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Satire in 18th Century European Literature

Updated on April 17, 2019

Swift and Erasmus

Within both Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and Swift’s Tale of a Tub, the authors choose to communicate with their readers by way of satire and irony. In doing so, both choose to discuss the faults, as they saw them, with both contemporary writings of their times and with Christian religion. Both condemn what they see as the inferior quality of the writing being produced in their own times and the writers that are doing this writing. In addition, both Erasmus and Swift are incensed by the hypocrisy and corruptions found in the Christian church of their respective times. Both works provide strong examples of man assuming authority over the communicating of God’s messages to man, with the satire of each ultimately showing that there are as many interpretations of the word of God as there are people who choose to do the interpreting.

Erasmus' Folly

For Erasmus, the satire on miscommunication is first displayed in his use of Folly as narrator and her almost constant references to classical literature and rhetoric to back her conclusions, which are generally arrived at by way of faulty logic and reasoning. Folly quotes Greek proverbs and passages from the ancient classics throughout her work and consistently applies the information to meet her own ends, effectively furthering the irony intended by Erasmus in demonstrating how wisdom and scripture alike can be misread and misinterpreted. For example, Folly states “I’ve proof enough in Sophocles, a poet who can never be adequately praised, who pays me a really splendid tribute in the line ‘For ignorance provides the happiest life.’”(Erasmus 22) Erasmus follows this statement with the assertion that the happiest stage of man’s life is undoubtedly when he is an infant and a child. Folly equates childhood innocence with ignorance and the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom that inevitably comes with growth into adulthood with misery. While this may be considered more of a twisting of words than a misinterpretation, it is used to suit Folly’s purpose and supports her statement of her professed worth to humanity in general.

Folly consistently chooses classical literature and rhetoric as examples in support of her own views and in order to make her point. In turn, this effectively emphasizes Erasmus’ views in terms of preferring wisdom and reason to folly and the madness he sees as its equivalent. In showing herself so well versed in literature and worldly views, Folly herself further exemplifies the irony intended by Erasmus in having her narrate the book. In her claim that it is herself to whom man owes many of life’s major blessings, “and the nicest thing of all is that you have someone else’s madness to thank for your enjoyment.” (42), Erasmus further distances himself from his narrator while at the same time, he furthers his own views as being the opposite of Folly’s.

However, in discussing the theologians and their debt to Folly, her voice seems much closer to that of Erasmus. In her claim that “there are none so unwilling to recognize my good services to them…” (86), Folly loses some of the lightness in her voice and seems genuinely annoyed at the self-assumed superiority of the clergy. Her further discussion of their habit of interpreting what she calls hidden mysteries to suit themselves (86-87) moves even further away from what we have come to expect from the voice of Folly and closer to that of Erasmus, with the result that the ironic distance initially established by the use of such a narrator as Folly is somewhat lacking.

Swift's Tale

In his turn, Swift also chooses to satirize man’s inability to effectively interpret literature and, more importantly, the word of God as provided through scripture. The main portion of Tale of a Tub describes this phenomenon in the discussion of the brothers and their various treatments of the coats left to them by their father. Swift uses this story and the digressions of the narrative voice, which is likened to the voice of Folly in the work by Erasmus, to illustrate the inconsistencies in man’s attempt to understand the divine.

Through the narrative voice of the hack writer, Swift illustrates his contempt for writers that he considers to be without talent, ones who write simply to make a living and do not worry whether they are knowledgeable of the subjects they choose to write about. Swift illustrates his views on the work being done by such writers early in his own work, with his statement within the Prince Posterity section, stating, “Books, like men their authors, have no more than one way of coming into the world, but there are ten thousand to go out of it and return no more.” (Swift 17) In addition, Swift’s use of the voice of a hack, or Grub Street, writer provides an effective means of satirizing what Swift sees as a vast lack of knowledge and talent not only of writers in general, but also specifically on the part of certain of his contemporaries, such as William Wotten, whose name is used throughout various footnotes to the text in Swift’s effort to further undermine his authority.

With regard to Swift’s views on the interpretation of scripture, Swift’s allegorical use of the three brothers, their coats, and their father’s will provides an effective means of satirizing all of the major factions of the Christian religion in existence at that time. Beginning with the discussion of shoulder knots for the coats (39), continuing through the ultimate removal of the various decorations that follow (67), and then to the discussion of Jack’s copy of his father’s will (93), Swift provides his own loose interpretation of relatively recent changes that had taken place with Christian religion of his time. Using the hack writer to provide ironic distance, Swift is able to effectively bring to light and ridicule what he understands to be the major corruptions in the church of his day.

Adding Johnson & Voltaire to the Mix

Both Erasmus and Swift chose to use ironic distance in their works as a means of discussing issues that may not have been politically appropriate or popular during their lifetimes. In doing so, each was able to be more open than they might have been had they been speaking in their own voices throughout their works.

