Lecture on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
(This text by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is a slightly edited version of a lecture delivered in March 1994. This document is in the public domain, released June 1999.
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
In this lecture I wish to focus on two different things by way of an introduction to Gulliver’s Travels at the end of our first two semesters of Liberal Studies. Firstly, I would like to offer something of a quick summary and synthesis of two or three of the major issues we have considered in the past year by way of highlighting the importance of the seventeenth-century literature we have been dealing with lately.
Then, secondly, I want, by way of an introduction to Gulliver’s Travels, to adopt the approach that Swift is reacting against the rapidly developing modernity of much of the seventeenth-century thought—his satire is a cry of protest in the name of an older tradition, one reaching back to Socrates, Plato, and St. Paul. And yet, Swift, as a product of the new forces, is aware that we cannot simply return to medieval or Greek times and pretend that Newton never existed.
In short, I want eventually to lead us to the fairly obvious point that Gulliver’s Travels, one of the greatest works of protest against modernity ever written, is no exercise in nostalgia but a call to shape the rapidly growing power of European culture in accordance with some old insights. His great fear is that, in the eagerness to follow the direction indicated by Hobbes and Descartes, among others, which begins with an energetic and optimistic debunking and rejection of tradition and the enthronement of new rationality, we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. At the same time, I will maintain, Swift knows deep down that his cause is lost. Fuelling the pessimism and the anger of his satire is, I think, a sense that the moral position he wishes to defend is already being overrun. Still, he’s going to have his say.
However, before discussing Swift, I want to offer a quick retrospective. In doing this, I’m going to be offering many very large unsubstantiated generalizations, skating often on very thin ice, but if I can keep moving quickly, the surface may sustain me, and the questions and comments at the end can point out all the flaws.
To give us a line through the retrospective and up to Swift, I wish to concentrate upon a moral issue: the question of virtue. And in order to make this issue as clear as I can, I would like to pose two central questions before offering a quick survey of answers: What is the good life for me? How can we clearly and justly settle any disputes between us?
These are the fundamental questions of personal and public morality or, in a word, of justice, and in looking at some of the ways the writers we have read have sought to deal with them, I can, I hope, achieve two things: provide a useful retrospective synthesis and offer an insight into what Gulliver’s Travels is centrally about.
The Nature of Greek Virtue
The Greek answer to that questions I have just posed anchored itself on a very interesting, influential, and sometime puzzling concept: the idea of virtue. Questions of right and wrong—in the individual and in society—were to be dealt with by an appeal to the character of the individuals making the decisions.
We began, way back in September, wrestling in Homer with a very Greek notion of the good life—in which the concept of virtue holds a central place. Simply put, the Greek concept of virtue maintains that the good or evil of life is bound up with a person’s character and the way that character is linked to particular actions in particular situations, measured against the full potential development of one’s full humanity (one’s human telos). The fully virtuous character seeks above all to be excellent. His or her life is characterised by an energetic selfaffirmation to be the best that one can be. And characters who achieve such excellence are recognized and accepted as the natural leaders of their society—Odysseus, Oedipus, Agamemnon.
The individual and the society guided by a concept of virtue in this sense have a straightforward way to resolve their moral difficulties: given a puzzling choice one looks to the way in which the fully virtuous person would act. Excellence in the actions of those recognized as the best in the society sets the moral standard for the individual and the community. So the way we resolve our difficulties is to look to the standard exemplified by the most virtuous members of the community, usually its publicly recognized leaders.
Socrates and Plato are, in this respect, quite consistent with their older Greek traditions. They give to questions of character a distinctly inward turn, but virtue for both is central to the good life for the individual and for the community. What makes Plato and Plato’s Socrates revolutionary is their attempt to redefine virtue in terms of intellectual striving, to replace the multifaceted concept of virtue in, say, Homer, where excellence involved a host of different external activities supported by the traditions of the community, with the pursuit of and attainment of a particular form of inner knowledge.
I have no wish here to smooth over the obvious differences between Plato’s and Homer’s conceptions of virtue, but I am more interested at this point in the similarities. In both, the notion of virtue is aristocratic and exclusive Relatively few people in the community are capable of attaining full virtue. There are many possible degrees of excellence. But the responsibility for educating us in virtue and adjudicating our differences lies squarely with the most virtuous. Therefore, it is appropriate in the best-functioning community that the most excellent have the power and the glory and the less excellent obey. For this concept of virtue also involves the ability to recognize those more excellent than ourselves and to adjust our behaviour willingly in accordance with those differences.
Aristotle offers essentially the same vision, apparently much less rigorous than the vision in Plato’s Republic, but still based on a hierarchy of excellence. The community is held together by the constant striving for the excellence natural to human beings and by its attainment in those who become the leaders. Since they are virtuous, they will have the characters suited to lead. Their intelligence, emotions, motives, and physical attributes, summed up in the concept of practical wisdom (phronesis), will have been properly socialized into the best behaviour at all times in many complex different situations.
Virtue in The Old and New Testaments
In the selections of the Old Testament we met apparently quite a different conception of the moral life, one guided above all by clear rules handed down by God and guarded as the authority on all moral questions, individual and communal. Here virtue (in the Greek sense) is not the operative principle; rather faith and obedience are. We resolve our disputes by an appeal to the rules and to the interpretation of the rules, which are binding on all.
There is no hierarchy of excellence here, only two classes of people: the faithful and obedient, on the one hand, and the sinners and foreigners on the other. To be a member of the faithful, among God’s chosen people, is to be equally blessed along with everyone else. At the heart of the Old Testament conception of the good life for the individual and the community is a radical equality of all believers.
The leaders are those who have a direct insight into God’s rules, either because they have a prophetic connection to God and have seen Him face to face or because they are specially chosen—for reasons known only to God—to interpret the will of God. Their own particular virtue (in the Greek sense) is not the issue. They have been specially chosen for reasons which have nothing in particular to do with their virtue (in the Greek sense): the act of being chosen confers virtue upon them.
And in the New Testament, this same radically egalitarian element is strong. To be a good Christian requires very little in the way of traditional Greek virtue (either Homeric or Socratic). The tax gatherer, the prostitute, the Centurion, the wealthy landowner, the widow, and the fisherman are all equally members of Christ’s community of believers, provided only that they take up the challenge and follow Christ’s message.
From one perspective this, too, is a defense of the life anchored on virtue: human beings have a characteristic function to fulfill in order to attain the good life, and central to that function is the education of the character in the truths embodied in the nature of things and summed up by the three Cardinal Virtues, faith, hope, and charity, and exemplified in the highest role model: the life of Jesus Christ.
