"Rationis capax": belief and identity in Pope and Swift

Nash, Richard Timothy, Department of English, University of Virginia
Cohen, Ralph, Department of English, University of Virginia

Crises in mathematics, philosophy, and religion at the end of the seventeenth century reveal a common anxiety over the role of belief in a definition of man. In coping with this anxiety, the culture polarized around two competing psychological strategies for belief, each positing a distinct definition of man. While· the Enthusiast defined man as the creature of a creator, whose identity depends on his relation to that higher ·authority, the Rationalist defined man as a free, rational, and autonomous agent, whose identity depends on the free exercise of his rational faculty. Within such a context this study locates the complementary stances adopted by Swift and Pope in their major works. Pope seeks to reconcile the opposing views in a definition of man that harmonizes rationalist and enthusiast, while Swift equally rejects both views, defining man by the very uncertainties the strategies are designed to circumvent.

In An Essay on Man, Pope develops a psychology of identity based on the figure of concordia discors. Just as in understanding the order of the macrocosm, "To Reason right is to Submit," so, too, in understanding the microcosm, one must reconcile the apparently contradictory impulses of Reason and the Ruling Passion, Self-Love and Social. In The Dunciad, Pope develops a theory of character out of this psychology of identity in which various, even opposing figures, are united by a common ruling folly which distinguishes them from Pope himself. If Pope's definition of man is modeled on the artist's ability to reconcile discordant strains, Swift's definition is modeled on the reader's ability to recognize and distinguish between apparent similarities. Repeatedly in Swift's satires, characters are required to exercise judgment but draw only false distinctions; the complementary tasks left to the reader are to recognize the proper grounds for comparison, on which false distinctions are shown t9 be identities, and on those grounds to draw the proper distinction ignored in the text. Thus the reader, in order to exercise the true wit and judgment required of him, must accurately distinguish true from false--the crucial act of judgment which for Swift constitutes man's defining action.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Pope, Alexander, 1688-1744, Criticism and interpretation, Swift, Jonathan, 1667-1745
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