The battle of the books.., p.12
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       The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces, p.12

           Jonathan Swift
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effectually annihilate the present scheme of the Gospel; for of

  what use is freedom of thought if it will not produce freedom of

  action, which is the sole end, how remote soever in appearance, of

  all objections against Christianity? and therefore, the

  Freethinkers consider it as a sort of edifice, wherein all the

  parts have such a mutual dependence on each other, that if you

  happen to pull out one single nail, the whole fabric must fall to

  the ground. This was happily expressed by him who had heard of a

  text brought for proof of the Trinity, which in an ancient

  manuscript was differently read; he thereupon immediately took the

  hint, and by a sudden deduction of a long Sorites, most logically

  concluded: why, if it be as you say, I may safely drink on, and

  defy the parson. From which, and many the like instances easy to

  be produced, I think nothing can be more manifest than that the

  quarrel is not against any particular points of hard digestion in

  the Christian system, but against religion in general, which, by

  laying restraints on human nature, is supposed the great enemy to

  the freedom of thought and action.

  Upon the whole, if it shall still be thought for the benefit of

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  Church and State that Christianity be abolished, I conceive,

  however, it may be more convenient to defer the execution to a time

  of peace, and not venture in this conjuncture to disoblige our

  allies, who, as it falls out, are all Christians, and many of them,

  by the prejudices of their education, so bigoted as to place a sort

  of pride in the appellation. If, upon being rejected by them, we

  are to trust to an alliance with the Turk, we shall find ourselves

  much deceived; for, as he is too remote, and generally engaged in

  war with the Persian emperor, so his people would be more

  scandalised at our infidelity than our Christian neighbours. For

  they are not only strict observers of religions worship, but what

  is worse, believe a God; which is more than is required of us, even

  while we preserve the name of Christians.

  To conclude, whatever some may think of the great advantages to

  trade by this favourite scheme, I do very much apprehend that in

  six months' time after the Act is passed for the extirpation of the

  Gospel, the Bank and East India stock may fall at least one per

  cent. And since that is fifty times more than ever the wisdom of

  our age thought fit to venture for the preservation of

  Christianity, there is no reason we should be at so great a loss

  merely for the sake of destroying it.


  I HAVE observed few obvious subjects to have been so seldom, or at

  least so slightly, handled as this; and, indeed, I know few so

  difficult to be treated as it ought, nor yet upon which there

  seemeth so much to be said.

  Most things pursued by men for the happiness of public or private

  life our wit or folly have so refined, that they seldom subsist but

  in idea; a true friend, a good marriage, a perfect form of

  government, with some others, require so many ingredients, so good

  in their several kinds, and so much niceness in mixing them, that

  for some thousands of years men have despaired of reducing their

  schemes to perfection. But in conversation it is or might be

  otherwise; for here we are only to avoid a multitude of errors,

  which, although a matter of some difficulty, may be in every man's

  power, for want of which it remaineth as mere an idea as the other.

  Therefore it seemeth to me that the truest way to understand

  conversation is to know the faults and errors to which it is

  subject, and from thence every man to form maxims to himself

  whereby it may be regulated, because it requireth few talents to

  which most men are not born, or at least may not acquire without

  any great genius or study. For nature bath left every man a

  capacity of being agreeable, though not of shining in company; and

  there are a hundred men sufficiently qualified for both, who, by a

  very few faults that they might correct in half an hour, are not so

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  much as tolerable.

  I was prompted to write my thoughts upon this subject by mere

  indignation, to reflect that so useful and innocent a pleasure, so

  fitted for every period and condition of life, and so much in all

  men's power, should be so much neglected and abused.

  And in this discourse it will be necessary to note those errors

  that are obvious, as well as others which are seldomer observed,

  since there are few so obvious or acknowledged into which most men,

  some time or other, are not apt to run.

  For instance, nothing is more generally exploded than the folly of

  talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people

  together where some one among them hath not been predominant in

  that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest.

  But among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable

  to the sober deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought

  and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several

  digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another

  story, which he promiseth to tell you when this is done; cometh

  back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some

  person's name, holdeth his head, complaineth of his memory; the

  whole company all this while in suspense; at length, says he, it is

  no matter, and so goes on. And, to crown the business, it perhaps

  proveth at last a story the company hath heard fifty times before;

  or, at best, some insipid adventure of the relater.

