Sunday, June 1, 2014

"Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue"

In his review of a new biography of Jonathan Swift, James Bowman describes the frequent difficulty of imagining ourselves into the worldview of another time and place. Did Swift really intend that government officials should be expected to be hypocrites about their religious beliefs?
One of the problems with reimagining Swift as “our contemporary”...is that it makes him much harder to read. We are constantly having to abandon our delight in what he wrote in order to get our minds around what he really must have meant by it, especially when he is at his most misanthropic or moralistic. One example comes in Damrosch’s discussion of Swift’s pseudonymous A Project for the Advancement of Religion, and the Reformation of Manners (1709). In it he proposes rigid enforcement of morality on the part of those in government offices, even though he recognizes that this will produce hypocrisy, which at least “wears the livery of religion...acknowledgeth her authority, and is cautious of giving scandal.” Most shockingly, Swift wrote: “I believe it is with religion as it is with love, which by much dissembling at last grows real.” ....

...Swift often wrote in favor of an outward conformity to established practices, especially those of the established church of which he was a clergy-man, in spite of inward doubts and even contrary convictions. As the king of Brobdingnag says to Gulliver:
He knew no reason why those, who entertain [religious or political] opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials. .... [more]