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A Tale of a Tub, a non-fiction book by Jonathan Swift

The Tale of a Tub - Section I - The Introduction

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Section I - The Introduction

Whoever has an ambition to be heard in a crowd must press, and
squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable pains, till he has
exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them. Now, in
all assemblies, though you wedge them ever so close, we may observe
this peculiar property, that over their heads there is room enough;
but how to reach it is the difficult point, it being as hard to get
quit of number as of hell.

"--Evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est." {59}

To this end the philosopher's way in all ages has been by erecting
certain edifices in the air; but whatever practice and reputation
these kind of structures have formerly possessed, or may still
continue in, not excepting even that of Socrates when he was
suspended in a basket to help contemplation, I think, with due
submission, they seem to labour under two inconveniences. First,
that the foundations being laid too high, they have been often out
of sight and ever out of hearing. Secondly, that the materials
being very transitory, have suffered much from inclemencies of air,
especially in these north-west regions.

Therefore, towards the just performance of this great work there
remain but three methods that I can think on; whereof the wisdom of
our ancestors being highly sensible, has, to encourage all aspiring
adventures, thought fit to erect three wooden machines for the use
of those orators who desire to talk much without interruption.
These are the Pulpit, the Ladder, and the Stage-itinerant. For as
to the Bar, though it be compounded of the same matter and designed
for the same use, it cannot, however, be well allowed the honour of
a fourth, by reason of its level or inferior situation exposing it
to perpetual interruption from collaterals. Neither can the Bench
itself, though raised to a proper eminency, put in a better claim,
whatever its advocates insist on. For if they please to look into
the original design of its erection, and the circumstances or
adjuncts subservient to that design, they will soon acknowledge the
present practice exactly correspondent to the primitive institution,
and both to answer the etymology of the name, which in the
Phoenician tongue is a word of great signification, importing, if
literally interpreted, "The place of sleep," but in common
acceptation, "A seat well bolstered and cushioned, for the repose of
old and gouty limbs;" senes ut in otia tuta recedant {60}. Fortune
being indebted to them this part of retaliation, that as formerly
they have long talked whilst others slept, so now they may sleep as
long whilst others talk.

But if no other argument could occur to exclude the Bench and the
Bar from the list of oratorical machines, it were sufficient that
the admission of them would overthrow a number which I was resolved
to establish, whatever argument it might cost me; in imitation of
that prudent method observed by many other philosophers and great
clerks, whose chief art in division has been to grow fond of some
proper mystical number, which their imaginations have rendered
sacred to a degree that they force common reason to find room for it
in every part of Nature, reducing, including, and adjusting, every
genus and species within that compass by coupling some against their
wills and banishing others at any rate. Now, among all the rest,
the profound number THREE {61} is that which has most employed my
sublimest speculations, nor ever without wonderful delight. There
is now in the press, and will be published next term, a panegyrical
essay of mine upon this number, wherein I have, by most convincing
proofs, not only reduced the senses and the elements under its
banner, but brought over several deserters from its two great
rivals, SEVEN and NINE.

Now, the first of these oratorical machines, in place as well as
dignity, is the Pulpit. Of pulpits there are in this island several
sorts, but I esteem only that made of timber from the Sylva
Caledonia, which agrees very well with our climate. If it be upon
its decay, it is the better, both for conveyance of sound and for
other reasons to be mentioned by and by. The degree of perfection
in shape and size I take to consist in being extremely narrow, with
little ornament, and, best of all, without a cover; for, by ancient
rule, it ought to be the only uncovered vessel in every assembly
where it is rightfully used, by which means, from its near
resemblance to a pillory, it will ever have a mighty influence on
human ears.

Of Ladders I need say nothing. It is observed by foreigners
themselves, to the honour of our country, that we excel all nations
in our practice and understanding of this machine. The ascending
orators do not only oblige their audience in the agreeable delivery,
but the whole world in their early publication of their speeches,
which I look upon as the choicest treasury of our British eloquence,
and whereof I am informed that worthy citizen and bookseller, Mr.
John Dunton, has made a faithful and a painful collection, which he
shortly designs to publish in twelve volumes in folio, illustrated
with copper-plates,--a work highly useful and curious, and
altogether worthy of such a hand.

