A Tale of a Tub, published anonymously in 1704, was the first of Jonathan Swift’s great satires. It tells of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, who represent, respectively, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Their father has given each of the brothers a coat, with instructions not to alter it in any way, but each quickly changes his coat to fit his own tastes. Swift uses this story to satirize the petty divisions and puerile squabbling of Christian sects.
The most memorable part of Tale of a Tub, however, is the narrator, who digresses with abandon on every possible subject, even providing a “Digression in Praise of Digressions.” One of the most famous of these digressions is one concerning madness, which includes one of the most famous passages in all of Swift’s work. Swift states his preference for wisdom that “converses about the surface” to “pretended philosophy” that attempts to delve into the “depth of things.” Then he goes on:
The two senses, to which all objects first address themselves, are the sight and the touch; these never examine farther than the color, the shape, the size, and whatever other qualities dwell, or are drawn by art upon the outward of bodies; and then comes reason officiously with tools for cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate, that they are not the same consistence quite through. Now I take this to be the last degree of perverting nature; one of whose eternal laws it is, to put her best furniture forward. And therefore, in order to save the charges of all such expensive anatomy from the time to come, I do here think fit to inform the reader, that in such conclusions as these, reason is certainly in the right, and that in most corporeal beings, which have fallen under my cognizance, the outside has been infinitely preferable to the in; whereof I have been farther convinced from some late experiments. Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.
Swift is aiming at one of the most important tendencies of the age in which he was living. As Daniel Cottom has argued in his fascinating account of the Enlightenment, Cannibals and Philosophers, anatomy was (along with geometry) one of the model sciences of the age. Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), for instance, had mocked the ancient abhorrence of dissecting human bodies as “superstition,” and urged that it was instead an “excellent Art, which is one of the most useful in a humane Life, and tends mightily to the eviscerating of Nature, and disclosure of the Springs of its Motion.” Swift discerned the same passion to eviscerate and dissect behind seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought generally. For the Enlightenment philosophers, seeing rightly demanded dissection that cut past the surface of things to their inner workings; only by dissection could one see for oneself, which is, curiously enough, the etymological meaning of the word “autopsy.”
The second, and more crucial observation about the passage is stylistic: Swift combats philosophers who mangle in order to understand, but in doing so he does not use their weapons or let them choose the battlefield. He responds with satire and rhetoric to a mode of thought that is analytical and dialectical. That last line of his could do more damage to anatomy (in both its strictly scientific and expanded philosophical senses) than any set of arguments could have. It made the anatomists appear gruesome and darkly funny. No one remembers even the names of Swift’s opponents, but his line continues to be widely quoted (usually out of context), because it is brilliant rhetoric.
The twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden once commented on the absence of rhetoric among theologians. Were a poet to use a phrase such as “mortal sin,” he said, it would be meant as a hyperbolic way of warning people away from certain kinds of behavior. When a theologian uses the phrase, it has a very exact and technical meaning. Theologians are the least rhetorical of writers.
Auden’s observation is undeniably accurate, but when we glance at the literary shape of the Bible, it is difficult to fathom why it should be so. After all, the Bible has no theology that does not have a rhetorical shape and thrust. It is full of stories, laws, rituals, proverbs, psalms, genealogies, visions, and prophecies that often take poetic form. Scripture includes the severe diatribes of Jeremiah, the unutterable beauties of Isaiah and John, the goading wisdom of Solomon, the luminous allusiveness of Genesis and Matthew. The closest that the Bible comes to technical theology is the letters of Paul, but no one can read Galatians, Corinthians, or Paul’s sermons in Acts without realizing that he is a master rhetorician. To be sure, Paul’s rhetoric is not necessarily the rhetoric of pagan Greece or Rome (though scholars are finding that often it is), but he is rhetorical in that he speaks and writes above all to persuade, convict, and change his readers.
How did Christian theologians, who take these books as their Scriptures, abandon rhetoric? That is, of course, a very long story, but the essential outlines can be told briefly. The history of Western theology can be seen as a progression through the trivium of liberal arts, from rhetoric to grammar to logic. St. Augustine in the fourth century, for instance, was trained as a rhetorician and was more deeply indebted to this training than to his eclectic philosophical sources. Long after he had shed much of his Neoplatonism, his treatises remained filled with dense punning that displays his delight in language and his verbal virtuosity. By the time of Anselm in the eleventh century, theology had shifted from a rhetorical into a grammatical mode. Anselm attacked Roscillinus’ Trinitarian formulations largely on grammatical grounds; and even Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God can be read as a meditation on the workings of language, especially of the word “God.”
For a brief time, medieval theologians flirted with the idea that theology was a form of wisdom (sapientia), a position advocated by Bonaventure. But with Abelard and especially with St. Thomas Aquinas, dialectic or logic became the dominant form of theological discourse. For Aquinas, theology was not a form of preaching. Nor was it allegorical meditation or commentary, nor close grammatical analysis of texts, nor a kind of wisdom. Theology had become a science. Of course, Aquinas’ use of the word “science” is not the same as ours, but he did have in mind a rational system in which dialectic played a large role. Ever since, theology, including Protestant theology, has labored under the yoke of dialectic. There is an easy proof of this, if proof is needed: Does anyone read dogmaticians, Protestant or Catholic, for their literary style? Would anyone mistake theology for poetry?
Fortunately, theologians such as David Cunningham have recently begun working to correct this flaw by teasing out the implications of “theology as faithful persuasion.” But this effort inevitably raises the specter of postmodernism. For a theorist such as the late Paul de Man, language is rhetorical “all the way down.” Insofar as language is grammar, it aspires toward determinate meanings, attempts to refer to things outside language, and tries to order itself logically. Yet these aspirations and endeavors are continually undermined by rhetoric, which disperses meaning into myriad contradictory possibilities. Every text, de Man argued, “simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode.” But Christians should not be cowed by the charge of flirtation with postmodernism. Christians escape the vertiginous implications of de Man’s theory because we confess a transcendent Logos in whom all meanings have their focus. This faith frees us to splash happily and refreshingly in the pool of rhetoric without fear of drowning. Christians need not fear theorists who claim that there is no absolute anchor for meaning within human language. Of course not; only fools ever thought such an anchor could be found anywhere but within God Himself, who must reveal it to us.
With its “privileging” of rhetoric, postmodern theory may provide some impetus for Christians to heal the centuries-wide breach between theology and rhetoric. Someday, perhaps soon, there will be Christian theologians who in their writing negate Auden’s comment, who can respond to modern heresies and idolatries with insight and also with the pugnacity of a Paul or a Jeremiah, and who will skewer the anatomists and dissectors in our age as decisively and deliciously as Jonathan Swift did in his.
Peter J. Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow.