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, “[A]bolishing 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, “[O]f 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. 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, “[S]uch 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, “[B]y 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.