The last engine of orators is the Stage-itinerant, erected with much
sagacity, sub Jove pluvio, in triviis et quadriviis. {62a} It is
the great seminary of the two former, and its orators are sometimes
preferred to the one and sometimes to the other, in proportion to
their deservings, there being a strict and perpetual intercourse
between all three.

From this accurate deduction it is manifest that for obtaining
attention in public there is of necessity required a superior
position of place. But although this point be generally granted,
yet the cause is little agreed in; and it seems to me that very few
philosophers have fallen into a true natural solution of this
phenomenon. The deepest account, and the most fairly digested of
any I have yet met with is this, that air being a heavy body, and
therefore, according to the system of Epicurus {62b}, continually
descending, must needs be more so when laden and pressed down by
words, which are also bodies of much weight and gravity, as is
manifest from those deep impressions they make and leave upon us,
and therefore must be delivered from a due altitude, or else they
will neither carry a good aim nor fall down with a sufficient force.

"Corpoream quoque enim vocem constare fatendum est,
Et sonitum, quoniam possunt impellere sensus."
- Lucr. lib. 4. {62c}

And I am the readier to favour this conjecture from a common
observation, that in the several assemblies of these orators Nature
itself has instructed the hearers to stand with their mouths open
and erected parallel to the horizon, so as they may be intersected
by a perpendicular line from the zenith to the centre of the earth.
In which position, if the audience be well compact, every one
carries home a share, and little or nothing is lost.

I confess there is something yet more refined in the contrivance and
structure of our modern theatres. For, first, the pit is sunk below
the stage with due regard to the institution above deduced, that
whatever weighty matter shall be delivered thence, whether it be
lead or gold, may fall plump into the jaws of certain critics, as I
think they are called, which stand ready open to devour them. Then
the boxes are built round and raised to a level with the scene, in
deference to the ladies, because that large portion of wit laid out
in raising pruriences and protuberances is observed to run much upon
a line, and ever in a circle. The whining passions and little
starved conceits are gently wafted up by their own extreme levity to
the middle region, and there fix and are frozen by the frigid
understandings of the inhabitants. Bombast and buffoonery, by
nature lofty and light, soar highest of all, and would be lost in
the roof if the prudent architect had not, with much foresight,
contrived for them a fourth place, called the twelve-penny gallery,
and there planted a suitable colony, who greedily intercept them in
their passage.

Now this physico-logical scheme of oratorical receptacles or
machines contains a great mystery, being a type, a sign, an emblem,
a shadow, a symbol, bearing analogy to the spacious commonwealth of
writers and to those methods by which they must exalt themselves to
a certain eminency above the inferior world. By the Pulpit are
adumbrated the writings of our modern saints in Great Britain, as
they have spiritualised and refined them from the dross and
grossness of sense and human reason. The matter, as we have said,
is of rotten wood, and that upon two considerations: because it is
the quality of rotten wood to light in the dark; and secondly,
because its cavities are full of worms--which is a type with a pair
of handles, having a respect to the two principal qualifications of
the orator and the two different fates attending upon his works.

The Ladder is an adequate symbol of faction and of poetry, to both
of which so noble a number of authors are indebted for their fame.
Of faction, because .(Hiatus in MS.). Of poetry, because its
orators do perorare with a song; and because, climbing up by slow
degrees, fate is sure to turn them off before they can reach within
many steps of the top; and because it is a preferment attained by
transferring of propriety and a confounding of meum and tuum.

Under the Stage-itinerant are couched those productions designed for
the pleasure and delight of mortal man, such as "Six Pennyworth of
Wit," "Westminster Drolleries," "Delightful Tales," "Complete
Jesters," and the like, by which the writers of and for Grub Street
have in these later ages so nobly triumphed over time, have clipped
his wings, pared his nails, filed his teeth, turned back his hour-
glass, blunted his scythe, and drawn the hobnails out of his shoes.
It is under this class I have presumed to list my present treatise,
being just come from having the honour conferred upon me to be
adopted a member of that illustrious fraternity.

