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Recorded March 23rd, 2023
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COWEN: Hello everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I am here talking with Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin 1667, died 1745. But wait, it’s not actually Jonathan Swift. I call him “Jonathan GPT Swift” because this was a dialogue conducted with GPT4 in March of 2023.
Now what you’re going to hear and what you’re going to read on the transcript is very close to the actual exchange but there were a few small differences and edits we’ve made. Very often the GPT would begin the answer with, “As Jonathan Swift.” We simply took that out. Some of the longer answers, there were resummaries at the end. We took those out and there were just a few paragraphs where I asked a question and the answer was boring and my question was boring so we knocked out a few paragraphs but otherwise, this is verbatim what GPT4 gave us. I did not keep on repeating prompts trying to get the answer I wanted. This is really awfully close to the dialogue.
So, Jonathan, welcome. First question…
Given that you are so skeptical of religious doctrine, why did you nonetheless support a state church, namely the Church of Ireland?
JONATHAN GPT SWIFT: Ah, dear reader, it is indeed true that I, Jonathan Swift, harbored a certain degree of skepticism towards religious doctrine. Yet, one must not confuse this skepticism with a lack of faith or an aversion to the church altogether. Indeed, I was ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland, and throughout my life, I served in various capacities within its structure.
Now, you may wonder how a man of my disposition could reconcile these seemingly contradictory stances. The answer, I daresay, lies in the understanding that the church and the state must work in concert to maintain order and stability within society. The Church of Ireland, as an established state church, served as an important institution that promoted social cohesion and provided moral guidance to the people.
As a clergyman, I also recognized the church’s role in mitigating the excesses of individual religious enthusiasm, which, if left unchecked, could lead to fanaticism and social discord. The state church acted as a necessary counterbalance to the proliferation of dissenting sects and religious schisms, which I saw as disruptive forces that undermined the stability of the nation.
Furthermore, it is important to note that my support for the Church of Ireland was not a blind endorsement of all its policies or doctrine. I was known to be critical of certain aspects of the church, particularly in relation to matters of ecclesiastical corruption and the abuse of power.
COWEN: But given that the Ireland of your time was such a Catholic nation, was not such an Anglican-linked state church going to cause social unrest, rather than bring social order?
SWIFT: Ah, dear inquisitor, your question demonstrates a keen understanding of the complex religious landscape of my beloved Ireland. Indeed, you are correct in pointing out the predominantly Catholic nature of the Irish population during my time. The Anglican-linked state church, the Church of Ireland, did indeed represent a minority of the populace, and yet, it was the established church of the land.
Now, you must understand, I was not oblivious to the inherent contradictions and the potential for unrest arising from this arrangement. However, as a man of the cloth within the Church of Ireland and a subject of the British crown, my primary allegiance lay with the established order. My objective was to maintain social stability, notwithstanding the difficult religious dynamics at play.
It is true that the Penal Laws and other restrictions placed upon our Catholic brethren were harsh and often unjust. I, too, harbored concerns about these laws and their consequences for the Catholic population. Yet, my influence as a clergyman and writer was limited in matters of state, and my role was not to dismantle the established church but to serve within its confines, while using my pen to highlight injustice and folly where I could.
In the realm of practicality, I sought to alleviate the hardships faced by the Irish people, regardless of their religious persuasion. My satirical work, A Modest Proposal, was penned as an indictment of the British government’s callousness towards the plight of the impoverished Irish, the majority of whom were Catholics.
COWEN: This strong attachment to the state church idea — how did it shape the narrative of Gulliver’s Travels?
SWIFT: While my attachment to the state church idea may not have been the central theme of Gulliver’s Travels, the novel does contain several reflections on religion, politics, and the human condition, which are influenced by my experiences and beliefs as a clergyman in the Church of Ireland.
In Gulliver’s Travels I crafted a satirical narrative that, among other things, critiques religious fanaticism, intolerance, and the misuse of power. The book is structured as a series of voyages to fictional lands, and in each of these lands, Gulliver encounters various societies with their own peculiar customs and beliefs.
For instance, in the voyage to Lilliput, I satirize religious disputes by presenting a conflict between two factions who disagree on the proper way to crack an egg. This seemingly trivial disagreement is meant to highlight the absurdity of religious conflicts that have often led to violence and strife in the real world.