The most influential modern philosopher defending the concept of virtue as a guide to the moral life has summed up an important linking similarity between the Greek and the Biblical tradition as follows:
The New Testament’s account of the virtues, even if it differs as much as it does in content from Aristotle’s—Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by Saint Paul—does have the same logical and conceptual structure as Aristotle’s account. A virtue is, as with Aristotle, a quality the exercise of which leads to the achievement of the human telos. The good for man is of course a supernatural and not only a natural good, but supernature redeems and completes nature. Moreover the relationship of virtues as means to the end which is human incorporation in the divine kingdom of the age to come is internal and not external, just as it is in Aristotle. (MacIntyre, After Virtue)
The Medieval Christian Tradition
The early Christian tradition, as it developed in the first five centuries after the death of Jesus was, from one perspective, a fruitful and sometimes very uneasy synthesis of these two traditions. Given the similarities MacIntyre mentions above, it is easy to see why the synthesis could be made. There were, however, tensions within the merging of Greek thinking and Biblical creeds in early Christian thought.
One aspect of this tension came out in the debates about what exactly Christianity should be, and what sort of demands it should make on the virtue of the believer. The Early Christian community, especially once the persecutions started, was faced with an urgent problem on this question of Christian virtue: the Greek or the Biblical tradition. Simply put, it focused on the question whether the Christian community should be, as the Biblical tradition in many eyes appeared to demand, a spiritual all-star team, a radically equal band of true believers, with no admittance for those whose faith had wavered, or should the Christian community be a spiritual hospital, with room for all grades of Christian virtue, from saint to repentant sinner, and with a hierarchy of virtue within the Christian world and authority given to those of specially demonstrated virtue to educate, cure, exhort, provide role models, and, if necessary, to punish.
We see the ambiguity of this inheritance manifesting itself in the writings of St. Paul, who can, on the one hand, urge the Romans, as a community of Christian equals, to work out their problems together and communally and, on the other hand, invoke his own special virtue, qualitatively better than theirs because of his conversion experience, as a reason why they should follow his advice and example, and see in him an authority figure. This ambiguity, it is interesting to note, may be one of the main reasons why St. Paul is a constant reference point for those who wish to insist upon the authority of the Church (like St. Augustine) and for those who wish to challenge the authority of the Church (like Martin Luther).
The resolution of the questions arising from the Greek and Biblical traditions of virtue was not easy, and it took the lifework and genius of St. Augustine, among others, to sort out the answer. But essentially, as the Church developed into a powerful social institution, the Christian view of the good life for the individual and the community fused the two traditions. On the one hand, all Christians were spiritually equal, equally bound to the seven Christian virtues (the three Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the Four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice), and equally subject to God’s judgment. On the other hand, the Church existed as a complex hierarchy of spiritual authority, with those at the top responsible for guiding the spiritual life of those beneath. Doctrinally Christians might be equal, but ecclesiastically there were clear differences between the parson, the bishop, the devout farmer, and the king. Salvation was an equal concern for everyone; but extra ecclesia nulla salvatio (no salvation outside the Church).
The central issue for the Christian was still, however, virtue. When we read Hildegard’s poetry, we saw how she looks at nature as a constant manifestation of the work of God and, therefore, as a constant reminder to all believers of their central purpose on earth. Her poems are not simply a celebration of God’s handiwork; they are also, and more importantly, a call to virtue.
And the duality in the Christian view of virtue is evident in Chaucer and Dante. From one point of view, Chaucer’s Ploughman and Parson, although very humble on the social scale, are ideal Christians; their virtue is independent of their station in life, their physical appearance, their worldly goods, and their fame. They are ideal figures, on par with the socially far more important knight, and what Chaucer celebrates in each one of them is the full attainment of Christian virtue. Christian Saints, after all could come from any station in life. On the other hand, in Dante’s Christian vision, there is a clear hierarchy of virtue: the more important the ecclesiastical officer, the more serious the offence and the punishment and the greater the spiritual glory for full virtue.
This combination of the Greek and the Biblical views of virtue proved to be immensely useful and effective. For it linked all members of the Christian community as spiritual equals in a manner distinctly egalitarian, while at the same time authorizing a strictly organized hierarchy within the Church and thus justifying a structure of authority in spiritual matters and in the host of secular concerns which arose from them.
Note the central metaphor of the guests arriving at the Great Supper (in Luke 14)
Then the master of the house, being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room. And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.
As guests all ranks were equal, but there were people with authority to compel those to come in. Outside the equal feast there was no salvation. Thus, the member of the Christian community was bound together with those authorities over him, recognizing that the same spiritual rules applied to all of them (including those in authority), while at the same time the leaders had a clear mandate to carry out all the tasks necessary for the complex organization of social life.
The union was not, however, without its strains. And throughout the Middle Ages there were sporadic but very serious challenges, often in the name of a more spiritually pure and committed sense of Christian virtue. In other words, the radically egalitarian nature of Biblical Christianity (the moral all-star team) kept reasserting itself in the face of an increasingly powerful and influential Church establishment. Sometimes the Church could respond to the challenge by incorporating it (e.g., the mendicant orders); at other times the Church responded with force. So by and large the union of the Greek tradition and the Biblical tradition held. And Aristotle’s Ethics could remain a popular handbook for virtue among people who considered themselves thoroughly Christian.
The Uses and Abuses of the Medieval View of Virtue
After reading Machiavelli and Hobbes, it’s easy to be somewhat cynical about this view of individual and communal virtue—the notion that the natural purpose of human life is to strive for a standard of spiritual excellence—given what they say about the innately corrupt nature of human beings. And there is no shortage of examples of corrupt popes, bishops, and prelates to gratify the cynic. But, in fact, the Medieval concept of virtue, for all the lapses, worked remarkably well for hundreds of years.
For many popes and bishops and Catholic kings took their Christian responsibilities very seriously indeed. For a believer the stakes were high: the fate of one’s eternal soul hung in the balance: one’s virtue was up for judgment. So the notion of justice as a matter of virtue in the characters of those in authority was by no means ineffective. This was, it needs to be stressed, not simply a narrow matter of personal morality. The concept of virtue required just decisions in a host of economic and judicial matters. Bishops, cardinals, popes, and kings had to deliberate about the just price and the fair wage, the appropriateness of interest, the proper division of territories, and a host of secular matters. In all of these, among the true Christians the central issue was this: What was the appropriately Christian way to behave? What behaviour was compatible with the highest standards of Christian virtue?
By way of impressing this point upon you—that the Medieval Christian notion of virtue was indeed a serious principle and not, as Machiavelli suggests, always simply a convenient cover—I’d like briefly to mention one of the most extraordinary events in the history of Western expansion, an event little known nowadays perhaps, but one which had important effects lasting right down to the present day.
The example concerns the decision of Charles V of Spain, at the time Europe’s most powerful and wealthiest monarch, who was becoming fabulously rich with all the gold being shipped home from the New World, to call a halt to all Spanish expansion until such time as the philosophers and theologians could determine “the manner in which conquests should be carried on . . . justly and with security of conscience,” that is, until one could resolve the question whether his permission for and encouragement of such expansion was compatible with his Christian virtue.
