Friday, October 18, 2013

A Nation Of Political Fools, 1713 Edition

by Stephen J. Gertz

"Although this Island of Folly cannot be found on the map, you will have no difficulty in guessing its real name and location by observing its mores and inhabitants" (Preface).

 In 1713,  A New Voyage to the Island of Fools was published, an  anti-Utopian satire of England's Tory government disguised as a voyage of exploration led by a Venetian nobleman. Pseudonymously written, it has been variously attributed to Jonathan Swift, Edmund Stacey, or Edward Ward. 

By 1713 the Tory party had dominated Parliament for the three preceding years and had made further gains in the current year's elections. Prime Minister Robert Harley, appointed after the downfall of the Whigs in 1710, attempted to pursue a moderate and non-controversial policy, but had  to contend with extremist Tories on the backbenches who were frustrated by the lack of support for their legislation against dissent. 

In five letters, the primativist narrator of ...the Island of Fools observes and reports on the mores of a nation in a sad state of affairs.

The inhabitants of Stultitia, the island of fools, were not "Stultitian [that is, foolish] by nature, but by practice," we are told. Foolishness is considered a moral failure and here refers to the vices that consumed the nation. "Slaves of sentiments, inclinations, interest, avarice, ambition, and desire for vengeance and of 'fantasies,' the Stultitians are suckers for adulation, flattery, false evidence, crime, rebellion, cheating, treason, rioting, prostitution and 'all manner of wickedness and folly'" ((Braga, The Rationalist Critique of Utopian Thinking, University of Bucharest Review, Vol. I. 2011, no. 1, p. 128).

Obsession with superstitions and collective illusions is the cause of human corruption, according to Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, and the Stultitians enjoy a surfeit of superstitions and collective psychoses. "In order to impinge them to riot or rebellion and to any action in general, it is enough to excite their fancy with a few new Notions or Projects that they will embrace without giving the least thought about their Truth, Reason or their Probability." Imaginary “epidemical pseudosciences”  lie at the core of the Stultitian mind-set.

"During the 17th-18th centuries, the pressure exercised by combined critiques due to religious ideology and later on by rationalist mentality rendered utopias suspect to the eyes of many authors. Christian counter-utopists, ranging from Joseph Hall to Jonathan Swift, accepted and adopted the dogmas related to the Lost Earthly Paradise and Man’s Cursed City, transforming the utopian space into hell on earth, into monstrous kingdoms that would rival Dante’s circles.

"In turn, humanist counter-utopists, skeptical regarding man’s capacity of establishing a perfect society, found other means of expressing their incredulity as well as sarcasms. They imagined madmen islands and kingdoms of fools, demonstrating, by reductio ab absurdum, that the application of the ideals of reason to social programs would only lead to nightmarish societies" (Ibid.).

Slings and arrows from satirists skewering the Tories did not change a thing. Their government remained popular with the electorate for its effort to end the War of the Spanish Succession and ratify the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. 

As for Jonathan Swift being the author of this pamphlet, not true. At this point, Swift, who, as a political pamphleteer simultaneously played tennis on both sides of the net, had permanently moved from the Whig to the Tory party, joining its inner circle: he was a one-issue voter and found Tory policy on the Irish clergy in agreement with his own sympathies as an Irishman. Edmund Stacey, author of The Parliament of Birds (1712), also published by John Morphew, is the likeliest suspect, though Edward Ward is given credit in a manuscript annotation.

Those on the Right or Left seeking ammo in this satire will find it; Right and Left politics as we understand it today did not exist at that time - ideology was fluid and not as sharply defined as now -  It was in the post-Revolution French Assembly that those political directions were established: monarchists sat on the right, republicans on the left side of the Assembly's aisle. Contemporary American Conservatives may plotz to learn that in the 18th and 19th centuries Liberal Conservatism was, far from an oxymoron, a recognized, respected and viable political viewpoint.

The enduring lesson here is that utopias look good on paper but are a disaster in practice, no matter the ideology. Heaven on earth is an impossibility, whether as an ideal society in which government plays no role at all in the lives of its citizens and taxes are non-existent, or an ideal where the government will help the vulnerable from birth to death if necessary at a price shared by all good citizens. It's always a fool's game. People tend to get in the way when a perfect world is pursued; your perfection is my purgatory. One man's sage is another man's fool.

The population of the Island of Fools is exploding yet it's a protean destination resort and can accommodate all who wish to vacation in folly and call it wisdom.

[UTOPIAN SATIRE]. A New Voyage to the Island of Fools, Representing the Policy, Government, and Present State of the Stultitians. By a Noble Venetian. Inscib'd to the Right Honorable The Lord Fernando. Translated from the Italian. London: John Morphew, [September] 1713. Attributed to Swift (in Wrenn catalogue) but not in Teerink.  Octavo (188 x 118 mm). [2], 62 pp. Wrappers.

A second edition was issued in 1715.

Claeys, Utopias of the British Enlightenment, p. xxix. Letellier, The English Novel 1700-1740, p. 336.

Image courtesy of Christie's, which is offering this title in its Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts sale November 15, 2013. With our thanks. 

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