A Tale of a Tub. by Swift

Section VIII.— A Tale of a Tub.

The learned AEolists maintain the original cause of all things to be wind, from which principle this whole universe was at first produced, and into which it must at last be resolved, that the same breath which had kindled and blew up the flame of Nature should one day blow it out.
“Quod procul a nobis flectat Fortuna gubernans.”
This is what the Adepti understand by their anima mundi, that is to say, the spirit, or breath, or wind of the world; or examine the whole system by the particulars of Nature, and you will find it not to be disputed. For whether you please to call the forma informans of man by the name of spiritus, animus, afflatus, or anima, what are all these but several appellations for wind, which is the ruling element in every compound, and into which they all resolve upon their corruption. Further, what is life itself but, as it is commonly called, the breath of our nostrils, whence it is very justly observed by naturalists that wind still continues of great emolument in certain mysteries not to be named, giving occasion for those happy epithets of turgidus and inflatus, applied either to the emittent or recipient organs.
By what I have gathered out of ancient records, I find the compass of their doctrine took in two-and-thirty points, wherein it would be tedious to be very particular. However, a few of their most important precepts deducible from it are by no means to be omitted; among which, the following maxim was of much weight: That since wind had the master share as well as operation in every compound, by consequence those beings must be of chief excellence wherein that primordium appears most prominently to abound, and therefore man is in highest perfection of all created things, as having, by the great bounty of philosophers, been endued with three distinct animas or winds, to which the sage AEolists, with much liberality, have added a fourth, of equal necessity as well as ornament with the other three, by this quartum principium taking in the four corners of the world. Which gave occasion to that renowned cabalist Bombastus 56 of placing the body of man in due position to the four cardinal points.
In consequence of this, their next principle was that man brings with him into the world a peculiar portion or grain of wind, which may be called a quinta essentia extracted from the other four. This quintessence is of catholic use upon all emergencies of life, is improveable into all arts and sciences, and may be wonderfully refined as well as enlarged by certain methods in education. This, when blown up to its perfection, ought not to be covetously boarded up, stifled, or hid under a bushel, but freely communicated to mankind. Upon these reasons, and others of equal weight, the wise AEolists affirm the gift of belching to be the noblest act of a rational creature. To cultivate which art, and render it more serviceable to mankind, they made use of several methods. At certain seasons of the year you might behold the priests amongst them in vast numbers with their mouths gaping wide against a storm. At other times were to be seen several hundreds linked together in a circular chain, with every man a pair of bellows applied to his neighbour, by which they blew up each other to the shape and size of a tun; and for that reason with great propriety of speech did usually call their bodies their vessels 57 . When, by these and the like performances, they were grown sufficiently replete, they would immediately depart, and disembogue for the public good a plentiful share of their acquirements into their disciples’ chaps. For we must here observe that all learning was esteemed among them to be compounded from the same principle. Because, first, it is generally affirmed or confessed that learning puffeth men up; and, secondly, they proved it by the following syllogism: “Words are but wind, and learning is nothing but words; ergo, learning is nothing but wind.” For this reason the philosophers among them did in their schools deliver to their pupils all their doctrines and opinions by eructation, wherein they had acquired a wonderful eloquence, and of incredible variety. But the great characteristic by which their chief sages were best distinguished was a certain position of countenance, which gave undoubted intelligence to what degree or proportion the spirit agitated the inward mass. For after certain gripings, the wind and vapours issuing forth, having first by their turbulence and convulsions within caused an earthquake in man’s little world, distorted the mouth, bloated the cheeks, and gave the eyes a terrible kind of relievo. At which junctures all their belches were received for sacred, the sourer the better, and swallowed with infinite consolation by their meagre devotees. And to render these yet more complete, because the breath of man’s life is in his nostrils, therefore the choicest, most edifying, and most enlivening belches were very wisely conveyed through that vehicle to give them a tincture as they passed.