There is no reason here to question Charles’s sincerity. He was an intensely devout man, concerned about the state of his own virtue, and he was profoundly disturbed by what was going on in the name of the Spanish monarch in the New World. So he summoned from all over Europe the best scholars and held a long debate on the question. In that debate in August 1550, Bartolome de Las Casas presented a case on behalf of the natives of South America, 550 pages of closely argued Latin prose, taking five days out in the hot sun to present his case that the Spanish had no right to take anything from the natives.
As a result of that debate, a significant attempt was made to guide the Spanish treatment of the New World inhabitants in accordance with moral principles, a process which, however questionable we may now find them and however ineffective they might have been in many instances, did, in fact, help to preserve some of the essential features of the Amerindian cultures (the language, for instance), in a way that never happened in North America, where venture capitalists, as products of the new age, had considerably less interest in their own virtue (in the traditional sense) than did Charles V.
I mention this example simply to stress that, whatever we may think about it, the curious combination of Aristotle’s Ethics, the New Testament, and a derivative neoPlatonic notion of virtue did provide for hundreds of years a workable framework for dealing with the two questions I raised at the start of this lecture.
Of course, as we all know, eventually that workable synthesis came apart. I referred briefly to this in the lecture on Hobbes I gave a couple of weeks ago. And the major cause of that is clear enough: there was not enough virtue on display. In other words, those in authority became much less concerned about their consciences than Charles V was, and, like King Lear, lost the sense of their own personal responsibility as excellent people to carry out just actions.
There seems little doubt that the great source of the dissolution of traditional virtue was money: once Europe started, during the Renaissance, to become rich from eastern trade and New World gold, the concept of virtue in the ruler as the mainstay of Church authority began to crumble. We can already see in Chaucer and Dante the emphatic links between money and sin. And when we read Machiavelli we come to understand just where an enormous amount of this new money was going: into mercenary armies to conquer adjacent territories. Machiavelli, as we argued about, recommended that the ruler thus junk the traditional concept of virtue (except as a convenient facade) and concentrate on power at all costs. In virtu there is no virtue. Whether one agrees or not that Machiavelli’s advice is useful or disastrous, his call for an end to the traditional concept of virtue (and his numerous examples of what many of the rulers in Italy were, in fact, doing) is an eloquent reminder of just how that Medieval Christian ideal was falling apart.
In Hobbes, of course, the notion of virtue has almost disappeared completely. The Commonwealth he sets up does not require its citizens to be virtuous in any traditional manner, so long as they are obedient to the will of the sovereign: one’s character is essentially irrelevant; what matters is obedience to the law.
The Need for a New Order
I have already referred, in the earlier lecture on Hobbes, to the ways in which the destruction of the traditional medieval community was linked to the final split of Catholic Europe into a number of rival doctrinal camps. And it’s clear that one major victim of this loss of a commonly held spiritual authority was the concept of virtue. With competing role models, no agreed upon interpretative authority, a babble of conflicting voices, and the repeated clashing of competing armies, the community stability essential to the notion of virtue disappeared. Thus, the old idea of human life having a traditional spiritual purpose in accordance with which we could organize our understanding of ourselves and our moral duties began gradually to lose its grip. For the shared agreement about what that goal might be and how best we might reach it was gone. And with it went—very slowly but inexorably—the most important way human beings had organized their moral understanding of themselves and their communities for over a thousand years: the idea of virtue.
It’s difficult for us to understand just how seriously dislocating this experience was—one of the most profound spiritual and social crises in the history of western Europe. All of a sudden there were competing authorities, each one announcing a different agenda, commanding a different allegiance, redefining or urging us to abandon inherited notions of virtue. The conflicts separated communities, families, couples—and the stakes were the highest possible: the future of one’s immortal soul.
Of course, the conflict had important political, economic, and national dimensions, and it is important to acknowledge these, but one should never merely subsume the conflict under one of these rubrics, for the spiritual conflict was also very real. No longer was there any certain assurance about what defined the good life for me or about what were the appropriate ways to sort out our difficulties—doctrinal, economic, social, and personal. So profound was the distress, that there was a widespread feeling at the start of the seventeenth century that the world must be coming to an end.
In this context we can understand something of the moral imperative under the interest in the new science as a source of order. The situation is not unlike that we discussed when we came to Plato’s writings right after dealing with the horrifying vision of Euripides’s Bacchae. And it is no accident that many of the seventeenth-century thinkers and their eighteenth-century followers (like Hobbes and Rousseau) saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of Plato, seeking a new certainty in the realm of mathematics to deal with the rampant skepticism, atheism, and power grabbing all around them.
But this comparison with Plato needs to be treated with great care. It is true that, in some respects, the rise of seventeenth-century science marks the first beginnings of an energetic revival of Plato’s project—the quest for certainty through mathematics and through a repudiation of traditional authorities. But we need to be careful here for a number of reasons:
Plato’s concern, at least in the early dialogues (including the Republic) is directed first and foremost by a moral concern—a need to know about the Good. A certain form of education will foster that, but turning our attention to the study and mastery of nature is emphatically not part of the project. Socrates is quite firm on this point: education for virtue is the plan, with contemplation of the ideal as the goal. He is not interested in applying dialectic to a study of the natural world for the sake of gaining power over it.
Stated another way, Plato’s main interest is on what Aristotle later calls final causes—moral questions about the Good. What is true virtue, how do we come to understand it, how do we encourage virtue in the citizens and the rulers? The seventeenth-century scientistphilosophers were overwhelmingly concerned, as their first priority, with efficient causes. Let us study the mechanism, find out how it works, how to control and manipulate it. It’s true that many of them, especially in England, hoped that through the study of efficient causes we would finally come to understand moral questions. As Bacon expressed it, the chain of efficient causes would eventually lead us to the throne of God. And Newton also emphatically stated that the modern science would provide insight into final causes (as did Boyle). Descartes, of course, was not convinced on this point. There was no way in which human rationality and experimentation were ever going to reach an understanding of God’s purposes. On the other hand, Descartes’ firm optimism about the powers of the enquiring mind held open the hope that we could achieve some certainty on moral questions, without direct recourse to the Divine Will.
What’s important to get out of this brief consideration of the new science is its extraordinarily optimistic and confident agenda: there could, indeed, be a basis for a new shared understanding of all questions of immediate importance. All we needed to do was apply the human intellect to the natural world in a manner available to anyone, and with a proper method and accurate experiments, we could find the appropriate answers to our two questions.
In the literature of seventeenth century, there is no shortage of statements about this optimistic project. But for me the key one has always been what Galileo says in a brief exchange between Simplicio (the spokesman for the orthodox traditionalists) and Salvati (the spokesman for Galileo) in the Dialogues Concerning the Two World Systems:
Simp. But if Aristotle is to be abandoned, whom shall we have for a guide in philosophy? Suppose you name some author.
