Few people made as big an impact on the English language as Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and the satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” among many others. Over the course of his career, Swift wrote many influential works on a range of topics from politics to the human condition that are as relevant today as they were then.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was an Irish essayist, satirist and poet whom the Encyclopædia Britannica calls the “foremost prose satirist in the English language.” He published all of his works anonymously or under pseudonyms such as Lemuel Gulliver (the same name as his protagonist in Gulliver’s Travels), Isaac Bickerstaff and M.B. Draper.
Additionally, he lent his satirical voice to various political pamphlets and essays. His deadpan humor and biting style were ahead of their time and paved the way for future satirists. Swift was also an Anglican cleric who became the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. His religion and Irish nationality influenced many of his works, particularly those that addressed the treatment of the Irish people such as “A Modest Proposal.”
Jonathan Swift’s best-known literary work is Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, or Gulliver’s Travels for short. It is the tale of a man, Lemuel Gulliver, who travels across the globe and what he learns from his experiences. The novel satirizes everything from the “travelers’ tales” subgenre of literature that was popular at the time to human nature in general. Swift stated that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels "to vex the world rather than divert it.”
“Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”
“Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine.”
“This made me reflect, how vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him.”
“My hours of leisure I spent in reading the best authors, ancient and modern, being always provided with a good number of books; and when I was ashore, in observing the manners and dispositions of the people, as well as learning their language; wherein I had a great facility, by the strength of my memory.”
“They have a notion, that when people are met together, a short silence does much improve conversation: this I found to be true; for during those little intermissions of talk, new ideas would arise in their minds, which very much enlivened the discourse.”
“For they have no conception how a rational creature can be compelled, but only advised, or exhorted; because no person can disobey reason, without giving up his claim to be a rational creature.”
“I write without any view towards profit or praise. I never suffered a word to pass that may look like reflection, or possibly give the lease offense even to those who are most ready to take it.”
“Poor Nations are hungry, and rich Nations are proud, and Pride and Hunger will ever be at Variance.”
Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting is a compilation of numerous Jonathan Swift quotes on “various subjects” ranging from religion and philosophy to art and culture.
“Vision is the Art of seeing Things invisible.”
“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.“
“Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.”
"The latter part of a wise man's life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former."
“When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.“
"Whatever the poets pretend, it is plain they give immortality to none but themselves; it is Homer and Virgil we reverence and admire, not Achilles or Aeneas. With historians it is quite the contrary; our thoughts are taken up with the actions, persons, and events we read, and we little regard the authors."
"When a man is made a spiritual peer he loses his surname; when a temporal, his Christian name."
"If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!"
"What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressly: that they neither marry, nor are given in marriage."
“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”
“The Bulk of mankind is as well equipped for flying as thinking.”
“Invention is the talent of youth, and judgment of age…”
Jonathan Swift wrote many essays and other works under various pseudonyms. With so many great quotes, we couldn’t limit ourselves to just two books.
“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.” - The Battle of the Books
“Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.” - The Battle of the Books
“There are few, very few, that will own themselves in a mistake, though all the World sees them to be in downright nonsense.” - The Tatler, no. 63
“And surely one of the best rules in conversation is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish had been left unsaid…” - Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation
“We are so fond of one another, because our ailments are the same.” - Journal to Stella
I love good creditable acquaintance; I love to be the worst of the company. - Journal to Stella
“…one enemy can do more hurt, than ten friends can do good.” - Journal to Stella
“But nothing is so hard for those who abound in riches, as to conceive how others can be in want.” - A Preface to the Bishop of Sarum's Introduction to the Third Volume of the History of the Reformation of the Church of England
“For, in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery: but in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt.” - The Drapier's Letters, letter IV
“Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” - Letter to a Young Clergymen
There are many figures in English literature and history who left behind legacies and words to remember. Explore some of them: