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The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 12/From Henry St. John to Jonathan Swift - 23

< The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift‎ | Volume 12


AUGUST 2, 1731.


I AM indebted to you, my reverend dean, for a letter of a very old date: the expectation of seeing you from week to week, which our friend Gay made me entertain, hindered me from writing to you a good while; and I have since deferred it by waiting an opportunity of sending my letter by a safe hand. That opportunity presents itself at last, and Mr. Ecklin will put this letter into your hands. You will hear from him, and from others, of the general state of things in this country, into which I returned, and where I am confined for my sins. If I entertained the notion, which by the way I believe to be much older than popery, or even than Christianity, of making up an account with Heaven, and demanding the balance in bliss, or paying it by good works and sufferings of my own, and by the merits and sufferings of others, I should imagine that I had expiated all the faults of my life, one way or other, since my return into England. One of the circumstances of my situation, which has afflicted me most, and which afflicts me still so, is the absolute inutility I am of to those whom I should be the best pleased to serve. Success in serving my friends would make me amends for the want of it in disserving my enemies. It is intolerable to want it in both, and yet both go together generally.

I have had two or three projects on foot for making such an establishment here as might tempt you to quit Ireland. One of them would have succeeded, and would have been agreeable in every respect, if engagements to my lady's kinsman (who did not, I suppose, deserve to be your clerk) had not prevented it. Another of them cannot take place, without the consent of those, who would rather have you a dean in Ireland, than a parish priest in England; and who are glad to keep you, where your sincere friend, my late lord Oxford, sent you. A third was wholly in our power; but when I inquired exactly into the value, I found it less than I had believed; the distance from these parts was great; and beside all this, an unexpected and groundless dispute about the right of presentation (but still such a dispute as the law must determine) had arisen. You will please to believe, that I mention these things for no other reason than to show you, how much those friends deserve you should make them a visit at least, who are so desirous to settle you among them. I hope their endeavours will not be always unsuccessful.

I received, some time ago, a letter from Dr. Delany; and very lately Mr. Pope sent me some sheets, which seem to contain the substance of two sermons of that gentleman's. The philosophia prima is above my reach, and especially when it attempts to prove, that God has done, or does so and so, by attempting to prove, that doing so and so is essential to his attributes, or necessary to his design; and that the not doing so and so, would be inconsistent with the former, or repugnant to the latter. I content myself to contemplate what I am sure he has done, and to adore him for it in humble silence. I can demonstrate, that every cavil, which has been brought against the great system of the world, physical and moral, from the days of Democritus and Epicurus to this day, is absurd; but I dare not pronounce why things are made as they are, state the ends of infinite wisdom, and show the proportion of the means.

Dr. Delany, in his letter to me, mentioned some errours in the critical parts of learning, which he hoped he had corrected, by showing the mistakes, particularly of sir John Marsham, on whose authority those errours were built. Whether I can be of use to him even in this part, I know not; for, having fixed my opinion long ago concerning all ancient history and chronology, by a careful examination into the first principles of them, I have ever since laid that study totally aside. I confess, in the letter I writ lately to the doctor, notwithstanding my great respect for sir John Marsham, that his authority is often precarious, because he leans often on other authorities, which are so. But to you I will confess a little more: I think, nay, I know, that there is no possibility of making any system of that kind, without doing the same thing; and that the defect is in the subject, not in the writer. I have read the writings of some who differ from him; and of others who undertook particularly to refute him. It seems plain to me, that this was the case. All the materials of this sort of learning are disjointed and broken. Time has contributed to render them so, and the unfaithfulness of those who have transmitted them down to us, particularly of that vile fellow Eusebius, has done even more than time itself. By throwing these fragments into a different order, by arbitrary interpretations (and it is often impossible to make any others) in short, by a few plausible guesses for the connexion and application of them, a man may, with tolerable ingenuity, prove almost any thing by them. I tried formerly to prove, in a learned dissertation, by the same set of authorities, that there had been four Assyrian monarchies; that there had been but three; that there had been but two; that there had been but one; and that there never had been any. I puzzled myself, and a much abler man than myself, the friend to whom I lent the manuscript, and who has, I believe, kept it. In short, I am afraid that I shall not be very useful to Dr. Delany, in making remarks on the work he is about. His communication of this work may be useful, and I am sure it will be agreeable to me. If you and he are still in Ireland, pray give my best services to him; but say no more than may be proper of all I have writ to you.

I know very well the project you mean, and about which you say, that Pope and you have often teased me. I could convince you, as he is convinced, that a publication of any thing of that kind would have been wrong on many accounts, and would be so even now. Besides, call it pride if you will, I shall never make, either to the present age, or to posterity, any apology for the part I acted in the late queen's reign. But I will apply myself very seriously to the composition of just and true relations of the events of those times, in which both I, and my friends, and my enemies, must take the merit, or the blame, which an authentick and impartial deduction of facts will assign to us. I will endeavour to write so as no man could write who had not been a party in those transactions, and as few men would write who had been concerned in them. I believe I shall go back, in considering the political interests of the principal powers in Europe, as far as the Pyrenean treaty; but I shall not begin a thread of history till the death of Charles the second of Spain, and the accession of queen Anne to the throne of England. Nay, even from that time downward, I shall render my relations more full, or piu magra, the word is father Paul's, just as I have, or have not, a stock of authentick materials. These shall regulate my work, and I will neither indulge my own vanity, nor other men's curiosity, in going one step farther than they carry me. You see, my dear Swift, that I open a large field to myself: with what success I shall expatiate in it, I know as little, as I know whether I shall live to go through so great a work; but I will begin immediately, and will make it one principal business of the rest of my life. This advantage, at least, I shall reap from it, and a great advantage it will be, my attention will be diverted from the present scene, I shall grieve less at those things which I cannot mend: I shall dignify my retreat; and shall wind up the labours of my life in serving the cause of truth.

