The Satire on Learning in Swift's "Digression on Madness" in A Tale of a Tub

Seminar Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



0. Introduction

1. About Satire
1.1. Its History
1.2. Its Characteristics
1.3. Its Techniques

2. About "A Digression on Madness"
2.1. Its Historical Background
2.1.1. Ancients versus Moderns
2.1.2. Swift and Epicureanism
2.2. Its Structure

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography
4.1. Primary Sources
4.2. Secondary Sources

0. Introduction

"Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the World, and that so few are offended with it" (Swift, see Weiß 1).

When Swift wrote this, A Tale of a Tub had not been published yet. If it had been, he might not have characterised satire as something quite inoffensive to the individual reader: A Tale of a Tub made him the subject of massive criticism, mainly because of its supposed blasphemous nature. Not very surprisingly, however, this criticism was mainly issued by the men he had attacked in the digression, which were not about religion but learning (see Storkman xvi).

Similarly, although Swift had called his satire "On the Corruptions in Religion and Learning", and although at least two thirds of it actually deal with learning, most of the public interest has gone into the part of it concerning religion (see Storkman xiv).

In this paper, I therefore want to examine Swift's satire on learning in the tenth section of A Tale of a Tub, "A Digression on Madness". I will start with some introductory notes on satire, covering its history, its character and its techniques. In a second part I will then analyse "A Digression of Madness" first from a historical and then from a structural point of view. In the last chapter I will conclude the paper by summarising and discussing the main arguments of the first two chapters.

1. About Satire

1.1. Its History

In the last third of the seventeenth century there was a change in literary style. This change was the "product of a different cultural temperament which redefined the role of literature" (Johnston 1). It was caused by the end of violent religious conflict and the beginning of restoration. As a result of the long years of violence caused by religious hostilities, it was generally acknowledged that the new society should be based on reason rather than any religious beliefs. In accordance to this, attempts were made to "purify" language of

"passionate rhetoric and misleading metaphors, the major features of much of the enthusiastic preaching and general rabble rousing which had accompanied the religious conflicts. Public discussion should use simple, clear language and appeal to the reasonable sentiments of educated people" (Johnston 1).

Thus, there was "a deep distrust of passionate feeling unaccompanied by reasonable control" (Johnston 2).

There were two separate ways in which the new faith in reasonableness developed. Whereas the so- called Modernists wanted to reform society through science and with no or little reference to religion, traditional Christians kept their belief in scripture and ancient learning and insisted that the appropriate way to proceed lay in maintaining the faith (see Johnston 3). A third group, the so-called Dissenters, refused to come to terms with the new faith and were unwilling to give up any of their traditionally enthusiastic religion in favour of reason.

The demands for a new reasonableness in literature and public conduct encouraged the rediscovery of satire, that form of literature "which is most directly concerned with addressing public issues with a strong didactic intention" (Johnston 4).

Before the beginning of descriptive philology, satire was widely held to be a literary genre, not a style of writing in itself. Thus, the first distinction being made between humour and satire was published as late as 1928 in Ronald A. Knox' "On Humour and Satire" (see Weiß 21). In the era of New Criticism, satires tended to be analysed as pieces of art in themselves with no connection to the social, political and economical environment they were written in. If the existence of social criticism was acknowledged at all, it was just seen as general criticism of human weaknesses rather than of political or social figures of the time (see Weiß 22). It was as late as the 1960s that satire was rediscovered as being inseparably linked to focusing on unmediated reality. This point of view is still widely held today (see Weiß 22).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Satire on Learning in Swift's "Digression on Madness" in A Tale of a Tub
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Englies Institute)
Swift and Satire
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
562 KB
A short introduction both into the basic elements and the history of satire as a genre and one of Swift´s most important works "A Tale in a Tub". I used this paper to get a "Schein" in linguistics but it is also suitable for anyone interested in the literal side of satire- even more so, I would say, but was happy to accept my Schein anyway... Have fun reading!
Satire, Learning, Swift, Digression, Madness, Tale, Swift, Satire
Quote paper
Marion Klotz (Author), 2004, The Satire on Learning in Swift's "Digression on Madness" in A Tale of a Tub, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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