Their gods were the four winds, whom they worshipped as the spirits that pervade and enliven the universe, and as those from whom alone all inspiration can properly be said to proceed. However, the chief of these, to whom they performed the adoration of Latria, was the Almighty North, an ancient deity, whom the inhabitants of Megalopolis in Greece had likewise in highest reverence. “Omnium deorum Boream maxime celebrant.” 58 This god, though endued with ubiquity, was yet supposed by the profounder AEolists to possess one peculiar habitation, or (to speak in form) a caelum empyraeum, wherein he was more intimately present. This was situated in a certain region well known to the ancient Greeks, by them called [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], the Land of Darkness. And although many controversies have arisen upon that matter, yet so much is undisputed, that from a region of the like denomination the most refined AEolists have borrowed their original, from whence in every age the zealous among their priesthood have brought over their choicest inspiration, fetching it with their own hands from the fountain-head in certain bladders, and disploding it among the sectaries in all nations, who did, and do, and ever will, daily gasp and pant after it.
Now their mysteries and rites were performed in this manner. It is well known among the learned that the virtuosos of former ages had a contrivance for carrying and preserving winds in casks or barrels, which was of great assistance upon long sea-voyages, and the loss of so useful an art at present is very much to be lamented, though, I know not how, with great negligence omitted by Pancirollus. It was an invention ascribed to AEolus himself, from whom this sect is denominated, and who, in honour of their founder’s memory, have to this day preserved great numbers of those barrels, whereof they fix one in each of their temples, first beating out the top. Into this barrel upon solemn days the priest enters, where, having before duly prepared himself by the methods already described, a secret funnel is also conveyed to the bottom of the barrel, which admits new supplies of inspiration from a northern chink or cranny. Whereupon you behold him swell immediately to the shape and size of his vessel. In this posture he disembogues whole tempests upon his auditory, as the spirit from beneath gives him utterance, which issuing ex adytis and penetralibus, is not performed without much pain and griping. And the wind in breaking forth deals with his face as it does with that of the sea, first blackening, then wrinkling, and at last bursting it into a foam. It is in this guise the sacred AEolist delivers his oracular belches to his panting disciples, of whom some are greedily gaping after the sanctified breath, others are all the while hymning out the praises of the winds, and gently wafted to and fro by their own humming, do thus represent the soft breezes of their deities appeased.
It is from this custom of the priests that some authors maintain these AEolists to have been very ancient in the world, because the delivery of their mysteries, which I have just now mentioned, appears exactly the same with that of other ancient oracles, whose inspirations were owing to certain subterraneous effluviums of wind delivered with the same pain to the priest, and much about the same influence on the people. It is true indeed that these were frequently managed and directed by female officers, whose organs were understood to be better disposed for the admission of those oracular gusts, as entering and passing up through a receptacle of greater capacity, and causing also a pruriency by the way, such as with due management has been refined from carnal into a spiritual ecstasy. And to strengthen this profound conjecture, it is further insisted that this custom of female priests is kept up still in certain refined colleges of our modern AEolists 59 , who are agreed to receive their inspiration, derived through the receptacle aforesaid, like their ancestors the Sybils.
And whereas the mind of man, when he gives the spur and bridle to his thoughts, does never stop, but naturally sallies out into both extremes of high and low, of good and evil, his first flight of fancy commonly transports him to ideas of what is most perfect, finished, and exalted, till, having soared out of his own reach and sight, not well perceiving how near the frontiers of height and depth border upon each other, with the same course and wing he falls down plump into the lowest bottom of things, like one who travels the east into the west, or like a straight line drawn by its own length into a circle. Whether a tincture of malice in our natures makes us fond of furnishing every bright idea with its reverse, or whether reason, reflecting upon the sum of things, can, like the sun, serve only to enlighten one half of the globe, leaving the other half by necessity under shade and darkness, or whether fancy, flying up to the imagination of what is highest and best, becomes over-short, and spent, and weary, and suddenly falls, like a dead bird of paradise, to the ground; or whether, after all these metaphysical conjectures, I have not entirely missed the true reason; the proposition, however, which has stood me in so much circumstance is altogether true, that as the most uncivilised parts of mankind have some way or other climbed up into the conception of a God or Supreme Power, so they have seldom forgot to provide their fears with certain ghastly notions, which, instead of better, have served them pretty tolerably for a devil. And this proceeding seems to be natural enough, for it is with men whose imaginations are lifted up very high after the same rate as with those whose bodies are so, that as they are delighted with the advantage of a nearer contemplation upwards, so they are equally terrified with the dismal prospect of the precipice below. Thus in the choice of a devil it has been the usual method of mankind to single out some being, either in act or in vision, which was in most antipathy to the god they had framed. Thus also the sect of the AEolists possessed themselves with a dread and horror and hatred of two malignant natures, betwixt whom and the deities they adored perpetual enmity was established. The first of these was the chameleon, sworn foe to inspiration, who in scorn devoured large influences of their god, without refunding the smallest blast by eructation. The other was a huge terrible monster called Moulinavent, who with four strong arms waged eternal battle with all their divinities, dexterously turning to avoid their blows and repay them with interest. 60
Thus furnished, and set out with gods as well as devils, was the renowned sect of AEolists, which makes at this day so illustrious a figure in the world, and whereof that polite nation of Laplanders are beyond all doubt a most authentic branch, of whom I therefore cannot without injustice here omit to make honourable mention, since they appear to be so closely allied in point of interest as well as inclinations with their brother AEolists among us, as not only to buy their winds by wholesale from the same merchants, but also to retail them after the same rate and method, and to customers much alike.
