Fundamental Questions about the Nature of Politics
Among other things, Gulliver’s Travels considers fundamental questions about the nature of politics, like the ideal reconciliation of duty and interest among the Houyhnhnms and the less perfect, but more humanly feasible, reconciliation in Brobdingnag.To these political orders are opposed such societies as that of the Lilliputians, which is elaborately administered disorder, the tyrannies of Laputa and Maldonada, and the savage democracy of the Yahoos. Gulliver’s Travels is a tribute to the mixed States in which order is reconciled with freedom and yet made stable. To achieve such an order, one must come to terms with the nature of power, and the most essential feature of power is its tendency to become absolute.
Lilliput, Governed by the Spirit of Opposition
The political order deserves consideration. In Lilliput, Gulliver becomes the absolute weapon of an Emperor whose only wish is to conquer the world (even though his world consists of two small islands). The spirit of opposition governs the world of Lilliput. There is a violent faction at home, and the danger of an invasion by a most potent enemy from abroad. The occasions for dispute are so trivial as to be meaningless. The power-drive creates its own pretexts. Within the State, the factions are rivals for influence and favour. Ministers are chosen by their skill in walking on a tight rope or jumping over sticks, and by their subservience. The language of the court is a constant exercise in creating confusion. When the King’s clemency is declared, his subjects run for cover. When Gulliver hastily puts out the fire in the Empress’s palace by the quickest means available, the court accusation is a strange mixture of insinuation, self-importance, and legal jargon:
“Whereas…….it is enacted, That whoever shall make water within the precincts of the royal palace shall be liable to the pains and penalties of high treason: notwithstanding, the said Quinbus Flestrin (i.e., Gulliver), in open breach of the said law, under colour of extinguishing the fire kindled in the apartment of his Majesty’s most dear Imperial Consort, did maliciously, traitorously, and devilishly, by discharge of his urine, put out the said fire kindled in the said apartment, lying and being within the precincts of the said royal palace, against the statute in that case provided……..”
(part I, Chapter 7, Page 104-105)
Or, again, Gulliver is accused of preparing to make a voyage to Blefuscu “for which he has received only a verbal licence from his Imperial Majesty”.
Gulliver’s Readiness to Adapt Himself to Lilliputian Politics
What is even more effective than the crazy logic of Lilliputian politics is Gulliver’s readiness to adapt himself to it. A bluff, well-meaning Englishman twelve times their size and able to destroy them with ease, he feels dazzled by the honours paid to him and the high status he has won at the court. Gulliver is restrained partly by oath, partly by his sense of gratitude, but partly also by a naive readiness to assume that power brings rights. This becomes clear when, at the court of Brobdingnag, he reveals his belated schooling in Machiavellian state-craft and offers to the horrified king the gift of gunpowder. Gulliver’s disappointment at the rejection of this proposal is strong, and this is how he comments on the rejection:
“A strange effect of narrow principles and short views! that a Prince …….should from a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception, let slip an opportunity put into his hands, that would have made him absolute master of the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of his people.”
(Part II, Chapter 7, Page 175)
The Political Structure in Brobdingnag
In contrast to Lilliput, Brobdingnagians have laws of no more than twenty-two words, and it is a capital crime to write a comment upon any law. Instead of a professional army they have a citizen militia where “every farmer is under the command of his own landlord and every citizen under that of the principal men in his own city, chosen after the manner of
by ballot”. The militia fixes power in the whole body of the people rather than permitting the army to become an uncontrollable group such as we know in Latin-American politics today, and controls the disease that has attacked Brobdingnag, as it has every other nation: “the nobility often contending for power, the people for liberty, and the King for absolute dominion”. Venice
Politics in the Houyhnhnm-land
In the land of the Houyhnhnms, we find an anarchy of reasonable creatures. The rational horses need no government. They immediately intuit their duties and perform them. Only in a rare instance where a novel situation is created (as by Gulliver’s presence), must they deliberate. They control any dissidence by rational persuasion and exhortation because they need no compulsion. There is no need to exert continuous pressure for conformity among the Houyhnhnms. They just agree in all matters except occasionally, and even in the situation which Swift presents, the Houyhnhnm master hesitates to assent only because of Gulliver’s furious resistance to being sent away. So far as religion is concerned, the reason of the Houyhnhnms inevitably produces agreement, and their piety is exemplary within the limits of their purely natural reason. We cannot blame them for finding fulfilment in what, for normal human beings, would be defects of liberty or failures of Christian faith.
Gulliver’s Inability to Make Necessary Distinctions
Clearly Swift is demanding of his readers what he never grants to Gulliver, that is, the power to make necessary distinctions. We must separate the intuitive rightness of the Houyhnhnms’ choice from the tyranny of conformity, and we must separate natural piety from rationalistic or anticlerical deism. Gulliver fails to make the most important distinction of all––between animal rationale and animal ration is capax (i.e., between the belief that man is a rational animal, and the belief that man is an animal capable of becoming rational). Only after long exposure to human folly and perversity does he give up the dream of man as a rational animal, but instead of coming to terms with what in fact he is, Gulliver immediately-turns to truly rational animals, the Houyhnhnms, and hopes to become one of them. His pathetic whinnying and canter betray the foolish behaviour of a literal-minded convert.
Gulliver’s Account of English Institutions
The same kind of problem occurs in the realm of politics, Gulliver’s account of English institutions to the King of Brobdingnag betrays the corruptibility which those institutions give rise to. English laws are extremely complex, and they are “best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them”. There is no reconciliation between duty and interest, but instead a systematic perversion of duty by interest. In his account of
Europe to his Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver makes explicit all that he has earlier unconsciously revealed. Lawyers are now
“equally disposed to pervert the general reason of mankind in every other subject of discourse, as in that of their own profession.”
(Part IV, Chapter 5, Page 297)
This single example is typical of all the rest. Gulliver has come to recognize the nature of corruption, but his recognition is so belated and so passionate that he despairs of all politics. When he writes an account of his travels, he expects the world to reform at once. But, in this case at least, we have a third possibility firmly sketched in: the reformed mixed State of the Brobdingnagians, which mediates between duty and interest, conformity and freedom, and accepts the need for a power-structure but diffuses its control.