Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Swift Prophet” first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Touchstone.
FSJ & Touchstone Fundraising
95% raised: $512,653
The Christian Meaning of Gulliver’s Travels
In Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator goes from being a barely nominal Christian to an atheist, yet Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece is a deeply religious meditation on the “mystery of iniquity” (Matt. 24:12) as it is worked out in the Church in Britain past, present, and future. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift defends the Church with consummate irony by using the voice of an irreligious narrator.
Swift was a high-church clergyman who took religion very seriously. A friend who knew him well reported that he used to say grace before and after meals with “an emphasis and fervor which every one around him saw, and felt,” and that he alone in Dublin (in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he was dean) followed “the primitive practice” of giving Communion every Sunday. Before writing Gulliver’s Travels, he spent seven years (1714–1721) going through “a very voluminous course of ecclesiastical history” and a study of the church fathers.
But why is this meaning hidden? First, Swift hated sanctimony, so he would often write about religion under an ironic mask. Second, he loved to create riddles, as in A Tale of a Tub, to make his readers think. And third, he believed that rational argument could never adequately defend the Christian mysteries, which have to be embraced by an act of will, without the “artillery of words.”
Swift leaves clues to guide us to the hidden meaning of Gulliver’s Travels—as in the names Lilliput and Laputa, for example. In French, La Pute means “the Whore,” and in Revelation 17:18 she is the city of Antichrist. So when Gulliver visits Lilliput and Laputa, he visits a smaller and larger version of the same place. Where most Protestants of his day would have identified “the Whore” with Rome, Swift follows the early Church by glimpsing her in his own time and place, for St. Paul laments that “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” (2 Thess. 2:7), and St. John that “even now are there many antichrists” (1 John 2:18).
In Gulliver’s Travels, space is a substitute for time, so that when Gulliver visits Lilliput in 1699, he visits modern Britain, a place full of spiritual midgets where the Church is desecrated. In Brobdingnag, which he reaches on his second voyage, he visits a Britain of centuries past, a place full of spiritual giants where the Church is still intact. On the third voyage, he observes the rise of atheism in politics in Laputa, scientific pursuits at the Academy of Lagado in Balnibarbi, the occult in Glubdubdrib, and commerce in Japan. On his last voyage, in the futuristic land of the Houyhnhnms, he meets Antichrist and full-blown atheism, and witnesses the great persecution of the Church.
In Gulliver’s Travels, then, we see in Brobdingnag the glory that was, and in comparison with it, the three stages of the “mystery of iniquity”: in Lilliput, we see degeneration; in Laputa, apostasy; and in Houyhnhnmland, atheism at the point of exterminating Christianity.
In his “Ode to Sancroft,” an archbishop of Canterbury, Swift lamented that the modern English were as far fallen from their ancestors as “fiends” are from “angels.” At the start of the first voyage, Gulliver praises the Lilliputians—though, perhaps revealingly, only for being “most excellent Mathematicians” and having “arrived to a great Perfection in Mechanicks”—but he later admits that they have degenerated very far from their “original Institutions.”
The small size of Lilliputians reflects their shrunken spiritual stature, due to king-worship, worldly pride, and disregard of the Church. By comparison to them, Gulliver is a giant because he grew up in an earlier age and in humble circumstances—“a Stranger to Courts, for which I was unqualified by the Meanness of my Condition.” But he soon shrinks in spiritual stature by taking pride in the petty, worldly honors of Lilliput.
In Lilliput, the Church has been desecrated. After his capture, Gulliver is chained to “an ancient Temple . . . polluted some Years before by an unnatural Murder”—a reference to the execution of Charles I, the great defender of the Anglican Church—and which later, by “the Zeal of those People”—a reference to low-church bishops who came in after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688—“had been applied to common Use, and all the Ornaments and Furniture carried away.” This Temple is the Church of England at the start of the eighteenth century. It is powerless to avert sacrilege and is so shrunken that it now shelters only one man, and even he must “creep” in by the North Gate.
