Gulliver’s Travels is a work that defends beauty, passion, and the sacred; it is an indictment against the prevailing spirit of Enlightenment philosophy and utopianism, an esoteric defense of Christianity against its Enlightenment critics, and a prophetic vision into the future degeneration of humanity…
On October 28, 1726, the book known today as Gulliver’s Travels was published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. A mock work of travel literature, Jonathan Swift’s famous novel is a far deeper work than one of just Juvenalian and Horatian satire. It is an indictment against the prevailing spirit of Enlightenment philosophy and utopianism, an esoteric defense of Christianity against its Enlightenment critics, and a prophetic vision into the future degeneration of humanity in following the dictates of the natural philosophers of modernity.
Swiftian irony is one of the great joys of the work. And irony runs replete through Lemuel Gulliver’s fall and degeneration—not to mention the shifting narrative voice of Swift and Gulliver leaving the gentle reader to dissect if they are reading Gulliver’s voice or Swift’s authorial wit. But where traditional literary narrative has the travelling protagonist return home to comfort and love, Swift’s Gulliver returns home deranged and a hater of humanity. This is a far cry from being one of the greatest “lovers of mankind” when he initially arrived in Houyhnhnmland.
Gulliver’s journey to hell and bringing hell back with him can be broken down into two parts. There is the voyage to Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Then there is the voyage to Laputa and Houyhnhnmland. While all four journeys are inexorably interlinked in a journey of decline, Lilliput is more the dialectical contrast to Brobdingnag as Laputa is to Houyhnhnmland. When Gulliver arrives shipwrecked on Lilliput he is tied down by the six-inch men and women of the island who view him as a threat. The other, the stranger, the foreigner, is always met with suspicion. While the Lilliputians have a certain vigor and ingenuity to them, they are ultimately contemptible creatures. Their smallness is meant to represent their lacking in virtue and finer qualities. After all, despite what Gulliver had done for them they come to condemn him as a traitor out of vindictive jealousy so as to punish him as a result by cutting out his eyes.
For putting out the fire at the Royal Palace in the most humorous of ways, and therefore saving the emperor’s palace, he is condemned by an ancient law that prohibits the discharge of any liquid in the palace. For saving Lilliput from invasion and advocating peace between Blefuscu and Lilliput where the people flourish in the peace, the Lilliputians condemn Gulliver as a traitor—especially since Gulliver didn’t let the Lilliputians indulge in their fantasy of imperial conquest and domination at Blefuscu’s expense. The condemnation for treachery is magnified in Gulliver’s flight to Blefuscu simply on account of his want to have his liberty restored to him. The Lilliputians, in Gulliver’s flight from them, are cast as ungrateful people. Gulliver’s bigness really comes out here; he was the bigger man physically and spiritually.
Where the tininess of the Lilliputians shows their shortcomings, the largesse of Brobdingnagians magnifies their imperfections. No Brobdingnagian is without flaws, all perfectly on display for Gulliver to see much like how no human is not without the stain of original sin. But Swift’s genius is in dialectical role reversal of Gulliver between Lilliput and Brobdingnag.
Gulliver is now the equivalent size of the Lilliputians from earlier and is placed in their shoes in his journey to Brobdingnag. But where the Lilliputians—for all their shortcomings—saw Gulliver with certain awe and majesty, Gulliver sees the Brobdingnagians as ugly, disproportionate, and marred. This is because the Brobdingnagians are the incarnate Europeans of Swift’s time. The Brobdingnagians are also experiencing a technological revolution. This is made clear by the fact that Gulliver is nearly killed by multiple machines, feels alienated and isolated at every turn in the Farmer’s home despite their generous care of him, and by the fact that the Brobdingnagians examine Gulliver under intense scientific scrutiny.
In fact, when the Brobdingnagian wisemen inspect Gulliver, they conclude—by the dictates of natural philosophy divorced from divinity—that Gulliver is a freak of nature. While Swift’s satire of Brobdingnagian society is the beginning of his longwinded criticism of materialist philosophy and what we now call scientism, there is also an ironic symbiotic understanding between Gulliver and the Brobdingnagians. Both see each other as freaks of nature. Gulliver, due to the largesse of the Brobdingnagians, is attune to their flaws, scars, and diseases. The Brobdingnagians, due to the intense examination of matter with only themselves to judge against, conclude Gulliver to be a freak accident despite his form and rationality matching him with them.
