English 233: Intro to Western Humanities - "Baroque and Enlightenment"
Study Guide to
Book III of Gulliver's Travels

To begin with, you should take advantage of the excellent little introduction that comes with our anthology. At the very least you'll want to read the discussion of satire as a genre and Swift's place in the satirical tradition of Western literature (pp. 1­4). The second section covers his education and clerical career (pp. 4­7) and his political journalism (pp. 7­9). The final section (pp. 9­19) focuses on his two greatest works, Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels. You should skim the main facts of his life (pp. 4­8: down through the mention of his relationships with Stella and Vanessa).

We will not be reading Tale of a Tub, but the editor's discussion of it has much to say that is relevant as a context for appreciating the issues that are at stake in Book III of Gulliver's Travels, to which we will be confining our attentions in this course. TT is a very complicated satire on two distinct but interrelated subjects - abuses in religion (at the root of the disputes within Christianity unleashed by the Protestant Reformation), and abuses in contemporary learning. This latter is Swift's early intervention, on behalf of the validity of the wisdom of the ancients, into the famous "Ancients-Modern controversy, unleashed by Bacon's and Descartes' attack on the authority of the Greek and Roman philosophy as so much rubbish standing in the way of the possiblities of progress through modernity. You should therefore study carefully first 4 ¶s of the third section of the Introduction (pp. 9­11); especially important is the last of these (the middle ¶ on p. 11).

Gulliver's Travels is Swift's most famous work, of course. It exploits the device of travel literature - reports of voyages to strange places with bizarre customs - that goes back to the late medieval rage for Il Milione ("The Million" [c. 1320], known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo), and beyond, and points forward to uncountable biographical narratives and science fiction adventures. Travelers - especially those making a living in a market - were (like fishermen) notorious for embroidering their tales (often, as occasionally with Marco Polo himself, by representing as his own experiences what was told to him by other travelers met along the way), and the line between the factual and the fictional was often difficult for a homebound reader to judge. Indeed, Marco Polo's adventures were themselves initially read as history and geography, but as fantastic romance, in the mode of the tales of chivalry, but with the fabulous Kubla Khan as a kind of exotic King Arthur.

And indeed there had long been at work a parallel tradition of the "fantastic voyage," which by Swift's time had grown to include the Renaissance Christian humanist Thomas More's Utopia and Cyrano de Bergerac's imaginary journeys to the moon and the sun, which pokes fun at traditional Christian confidence that human beings are the focal point of the Creator's concerns.

A parallel tradition is the that portion of the "dream vision" literature in which the dreamer relates a "trip" taken in his "head" that nevertheless acquainted him with higher (i.e., "spiritual" truths). The most famous landmarks along this branch of the trail are Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1320) and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Swift's practice in GT sets his work apart from this tradition in two respects. On the one hand, Swift takes care to present his narrator Gulliver as devoted to scrupulous realism, and always concerned to refute in advance any suspicious that his reports might be tainted with the least trace of fantasy - as, that is, the very opposite of any sort of dreamer. Moreover, whereas the authors of dream visions are at pains to insist that their narrators are authentic visionaries, Swift tips us off that Gulliver is not to be taken as a completely reliable guide to everything we come to know by way of him. The very name "Gulliver" - it comes from "gull," which was a slang term for "fool" - is meant to put the reader on notice to be wary of this narrator's judgments. And considerable part of the fun of reading the work is keeping track of the author's sly play with the elements of the story: sometimes the satire works by presenting the ways of society Gulliver becomes acquainted with as a metaphor for the idiocies characteristic of contemporary Europe (principally England and France); in other cases the society is imagined so as to form a noble and sane contrast with the Europe; sometimes Gulliver has insight into the folly or superior wisdom of the people he finds himself among; sometimes he is the embodiment of the folly being satirized, and criticizes or approves of things in a way that we are to read as an embarrassment of his English or European assumptions.

Since we are reading only Book III of GT, you will definitely want to skim the editor's brief remarks on the work as a whole (pp. 14-19). The portion devoted to Book III is a single paragraph (the middle one on p. 16). In addition, here is a series of questions to guide your reflections on our readings. The portions in italics are the questions from among which the items you encounter on the final exam will be taken.

We can think of Swift as a Christian humanist, but one who, in contrast to Pico de la Mirandola and Erasmus, arrives on the scene well after the Renaissance. In between have come nearly two centuries of bitter wars, civil and Europe-wide, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Also meanwhile, the secularizing implications of the "Age of Reason" have come increasingly to the fore. Finally, in England, a political settlement is in place (in the aftermath of what the Whigs dubbed "the Glorious Revolution" of 1688) that does indeed seem to promise a fair degree of order, but which entails permanent misery for England's colony Ireland, and which seems grossly and indefinitely infected with corruption. In place of Pico's or Erasmus' pre-Enlightenment optimism about the powers of man, Swift exhibits a deep suspicion of the Enlightenment, which was gaining steam in his day and would come to its most confident fruition in figures like Voltaire (in the middle two quarters of the century) and Kant (in the final quarter). Indeed, despite the fact that his work was essentially done by 1730, Swift can stand for us as an exponent of one kind of "Counter-Enlightenment."

Concerning the court at Laputa (Chapter II).

Swift has a great deal of contempt for what he called "projectors." These were persons who busied themselves with proposals for improving society, out of an impatient contempt for the distilled wisdom of common sense embodied in long-standing tradition. Swift recognized two distinct but related expressions of this arrogant confidence in the powers of reason liberated from common sense and tradition: crazy fantasies for mechanical inventions (what we would call "engineering" proper) and "political projects" (what we might call "social engineering" or "policy experiments"). Later in the century, Voltaire (a fervent admirer of Bacon) would draw a distinction between speculative philosophy (which he regarded as worthless if not outright harmful) and practical thought and action (in which he thought what portion of happiness possible to human beings was to be had). Swift, however, seems (how so?) to regard mechanical and social engineering projects as expressions of speculative "reason" (really, irrational imagination taking charge of merely technical reason, i.e., the power of mere calculation).

Concerning the history of the Flying Island (Chapters III and IV).

There are two dimensions to the satire at work in Gulliver's visit to the Flying Island. One has to do with criticism of England's persecution of Ireland. (See the series of footnotes on pp. 169 and 170.) This is connected with the allegiances and aims in Swift's pseudonymous political pamphlets, in both straightforward and ironic voices. (In our anthology, we have samples of each sort: the first of the "Drapier Letters" [pp. 476­486] and the famous "A Modest Proposal" [pp. 487­495].) Intersecting this is Swift's hostility towards the Baconian project. This will be our focus here.

Concerning the visit to the Grand Academy of Legado on Balnibari (Chapters V and VI).

Note that Swift divides the Grand Academy into departments. What categories and logical distinctions are at work in the classification system that is at work in this?

The historical precedents for the Grand Academy are the Royal Society (in England) and the Académie des Sciences (in France; cf. Figure 15.7 on p. 396 of Matthews and Platt). But behind these lay the society for the advancement of learning proposed in the early decades of the 17th Century by Francis Bacon.

Concerning the visit to Glubbdubdrib (Chapters VII and VIII).

Concerning the voyage to Luggnagg (Chapters IX and X).

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      This page last updated 26 January 1999.