Almost the first thing Gulliver does, “pressed by the Necessities of Nature,” is to go inside to the end of his chain and defecate, very likely where the Communion table once stood. The high-churchman Peter Heylin, whom Swift read, reports that some Puritan soldiers did this in Westminster Abbey in 1641. It is a sign of the “mystery of iniquity,” the prophet Daniel says, when “they shall pollute the sanctuary of strength” (11:31).
While he apologizes for his “uncleanly” action, Gulliver has no inkling he has committed sacrilege and calls the temple “my House.” Later, when he urinates on the queen’s apartments to put out a fire and is charged with a capital crime, he learns that sacred space exists in Lilliput—but it is the palace, not the church.
The royal councilor Reldresal tells Gulliver that the two kingdoms of Blefuscu and Lilliput have long been at war about the right way to break an egg. Blefuscu (France) accuses Lilliput of schism on this point, and Lilliput (Britain) retorts with the charge of heresy. Those persecuted in one kingdom fly to the other for refuge.
The egg is a metaphor for the Eucharist, since it contains a hidden “meat.” Reldresal explains that the Big-Endians, who prevail in Blefuscu, break their eggs at the big end (or believe in a larger Real Presence, both on the altar and in the communicant), while the Little-Endians, who prevail in Lilliput, break their eggs at the little end (or believe in a Real Presence only in the communicant).
Swift gives a clue about where he stands on this issue when Reldresal concedes that the primitive and ancient practice was to break eggs as is done in Blefuscu. In his pamphlets on religion, Swift would use the word primitive for the Church of the first three centuries and ancient for the Church of the fourth to the eighth centuries. He revered the primitive Church, and believed the ancient Church should not be publicly contradicted.
After this startling admission, Reldresal explains that Lilliputians started breaking eggs at the little end when the emperor’s great-grandfather commanded his subjects, “upon great Penalties,” to do so after his son cut his finger breaking an egg at the bigger end. Thus, a king, not the Church, reformed Lilliput and not for a very good reason.
This caused much suffering, Reldresal reports, for “six Rebellions” occurred, in which “one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown”—alluding to Charles I’s execution in 1649 and James II’s deposition in 1688, both kings being attacked for their Big-Endian belief in the Real Presence. Eleven thousand Lilliputians were killed rather than break their eggs at the smaller end, and the Big-Endians have been made “incapable by Law of holding Employments,” a reference to the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, which (until 1827) required an oath against Transubstantiation for public employment.
Despite this havoc, Reldresal defends the change in worship on two grounds: the private interpretation of Scripture, and the power of the State. He cites “our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Bundrecral,” which says, “all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the convenient End,” and argues that this leaves the manner of doing it “to every Man’s Conscience, or at least in the Power of the chief Magistrate to determine.” Thus, the primitive and ancient practice, which Swift followed and cherished, is completely discounted in Lilliput.
The climax of the first voyage comes when Gulliver captures the enemy fleet and the emperor orders him to go back to Blefuscu and persecute its people. Gulliver flatly refuses. In a key article of his later impeachment for treason, the emperor charges that he commanded Gulliver to go “put to death not only all the Big-Endian Exiles, but likewise all the People of that Empire, who would not immediately forsake the Big-Endian Heresy”—that is, those who held to what had been Lilliput’s own primitive and ancient practice.
Even after being unjustly condemned, Gulliver is still half-blinded by the charms of Lilliput. He speaks as if it had not degenerated from its “original Institutions” and then has to correct himself. He says that disbelief in divine providence disqualifies a man for public office in Lilliput, but then corrects himself and says that Lilliput has fallen into “the most scandalous Corruptions,” so that now rope-dancing, not faith in providence, is the test for public office. Tellingly, this new test came in under the same great-grandfather who made the new law for breaking eggs.
Gulliver himself does not believe in Providence, however. At the start of this voyage, he says that “Fortune disposed” of him, and at the end that “Fortune” sent him a boat in which to escape. On leaving Lilliput, he declares that he is “resolved never more to put any Confidence in Princes.” It speaks volumes that he leaves out the first part of this phrase from Psalm 118, for the whole verse reads, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”
Brobdingnag: Past Glory
In the second voyage, Gulliver contemplates Britain when its Church and king were still gigantic. This former Britain was invulnerable because it was completely surrounded by mountains that were miles high—a reference to Psalm 125:2, where providence is a mountain range around the Chosen People. (In this voyage, Gulliver attributes whatever happens to him to chance or fortune.)