This is a defining moment in the work. Through Gulliver, Swift states that the Brobdingnagian assertion that he is a freak of nature is “exactly agreeable to the modern philosophy of Europe.” In other words, the emerging materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment will eventually do away with the incarnate humanism of Christian anthropology and conclude humans to be freaks of nature and no different from other animals. How prescient, all things considered.
The lack of beauty and proportionality in Brobdingnag is equally reflective of the emerging scientific outlook of the new science. In putting nature up on the rack of interrogation, as Francis Bacon advocated, the interrogation of nature reveals all her flaws. Beauty cannot survive the withering scrutiny of a purely mechanical and reductionist disposition. Hence where the Lilliputians looked up to Gulliver with some sense of awe and wonder, the Brobdingnagians look down at Gulliver as a freak and Gulliver the same to the Brobdingnagians. The directionality of vision is a subtle importance in shifting consciousness from seeing awe and wonder in nature to condemning nature as freakish and ugly. The Brobdingnagians may share a sense of classical natural right—duty and obligation to Gulliver symbolized by their care of him despite his being a freak of nature—but that is not the discovery of modernity but the inheritance of the classical tradition which is quickly being lost in the modern project. The downward plunge of history and the degeneration of man is now just beginning.
Despite returning home for a brief respite, Gulliver accepts pay and advancement to go on yet another journey—leaving behind his wife and children. The advancement of commerce, exploration, and industry is too alluring for Gulliver and life with his family is what must be sacrificed for the sake of “progress.” While the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians are dialectically paired with each other for reasons hitherto explained, there is a connection with the Brobdingnagians with the Laputans insofar that the Laputans are the apex of the scientistic and mechanical-mathematical outlook of man, which began with the Brobdingnagians. But the journeys to Laputa and Houyhnhnmland are better dialectical contrasts because of the hyper-rationalism exuded by both societies and the detriments that such a worldview has on humans.
There is even greater irony involved in Gulliver’s journey to Laputa. Though a city that is high in the air, as if in the heavens, its inhabitants are deformed and fallen in a far more grotesque way than even the Brobdingnagians. Gulliver’s journey may have taken him upward in a physical sense, but it has also taken him downward in a spiritual and interior sense. The distorted eyes of the Laputans represent the distortion of man’s vision clouded by the arrogance and pretense of scientific rationalism. They can no longer see the straight and true and will quickly get lost like the pilgrim Dante who wandered from the straight and true in the opening of the Divine Comedy.
Moreover, the distinctiveness of the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians—despite their flaws—is now reduced to homogenized sameness in Gulliver’s entry into Laputa. As Gulliver recounts, he had never “seen a race of mortals so singular in their shapes, habits, and countenances.” It is in Laputa and the Laputans that Swift begins his blistering satirical criticism of the Royal Society and their mathematical obsession—notwithstanding that Swift perfectly sees the exhaustive end of this outlook: Atheism. And the Royal Society today is a bastion of anti-Christian hatred and embodies the very arrogance and pretensions of the scientific Laputans.
In terms of knowledge the Laputans consider only mathematics and natural science discoveries as counting toward knowledge. The wealth of knowledge that comes with arts, culture, and tradition is meaningless to them—except for music but that’s only because of the mathematical symmetry that music can produce. Furthermore, through their mastery of nature the Laputans have turned nature into the plaything of man. Again, Swift is far ahead of his time in seeing where the utilitarian-mathematical mindset leads. For from discovery just for the sake of knowledge, the Laputans turn their knowledge of nature and its movements into tools for their own lusts; often terrorizing other people with their mastery and manipulation of nature.
