On Allan Bloom’s “Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels”

Allan Bloom dubs Jonathan Swift’s seminal novel Gulliver’s Travels an “amazing rhetorical achievement” (35). Why rhetorical? Perhaps owing to its versatility, in that it speaks to many different audiences. Gulliver’s Travels is a “classic children’s story” and also an “obscene tale” which both charms the innocent and amuses the corrupt, but most importantly, it is a philosophical novel with something important to teach us.

We learn about Lemuel Gulliver’s amazing adventures through his travel memoirs, and Bloom claims Gulliver is akin to a “Yahoo,” in the decisive sense, or one of the ugly donkeys featured in Book IV (perhaps Gulliver has something to hide as evidenced by his secretive visits with the great Lilliputian lady). At any rate, a deeper cross-examination of Gulliver is warranted if we wish to discover other hidden ideas he might be concealing in his fantastical adventures. Bloom notes that Gulliver cites Sinon’s treacherous oath to the Trojans when introducing his memoirs, and as such, the text is rife with Greek imagery. With this in mind, Bloom contends “that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the last explicit statements in the famous Quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns and perhaps the greatest achievement in that notorious argument. By means of the appeal of its myth, it keeps alive the classical vision in ages when even the importance of the quarrel is denied, not to speak of the importance of that classical viewpoint, which appears to have been swamped by history. The laughter evoked by Gulliver’s Travels is authorized by a standard drawn from Homer and Plato” (36).

Bloom then expounds upon our contemporary impoverishment in understanding the nature of the Quarrel, as if it is merely subordinate to the question of history, a petty debate between reactionary conservatives and progressive revolutionaries, only to meet somewhere in the middle where a synthesis may be discovered. However, in truth, the Quarrel concerns enduring principles, rather than mere authors. In his earlier writings, namely the Battle of the Books, Swift evokes striking images to illustrate his perspective on this quarrel –he contrasts a honeybee (representing ancient philosophy) with a prideful house-building spider. The honeybee freely gathers honey in the quest toward nectar, while the spider constructs a web wherein his enemies may be entrapped. On this dichotomy, Bloom notes:

“Throughout his life Swift saw the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns as the issue in physics, poetry, and politics, and it is in the light of it that he directed his literary career and his practical life. The quarrel is the key to the diverse strands of this various man; his standards of judgment are all classical; his praise and blame are always in accord with that of Plato. He learned how to live within his own time with a perspective of an earlier one. Swift, the Tory and the High Churchman, was a republican and a nonbeliever” (37).  

Bloom also comments on the nature of satire, as well. Swift’s particular form of satire follows the rhetorical rules for public expression as unveiled by the ancients (and by “ancients,” Swift hereby means the thinkers of classical Greece and Rome, whereas someone like Thomas Aquinas would, of course, be considered a modern). With this in mind, Bloom offers a terse outline of Gulliver’s Travels, which unfolds as a discussion regarding human nature, particularly of political man in the Aristotelian sense:

  • Book I: modern political practice, especially the politics of Britain and France
  • Book II: ancient political practice, perhaps of the Roman or Spartan model
  • Book III: modern political philosophy and its effect on political practice
  • Book IV: ancient utopian politics used as a standard for judging man as seen through the lens of how moderns wished to understand him

Books I (Lilliput) and III (Laputa) share a kinship –Lilliput is populated by characters from British politics, whereas Laputa is filled with modern philosophers and members of the Royal Academy. They are portrayed as generally bad characters, and are most familiar to England. Therefore, England is portrayed as either puny in character like the Lilliputians or excessively abstract on a floating cloud as in Laputa. Gulliver is also shameless in Books I and III, urinating on a palace and defecating inside a temple (a brand of comedy which upset Queen Anne in his day, but is nevertheless rightly compared to Aristophanes’s dung-beetle). It is a place beset by a silly religious conflict between the high heels and low heels (i.e. the High Church Tories vs the Low Church Whigs) among other infinitesimal differences, like interpretations of a sacred book or the cracking of eggs. For these concerns, wars have been fought. Lilliput is a monarchy where all life centers on securing vain honors and offices. The Lilliputians suffer from a tragic loss of perspective and have grown small, capable of seeing things with great exactness, but at no great distance. And likewise in Brobdingnag, it is Gulliver who is plagued by a loss of perspective as the magnification of things which would ordinarily be beautiful are suddenly ugly and distorted. Bloom speculates that with Swift’s possible allusions to the inventions of the microscope and telescope that “with the increase in knowledge made possible by these instruments is offset by a corresponding loss of awareness of the whole” (41).