Salv.We need guides in forests and in unknown lands, but on plains and in open places only the blind need guides. It is better for such people to stay at home, but anyone with eyes in his head and his wits about him could serve as a guide for them.
The unabashed confidence that all is available to us if we will but look about us, together with the peremptory dismissal of that very important question, indicates as well as anything else the vigorous optimism that human beings will be more than equal to the task of applying mathematics to the world, if they will just set aside their respect for a tradition which is holding them back and get on with the job.
Besides, they knew, as did everyone else, that there was no turning back. They were onto something; they saw it as a rich alternative to a tradition which had failed them; and, with the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1667, almost universally accepted as the definitive answer to a question no one had been able to resolve so decisively before, they had the proof that they were on the right track.
The Great Tory Satirists: Pope, Swift, Johnson
But this quickly rising faith in a new science did not go unopposed—and not simply by Church authorities worried about their own power or the literal truth of scripture (although they did voice vigorous objections). The new science raised serious doubts in the minds of those moralists who did not share the optimistic assumptions of the new natural scientists, because for them it threatened the key concept of virtue.
And so there was a Conservative reaction. In England this reaction is linked to three of the greatest writers in English literature: Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic, Samuel Johnson, an orthodox Anglican, and Jonathan Swift, an Anglican cleric. In addition to their religious beliefs, all three were very well versed in the classics, and derived much of their inspiration from classical Roman (especially Stoic) traditions. In a word, they were great Christian humanists. These three, among others, set their sights against the modern trends. Their favorite weapon was satire, and their mood generally pessimistic.
What were they objecting to? And what did they want? Simply put, they did not buy into the great hopes of the new theoretical science and rational philosophy, that it would contribute to the moral improvement of human beings. On the contrary, they saw it as a very dangerous reassertion of pride—a perilous confidence in the powers of human reasoning, which quite undermined the single most important point of traditional Christian faith, the strong sense of human beings as limited fallen creatures, mired in ignorance.
So they saw the surge in confidence at the start of the eighteenth century—the increasing wealth, the energetic trade and colonization, the amazing scientific discoveries, the proliferation of capitalist projects, this enormously exuberant and to them largely secular preoccupation—as taking people’s minds away from the most important moral imperative: their own virtue.
At the same time, these Tory satirists were no advocates of a return to sixteenth-century religious dogmatism. For they were as aware as anyone of what goes on in a religious civil war. So they direct their satires also at those who are urging a more “irrational” approach to religion: the enthusiastic preachers (like the Methodists, the Baptists, and other nonconforming protestants). they want, in other words, to carve a course between what they saw as the extreme irrationality of the new religions and the excessive rationality of the new natural philosophy.
And thus, to simply matters considerably, the Tory moralists set their sights primarily on three main targets: first, those who in a passionate zeal for their version of the truth of religion based their message on an appeal to people’s feelings (especially the “enthusiastic” protestants); second, the growing commercialism of life, with its emphasis on fashion, leisure, money, licentiousness, greed (increasingly this money was not dependent upon land or the community; it was a speculative wealth of the urban middle class, the product of venture capitalism, which they saw as corrupting); and, third, the new rationalism in philosophy and natural philosophy, especially the fierce logic of someone like Descartes, divorcing his intellectual explorations from traditions and experience and setting up the authority of his own rational enquiries over everything else, insisting that the world answer his mathematically based understanding of it; they distrusted, too, its enormously optimistic confidence that human problems were capable of human solutions through the application of appropriate methods. Thus, they were openly hostile to the growing hopes of theoretical and experimental science.
What these added up to was a fierce opposition to a changing attitude toward the nature of human beings, the growing notion that human beings could “progress,” could become different by overcoming all problems, including those inherent in their own natures, and could eventually become “happy.” They were deeply suspicious of any philosophy which made facile and reassuring generalizations about the nature of human beings and which then constructed a theory of knowledge or of society on such a rational understanding. For them human beings were much more enigmatic and ultimately dangerous than such easy rational generalizations suggested. Human life, they argued, should be lived on the basis of one’s personal interactions and on the accumulated experience of such interactions, not in service to some idealized theoretical picture of human beings.
For these Tory satirists the new natural philosophy was a dangerous assertion of human pride, an illusion based upon the rejection of the traditional wisdom and to them a naive faith in the possibilities of acquiring metaphysical certainty. This for them was a recipe for disaster. Human beings were not on this earth to be knowledgeable, happy, and powerful, but rather to be as morally virtuous as possible: that was their central and most difficult challenge as human beings, the quest for spiritual goodness. And the new thinking was threatening this old Socratic insight. As Monk writes (talking of Swift):
Why was Swift inimical to these tendencies—all of which are familiar aspects of our world today? Very simply, I think, because he was a Christian and a humanist. As a Christian he believed that man’s fallen nature could never transcend its own limitations and so fulfil the hopes of that optimistic age; as a humanist he was concerned for the preservation of those moral and spiritual qualities which distinguish men from beasts and for the health and continuity of fruitful tradition in church, state, and the sphere of the mind. As both Christian and humanist, he knew that men must be better than they are and that, though our institutions can never be perfect, they need not be corrupt. The “savage indignation” which motivates all of Swift’s satires arises from his anger at the difference between what men are and what they might be if they only would rise to the full height of their humanity.
Thus, the Tory satirists attacked the notions central to the modern scientific enterprise in defense of a particular vision of Christianity, a moderate and reasonable faith, which held to the need for traditional authorities, an acceptance of scripture but without nitpicking doctrinal disputes, and a strong sense of the limitations of the human understanding. They wanted, above all, that people—regardless of their particular version of religion and interpretations of scripture—should never forget they were fallen creatures in need of spiritual guidance and sustenance, and that the traditional virtues—faith, hope, and charity—and the traditional institutions whose job it was to insist upon such virtues (bishops and kings) were more important than some future discoveries or powers over nature.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the skeptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he things too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled”
The glory, jest, an riddle of the world! (Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, II, 1-18)
To understand their position, we can consider two key terms in the arguments: nature and reason. The enthusiastic religions had no use for the second term, and they competed endlessly about the true nature of human beings. Because they were hopelessly divided over the interpretation of scripture and what that indicated about human beings, they had no shared vision of the good life for the individual or of the political and ecclesiastical consequences of that view.
The new natural philosophers had a mechanical conception of nature, and a mathematically based conception of reason. They varied considerably on their view of human nature (from the possible atheism of Hobbes, to the dualism of Descartes, to the mystical Protestantism of Newton, to the more or less orthodox Anglicanism of Boyle). But the reason they appealed to was, as we have seen in Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and Hobbes, the reasoning best exemplified in mathematics, especially geometry. And this, they insisted, would be the best method to pursue in dealing with questions arising out of all nature, including human nature.