Gulliver is reluctant to tell us about the religion of the Giants, yet provides an important clue (among several) when he notes that their temple is “adorned on all Sides with Statues of Gods and Emperors cut in marble larger than the Life, placed in their several Niches.” This is the Church of England before the Reformation. Swift did not believe that the Second Commandment forbade Christian images, and he complained bitterly that iconoclasts had tried to wipe out all traces of church history in Britain. On the Giants’ temple both religion and history are celebrated, the statues of “Gods” representing saints (as in John 10:34, “I have said, ye are gods”) and those of “Emperors,” former British kings.
When he offers gunpowder to the Giant King, Gulliver shows how much he has shrunk in moral stature. In Lilliput, though he groveled daily to a six-inch king, yet he resisted him in the end when he turned into a persecuting tyrant; but now he tempts a good king to become a tyrant by saying that gunpowder will enable him to “batter down the Walls of the strongest Town in his Dominions in a few Hours,” if it should resist “his absolute Commands.” The king refuses, declaring that “some evil Genius, Enemy to Mankind” must have invented gunpowder. He is saying that he believes in the Devil.
In an aside to the reader, Gulliver faults the Giant King for “Narrowness of Thinking,” a “confined Education,” and “short Views,” adding that no modern European king would have refused such an offer. Swift’s point is that the small spiritual size of moderns, as seen in Gulliver, is accompanied with the proud delusion of having surpassed their ancestors by their enlarged minds, liberal educations, and far-sighted views.
But even Brobdingnag has its problems. Throughout the Travels, Swift shows women and humble folk as the least vulnerable to the “mystery of iniquity” of modern times. In Lilliput, the “Vulgar” follow the old custom of burying the dead upside down because they still believe in the Resurrection, and in the land dominated by Laputa, it is the women and the illiterate from whom Gulliver can receive “a reasonable answer.” In Brobdingnag, the “Women and the Vulgar” alone esteem an old treatise that recounts how man in the last few centuries has become a “diminutive, contemptible, and helpless Animal,” and how “Nature” has “degenerated” to produce “only small abortive Births in Comparison of those in ancient Times.”
Gulliver scoffs at this book. But Swift hints that the old author may be right: for though these Giants are huge compared to an eighteenth-century man, they might look small compared to a primitive Christian. Gulliver exclaims, “Who knows but that even this prodigious Race of Mortals might be equally overmatched in some distant Part of the World, whereof we have yet no Discovery?” Since Swift uses space as a metaphor for time, that “distant Part of the World” would be the primitive Church.
When the Giant King asks for an account of modern Britain, to see if some of its institutions “deserve Imitation,” Gulliver lies, speaking of eighteenth-century Britain as if it followed its ancient Christian constitution, excusing himself to the reader on the ground that one must hide the “Deformities” of his “Political Mother.” He depicts the bishops of his day as “holy Persons . . . sought out through the whole Nation, by the Prince and wisest Counselors, among such of the Priesthood” noted for “the Sanctity of their Lives, and the Depth of their Erudition.” But where he corrected himself in Lilliput, now the Giant King has to uncover the truth, that these bishops are chosen for being time-servers or “slavish prostitute Chaplains to some Noblemen.”
While living among the Giants, Gulliver shows he never escaped Lilliput, for he now embodies its way of being: He is worldly, proud, petty, servile, prissy (as when he is embarrassed to tell a farmer’s wife he must go to the toilet), and full of pride in mathematical and mechanical know-how. As a result, he cannot prove to the Giants that he is really human. Indeed, he cannot even prove it to the animals of that time, who see him as vermin. Swift’s point is that no eighteenth-century courtier could.
