Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Political Commentary from Gulliver's Travels

It is a second Tuesday, which means I’ve just finished reading and discussing a book with my local book club. This month it was Gulliver’s Travels. I hadn’t read it since college, and this time I was more attuned to politics than I was then. So I marked a few passages that give us Jonathan Swift’s English perspective from half a century before our Declaration of Independence. Some things are still true. 

Among the Lilliputians (the tiny people he encounters on his first voyage), he finds some good, as well as some small-mindedness. 

Compare to our image of “blind justice:

The image of Justice, in their courts of judicature, is formed with six eyes, two before, as many behind, and on each side one, to signify circumspection; with a bag of gold open in her right hand, and a sword sheathed in her left, to show she is more disposed to reward [for doing good] than to punish.   

About politics and politicians:

Providence never intended to make the management of public affairs a mystery to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there seldom are three born in an age: but they suppose truth, justice temperance, and the like, to be in every man’s power; the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and good intention, would qualify any man for the service of his country, except where a course of study is required. But they thought the want of moral virtues was so far from being supplied by superior endowments of the mind, that employments could never be put into such dangerous hands as those of persons so qualified; and, at least, that the mistakes committed by ignorance, in a virtuous disposition, would never be of such fatal consequence to the public weal, as the practices of a man, whose inclinations led him to be corrupt, and who had great abilities to manage, to multiply, and defend his corruptions. 

In like, manner, the disbelief of a Divine Providence renders a man incapable of holding any public station; for, since kings avow themselves to be the deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he acts.


Among the Brobdingnagians, where Gulliver is as small by comparison as the Lilliputians were to him, he expects brutishness because of their large size. Instead we see (whether Gulliver does or not) a gentle and reasonable race, by which Gulliver makes his people seem small-minded. When talking with the king, he discusses deficit spending:

But, if what I told him were true, he was still at a loss how a kingdom could run out of its estate, like a private person.” He asked me, “who were our creditors; and where we found money to pay them?” 

The king makes this comment about politicians:

You have clearly proved, that ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them.  

Gulliver has told the king about gunpowder, cannons, and other weapons of mass destruction of his day, offering to share this science with the king. The king is horror struck and refuses to learn any such secrets. Gulliver sees this as short-sightedness:

I take this defect among them to have risen from their ignorance, by not having hitherto reduced politics into a science, as the more acute wits of Europe have done. 

Here is a good summary of politicians, that perhaps isn’t dated yet at all:

And he gave it for his opinion, “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”  

After the monstrosity that is Obamacare, this next Brobdingnagian practice is one we might want to adopt:

No law in that country must exceed in words the number of letters in their alphabet, which consists only of two and twenty. But indeed few of them extend even to that length. They are expressed in the most plain and simple terms, wherein those people are not mercurial enough to discover above one interpretation: and to write a comment upon any law, is a capital crime.  

Even among these noble, sensible people, their history shows the usual struggles of humankind:

In the course of many ages, they have been troubled with the same disease to which the whole race of mankind is subject; the nobility often contending for power, the people for liberty, and the king for absolute dominion.


In recalling Gulliver’s Travels, the section where he visits the Laputians (floating island people) and others is often skipped. But there were a couple of notable suggestions in there. One was that, when the various political parties disagree violently, a solution would be to pair them off and transplant half of each other’s brains into the other. “It seems indeed to be a work that requires some exactness, but the professor assured us, that if it were dexterously performed, the cure would be infallible.” 

Gulliver also received this advice:

…that every senator in the great council of a nation, after he had delivered his opinion, and argued in the defence of it, should be obliged to give his vote directly contrary; because if that were done, the result would infallibly terminate in the good of the public.


In his last voyage, among the Houyhnhnms, the horse-like race of perfect reason and virtue, Gulliver learns to appreciate his human folly. But he fails to recognize human virtue where it is right before him, in the form of a patient Portuguese captain who rescues him, and in his very patient wife and family back home. So I’m never sure of what Swift, the author, recognizes that Gulliver, the character, does not. 

Here’s one quote I think I will find useful more than once: “There is nothing so extravagant and irrational, which some philosophers have not maintained for truth.”  

We don’t, over time, change very much as a human race. Where there is progress, it is by adhering to the same ancient virtues Gulliver wished the Houyhnhmns would teach the Europeans to civilize them: “honour, justice, truth, temperance, public spirit, fortitude, chastity, friendship, benevolence, and fidelity.”

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