A Solid Core of Intellectual Meaning in This Book
Literature in the eighteenth century was, of course, regarded as a source of pleasure, but it also, and very definitely, had the function of instructing. Literature was in those days expected to convey ideas and to offer both moral and intellectual commentary. Gulliver’s Travels, certainly a work of art, contains in a precise sense the kind of commentary which people in the eighteenth century expected. The book has a solid core of intellectual meaning, and it contains certain specific theories and principles about man and society.
The Law of Degeneration Operative in Human Society
For one thing, Gulliver’s Travels tells us that society lives in constant danger of corruption. The time-prospects which are given in the course of the book are all historical, extending from the present backwards into the past and revealing the law of degeneration to which men and human circumstances are for ever subject. The original institutions of Lilliput were admirable but afterwards the people fell into “the most scandalous corruptions” because of the “degenerate nature of man”. Likewise the King of Brobdingnag, on being informed by Gulliver of European manners and customs, perceives in them “some lines of an institution which in its original might have been tolerable”. Again, the vision of the dead in Chapters 7 and 8 in Part III affords several contrasts between the past and the present which illustrate the degenerative trend. These are the contrasts between the Roman senate and a modern parliament, and between English yeomen of the old stamp and their grandchildren. In Part IV, the Houyhnhnms have a traditional belief that the Yahoos are not native to their country but descendants of two brutes once seen together upon a mountain. Gulliver’s equine master advances the theory that those two progenitors, driven thither over the sea and coming to land, were forsaken by their companions, retired to the mountains, and “degenerating by degrees became in process of time, much more savage than those of their own species in the country from whence these two originals came”.
Pessimism, Not of Despair but of Moral Realism
This theory of history and of human behaviour can perhaps be called pessimistic, but the degree and quality of the pessimism involved have been badly misjudged. There was in Swift’s time no widely accepted view of progress, no vision of social perfection awaiting mankind in the future. The Christian view of fallen man still conditioned most minds, and found no essential contradiction in the theory of politics and history which Swift had taken over from his classical and modem sources. Morally, man was expected to face the obligation of asserting reason over brute instinct. Socially and politically, man was expected to learn from history the means of prolonging the life of a civilized state which, though limited by laws of nature, might be preserved into old age by prudence. The pessimism inherent in such doctrines was not that of despair, but of a moral realism urging resolution and a mild hope.
Swift as a Social Theorist
So far as social theory was concerned, Gulliver’s Travels might be said to rest on doctrines which still controlled the thought of most traditionalists, including a large part of the established clergy. Social stratification presented itself as inevitable and proper. The principle of degree, according to which everyone had his appointed place and was to acknowledge the obligations attaching to that place, corresponded to the links in the chain of being, the gradations in the created universe. It was an older concept of the organised community. It was not democratic but it could not be regarded as antidemocratic either. As a social theorist the worst that Swift can be called is “clerical”. The Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian societies both reveal established and recognized social scales. Among the Houyhnhnms there is an inferior class “bred up to be servants”. And in the utopia sketched in the first voyage the education a person receives is suitable to his position in society: there are nurseries for children “of noble and eminent birth, nurseries for children of ordinary gentlemen, merchants, traders, and handicrafts”; boys designed for trades leave school at the age of seven to be apprenticed; the children of cottagers and labourers are kept at home, their business being only to till and cultivate the earth and their education consequently “of little consequence to the public”. But there is equality for women. In the female nurseries Gulliver is unable to perceive any substantial difference in the education given to young girls, and we may remember that the Houyhnhnms find the idea of one kind of education for men and another for women a monstrous one.
Swift’s Championship of Freedom
Swift firmly believed that there was conflict in human society, and that this conflict was in the nature of things and according to certain discoverable laws. It was, however, a political rather than an economic-social set of equations which he had worked out in order to explain history and give us a certain measure of control over events. His theory of the three estates and of the balance of power, “to be carefully held by every State within itself’, served both as analysis of the realities disclosed in history and as his central doctrine of rational or constitutional freedom, for as he had written years before in one of his pamphlets: “In all tree States the evil to be avoided is tyranny or unlimited power solely in the hands of the one, or the few, or the many.” His championship of the cause of Irish independence had been a battle on behalf of such rational liberty. The emphasis placed by both the Lilliputians and the King of Brobdingnag on common sense as against expertise in government is an essential part of this theory of freedom, and the suspicion of standing armies in time of peace expressed by the King follows directly from it. The political intrigues into which the Lilliputians have fallen in their degenerate condition and, in contrast, the avoidance of all such absurdities in partyless Brobdingnag point, perhaps, to that ideal of statesmanship above party which he had often expressed in the days of the Oxford Ministry. More direct and candid as an expression of his passionate belief in liberty is the passage in Part III in which Caesar and Brutus are summoned from the dead:
“I was struck with a profound veneration at the sight of Brutus; and could easily discover the most consummate virtue, the greatest intrepidity, and firmness of mind, the truest love of his country, and general benevolence for mankind in every lineament of his countenance. I observed with much pleasure that these two persons were in good intelligence with each other; and Caesar freely confessed to me that the greatest actions of his own life were not equal by many degrees to the glory of taking it away.”
And as other ghosts are summoned, Gulliver feasts his eyes “with beholding the destroyers of tyrants and usurpers and the restorers of liberty to oppressed and injured nations”.
No Naturalistic Theory Advanced by Swift
The absence in Gulliver’s Travels of certain themes long associated with imaginary voyages is in itself almost a positive. Throughout the seventeenth century the medium of the imaginary voyage had been employed by French writers to convey their naturalistic theories and as a means of subjecting established civilization and the culture of
Europe to rationalistic criticism. The traveller habitually discovered some happy society where men lived the simple, uncorrupted life, instructed entirely by natural instinct and the innate light of reason; and from the vantage point of such a primitivistic utopia European man was seen, in all his repulsiveness, as the victim of civilization and traditionalism. Gulliver’s experiences are not of this kind, because the people among whom he finds himself in the course of his voyages are in no sense children of Nature. All these people are living in highly organized societies and are governed by institutions which Gulliver takes so much pains to describe. If in the end he develops an overwhelming aversion to everything at home, it is not because Europe suffers the evil of civilization but because it is losing its civilization and falling into a state of degenerate corruption. There is perhaps no other imaginary voyage as free as is Gulliver’s of anything resembling anti-traditionalism. Gulliver’s voyages contain no criticism of religion, no anti-clericalism, and very little of even the minor details of cultural primitivism.
Some General Themes of Moral Satire in the BookIn addition to the issues which have been mentioned and which form the frame-work of ideas on which Gulliver’s Travels rests, we have of course the more general themes of moral satire: man’s pettiness and greed, his pride, the infinite perversion of reason, the absurdities and evils of the various professions. There is an amusing summary of these themes in the Letter from Captain Gulliver to his Cousin Richard Sympson. In this letter Gulliver deplores the fact that, although the account of his travels was published six months ago, no change at all has taken place in the behaviour, conduct, and mentality of various kinds of persons in society. Gulliver points out that judges, pleaders, noblemen, physicians, the female Yahoos, royal courts and assemblies of ministers, wit and merit and learning, and all other categories of people have continued to suffer from all those vices from which they suffered prior to the publication of the account of his travels.