butterflies, church is the perfect place to
hob-knob or show off your latest outfit. For the businessman, “where
more meetings for business?”, “where more bargains driven of all sorts?”
Finally, for the insomniac, “where so many conveniences or enticements
to sleep?” These statements apply more directly than any others in the
article to the high church of England.

All of the things that Swift says about this fictional religion would be
very strong words if applied to the Church of England. It might be
readily conceived by the innocent reader that Swift was an enemy of the
church in his time. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Swift was
involved in the church and politics all his life, often in the position
of supporting political and religious factions. While this could be used
to counter my thesis that Swift was criticizing the establishment, it
can just as easily support it. Swift obviously didn’t hate government or
the church, on the contrary, it was his love of these things that led
him to point out the injustices that were scarring them. Like a mother
scolding her child, Swift finds fault in his beloved church, only that
he may edify it.Words
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