The episode closes with a representation of Swift’s own politics which comes in Book I, Chapter IV wherein Gulliver outlines improvements and reforms to the Lilliputian’s institutions. However, his transgressions come with punishments, primarily because he does not pursue good citizenship in the eyes of Lilliput (i.e. he calls upon a higher good in the ancient sense). A man out of proportion with his time and place, Gulliver is expelled from both Lilliput and Blefuscu –this is Swift’s description of his own situation.

However, things are different in Brobdingnag, where the people are greatly superior –they are virtuous, temperate, educated, polytheistic, and they respect law and do not make war. They are a simple and decent people whose only vice is an excess of thrift. Bloom suggests Brobdingnag is a cross between Spartan and Roman virtues, and it “concurs in almost all respects with Aristotle’s Ethics” (47).  

Next, comes only a short visit to Laputa where, after seeing modern politics earlier in Lilliput, Gulliver now witnesses modern science. On this flying island he sees an overwhelming preoccupation with theoretical concerns, abstracted from all human life. With one eye turned inward and the other facing the zenith, these people are perfect Cartesians. It is a place devoid of jealousy and thumos. These Newtonians are endlessly preoccupied with discussing politics, believing they have a special right to govern on the grounds of modern science. Atop their cloud, they have all the power and none of the obligation, and they have grown strange and deformed (the curiosity of modern science is that it must remove natural conditions for observation in order to truly study things). What does the conquest of nature do to the conquerors? It is both liberating and constraining. This is what happens when science is no longer theoretical and governs according the wishes of mankind (or perhaps better expressed as passions). Gulliver makes a brief stop at the city of Lagado (under the Balnibarbi) where the people are focused on endless projects (i.e. applied science) and then to Glubbdubdrib which is representation of the Underworld, wherein Gulliver meets the shades of modern historical science. He admires the ancients like Homer, Aristotle, and others who opposed tyranny (the only modern among this group is Sir Thomas More). Then, he travels to Luggnagg where the people are terrified of mortality and they live hideous lives of covetous nastiness, ever-fearful of death. For this, Bloom notes the following:

“Modern times are characterized by an immortal body inhabiting, but not truly part of, civil society –a decrepit body with a dangerous body to aggrandize itself. Death is preferable to the extension of life represented in the Church; and civil society is safe only so long as that body is contained by law” (51).   

Lastly, of the greatest significance, is Gulliver’s voyage to the Houyhnhnms. In Lilliput and Laputa, he learned nothing and found nothing to admire, in Brobdingnag he admired, but among the Houyhnhnms he imitated. It was with the Houyhnhnms that he began to write his memoirs. They are utopian in the ancient sense, a la Plato’s Republic. In some ways, it supersedes the Republic because the Houyhnhnms have no Socrates, and so they seem to have overcome the constant conflicts between the rational and appetitive which so pervades the Republic. The Houyhnhnms are super-human, they represent the nobler air of pre-Christian virtue, though they are not particularly spirited in the modern sense, they are sustained by classical political reason. The Houyhnhnms (derived from Plato) are contrasted with the Yahoos (derived from Hobbes), an ugly race of donkeys ruled by their passions rather than their capacity for reason. They know of no natural limits. In the presence of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver can only cower, ashamed of his sinfulness and inferiority. According to Bloom, for Swift the central problem of modernity is religion, “and in his utopias the problem [of religion] is either handled in a pagan way or is totally suppressed” (43).  

Throughout the essay, Bloom helps to illuminate the unique character of our protagonist. Who is Lemuel Gulliver? He is a somewhat moderate fellow, always landing somewhere in between the people he encounters, superior to Lilliput and Laputa, but inferior to Brobdingnag and the Houyhnhnms. Throughout the book, he gradually learns things. He is open and generally lacking in religious fervor, though willing to help his countrymen. He is the embodiment of common sense for Swift. Bloom rebuts the idea that either Gulliver or Swift is a misanthrope like Rousseau or Kant, and instead he acknowledges that Gulliver is a liar and even an admirer of liars like Sinon. He both tells lies and also respects them. A liar is hardly a misanthrope because he cares enough to respect the prejudices of his fellow men –noble lies, after all, can be considered acts of great generosity and benevolence when told by the right person. And furthermore, misanthropes are austere, weighty people, whereas Swift is “surely one of the funniest men who ever lived” (54). Misanthropy in Gulliver’s Travels is little more than a joke, exposing the distinction between who we are and who ought to be. Perhaps it is a folly to attempt to improve mankind in the vein of Hobbes. By traveling to a variety of different political regimes, both ancient and modern, Gulliver’s Travels allows us to survey, observe, and understand the nature of these regimes –and in understanding, we learn to accept our own limits.  

Bloom, Allan. Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY (1990). Hardback edition.

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