  Another general fault in conversation is that of those who affect

  to talk of themselves. Some, without any ceremony, will run over

  the history of their lives; will relate the annals of their

  diseases, with the several symptoms and circumstances of them; will

  enumerate the hardships and injustice they have suffered in court,

  in parliament, in love, or in law. Others are more dexterous, and

  with great art will lie on the watch to hook in their own praise.

  They will call a witness to remember they always foretold what

  would happen in such a case, but none would believe them; they

  advised such a man from the beginning, and told him the

  consequences just as they happened, but he would have his own way.

  Others make a vanity of telling their faults. They are the

  strangest men in the world; they cannot dissemble; they own it is


  folly; they have lost abundance of advantages by it; but, if you

  would give them the world, they cannot help it; there is something

  in their nature that abhors insincerity and constraint; with many

  other unsufferable topics of the same altitude.

  Of suc
h mighty importance every man is to himself, and ready to

  think he is so to others, without once making this easy and obvious

  reflection, that his affairs can have no more weight with other men

  than theirs have with him; and how little that is he is sensible


  Where company hath met, I often have observed two persons discover

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  by some accident that they were bred together at the same school or

  university, after which the rest are condemned to silence, and to

  listen while these two are refreshing each other's memory with the

  arch tricks and passages of themselves and their comrades.

  I know a great officer of the army, who will sit for some time with

  a supercilious and impatient silence, full of anger and contempt

  for those who are talking; at length of a sudden demand audience;

  decide the matter in a short dogmatical way; then withdraw within

  himself again, and vouchsafe to talk no more, until his spirits

  circulate again to the same point.

  There are some faults in conversation which none are so subject to

  as the men of wit, nor ever so much as when they are with each

  other. If they have opened their mouths without endeavouring to

  say a witty thing, they think it is so many words lost. It is a

  torment to the hearers, as much as to themselves, to see them upon

  the rack for invention, and in perpetual constraint, with so little

  success. They must do something extraordinary, in order to acquit

  themselves, and answer their character, else the standers by may be

  disappointed and be apt to think them only like the rest of

  mortals. I have known two men of wit industriously brought

  together, in order to entertain the company, where they have made a

  very ridiculous figure, and provided all the mirth at their own


  I know a man of wit, who is never easy but where he can be allowed

  to dictate and preside; he neither expecteth to be informed or

  entertained, but to display his own talents. His business is to be

  good company, and not good conversation, and therefore he chooseth

  to frequent those who are content to listen, and profess themselves

  his admirers. And, indeed, the worst conversation I ever remember

  to have heard in my life was that at Will's coffee-house, where the

  wits, as they were called, used formerly to assemble; that is to

  say, five or six men who had written plays, or at least prologues,

  or had share in a miscellany, came thither, and entertained one

  another with their trifling composures in so important an air, as

  if they had been the noblest efforts of human nature, or that the

  fate of kingdoms depended on them; and they were usually attended

  with a humble audience of young students from the inns of courts,

  or the universities, who, at due distance, listened to these

  oracles, and returned home with great contempt for their law and

  philosophy, their heads filled with trash under the name of

  politeness, criticism, and belles lettres.

  By these means the poets, for many years past, were all overrun

  with pedantry. For, as I take it, the word is not properly used;

  because pedantry is the too front or unseasonable obtruding our own

  knowledge in common discourse, and placing too great a value upon

  it; by which definition men of the court or the army may be as

  guilty of pedantry as a philosopher or a divine; and it is the same

  vice in women when they are over copious upon the subject of their

  petticoats, or their fans, or their china. For which reason,

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  although it be a piece of prudence, as well as good manners, to put

  men upon talking on subjects they are best versed in, yet that is a

  liberty a wise man could hardly take; because, beside the

  imputation of pedantry, it is what he would never improve by.

  This great town is usually provided with some player, mimic, or

  buffoon, who hath a general reception at the good tables; familiar

  and domestic with persons of the first quality, and usually sent

  for at every meeting to divert the company, against which I have no

  objection. You go there as to a farce or a puppet-show; your

  business is only to laugh in season, either out of inclination or

  civility, while this merry companion is acting his part. It is a

  business he hath undertaken, and we are to suppose he is paid for

  his day's work. I only quarrel when in select and private

  meetings, where men of wit and learning are invited to pass an

  evening, this jester should be admitted to run over his circle of

  tricks, and make the whole company unfit for any other

  conversation, besides the indignity of confounding men's talents at

  so shameful a rate.

