Leo Damrosch reports the following anecdote about Jonathan Swift when he had fallen from power and had moved to Dublin to “die in a rage like a poisoned rat in a hole.”
Swift called his butler to bring ale to himself and his guests. He observed through looking at a mirror that the butler first drank a glass of ale himself before serving them. He said “Aha, don’t be so sharp, friend! I saw you do that and am docking you two shillings from your board wages.”
Damrosch suggests three possible interpretations of the incident:
- Swift was a creepy jerk who enjoyed spying on his servants and punished them for minor infractions.
- Swift was generous — he didn’t have to pay them board wages at all because he gave them free food. The butler was very well compensated. Damrosch doesn’t draw this out but you could almost believe that Swift only gave board wages as a way of giving his servants feedback.
- Swift and the butler planned the whole thing to impress his guests. Damrosch argues that the butler would have known that his employer observed him through the mirror, and would not have done something so presumptuous as to drink a glass of ale when he could be observed.
We don’t know which of these is true. I believe though that (3) is either true or false, although we will never know. My argument is that I could do something similar today, and even if three hundred years from now people don’t know that I did it, I still did it. (Or didn’t do it.)
(1) and (2) seem more like matters of interpretation but are not entirely subjective. We could for example discover a diary entry from Swift where he revealed that he was or wasn’t a creepy jerk who enjoyed spying. We could learn that his servants felt well (or ill) compensated by their board wages.
History happened. It’s not up to us if Swift connived with his butler or didn’t, lthough we may never know the truth.