Rhetoric and the word.

Author:Leithart, Peter J.
Position:Opinion
 
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A Tale of a Tub, published anonymously in 1704, was the first of Jonathan Swift s great satires. It tells of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, who represent, respectively, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Their father has given each of the brothers a coat, with instructions not to alter it in any way, but each quickly changes his coat to fit his own tastes. Swift uses this story to satirize the petty divisions and puerile squabbling of Christian sects.

The most memorable part of Tale of a Tub, however, is the narrator, who digresses with abandon on every possible subject, even providing a "Digression in Praise of Digressions." One of the most famous of these digressions is one concerning madness, which includes one of the most famous passages in all of Swift's work. Swift states his preference for wisdom that "converses about the surfaces to "pretended philosophy" that attempts to delve into the "depth of things." Then he goes on:

The two senses, to which all objects first address themselves, are the sight and the touch; these never examine farther than the color, the shape, the size, and whatever other qualities dwell, or are drawn by art upon the outward of bodies; and then comes reason officiously with tools for cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate, that they are not the same consistence quite through. Now I take this to be the last degree of perverting nature; one of whose eternal laws it is, to put her best furniture forward. And therefore, in order to save the charges of all such expensive anatomy from the time to come, I do here think fit to inform the reader, that in such conclusions as these, reason is certainly in the right, and that in most corporeal beings, which have fallen under my cognizance, the outside has been infinitely preferable to the in; whereof I have been farther convinced from some late experiments. Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. Swift is aiming at one of the most important tendencies of the age in which he was living. As Daniel Cottom has argued in his fascinating account of the Enlightenment, Cannibals and Philosophers, anatomy was (along with geometry) one of the model sciences of the age. Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), for instance, had mocked the ancient abhorrence of dissecting human bodies as "superstition," and urged that it was instead an "excellent Art, which is one of the most...

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