Humiliated by his failure, Gulliver falls into both self-contempt and pride. He cannot “endure” to look in a mirror because the comparison with the Giants gives him too “despicable a Conceit” of himself, yet at the same time he usurps their height as a perspective from which to look down on his betters, as when he says that if he then “beheld a Company of English Lords and Ladies . . . Strutting, and Bowing and Prating,” he would be “tempted to laugh as much at them” as the Giants did at him.
When he returns home, he looks down on everyone “as if they had been Pigmies, and I a Giant.” Even if Gulliver has conversed with Giants of the past, he has not learned humility, but rather a proud contempt for “dignities” (2 Pet. 2:10). No wonder the ship captain who rescues him compares him to Phaeton, the son of the Sun, who took his father’s chariot and nearly set the world afire, a symbol of overweening pride.
In the first two voyages, Swift reveals the disregard for the primitive Church and the worldly pride that account for the low spiritual stature of modern man. In the third voyage, he reveals the forms of modern apostasy, that “falling away” which must precede the persecution of the Church by Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:3). He gives us three glimpses of Antichrist: in the King of Laputa, the Sorcerer in Glubdubdrib, and the King of Luggnagg.
The opening scene is the only time in the book when Gulliver calls himself a Christian. Japanese pirates, among whom is a Dutchman of “some Authority,” capture Gulliver and his crew. He begs the Dutchman, “in Consideration of our being Christians and Protestants,” to intercede with the Japanese, since Japanese law forbade Christians to come near Japan on pain of death. But the name Christian enrages the Dutchman, who passes himself off as a non-Christian in order to trade with the Japanese, and who asks the captain to kill Gulliver.
Thus, Gulliver is a nominal Christian at the start of the third voyage, but by the end of it he is calling himself “a Hollander; because my Intentions were for Japan, and I knew the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to enter into that Kingdom.” By calling himself “a Hollander” he implicitly denies being a Christian, as he also does in the presence of the Japanese emperor and of his crew on the voyage home.
Between these examples of apostasy (the Dutchman’s and Gulliver’s), Gulliver visits Laputa, the Whore, the embodiment of apostasy in the modern state. It is a flying island because it is radically detached from the Church as “ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Gulliver exclaims that the flying island is “the most delicious Spot of Ground in the World,” but it is not even ground at all.
Churches with steeples and crosses dot the land below Laputa on the map, to show us that Christianity still survives. The Church is still feared as a danger: The flying island is in danger if it descends abruptly on towns with “high Spires,” for these can crack its foundation—meaning the Settlement of 1689, or basis of British government—and cause it to crash.
On Laputa, apostasy results not in an absence of religion, but in false religion. The ruling class there is so obsessed with fear that the sun will soon “give no more light” and that a comet will set the earth on fire in 31 years (Halley had predicted a comet would return in 1758) that they can neither “sleep quietly” nor enjoy “common Pleasures,” and the first thing they do each day is ask each other about “the Sun’s Health” and the “approaching Comet.”
Gulliver reports this matter in a detached scientific tone, but Swift would expect us to recall these prophecies: that the Whore “shall be utterly burned with fire” (Rev. 18:8), that the sun shall be “darkened” and stars “fall from heaven” (Matt. 24:29–30), and that “men’s hearts” shall fail them “for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth” (Luke 21:26). The Laputans’ hearts are indeed “failing them for fear,” for evidently they lack all Christian hope.
Indeed, the Laputans, for all their scientific rationalism, place “great Faith in judicial Astrology.” Note the word faith. Their science gives them no comfort, so they look for comfort, absurdly enough, in horoscopes. The primitive church father Hippolytus, in his treatise on Antichrist, rebukes the Whore, the city of Antichrist, precisely for placing her faith in astrology, saying sarcastically: “Let the astrologers of the heavens stand and save thee; let the stargazers announce to thee what shall come upon thee.”
The king of Laputa is a figure of Antichrist, since he can “raise the Island above the Region of Clouds and Vapours.” The primitive Church had applied this biblical prophecy to the Antichrist: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds: I will be like the Most High” (Is. 14:14). The king of Laputa also prevents sunshine and rain from falling on a rebellious town below and so causes famine and pestilence—two judgments reserved to God in Scripture. Thus, Laputa and her king stand for the modern state’s usurpation of divine power.
