Gulliver’s Travels is a political satire on British politics, written by Jonathan Swift in four parts. Part I recounts Gulliver’s visit to the Lilliputians, and discusses the proper uses of power. Part II recounts the narrator’s sojourn in Brobdingnag, focusing on the nature of corruption. In Part III Gulliver discusses his briefer visits to four nations, critiquing their emphasis on speculative philosophy. The author then concludes in Part IV by addressing the root of these problems: a faulty view of human nature. The overall message is that politics is at heart an extension and consummation of ethics.
Swift frames his discussion of epistemology and ethics in terms of nature, virtue and reason. To Swift, these principles are of equal import, but must also be placed in their natural order so as to achieve the proper balance between the three. Human nature (especially in contrast with other creatures) encourages each of us to subject the desires of flesh to those of mind. The uniquely human goal, then, is virtue; an excellence in thought and deed that is achieved not only by doing good, but by taking pleasure in it as well. Virtue, however, is impossible without the unique human capacity of reason, which in turn must be employed within the framework of man’s moral nature. So, for example, Swift employs an absurdity (a rational horse) in order to call man back to both the rational nature of man and the moral roots of rationality (IV.VII-VIII).
Education plays an extensive role throughout Gulliver’s Travels and is first seen in his account of the Lilliputians and their views on the family and education in the sixth chapter of Book I. There the narrator recounts that in their view, the family is defined primarily by its biological functions as opposed to natural affection. The relationship between parents and children therefore ends as soon as the child has lived “twenty moons.” At such a time the child is sent to a boarding school of sorts where they are prepared “for such a condition of life as befits the rank of their parents, and their capacities, as well as inclinations.” And since such an education is provided for the poor from public coffers, the greatest sin of poverty is reproduction: “For the Lilliputians think nothing can be more unjust, than for people, in subservience to their own appetites, to bring children into the world, and leave the burthen of supporting them on the public” (I.VI). Later in his tales, Gulliver recounts a similar sort of schooling among the Houyhnhnms (IV.VIII) and, in fact, attributes it to the very same cause: “They have no fondness for their colts or foals, but the care they take in educating them proceeds entirely from the dictates of reason” (IV.VIII, emphasis added).
It might at first seem that Swift’s intent is to recommend such a program for those in his own time, but the above quoted passage on the Lilliputians may well indicate otherwise when considered in light of Swift’s corpus, particularly A Modest Proposal. There, the author states that since no reform has yet succeeded in assisting the poor, the only ‘logical’ solution is to breed such children for human consumption, thereby reducing the number of the poor and contributing greatly to Ireland’s domestic trade. Swift’s sarcasm, however, then proposes (in a roundabout way) several other more sensible measures. Combine this with the king of Brobdingnag’s criticisms at the close of Book II (II.VI) and his clear distaste for the abstract and speculative philosophers of the academy at Lagado (II.V-VI), and it would seem that the accounts of education in Gulliver’s Travels are made in order to criticize such Spartan or utopian schemes and to instead foster education reform because of (rather than in spite of) traditional family and moral life.
For a more complete treatment of these issues, see the series, Horses, Yahoos and a Lesson in Humility (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).
In this series, we have surveyed some general trends in the history of ethics, beginning with the lex talionis (an eye for an eye), moving on to three versions of the Golden Rule, noting subtle shifts in these principles throughout the Renaissance, and recognizing the end of both secular reason and morality in the late Enlightenment.
In surveying these trends, three lessons become apparent. The first is that humans are inherently moral beings. Since the beginning, man has pondered what God meant when he said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26 NKJV). At least one aspect of this is that, like him, we have a capacity for reasoning on things moral and spiritual that is unique among his creatures. As Elihu well knew, “But there is a spirit in man, And the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding” (Job 32:8). Paul, however, probably says it most clearly: though it was the Jews who had received direct revelation on true morality, by their good behavior even the Gentiles were able to “show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (Romans 2:15, emphasis added). As C.S. Lewis wrote, then, human morality is not only universal; it also implies a higher source for such a capacity:
If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature. (Lewis, Miracles 60)
The second lesson is that while understanding the humanities is essential for a true Christian engagement of the world, they are not sufficient in defining this worldview. That such works are useful for Christian witness is evident in the fact that Paul himself quotes pagan poets three times in his works, twice in his sermon in Acts 17:28 and once writing to Titus in 1:12. Jude did the same by pointing out valid truths from the popular religious literature of his day (see Jude 1:9, 14-15). Human thought, then, is not inherently wrong, but must be redeemed in order to be effective for theoretical and practical use. In other words, human wisdom must be judged as true or false by the wisdom of God, not the other way around. And even then, it can only be accepted tentatively, lest we too closely associate such human thoughts with “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). As Paul reminded Timothy, it is “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus;” a reminder well heeded in our post-modern (or any!) age (2 Timothy 3:15, emphasis added).
Finally, the culmination of human morality is the Christ-like ideal of the Golden Rule. Man is not inherently a sex-driven and violent animal, though we often fall prey to such temptations (see Ecclesiastes 7:29; Isaiah 59:1-2). Lewis must have been thinking of the likes of Freud and Nietzsche while writing the radio talks that later became Mere Christianity:
I said in a previous chapter that chastity was the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. But I am not sure I was right. I believe there is one even more unpopular. It is laid down in the Christian rule, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Because in Christian morals ‘thy neighbour’ includes ‘thy enemy’, and so we come up against this terrible duty of forgiving our enemies. (Lewis, Mere Christianity 115)
We have, of course, heard this before. But as Lewis goes on to say, loving our enemies does not mean loving or even tolerating “cruelty and treachery,” as many seem to believe (MC 117). It merely means that we should hate such evil traits “in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is possible, that . . . he can be cured and made human again” (MC 117). Love, then, is more than a mere emotion, much less the satisfaction of carnal appetites; it is “that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about” another person, “wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying that he is nice when he is not” (MC 129, 120).
The principles of Christian ethics have never fully disappeared from the Western Canon. The Golden Rule (though often misunderstood) at least remains a part of our moral discourse. But such acceptance is not universal. By looking to the critics of virtuous love we begin to see the cold consistency and selfishness of the alternative. The scars of human aggression are borne by every age of human history, but such aggression is neither natural to man nor essential to human society. And though many have tried to explain it, virtue and love are better demonstrated than defended. As the Apostle John once wrote, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The true end of human morality, then, is to understand the vicarious suffering and death of Christ our Lord and Savior, and to lovingly die to self each day. As Christ himself stated, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).