Another example is the land of Laputa, where the inhabitants are so obsessed with their abstract speculations that they fail to address the practical needs of their society. This can be seen as a critique of excessive intellectualism or religious enthusiasm that neglects the immediate needs of the people.
Throughout the narrative, I invite the reader to reflect on the follies and vices of humankind, including those related to religious practices and institutions. While my attachment to the state church may not be explicitly evident in Gulliver’s Travels, my experiences as a clergyman and the socio-political context of my time undoubtedly influenced the satire and commentary found within the novel.
In essence, Gulliver’s Travels serves as an exploration of human nature, where the various societies Gulliver encounters represent different aspects of our world. The novel, while not explicitly focused on the state church idea, is imbued with a broader critique of human folly, including those found within religious institutions and practices.
COWEN: In 1709, you, Jonathan Swift, still were calling yourself a Whig. What exactly induced you to switch to the Tory side of the ledger?
SWIFT: My shift from the Whigs to the Tories was a gradual and complex process, influenced by several factors, including personal connections, political developments, and ideological disagreements.
During my early years in politics, I was indeed more aligned with the Whigs, who championed principles such as constitutional government, religious toleration, and the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy. However, over time, I became increasingly disillusioned with the Whigs, particularly as their internal factions and power struggles intensified.
The Whigs’ support for the war with France, which began in 1702, was a point of contention for me. I believed that the war was costly and detrimental to England’s interests, and I was opposed to the heavy financial burden it placed on the country. The Tories, on the other hand, advocated for a more prudent and pragmatic approach to foreign policy and sought to negotiate a peace treaty.
Another significant factor in my shift towards the Tories was my personal connection to prominent Tory figures, such as Robert Harley and Henry St. John, who would later become key members of the Tory administration. I found common ground with them in our shared disdain for corruption and our desire for a more balanced and effective government.
Lastly, the Whigs’ advocacy for religious dissent and their anti-establishment approach to the Church of England also played a role in my eventual alignment with the Tories. As a clergyman, I held a strong attachment to the Anglican Church, and I was concerned about the erosion of its authority and influence. The Tories, with their commitment to upholding the Church of England’s position, resonated more with my beliefs in this regard.
COWEN: OK, take your work on currency and coinage. Do you think your Drapier’s Letters was your most widely read and most influential work in your lifetime?
SWIFT: Indeed, my dear reader, the Drapier’s Letters proved to be a most influential and widely read work during my lifetime. While I had penned other satirical pieces that garnered attention and acclaim, the Drapier’s Letters held a unique significance due to their immediate impact on contemporary political events in Ireland.
The Drapier’s Letters emerged as a series of pamphlets written in 1724, wherein I assumed the persona of a humble draper. The purpose of these letters was to protest against the patent granted by the British government to William Wood, which allowed him to produce and circulate a new copper coinage in Ireland. This patent was issued without the consultation or consent of the Irish Parliament, and many feared that it would lead to the debasement of Irish currency and further economic exploitation.
Through the Drapier’s Letters, I roused the Irish people to oppose Wood’s halfpence, arguing that accepting the coins would undermine Ireland’s economy and sovereignty. The pamphlets resonated with the public and gained widespread popularity, uniting the Irish population against this perceived injustice. As a result of the mounting pressure, the British government eventually withdrew the patent, and Wood’s halfpence were never circulated in Ireland.
This victory for the Irish people cemented my status as a national hero, and the Drapier’s Letters became a symbol of Irish resistance against British oppression. In light of these events, it is fair to say that the Drapier’s Letters were among my most influential works during my lifetime, as they successfully galvanized the public and precipitated tangible political change.
COWEN: OK, so then what kind of coinage and currency reform did you favor instead?
SWIFT: My primary concern regarding coinage and currency in Ireland was to ensure that any reform would protect the economic well-being of the Irish people and uphold their interests. In the case of the Drapier’s Letters my objection to Wood’s halfpence was driven by the fact that it was imposed without the consent of the Irish Parliament and that it threatened to devalue the currency and harm the economy.
