Jonathan Swift (born on this day in 1667) was the author of Gulliver’s Travels. In it he wrote “Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.” Expressed a little more crudely, its easy to start believing your own BS. Easy, that is until someone else calls you out. Satire is at once funny and uncomfortable. G.K. Chesterton said “A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.”
As Karen Swallow Prior writes in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:
Swift recognized that real wisdom comes not from the voice within, but from the collective wisdom of the community of humankind over the ages. Yes, from God ultimately, but in our imperfect human understanding and application, strength of heart and mind—wisdom—is built in community, not individually.
In judging the vice and folly of individuals, Swift used the scales of collective wisdom. And since the purpose of satire is to correct human folly and wickedness, it seems that Swift both sought and expected improvements, the very definition of optimism, not the pessimism with which some of his critics charge him because of his biting satire. Swift’s frankness, his realism, his high view of God and humanity, and his belief in the essential nature of community all shed light on one of the funniest and most poignant spins he puts on sex in Gulliver’s Travels, a point he slips in so subtly it’s easy to miss. But once recognized, it is powerful.
Satire is the ridicule of folly for the purpose of correction. Name some examples of satire in film, art, TV, and literature.
When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, the author’s name did not appear on the book. The title page read “Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver …” Many people accepted this as fact. Travel books of the time told many tales that were no more strange than the imaginary adventures of Gulliver. One sea captain even claimed that he knew Captain Gulliver well.
Other readers condemned the book as full of exaggerations. Although it became one of the most famous books for children, it was not written for children. It was savage satire aimed at the human race. The tiny Lilliputians are vain, malicious, and bloodthirsty. The king and the court of Lilliput are a parody of the English king and court. The giants of Brobdingnag are amiable, but commonplace and insensitive. Laputa is full of the foolish philosophers and scientists whom Swift despised. The Houyhnhnms are horses who use degraded men, Yahoos, as men use horses elsewhere. Looking at mankind through the eyes of horses, Swift sees people as vicious, greedy, and ignorant.
From its first appearance, Gulliver’s Travels delighted its readers instead of shocking them. In spite of his bitterness, Swift took a dry delight in making his narrative sound real even when it was fantastic. Children could enjoy the marvelous adventures of a traveler among pygmies and giants, on a flying island, and in a country where horses talk. Gulliver’s Travels soon became a children’s classic.
A large part of what Swift wrote is made up of pamphlets on political or ecclesiastical affairs and must be read in the light of history. But A Tale of a Tub, a satire on false religion, and The Battle of the Books, a burlesque of literary controversy (both published in 1704), are still read for their comic ridicule of human folly. Drapier’s Letters (1724), written to expose a minor scandal in the government of Ireland by the English, lifts the issue to something universal—the human rights of men against tyrants. The Journal to Stella is a brilliant picture of a brilliant age.
“Swift, Jonathan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.