Laputa always inflames its visitors with an ardent zeal to go against common sense, as Gulliver soon learns when he visits the Academy of Lagado in the land of Balnibarbi. Forty years earlier, its “projectors” (or program-directors) visited the flying island and returned filled with a fanatic zeal to change all the arts, sciences, and languages. Although their programs have turned the country into a wasteland, they are “Fifty Times more violently bent” to promote radical change.
They blame their failures on those few who still follow inherited, time-tested ways, and frighten them into funding new and witless programs. In one typical example, a group of blind men “mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling.” The typical scientist in Lagado is sure of his eventual success, given enough money and time. Soon gullible Gulliver is “fully convinced” of many foolish predictions, such as that spiders will someday weave cloth.
In Lagado, we see how the Whore makes “the inhabitants of the earth drunk” with her “wine” (Rev. 17:2), and how apostasy leads to a strange kind of faith. In the academy a scientist writes a certain proposition “on a thin Wafer, with Ink composed of a Cephalick Tincture” and forces his students to swallow it on “a fasting Stomach,” so the proposition will reach their brains. Thus, he puts his faith in a materialist “transubstantiation,” a parody of what the high-churchman Richard Hooker had said, that a kind of transubstantiation occurs when the Eucharist causes an interior conversion within the communicant. Swift is nudging his readers to observe that those who reject Church and sacrament will embrace such a priest and sacrament as this.
Traveling next to Glubdubdrib and Luggnagg, Gulliver finds that denying the Christian hope of resurrection gives rise to lurid fantasies of immortality. The primitive church father Victorinus had written that Antichrist would make “even the dead appear to rise again,” and Tertullian that he would perform a “false resurrection” so as “to overthrow faith in the resurrection and the judgment.”
In Glubdubdrib, Gulliver meets a sorcerer (the governor of the island) who has the power to raise the dead, though only for 24 hours. Gulliver is soon collaborating with him in necromancy, a form of apostasy. The same man who recently tempted the Giant King to become a tyrant by offering him gunpowder flies into raptures at seeing the ghosts of history’s six greatest heroes of liberty.
Swift soon shows us what his love of liberty is really worth, for in Luggnagg Gulliver licks the floor at the feet of a monstrous tyrant and becomes his favorite. He is so far gone in pride that he rejoices at having a clean floor to lick, such as is reserved for the highest in rank. In Scripture, it is predicted that foreigners will “bow down” before the Messiah with “their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust” (Is. 49:23; Ps. 72:9; Micah 7:17), so this king tries to supplant Jesus Christ by demanding the supreme homage due to him alone.
But he is no messiah, rather a monster who kills his subjects without warning by having his servants sprinkle poison on the floor that must be licked. This king has an image that speaks for him, as in Revelation 14, a “seal” that depicts him as “ A King lifting up a lame Beggar from the Earth.” These three words— lifting, lame, and beggar—are found in Acts 3:1–7, where, in the name of Christ, St. Peter lifts a lame beggar from the earth. The point of this seal is that the king claims to have the same miraculous power that Christ granted to the apostles (Matt. 10:8). So besides stealing the homage due to the Messiah, he also usurps the place of the primitive Church.
In the first London edition (1726), the chapter on Luggnagg has only two phrases in italics, on facing pages: “ A King lifting up a lame Beggar from the Earth,” and “ trampling upon the Crucifix.” Swift invites readers to compare these two images: one of a tyrant exalted to the sky, the other of God humbling himself to the dust. At the end of this voyage, Gulliver chooses to carry for his deliverance the seal of the pseudo-messiah, and he lets everyone think he has trampled the Crucifix, the true seal of his deliverance.
In the next episode, we see that Gulliver has lost all belief in the resurrection, when he meets the Struldbruggs, or “Immortals.” He goes into raptures upon hearing about people who live an endless physical life, but is shocked when he learns that they are terribly “melancholy” at “the dreadful Prospect of never dying”—indeed, are filled with envy for those who die and reach a “Harbour of Rest, to which they themselves never can hope to arrive.”
