Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, November 30, 1667, of Anglo-Irish parents. He was educated in Ireland and graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with difficulty because he refused to study logic. His education at Kilkenny School and Trinity was financed by a generous uncle, casting Swift in the uncomfortable role of a poor dependent. This condition exaggerated his overbearing pride and later prevented him from easily finding contentment. In most cases he was his own worst enemy, satisfying first his need to speak out and antagonize, rather than placate, those who were in positions to help him.
In 1688, following James II’s abdication and the subsequent invasion of Ireland, Swift, along with other Anglo-Irish, found it necessary to move to England. At Moor Park, Surrey, he became secretary to his kinsman Sir William Temple, an urbane, retired diplomat. Here, Swift made the acquaintance of important political figures, including King William. Swift also met Esther Johnson (possibly an illegitimate daughter of Sir William Temple) when she was little more than a child. He tutored her, formed her character, and she became the great love of his life. In 1694 Swift was somewhat reluctantly ordained as an Anglican priest and served in a backwater Irish parish for a year before returning to Moor Park, where he remained until Temple’s death. Esther Johnson then moved to Dublin at Swift’s suggestion, where the two saw each other almost daily, but always in the presence of others. Whether or not they married (which seems unlikely), their unorthodox relationship appeared to satisfy the needs of both.
While at Moor Park, Swift wrote, along with verses that were not especially memorable, his first important prose works, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, published in 1704. In these two works, Swift sided vehemently with the Ancients in their supposed quarrels with the Moderns and exhibited a remarkable talent for satire by which he exposed corruption in religion, education, politics, and human nature in general.
Swift was an outspoken supporter of the Anglican Church and became involved in the political turmoil between England and Ireland. He abandoned the Whig party because of its indifference to the welfare of the Anglican Church in Ireland and its tolerance of Roman Catholics and Dissenters. The Tories welcomed him with open arms, and he became their most brilliant political journalist, editing and writing articles in the Examiner for the government of Oxford and Bolingbroke. In 1713, as a reward for his services, Swift was appointed Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a financially rewarding position. In 1714, however, Queen Anne died and the Tories fell, dashing Swift’s political aspirations with that party.
Drawing again upon his writing skills, Swift began to champion the cause of Irish resistance against English oppression. Under the pseudonym “M. B. Drapier” he wrote letters that aroused the Irish to refuse to accept a debased currency coined in England. Even though his authorship was widely known in Dublin, no one came forward to collect the £300 reward offered by the English for the identity of “M. B.” Swift’s literary expression in support of the oppressed Irish culminated in A Modest Proposal, a beautifully written satirical essay that is still popular today. Swift is still venerated as an Irish national hero.
For much of his life, Swift was afflicted with Meniere’s syndrome, a disease of the inner ear that causes dizziness, nausea, and deafness. This disease, worsened by age, helped speed the decay of his mental faculties. By the time of his death on October 19, 1745, his relatives considered him quite mad.
Jonathan Swift saw a wide gulf between his ideal of human nature and the humans he saw around him. He called himself a misanthrope, saying that he loved individuals but hated humankind in general. He saw humans as animals capable of reason, but not as rational animals. He certainly did not share the optimistic view that human nature is basically good, but viewed it as somehow permanently flawed. Nevertheless, he had a great urge to improve humanity, the government, the clergy, and the world. He also worked to improve the English language by establishing an English Academy, presenting the idea first in “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” later in “Letter to a Young Clergyman,” and finally in his masterful satire on trite diction in his “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation.”
For Swift, reason was the key-if humanity relied on reason and common sense it could improve despite moral and intellectual deficiencies. Swift’s method was not to argue with humanity, but to dazzle with humor, wit, and satire.