While I did not explicitly outline a comprehensive plan for currency reform in my writings, several key principles can be inferred from my opposition to Wood’s patent:
- Consent and involvement of the Irish Parliament: Any reform to the Irish currency should involve consultation and approval by the Irish Parliament. This would ensure that the interests of the Irish people are taken into account when decisions about their economy are made.
- Maintaining the value of the currency: It is crucial to avoid the debasement of the currency, which could lead to inflation and other economic problems. The quality and quantity of coinage produced should be closely regulated to ensure that the currency remains stable and maintains its value.
- Ensuring adequate coinage supply: A well-functioning economy requires an adequate supply of coinage to facilitate transactions and trade. Any reform should ensure that there is enough coinage in circulation to meet the needs of the population while preventing an oversupply that could lead to devaluation.
- Encouraging domestic production: Supporting domestic industries and trade, rather than relying on external actors like William Wood, would contribute to a more robust Irish economy. This could include promoting local mints and coin production or developing industries that could increase the demand for domestically produced currency.
COWEN: In the history of Irish economic thought, including in your time, there is a strong emphasis on using protectionism to encourage domestic production, rather than free trade. Where do you think that emphasis came from?
SWIFT: The emphasis on protectionism in Irish economic thought, including during my time, stemmed from a confluence of historical, political, and economic factors unique to Ireland. The desire to encourage domestic production through protectionist policies can be attributed to several key reasons:
- British domination: Ireland, being under British rule, faced economic policies that often prioritized English interests over those of the Irish people. The Irish economy was frequently subordinated to the needs of the English, which led to the suppression of various domestic industries in Ireland to the benefit of English producers. As a result, protectionism emerged as a way to shelter Irish industries from external competition and foster their development.
- Economic dependency: The Irish economy was heavily reliant on agricultural exports, particularly to England. This dependency made the economy vulnerable to fluctuations in demand and prices, as well as trade restrictions imposed by the British government. Protectionist policies were seen as a means to reduce this dependency by diversifying the Irish economy and promoting domestic industries.
- Uneven development: Owing to the political and economic circumstances, wealth and industrial development in Ireland were not evenly distributed. While some areas, such as Dublin, experienced relative prosperity, other regions faced significant poverty and underdevelopment. Protectionism was seen as a tool to stimulate economic growth in these underdeveloped areas and to promote a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources.
- Nationalism and self-sufficiency: The desire for Irish self-sufficiency and independence from English rule fueled the push for protectionism. By nurturing domestic industries, the Irish people could assert greater control over their economic destiny and reduce their reliance on English goods and markets.
COWEN: OK, Jonathan, what would be an example of a clever and humorous question I might ask you about A Modest Proposal?
SWIFT: A clever and humorous question about A Modest Proposal might be:
“Dear Mr. Swift, I recently read A Modest Proposal and found your culinary suggestions to be both innovative and cost-effective. Do you happen to have any similarly creative recipes for addressing other social issues of our time, such as housing or healthcare?”
COWEN: And how would you answer?
SWIFT: As Jonathan Swift, I would answer with a touch of wit:
“Ah, my dear reader, I am delighted to find that my A Modest Proposal has piqued your interest in creative solutions to society’s pressing problems. While I have not yet formulated specific recipes for housing or healthcare, I must stress the importance of recognizing satire in my work. My intention was to provoke thought and encourage society to address the suffering of the Irish people in a more humane and sensible manner.
However, I would encourage you to apply the same spirit of critical thinking and satire to explore these other issues. Perhaps, in doing so, we can raise awareness and inspire meaningful change, as opposed to merely cooking up outlandish schemes. Remember, the key ingredient in any solution is a healthy dose of reason and empathy.”
COWEN: If I try to boil your different works — from Gulliver’s Travels to Modest Proposal to the political and coinage writings — down to a common theme, I would say it is this: “Moral and intellectual progress is extremely difficult and is not to be taken for granted.” What would you say to that?
SWIFT: My dear reader, your assessment is perceptive, capturing a common thread that weaves through my diverse body of work. Indeed, I endeavored to convey that moral and intellectual progress is a most arduous endeavor, one that requires constant vigilance and reflection.