On the surface, it would seem that Samuel Johnson was more likely to agree with assertions made in the work of Erasmus than that of Jonathan Swift when Johnson wrote The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. In much the same way, Voltaire’s way of thinking as illustrated within Candide seems much closer to that of Swift than Erasmus. However, Johnson’s view of life can be seen to coincide more closely with Swift’s views in areas of passion reigning over reason and of the madness that is the driving force behind both passion and religious fervor, as well as the idea that it is human nature to constantly be striving for something more rather than remain satisfied with present conditions. In addition, Voltaire can be seen to share some of the same ideals with Erasmus, to include views on the desirability of maintaining one’s reason in a world of madness and in acknowledging that passion and emotions, even when referred to as madness or folly, are an essential part of human nature and thus must be acknowledged.

Both Swift and Johnson address issues relating to the human condition in their respective works. For Swift, the loss of reason in mankind is a direct result of the biblical fall from grace in the book of Genesis. In his view, part of the inheritance of man in being ejected from Eden was his ability to be ruled by passion rather than reason, in much the same way that Rasselas is ruled by the desire to find happiness in the wider world once he has left the happy valley where he has lived all of his life. With the fall from Eden came the need for man to procreate as well, and Swift believes that this sexual passion also provides one of the driving forces behind the religious fervor that he satirizes. His beliefs in this area are interspersed throughout Tale of a Tub, but particularly discussed in the “Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” section (128-140).

In Johnson’s view, passion is constantly at war with reason within the human brain, and he also sees this as a direct result of the fall from Eden. The naivete of Rasselas and the princess immediately following their exit from the happy valley provides Johnson with the means of lengthy discussion regarding this phenomenon. Rasselas begins his quest with feeling ashamed and thinking it “unsuitable to a reasonable being to act without a plan, and to be sad or cheerful only by chance” (Johnson 78). His thoughts along this vein are shortly followed by his discovery and attendance upon the sage, who expounds his beliefs that “human nature is degraded and debased, when the lower faculties predominate over the higher…” (79), views that reflect Johnson’s own beliefs with regard to passion and reason. Johnson further illustrates his own views regarding passion overcoming reason in his description of the fancies of Rasselas, Nekayah, and Pekuah (134), which they resolve not to entertain any further and yet their thoughts return to a version of the same fancies in the conclusion of the book, regardless of their will (149-150).

With regard to the views put forth by Voltaire in Candide and Erasmus in Praise of Folly, Voltaire’s worldview appears somewhat darker than is Erasmus’, but they share the belief in the need for reason to be in control of the passions within man. Part of Voltaire’s purpose behind the writing of Candide was a protest on the fanaticism behind certain religious movements, the Inquisition in particular. As a treatise against such fanaticism and religious zeal, Voltaire’s views are in agreement with Erasmus’ use of Folly to describe the theologians in such a disparaging light as she does in stating that they are under obligation to her in several important ways and yet unwilling to acknowledge her services to them (Erasmus 86). Folly lists the most important aspect of the religious life that is due to her influence is the theologians’ ability to “dwell in a sort of third heaven, looking down from aloft, almost with pity, on all the rest of mankind as so many cattle crawling on the face of the earth” (86). In doing so, her voice is close to that of Erasmus in that she speaks disapprovingly of the results taken from her bestowing of self-love and the ensuing happiness on the theologians, leading them to this passion of pride in which they seem to feel they can look down on the rest of mankind.

In similar fashion to Erasmus’ use of Folly to illustrate the views of Erasmus, Voltaire uses the black humor and satire that makes up the whole of Candide in order to illustrate his view of the world as being all there is to look forward to and therefore, man should attempt to find contentment where he can in order to live reasonably happily within it. Regardless of the exaggerated misfortunes that befall him, the title character’s ridiculous optimism never flags for very long before returning to his belief that he must be in the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, if the present state of existence is the only state of existence, the world can be seen as both the best and the worst of all possible worlds simultaneously, as it is the only possible world. Voltaire thus suggests that mankind should make the best of it and the only likely way that this will happen is if man can mind his own business and strive toward control of the things within his grasp while recognizing and leaving the things that are not, including the attempts to convert everyone to a particular way of theological thinking by means of force and violence.

While Erasmus and Voltaire were writing in different times and from different basic theological belief systems, they share a similar worldview in that they both believed that reason should hold some control over passion. In addition, they both seem to agree that the human longing for a place in which to be happy should ultimately result in the realization that happiness and security must ultimately come from within rather than from external influences.


Erasmus. Praise of Folly. Trans. Betty Radice. London: Penguin Books, 1971. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. London: Penguin Books, 1976, originally published 1759. Print.

Swift, Jonathon. A Tale of a Tub And Other Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Voltaire. Candide, or Optimism. Trans. Theo Cliffe. London: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.


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