Here Swift glances at Revelation 9:6: “In those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” All these living-dead are weird fantasies such as fill the vacuum after the Church’s faith in the resurrection has been abandoned. With his “keen appetite for perpetuity of life . . . much abated,” Gulliver says he would like to bring a pair of Struldbruggs back “to arm our People against the Fear of Death.” The implication is that his countrymen no longer yearn for eternal life and need to see these ghastly creatures to resign themselves to extinction.
In the fourth voyage, Gulliver travels to the Britain of the future, a society where reasoning Horses, the Houyhnhnm, have long been the ruling class. Why horses? Psalm 32:9 states, “Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding.” St. Augustine explained that the horse in this verse represents the philosophers who refuse to worship God or acknowledge his providence, and who, while they have some reasoning power, lack the understanding that raises a man above a beast.
John Donne devoted an entire sermon to Psalm 32:9 and identified this horse with modern philosophers who pursue virtue without “a Church and Sacraments” and end up with “the Horse’s pride.” Lancelot Andrews spoke of the atheist as an “untamed horse” who must be “held with [the] bit and bridle” of anti-blasphemy laws. So the horse was a known symbol of the atheist. But where Scripture exhorts, “Be ye not as the horse,” Gulliver tells us, “Be ye as the horse.”
Twenty years before Gulliver’s Travels appeared, Swift used animals to symbolize the chief atheists of the previous century. He wrote in his Remarks upon a book (1708), that “Socinus, Hobbes, and Spinoza” are “the Bull, the Elephant, the Horse, and the Bear.” Thus, the horse for him stood for a branch of modern atheism, and by placing Spinoza and the horse in third place he invited us to connect them.
Also in 1708, Swift replied at some length to a book he thought inspired by the atheist philosopher Spinoza, Matthew Tindall’s The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted. There, Tindall had depicted the modern atheist as a horse trying to throw off his “old Rider,” the clergy, and he cited an earlier atheist who complained that the clergy still “bridle us, they saddle us, they harness us, they spur us.”
Thus, the horse represented atheism not only to churchmen, but even to atheists themselves. It is telling that Gulliver’s project at the end is the same as Tindall’s, to free the horse from his “Bridle.” He will spend the rest of his life talking to two liberated horses.
Swift was very interested in Spinoza as the chief source of atheism in his day: He had read not only the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, where Spinoza launched an unprecedented attack on the Bible as a corrupted man-made work (Swift’s annotated copy survives in Ireland), but also the Ethic, where Spinoza denies the superiority of man to animals. After Spinoza died in 1678, his disciples proposed him as the ultimate model of virtue. The Christian clergy were taken by surprise, for it was the first time an atheist had been offered as a pattern of perfection in place of Christ.
So when Gulliver says in chapter 3 that “the Word Houyhnhnm, in their Tongue, signifies a Horse; and in its Etymology, the Perfection of Nature,” Swift glances at this new, unheard-of idea of virtue. Gulliver pointedly uses the term imitation when he says that he plans to spend his life henceforth proposing the “Virtues” of the horse for “the Imitation of Mankind,” a pointed reference to the Imitatio Christi of Thomas à Kempis, several editions of which were published in Swift’s lifetime.
The primitive father Origen writes that Antichrist will supplant Christ as the model of perfection and adds that this will be a delusion, since “the perfection of virtue dwells in the man who realizes the ideal given in Jesus.” It is only a short step for Gulliver from carrying the seal of a pseudo-messiah at the end of the third voyage to serving an atheist Horse as his guru in the fourth. St. Paul predicts that after the “falling away” of apostasy comes a “strong delusion” and belief in “a lie” (2 Thess. 2:1–12).
At the end of this last voyage, Swift actually refers to the Trojan Horse. He does it at the point where Gulliver declares that his “Maxim” for the rest of his life will be to imitate the Horses and “strictly adhere to Truth.” Just then Swift exposes him. Gulliver confirms his maxim by quoting the words of the most colossal liar known in Western literature, the perjured Sinon, from Book II of the Aeneid: “Nor if cruel fortune has made Sinon miserable, shall she also make him false and deceitful.”
