Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels Morality and Ethics

By Jonathan Swift

Morality and Ethics

Part 2, Chapter 3
The Brobdingnagian King

But I confess, that, after I had been a little too copious in talking of my own beloved country, of our trade and wars by sea and land, of our schisms in religion, and parties in the state; the prejudices of [the Brobdingnagian King's] education prevailed so far, that he could not forbear taking me up in his right hand, and stroking me gently with the other, after a hearty fit of laughing, asked me, "whether I was a Whig or Tory?" Then turning to his first minister, who waited behind him with a white staff, near as tall as the mainmast of the Royal Sovereign, he observed "how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as I." (2.3.9)

Gulliver feels outraged that the Brobdingnagian King belittles the profound importance of the conflict between the Whigs and the Tories. At the same time, from a distance, the conflict between the Lilliputian high and low heels seems equally unimportant. Why does Swift depict the Whigs and the Tories without discussing their different policy positions or interpretations of English law? Why does he sidestep their ethical differences in order to satirize them?

Part 2, Chapter 6
The Brobdingnagian King

His majesty, in another audience, was at the pains to recapitulate the sum of all I had spoken; compared the questions he made with the answers I had given; then taking me into his hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in: "My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country; you have clearly proved, that ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which, in its original, might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions." (2.6.18)

The fact that the King of Brobdingnag is basically petting Gulliver while he delivers these assessments of the moral qualities of England really underlines how insignificant Gulliver's people seem in a broader perspective. We also find it intriguing that the King grants that the original institutions of English government, "in its original, might have been tolerable," but now they have grown corrupt. What historical events of Swift's time might account for his dissatisfaction with the current line of kings?

Part 2, Chapter 7
The Brobdingnagian King

The king was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made. "He was amazed, how so impotent and grovelling an insect as I" (these were his expressions) "could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner, as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines; whereof," he said, "some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver. As for himself, he protested, that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom, than be privy to such a secret; which he commanded me, as I valued any life, never to mention any more." (2.7.4)

This is an interesting moment: the Brobdingnagian King refuses to import guns! It's like he's looking at Pandora's box and deciding to keep it shut.

But great allowances should be given to a king, who lives wholly secluded from the rest of the world, and must therefore be altogether unacquainted with the manners and customs that most prevail in other nations: the want of which knowledge will ever produce many prejudices, and a certain narrowness of thinking, from which we, and the politer countries of Europe, are wholly exempted. And it would be hard indeed, if so remote a prince's notions of virtue and vice were to be offered as a standard for all mankind. (2.7.2)

Pre-Houyhnhnm Gulliver seems to believe that the Brobdingnagian King would learn more about morality of he were exposed to a range of the "politer countries in Europe." But by the end of the book, he wants to remain isolated from mankind with the Houyhnhnms. Why might a country's isolation contribute to its moral development?

Part 3, Chapter 8

I was surprised to find corruption grown so high and so quick in that empire, by the force of luxury so lately introduced; which made me less wonder at many parallel cases in other countries, where vices of all kinds have reigned so much longer, and where the whole praise, as well as pillage, has been engrossed by the chief commander, who perhaps had the least title to either.

As every person called up made exactly the same appearance he had done in the world, it gave me melancholy reflections to observe how much the race of human kind was degenerated among us within these hundred years past; how the pox, under all its consequences and denominations had altered every lineament of an English countenance; shortened the size of bodies, unbraced the nerves, relaxed the sinews and muscles, introduced a sallow complexion, and rendered the flesh loose and rancid. (3.8.11-12)

As Gulliver reflects on the Roman Empire, he sees two things of significance: (1) as soon as Rome steps into imperial rule and all the wealth and power it brings, corruption grows. This clearly appears to be a warning against the growing British Empire of the time. (2) The moral decay that Gulliver observes over and over again in recent English history seems to be having a physical effect on its people, who have "altered every lineament of an English countenance."

Part 4, Chapter 4

To clear up which, I endeavoured to give some ideas of the desire of power and riches; of the terrible effects of lust, intemperance, malice, and envy. All this I was forced to define and describe by putting cases and making suppositions. After which, like one whose imagination was struck with something never seen or heard of before, he would lift up his eyes with amazement and indignation. Power, government, war, law, punishment, and a thousand other things, had no terms wherein that language could express them, which made the difficulty almost insuperable, to give my master any conception of what I meant. (4.4.7)

This may be a minor point, but we see a moral problem here: Gulliver is forcing the Master Horse to contemplate "lust, intemperance, malice, and envy," ideas he has literally never conceived of before, and has to work to imagine. Doesn't Gulliver run the risk of damaging or disturbing the Master Horse too much with these ideas? Doesn't he have a moral obligation not to explain to the Houyhnhnms about European Yahoos?

Part 4, Chapter 5

Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent. (4.5.3)

The first references here – flesh being bread and blood being wine – are to the Catholic belief in transubstantiation during Communion. We really find it interesting that Swift dismisses differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs considering that he is an eighteenth century Anglican clergyman. This detail makes us want to read his religious satires for more clues on his views.

It is a very kingly, honourable, and frequent practice, when one prince desires the assistance of another, to secure him against an invasion, that the assistant, when he has driven out the invader, should seize on the dominions himself, and kill, imprison, or banish, the prince he came to relieve (4.5.4)

Where before, in Brobdingnag, Gulliver protests that he wants to defend England's reputation, and the irony in the text seems to emerge at his expense, here, the sarcasm is more directly Gulliver's. The statement that it is a "kingly, honourable, and frequent" practice to invade and occupy countries that have come to you for protection is not meant to be taken at face value.

But when a creature pretending to reason could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that, instead of reason we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices. (4.5.8)

For the Master Horse, the purpose of reason is entirely unified with morality: to be reasonable is to be ethical. Therefore, to see a Yahoo who claims to be reasonable, but who still comes from a land of such total vice seems impossible to the Master Horse. It makes no sense, so he tries to come up with an alternative explanation: Gulliver looks reasonable, but he can't be.

Part 4, Chapter 10

I enjoyed perfect health of body, and tranquillity of mind; I did not feel the treachery or inconstancy of a friend, nor the injuries of a secret or open enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering, or pimping, to procure the favour of any great man, or of his minion; I wanted no fence against fraud or oppression: here was neither physician to destroy my body, nor lawyer to ruin my fortune; no informer to watch my words and actions, or forge accusations against me for hire. (4.10.1)

Again, we get this overlap between morality of conduct and personal health. After all, the diseases Gulliver attributes to the English, such as venereal disease and indigestion, are all caused by too much greed and indulgence. And the Houyhnhnms never die of illness, because they're just so virtuous.

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