Now whether the system here delivered was wholly compiled by Jack, or, as some writers believe, rather copied from the original at Delphos, with certain additions and emendations suited to times and circumstances, I shall not absolutely determine. This I may affirm, that Jack gave it at least a new turn, and formed it into the same dress and model as it lies deduced by me.
I have long sought after this opportunity of doing justice to a society of men for whom I have a peculiar honour, and whose opinions as well as practices have been extremely misrepresented and traduced by the malice or ignorance of their adversaries. For I think it one of the greatest and best of human actions to remove prejudices and place things in their truest and fairest light, which I therefore boldly undertake, without any regards of my own beside the conscience, the honour, and the thanks.
56 Bombast von Hohenheim — Paracelsus.
57 Fanatical preachers of rebellion.
58 Pausanias, 1. 8.— S.
59 The Quakers allowed women to preach.
60 The worshippers of wind or air found their evil spirits in the chameleon, by which it was eaten, and the windmill, Moulin-a-vent, by whose four hands it was beaten.

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"A Tale of a Tub," Sections 1-10

Section One, the “Introduction,” begins with a discussion of the ways that writers rise above the crowd and make their thoughts known, including the pulpit, the ladder (or place for making lectures), and the stage itinerant (which at the time could also refer to the gallows). It proceeds to satirize introductions, pointing out, for instance, that a good writer is said to hide his best points rather than state them plainly, like hiding a nut inside a shell. (Meanwhile, this is exactly what Swift is doing, at length.) He finally introduces his treatise proper, noting an original intention to split it into forty sections.
Section Two begins with a man speaking to his three sons, Peter, Jack and Martin, before his death. He is bequeathing to them very special coats, which will never wear and which will always fit. He gives his sons instructions for caring well for his coats. The sons travel for seven years and take good care of their coats. Then, they meet three women, with whom they fall in love, and they proceed to commit all kinds of sins. The three brothers want to put shoulder-knots onto their coats (shoulder-knots being in fashion) but, since there is nothing explicit in their father’s will about shoulder-knots, they instead look for the mere letters in the word “shoulder-knots” in their father’s will. Upon finding those letters, or close to those letters, they are satisfied that such an alteration is acceptable. The brothers continue to alter their coats, according to fashion trends, always finding some justification for the alteration within their father’s will.
Section Three is the first official digression, “A Digression Concerning Critics.” The three brothers’ story is interrupted as the writer discusses the nature of criticism and makes a distinction between the “critic” and the “true critic.” The latter has more natural instinct and is drawn to greater genius—liabilities rather than virtues, the reader suspects. He also discusses the difference between the Ancients and the Moderns, as well as Ancient and Modern ways of thought.
Section Four returns to his narrative about the brothers. Peter claims he is the eldest brother and therefore is due all sorts of titles and honors. He embarks on several projects: buying a continent, devising new remedies, erecting a “whispering-house,” creating an office of insurance, supporting street shows, inventing a new kind of pickle, breeding a new kind of bull, and handing out pardons to criminals. Peter becomes rich and has delusions about his self-importance. His brothers try to intervene, but they realize that they are unable to stop his fits of madness, and they leave him. They revisit their father’s will, translating it into common speech, and they come to a new understanding of what their father desired of them.