The Tory satirists saw reason differently. For them it was more a matter of reasonableness. Human beings needed reason to control and guide and repress the passions, but the reason they adhered to was something much more like common sense prudence than deductive logic. Reason included a sturdy sense of the limits of rationality, with no false confidence, and they never tired of reminding their readers that such confidence was misplaced and that human beings and societies who placed their faith in such rationality would suffer dire moral consequences. Hence, they were no admirers of the sort of reasoning exemplified in Descartes—the intense rational speculation about ultimate questions.
Nature for them revealed a natural order, which was reflected in the political and ecclesiastical structures of the state (hence their conservative political stance and their admiration for traditional literatures and traditional communal structures, especially of classical Rome). As such, virtue for them was still an operative principle, and the state of one’s soul the primary concern. No enthusiastic religion or rational philosophy was going to replace the old verities. In this life, scientific projects to improve the lot of the poor were going to be no replacement for traditional charity. For the attainment of happiness was a dangerous illusion. In the words of Imlac, Johnson’s Abyssinian thinker:
In enumerating the particular comforts of life, we shall find many advantages on the side of the Europeans. They cure wounds and diseases with which we languish and perish. We suffer inclemencies of weather which they can obviate. They have engines for the despatch of many laborious works, which we must perform by manual industry. There is such communication between distant places that one friend can hardly be said to be absent from another. Their policy removes all public inconveniences; they have roads cut through their mountains, and bridges laid upon their rivers. And, if we descend to the privacies of life, their habitations are more commodious, and their possessions are more secure . . . The Europeans . . . are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed. (Johnson, Rasselas, Chapter XI)
The distrust of projects to improve happiness comes out particularly clearly in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, when Swift satirizes the application of the modern project to, among other things, agriculture. In many respects, Swift’s satire is weakest in Book III because he is attacking the new way of thinking on its strongest territory. But he had a real cause in looking at what the scientific projectors were doing in agriculture, which was the first arena in which the new thinking was vigorously applied to the communal life.
For the application of new scientific procedures to agriculture with a view to making production more efficient was well under way in Swift’s time, and the social dislocations it caused were very serious. I alluded to this in the lecture on Hobbes. Simply put, it involved something we are still wrestling with: the creation of large agricultural units in order to gain the advantages of economies of scale. This meant driving the peasants off the common land, enclosing it, and turning the production over to more efficient private interests, now able to deal with large-scale farming.
In the long run this did produce a much more efficient agriculture—and England was the pioneer—but the total upheaval and destruction of many traditional communities was the price (unlike France, where the enclosure movement did not have the same effect; we are still thus dealing with the problems of the small-scale farmer in France). So in the short term, the time in which Swift is writing, the social distress was acute, as thousands of subsistence-level farmers were driven off the land they needed to support themselves, in order to permit large landowners to revolutionize agricultural production in a modern scientific manner. Swift correctly saw this measure as a lethal blow at the moral life, because it struck at the heart of what kept the traditional communities vital.
Like many of the new seventeenth-century thinkers, these Tory satirists were suspicious of language, especially of the extreme metaphorical uses of it to inflame opinions (as we have seen in Hobbes). But they wanted to control the excesses in the understanding of traditional ideas rather than to jettison that tradition and put language on a new footing entirely. So we see in Gulliver’s Travels, one of the points about the land of the horses which Gulliver most admires is their attitude towards words and the uses of words in literature.
One way to appreciate these points is to check the adjectives of commendation and approbation. For these writers the highest praise one could confer on people would be to call them sensible—guided by a nice appreciation for experience, adjusting their understanding of things and their feelings about things according to a robust sense of how the world actually worked according to our sense experience of it, without being taken in by delusions about religion, money, grandly rational theoretical structures, or one’s own importance.
By contrast, words like imaginative, extravagant, enthusiastic, or fond indicated disapproval—an excess of feeling or ideas divorced from the perceived realities of the world. When Swift, for example, says of the horses in Book IV, that they are not fond of their children, he is indicating an essential feature of their rationality—they do not let excess devotion to their offspring impair their sturdy good sense about the world. At the same time, of course, they do not let their aptitude for mathematics delude them into thinking that that form of reason is the proper basis for understanding the natural world.
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is without question the most famous prose work to emerge from this 18th century Tory satiric tradition. It is the strongest, funniest, and yet in some ways most despairing cry for a halt to the trends initiated by seventeenth-century philosophy. It is the best evidence we can read to remind us that the rise of the new rationality did not occur unopposed.
Before looking at how Swift deals with his resistance, however, I want to talk a bit about the basic techniques Swift uses to structure his satire. For Gulliver’s Travels is not just a great work of moral vision; it is also a wonderful satire, and whatever one thinks of Swift’s moral position, it is difficulty not to acknowledge his supreme skill as a satirist.
Some Observations on Swift’s Satiric Technique
If the main purpose of any satire is to invite the reader to laugh at a particular human vice or folly, in order to invite us to consider an important moral alternative, then the chief task facing the satirist is to present the target in such a way that we find constant delight in the wit, humour, and surprises awaiting us. Few things in literature are more ineffective than a boring, repetitive satire. So to appreciate just why some satires work and others do not, one should look carefully at how the satirist sets up the target and delivers his judgment upon it in such a way as to sustain our interest. In other words, the essence of good satire is not the complexity in the moral message coming across, but in the skilful style with which the writer seeks to demolish his target.
When we discussed Aristophanes, I suggested there that one main ingredient in satire is distortion or exaggeration—an invitation to see something very familiar, perhaps even something we ourselves do—in such a way that it becomes simultaneously ridiculous (or even disgusting) and yet funny, comical, something no reasonable person would engage in.
Now, the first important question to ask of any satirist is how he or she achieves the necessary comic distortion which transforms the familiar into the ridiculous. And Swift’s main technique for achieving this—and a wonderful technique for satire—is the basic plot of science fiction: the voyage by an average civilized human being into unknown territory and his return back home. This apparently simple plot immediately opens up all sorts of satiric possibilities, because it enables the writer constantly to play off three different perspectives in order give the reader a comic sense of what is very familiar. It can do this in the following ways:
1. If the strange new country is recognizably similar to the reader’s own culture, then comic distortions in the new world enable the writer to satirize the familiar in a host of different ways, providing, in effect, a cartoon style view of the reader’s own world.
2. If the strange new country is some sort of utopia—a perfectly realized vision of the ideals often proclaimed but generally violated in the reader’s own world—then the satirist can manipulate the discrepancy between the ideal new world of the fiction and the corrupt world of the reader to illustrate repeatedly just how empty the pretensions to goodness really are in the reader’s world.
3. But the key to this technique is generally the use of the traveller, the figure who is, in effect, the reader’s contemporary and fellow countryman. How that figure reacts to the New World can be a constant source of amusement and pointed satiric comment, because, in effect, this figure represents the contact between the normal world of the reader and the strange New World of either caricatured ridiculousness or utopian perfection.
