Shaftesbury Swift and Astell

Ridicule, taught the third Earl of Shaftesbury in A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708), was the best test of truth, and its cousin satire was the natural nemesis of enthusiasm: "Good humour is not only the best Security against Enthusiasm, but the best Foundation of Piety and true Religion' (2001: 15). Cutting humor was indeed the favored response by early eighteenth-century poets to enthusiasm and its defenders. Most satiric anti-enthusiasts, however, are best surveyed as a group; only gradually did certain of their number emerge to show interesting variation on the subject of divine voices and inspirations.

Swift is the fiery Jeremiah of the anti-enthusiasts. Unlike his kinsman Dryden, whom he scorned as a temporizer, Swift in his first poem sets enthusiasm in a representational mold never to be broken in his career. In "Ode to the Athenian Society" (1692), the New Science championed by that club, born of plain speaking and clear definitions, countervails enthusiasm, represented by Swift as one of many malignant forms of Proteus, the changeling god. This "surly, slippery god" (l. 197) appears in the guise of "madmen and the wits, philosophers and fools, / With all that factious or enthusiastic dotards dream" (ll. 203-4). Proteus, emblem of multiplied meanings, can "contrive to shock your minds, with many a senseless doubt" (l. 207). Enthusiasts are dotards, fools, and dupes; and such remains Swift's view in his later brilliant examination of reading, interpretation, and knowledge, A Tale of a Tub (1704). In his thoroughly unapologetic Apology to A Tale of a Tub, enthusiasts epitomize all "numerous and gross corruptions in Religion" (Swift 1986: 2). Enthusiasts figure prominently in the Tub itself as chief mechanics cranking up all mechanical operations of the spirit.

They are exposed as windbag charlatans of the first order. The idea of the spirit within changes from a divine light in the mind, a typical metaphor for enthusiasm, or the breath of heaven, into just so much noxious gas released in one giant belch.

Swift is hardly alone in making enthusiasm's invisible threats visible on the body as a medical condition. Shaftesbury seconds Swift most closely when he explains how the contagion of enthusiasm sends a panic through religion:

And in this state their very Looks are infectious. The Fury flies from Face to Face: and the Disease is no sooner seen than caught. . . . And thus is Religion also Pannick; when Enthusiasm of any kind gets up; as oft, on melancholy occasions, it will do. For Vapors naturally rise; and in bad times especially, when the Spirits of Men are low. (Shaftesbury 2001: 11)

Like Shaftesbury here and Dryden earlier, Swift makes a metaphor literal. Despite seeming to side with the ancients, he enlists the linguistic techniques of moderns like Hobbes to deflate the pretensions of enthusiasm as empty language and ridiculous posturing. Enthusiasm can never be a friend of poetry when it names, for Swift, a deadly threat to health, comprehensibility, plain speaking, and good sense.

Swift shows the interdependence in the early eighteenth century of the dominant aesthetic — the rational Augustanism of the Tory satirists — with an emergent one of poetic enthusiasm. His crusade for propriety in interpretation is driven by the legacy of enthusiasm as a language- and world-altering power not easily laughed away. The purported voice of God will necessarily be one that differs most markedly from ordinary language, and poetic language will shift away from Hobbes and toward allegory once enthusiasm dominates poetic taste (Irlam 1999).

Swift's "Mechanical Operation of the Spirit" section of A Tale of a Tub also shows how readily women, prone to being seen as creatures of questionable reason, figured in the purported evils of enthusiasm: "All Females are attracted by Visionary or Enthu-siastick Preachers" (Swift 1986: 141). Similarly a real preacher, Archibald Campbell, claimed in A Discourse Proving that the Apostles were no Enthusiasts (1730), his Anglican defense of the "manly principles of Reason and Religion," that even in the face of Christ's resurrection the Apostles were no enthusiasts: "had there been any degree of Enthusiasm . . . among the disciples, it would have certainly broken out among those fond, silly women who went first to the Sepulchre" (Campbell 1730: 8, 66).

Women writers contemporary with Swift, however, begged to differ. They were often just as wary as their critics of any claims to gods within, and embraced Shaftesbury's method, sometimes turning it against Shaftesbury himself. Mary Astell's Bart'lemy Fair (1709), a direct response to Shaftesbury's Letter, drew its title from Shaftesbury's noticing that Huguenots, "these prophesying Enthusiasts" (Shaftesbury 2001: vol. 1, 18), in the purported grip of God looked like jerky puppets on strings and were thus represented as such in satiric puppet shows at Bartholomew (Bart'lemy) Fair. Astell aims to defend the Church and the True (Anglican) Religion while offering no quarter to enthusiasm. For her, Shaftesbury had unwittingly moved enthusiasm from the cultural margins to the center: "he represents the greatest Men, Heroes, Statesmen, Poets, Orators, and even Philosophers themselves, as Enthusiasts, who, as he elsewhere explains himself, are no better than Madmen!" (Astell 1709: 27). This is insupportable, because it implies that "Religion, which has hitherto been venerated by Humane Nature, by the Wisest and Greatest Nations, and the most Excellent Persons among them, he wou'd have to be no better than a Bart'lemy-Fair business" (pp. 27—8). Vital to her critique and to her importance to our account are not only her adamant refusal of the weak-willed, enthusiasm-inclined female position Swift assumed women occupied, but her notice of the crucial issue about enthusiasm for the rest of the century: whether it could be separable from religious fanaticism. She spots a critical inconsistency in Shaftesbury's need to enfranchise poetic enthusiasm but banish its unwelcome cousins: "there is a Noble Enthusiasm, which is the Spirit the Philosopher allots to Heroes . . . And yet as Natural as Enthusiasm is in one Page, we are told in another, that it is a Distemper!" (p. 172). Precisely this double gesture shapes the contributions of one of the century's finest poets, Alexander Pope, to the career of enthusiasm in eighteenth-century poetry. Pope, despite openly rejecting Dennis with Shaftesburian ridicule, nonetheless intimates just how an aestheticized poetic enthusiasm begins to find new fans capable of rejecting his own and his friend Swift's dominant standard of taste.

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