Giants and Dwarfs

Giants and Dwarfs: Essays, 1960-1990, Simon and Schuster, 1990.


And we may further suppose that Gulliver has certain hidden thoughts and intentions which are only to be revealed by closely cross-examining him. He indicates this himself at the close of his travels when he swears to his veracity. He uses for this solemn occasion Sinon’s treacherous oath to the Trojans, by means of which that worthy managed to gain admission for the horse and its  concealed burden of Greeks.

I should like to suggest that this book is also such a container,  filled with Greeks who are, once introduced, destined to conquer a new Troy, or, translated into ‘the little language,’ destined to conquer Lilliput. In other words, I wish to contend  that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the last explicit statements in the famous Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns and perhaps the greatest intervention in that notorious argument. By means of the appeal of its myth, it keeps alive the classical vision in ages when even the importance of  the quarrel is denied, not to speak of the importance of that  classical viewpoint, which appears to have been swamped by history. The laughter evoked by Gulliver’s   Travels is authorized by a standard drawn from Homer and  Plato.

Prior to entering directly into the contents of the book, I should try to make this assertion somewhat more extrinsically plausible. The quarrel itself is today regarded as a petty thing, rather  ridiculous on both sides, a conventional debate between old and  new, reactionary and progressive, which later ages have resolved by way of synthesis. Both sides lacked perspective; intellectual history is but one long continuous development. Moreover, the quarrel is looked on largely as a purely literary dispute,  originating in the comparison of Greek and Roman poetry with French. Now this understanding is quite different from that of the participants, who, if not always the best judges, must be the first  witnesses in any hearing. They understood the debate over poetry to be a mere subdivision of an opposition between two comprehensive systems of radically opposed thought, one finding its source in  ancient philosophy, the other in modern philosophy. The moderns believed that they had found the true principles of nature, and that, by means of their methods, new sources of power could be found in physical nature, politics, and the arts. These new principles represented a fundamental break with classical thought and were incompatible with it. The poetic debate was meant, on the part of the advocates of modernity, only to show the superiority of modern thought based on modern talents and modern freedom in the  domain where the classics were most indisputably masters and models. The quarrel involved the highest principles about the first causes of all things and the best way of life. It marked a crossroad, one of the very few at which mankind has been asked to make a decisive change in direction. The choice once made, we have forgotten that this was not the only road, that there was another one before us, either because we are ignorant of a possible choice  or because we are so sure that this is the only road to Larissa. It is only by return to our starting point that the gravity of the choice can be realized; and at that crossroad one finds the quarrel. It is not, I repeat, a quarrel among authors as such, but among principles.

In his own way, Swift presents and contrasts those principles. He characterizes ancient philosophy as a bee whose wings produce music and flight and who thus visits all the blossoms of the field  and garden … and in collecting from them enriches himself without  the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. This bee is opposed to a house-building spider, who thinks he produces his own world from himself and is hence independent, but  who actually feeds on filth and produces excrement. As the bee   says, So, in short, the question comes all to this; whether is  the nobler being of the two, that by a lazy contemplation of four  inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement or venom, producing nothing at all, but flybane and a cobweb; or that which by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings honey and wax.

This description is drawn from one of Swift’s earliest writings, The Battle of the Books. Gulliver’s Travels was one of his latest. Throughout his life Swift saw the Quarrel between the Ancients and  the Moderns as the issue in physics, poetry, and politics, and it is in the light of it that he directed his literary career and his practical life. The quarrel is the key to the diverse strands of  this various man; his standards of judgment are all classical; his  praise and blame are always in accord with that of Plato. He learned how to live within his own time in the perspective of an  earlier one. Swift, the Tory and the High Churchman, was a  republican and a nonbeliever.

Gulliver’s Travels is always said to  be a satire, and there is no reason to quarrel with this   designation. But it is not sufficient, for satire is concerned with  a view to what is serious and ridiculous, good and bad. It is not enough to say that human folly is ridiculed; what was follow to Aristophanes would not have seemed so to Tertullian, and conversely. If the specific intention of the satire is not uncovered, the work is trivialized. Swift intended his book to instruct, and the character of that instruction is lost if we do  not take seriously the issues he takes seriously. But we do not even recognize the real issues in the Quarrel, let alone try to  decide which side had the greatest share of truth. In our time, only Leo Strauss has provided us with the scholarship and the philosophic insight necessary to a proper confrontation of  ancients and moderns, and hence his works are the prolegomena to a recovery of Swift’s teaching. Swift’s rejection of modern physical and political science seems merely ill-tempered if not  viewed in relation to a possible alternative, and it is Leo Strauss who has elaborated the plausibility, nay, the vital importance, of  that alternative. Now we are able to turn to Swift, not only for  amusement but for possible guidance as to how we should live. Furthermore, Swift’s art of writing explicitly follows the rhetorical rules for public expression developed by the ancients, of which we have been reminded by Professor Strauss. The rhetoric was a result of a comprehensive reflection about the relation between philosophy and politics, and it points to considerations neglected by the men of letters of the Enlightenment. Gulliver’s Travels is in both substance and  form a model of the problems which we have been taught to recognize as our own by Leo Strauss.

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