Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, January 19, 2018

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels I (A Voyage to Lilliput)

What makes a human being human?  Normally this is a question for philosophers and biologists.  But in this case Jonathan Swift uses literature to highlight qualities, both good and bad, that make us human.  He has high hopes for the human race, and high standards too.  Gulliver (Swift) expresses his disillusionment in a letter to his cousin Sympson: “I cannot learn that my Book hath produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions…”  And what were those intentions?  “When Party and Faction are extinguished; Judges learned and upright… young Nobility’s Education entirely changed; Physicians banished; Females abound in Virtue… when Wit, Merit and Learning are rewarded…”  Alas, the human race falls far short of Swift’s expectations.  He points out our human follies and shows us the path to human virtue through the travels of Lemuel Gulliver.  The book is part travelogue, part adventure story, part philosophical musing.  It’s a clever literary device but how is Swift able to convert a travelogue into a meditation on human nature?  As a young man Gulliver became a doctor but says when “my business began to fail” he “determined to go again to Sea.”  Being a doctor on a ship gave Gulliver lots of free time and he says “My hours of leisure I spent reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books.”  So far, so good.  Studying, reading and writing books, building ships and going to sea are all human activities.  The trouble begins when Gulliver’s ship sinks in a storm and he’s washed up ashore in an unknown land.  When he regains consciousness he feels something moving across his chest and he “perceived it to be a human Creature not six inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his Back.”  Here’s a question.  Can a “Creature not six inches high” be human?  Gulliver thought so.  Why?  The “Creature” looked human.  And besides, creatures such as bugs and birds and chipmunks don’t have bows and arrows and quivers on their backs.  This particular creature looks human but happens to only be six inches tall.  As creatures go, that’s more the size of a bug or a bird or a chipmunk than the size of a human being.  How tall does someone have to be in order to be human?  Gulliver determines even at six inches this creature is human.  What if the creature was just one inch, or microscopic?  Is there a downward limit to the size of humans?  Let’s turn Swift’s proposition around and look at it from the other end.  Gulliver was over 10 times the size as these Lilliputians.  How would we feel if we encountered creatures who were 50 or 60 feet tall?  Probably much as the Lilliputians felt when they said “whether there are other Kingdoms and States in the World, inhabited by human Creatures as large as your self, our Philosophers are in much Doubt; and would rather conjecture that you dropt from the Moon…” 

Gulliver did not, in fact, drop from the moon.  But according to Lilliputian experience they had never encountered a creature like Gulliver before, so dropping from the moon is as good an explanation as any.  From our perspective, no one has ever seen a 50 or 60 foot tall creatures except in science fiction movies.  If we did encounter a creature so big and so powerful, how should we respond?  We could turn to science fiction movies to get a popular answer.  The classic case would be “King Kong” (1933).  In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) the earth was invaded by a powerful force.  In both cases earthlings acted aggressively to defend ourselves against hostile forces.  In the movie “Independence Day” (1996) the earth was also invaded by powerful forces.  This time we tried the opposite approach.  Earthlings celebrated and held peace parties on the tops of tall buildings.  Then they got unceremoniously obliterated by alien creatures who had come to scavenge the earth and then move on to their next conquest.  So much for peaceful intentions.  Humans, like Lilliputians, would probably be very cautious if confronted with a strong alien force.  And we would be right to do so.  In that sense, Swift was way ahead of his time and gives us a preview of his next meditation, Gulliver’s “Voyage to Brobdingnag.”


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