  Raillery is the finest part of conversation; but, as it is our

  usual custom to counterfeit and adulterate whatever is too dear for

  us, so we have done with this, and turned it all into what is

  generally called repartee, or being smart; just as when an

  expensive fashion cometh up, those who are not able to reach it

  content themselves with some paltry imitation. It now passeth for

  raillery to run a man down in discourse, to put him out of

  countenance, and make him ridiculous, sometimes to expose the

  defects of his person or understanding; on all which occasions he

  is obliged not to be angry, to avoid the imputation of not being

  able to take a jest. It is admirable to observe one who is

  dexterous at this art, singling out a weak adversary, getting the

  laugh on his side, and then carrying all before him. The French,

  from whom we borrow the word, have a quite different idea of the

  thing, and so had we in the politer age of our fathers. Raillery

  was, to say something that at first appeared a reproach or

  reflection, but, by some turn of wit unexpected and surprising,

  ended always in a compliment, and to the advantage of the person it

  was addressed to. And surely one of the best rules in conversation

  is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably

  wish we had rather left unsaid; nor can there anything be well more

  contrary to the ends for which people meet together, than to part

  unsatisfied with each other or themselves.

  There are two faults in conversation which appear very different,

  yet arise from the same root, and are equally blamable; I mean, an

  impatience to interrupt others, and the uneasiness of being

  interrupted ourselves. The two chief ends of conversation are, to

  entertain and improve those we are among, or to receive those

  benefits ourselves; which whoever will consider, cannot easily run

  into either of those two errors; because, when any man speaketh in

  company, it is to be supposed he doth it for his hearers' sake, and

  not his own; so that common discretion will teach us not to force

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  their attention, if they are not willing to lend it; nor, on the

  other side, to interrupt him who is in possession, because that is

  in the grossest manner to give the preference to our own good


  There are some people whose good manners will not suffer them to

  interrupt you; but, what is almost as bad, will discover abundance

  of impatience, and lie upon the watch until you have done, because

  they have started something in their own thoughts which they long

  to be delivered of. Meantime, they are so far from regarding what

  passes, that their imaginations are wholly turned upon what they

  have in reserve, for fear it should slip out of their memory; and

  thus they confine their invention, which might otherwise range over

  a hundred things full as good, and that might be much more

  naturally introduced.

  There is a sort of rude familiarity, which some people, by

  practising among their intimates, have introduced into their

  general conversation, and would have it pass for innocent freedom

  or humour, which is a dangerous experiment in our northern climate,

  where all the little decorum and politeness we have are purely

  forced by art, and are so ready to lapse into barbarity. This,

  among the Romans, was the raillery of slaves, of which we have many

  instances in Plautus. It seemeth to have been introduced among us

  by Cromwell, who, by preferring the scum of the people, made it a

  court-entertainment, of which I have heard many particulars; and,

  considering all things were turned upside down, it was reasonable

  and judicious; although it was a piece of policy found out to

  ridicule a point of honour in the other extreme, when the smallest

  word misplaced among gentlemen ended in a duel.

  There are some men excellent at telling a story, and provided with

  a plentiful stock of them, which they can draw out upon occasion in

  all companies; and considering how low conversation runs now among

  us, it is not altogether a contemptible talent; however, it is

  subject to two unavoidable defects: frequent repetition, and being

  soon exhausted; so that whoever valueth this gift in himself hath

  need of a good memory, and ought frequently to shift his company,

  that he may not discover the weakness of his fund; for those who

  are thus endowed have seldom any other revenue, but live upon the

  main stock.

  Great speakers in public are seldom agreeable in private

  conversation, whether their faculty be natural, or acquired by

  practice and often venturing. Natural elocution, although it may

  seem a paradox, usually springeth from a barrenness of invention

  and of words, by which men who have only one stock of notions upon

  every subject, and one set of phrases to express them in, they swim

  upon the superficies, and offer themselves on every occasion;

  therefore, men of much learning, and who know the compass of a

  language, are generally the worst talkers on a sudden, until much

  practice hath inured and emboldened them; because they are

  confounded with plenty of matter, variety of notions, and of words,

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  which they cannot readily choose, but are perplexed and entangled

  by too great a choice, which is no disadvantage in private

  conversation; where, on the other side, the talent of haranguing

  is, of all others, most insupportable.

  Nothing hath spoiled men more for conversation than the character

  of being wits; to support which, they never fail of encouraging a

  number of followers and admirers, who list themselves in their

  service, wherein they find their accounts on both sides by pleasing

  their mutual vanity. This hath given the former such an air of

  superiority, and made the latter so pragmatical, that neither of

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