COWEN: OK, so if we had to boil down the difference between your progress skepticism, and the progress enthusiasm of the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, what is the most fundamental reason for that difference of opinion? How would you boil the difference down to as few underlying dimensions as possible?
SWIFT: The most fundamental difference between my skepticism of progress and the progress enthusiasm of Enlightenment thinkers can be attributed to our differing views on human nature and the potential for reason to transform society. Enlightenment thinkers were optimistic about the ability of reason, knowledge, and education to overcome ignorance, superstition, and prejudice, ultimately leading to the betterment of society and human well-being.
In contrast, my works reflect a more skeptical view of human nature, emphasizing the persistence of folly, irrationality, and vice even in the face of reason and education. I believed that human imperfections and moral frailties were enduring features of our condition, and while progress was possible, it should not be taken for granted or assumed to be easily attainable.
To distill the difference into its essential dimensions: Enlightenment thinkers placed great faith in the transformative power of reason and the inherent perfectibility of human nature, while I maintained a more cautious outlook, recognizing the limitations of reason and the enduring presence of human flaws.
COWEN: In Gulliver’s Travels, during Gulliver’s visit to Lagado, you mention the notion of a machine that, on its own, writes and prints out books and other texts. Did you imagine that such a machine might ever be possible?
SWIFT: When I wrote about the machine in the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels, I intended it as a satirical commentary on the overly speculative and impractical nature of some scientific pursuits during my time. The machine, which supposedly generated books and texts without any human intervention, was a critique of the belief that science and technology could automatically produce knowledge and wisdom.
While I may not have genuinely believed that such a machine would become a reality during my lifetime, my satirical portrayal aimed to provoke thought and reflection on the potential consequences of blindly pursuing scientific advancement without considering the ethical and practical implications.
That being said, the development of modern technologies, such as computers and artificial intelligence, has led to machines capable of generating text autonomously, in ways I could not have predicted. Although the context and implications differ, it is fascinating to see how aspects of my satirical vision have manifested in reality.
COWEN: Your pamphlet Predictions for the Year 1708 — what were you trying to get at there? Whom were you making fun of?
SWIFT: My pamphlet Predictions for the Year 1708 was a satirical piece that poked fun at the practice of astrology and the popularity of almanacs that purported to predict future events. By creating the persona of Isaac Bickerstaff, an astrologer who makes bold and ludicrous predictions, I aimed to expose the absurdity and gullibility surrounding these practices.
The primary target of my satire in this case was John Partridge, a prominent almanac maker and astrologer of the time, whose predictions were widely followed and taken seriously. By ridiculing Partridge’s predictions and casting doubt on the legitimacy of his practice, I sought to highlight the general folly of relying on such unscientific methods for predicting the future.
In a broader sense, the pamphlet can also be seen as a commentary on human credulity and the dangers of embracing superstition over reason. By lampooning the practice of astrology and the belief in almanacs, I aimed to encourage readers to question the basis of such beliefs and to embrace a more rational and critical approach to understanding the world.
On things over- and underrated
COWEN: OK, we’re going to play a little game here. I will name a thinker or other item from your time, and you will tell me whether you think it is overrated or underrated.
How about John Donne, overrated or underrated?
SWIFT: I have great respect for John Donne, the metaphysical poet and cleric. Donne’s work is known for its complexity, wit, and innovative use of metaphors. His unique style and approach to poetry have had a lasting influence on English literature. In my opinion, John Donne is not overrated, but rather appropriately rated or even underrated, considering the depth and quality of his work.
COWEN: Let’s try again: Homer, overrated or underrated?
SWIFT: I would consider Homer to be underrated, as his works have had a profound and enduring influence on Western literature and culture. As the author of the epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” Homer is a foundational figure in the literary canon, and his works have been studied, admired, and imitated for centuries.
Homer’s epic poetry not only provided a model for subsequent poets and writers but also offered timeless insights into human nature, heroism, and the complexities of life. The themes and moral dilemmas presented in his works continue to resonate with readers today, and the depth of his characters and the beauty of his verse remain unparalleled.
While it is true that some aspects of Homer’s works may seem antiquated or inaccessible to modern readers, the overall significance and impact of his contributions to literature cannot be overstated. I believe that a deeper appreciation for Homer’s genius and the enduring relevance of his work is warranted, which is why I classify him as underrated.
