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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThree Sermons, Three Prayer - On Mutual Subjection
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Three Sermons, Three Prayer - On Mutual Subjection Post by :restlesswind Category :Nonfictions Author :Jonathan Swift Date :July 2011 Read :1400

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Three Sermons, Three Prayer - On Mutual Subjection

On Mutual Subjection (1)

First Printed in 1744)

"Yea, all of you be subject one to another."--I Peter v. 5

The Apostle having, in many parts of this Epistle, given directions
to Christians concerning the duty of subjection or obedience to
superiors, in the several instances of the subject to the prince,
the child to his parent, the servant to his master, the wife to her
husband, and the younger to the elder, doth here, in the words of my
text, sum up the whole by advancing a point of doctrine, which at
first may appear a little extraordinary. "Yea, all of you," saith
he, "be subject one to another." For it should seem that two
persons cannot properly be said to be subject to each other, and
that subjection is only due from inferiors to those above them; yet
St. Paul hath several passages to the same purpose. For he exhorts
the Romans "in honour to prefer one another;" and the Philippians,
"that in lowliness of mind they should each esteem other better than
themselves;" and the Ephesians, "that they should submit themselves
one to another in the fear of the Lord." Here we find these two
great Apostles recommending to all Christians this duty of mutual
subjection. For we may observe, by St. Peter, that having mentioned
the several relations which men bear to each other, as governor and
subject, master and servant, and the rest which I have already
repeated, he makes no exception, but sums up the whole with
commanding "all to be subject one to another." Whence we may
conclude that this subjection due from all men to all men is
something more than the compliment of course, when our betters are
pleased to tell us they are our humble servants, but understand us
to be their slaves.

I know very well that some of those who explain this text apply it
to humility, to the duties of charity, to private exhortations, and
to bearing with each other's infirmities; and it is probable the
Apostle may have had a regard to all these. But, however, many
learned men agree that there is something more understood, and so
the words in their plain natural meaning must import, as you will
observe yourselves if you read them with the beginning of the verse,
which is thus: "Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the
elder; yea, all of you be subject one to another." So that, upon
the whole, there must be some kind of subjection due from every man
to every man, which cannot be made void by any power, pre-eminence,
or authority whatsoever. Now what sort of subjection this is, and
how it ought to be paid, shall be the subject of my present

As God hath contrived all the works of Nature to be useful, and in
some manner a support to each other, by which the whole frame of the
world, under His providence, is preserved and kept up, so among
mankind our particular stations are appointed to each of us by God
Almighty, wherein we are obliged to act as far as our power reacheth
toward the good of the whole community. And he who doth not perform
that part assigned him towards advancing the benefit of the whole,
in proportion to his opportunities and abilities, is not only a
useless, but a very mischievous member of the public; because he
takes his share of the profit, and yet leaves his share of the
burden to be borne by others, which is the true principal cause of
most miseries and misfortunes in life. For a wise man who does not
assist with his counsels, a great man with his protection, a rich
man with his bounty and charity, and a poor man with his labour, are
perfect nuisances in a commonwealth. Neither is any condition of
life more honourable in the sight of God than another; otherwise He
would be a respecter of persons, which He assures us He is not; for
He hath proposed the same salvation to all men, and hath only placed
them in different ways or stations to work it out. Princes are born
with no more advantages of strength or wisdom than other men, and,
by an unhappy education, are usually more defective in both than
thousands of their subjects. They depend for every necessary of
life upon the meanest of their people; besides, obedience and
subjection were never enjoined by God to humour the passions, lusts,
and vanities of those who demand them from us; but we are commanded
to obey our governors, because disobedience would breed seditions in
the state. Thus servants are directed to obey their masters,
children their parents, and wives their husbands, not from any
respect of persons in God, but because otherwise there would be
nothing but confusion in private families. This matter will be
clearly explained by considering the comparison which St. Paul makes
between the Church of Christ and the body of man; for the same
resemblance will hold not only to families and kingdoms, but to the
whole corporation of mankind. "The eye," saith he, "cannot say unto
the hand, 'I have no need of thee;' nor again the hand to the foot,
'I have no need of thee.' Nay, much more those members of the body
which seem to be more feeble are necessary; and whether one member
suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured,
all the members rejoice with it." The case is directly the same
among mankind. The prince cannot say to the merchant, "I have no
need of thee," nor the merchant to the labourer, "I have no need of
thee." Nay, much more those members which seem to be more feeble
are necessary; for the poor are generally more necessary members of
the commonwealth than the rich; which clearly shows that God never
intended such possessions for the sake and service of those to whom
He lends them, but because he hath assigned every man his particular
station to be useful in life, and this for the reason given by the
Apostle, "that there may be no schism in the body."

