“And though I (…) understand
all mysteries and all knowledge
and have no charity, I am nothing.”
/St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 13, 2 /
Each of the four books of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels discusses one aspect of human nature. The discussions’ language is rather satirical than an earnest tone. The first book is about the physical aspect, the voyage to Brobdingnag focuses on the “Homo politicus”, the political man. The third book is about intellect, while in the land if the Houyhnhnms we can “meet” the moral man. Now I am going to discuss the appearance of the intellectual aspect in the figurative language of book three.
The first and the most basic thing to make clear in connection with the Laputa part are the Enlightenment, which was the first clearly defined manifestation of modernity. Swift wrote in opposition to Enlightenment and as an “enemy” of modernity. Reading it now at the beginning if the 21st century we can see, that maybe of all these our age can be a catastrophic conclusion.
There are four points here I need to write about. Among these the first is Rationalism and Cartesianism. In connection with these tendencies we can notice a radical tendency to abstract truth into purely intellectual concepts. Rationalism can also be characterised by a bold rejection of the experience and wisdom of past.
The next tendency is experimental and theoretical science fathered by Bacon and Galileo, later vindicated by Newton and propagandised by the Royal Society in England. Here began the secularisation of society and human values. It proclaimed great promises to people such as seizing mastery of nature, abolition of all mysteries and (at least by implication) abolition of religion.
The third discussion point concerning Enlightenment is the appearance of a new conception of man. As a result of rationalism and science they said that there is an essential goodness of human nature. This sentimental tone of voice irritated Swift.
The fourth and last point is the increasing power of centralised government. A power like this divorced from human needs and did not care about solving social problems becoming more and more serious.
Now –after the introduction- it is important to see how Swift “felt himself” in such “era”. Above all, he was unambiguously against abstraction. To be more exact, his hatred directed against the abstract man. The incorporations of this type in Swift’s age were existing and acting within semi-human or (to be stricter) dehumanised racial or professional groups.
We can be sure, that –writing about the Laputians- Swift had Descartes in mind. That Descartes, who had forgotten that God created man a bit lower than angels who are pure intelligences. Swift argues that this mistake can lead people into real danger. The danger is in holding an unrealistic view of potentialities of human nature, and expecting that men can somehow transcend their limitations and become –shall we say- angels. So the...