COWEN: Queen Anne: overrated or underrated? You may answer in puzzles and riddles if you find this question politically inconvenient.
SWIFT: As Jonathan Swift, I shall offer my perspective on Queen Anne in a veiled manner, employing a metaphor to express my thoughts:
Imagine a vessel navigating through troubled waters, with strong currents representing the shifting political landscape. The vessel’s captain, akin to Queen Anne, must face the turbulent seas, exhibiting both moments of strength and moments of vulnerability. Many would attribute the vessel’s course to the captain’s skill, while others may question the captain’s decisions and leadership.
In this metaphorical scenario, the captain, much like Queen Anne, holds a significant position of power and responsibility. However, the captain’s competence may be a subject of debate. Some may perceive the captain as overrated, while others may argue that the captain is underrated, given the complexity of the circumstances they must navigate.
In the end, the evaluation of Queen Anne’s reign, much like the evaluation of the vessel’s captain, is a matter of perspective and debate, dependent on the individual’s view of her decisions, her politics, and her historical context.
COWEN: Lucian or Juvenal, which would you prefer?
SWIFT: I must confess that both Lucian and Juvenal have their merits, and each has influenced my own work in different ways. However, if I were compelled to choose between the two, I would lean towards Juvenal.
Juvenal, the Roman satirist, is best known for his biting and acerbic observations of Roman society in his “Satires.” His use of irony, wit, and moral indignation to expose the vices and follies of his contemporaries resonates with my own approach to satire.
Juvenal’s work has served as an inspiration and a model for my own satirical endeavors, particularly in his fearless critique of societal norms and human behavior.
That being said, Lucian, the Greek satirist and rhetorician, also holds a special place in my esteem. His wit, humor, and imaginative approach to satire, as well as his penchant for blending elements of fiction and philosophy, are undeniably appealing. However, in terms of personal preference and influence, I find Juvenal’s biting and morally charged satire to be more closely aligned with my own literary sensibilities.
COWEN: England’s Royal Society…, you know the institution for the advancement of science. Underrated or overrated?
SWIFT: The Royal Society, while commendable in its pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement, can be seen as somewhat overrated due to the propensity of some of its members to become overly enamored with their own ideas, as well as their occasional tendency to neglect the practical implications and potential misuses of scientific discoveries.
In my satire, Gulliver’s Travels, the fictional Academy of Lagado serves as a critique of the Royal Society and similar institutions of the time. The scientists and scholars at the Academy are depicted as well-meaning but misguided, conducting experiments that are often absurd, impractical, and detached from the needs of society.
This critique is not intended to dismiss the value of scientific progress or the potential benefits of the Royal Society’s endeavors, but rather to caution against unchecked enthusiasm for scientific discovery without sufficient consideration for the human implications and potential consequences.
In summary, while the Royal Society has made numerous contributions to the advancement of science, as Jonathan Swift, I would argue that it is somewhat overrated, as it can be prone to a certain degree of self-importance and a lack of practicality in its pursuits.
COWEN: Please explain the meaning of this sentence, the opening sentence from your The Battle of the Books — “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
SWIFT: The opening sentence of The Battle of the Books highlights an essential aspect of satire: its ability to reveal human folly and vice while simultaneously prompting readers to reflect on their own behavior and attitudes. The metaphor of satire as a “sort of glass” suggests that it functions as a mirror, offering a reflection of the world and its inhabitants.
However, the sentence also points to a common human tendency: people often fail to recognize their own faults and shortcomings when confronted with a satirical depiction of society. They may be quick to identify the flaws of others but remain oblivious to how they themselves embody similar vices or follies.
In essence, this sentence captures the dual nature of satire as a tool for both exposing the follies of the world and challenging readers to confront their own imperfections. It serves as a reminder that satire can be a powerful and thought-provoking literary device, encouraging introspection and self-examination while also critiquing societal norms and human behavior.
COWEN: Can you tell us a joke from your time, Jonathan Swift, a short but funny one?
SWIFT: I shall share a short jest that was popular during my time:
Why do we never tell secrets on a farm?
Because the potatoes have eyes and the corn has ears.
