Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Eternal Curmudgeon: Thoughts on Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

John Bedell

During the course of driving back and forth 85 miles to my latest project, I've been listening to Gulliver's Travels on tape.  (Don't tell me this is cheating or somehow un-intellectual; after all, Aristotle, Cicero and most of the other noble Greeks and Romans had books read to them.)  I found it an altogether rewarding experience, if in the end somewhat disturbing.  European civilization has rarely had a harsher, keener, or more bitter critic than Swift, and surely it never had one with greater mastery of words.  The book is full of magnificent passages, dripping with scorn.  Among the talking horses called Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is asked what European wars are about, and he answers that the causes

were innumerable, but I should only mention a few of the chief.  Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern; sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in war in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration.  Difference in opinion hath cost many millions of lives:  for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue . . . .  Neither are any wars so furious or bloody, or of so long continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
And here is his account of a chief minister of state:
a creature wholly exempt from joy and grief, love and hatred, pity and anger; at least made use of no other passions but a violent desire of wealth, power, and titles; that he applies his words to all uses, except to the indication of his mind; that he never tells a truth but with an intent that you should take it for a lie, nor a lie but with an intent that you should take it for a truth; that those he speaks worst of behind their backs are in the surest way of preferment; and whenever he begins to praise you to others or to yourself, you are from that day forlorn.  The worst mark you can receive is a promise, especially when it is confirmed with an oath; after which every wise man retires, and gives over all hopes.
Near the end of the book Gulliver explains why he has not claimed any of the lands he visited as colonies of the English crown:
But I had another reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty's dominions by my discoveries.  To say the truth, I had conceived a few scruples with relation to the distributive justice of princes upon those occasions.  For instance, a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers land from the topmast, they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see an harmless people, are entertained with kindness, they give the country a new name, they take formal possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten plank or a stone for a memorial, they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon.  Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.  Ships are sent with the first opportunity, the natives driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold, a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants:  and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.
Nor is Swift's ire directed only at politics and religion, for he attacks sexual licentiousness, gluttony, drunkenness, foppery, the foolishness of speculative scientists, and the credulity of the superstitious with equal vigor.  Even the smell and appearance of humankind come in for some harsh words.

One's reaction to all this is to laugh and then think, "yes, but . . ."  There is, after all, much that is left out of Swift's account of European civilization.  The King of the Brobdingnags, who is presented as a wise man, sums up English history in the hundred years before 1703 as

an heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, or ambition could produce. . . .
Now the king's account has, as a quick summary, much to recommend it, for English history in the seventeenth century was a long series of conspiracies, rebellions, and so on.  But is that all it was?  And was vice the only cause of all those conflicts?  Swift allows no room in his account for well-meaning people who sincerely believed in Puritanism, Parliamentary rule, or royal power.  He leaves out so much that one barely gets the sense that he is writing about human beings at all.  Rancor, it seems to me, sometimes so filled Swift's mind as to crowd out all sense and even all morality.  And yet, when one reads with something approaching shame his account of the King of Brobdingnag's reaction to news of gunpowder and artillery:
The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made.  He was amazed at how [I] . . .could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation, which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines, whereof he said some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver.
How, indeed, do we remain unmoved by what we know of the slaughter of war?  I am reminded of an observation by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who once said that if we truly understood the horror that lies behind one page of a daily newspaper, we could not endure it.

Besides war and politics, Swift saves his sharpest arrows for speculative philosophy.  On the flying island of Laputa, the "better sort" are so taken up in their mental gymnastics that their servants must flap them on the ear when someone wishes to speak to them.  In the city of Lagado Gulliver visits the academy of "projectors," scientists all taken up with bizarre schemes for the improvement of human life.  He meets men developing artificial languages and new systems of law, experimenting with ways to plow fields with pigs, and one who has a scheme to end political faction by transplanting parts of enemies' brains into each other's heads.  Some of the jokes are funny, and some of the visions of scientific madness truly chilling, but again one has the sense that something is missing.  Swift does not seem to be satirizing just the excesses of some philosophers, but the whole project of learning about the world.  He lumps the current fascination with "attraction" (that is, universal gravitation) together with other "speculative systems" and considers them all absurd fads.  The peoples he praises, the Brobdingnacians and the Houyhnhnms, completely lack curiosity.  He notes that the Brobdingnacians have very few books, because there is little that they feel the need to learn or argue about.  Their king finds it amusing that Europeans have thousands of books about politics but are still governed so badly, since, in his view, there is nothing to government but goodness and common sense.  The Houyhnhnms have a neolithic culture and no writing at all, nor do they ever argue, since they agree on everything.

Swift seems to be saying that most of what humans do is a waste of time:  not just war and political ambition, but philosophy, science, exploration, and any sort of art or craft that might fall under the heading of "luxury."  To him the meaning of the Mass, a burning question to so many of his contemporaries, is a frivolous matter no different from whistling.  Politics is merely ambition, and whether king or Parliament should be supreme is a matter of indifference.  I was struck by the political conservatism of the Travels, for as Gulliver wanders the world he encounters many wonders, from flying islands to talking horses, but he never arrives at a democracy.  Everywhere he is welcomed among the "better sort," landed gentry who have servants to do their labor, and everywhere women are subservient domestics or, worse, backstairs schemers.  The Houyhnhnms have a sort of racial caste system in which the servants are different colors from their masters.  Alive as Swift was to the eternal faults of his world, he was dead to what was truly new and exciting:  science, technology, the rise of a new economy not dependent on land, and of new political ideas that rejected aristocracy.