“A Digression in the Modern Kind” now begins by justifying the very act of digression. It argues that sometimes diversion is more instructive than instruction. This digression resumes the Ancients versus Moderns topic and criticizes Modern forms of thought.
Section Six returns to the brothers. Peter is still rich and comfortable, but his two brothers are destitute, and they live together for comfort. They return to their two coats and their father’s will, trying to return entirely to their father’s desires. They therefore begin to remove the adornments affixed to the coat. Martin does this slowly and carefully, while Jack, in his anger, removes the adornments all at once, tearing the coat. In this way, the brothers begin to grow apart.
“The Digression in Praise of Digressions” now discusses how certain types of argument can be illuminating, especially when running parallel to certain other types of argument. This digression then evaluates the modern wit, providing suggestions to the reader regarding how to appear witty.
Section Eight discusses the nature of wind and inspiration. The next section, “A Digression Concerning Madness,” mentions Jack briefly because he is considered by the author to be mad. The author discusses the great men who have changed history, many of whom were of religious conviction, and proceeds to tell the story of several men who fit this description. He assesses what it was, mentally, that allowed them to achieve such heights. Madness here is a kind of “excess of vapors” that produces genius. The author suggests that society seek out those young men who appear disturbed and give them power, for it is likely that they possess this “madness” of greatness.
Section Ten begins with a remark that authors provide prefaces or introductions to all sorts of works, offering their thoughts grandly to the world. Thus, the author is doing the same, expressing a wish that his piece be well-received. The author lists different types of readers--the superficial, the ignorant, and the learned--and predicts how each kind reacts to satire. It is for the latter, the learned, that he writes. He then discusses the different types of interpretations that be gleaned from any text, and he offers some interpretations of his own text, noting, for example, that if a reader were to multiply the number of instances of the letter o by seven and then divide it by nine, he would uncover a great mystery.
Section Eleven offers a truism about the kinship of a traveler and his horse, especially when on a difficult journey in which obstacles (such as dogs) are encountered. Finally we return to the story of Jack, who has a very active imagination. Jack returns to his father’s will in order to glean its meaning but, after a while, decides that such a meaning is “deeper” and “darker” than he first thought. He starts finding evidence in his father’s will (which was only about the coats) for all sorts of actions he takes in life. Gradually, Jack begins to become more fanatical, playing tricks and having fits, disliking it when he might hear music or see color. Although they are sworn enemies, Jack and Peter keep running into one another in the city. The author complains about not being able to give more detail about the brothers, but he can summarize their most recent actions: Jack and Peter have teamed up against their brother Martin in order to serve their own agendas. Nevertheless, when Peter gets into trouble, Jack abandons him, and vice versa.
The conclusion declares that a work that is too long is as damaging as a book that is too short, and that there is a time and place for every kind of book. The author describes the conversation with his bookseller that gave rise to this particular book, predicting that he will be an author for the ages. He also describes other authors of his acquaintance, and says that he has come to make many friends.


The blank place in Section One is purposeful, although the author wrote earlier that he lost some of the pages; here, too, he is being satirical. The list of books he has read, with far from accurate descriptions of what those books are actually about, is likewise supposed to be funny; these are not books that one would choose for close examination, and it appears that the narrator has woefully misunderstood those books. This is a central theme: people misunderstand what they read, for a variety of reasons and with a variety of results ranging from the comic to the tragic.
The father in the beginning of the tale, when it finally begins in Section Two, represents God, and his sons the three Western branches of the Christian church. (See the character list for details.) The coats that he bequeaths them represent tradition, and his will, which the sons are supposed to interpret correctly and follow, is an allegory for Scripture. The women with whom the three brothers fall in love are meant to represent the sins of Covetousness, Ambition and Pride. (Duchess d’Argent is the Dame of Silver; Madame de Grands-Titres is the Madame of Great Titles, and the Countess d’Orgueil is the Countess of Pride.) The fact that the brothers so quickly fall in love with these sinful women and soon descend into sin themselves, is commentary on the fragility of religion in human hands. The discussion of the “idol” to whom sacrifices are made is an allegory for a tailor, and the “fashions” with which the brothers become so enamored represent trends in religious or philosophical thought, which cause religions to alter their original structure. When the brothers interpret their father’s will in strange and ridiculous ways (such as looking for the presence of mere letters instead of actual words), Swift is satirizing the all-too-common habit of interpreting Scripture to justify whatever people would like to do.