Despite the scientific prowess of the Laputans they lack common sense and civility. The Flappers that attend them and do all the now mundane tasks of daily living represent common sense in a world that has drifted away from common sense. Swift fires all the cannons in ironically showing how a materialistically obsessed civilization loses common sense and cannot function without a subservient race of dispossessed toilers. Additionally, family life is entirely lacking in Laputa. The men are concerned only with their work. They leave their wives feeling alienated and estranged which causes them to engage in adultery but the men, unable to see clearly, either don’t know or don’t care about the cries and depression of their wives. Laputa, then, is a highly atomized society—which is to say no society at all.
The Laputans also live extremely hollow lives. They are empty people. The Laputans, then, can be seen as an early prefiguration of T.S. Eliot’s “empty men” or C.S. Lewis’ “men without chests.”
It is this hollowness and sterile rationalism that the Laputans exude which dialectically pairs them with the Houyhnhnm rather than the Brobdingnagians—though there remains that general linkage between all as Gulliver descends further down the mountain of insanity when he reaches Houyhnhnmland. The Houyhnhnm are a satirical parody of the hyper stoic rationalism of Baruch Spinoza and deductive-only reasoning which shuns ratiocinative reasoning (the Houyhnhmn cannot a priori conceive that Gulliver came from another land beside their own because they have no evidence of any other lands beside their isle which already exposes the limits of their “rationality” to the gentle reader as the reader knows Gulliver is from England). At the same time Swift’s portrayal of the Houyhnhnm as naturalistically rational animals in a seemingly harmonious relationship with the world they live in is a prophetic foreshadowing of the movement of naturalistic primitivism which culminated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage.
The Houyhnhnm are singularly rational animals divorced from all passion. They are the final descent into this brave new life of dead bodies which the modern project is leading man to. Hyper rationalist, body-only, eros denying, hunks of thinking meat and matter. Swift’s brilliance in this respect is captured by the fact that one of the most passionate animals filled with thymos, horses, are now depicted without passion. The Houyhnhnm have the form of horses but lack the spirit, the essence, of horses. There is another creature that is filled with passion: Humans. The loss of passion in the Houyhnhnm represent the loss of passion in humans in the neo-stoic push for hyper-rationality as the highest good in-of-itself (rather than love).
Swift’s Christianity cannot be divorced from Gulliver’s Travels though the work, at the surface, seemingly has little to do with religion. The fourth book, however, has almost everything to do with religion and theological anthropology between the lines. The modern project of anthropology is, as Swift knew, a wholesale rejection of the Christian understanding of man. It is a rejection of his fallenness, a rejection of his uniqueness, and a rejection of his lovingness simultaneously. The rejection of fallenness leading to wild ideas of perfectibility were soundly satirized at the end of the third book when Swift lampoons the supposedly rational want for immortality and through the Houyhnhnm who think reason alone is capable of human empowerment and salvation. The rejection of man’s uniqueness and particularity is shown in Gulliver’s time spent in Laputa where they are singular masses of bland sameness. While the Laputans lacked the ability to love but still seeking love, the Houyhnhnm are entirely divorced from passion seeing passion as something that is wholly incompatible with reason so love is entirely eviscerated from Houyhnhnm consciousness. Thus, the Houyhnhnm language has no word for compulsion since compulsion is unbefitting a rational animal.
Gulliver entered Houyhnhnmland a lover of his native country and a self-professed great “lover of mankind.” In his dealings with the Houyhnhnm he comes to hold his native country in nothing but contempt and, likewise, comes to view humanity with scorn. Ashamed that the Houyhnhnm consider him a Yahoo—the degenerate hominid species analogous to humans in Houyhnhnmland—Gulliver falls for prideful supremacism in thinking himself above the herd, “I expressed my uneasiness at his giving me so often the appellation of Yahoo, an odious animal, for which I had so utter an hatred and contempt. I begged he would forbear applying that word to me.”
The allusions to St. Augustine’s Confessions and City of God in the fourth book is even more apparent as Gulliver slips into the sin of pride like the Stoics and Porphyry whom Augustine critiqued in his works. Gulliver is like Porphyry, a man who claims to be dedicated to the pursuit of Truth as the Houyhnhnm are, but who rejects that which is self-evident because of his egoistic pride. So too has the same fate befallen Gulliver who becomes the primary target of Swift’s satire more-so than the Houyhnhnm.
