Jonathan Swift: Why writing is the worst thing he did

In 1719, Robinson Crusoe was published. And it made Jonathan Swift very angry. Because Robinson Crusoe was a book brimming with optimism and praising human capacity. To counter the book, Jonathan Swift started writing his own book: Gulliver’s Travels.

Over the next few years, he ended up writing 4 books in the series. In book 1, Gulliver comes across a complex society of very tiny people who capture him after shipwreck. In book 2, he comes across giants. In book 3, he meets very wise scientists. And in book 4, he meets horse type people.

And in each of these books, Swift tries to show that how the nature of people is easily corrupted – disregarding whether the society is simple or complex, and if the masses are smart or dumb.

Surprisingly, the books he had written as political commentary became extremely popular as children’s books. Just because he made use of fantasy elements in the books. Which further cemented in Swift’s minds how gullible people can be.

But why did Swift have a poor opinion about humans and society?

Jonathan Swift vs the Queen of Great Britain

Jonathan Swift was a cleric. Who also wrote in his spare time. He had written “A tale of tub” – a book telling the tale of three brothers – each representing one of the three main branches of christianity. It was a book that Queen Anne hated. She found it too blasphemous. She didn’t appreciate the satire in it.

And because of that, she made it impossible for Swift to get a good position as a clergic in England! Swift had to leave England and go live in Ireland because the queen abused her power!

Writing had ruined his life. And yet, Swift could not stop writing.

The solution to Ireland’s problems

The book that the queen hated wasn’t even the worst thing Swift had written. That credit belongs to his book “A modest proposal.” It was a book where Swift laid down how Ireland could fix its economic and overpopulation problems in one go.

Swift starts the book describing the poor plight of the beggars in Ireland. And then he posits a solution: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”

Swift continues the book giving recipes on how best to prepare to cook babies. And provides maths that calculates how it would benefit the poor.

The book created a huge uproar. Cannibalism as a solution is crazy preposterous – isn’t it?

Every time Swift wrote something, he was derided and hated. His work and intentions were often misunderstood. His books made people angry. His writing made him infamous. 

And rich.

Wait a minute…

Jonathan Swift could have died a nobody. But today, he is a giant of literature. He had a huge impact in the politics of England – without being a politician. 

And all because he mastered the art of writing satire.

One could have written a normal book that proposed various conventional solutions to help Ireland come out from the depths of poverty. And that book would have gone completely unnoticed.

But write a book promoting that the solution to all of Ireland’s problems is the rich eating the poor people’s babies – and everyone hears about it! The book creates impact!

Satire makes people angry. But it also wins the public’s attention and gets a much needed reaction.

Swift’s writing caused him all sorts of problems. But it also allowed him to make a dent in the world.

How to master satire?

When Jonathan Swift was 15 years old and studying at the Trinity college in Dublin, he was taught logic and philosophy. The curriculum for priesthood hadn’t changed much since a few centuries. And it mainly focused on debate. You had to be able to debate both sides of any topic convincingly.

That’s when Swift realized that he could use satire to win debates. Take a stand for the position you are against. Sprinkle it with exaggeration and absurdness. And you will persuade people towards your position.

Its difficult to define satire. But lets make an attempt.

Satire is 

1. attacking a point of view 

2. with exaggerated wit. 

To attack a point of view, you have to compare and contrast. But you do it absurdly to show how crazy it would be to be on the side of the opposition.

The formula to be satirical

  1. Pinpoint the struggles and the frustrations. The problems of the people.
  2. Advice on doing the exact opposite to solve those frustrations.

Take the topic of  rising inequality between the nobility and the common man. How would most people recommend you solve it? By advising the rich to be charitable. Jonathan Swift turned the tables and advised the rich to eat the poor. 

Action Summary:

  • Your job is to not be boring. To win attention and elicit reaction. Satire is a great tool for this.
  • Advise the opposite. But make the claims absurd so the real meaning hits the people on their heads!