From hence may partly be gathered the nature of that subjection
which we all owe to one another. God Almighty hath been pleased to
put us into an imperfect state, where we have perpetual occasion of
each other's assistance. There is none so low as not to be in a
capacity of assisting the highest, nor so high as not to want the
assistance of the lowest.

It plainly appears, from what hath been said, that no one human
creature is more worthy than another in the sight of God, further
than according to the goodness or holiness of their lives; and that
power, wealth, and the like outward advantages, are so far from
being the marks of God's approving or preferring those on whom they
are bestowed, that, on the contrary, He is pleased to suffer them to
be almost engrossed by those who have least title to His favour.
Now, according to this equality wherein God hath placed all mankind
with relation to Himself, you will observe that in all the relations
between man and man there is a mutual dependence, whereby the one
cannot subsist without the other. Thus no man can be a prince
without subjects, nor a master without servants, nor a father
without children. And this both explains and confirms the doctrine
of the text; for where there is a mutual dependence there must be a
mutual duty, and consequently a mutual subjection. For instance,
the subject must obey his prince, because God commands it, human
laws require it, and the safety of the public makes it necessary;
for the same reasons we must obey all that are in authority, and
submit ourselves not only to the good and gentle, but also to the
froward, whether they rule according to our liking or not. On the
other side, in those countries that pretend to freedom, princes are
subject to those laws which their people have chosen; they are bound
to protect their subjects in liberty, property, and religion, to
receive their petitions and redress their grievances, so that the
best prince is, in the opinion of wise men, only the greatest
servant of the nation--not only a servant to the public in general,
but in some sort to every man in it. In the like manner a servant
owes obedience, and diligence, and faithfulness to his master, from
whom, at the same time, he hath a just demand for protection, and
maintenance, and gentle treatment. Nay, even the poor beggar hath a
just demand of an alms from the rich man, who is guilty of fraud,
injustice, and oppression if he does not afford relief according to
his abilities.

But this subjection we all owe one another is nowhere more necessary
than in the common conversations of life, for without it there could
be no society among men. If the learned would not sometimes submit
to the ignorant, the wise to the simple, the gentle to the froward,
the old to the weaknesses of the young, there would be nothing but
everlasting variance in the world. This our Saviour Himself
confirmed by His own example; for He appeared in the form of a
servant and washed His disciples' feet, adding those memorable
words, "Ye call me Lord and Master, and ye say well, for so I am.
If I then, your Lord and Master, wash your feet, how much more ought
ye to wash one another's feet?" Under which expression of washing
the feet is included all that subjection, assistance, love, and
duty, which every good Christian ought to pay his brother, in
whatever station God hath placed him. For the greatest prince and
the meanest slave are not, by infinite degrees, so distant as our
Saviour and those disciples, whose feet He vouchsafed to wash.

And although this doctrine of subjecting ourselves to one another
may seem to grate upon the pride and vanity of mankind, and may
therefore be hard to be digested by those who value themselves upon
their greatness or their wealth, yet it is really no more than what
most men practise upon other occasions. For if our neighbour, who
is our inferior, comes to see us, we rise to receive him; we place
him above us, and respect him as if he were better than ourselves;
and this is thought both decent and necessary, and is usually called
good manners. Now the duty required by the Apostle is only that we
should enlarge our minds, and that what we thus practise in the
common course of life we should imitate in all our actions and
proceedings whatsoever; since our Saviour tells us that every man is
our neighbour, and since we are so ready, in point of civility, to
yield to others in our own houses, where only we have any title to

Having thus shown you what sort of subjection it is which all men
owe one another, and in what manner it ought to be paid, I shall now
draw some observations from what hath been said.

And first, a thorough practice of this duty of subjecting ourselves
to the wants and infirmities of each other would utterly extinguish
in us the vice of pride.

For if God has pleased to intrust me with a talent, not for my own
sake, but for the service of others, and at the same time hath left
me full of wants and necessities which others must supply, I can
then have no cause to set any extraordinary value upon myself, or to
despise my brother because he hath not the same talents which were
lent to me. His being may probably be as useful to the public as
mine; and therefore, by the rules of right reason, I am in no sort
preferable to him.

Secondly, It is very manifest, from what has been said, that no man
ought to look upon the advantages of life, such as riches, honour,
power, and the like, as his property, but merely as a trust which
God hath deposited with him to be employed for the use of his
brethren, and God will certainly punish the breach of that trust,
though the laws of man will not, or rather indeed cannot; because
the trust was conferred only by God, who has not left it to any
power on earth to decide infallibly whether a man makes a good use
of his talents or not, or to punish him where he fails. And
therefore God seems to have more particularly taken this matter into
His own hands, and will most certainly reward or punish us in
proportion to our good or ill performance in it. Now, although the
advantages which one possesseth more than another may, in some
sense, be called his property with respect to other men, yet with
respect to God they are, as I said, only a trust, which will plainly
appear from hence: if a man does not use those advantages to the
good of the public or the benefit of his neighbour, it is certain he
doth not deserve them, and consequently that God never intended them
for a blessing to him; and on the other side, whoever does employ
his talents as he ought will find, by his own experience, that they
were chiefly lent him for the service of others, for to the service
of others he will certainly employ them.