The last book of Gulliver's Travels describes the land of the Houyhnhnms, a sort of utopian vision of a place without sin.  The result, though, is not a paradise but dreariness bordering on nightmare.  The Houyhnhnms, we are told, are entirely governed by "Reason," but this abstraction is never very well explained.  Its chief meaning seems to be the repression of passion, so that the Houyhnhnms feel strongly about nothing.  They do not even prefer their own offspring to those of others.  Their marriages are arranged on eugenic grounds, and each couple has only two children, after which they refrain from intercourse.  They eat nothing but grass and oats boiled in milk, and they wear no clothes, so they do little that might be called business.  They enjoy conversation, but "their subjects are generally on friendship and benevolence" and they say only "what is useful, expressed in the fewest and most significant words," with "no interruption, tediousness, heat, or difference of sentiments," which pretty much rules out conversation as I know and love it.  Gulliver tells us that they excel in poetry, but since their main subjects are, again, "exalted notions of friendship and benevolence," I don't believe it.  With such lives, one might ask why they don't just die, and, in fact, we are told that they regard death as a "return to the first mother" and are not in the least sad about it.  Gulliver's experience of the Houyhnhnms' perfection left him with a deep revulsion toward humanity, but I was left with a deep revulsion toward perfection.  Swift was not much of a believer, but I found his Houyhnhnms to be the best argument ever offered for reconciling the existence of a benevolent God with the evil and horror of life on earth.  If life without evil and horror would be as dead as Swift makes it seem, then surely the Creator was wise to include them in the universe.

Gulliver's Travels leaves the reader suspended between Europe, whose corruptions and evils cannot be denied, and the awful tranquility of the lifeless Houyhnhnms.  It seems an unpalatable choice.  But is that all there is?  I do not think so.  The world is full of wonders, from art to science, from wolves to whales, from books to Beaujolais.  Gulliver says several times, apropos of various fineries, that "nature is easily satisfied."  Maybe his is, but mine is not.  I could never rest in the incurious, ignorant, apathetic state of the Brobdingnacians or the Houyhnhnms--I crave knowledge, justice, and diversion.  I think that the world can be made better; I think that since 1726 much of it has been made better.  The improvement has come from things Swift dismissed, speculative philosophy and politics.  It is, I think, better to live in a technologically sophisticated democracy than in Swift's England.  True, our world is far from perfect, and the vices Swift cataloged are all still very much with us.  Good thing, too, if a world without them would be like the land of the Houyhnhnms.  As I read Gulliver's Travels I sometimes thought that I must be a heartless creature to have found happiness in a world of vice and violence, but I have.  By regarding human life is something more than the mindless scurrying of ants, by regarding questions of science and philosophy as open and interesting, and by embracing passion rather than renouncing it, I have escaped in my own way from the trap Swift sets.  With, I might add, his own help.  For the past week my reading of Swift's attack on frivolity has been a great source of of idle pleasure to me--by his work Swift disproves his arguments, and shows that there is much to admire and enjoy in the human condition.

November 10, 2001


Swift's Prophecy

One of the most famouse passages of Gulliver's Travels is the one that follows, in which Swift, on the basis of the very few state trials held in his England, imagined the totalitarian future in his own extraordinary way.


I told him that in the kingdom of Tribunia, by the natives called Langden, where I had sojourned some time in my travels,the bulk of the people consist in a manner wholly of discoverers, witnesses, informers, accusers, prosecutors, evidences, swearers, together with their several subservient and subaltern instruments, all under the colours and conduct of ministers of state and their deputies.  The plots in that kingdom are usually the workmanship of those persons who desire to raise their own characters of profound politicians, to restore new vigor to a crazy administration, to stifle or divert general discontents, to fill their pockets with forfeitures, and raise or sink the opinion of the public credit, as either shall best answer their private advantage.  It is first agreed and settled among them, what suspected persons shall be accused of a plot; then, effectual care is taken to secure all their letters and papers, and put the criminals in chains.  These papers are delivered to a set of artists, very dexterous in finding out the mysterious meanings of words, syllables, and letters.  For instance, they can discover a close-stool to signify a privy council; a flock of geese, a senate; a lame dog, an invader; a codshead, a --; the plague, a standing army; a buzzard, a prime minister; the gout, a high priest; a gibbet, a secretary of state; a chamber pot, a committee of grandees; a sieve, a court lady; a broom, a revolution; a mouse-trap, an employment; a bottomless pit, the treasury; a sink, the court; a cap and bells, a favourite; a broken reed, a court of justice; an empty tun, a general; a running sore, the administration.

When this method fails, they have two others more effectual, which the learned among them call acrostics and anagrams.  First they can decipher all initial letters into political meanings.  Thus, N shall signify a plot; B, a regiment of horse; L, a fleet at sea; or secondly by transposing the letters of the alphabet in any suspected paper, they can discover the deepest designs of a discontented party. So, for example if I should say in a letter to a friend, Our brother Tom has just got the piles, a skilful decipherer would discover that the same letters which compose that sentence my be analysed into the following words:  Resist, a plot is brought home; The tour.  And this is the anagrammatic method.

Book III, Chapter 6

From the 
Commonplace Book

. . . the trade of a soldier is held the most honourable of all others, because a soldier is a man hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as he possibly can.

--Jonathan Swift


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us


Night Train to Lisbon
Science Enchants the World
Intelligent Design
Turning 40
Gulliver's Travels
Spiritual Testament
Gender and Children
For Common Things
Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age
Knowing People
Having Children