Little Odious Vermin

We start Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels on Monday, which will get us into the 18th Century, an era that witnessed a great flowering of science, democracy, journalism, economic theory and literary and philosophical expression-- all of which continue to inform current debates. In one sense this flowering was a continuation of humanist ideas that arose in the Renaissance, which itself was a rebirth of the classical Greek and Roman idea that human rationality was capable of understanding and improving the world.

When people in the 18th Century looked to their recent past they saw a century's worth of bloody combat that arose in large part out of conflicting beliefs concerning the nature of God and religious doctrine. The idea that science and reason could provide humanity with a less murderously passionate way forward must have appeared highly attractive in such a polarized religious climate. There was no Catholic science or Protestant science (or Muslim or Hindu science, for that matter).

Enter Swift.

His satire calls into question the Enlightenment optimism that material and scientific progress will provide a comparable improvement in human nature. We may become smarter, he argues, but that alone won't make us better. In fact, it will very likely make us worse. In many ways Swift's critique of the modern idea of progress was a conservative reaction. He wasn't arguing that we should return to unthinking obedience to religious dogma; rather, he was reaffirming the view that human beings should remain mindful of their imperfect nature, that they have a long and unignorable history of wickedness, greed, sloth and evil. These faults are not likely to disappear simply because we possess steam engines, indoor plumbing or cell phones.

The genius of Swift's critique is his nimble use of satire and irony to unfold the lie of human progress. His method is at once simple and flexible. By transplanting Gulliver, his 18th century everyman, to a series of bizarre societies he is able to contrast a representative European sensibility with other sets of values and ideals. Readers see these strange worlds through Gulliver's eyes, but at times they also see Gulliver's hypocrisy in criticizing customs and beliefs that are little better than his own. In fact, as Gulliver passes judgment on the people he meets, we in turn pass judgment on him and by extension ourselves.

For the modern reader Swift's contrasts can strike home with special force. In place of gunpowder, we can insert our nuclear weapons or, worse, our man-made biological toxins capable of destroying all life on Earth. We have also seen the legacies of our era's schemes to improve agricultural or industrial efficiency -- schemes that have sometimes produced terrible environmental consequences. As you read Gulliver's Travels, you find yourself asking uncomfortable questions: What kind of a creature is it that fouls its own planet to sate its desire for ever more luxuries? What kind of creature invents increasingly fiendish ways of annihilating others of its kind, or kills not for survival or defense but simply out of a lust for more power and riches? Indeed, the more Gulliver tries to defend us to the people and creatures he meets, the more we might wish him to keep quiet.

To read Gulliver's Travels is to become increasingly aware that human claims to superiority or nobility may be arrogant at best and dangerously ignorant at worst. Time after time, Swift brilliantly forces us to confront ourselves, and we often don't like what we see. By the end of the Fourth Voyage, Gulliver's view of humanity has come to agree with the Brobdingnag King, who earlier dismissed us as the "the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." But is Gulliver's final view the one Swift wants us to adopt? Is this the book of an unremitting misanthrope?

Some critics believe so, and they have argued that Swift himself was deranged to see humanity so bleakly. Of course, if we dismiss Swift as a madman or a crank, we can then dismiss the many painful truths he's shown us. With this view, humanity wriggles off the hook of Swift's criticisms. To avoid discomfort, we attack the man, not his arguments. On the other hand, perhaps Swift meant to show us that Gulliver has overreacted and his rejection of his own humanity can be seen as an understandable if excessive response to all that he has been through. This allows us to mitigate the book's final harshness without dismssing all of the its harsh criticism of humanity.

Then again, perhaps we are to take Gulliver seriously. Perhaps the anger and rejection with which Gulliver views humankind at the novel's close is Swift's own indignation at humanity's unrepentant state. Nearly three hundred years after he penned Gulliver's Travels, can we honestly say we are better human beings for all our material and technological progress? Do we love our neighbors more? Do people still starve because of human indifference? Are we any less greedy or self-serving? Are we more moral? More virtuous? Perhaps Gulliver's anger is justified. In many ways, how we respond to Gulliver's Travels says as much about us as it does the novel.


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