Now, I am not unaware how the productions of the Grub Street
brotherhood have of late years fallen under many prejudices, nor how
it has been the perpetual employment of two junior start-up
societies to ridicule them and their authors as unworthy their
established post in the commonwealth of wit and learning. Their own
consciences will easily inform them whom I mean; nor has the world
been so negligent a looker-on as not to observe the continual
efforts made by the societies of Gresham and of Will's {64}, to
edify a name and reputation upon the ruin of ours. And this is yet
a more feeling grief to us, upon the regards of tenderness as well
as of justice, when we reflect on their proceedings not only as
unjust, but as ungrateful, undutiful, and unnatural. For how can it
be forgot by the world or themselves, to say nothing of our own
records, which are full and clear in the point, that they both are
seminaries, not only of our planting, but our watering too. I am
informed our two rivals have lately made an offer to enter into the
lists with united forces and challenge us to a comparison of books,
both as to weight and number. In return to which, with license from
our president, I humbly offer two answers. First, we say the
proposal is like that which Archimedes made upon a smaller affair
{65a}, including an impossibility in the practice; for where can
they find scales of capacity enough for the first, or an
arithmetician of capacity enough for the second. Secondly, we are
ready to accept the challenge, but with this condition, that a third
indifferent person be assigned, to whose impartial judgment it shall
be left to decide which society each book, treatise, or pamphlet do
most properly belong to. This point, God knows, is very far from
being fixed at present, for we are ready to produce a catalogue of
some thousands which in all common justice ought to be entitled to
our fraternity, but by the revolted and newfangled writers most
perfidiously ascribed to the others. Upon all which we think it
very unbecoming our prudence that the determination should be
remitted to the authors themselves, when our adversaries by briguing
and caballing have caused so universal a defection from us, that the
greatest part of our society has already deserted to them, and our
nearest friends begin to stand aloof, as if they were half ashamed
to own us.

This is the utmost I am authorised to say upon so ungrateful and
melancholy a subject, because we are extremely unwilling to inflame
a controversy whose continuance may be so fatal to the interests of
us all, desiring much rather that things be amicably composed; and
we shall so far advance on our side as to be ready to receive the
two prodigals with open arms whenever they shall think fit to return
from their husks and their harlots, which I think, from the present
course of their studies {65b}, they most properly may be said to be
engaged in, and, like an indulgent parent, continue to them our
affection and our blessing.

But the greatest maim given to that general reception which the
writings of our society have formerly received, next to the
transitory state of all sublunary things, has been a superficial
vein among many readers of the present age, who will by no means be
persuaded to inspect beyond the surface and the rind of things;
whereas wisdom is a fox, who, after long hunting, will at last cost
you the pains to dig out. It is a cheese which, by how much the
richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat, and
whereof to a judicious palate the maggots are the best. It is a
sack-posset, wherein the deeper you go you will find it the sweeter.
Wisdom is a hen whose cackling we must value and consider, because
it is attended with an egg. But then, lastly, it is a nut, which,
unless you choose with judgment, may cost you a tooth, and pay you
with nothing but a worm. In consequence of these momentous truths,
the Grubaean sages have always chosen to convey their precepts and
their arts shut up within the vehicles of types and fables; which
having been perhaps more careful and curious in adorning than was
altogether necessary, it has fared with these vehicles after the
usual fate of coaches over-finely painted and gilt, that the
transitory gazers have so dazzled their eyes and filled their
imaginations with the outward lustre, as neither to regard nor
consider the person or the parts of the owner within. A misfortune
we undergo with somewhat less reluctancy, because it has been common
to us with Pythagoras, AEsop, Socrates, and other of our

However, that neither the world nor ourselves may any longer suffer
by such misunderstandings, I have been prevailed on, after much
importunity from my friends, to travail in a complete and laborious
dissertation upon the prime productions of our society, which,
besides their beautiful externals for the gratification of
superficial readers, have darkly and deeply couched under them the
most finished and refined systems of all sciences and arts, as I do
not doubt to lay open by untwisting or unwinding, and either to draw
up by exantlation or display by incision.

This great work was entered upon some years ago by one of our most
eminent members. He began with the "History of Reynard the Fox,"
but neither lived to publish his essay nor to proceed farther in so
useful an attempt, which is very much to be lamented, because the
discovery he made and communicated to his friends is now universally
received; nor do I think any of the learned will dispute that famous
treatise to be a complete body of civil knowledge, and the
revelation, or rather the apocalypse, of all state arcana. But the
progress I have made is much greater, having already finished my
annotations upon several dozens from some of which I shall impart a
few hints to the candid reader, as far as will be necessary to the
conclusion at which I aim.