We can see Swift moving back and forth between the first two techniques, and this can create some confusion. For example, in much of Book I, Lilliput is clearly a comic distortion of life in Europe. The sections on the public rewards of leaping and creeping or the endless disputes about whether one should eat one’s eggs by breaking them at the bigger or the smaller end or the absurdity of the royal proclamations are obvious and funny distortions of the court life, the pompous pretentiousness of officials, and the religious disputes familiar to Swift’s readers.
At the same time, however, there are passages where he holds up the laws of Lilliput as some form of utopian ideal, in order to demonstrate just how much better they understand true reasonableness than do the Europeans. In Book II he does the same: for most of the time the people of Brobdingnag are again caricatured distorted Europeans, but clearly the King of Brobdingnag is an ideal figure.
This shift in perspective on the New World is at times confusing. Swift is, in effect, manipulating the fictional world to suit his immediate satirical purposes. It’s easy enough to see what he’s doing, but it does, in some sense, violate our built-up expectations. Just how are we supposed to take Lilliput and Brobdingnag—as a distorted Europe or as a utopia or what? This lack of a consistent independent reality to the fictional world which he has created is one of the main reasons why Gulliver’s Travels is not considered one of the first novels (since one of the requirements of a novel, it is maintained, is a consistent attitude towards the fictional reality one has created: one cannot simply manipulate it at will to prove a didactic point).
In Book IV, Swift deals more consistently with this ambiguity in the New World by dividing it into two groups: the satirized Europeans, the Yahoos, and the ideally reasonable creatures, the horses. So here there is less of a sense of shifting purpose at work. That may help to account, in part, for the great power of the Fourth Voyage.
Now, the genius of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s Travels realizes itself in a second feature—the way he organizes the New World in order to make it a constantly fertile source of satiric humour. His main insight, in the first two books, has the simplicity of genius. He simply changes the perspective on human conduct: in Book I Gulliver is a normal human being visiting a recognizably European society, but he is twelve times bigger than anyone else. In the second the technique is the same, but now he is twelve times smaller.
With this altered perspective, Swift can now manipulate Gulliver’s reactions to the changing circumstances in order to underscore his satiric points in a very humorous way. For instance, it’s clear that the main satiric target in Book I is the pride Europeans take in public ceremonies, titles, court preferment, and all sorts of celebrations of their power and magnificence. So there’s an obvious silliness to the obsession with these matters when the figures are only six inches high.
But what makes this preoccupation with ceremony all the sillier is Gulliver’s reaction to it. He, as a good European, takes it quite seriously. He’s truly impressed with the king’s magnificence, with his proclamation that he’s the most powerful monarch in the world, and he takes great delight in being given the title of a Nardac. The satiric point here, of course, is not on the Lilliputians (although they are obviously caricatured Europeans) but on Gulliver’s enthusiastic participation in their silliness. For example, when he’s accused of having an affair with the cabinet minister’s wife, he does not scoff at the biological ridiculousness of that accusation; he defends himself with his new title: I couldn’t have done that; after all, I’m a Nardac. Similarly in Book II, in which the main target shifts to the Europeans’ preoccupation with physical beauty, the chief sources of satiric humour are not only the gross exaggerations of the human body seen magnified twelve times but also Gulliver’s reactions to it.
The Character of Gulliver
And this brings me to a key point in following Gulliver’s Travels, namely the importance of Gulliver himself. He is our contact throughout the four voyages, and at the end he is completely different from the person he was at the start. So it’s particularly important that we get a handle on who he is, what happens to him, why it happens, and how we are supposed to understand that. The single most important thing Swift has to say in Gulliver’s Travels is communicated to us in the changes which take place in the narrator.
Now, to get the satiric point of the changes in Gulliver across, Swift has to be careful not to give the reader an easy escape, for Swift understood very well that readers who see themselves satirized will always look for some way of neutralizing or deflecting the satire away from them. Satire, Swift observed, is a mirror in which people see everyone else’s face but their own. So it’s important for us to take careful stock of Gulliver, to assess just how reliable a person he is, so that we can fully understand the nature of his transformation.
At the start of the first voyage, Swift takes a few pages to establish for us that Gulliver is, in some ways, a very typical European. He is middle aged, well educated, sensible (in the best sense of the term), with no extravagantly romantic notions. He is a careful observer, scrupulous about looking after his family, and fully conversant with the importance of conducting his affairs prudently. There is nothing extraordinary about him. He’s been around, and he’s not a person to be easily rattled.
This is important to grasp, because in effect Swift is removing from us any possibility of ascribing the transformation which takes place in Gulliver to any quirks of his character. He is not an unbalanced, erratic, private, or imaginative person. On the contrary, he is about as typically sensible and reasonable a narrator as one could wish. And he fully supports the culture which has produced him, and he has developed no critical understanding of it.
Thus, in the first two books, we can see why he would naturally fall in with the Europeanness of the new world. He has never reflected at all on the rightness or wrongness of the given order of things, so he naturally supports the authority of the king, the ceremonies of the court, and the “fairness” of the justice system.
Only when he himself is sentenced to be blinded do we begin to sense that Gulliver is learning something. Circumstances are forcing him to think about, not just his own safety, but something much bigger: the justice of the proceedings. He is, in other words, beginning to develop a critical awareness of the limitations of the values of Lilliput and, beyond that, of the way in which the Europeans reflect those same values.
These initial critical insights are temporary only, and when he returns, he is quickly reconciled to European life. But in the second voyage the critical awareness returns, especially in relation to the physical grossness of the giant Brobdingnagians. The altered perspective leads him to reflect upon the way in which Europeans have become obsessed with physical beauty, especially with the feminine body, when, from a different perspective, it is comically gross and even nauseating.
However, this growing sense of a critical awareness in Book II does not lead Gulliver seriously to question his European values, and so he is prepared to defend the sorry history of Europe in the face of the King of Brobdingnag’s scorn.
For that powerful indictment of European life—which is so close in tone to the conclusion of Book IV—Gulliver is not yet ready. His typical European consciousness is still too full of complacent self-congratulation to accept this form of criticism, so he dismisses it with a snide remark about the limited understanding of the King of Brobdingnag (reinforced by the king’s rejection of the use of gunpowder).
Yet, it’s clear that something is happening to Gulliver, because upon his return home after the second voyage, it takes him some time to readjust to European life. This is quite comical, but the point is important: in his strange new land, his perceptions are changing. At this point it is simply a matter of the physical proportions of the people, but Swift is setting up the reader for the conclusions of the book, when the transformation of Gulliver is going to involve a total alternation of his moral perspectives, so that he is no longer able to return to the calm, unreflective, typical European that he was when he started.
The Fourth Voyage
I’m moving directly to the fourth voyage, because in a sense it is the logical continuation of the Second Voyage (the Third Voyage was written later), and most of the serious arguments about Swift’s satire focus on this part of the book.
In the fourth voyage, Gulliver’s transformation becomes complete, and when he returns he can no longer participate in European society—not even with his friends and family—as he could before. It’s as if Swift is saying that Gulliver has discovered something that makes social life in the normal sense insupportable, so that he would sooner construct his own life among his domestic horses than return to a normal European family life.
