In this article, Ong argues that Jonathan Swift can be better understood by looking at the cultural milieu in which he lived.  Specifically, looking at Swift's milieu reveals that Swift took a mathematical, mechanical, spatial approach to the workings of the human mind.  This approach tied reason to common sense, making it an approach that was fairly simple to understand and apply and appealing to people such as Swift who wanted to get at the truth relatively easily.

In Swift's milieu, not only was there an emphasis on ordering the world through the results of scientific investigations, but there also was an emphasis on physics as the ideal system for ordering the world (as an isolated system, without the help of other disciplines, physics could explain all there was to know).  These notions are apparent in Swift's approach to knowledge:  he wanted to "establish unities in things," and he wanted to do it in a "blunt and downright" manner, which led him to seek help in isolated systems rather than broader approaches.

Having established this general connection between Swift and the accepted ideas on knowledge and reason in his milieu, Ong examines what exactly Swift read and understood concerning these ideas.  Swift was not heavily involved in the use of physics, but he generally knew the work of those who were.  He had read and annotated works by Bacon and Hobbes and possessed a work by Newton, though he had not annotated it.  He thought the work of Locke was extremely important, but he was less enthusiastic about that of Descartes and Berkeley (partly because much of it was beyond his grasp).  He also read simplified versions of Descartes, Galileo, and Copernicus.  Overall, Swift tended to read those writers who relied on mechanics because their work was more accessible to him.

Not only did Swift read those who used mechanical systems to gain knowledge, his own writing reflects the influence of this approach to knowledge.  For example, when Swift writes of the human mind, he tends to use spatial images:  for example, he describes a "madman" as one who had "his brain shaken out of natural position."  He also used atom philosophy when describing the minds of humans and animals, and his use of spatial images extended to other topics, including the reform of language and moral issues.  In summary, Swift used spatial, geometric images to simplify complex issues.

This tendency to simplify the complex through an isolated system, especially spatial imagery, is typical of Swift's age:  it is seen in the schemes Ramus, Descartes, and Hobbes had for understanding all knowledge through one methodology.  In the case of Swift, he strove to control language through the isolated system of spatial imagery:  in his work, the theme of isolation comes through in images of people in boxes and on marooned islands, images which illustrate separation from the rest of the world.  In fact, Swift takes the theme of isolation so far he urges reform by isolation, an approach Ong identifies as the myth of asepsis (purging as a way to improve the world).

The myth of asepsis is even applied by Swift to the role of poetry in society.  For Swift, poetry is a way to improve the world; it is a "means" for "throwing off . . . filth from the human mind."  But the act of creating poetry must be kept isolated from the rest of society:  if poets want to write, they must do it in an isolated atmosphere, in their own "Grub Street" setting rather than anywhere they please.  While this attitude toward poetry and the poets is seen as satirical, perhaps an indication that Swift did not take poetry seriously, Ong concludes that Swift did in fact have a serious view of poetry:  by assigning poetry a function of the mind, Swift shows that poetry is important, however satirically he may treat it.

This article can be linked to Ong's articles on associationist thought, "J.S. Mill's Pariah Poet" and "Psyche and the Geometers."  In both articles, Ong describes how the associationists used spatial imagery in an oversimplified approach to knowledge, and in "J.S. Mill's Pariah Poet," he discusses Mill's idea that poetry is a practice that must be isolated from the rest of society.

Return to Listings