The first piece I have handled is that of "Tom Thumb," whose author
was a Pythagorean philosopher. This dark treatise contains the
whole scheme of the metempsychosis, deducing the progress of the
soul through all her stages.

The next is "Dr. Faustus," penned by Artephius, an author bonae
notae and an adeptus; he published it in the nine hundred and
eighty-fourth year {67a} of his age; this writer proceeds wholly by
reincrudation, or in the via humida; and the marriage between
Faustus and Helen does most conspicuously dilucidate the fermenting
of the male and female dragon.

"Whittington and his Cat" is the work of that mysterious Rabbi,
Jehuda Hannasi, containing a defence of the Gemara of the Jerusalem
Misna, and its just preference to that of Babylon, contrary to the
vulgar opinion.

"The Hind and Panther." This is the masterpiece of a famous writer
now living {67b}, intended for a complete abstract of sixteen
thousand schoolmen from Scotus to Bellarmine.

"Tommy Potts." Another piece, supposed by the same hand, by way of
supplement to the former.

The "Wise Men of Gotham," cum Appendice. This is a treatise of
immense erudition, being the great original and fountain of those
arguments bandied about both in France and England, for a just
defence of modern learning and wit, against the presumption, the
pride, and the ignorance of the ancients. This unknown author hath
so exhausted the subject, that a penetrating reader will easily
discover whatever has been written since upon that dispute to be
little more than repetition. An abstract of this treatise has been
lately published by a worthy member of our society.

These notices may serve to give the learned reader an idea as well
as a taste of what the whole work is likely to produce, wherein I
have now altogether circumscribed my thoughts and my studies; and if
I can bring it to a perfection before I die, shall reckon I have
well employed the poor remains of an unfortunate life. This indeed
is more than I can justly expect from a quill worn to the pith in
the service of the State, in pros and cons upon Popish Plots, and
Meal Tubs, and Exclusion Bills, and Passive Obedience, and Addresses
of Lives and Fortunes; and Prerogative, and Property, and Liberty of
Conscience, and Letters to a Friend: from an understanding and a
conscience, threadbare and ragged with perpetual turning; from a
head broken in a hundred places by the malignants of the opposite
factions, and from a body spent with poxes ill cured, by trusting to
bawds and surgeons, who (as it afterwards appeared) were professed
enemies to me and the Government, and revenged their party's quarrel
upon my nose and shins. Fourscore and eleven pamphlets have I
written under three reigns, and for the service of six-and-thirty
factions. But finding the State has no farther occasion for me and
my ink, I retire willingly to draw it out into speculations more
becoming a philosopher, having, to my unspeakable comfort, passed a
long life with a conscience void of offence towards God and towards

But to return. I am assured from the reader's candour that the
brief specimen I have given will easily clear all the rest of our
society's productions from an aspersion grown, as it is manifest,
out of envy and ignorance, that they are of little farther use or
value to mankind beyond the common entertainments of their wit and
their style; for these I am sure have never yet been disputed by our
keenest adversaries; in both which, as well as the more profound and
most mystical part, I have throughout this treatise closely followed
the most applauded originals. And to render all complete I have
with much thought and application of mind so ordered that the chief
title prefixed to it (I mean that under which I design it shall pass
in the common conversation of court and town) is modelled exactly
after the manner peculiar to our society.

I confess to have been somewhat liberal in the business of titles
{69a}, having observed the humour of multiplying them, to bear great
vogue among certain writers, whom I exceedingly reverence. And
indeed it seems not unreasonable that books, the children of the
brain, should have the honour to be christened with variety of
names, as well as other infants of quality. Our famous Dryden has
ventured to proceed a point farther, endeavouring to introduce also
a multiplicity of godfathers {69b}, which is an improvement of much
more advantage, upon a very obvious account. It is a pity this
admirable invention has not been better cultivated, so as to grow by
this time into general imitation, when such an authority serves it
for a precedent. Nor have my endeavours been wanting to second so
useful an example, but it seems there is an unhappy expense usually
annexed to the calling of a godfather, which was clearly out of my
head, as it is very reasonable to believe. Where the pinch lay, I
cannot certainly affirm; but having employed a world of thoughts and
pains to split my treatise into forty sections, and having entreated
forty Lords of my acquaintance that they would do me the honour to
stand, they all made it matter of conscience, and sent me their

Content of Section I - The Introduction [Jonathan Swift's ebook: A Tale of a Tub]


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