And the key interpretative questions thus arises: How are we to deal with this conclusion to the story? On the face of it, the conclusion seems an unacceptably harsh condemnation of European humanity. Their Yahoo-like nature makes dealing with them impossible, and thus the reasonable thing to do is to turn away from them. Is this not ultimately a violently misanthropic gesture, and therefore something we must turn away from?
Dealing with this question is one of the great battle grounds in the interpretation of English literature (like dealing with Hamlet or Paradise Lost). In order to clarify the issues, I’d like to review some of the positions and then suggest some of the things we need to consider in charting a way through the difficulties. I should add that I do have my own view of what is the most comprehensible interpretation (and I will add that), but I don’t want anyone to think that this is not fiercely contested interpretative territory.
The first reaction to the end of the Fourth Voyage is to acknowledge that Swift indeed wants us to understand and sympathize with Gulliver’s actions. The main satiric point of Gulliver’s final actions is to ridicule the Europeans’ pretensions to rationality; Gulliver’s response is an exaggerated but still understandable way of underlining the point that, if we could come to understand true rationality, as Gulliver has done through his experience with the horses, and if we could have our eyes opened as to what we are really like underneath all our fine illusions about ourselves, as Gulliver’s eyes have been opened by his experience of the Yahoos, then we, too, would turn away, and, rather like the person who has finally made it out of Plato’s cave, want to spend our time in contemplation of the beauty and truth of reason and not be distracted by the foolish pride of those gazing at the cave wall (the analogy with the Allegory of the Cave is very important here).
This interpretation was common among Swift’s contemporaries and in the nineteenth century. However, many who saw this in the satire simply dismissed it as a harsh but finally erroneous vision; they believed that the promises of the new science were, in fact, being realized, that progress was possible, and that Swift was simply wrong, out of touch with the perfectibility of human nature and human social institutions, that he was simply a grumpy, pessimistic, conservative Christian. Thus, the book was simply a conservative complaining about an emerging new truth.
In addition, of course, the book had too many naughty words and rude scenes, and therefore should not be read by people concerned for politeness in literature. So those who wanted to believe in a less fiercely limited view of human nature had an easy excuse to denigrate Swift as a writer worth reading. Progress is on schedule, for all Swift’s negative vision.
Now, this reaction is interesting because it does at least acknowledge that Swift has a serious purpose and that in the transformation of Gulliver he makes that purpose explicit. Gulliver is, indeed, Swift’s spokesman until the very end. The dismissal of the book, therefore, does not involve a denial of the full satiric intention. It does acknowledge the point of what Swift is doing. However, it claims that that is the wrong point. Swift’s satire is clear, but his understanding of human nature and morality is wrong.
A second reaction is to equate Swift with Gulliver—to claim, as with the first reaction, that Swift intends us to take Gulliver’s transformation seriously. Swift, however, is mad, mentally unbalanced, notoriously neurotic, and therefore we do not need to attend seriously to the ending of the book, unless we happen to be interested in clinical manifestations in literature of various mental aberrations.
Enter, from stage left, the psychoanalytic view of Swift, which quite neutralizes the satire by an appeal to various disorders. Here’s a sample:
Ferenczi (1926): “From the psychoanalytic standpoint one would describe [Swift’s] neurotic behaviour as an inhibition of normal potency, with a lack of courage in relation to women of good character and perhaps with a lasting aggressive tendency towards women of a lower type. This insight into Swift’s life surely justifies us who come after him in treating the phantasies in Gulliver’s Travels exactly as we do the free associations of neurotic patients in analysis, especially when interpreting their dreams.”
Karpman (1942): “It is submitted on the basis of such a study of Gulliver’s Travels that Swift was a neurotic who exhibited psychosexual infantilism, with a particular showing of coprophilia, associated with misogeny, misanthropy, mysophilia, and mysophobia.”
Greenacre (1955): “One gets the impression that the anal fixation was intense and binding, and the genital demands so impaired or limited at best that there was total retreat from genital sexuality in his early adult life, probably beginning with the unhappy relationship with Jane Waring, the first of the goddesses. . . . The common symbolism of the man in the boat as the clitoris suggests the identification with the female phallus though to be characteristic of the male transvestite. . . Swift showed marked anal characteristics [his extreme immaculateness, secretiveness, intense ambition, pleasure in less obvious dirt (e.g., satire), stubborn vengefulness in righteous causes] which indicate clearly that early control of the excretory function was achieved under great stress and perhaps too early.”
And so on and so on. One is tempted to have some fun with this line of criticism (e.g., What about Two Years Before the Mast, Moby Dick, Three Men in a Boat, Captain Hornblower?) But what such an approach does to Gulliver’s Travels is important. It replaces the moral seriousness of the satiric message with a clinical study of the deranged author. Thus, we do not have to attend seriously to any moral position at stake here.
A third reaction, common in the twentieth century, quite rehabilitates Swift from this sort of criticism by claiming that, at the end of the Fourth Voyage, we are not meant to see Gulliver’s actions as the natural rational outcome of what he has been through, because Gulliver himself has here become the target of the satire. Gulliver, in other words, no longer speaks for the author. What he does is, in effect, an overreaction, and Swift wants us to understand that as such. His treatment of the Portuguese captain and his family are clear indications that Gulliver has gone overboard in his admiration for the horses and his dislike of the Yahoos, and that we are to see in his conduct a warning of sorts.
This approach to the Fourth Voyage, one should note, helps to maintain the claim that Swift was an intelligent writer, fully in command of his medium, and that we do not have to deal with the disturbing effects of the satire by writing them off as the ravings of an anally maladjusted neurotic, obsessed with the cramping in his sphincter. We simply have to understand that Swift’s satiric intentions at the end of the Fourth Voyage are not as harsh as they appear to be. What this approach does to the power of Swift’s satire, however, is a question that needs to be carefully considered. How consistent is this view of the ending with the general tenor of the rest of the satire in Book IV and in the other Books?
Now debating these options might be an interesting seminar exercise. But however they are resolved, I would like to offer some things that one should bear in mind.
First, the transformation of Gulliver starts, as I observed, in Book I and becomes considerably stronger in Book II. That transformation involves a growing critical awareness of the extent to which pride rules human actions. At the start Gulliver gives no sign of ever having thought about such matters. He’s a patriotic, unreflective European professional. The insights come intermittently and do not last. But to some extent, the transformation of Gulliver at the end of the fourth voyage can be seen as a logical outcome of the trend that has started before. So, however we evaluate the end of the fourth voyage, we need to measure that interpretation against the rest of the book.
This point might be connected with the growing seriousness of the initial situation that gets Gulliver into the New World: in Book I it’s a shipwreck; in Book II, he’s abandoned; in Book III, it’s pirates; and in Book IV, it’s a mutiny (and we all remember from reading Dante that a mutiny, a revolt against established authority, is the greatest crime).