Thirdly, If we could all be brought to practise this duty of
subjecting ourselves to each other, it would very much contribute to
the general happiness of mankind, for this would root out envy and
malice from the heart of man; because you cannot envy your
neighbour's strength if he make use of it to defend your life or
carry your burden; you cannot envy his wisdom if he gives you good
counsel; nor his riches if he supplies your wants; nor his greatness
if he employs it to your protection. The miseries of life are not
properly owing to the unequal distribution of things, but God
Almighty, the great King of heaven, is treated like the kings of the
earth, who, although perhaps intending well themselves, have often
most abominable ministers and stewards, and those generally the
vilest to whom they intrust the most talents. But here is the
difference, that the princes of this world see by other men's eyes,
but God sees all things; and therefore, whenever He permits His
blessings to be dealt among those who are unworthy, we may certainly
conclude that He intends them only as a punishment to an evil world,
as well as to the owners. It were well if those would consider
this, whose riches serve them only as a spur to avarice or as an
instrument of their lusts; whose wisdom is only of this world, to
put false colours upon things, to call good evil and evil good
against the conviction of their own consciences; and lastly, who
employ their power and favour in acts of oppression or injustice, in
misrepresenting persons and things, or in countenancing the wicked
to the ruin of the innocent.

Fourthly, The practice of this duty of being subject to one another
would make us rest contented in the several stations of life wherein
God hath thought fit to place us, because it would, in the best and
easiest manner, bring us back, as it were, to that early state of
the Gospel when Christians had all things in common. For if the
poor found the rich disposed to supply their want, if the ignorant
found the wise ready to instruct and direct them, or if the weak
might always find protection from the mighty, they could none of
them, with the least pretence of justice, lament their own

From all that hath been hitherto said it appears that great
abilities of any sort, when they are employed as God directs, do but
make the owners of them greater and more painful servants to their
neighbour and the public. However, we are by no means to conclude
from hence that they are not really blessings, when they are in the
hands of good men. For, first, what can be a greater honour than to
be chosen one of the stewards and dispensers of God's bounty to
mankind? What is there that can give a generous spirit more
pleasure and complacency of mind than to consider that he is an
instrument of doing much good; that great numbers owe to him, under
God, their subsistence, their safety, their health, and the good
conduct of their lives? The wickedest man upon earth takes a
pleasure in doing good to those he loves; and therefore surely a
good Christian, who obeys our Saviour's commands of loving all men,
cannot but take delight in doing good even to his enemies. God, who
gives all things to all men, can receive nothing from any; and those
among men who do the most good and receive the fewest returns do
most resemble the Creator; for which reason St. Paul delivers it as
a saying of our Saviour, that "it is more blessed to give than
receive." By this rule, what must become of those things which the
world values as the greatest blessings--riches, power, and the like-
-when our Saviour plainly determines that the best way to make them
blessings is to part with them? Therefore, although the advantages
which one man hath over another may be called blessings, yet they
are by no means so in the sense the world usually understands.
Thus, for example, great riches are no blessings in themselves,
because the poor man, with the common necessaries of life, enjoys
more health and has fewer cares without them. How then do they
become blessings? No otherwise than by being employed in feeding
the hungry, clothing the naked, rewarding worthy men, and, in short,
doing acts of charity and generosity. Thus, likewise, power is no
blessing in itself, because private men bear less envy, and trouble,
and anguish without it. But when it is employed to protect the
innocent, to relieve the oppressed, and to punish the oppressor,
then it becomes a great blessing.

And so, lastly, even great wisdom is, in the opinion of Solomon, not
a blessing in itself; for "in much wisdom is much sorrow;" and men
of common understanding, if they serve God and mind their callings,
make fewer mistakes in the conduct of life than those who have
better heads. And yet wisdom is a mighty blessing when it is
applied to good purposes, to instruct the ignorant, to be a faithful
counsellor either in public or private, to be a director to youth,
and to many other ends needless here to mention.

To conclude: God sent us into the world to obey His commands, by
doing as much good as our abilities will reach, and as little evil
as our many infirmities will permit. Some He hath only trusted with
one talent, some with five, and some with ten. No man is without
his talent; and he that is faithful or negligent in a little shall
be rewarded or punished, as well as he that hath been so in a great

Consider what hath been said, &c.

Footnote (1):

A clearer style, or a discourse more properly adapted to a
public audience, can scarce be framed. Every paragraph is simple,
nervous, and intelligible. The threads of each argument are closely
connected and logically pursued.--Orrery.

Content of On Mutual Subjection (Jonathan Swift's book: Three Sermons, Three Prayer)

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