Swift’s Judgement Day

Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers believed that man was a rational creature, and that it was possible using reason alone to understand the nature of God, and to prove his existence.

Jonathan Swift, (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) set out to debunk the first of these beliefs – that man was a rational animal- in his satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels.

You can see in Gulliver’s 4th journey, his visit to Houhynhnmland, the land of the rational horses, a direct reference to the following quotation taken from Anselm’s Monologion.

Furthermore, if one observes the nature of things be perceives, whether he will or no, that not all are embraced in a single degree of dignity; but that certain among them are  distinguished by inequality of degree. For, he who doubts that the horse is superior in its nature to wood, and man more excellent than the horse, assuredly does not deserve the name of man. The Monologion   Chapter 4 Anselm 1077

In the extremely  hierarchical society of the talking horses, Gulliver is shown to lose all self-respect, as he comes to regard the horses as more rational and therefore superior in nature to himself. With this loss of  respect he comes to regard himself as a yahoo rather than a man.

The Struldbrugs, the immortals that Gulliver meets on his third voyage, they who become older and increasingly infirm, but never die, can be understood as a reference to another passage from the writings of Anselm. This time not from the  Monologion,  but from his reply to the Monk Gaunilo, who had been underwhelmed by the logic of  Anselm’s Proslogion and the ontological argument for the existence of God.  (Jonathan Swift was a long way from being the first Christian, to be unconvinced by Anselm’s arguments.)

 For instance, who (even if he does not believe that what he conceives of exists in  reality) supposing that there is some good which has a beginning and an end, does not  conceive that a good is much better, which, if it begins, does not cease to be?
Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo       

  Swift is using the Struldburgs as an illustration of the dangers of  naïve extrapolation: of assuming that because something is good in small quantity that increasing the quantity will increase the goodness. I am an admirer of Jonathan Swift, but I think the point was made more entertainingly in the 20th century by the Canadian comedian, actor, screenwriter and singer Dan Aykroyd.; in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, which he not only acted in but also  co-wrote,with Harold Ramis.


In this movie the fictional ancient Sumerian god Gozer the Destructor, gives the Ghostbuster team the option of choosing the form of his coming incarnation.  Dan Aykroyd’s character Ray Stantz thinks of the safest thing he can imagine, Mr Stay Puft the marshmallow man, and it turns out that in large quantities he isn’t safe at all.


In Swift’s poem, The Judgement Day, you can also see a  reference to the ontological argument. Just as the god of the ontological argument – He than whom none greater can be conceived to exist- is presented as existing in the imagination, so is the god Jove in this poem. He is however presented as a nightmare, a being that Swift does not conceive to exist in reality.

However fear not dear Catholic reader: Roman Catholicism is not here the target of Swift’s satire, that honour is preserved for the Protestant Reformers. They who took the ontological argument as their own, and decided that what was most maximally great about God was his retributive justice, and that all of us were in his sight so flawed that the only just thing he could do with something as offensive as us, was to visit his infinite justice upon us: and burn us for all eternity. That is unless we submitted  to the authority and teaching of the particular hell-ologian, and recognised all those who believed differently as damned.

‘Offending race of human kind,

By nature, reason, learning, blind;

These two lines, taken from Swift’s poem, are a fairly accurate account of how the reformers thought, God saw humanity, except of course those parts that had accepted the particular light that they were peddling. (There is reason to think that they don’t  reflect the attitude of Jonathan Swift, who frequently wrote in a voice not his own; and thought that we were rationis capax – capable of reason, rather than reason blind.)

This is a god to whom we are so disgusting that if he walked among us he would require, as Gulliver did when ejected from the land of the Houyhnhnm, a nosegay to hide our stench.  This god is as far from the God, Christ called Father, as it is possible to be.

Swift time-bound as he was would have been unable to identify this antichrist as Gozer, but in identifying him with the Roman god Jove, he has done something better. He has by a one letter difference identified the characteristic of Christ and His Father, that this god absolutely lacks.

This poem ends with Swift’s Jove, visiting on generations of hell-ologists, the satirist’s version of ultimate retributive justice – the justice of being the eternal butt of the joke.

The Judgement Day

by Jonathan Swift

With a whirl of thought oppressed,

I sunk from reverie to rest.

A horrid vision seized my head,

I saw the graves give up their dead!

Jove armed with terrors, bursts the skies,

And thunder roars and lightning flies!

Amazed, confused, its fate unknown,

The world stands trembling at his throne!

While each pale sinner hangs his head,

Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said:

‘Offending race of human kind,

By nature, reason, learning, blind;

You who, through frailty, stepped aside;

And you who never fell—through pride:

You who in different sects have shammed,

And come to see each other damned;

(So some folks told you, but they knew

No more of Jove’s designs than you)

The world’s mad business now is o’er,

And I resent these pranks no more.

I to such blockheads set my wit!

I damn such fools!—Go, go, you’re bit’

  1. Derek Flood’s Blog (therebelgod.com)
  2. Man is a Rational Animal Sometimes (open.salon.com/blog/richard_erlich)
  3. A Corrupting Meme (teapotology.wordpress.com)