Though Swift has never ceased to be so widely read he has not always been so universally admired. Swift’s misanthropy distressed some of his contemporaries. ‘Those of them who frequent the Church,’ Gay told him, ‘say his design is impious, and that it is an insult on Providence, by depreciating the works of the Creator.’ His scatology disturbed Dr. Johnson: ‘The greatest difficulty that occurs, in analysing his character, is to discover by what depravity of intellect he took delight in revolting ideas from which almost every other mind shrinks with disgust.’ Disgust tumed to positive loathing in the I9th Century, and reached a hysterical climax in the shrill protests of Thackeray against Gulliver’s fourth voyage: ‘It is Yahoo language: a
monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind-tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene/
Modern commentators, more tolerant of his misanthropy and less offended by his scatology, generally find themselves in sympathy with Swift, though even in the 20th Century he has his detractors. George Orwell hated his politics, seeing in them embryo fascism, while Professor Leavis finds his philosophy entirely negative. Though both are outside the mainstream of recent Swift criticism there is much to be said for their reservations. For neither Swift’s politics nor his philosophy have much appeal today. Despite recent attempts to make him a moderate he was too much of an extremist for most modern tastes. The arguments which he used to defend the political privileges of the Anglican elite in both England and Ireland would not find support in British political circles today outside the ranks of those who support the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence. Nor would his attack on the idea of Progress appeal to the majority in Contemporary Britain. For all that it is fashionable to scoff at the implicit faith in Progress which some Victorians held, disillusionment in the present Century has not gone so far as to destroy the belief entirely. If improvement now no longer seems inevitable, it nevertheless is still widely assumed to be not only desirable but probable. Swift’s philosophy is as unfashionable as his politics.