While Gulliver may have been taken over by the false rationalism of the Houyhnhnm, the gentle reader should be able to see through the veil of the Houyhnhnm disposition. There are no marriages of love in Houyhnhnmland, only marriages of convenient breeding. Life is advanced through eugenics as the dictates of pure reason, so-called, demands. Future generations of Houyhnhnm are specially bred with the intermixing of the best male and female Houyhnhnm. Most egregiously, the Houyhnhnm are shown to be genocidal when they take up the question of exterminating the Yahoos from the earth.
Swift’s subtle deconstruction of the Houyhnhnm exposes the amorality, or immorality, of the hyper-rationalist and anti-humanist position that must come about from the disintegration of the true and only humanism contained in the Christian anthropological position. If man is nothing but a bodily, greedy, and destructive animal who has no harmony with nature (and no soul)—as represented by the Yahoos—what is to stop the self-proclaimed arbiters of reason and naturalistic nobility (represented by the Houyhnhnm) from culling undesirables for the sake of the earth?
As the Houyhnhnm contemplate killing all the Yahoos for the sake of the earth, Swift incorporates many direct allusions to the Fall of Man from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The educated and cultured gentle reader, who would have been familiar with these references, is now caught between Swiftian or Gulliverian voices. Who is really the fallen and degenerate race? The supposedly hyper-rational Houyhnhnm whom Gulliver has fallen hand over feet for, or the Yahoos whom the Houyhnhnm despise out of prejudice for being irrational creatures? The Houyhnhnm account of the expulsion of the first two Yahoos from the mountain—an allusion to the fall and expulsion of man in Paradise Lost—is not tied to the Yahoos but tied to the Houyhnhnm who are considering wiping the Yahoos off the face of the earth. Swift ties the “Fall of Man” not to the Yahoos but to the Houyhnhnm.
The reduction of man to just rational animal is the degeneration of man to insanity. When Gulliver finally leaves Houyhnhnmland, teary-eyed and overwrought with grief for having to depart company with such noble animals, Gulliver returns home disgusted at the sight of his wife and children who thought him dead and greet his arrival with tears of joy as passionate and loving animals. There is no special homecoming for Gulliver. Gulliver shuns his wife’s affection for him and cannot stand being around Yahoos—which he has now taken to calling all humans he encounters despite the gentle nobility, compassion, and kindness shown to him from Don Pedro to his joyful wife and children.
Gulliver’s sin of pride reaches the point of blasphemy where he makes a mockery of the Eucharist in his separation from his family at dinner, “To this hour they dare not presume to touch my bread, or drink out of the same cup; neither was I ever able to let one of them take me by the hand.” Not only is this a blasphemous mock of the Lord’s Supper, it also highlights the misanthropic and atomistic attitude of Gulliver. Gulliver shuns his family and human relations for two horses he buys and spends all his time with—preferring their company and imagining them as Houyhnhnm and neighing with them thinking he is communicating with them. Gulliver has literally become an animal upon his return to England. This is not an isolated reality contained to Gulliver. Swift is warning that England will become a den of blasphemy and animalization if she continues her degenerative direction epitomized by the direction her intellectuals and leaders in politics and the Royal Society are taking the country. (This is made even more incredible given Swift saw this emerging future in 1726.)
The degeneration of man is completed by the modern project which bore its weight down on Gulliver who succumbed to the unbearable weight he initially was able to fend off in his earlier travels. The animalization of man culminated in Gulliver’s transformation into an imitator of the Houyhnhnm—which is no imitation of nature at all because nature is hollow and vacuous as the Enlightenment physiologists, scientists, and philosophers asserted. Gulliver’s estranged relationship with his wife and children ends on the pessimistic note that love and joy are not possible in this brave new world where beauty, passion, and the sacred have been stripped away. Thus, Gulliver’s Travels is—in its Swiftian genius—a work that defends beauty, passion, and the sacred which becomes eminently clear by the book’s conclusion through its relentless exposure of the absurdity of the modern project which has destroyed beauty, passion, and the sacred.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Gulliver and the Lilliputians” (c. 1870) by Jehan-Georges Vibert (1840-1902), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.