The inquiry into the religious thought of the eighteenth century forms one of the most interesting subjects for speculation in the history of the intellectual development of western nations. It is true, that in that history Swift takes no special or distinguished part; but he forms a figure of peculiar interest in a special circle of his own. Swift had no natural bent for the ministry of a church; his instincts, his temperament, his intellect, were of that order which fitted him for leadership and administration. He was a born magistrate and commander of men. It is, therefore, one of the finest compliments we can pay Swift to say, that no more faithful, no more devoted, no stauncher servant has that Church possessed; for we must remember the proud and haughty temper which attempted to content itself with the humdrum duties of a parish life. Swift entered the service of that Church at a time when its need for such a man was great; and in spite of its disdain of his worth, in spite of its failure to recognize and acknowledge his transcendent qualities, he never forgot his oath, and never shook in his allegiance. To any one, however, who reads carefully his sermons, his "Thoughts on Religion," and his "Letter to a Young Clergyman," there comes a question--whether, for his innermost conscience, Swift found a satisfying conviction in the doctrines of Christianity. "I am not answerable to God," he says, "for the doubts that arise in my own breast, since they are the consequence of that reason which he hath planted in me, if I take care to conceal those doubts from others, if I use my best endeavours to subdue them, and if they have no influence on the conduct of my life." We search in vain, in any of his writings, for any definite expression of doubt or want of faith in these doctrines. When he touches on them, as he does in the sermon "On the Trinity," he seems to avoid of set purpose, rational inquiry, and contents himself with insisting on the necessity for a belief in those mysteries concerning God about which we cannot hope to know anything. "I do not find," he says, in his "Letter to a Young Clergyman," "that you are anywhere directed in the canons or articles to attempt explaining the mysteries of the Christian religion; and, indeed, since Providence intended there should be mysteries, I don't see how it can be agreeable to piety, orthodoxy, or good sense to go about such a work. For to me there seems a manifest dilemma in the case; if you explain them, they are mysteries no longer; if you fail, you have laboured to no purpose."
It must at once be admitted that Swift had not the metaphysical bent; philosophy--in our modern sense of the word--was to him only a species of word spinning. That only was valuable which had a practical bearing on life--and Christianity had that. He found in Christianity, as he knew it--in the Church of England, that is to say--an excellent organization, which recognized the frailties of human nature, aimed at making healthier men's souls, and gave mankind a reasonable guidance in the selection of the best motives to action. He himself, as a preacher, made it his principal business, "first to tell the people what is their duty, and then to convince them that it is so." He had a profound faith in existing institutions, which to him were founded on the fundamental traits of humanity. The Church of England he considered to be such an institution; and it was, moreover, regulated and settled by order of the State. To follow its teachings would lead men to become good citizens, honest dealers, truthful and cleanly companions, upright friends. What more could be demanded of any religion?
The Romish Church led away from the Constitution as by law established. Dissent set up private authority, which could no more be permitted in religious than it was in political matters; it meant dissension, revolution, and the upheaval of tried and trusted associations. Therefore, the Church of Rome and the teachings of Dissent were alike dangerous; and against both, whenever they attempted the possession of political power, he waged a fierce and uncompromising war. "Where sects are tolerated in a State," he says, in his "Sentiments of a Church of England Man," "it is fit they should enjoy a full liberty of conscience, and every other privilege of free-born subjects, to which no power is annexed. And to preserve their obedience upon all emergencies, a government cannot give them too much ease, nor trust them with too little power."
Swift had no passionate love for ideals--indeed, he may have thought ideals to be figments of an overheated and, therefore, aberrated imagination. The practically real was the best ideal; and by the real he would understand that power which most capably and most regulatively nursed, guided, and assisted the best instincts of the average man. The average man was but a sorry creature, and required adventitious aids for his development. Gifted as he was with a large sympathy, Swift yet was seemingly incapable of appreciating those thought-forms which help us to visualize mentally our religious aspirations and emotions. A mere emotion was but subject-matter for his satire. He suspected any zeal which protested too much for truth, and considered it "odds on" it being "either petulancy, ambition, or pride."
Whatever may have been his private speculations as to the truth of the doctrines of Christianity they never interfered with his sense of his responsibilities as a clergyman. "I look upon myself," he says, "in the capacity of a clergyman, to be one appointed by Providence for defending a post assigned me, and for gaining over as many enemies as I can. Although I think my cause is just, yet one great motive is my submitting to the pleasure of Providence, and to the laws of my country." If anyone had asked him, what was the pleasure of Providence, he would probably have answered, that it was plainly shown in the Scriptures, and required not the aid of the expositions of divines who were "too curious, or too narrow, in reducing orthodoxy within the compass of subtleties, niceties, and distinctions." Truth was no abstraction--that was truth which found its expression in the best action; and this explains Swift's acceptance of any organization which made for such expression. He found one ready in the Church of England; and whatever his doubts were, those only moved him which were aroused by action from those who attempted to interfere with the working of that organization. And this also helps to explain his political attitude at the time when it was thought he had deserted his friends. The Church was always his first consideration. He was not a Churchman because he was a politician, but a politician because he was a Churchman. These, however, are matters which are more fully entered into by Swift himself in the tracts herewith reprinted, and in the notes prefixed to them by the editor.
It was originally intended that Swift's writings on Religion and the Church should occupy a single volume of this edition of his works. They are, however, so numerous that it has been found more convenient to divide them into two volumes--the first including all the tracts, except those relating to the Sacramental Test; the second containing the Test pamphlets and the twelve sermons, with the Remarks on Dr. Gibbs's paraphrase of the Psalms, in an appendix. It is hoped that this division, while it entails upon the student the necessity for a double reference, will yet preserve the continuity of form enabling him to view Swift's religious standpoint and work with as much advantage as he would have obtained by the original plan.
The editor again takes the opportunity to thank Colonel F. Grant for the service he has rendered him in placing at his disposal his fine collection of Swift's tracts. The portrait which forms the frontispiece to this volume is one of those painted by Francis Bindon, and was formerly in the possession of Judge Berwick. For permission to photograph and reproduce it here, thanks are due to Sir Frederick R. Falkiner, Recorder of Dublin.
TEMPLE SCOTT, Editor
Sorry, no summary available yet.