The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 12/From Henry St. John to Jonathan Swift - 13

SEPTEMBER 12, 1724.

IT is neither sickness, nor journies, nor ill humours, nor age, nor vexation, nor stupidity, which has hindered me from answering sooner your letter of the month of June; but a very prudent consideration, and one of the greatest strains of policy I ever exercised in my life. Should I answer you in a month, you might think yourself obliged to answer me in six; and scared at the sore fatigue of writing twice a year to an absent friend, you might (for aught either you or I can tell) stop short, and not write at all. Now this would disappoint all my projects; for, to confess the truth, I have been drawing you in these several years, and, by my past success, I begin to hope, that in about ten more, I may establish a right of hearing from you once a quarter. The gout neither clears my head, nor warms my imagination, and I am ashamed to own to you, how near the truth I kept in the description of what passed by my bedside in the reading of your letter. The scene was really such as I painted it; and the company was much better than you seem to think it. When I, who pass a great part, very much the greatest of my life alone, sally forth into the world, I am very far from expecting to improve myself by the conversation I find there; and still farther from caring one jot of what passes there. In short, I am no longer the bubble you knew me: and therefore, when I mingle in society, it is purely for my amusement. If mankind divert me (and I defy them to give me your distemper, the spleen) it is all I expect or ask of them. By this sincere confession you may perceive, that your great masters of reason are not for my turn; their thorough bass benumbs my faculties. I seek the fiddle or the flute, something to raise, or something to calm my spirits agreeably; gay flights, or soothing images. I do not dislike a fellow, whose imagination runs away with him, and who has wit enough to be half mad; nor him, who atones for a scanty imagination by an ample fund of oddnesses and singularity. If good sense and real knowledge prevail a little too much in any character, I desire there may be at least some latent ridicule, which may be called forth upon occasion, and render the person a tolerable companion. By this sketch you may judge of my acquaintance. The dead friends with whom I pass my time you know. The living ones are of the same sort, and therefore few.

I pass over that paragraph of your letter, which is a kind of an elegy on a departed minister[1]; and I promise you solemmly neither to mention him, nor think of him more, till I come to do him justice in a history of the first twenty years of this century, which I believe I shall write if I live three or four years longer. But I must take a little more notice of the paragraph which follows. The verses I sent you are very bad, because they are not very good: mediocribus esse poëtis, non dî, non homines, &c. I did not send them to be admired; and you would do them too much honour, if you criticised them. Pope took the best party; for he said not one word to me about them. All I desire of you is to consider them as a proof, that you have never been out of my thoughts, though you have been so long out of my sight; and, if I remember you upon paper for the future, it shall be in prose.

I must on this occasion set you right, as to an opinion, which I should be very sorry to have you entertain concerning me. The term esprit fort, in English freethinker, is, according to my observation, usually applied to them, whom I look upon to be the pests of society; because their endeavours are directed to loosen the bands of it; and to take at least one curb out of the mouth of that wild beast man, when it would be well if he was checked by half a score others. Nay, they go farther. Revealed Religion is a lofty and pompous structure, erected close to the humble and plain building of Natural Religion. Some have objected to you, who are the architects et les concierges (we want that word in English) of the former, to you who built, or at least repair the house, and who show the rooms, that to strengthen some parts of your own building, you shake and even sap the foundations of the other. And between you and me, Mr. dean, this charge may be justified in several instances. But still your intention is not to demolish. Whereas the esprit fort, or the freethinker, is so set upon pulling down your house about your ears, that if he was let alone, he would destroy the other for being so near it, and mingle both in one common ruin. I therefore not only disown, but detest this character. If indeed by esprit fort, or freethinker, you only mean a man who makes a free use of his reason, who searches after truth without passion or prejudice, and adheres inviolably to it; you mean a wise and honest man, and such a one as I labour to be. The faculty of distinguishing between right and wrong, true and false, which we call reason, or common sense, which is given to every man by our bountiful Creator, and which most men lose by neglect, is the light of the mind, and ought to guide all operations of it. To abandon this rule, and to guide our thoughts by any other, is full as absurd, as it would be, if you should put out your eyes, and borrow even the best staff, that ever was in the family of the Staffs[2], when you set out upon one of your dirty journies. Such freethinkers as these I am sure you cannot, even in your apostolical capacity, disapprove: for since the truth of the divine revelation of Christianity is as evident, as matters of fact, on the belief of which so much depends, ought to be, and agreeable to all our ideas of justice, these freethinkers must needs be christians on the best foundation; on that which St. Paul himself established, I think it was St. Paul, omnia probate, quod bonum est, tenete.