You say, that you could easily show, by comparing my letters for twenty years past, how the whole system of my philosophy changes by the several gradations of life. I doubt it. As far as I am able to recollect, my way of thinking has been uniform enough for more than twenty years. True it is, to my shame, that my way of acting has not been always conformable to my way of thinking. My own passions, and the passions and interests of other men still more, have led me aside. I launched into the deep before I had loaded ballast enough. If the ship did not sink, the cargo was thrown overboard. The storm itself threw me into port. My own opinion, my own desires would have kept me there: the opinion, the desires of others, sent me to sea again. I did, and blamed myself for doing what others, and you, among the rest, would have blamed me, if I had not done. I have paid more than I owed to party, and as much at least as was due to friendship. If I go off the stage of publick life without paying all I owe to my enemies, and to the enemies of my country, I do assure you the bankruptcy is not fraudulent. I conceal none of my effects.

Does Pope talk to you of the noble work, which, at my instigation, he has begun in such a manner, that he must be convinced, by this time, I judged better of his talents than he did? The first epistle, which considers man, and the habitation of man, relatively to the whole system of universal being. The second, which considers him in his own habitation, in himself, and relatively to his particular system. And the third, which shows how —

——————— A universal cause
Works to one end, but works by various laws.

How man, and beast, and vegetable are linked in a mutual dependency, parts necessary to each other, and necessary to the whole; how human societies were formed; from what spring true religion and true policy are derived; how God has made our greatest interest and our plainest duty indivisibly the same. These three epistles, I say, are finished. The fourth he is now intent upon. It is a noble subject; he pleads the cause of God, I use Seneca's expression, against that famous charge which atheists in all ages have brought, the supposed unequal dispensations of Providence; a charge which I cannot heartily forgive your divines for admitting. You admit it indeed for an extreme good purpose, and you build on this admission the necessity of a future state of rewards and punishments. But what if you should find, that this future state will not account, in opposition to the atheist, for God's justice in the present state, which you give up? Would it not have been better to defend God's justice in this world, against these daring men, by irrefragable reasons, and to have rested the proof of the other point on revelation? I do not like concessions made against demonstration, repair or supply them how you will. The epistles I have mentioned will compose a first book; the plan of the second is settled. You will not understand by what I have said, that Pope will go so deep into the argument, or carry it so far as I have hinted. You inquire so kindly after my wife, that I must tell you something of her. She has fallen upon a remedy, invented by a surgeon abroad, and which has had great success in cases similar to hers. This remedy has visibly attacked the original cause of all her complaints, and has abated, in some degree, by one gentle and uniform effect, all the grievous and various symptoms. I hope, and surely with reason, that she will receive still greater benefit from this method of cure, which she will resume as soon as the great heat is over. If she recovers, I shall not, for her sake, abstract myself from the world more than I do at present in this place. But if she should be taken from me, I should most certainly yield to that strong desire, which I have long had, of secluding myself totally from the company and affairs of mankind; of leaving the management, even of my private affairs, to others; and of securing, by these means, for the rest of my life, an uninterrupted tenour of philosophical quiet.

I suppose you have seen some of those volumes of scurrility, which have been thrown into the world against Mr. Pulteney and myself, and the Craftsman, which gave occasion to them. I think, and it is the sense of all my friends, that the person who published the Final Answer[1], took a right turn, in a very nice and very provoking circumstance. To answer all the falsities, misrepresentations, and blunders, which a club of such scoundrels, as Arnall, Concanen, and other pensioners of the minister, crowd together, would have been equally tedious and ridiculous, and must have forced several things to be said, neither prudent, nor decent, nor perhaps strictly honourable to be said. To have explained some points, and to have stopped at others, would have given strength to that impertinent suggestion. Guilt alone is silent in the day of inquiry. It was therefore right to open no part of the scene of the late queen's reign, nor submit the passages of her administration, and the conduct of any of her ministers, to the examination of so vile a tribunal. This was still the more right, because, upon such points as relate to subsequent transactions, and as affect me singly, what the Craftsman had said, was justified unanswerably; and what the remarker had advanced, was proved to be infamously false. The effect of this paper has answered the design of it; and which is not common, all sides agree, that the things said ought to have been said. The publick writers seem to be getting back, from these personal altercations, to national affairs, much against the grain of the minister's faction. What the effect of all this writing will be, I know not; but this I know, that when all the information which can be given, is given; when all the spirit which can be raised, is raised, it is to no purpose to write any more. Even you men of this world have nothing else to do, but to let the ship drive till she is cast away, or till the storm is over. For my own part, I am neither an owner, an officer, nor a foremastman. I am but a passenger, said my lord Carbury.

It is well for you I am got to the end of my paper; for you might else have a letter as long again from me. If you answer me by the post, remember, while you are writing, that you write by the post. Adieu, my reverend friend.


  1. This pamphlet was written by lord Bolingbroke, in his own vindication, 1731. It is entitled, A Final Answer to the Remarks on the Craftsman's Vindication of his two honourable Patrons; and to all the Libels which have come, or may come, from the same Quarter, against the Person last mentioned in the Craftsman of 22d of May."