“A Digression Concerning Critics” is literary parody. The writer mocks the language of criticism itself; the “true” critic is supposedly today’s writer who merely sets himself up as a critic and lets his ideas flow. The reader must suspect that Swift really means that the best critics are the ones who the writer says are extinct—those who genuinely recover the best of the past and who genuinely assess what is good and bad in others’ work. This section also suggests a dichotomy between Ancients and Moderns that he will expand upon elsewhere in “The Battle of the Books.”
In Section Four, Peter’s madness and richness are meant to represent the Catholic Church at its height; his projects such as “buying a new continent” and “erecting a whispering-house” are meant to represent the actions that the Catholic Church took to make admittance into Heaven easier (“buying a new continent,” suggests the introduction of purgatory, and “erecting a new whispering-house” refers to an expansion of confession.) One section refers to the sale of “indulgences,” which the author condemns because they seemed to let people off the hook after committing serious crimes, if they only gave the Church enough money. At the end of the section, the two brothers express the same criticism and get thrown out, which directly reflects the one of the Protestant criticisms of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.
Swift’s literary parody continues with “A Digression in the Modern Kind.” This digression is, as one might now expect, a parody of literary digressions. His main purpose appears to be to parody the way certain philosophers write. For instance, he says ridiculously self-congratulatory things, such as: “I hold myself obliged to give as much light as is possible to into the beauties and excellencies of what I am writing” (p. 95).
In Section Six, when the brothers return to their father’s will, this is a reference to Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s belief in the “plain sense” of Scripture, and their work to strip Christianity of all the additional non-scriptural elements that Roman Catholicism had added to it, by going back to the original language and practices. Swift’s decision to make Martin and Jack alter their coats differently is representative of how Calvinism was further dissenting from Catholicism than Lutheranism was; John Calvin took his reformation to a greater extreme than Martin Luther did. When Jack rips his coat, the suggestion is that Calvin went too far and ruined the religion by not carefully unfastening the embellishments. In contrast, Martin (Martin Luther) rips off the worst fringes but is careful not to damage the original coat, and even permits some of the embellishments to stay attached so as not to remove the good along with the bad.
In “A Digression in Praise of Digressions,” Swift descends into literary parody again with his suggestions on how to be witty without having to actually read or think: one can simply learn the title or study the index.
Swift’s discussion, in Section Eight, of wind as inspiring (humorously comparing wind to a “belch”) is meant to suggest the nature of religious inspiration, which causes one to reinterpret Scripture or challenge the status quo. “A Digression Concerning Madness” is similarly separate from the main story; its separation, as well as the pieces missing from the text, highlight the very frantic “madness” about which Swift is writing; it is as though the writer himself is mad—unable to return to his main story, unable to present a complete text.
Swift’s defense of madness, here, as not a malady but a mark of superior talent seems to be more sincere than usual. This is a rare moment in which it appears as if Swift actually believes the plain sense of the argument. His later descent into suggesting that young men who are strange or fitful be given command of great armies, however, indicates a return to satire. Section Ten’s failure to return to the story of the three brothers likewise conforms structurally to Swift’s idea of “madness”; the very arrangement of this tale seems mad.
In this section, Swift offers his work to the world in a high-handed way in order to parody those who write such long, self-congratulatory prefaces. His tone appears more earnest as he describes the different types of readers, but he then goes back into satire when he suggests methods of interpreting his work; the idea that the number of instances of the letter o might reveal any sort of mystery in the work is utterly ridiculous, and thus mocks such bizarre literary interpretations.
Swift continues to poke fun at the establishment of literature and learning with his conclusion which, although it has its moments serious in tone, is satirical in the description of Swift’s conversation with his bookseller, describing with mock-drama how his bookseller “looked westward” before answering the question of what Swift ought to write. Likewise, with Swift’s declaration that he will be remembered as an author, he parodies those men who have inflated ideas of their greatness.

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