But you have a farther security from these freethinkers, I do not say a better, and it is this: the persons I am describing think for themselves, and to themselves. Should they unhappily not be convinced by your arguments, yet they will certainly think it their duty not to disturb the peace of the world by opposing you[3]. The peace and happiness of mankind is the great aim of these freethinkers; and therefore, as those among them who remain incredulous, will not oppose you, so those whom reason enlightened by grace has made believers, may be sorry, and may express their sorrow, as I have done, to see Religion perverted to purposes so contrary to her true intention, and first design. Can a good christian behold the ministers of the meek and humble Jesus, exercising an insolent and cruel usurpation over their brethren? or the messengers of peace and good news setting all mankind together by the ears? or that religion, which breathes charity and universal benevolence, spilling more blood, upon reflection and by system, than the most barbarous heathen ever did in the heat of action, and fury of conquest? Can he behold all this without a holy indignation, and not be criminal? Nay, when he turns his eyes from those tragical scenes, and considers the ordinary tenour of things, do you not think he will be shocked to observe metaphysicks substituted to the theory, and ceremony to the practice of morality?

I make no doubt but you are by this time abundantly convinced of my orthodoxy, and that you will name me no more in the same breath with Spinosa, whose system of one infinite substance I despise and abhor, as I have a right to do, because I am able to show why I despise and abhor it.

You desire me to return home, and you promise me, in that case, to come to London, loaden with your travels. I am sorry to tell you, that London is in my apprehension, as little likely as Dublin to be our place of rendezvous. The reasons for this apprehension I pass over; but I cannot agree to what you advance with the air of a maxim, that exile is the greatest punishment to men of virtue, because virtue consists in loving our country. Examine the nature of this love, from whence it arises, how it is nourished, what the bounds and measures of it are; and after that you will discover, how far it is virtue, and where it becomes simplicity, prejudice, folly, and even enthusiasm. A virtuous man in exile may properly enough be styled unfortunate; but he cannot be called unhappy. You remember the reason, which Brutus gave, "because wherever he goes, he carries his virtue with him." There is a certain bulky volume, which grows daily, and the title of which must, I think, be Noctes Gallicæ. There you may perhaps one day or other see a dissertation upon this subject: and to return you threatening for threatening, you shall be forced to read it out, though you yawn from the first to the last page.

The word Ireland was struck out of the paper you mention; that is to satisfy your curiosity: and to kindle it anew, I will tell you, that this anecdote, which I know not how you came by, is neither the only one, nor the most considerable one of the same kind. The person you are so inquisitive about[4], returns into England the latter end of October. She has so great a mind to see you, that I am not sure she will not undertake a journey to Dublin. It is not so far from London to Dublin, as from Spain to Padua; and you are as well worth seeing as Livy. But I would much rather you would leave the humid climate, and the dull company, in which, according to your account, a man might grow old between twenty and thirty. Set your foot on the continent; I dare promise, that you will, in a fortnight, have gone back the ten years you lament so much, and be returned to that age, at which I left you. With what pleasure should I hear you inter vina fugam Stellæ mœrere protervæ? Adieu.

  1. The earl of Oxford, who died in June 1724.
  2. An allusion to Bickerstaff.
  3. Notwithstanding the declarations made by lord Bolingbroke in this letter, he left his writings against religion to Mr. Mallet, with a view to their being published, as appears by his will; and with a positive and direct injunction to publish them, as appears by a letter from Mr. Mallet to lord Hyde, viscount Cornbury, now in the British Museum. We have therefore his lordship's own authority to say, that he was one of the pests of society, even if the opinions, which he has advanced against religion, are true; for his endeavour is certainly directed to loosen the bands of it, and to take at least one curb out of the mouth of that wild beast man. Expressly to direct the publication of writings, which, he believed, would subvert the morals and the happiness of society, at a time when he could derive no private advantage from the mischief, was perhaps an act of wickedness more purely diabolical, than any hitherto upon record in the history of any age or nation. Mallet had a pecuniary temptation to assassinate the morals and happiness of his country at Bolingbroke's instigation: his crime therefore is not equally a proof of natural depravity, though it is impossible to suppose he had less conviction of the mischief he was doing; and it is also impossible to suppose, that he could seriously think any obligation to print Bolingbroke's infidelity, in consequence of his injunction, equivalent to the obligation he was under to suppress it, arising from the duty, which, as a man, he owed to human nature. The paragraph in lord Bolingbroke's will, by which his writings are bequeathed to Mallet; the letter, which lord Cornbury wrote to Mallet, upon hearing he was about to publish the letters, including those on sacred history, and Mallet's answer; are, for the reader's satisfaction, printed at the end of this collection. Lord Cornbury's letter is a monument, that will do more honour to his memory, than all that mere wit or valour has achieved since the world began.
  4. His lordship's second wife, a French lady.