If Gulliver’s truth is like Sinon’s, we have to regard with suspicion everything he has said in the book. For Sinon, by his treacherous tale and avowals of sincerity, persuaded his listeners to take the Trojan Horse into their city and bring on their own destruction. Swift’s message is clear: Gulliver is gulling us into accepting a new Trojan Horse, the idea that the atheist is our best pattern of virtue.
In the late seventeenth century, the followers of Spinoza taught that the first societies had been virtuous atheists until religion corrupted them, and that if a society of atheists were ever established again, it would be a pattern of virtue compared to Christian nations. In two sermons, Swift attacked these claims and showed that a society of virtuous atheists was an impossibility.
In “On the Trinity,” he argued that atheists do not lead better lives than Christians because in time of temptation, they rely on fallen reason while faithful Christians rely on something better, divine grace and the hope of salvation. In “On the Testimony of Conscience,” he declared that an atheist will do the right thing only if it is useful to him, and that he cannot give “any reasonable Security that he will not be false and cruel, and corrupt, whenever a temptation offers, which he values more than he does the Power wherewith he was trusted.”
Thus, Swift showed that the virtue of the atheist is only utilitarianism. Sure enough, after Gulliver embraces the ideology of the Horse, he does whatever cruel thing is useful to him—as when he kills many adult Yahoos to use their skins as a covering for his canoe, and then kills many infant Yahoos to stitch their skins together as his sail. In Lilliput, he stood against persecution; now he is a persecutor.
For who are the Yahoos? During most of the voyage, Gulliver tricks us into seeing them as animals with human shapes. But near the end he lets us know, as if it were minor information, that their ancestors were shipwrecked Europeans. How did Christians come to live like animals without articulate speech?
Gulliver informs us that after the Yahoos came to the island, they began to multiply. The Horses resented their growing numbers—for the Horses are careful never to have more than two offspring—so they suddenly attacked the Yahoos without warning in what they call their great “Hunting.” They killed all who could speak and left only the infants to be raised as slaves. When Gulliver arrives, the Horses have been oppressing Yahoos for generations.
Swift might have found hints for the Horses’ great “Hunting” in the primitive father Commodianus, who writes that the “obscene horses” of Antichrist will slaughter Christians “with kicking heel,” and in Revelation 13, where the “Beast” makes “war with the Saints,” i.e., the Church, and wins the victory for a time. The Master Horse harps on the Yahoos’ inclination to sin, but it is clear from the story of the “Hunting” that the island Yahoos are more sinned against than sinning.
Indeed, the island Yahoos are the Church grown primitive again in the “tribulation,” about which Scripture warns: “Then shall be a great tribulation, such as was not from the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). The martyrs of the primitive Church were likewise slandered as evil, and they were dressed as animals so their deaths in the Coliseum would seem ridiculous. But the Yahoos are in a far worse state—being reduced to living, not just dying, like animals.
Even so, the Horses still hate them so much that the only topic ever discussed at their Great Assembly is the extermination of the Yahoos. Swift’s vision of the “great tribulation” is so wildly imaginative that few Christian readers have recognized themselves in the Yahoos. But this is a serious warning of what will come if the Church loses all its rights and atheist Horses are no longer curbed by the bridle of the law.
By chapter 5, Gulliver applies the name Yahoo to all Christendom. This is the only time in the entire book that he uses the word Christendom, and he does it to equate European Christians with Yahoos. From here on, he practically reserves the name Yahoo for European Christians. For when he sails to “New Holland,” he calls the inhabitants there Natives and Savages, not Yahoos, but the Portuguese who arrive he calls Yahoos.
Yahoo is a form of Yahweh, as seen in the name of the Israeli politician Netanyahu. The letters YH are the first half of the Tetragrammaton and mean “I AM.” We read in Revelation 13:6 that Antichrist will open “his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his Name.” Little wonder, then, if Yahoo is constantly equated with evil in the last voyage, for Gulliver visits a society of unbridled Horses with no anti-blasphemy laws.
