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Satire

The 1662 Press Act opened English printing presses to publish satirical tracts, and even religion was included in the mockery. Ironically, for a hundred years after the legalization of freedom of speech, a main method of disputation was irony, that is, the use of indirect speech, saying the opposite of what one means, and the satirical adoption of one’s opponent’s position, to reduce it to logical absurdity. One cannot see the true face of a writer masked in irony. What did Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mean when, in ‘An Argument against Abolishing Christianity’, he argued that abolishing the Established Church would sink the Bank of England?[1] Swift’s tract mocked the rationalist Unitarian John Toland (1670-1722), but its surface, at least, mocks Anglicanism. Swift was the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. He wrote a tract proposing to alleviate Irish food shortages by consuming Irish babies. In Swift’s fantasy novel Gulliver’s Travels, the hero lives among super-rational horses, the Houyhnhnm, whose perennial foes are degraded human beings, Yahoos. ‘Houyhnhnm’ is onomatopoeic, representing an equine neigh: it means, in their language, ‘the perfection of nature’. Did their author regard the Houyhnhnm as ideal creatures or monsters? Swift’s double-talk and irony make his writing opaque. Most people think that David Hume was on the side of the demons, not the angels, when he claimed in ironic tones that it takes infused faith to believe in miracles. Hume pronounced what Christians had always believed. They were not amused.

  • [1] Jonathan Swift, ‘An Argument against Abolishing Christianity’, in Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins (eds),The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), pp. 135-145.
 
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