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Nearly 300 Years Later, Gulliver’s Travels Is Still the Satire We Need
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”
So wrote Qoheleth in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew Bible, some of its books written more than three thousand years ago, proves that there is a repetition, or at least a rhyme, as Mark Twain is said to have noted, to human experience.
Yet it is not only in divine texts or literature or historical data that you find contemporary analogues to past events. Satire, even when difficult to interpret based on shifts in humor, also illuminates current times and cultures.
So it is with Gulliver’s Travels, written by Anglo-Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift in 1726. Penned largely as a critique of the British Whig Party, Gulliver’s Travels was an immediate success.
“It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery,” said English poet and dramatist John Gay. Its influence is still felt in our language: Lilliputian (trivial, very small), Brobdingnagian (gigantic), and Yahoo (a rude, noisy person) all originate with Swift.
There are several cinematic adaptations of the story, two of which starred, separately, Ted Danson (Cheers, The Good Place) and Jack Black (Shallow Hal, King Kong). In 2015, Robert McCrum, a popular British editor and literary critic, labeled Gulliver’s Travels “a satirical masterpiece” and one of the one hundred best novels ever written.
I didn’t try reading the original text until 2019, when I was thirty-five years old. I was largely deterred because I had read a children’s version as a boy, and as an adult I figured the story was intended for kids. How terribly misinformed I was. Gulliver’s Travels, though not as culturally significant as the best of Shakespeare and Dickens, should be far more widely read and taught in our schools. A few examples of how its satire exposes contemporary culture will show you why.
Technological and Scientific Absurdities
One consistent theme throughout Swift’s story is a skepticism toward technological and scientific progress as a panacea for all society’s ills. In Lilliput, the land of six-inch-tall people, a group of scholarly observers takes copious notes on Gulliver, a shipwrecked sailor who to them is a terrifying giant. Of his pocket watch, they write:
Out of the right fob hung a great silver chain, with a wonderful kind of engine at the bottom. . . . He put this engine into our ears, which made an incessant noise, like that of a water-mill: and we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us (if we understood him right, for he expressed himself very imperfectly) that he seldom did anything without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said it pointed out the time for every action of his life.
Some clever commentators have noted the similarity between Gulliver’s comical dependence on his watch and that of many today on their Apple Watch. Just as much, if not more, could be said of our obsession with other present-day technologies, especially “smart” devices. Not only can such tools become idolatrous in our “worship” and overreliance on them, but mounting evidence also indicates that they, ironically, may be making us stupider. Who needs to know timetables, a knowledge of geography or history, or really anything whatsoever when an iPhone is in reach?
Swift also censures scientific progress in his depiction of Gulliver’s visit to the island of Balnibarbi. There he encounters a people obsessed with “new rules and methods” and “new instruments and tools” aimed at creating a utopian society. Gulliver notes, however, that “the only inconvenience is that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and, in the meantime, the whole country lies miserably waste.” Gulliver meets one man who for eight years had been engaged in a project to extract “sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.”
Granted, science has brought unprecedented improvements and comforts. Yet, as Gulliver himself observes, we can be so narrowly focused on finding scientific solutions to all of life’s problems that we neglect the more essential, universal, and eternal answers to alleviating ours and society’s ills. Such answers include strong familial and community relationships; an altruistic, sacrificial sentiment toward our neighbor; and the dignity and inherent value of labor. As even secular research is recognizing, human beings find fulfillment and meaning in work of a physical nature. Any technological or scientific endeavor that aims to eliminate these completely from our lives is contrary to human flourishing.
The Fickle Irrationality of Politics
Politics is also a frequent target of Swift’s—unsurprisingly, given his own misfortunes, as he was effectively exiled to Ireland because of his political leanings. During Gulliver’s visit to Lilliput, he writes, “Of so little weight are the greatest services to princes, when put into the balance with a refusal to gratify their passions.”
You feel Swift’s cynicism when Gulliver, playing the role of the sensible diplomat, steals the miniature navy of Lilliput’s militaristic archenemy Blefuscu, but refuses to conquer and enslave them. For this he is accused of high treason by members of the Lilliputian court, who conspire to murder the giant who just saved their nation from destruction. So Gulliver flees to Blefuscu, resolving “never more to put any confidence in princes or ministers.”
Years later he travels to Brobdingnag, a land of giants about twelve times as large as the average human. Upon entering the court of the king of these colossuses, Gulliver is queried regarding the politics of his native Europe. The Brobdingnagian king is perplexed that men would go to such “a great trouble and expense, often to the ruin of their families,” to enter politics. Following a description of politicians, the monarch concludes: “You have clearly proved that idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator.”
The king is further shocked to learn that nations go into debt: “He was still at a loss how a kingdom could run out if its estate like a private person. He asked me, who were our creditors? And where we found money to pay them?” National security is likewise a conundrum: “He wondered to hear me talk of such chargeable and extensive wars; that certainly we must be a quarrelsome people, or live among very bad neighbours.”
When Gulliver offers to provide knowledge of the modern arts of war—gunpowder, firearms, cannons—he is met with revulsion. “The king was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made . . . he would rather lose half his kingdom than be privy to such a secret, which he commanded me, as I valued my life, never to mention any more.”
Swift indicts the political utilitarianism that fosters various forms of deviance. Gulliver, unable to see the corrupting forces of Machiavellian political theory himself, perceives the Brobingagians’ disgust at such machinations as a weakness. We the reader appreciate, with delicious irony, how Gulliver mourns such
a strange effect of narrow principles and short views! That a prince possessed of every quality which procures veneration, love and esteem; of strong parts, great wisdom and profound learning; endued with admirable talents for government, and almost adored by his subjects; should from a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception, let slip an opportunity put into his hands, that would have made him absolute master of the lives, the liberties and the fortunes of his people.
Satire and Skepticism
Swift had a healthy skepticism toward any political science that promotes the centralization of governmental power, and any technology that undermines, rather than promotes, human well-being. And he was disenchanted with Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, who prioritized the individual vis-a-vis the “social contract”—separating and alienating him as a result.
The genius of Gulliver’s Travels is that it offers illuminating commentary regarding society and human experience by making you a dispassionate observer. Through this literary buffer, you are able to contemplate with greater acumen our own contemporary weaknesses and failings. You see the inconsequence of so many vain strivings. As the king of Brobdingnag says, “How contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as [Gulliver].”
This does not mean that you should become a cynic or misanthrope, as many readers have interpreted Gulliver’s development over the course of the novel. The Brobdingnagian king concludes the “bulk” of humanity “to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”
Maybe he’s right. But the race that produced Swift’s satire also gave us Shakespeare’s sonnets.
However deep our faults and intractable our problems, Swift’s humility in the face of technology, science, politics, and human nature would serve us well today.
Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.
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