Gregory Lynall, Swift and Science

Gregory Lynall, Swift and Science: The Satire, Politics, and Theology of Natural Knowledge, 1690-1730 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), xii + 209 pp. Hb £50.00 ISBN 9780230343641.

No period before the modern age saw such dizzying scientific progress as that covered by Greg Lynall’s book. In all fields of scientific knowledge, but most strikingly, and challengingly, in physics, inherited beliefs, many surviving from classical periods, were overthrown on the twin bases of observation and reason. The repercussions of doing so were themselves dramatic, with religious and often political certainties perceived to be under threat, and the cultural reactions, equally, often violent and desperate. At the same time, as with any age of excitement and progress, the energies of men and women of genius were accompanied by those of would-be scientists as spectacularly wrong, or wrong-headed, or just plain mad, as those we now recognise as genuine pioneers. Even a single scientist, and Newton himself is the obvious example, was capable of the most ground-breaking advances in mathematics and physics while maintaining a preoccupation with such primitive superstitions as alchemy.

It is within this context that Lynall sets out to locate Jonathan Swift, probably the most innovative and destructive satirist of the age, and one with a natural tendency, as a High Anglican, to be as alert to the dangers of so-called scientific breakthroughs as he was suspicious of the motives, political as well as intellectual, of those who claimed to be making them. In Lynall’s own words, the book ‘examines the ways in which Jonathan Swift, writing at this time of great transition, engaged with developments in knowledge of the external observable world, and with the culture of scientific discovery and practice, including the textual transmission of ideas’ (p. 1). If this seems a large endeavour, it becomes even more ambitious when, as Lynall goes on to remind us, science was taken to embrace the whole of natural philosophy, a far less definable area than, say mathematics, and, as the book title makes clear, when science, too, was so closely intricated with religion and politics, personality and faction. No strand of this web stands alone, and nor can any one topic be understood without seeing it in relation to the religio-political-scientific whole.

Let me say at once that Lynall does this supremely well. This is a significant book and should lead to further work on what is a key, but underworked, area of research, not only in Swift studies but also in the history of science. The sections on Newton illustrate well the work’s strengths. Newton, by the time Swift was writing, was widely recognised as a scientific genius, yet not only did some of his scientific work lead to controversy but his holding of office under a Whig administration was a source of mistrust for Tories and rendered him liable to attack, albeit with some subtlety, by the Scriblerians and other Tory satirists. For Swift, Newton’s position as Master of the Mint and his role in the Wood’s halfpence affair, in particular his responsibility for what Swift saw as the faulty and fraudulent testing of the debased coinage under his direction (the ‘assay’ [p. 95]), meant that the great scientist became a legitimate and deserving target, along with many of his scientific ideas. Some of the most interesting sections of Lynall’s book are those dealing with the extent to which Newton, his ideas and his office, infiltrate the satiric detail of Swift’s works, from the Laputian tailor and astronomers to the demeaning of his status to that of ‘a mere artisan’ (p. 102) and his ‘geometrical diagrams as a series of “Pot-hooks and Hangers”’ (p. 105) in Polite Conversation.

But the depth of knowledge and precision in interpretation shown in the Newton sections are matched across the whole book. Lynall chooses, sensibly, to organise the vast range of material at his disposal in clusters around a single individual. So, the first chapter takes Robert Boyle as its focus, with observation of and attitudes towards the natural world as its broader field. The second is particularly concerned with ancients and moderns, spiders and bees, and the ‘theological appropriation of Cartesian … ideas’ (p. 15), with the work of Thomas Burnet as focus, while the third takes on the Newtonian universe through the figure of Richard Bentley and his supporters and opponents. Newton himself, while never far away, is the specific topic of the fourth chapter, including close attention to the Wood’s halfpence affair. Finally, the fifth chapter deals with Samuel Clark and, through him, the political significance and ramifications of Newton and Newtonianism. Each chapter takes Swift texts as appropriate, demonstrating the extent to which each is involved with and responds to the main focus of the chapter. The result is the achievement of a broad spectrum of the scientific and philosophic thought of this extraordinary period anchored in specific detail, specifically individual and group reactions, and the resonances of single words, phrases and incidents from texts by Swift and his contemporaries.

Lynall states at the outset that he is, partly for reasons of space, partly for the sake of coherence, excluding certain broadly scientific areas from his study: alchemy, astrology, technology, medicine and physiology, except ‘when they are significantly related to debates in natural philosophy’ (p. 15). While this is an understandable strategy, this is not a long book – only 147 pages of text – and the success of the five chapters that there are makes this reader, at least, wish that Lynall had risked coherence and provided perhaps one extra chapter covering some of these topics, not least because of the satire on doctors and on contemporary understanding of the body – to say nothing of medical treatments – in the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels.

But readers will find this book immensely stimulating; a model of its kind, packed with knowledge, clear in its explanations and convincing in its interpretations, it will become a vital text for students and a key work for further developments in this field.

Allan Ingram, University of Northumbria


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  1. […] A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk at the very same Society that Swift had mocked as wasting time on projects such as the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers. It was given by Dr Greg Lynall, a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He is author of Swift and Science: The Satire, Politics, and Theology of Natural Knowledge, which looks well-worth a read from the review posted on the website of the British Society for Literature and Science. […]

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