Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels Science

By Jonathan Swift


Part 3, Chapter 2

But what I chiefly admired, and thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong disposition I observed in them towards news and politics, perpetually inquiring into public affairs, giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion. I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe, although I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences. (3.2.12)

Laputians love to argue, even when they know nothing about what they're discussing. They seem to like having opinions just for the sake of it. Why might Gulliver find this argumentativeness dangerous or distasteful? Why does Gulliver seem suspicious of opinions?

They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case. Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language, by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences. (3.2.11)

The Laputians only know two things -- math and music. But they still argue about everything, because they like to speculate. This sets up an interesting comparison with the Houyhnhnms, who never fight over their opinions, because to do so would be illogical – opinion is, by definition, outside of fact, so there's no point in trying to prove it "right" or "wrong."

Those to whom the king had entrusted me, observing how ill I was clad, ordered a tailor to come next morning, and take measure for a suit of clothes. This operator did his office after a different manner from those of his trade in Europe. He first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines of my whole body, all which he entered upon paper; and in six days brought my clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation. But my comfort was, that I observed such accidents very frequent, and little regarded. (3.2.7)

When Gulliver gets to the floating island of Laputa, the Laputian King orders him a suit of clothes. But this suit is unlike any of the other suits that Gulliver has made during his travels, because it fits badly. The tailor doesn't just use a tape measure to figure out Gulliver's dimensions. He uses a compass and ruler to extrapolate Gulliver's measurements. This is the first (of many) critiques of abstract science we find in the Laputa chapters of Gulliver's Travels. The Laputians all like to turn everything into an abstract calculation, but sometimes you can get simpler (and better) results by sticking to traditional methods.

Part 3, Chapter 3

By this oblique motion, the island is conveyed to different parts of the monarch's dominions. To explain the manner of its progress, let A B represent a line drawn across the dominions of Balnibarbi, let the line c d represent the loadstone, of which let d be the repelling end, and c the attracting end, the island being over C: let the stone be placed in position c d, with its repelling end downwards; then the island will be driven upwards obliquely towards D. (3.3.6)

We're sparing you from a large portion of this paragraph dealing with Gulliver's mathematical proof. His entire description of how the Laputians use their giant magnet to make their island move is a parody of the scientific language of his day. It's difficult to read, to say the least, so we can see why Swift gets so frustrated and dismissive of this kind of excessively dense, abstract writing. By the way, as we mention in "In a Nutshell," Swift started writing satires with a group of other smart, discontented guys in the Scribblerus Club. The Scribblerus Club specifically criticizes pretentious, super-technical language. So, Gulliver's Travels is continuing an earlier phase in Swift's writing career.

Part 3, Chapter 4
Lord Munodi

The sum of his discourse was to this effect: "That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. (3.4.16)

Lord Munodi tells Gulliver about the origins of the Royal Academy at Lagado, which is a research institute and university for the future scientists of Balnibarbi. The key point here is that these "Projectors" (guys with projects) are all really idealistic, and they mean well. They want to save work and improve agriculture. But they are so out of touch with reality that all of their plans totally fail to achieve their lofty goals. In fact, their plans make everything worse, because they displace traditional methods that were in place before these "reforms." Gulliver seems kind of crotchety here – can you think of any examples in which he actually celebrates something new or recent?

There was a great lord at court, nearly related to the king, and for that reason alone used with respect. He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them. He had performed many eminent services for the crown, had great natural and acquired parts, adorned with integrity and honour; but so ill an ear for music, that his detractors reported, "he had been often known to beat time in the wrong place;" neither could his tutors, without extreme difficulty, teach him to demonstrate the most easy proposition in the mathematics. (3.4.4)

Lord Munodi is this "great lord" who gets no respect from the Laputians because he's bad at both music and math. At the same time, he's actually the best manager among them. But he gets so little respect from the other Laputians that no one follows his excellent example of "integrity and honour." Lilliput seems to be another state that actively discriminates against competent guys, what with the rope dancing – check out our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians for more on Lilliput's preference for courtiers who don't know how to do anything.

Part 3, Chapter 6
Lemuel Gulliver

In the school of political projectors, I was but ill entertained; the professors appearing, in my judgment, wholly out of their senses, which is a scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy people were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue [...] with many other wild, impossible chimeras, that never entered before into the heart of man to conceive; and confirmed in me the old observation, "that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational, which some philosophers have not maintained for truth." (3.6.1)

The idealism of the scientific projectors mostly makes Gulliver laugh (or get annoyed), but he claims to feel "melancholy" at the high hopes of the Political Projectors for a more ethical government. Why does Gulliver's tone suddenly shift? What is the object of satire in this paragraph – still the Projectors themselves, or something else?

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