Second, Gulliver’s transformation in Book IV has two motives: his sudden awareness of the Yahoo-like nature of European human beings, including himself, and, equally important, his sudden discovery about what true reasonableness really means (in the lives of the horses). So in estimating how one should assess his final state, one needs to bear in mind that the issue is not just a turning away from European family and social life; it is also a turning towards what he is now fully in love with, a contemplation of the truth. .
Third, one’s judgment on what Gulliver has gone through does not depend upon our having to decide whether it would be rational or not for us to follow suit, abandon our families, and set up home in the nearest stable. That is not what Swift is saying. He’s offering us a vision—a comic and satiric but nonetheless morally serious vision—of what might happen to a typical European (like us) if we had, like Gulliver, come to a full understanding through experience both of ourselves and of true reasonableness (which we like to think we possess).
The basic idea here is derived, quite clearly, from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Gulliver has made it out of the cave, and having seen the sun, he’s not about to pretend that looking at shadows on the wall is the right way to live. What is happening to him is, in fact, just what Plato says will happen to the person who returns: he is treated as insane because normal people (that’s us) simply cannot grasp what he now understands.
(It’s interesting, incidentally, to note just how popular this sort of ending is in satiric stories with a similar intent: the endings of, for example, Heart of Darkness and Catch 22, are remarkably similar. The central character, once a recognizably typical representative of his culture, has gone through a transformation which leads him to reject that culture in a way that his contemporaries do not understand: Marlow takes to the sea for the rest of his life; Yossarian sets out in a rubber raft for Scandinavia).
Fourth, one needs also to recognize that it’s no serious criticism of Swift’s moral position to observe that the life of the horses is not all that attractive, that to us it seems boring. That’s part of Swift’s point. We, as readers, are Yahoos, irrational creatures and, beyond that, incapable for the most part of even understanding and responding to the attractions of such reasonable behaviour. For Swift’s major point here is not that we should try to emulate the horses, for that’s impossible, but rather that we should stop pretending that we are equivalent to them. We are not by nature reasonable creatures, and it is the height of folly and pride to assert that we are. We have to start our moral awareness with the acceptance of that truth, and our dissatisfaction with the life of the horses is not an indication that they are wrong so much as that we are unreasonable. We describe ourselves in terms appropriate to the horses, but we characteristically behave more like Yahoos. That is the source of the pride which Swift wishes to attack.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that our last contact with Gulliver indicates quite clearly that what bothers him about human beings is not what they are but what they pretend to be. He would be much happier about living among human beings again, and is starting to do so, but everything would be much easier for him if their characteristic pride did not always get in the way:
My reconcilement to the Yahoo kind in general might not be so difficult, if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked by the sight of a lawyer, a pickpocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whoremonger, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like: this is all according to the due course of things. But when I behold a lump of deformity, and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience; neither shall I be ever able to comprehend how such an animal and such a vice could tally together. The wise and virtuous Houyhnhnms, who abound in all excellencies that can adorn a rational creature, have no name for this vice in their language, which hath no terms to express anything that is evil, except those whereby they describe the detestable qualities of their Yahoos, among which they were not able to distinguish this of pride, for want of thoroughly understanding human nature, as it showeth itself in other countries, where that animal presides. But I, who had more experience, could plainly observe some rudiments of it in the Yahoos.
The point I want to stress here is that, however one navigates one’s way through the interpretative waters of the ending of Gulliver’s Travels, it is important to reconcile your view of Gulliver’s behaviour with what he actually says and with the satiric momentum of the last book, as it arises out of the earlier voyages.
My own view (a common but contested view) is that Swift does want us to take Gulliver seriously right up to the end, that we are to understand his reaction as the natural consequence of a normal man who has made it out of the cave, and who now is not willing to go back to what he once was. The fact that we find this odd is a reminder to us of just how much we are the product of years of watching shadows on the cave wall. Yes, the Portuguese captain is a good person, and, yes, Gulliver’s wife and family are neglected, but when you’ve come to see, as Gulliver has, just what true reasonableness involves, then a normal life and normal good people are not enough. The point, to repeat myself, is not that we should try to emulate Gulliver, but that we should try to understand him—and if we do that, we may come to recognize the illusory pride which makes us claim to be rational creatures.
Of course, I have to admit that the extreme anger Gulliver displays at the end (like his extreme nausea at the human body in Book II) does invite someone to wonder about the extent to which the satiric purpose might be being subverted by an excessively strong imaginative distaste for certain elements of human life. The borderline between very strong satire and a questionable wallowing about in ugliness or pornography for its own sake is not always clearly discernible and different readers have different reactions. To that extent, I would admit that there is ground in Swift’s style for certain questions to arise. However, I do not believe myself that such questions cannot be answered within the framework of the interpretation I have just outlined.
A Final Comment
For me Swift’s language, though strong, is still in control. The vision is harsh, the anger extreme, but that’s a sign of the intense moral indignation Swift feels at the transformation of life around him in ways that are leading, he thinks, to moral disaster. The central Christian and Socratic emphasis on virtue is losing ground to something he sees as a facile illusion—that reason, wealth, money, power, and faith in progress could somehow carry the load which had been traditionally placed upon our moral characters.
In the new world, faith, hope, and charity, Swift sees, are going to be irrelevant, because the rational organization of human experience and the application of the new reasoning to all aspects of human life are going to tempt human beings with a rich lure: the promise of happiness. Under the banner of the new rationality, the traditional notions of virtue will become irrelevant, as human beings substitute for excellence of character—the development of the individual human life according to some telos, some spiritual goal—the idea that properly organized practical rules, structures of authority, rational enquiry into efficient causes, profitable commercial ventures, and laws will provide the sure guide, because, after all, human beings are rational creatures.
Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous and most eloquent protest against this modern project. The severity of his indignation and anger is, I think, a symptom of the extent to which he realized the battle was already lost. To us, however, over two hundred years later, Swift’s point is perhaps more vividly relevant than to many of his contemporaries. After all, we have witnessed the triumphant unrolling of the scientific project, the extension of Descartes’ rationality into all aspects of our lives.
And yet we might want to ask ourselves whether the cheque which Descartes wrote out for us is negotiable, whether his promise has, in fact, made us morally better creatures, more able to live the good life, more charitable to our neighbours, with a greater faith in the excellences life does make possible, better able to work out our differences justly, and more able to achieve true happiness. Or, on the contrary, has giving the enormous power of the new science to the Yahoos not created some of the those very dangers which Swift is so concerned to warn us about will happen? The yahoos now posses the secrets of atomic energy and genetic engineering; their commercial zest is punching holes in the ozone and deforesting the planet. Meanwhile, in Moscow and Washington, DC, the life expectancy of adult males is plummeting. Has all this increase in knowledge and power made us any more just towards each other? Has it clarified the good life for me and a means of settling justly our disputes? The jury is, one might argue, still out.