With this in mind, we should reflect that much of what the Horses and Gulliver say about Yahoos and Christian history is inspired by their dogmatic ideology. As William Law wrote in his Remarks against Pierre Bayle (1724), it was common among atheists to divide Europeans into two groups: the enlightened few (mostly philosophers and mathematicians), and the multitude, meaning the Christians, who were seen as “groveling Wretches” with “only the Shape of Men.” Of course, Swift has it both ways: He lashes the vices of Christians from the mouths of atheists and at the same time warns Christians about what is coming if they continue in their vicious lives and apostasies.
Yet in the person of the saintly Portuguese Captain Pedro de Mendez, we finally see how unjust Gulliver has been in his dialogues with the Master Horse, in which he denounced all European Yahoos as uniformly evil. Those dialogues hold a mirror up to atheists like Pierre Bayle and Matthew Tindall, who present European history as a tale of monstrous evil wrought mainly by the Church. This revisionist approach to European history—now very common—was just starting at the end of the seventeenth century. Swift wants none of it, for he declares plainly in his answer to Tindall, just as the Giant King does in the Travels, that it is sin, not religion, that causes wars.
The atheists’ dogmatic ideology is sometimes today called naturalism. While in Houyhnhnmland, Gulliver comes to believe that human beings were originally quadrupeds who became deformed by walking upright. This contradicts what the primitive father Lactantius wrote about the human form, that God designed it so man would fix his eyes on heaven, his final home. By chapter 7, Gulliver is “convinced” that it is a fault for him to have hands instead of forefeet, so that he not only loathes his “own form,” but also recalls with revulsion his absent family and friends because they are “ Yahoos in shape.”
In this, Swift shows that Gulliver is a follower of Spinoza, who denied dogmatically that God made man superior to animals. In the notorious Appendix to Part I of his Ethic, Spinoza insisted that the idea of man’s superiority to animals is the source of all “prejudices concerning good and evil, merit and sin, praise and blame, order and disorder, beauty and deformity.” In short, all traditional morality and aesthetics rest on this one foundation, which Spinoza tries to shake by asserting that man is only another modification of Nature and that no creature differs from another in substance. At the start of the last voyage, Gulliver thinks the Horses might be sorcerers who have changed their shapes, but at the end he believes there is no substantial difference between a man and a horse.
Gulliver as Trojan Horse
When Swift puts down his mask in the last chapter and identifies Gulliver with the perjured liar Sinon, he tells us that the book is finally a Trojan Horse full of enemy troops. For if we take the atheist as our ultimate model of virtue, if we accept the idea that a society ruled by philosopher-atheists would be superior to a Christian nation, if we go along with a history of Europe that makes the Christian religion the cause of every type of evil, then we have brought the enemy right into the heart of our City.
This ideology leads directly to the last unspeakable persecution of the Church. Swift was prophetic. We have seen, since his day, several self-declared societies of virtuous atheists—in Revolutionary France, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany—and each of them gave the Christian Church a great “Hunting.”
Swift’s vision of how the Beast will make war and overcome the Church in the end-times is close to that of William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming.” Yeats writes that when “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” we may look for the coming of one whose gaze is “pitiless as the sun” [the Houyhnhnm] and ask, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Giving a paper at “A Symposium on Swift and Christianity” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 2002, Gardiner was the only speaker to present him as a Christian. Readers interested in subjects raised in this essay should see her “‘Be ye as the horse!’—Swift, Spinoza and the Society of Virtuous Atheists” in Studies in Philology 97 (2000), pp. 229–253, and “Swift on the Dutch East-India Merchants: The Context of 1672–73 War Literature” in the Huntington Library Quarterly (1991).
An earlier version of this essay was given at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.
“Swift Prophet” first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
This page and all site content © 2017 by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved. Please send comments, suggestions, and bad link reports to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fellowship of St. James publications: Follow us online!
The Mustard Seed & the Wonders of His Kingdom
Transgender Disorder & Really Bad Psychiatry
On Christian Stewardship & Climate Change
Why the Design in Living Things Goes Far Beyond Machinery
On Mathematical Certainty & the Liberty of Faith
What the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Means for Us