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Strange and Magical Stories of Gulliver's Travels
The 17th century philosophers were conscious of human progress and posited the thesis of civilization vs. Savagery to depict human progress through stages. The social contract theory was especially popular that explained how the government and society came to be formed. Jonathan Swift uses much of this theme to both praise and ridicule the contemporary society of his times. He was born on Nov. 30, 1667 in Dublin, Ireland. He wrote his famous work Gulliver's Travels in 1726 that coincided with the early Romantic phase in literature when the themes of humanity and philosophy reigned supreme.
Swift uses the genre of satire to show the corrupt aspects of civilization of his time. This doesn’t of course mean that he disagrees with the philosophers of 17th century with their ideal notions of progress. The Lilliputian government was shown corrupt as it betrayed Gulliver. The human beings are shown materialistic and unadvanced too in author’s comparison of humans to savages that hoard shiny rocks.
Even as his work is a fiction that might thrill a child, to an adult who goes in-depth the book is a profound and serious work. The magical journeys are in fact lessons in relativity and comparison. While Lilliputians were six inches tall with their corrupt government, Brobdingnags were six times taller than Gulliver. Laputa islanders with their flying islands can still make no superior claim over their useless learning. The speculative philosophy serves no useful purpose. Gulliver finally arrives at the land of Houyhnhnms where intelligent horses are the masters, and the yahoo slaves are degenerate, and filthy.
The 17th century philosophy was the philosophy of reason, and humanism. The mankind was believed to have progressed far from the days of savagery, and there was optimism of the new age. The scientific, social and political progress of the day was heralded as arrival of a new civilization that was to march ever onward on the road to development. However, cynicism was still evident in the writings of the day as in Jonathan Swift’s work. Along with progress, human vanity, pride, arrogance and degeneration were the causes of war and revolutions. Swift uses his pen to craft magical stories that demonstrate the absurdity inherent in human progress. The existence of civil society, and government in contemporary England no doubt represents progress but the blood shed over petty reasons, and endless wars in Europe at the same time go on to show humanism was yet to evolve, and mankind had yet to overcome their narrowness. This is the lesson brought out satirically by Swift. Lilliputians, for instance were only six inches tall, and their king only insignificantly taller but their pride, egotism, and vanity were as high as mountain. Similarly, the rulers were intelligent horses at Houyhnhnms symbolizing the futility of intelligence in beasts. Similarly scientists depicted by Swift are found wasting their creativity in futile researches.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift with their strange and magical stories might thrill and appeal children, but the stories at a deeper level question human progress posited by the 17th century philosophers. The point of contention is not the idea of progress and development but the direction of progress and the inherent savagery still found among mankind. The notion of progress and enlightenment should have meant enlightened societies ruled by enlightened kings and princes. Moreover, to Swift speculative philosophy has no use unless tempered by common sense and reason, as for instance when Gulliver finds scientists extracting sun beams from cucumbers at Laputa. Swift was both hopeful and cynical of progress. He merely points us at the human weaknesses amid all progress.