Swift’s Satire on Science as Depicted in Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, believed that the attribute of man which make him distinct and elevated from lower animals are his rationality and reason. Therefore his perspective made him skeptical about the newfound scientific theories that brought a radical change in man’s notion about his place in the cosmos. As the revolutionary inventions of science along with the pseudoscientific speculation about man’s future were replacing the aims and idea of religion and were regarded by the common men as the emanation of truth, Swift felt, such attitude of man was stripping him of human’s qualities and hastening the dwindling of his reason and rationality. Swift violently opposed science and all abstracts learning so he voices his protest against the contemporary scientists and science which to the confused multitude was a great progress but to Swift was only a part of their delusion, Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s most universal satire. He uses his satire as his logical weapon. As he laughs at scientific inventions and scientists, he portrays them as ludicrous characters in his satire. He also exposes the absurdity of the hollow and illogical scientific notions and speculations. Swift did not believe that the Age of Science was the triumph through a great majority of his countrymen. To Swift, science and reason need limits and they need a good measure of humanism they do not require absolute devotion.

Though Swift’s attack on science is direct, venomous, intensified and hostile in Book III, his assault on contemporary scientists and the inventions and interpretations can be marked in both Book I and II. In Book I, when Gulliver turns up his pocket before the Lilliputian Emperor, the latter is surprised and confused at the variety and the size of those objects. Flabbergasted by the function of Gulliver’s water, he asked the opinion of his learned man; but their interpretations were various and remote and never near the truth. Here Swift expresses the fissure between the scientific interpretations of various natural phenomena and activities. In Book II, scientists once again fall prey to the venom of Swift’s satire where Gulliver with a comic vein describes the inability of the Brobdingnagian scientists to classify the species of Gulliver and how they finally label him as a freak of nature. Here Swift reflects Aristotle’s criticism of scientists who, he opined, spent usually long time on trivial issues and whenever failing to resolve the conundrum (riddle) of the occult, they usually misinterpret them and to find a subterfuge to disguise their ignorance.

The third voyage opens sensationally. Gulliver, after his primary misfortunes at the hands of pirates, is startled and the readers with him by the appearance of the flying island of Laputa. Swift’s account of the movement and navigation of the island is based on the heroics of William Gilberts De Magnete. Obviously, the people of Laputa were scientifically more advanced than European scientists. The astronomers of Laputa had also made greater discoveries than the European astronomers because of the superiority of Laputan telescopes. However, it is more likely that Swift is here making fun of the researches and experiments of the Royal Society of England. The interest of other scientists of the time in the possibility of flying machines is ridiculed rather wrongly in the massive proportion and complexity of this particular machine. But the sketch of its employment as a coercive military weapon is in parts of uncannily prophetic. Laputa can operate only within a limited distance of the terrestrial island Balnibarbi, in which the controlling magnetic influence is concentrated. None the less, Laputans dominate the inhabitants of the parent island. When any Balnibarbi town shows signs of revolt, the king of Laputa can easily subdue it by keeping the island hovering over such a town and the lands about it, whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and consequently afflict the inhabitants with death and disease. Gulliver tells us that the city of Lindalino once rebelled, raised four towers of stone, installed loadstones and hope to capture Laputa when it descended, the king of Laputa, however, escaped the trap by dismissing his project to crush the town.

Swift fills his readers’ mind fall of reminiscence of scientific speculations with the description of the island. Then he proceeds to link these remembrances to Laputan terrorism and tyranny. In his description of the Laputans, Swift indulges his dislike for pure mathematicians. They are represented as hopelessly impractical and the unhappy results of their applied mathematics of­­­ filling clothes. The tailors’ mistake in calculation applies to Isaac Newton, a mathematical theorist who dabbled in politics. Newton suffered ridicule because a printer made a mistake in one of the figures used in computing (to calculate) the distance of the earth from the sun. Swift, however, had yet another quarrel with Newton, Newton recommended the scheme to debase Irish coinage that Swift believed was immoral and callous. Newton was a conventional model for Swift, who believed that he incorporated the essence of the immoral abstract reasoning scientists. Swift also makes satirical use of the Laputan anxiety about the health of sun and comet theories. Many of his contemporaries were so interested in astrology. Swift believed that they might worry over a comet and not notice their wives’infidelity.

Swift now moves Gulliver to Balnibarbi, where he more thoroughly satirizes science and technological reasoning. In Balnibarbi, Swift discredits the king of intelligence that is interested in the way things work without considering the ends. In chapter 4, 5, and 6 he stigmatizes the moral of the engineers. All the projects that Gulliver describes are parodies of undertakings seriously advanced by English scientists. To illustrate the engineering mentality, Swift has all his experimenters reversing a natural process of all the Balnibarbians and the host of Gulliver in Lagoda, alone is obedient to natural process. Those who listen to project and scientific experimentations cause their land to become barren and desolate. Gulliver’s visit to the academy of the projectors in London, the metropolis of Balnibarbians is a great one. Gulliver watches one man trying to extract sunshine from cucumber while another is trying to reduce human excrement to its original food. Some attempt to make gunpowder from ice and houses are built from roof to down and so on. All the projects fail and Swift exposes them as pointless and useless. Each of the absurd projects that Gulliver reports in this Book reverses a natural process.

Gulliver’s experience at the neighboring island of Glubbdubdrib provides Swift with material for further satire on the intellects for following the example of Lucian who makes his dear hero told dialog with the dead, which effectively discredits the precautions of literary critics and historians. Towards the end of the book, we realize Swift’s theory is that man is never to be exalted. Man simply cannot depend on technological innovation, on history or the “modern” human studies. Man’s guides are poetry and ancient philosophy.

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Swift's Political Satire in Book I and II of Gulliver’s Travels


  • Farvez Hossain

    It has been very good and knowledgeable. During study I have learnt a lot of things from this story.

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