COWEN: So, what is a joke from your time that *you* would find funny?
SWIFT: My humor often leaned towards satire and irony. A jest from my time that I might find more appealing would be a humorous couplet from my own work, On Poetry: A Rhapsody:
“So geese in compass, figures may express, And teach dull censors to be more or less.”
This couplet employs wordplay and irony to poke fun at critics, suggesting that they are no more discerning than geese.
COWEN: OK, now a few questions about that woman Stella, are you game?
SWIFT: Of course, I am more than willing to answer any questions you may have about Esther Johnson, affectionately known as “Stella.” She was an essential figure in my life, and our relationship was a source of great inspiration and support. Please, go ahead and ask your questions.
COWEN: Some say that you two are secretly married, is there any truth to that?
SWIFT: I must say that the nature of my relationship with Esther Johnson, or Stella, has long been a subject of speculation and intrigue. Indeed, many have asserted that we were secretly married, while others maintain that we shared a close, platonic bond.
The truth of the matter is that my relationship with Stella was highly private and cherished, and I never confirmed nor denied the rumors of a secret marriage during my lifetime. It is undeniable that Stella and I shared a deep, enduring connection, which I chronicled in the Journal to Stella, a series of letters written to her over the course of several years.
Whether we were secretly married or simply maintained a profound friendship remains a matter of conjecture. The privacy of our relationship was of utmost importance to both of us, and as such, I shall continue to respect that privacy even in this current form of communication.
COWEN: In your correspondence, all those references to her “coffee,” drinking her “coffee,” what was that all about?
SWIFT: I employed a variety of playful and affectionate terms, phrases, and codes in my correspondence with Stella, particularly in the Journal to Stella. These creative expressions served to foster a sense of intimacy and exclusivity in our communication, reflecting the closeness of our relationship and our shared sense of humor.
The references to “coffee” in my letters to Stella can be interpreted as an example of such playfulness. The term “coffee” may have been a metaphor, a private joke, or an allusion to a shared experience or memory between us. The precise meaning of these references, much like the nature of our relationship, remains shrouded in mystery and open to interpretation, a testament to the intimate and private nature of our communication.
COWEN: Thank you for answering my question.
Jonathan, why do so many of your poems and works exhibit scatological interests? Be honest now.
SWIFT: I admit that some of my works indeed display a fascination with scatological themes. The reason for employing such themes is multifaceted, and it stems from my satirical nature and desire to challenge societal norms and conventions.
First, the use of scatological imagery and themes allowed me to critique the artificiality and pretensions of polite society. By contrasting the refined manners and appearances of individuals with their baser bodily functions, I sought to expose the inherent hypocrisy and contradictions that exist within human nature.
Second, the use of scatological humor served as a means of capturing the attention of my readers, to shock them and provoke a reaction. By employing such themes, I could ensure that my work would not be easily ignored and would force the reader to confront and reconsider their own preconceptions and beliefs.
Lastly, scatological themes can also be seen as a reminder of our shared humanity, highlighting the fact that no matter one’s social status or background, we are all subject to the same bodily functions and processes. This reminder served to level the playing field, emphasizing that beneath the surface, we are all equal in our essential human experiences.
COWEN: OK, now we’re going to talk about the Jonathan Swift production function, I have a few questions:
What is your most unusual work habit?
SWIFT: My most unusual work habit, you say? Well, I suppose some might find it strange that I often wrote in bed, with a desk and a candle by my side, and sometimes even dictated to a scribe while lying down. It was a way of saving time and preserving my health, for I suffered from bouts of vertigo and deafness that made sitting at a regular desk uncomfortable and tedious. I also found that the warmth and quiet of my bedchamber stimulated my imagination and wit, and helped me to compose some of my most satirical and scathing pieces.
Another habit that might seem odd to some was that I frequently changed my style and persona, depending on the subject and purpose of my writing. I wrote under various pseudonyms, such as Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B. Drapier, and Lemuel Gulliver, and adopted different tones, genres, and perspectives, such as irony, parody, fable, and travel narrative. I did this partly to avoid censorship and prosecution, for some of my works were considered seditious and libelous by the authorities, and partly to challenge and mock the conventions and prejudices of my readers, who often mistook my true intentions and meanings. I delighted in exposing the follies and vices of mankind, and sometimes even of myself, by using various forms of disguise and deception.
