Jonathan Swift’s Takedown of Modernism & Postmodernism

Jonathan Swift’s Takedown of Modernism & Postmodernism December 1, 2017


Yesterday, November 30, was the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift, the great satirist and imaginative author.  Swift deserves to be numbered among the very best of Christian writers.  A conservative Anglican clergyman, Swift pilloried the Enlightenment and anticipated many of the problems that it would bring, including what would become modernism and postmodernism.  He did so from the perspective of classical thought and a Christian worldview.

I suspect one reason Swift is not honored as the Christian author that he was is the persistent charge of “misanthropy,” which is a misunderstanding both of Swift’s satirical irony and of his belief in human sinfulness.  Another reason is his pre-Victorian use of scatological humor.  (Editions of Gulliver’s Travels for children all exclude, for example, the way Gulliver puts out the fire that threatened to burn down the Lilliputian’s royal castle.)

When you read Gulliver’s Travels don’t just read his account of the tiny Lilliputians and the gigantic Brobdinagians, read about Gulliver’s other visits, for example, to the Land of Lagado, in which Swift anticipates the invention of the computer and makes fun of scientific research run amok.

Also read his lesser known works.  For example, A Tale of a Tub gives his take on church controversies.  Lutherans will be glad to learn that his hero is “Martin,” who is opposed by the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Puritanism.

One of my favorites is Battle of the Books, which portrays a fight that broke out in a library between “ancient” books–the classics of Western civilization–and “modern” books being churned out by the Enlightenment.  Swift shows why the old books are stronger than the new books.  (Ironically, of course, some of his “modern” authors are today’s “classics”!)

The most telling section of that book is an interlude in which a bee flies through a spider’s web.  The spider becomes emblematic of the “moderns”–and I would say even more so the “postmoderns” who would come–who spin elaborate but insubstantial webs of thought out of themselves.  The bee is emblematic of classical thought, ranging far and wide through the objective realm of nature, taking in what is valuable and processing it within itself, from which it makes the useful products of honey and candlewax (“sweetness” and “light”).

In honor of Swift’s birthday and for your enjoyment and edification, I will post excerpts from Swift’s “Fable of the Spider and the Bee” from Battle of the Books: 

[As the war between the Modern Books and the Ancient Books is getting ready to start, a bee accidentally flies through a spider’s web, tearing it to pieces. The spider’s complaint leads to a debate between the two insects as to which one of them is better. . .]

The Spider:

Not to disparage my self, said he, by the Comparison with such a Rascal; What art thou but a Vagabond without House or Home, without Stock or Inheritance; Born to no Possession of your own, but a Pair of Wings, and a Drone-Pipe. Your Livelihood is an universal Plunder upon Nature; a Freebooter over Fields and Gardens; and for the sake of Stealing, will rob a Nettle as readily as a Violet. Whereas I am a domestick Animal, furnisht with a Native Stock within my self. This large Castle (to shew my Improvements in the Mathematicks) is all built with my own Hands, and the Materials extracted altogether out of my own Person.

The Bee:

I am glad, answered the Bee, to hear you grant at least, that I am come honestly by my Wings and my Voice, for then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my Flights and my Musick; and Providence would never have bestowed on me two such Gifts, without designing them for the noblest Ends. I visit, indeed, all the Flowers and Blossoms of the Field and Garden, but whatever I collect from thence, enriches my self, without the least Injury to their Beauty, their Smell, or their Taste. Now, for you and your Skill in Architecture, and other Mathematicks, I have little to say: In that Building of yours, there might, for ought I know, have been Labour and Method enough, but by woful Experience for us both, ’tis too plain, the Materials are naught, and I hope, you will henceforth take Warning, and consider Duration and matter, as well as method and Art.

You, boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other Creature, but of drawing, and spinning out all from your self; That is to say, if we may judge of the Liquor in the Vessel by what issues out, You possess a good plentiful Store of Dirt and Poison in your Breast; And, tho’ I would by no means, lessen or disparage your genuine Stock of either, yet, I doubt you are somewhat obliged for an Encrease of both, to a little foreign Assistance. Your inherent Portion of Dirt, does not fall of Acquisitions, by Sweepings exhaled from below: and one Insect furnishes you with a share of Poison to destroy another.

So that in short, the Question comes all to this; Whether is the nobler Being of the two, That which by a lazy Contemplation of four Inches round; by an over-weening Pride, which feeding and engendering on it self, turns all into Excrement and Venom; producing nothing at last, but Fly-bane and a Cobweb: Or That, which, by an universal Range, with long Search, much Study, true Judgment, and Distinction of Things, brings home Honey and Wax. . . .


The Disputants, said he, have admirably managed the Dispute between them, have taken in the full Strength of all that is to be said on both sides, and exhausted the Substance of every Argument pro and con. It is but to adjust the Reasonings of both to the present Quarrel, then to compare and apply the Labors and Fruits of each, as the Bee has learnedly deduced them; and we shall find the Conclusion fall plain and close upon the Moderns and Us.

For, pray Gentlemen, was ever any thing so Modern as the Spider in his Air, his Turns, and his Paradoxes? He argues in the Behalf of You his Brethren, and Himself, with many Boastings of his native Stock, and great Genius; that he Spins and Spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any Obligation or Assistance from without. Then he displays to you his great Skill in Architecture, and Improvement in the Mathematicks.

To all this, the Bee, as an Advocate, retained by us the Antients, thinks fit to Answer; That if one may judge of the great Genius or Inventions of the Moderns, by what they have produced, you will hardly have Countenance to bear you out in boasting of either. Erect your Schemes with as much Method and Skill as you please; yet, if the materials be nothing but Dirt, spun out of your own Entrails (the Guts of Modern Brains) the Edifice will conclude at last in a Cobweb: The Duration of which, like that of other Spiders Webs, may be imputed to their being forgotten, or neglected, or hid in a Corner. For any Thing else of Genuine, that the Moderns may pretend to, I cannot recollect; unless it be a large Vein of Wrangling and Satyr, much of a Nature and Substance with the Spider’s Poison; which, however, they pretend to spit wholly out of themselves, is improved by the same Arts, by feeding upon the Insects and Vermin of the Age.

As for Us, the Ancients, We are content with the Bee, to pretend to Nothing of our own, beyond our Wings and our Voice: that is to say, our Flights and our Language; For the rest, whatever we have got, has been by infinite Labor, and search, and ranging thro’ every Corner of Nature: The Difference is, that instead of Dirt and Poison, we have rather chose to till our Hives with Honey and Wax, thus furnishing Mankind with the two Noblest of Things, which are Sweetness and Light…

Illustration:  Portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



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