Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin of English parents in 1667, four years after Milton had finished writing Paradise Lost. Ordained as a minister of the Church of Ireland, he aligned himself with the “High Church” party at the “Catholic” end of the “Protestant-Catholic” spectrum in the Anglican Church. His sympathies were very much on the side of tradition in an age subject to an accelerating charge toward modernity. In this sense, his is a “conservative” voice in the historical culture wars.
Specifically, in the ongoing “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” which had been raging in France and then in England throughout the seventeenth century, Swift was a resolute proponent of the position of the Ancients. Along with his friend, the Catholic writer Alexander Pope, he represents the satirical reaction against scientolatry (the idolization of science as having all the necessary answers that human society needs) and chronological snobbery (the supercilious and arrogant dismissal of the past as being inexorably inferior to the present and the future), which are the defining characteristics of the Enlightenment. This needs to be borne in mind as we seek to unlock the nuances and subtleties of Swift’s satirical commentary on contemporary culture in Gulliver’s Travels.
As we begin reading this often misunderstood classic, it is crucial to remember that Swift is not Gulliver and that the protagonist of his satire does not act as a spokesman for Swift’s own perspective. On the contrary, establishing a critical distance between the author and his fictional protagonist is absolutely necessary to a proper understanding of the meaning of the work. Swift creates Gulliver as the caricature of a stereotypical “modern” in order to satirize and ultimately lampoon the follies of the Enlightenment and its modernism and scientism.
One wonders, in fact, if Swift chose the very name of Gulliver as a phonetic melding of the word “gull,” which means a dupe or credulous person, and the word “traveler.” Gulliver is the archetypal gullible traveler! Commenting on this critical distance between the author and his fictional protagonist, Dutton Kearney states in his introduction to the Ignatius Critical Edition of Gulliver’s Travels that Swift is “the last of the Renaissance humanists” whereas Gulliver is “the first of the moderns.”
The work itself, which was published in 1726, is divided into four parts, each representing separate voyages that Gulliver undertakes: first, to Lilliput; second, to Brobdingnag; third, to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan; and finally, to the country of the Houyhnhnms. In general terms, Part I is a satire on politics and religion; Part II is a satire on the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, including a satirical attack on the misanthropy of Thomas Hobbes; Part III is a satire on science, scientism, and notions of “progress”; and Part IV is a satire of Enlightenment philosophy.
In the broadest sense, Swift satires the sin of pride in human and political relationships and highlights the limits of human reason, and how reason itself can be poisoned by pride. With respect to the latter, the division of rational beings into two types—the irrational, emotion-driven yahoos and the rational, emotionless houyhnhnms—serves as Swift’s calling down of a plague on both the cynical materialism of Hobbes and the radical idealism of Descartes.
At the end of his travels, Gulliver is reduced to a misanthropic mess through his gullible adoption of Enlightenment philosophies, treating with cynical contempt the yahoos (Hobbesian man) and idolizing the emotionless idealism of the houyhnhnms (Cartesian man). Upon his return home, he treats his own wife and family with disgust, seeing them as being akin to the yahoos he’d met on his travels and considering them, like the yahoos, as nothing but bestial slaves of appetite.
In the midst of the madness caused by Gulliver’s gullibility, Swift dexterously slips in the presence of sanity in the character of Don Pedro, who rescues Gulliver and brings him home to England for the final time. Don Pedro, a Catholic Christian, serves as the representative of a real human person and, therefore, as the antidote to the extremes of the Hobbesian and Cartesian understanding of man which had so confused Gulliver.
It is the common sense and Christian charity of this representative of humanity that Gulliver should seek to imitate and emulate, not the theoretical and abstract idealism of the houyhnhnms. Gulliver does not learn the lesson that Don Pedro’s presence and example teach, but surely the reader is meant to do so.
Once we are able to see the travels of Gulliver through the eyes of his sagacious creator and not through the gullible eyes of the traveler himself, we begin to glean the wisdom that Gulliver’s Travels offers and can begin, therefore, to see that it is as relevant to our own times as it was to the times in which Swift wrote. It is not of an age but for all ages. Such perennial relevance is what marks Gulliver’s Travels as belonging with the other great books of civilization. For this reason, it should be both celebrated and read.
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-fourth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image Credit: print from 1860s edition of Gulliver’s Travels]