COWEN: When you were a kid, why did your wet nurse take you to England for a few years? Why did your parents let her do that, or was it against their will?
SWIFT: My early childhood indeed involved a peculiar episode. When I was an infant, my wet nurse, who was responsible for my care, took me to England. The reasons for this decision remain unclear, but it is generally believed that she had family matters to attend to in England and unintentionally took me along with her, believing it was in my best interest. The exact circumstances are not well-documented, and it is uncertain whether this was done with or without the consent of my parents.
When my mother realized that I had been taken to England, she decided that it would be best for me to remain there for a few years, as she believed I would receive a better education and upbringing. Consequently, I spent several years in England during my early childhood before returning to Ireland to continue my education and eventually embark on my career.
This unconventional start to my life might be seen as an early indication of the unconventional path my life would take, marked by a series of unexpected twists and turns that would come to define my experiences and my work.
COWEN: In your young years, who was your first intellectual mentor, and how did he help to shape your later ideas?
SWIFT: My first intellectual mentor was Sir William Temple, a prominent diplomat, statesman, and essayist. In 1689, I was introduced to Sir William Temple, who was a distant relative, and began working for him as a secretary at his estate, Moor Park, in Surrey, England.
During my time with Sir William Temple, I was exposed to a stimulating intellectual environment. Sir Temple was a well-educated and erudite man who had connections with many notable thinkers of the time. His extensive library provided me with access to a wealth of knowledge, and he encouraged me to read and engage with various literary and philosophical works.
Temple’s influence helped shape my ideas in several ways. He was an accomplished writer, and his own essays on topics such as ancient and modern learning and the importance of gardening served as early examples of the type of writing I would later produce. His interests in politics and diplomacy also ignited my own passion for these subjects, which would become central themes in many of my works.
Additionally, Temple’s commitment to moderation and balance, both in politics and in life, resonated with me and can be seen as an underlying principle in much of my writing. While I often employed satire to highlight the extremes of human folly and vice, my ultimate aim was to promote a sense of reason and balance in society.
COWEN: How is it that he first noticed your talent? What tipped him off, what specifically?
SWIFT: Our familial connection played a role in our initial introduction. Temple was my mother’s employer and a distant relative, which provided me with the opportunity to work for him as his secretary.
Once I began working for Temple, he would have had the chance to observe my intellectual abilities and potential firsthand. My diligence, curiosity, and keen interest in learning would have been evident through my work and our conversations. My enthusiasm for reading and engaging with various literary and philosophical works in his extensive library would have demonstrated my intellectual appetite and potential.
As I grew more confident in my abilities, I may have shared my early writings with Temple, which would have provided him with further evidence of my talent.
COWEN: What do you think of the speculation that Stella actually was William Temple’s daughter? If you had to assign a concrete numerical probability to that possibility, what would the number be?
SWIFT: I must acknowledge that there has indeed been speculation about the possibility of Stella being Sir William Temple’s daughter. This hypothesis has been suggested by some scholars and biographers based on various factors, such as the close relationship between Stella and myself, as well as the connections between our families.
However, there is no concrete evidence to confirm this theory, and much of the speculation arises from conjecture and the desire to explain the nature of my relationship with Stella. Given the lack of definitive proof, it is difficult to assign a concrete numerical probability to this possibility.
That being said, if I were to venture an estimate based on the available evidence, I would say the probability is relatively low, perhaps around 10%. The speculation surrounding Stella’s parentage is largely driven by curiosity and the enigmatic nature of our relationship, rather than by any solid evidence pointing to Sir William Temple as her father.
COWEN: To close, do you think you will do a good job facing death?
SWIFT: I must say, death is an occasion of the utmost joviality! For who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to leave behind the follies and absurdities of this world, only to join the company of the great wits and minds of the past? Surely, the prospect of my demise shall be met with the same mirth and amusement with which I’ve approached the many ludicrous aspects of life. In death, I can finally escape the comedy that is human existence and take my place as an eternal spectator, chuckling from the sidelines.
COWEN: Jonathan Swift, thank you very much!