Gulliver’s Travels also considers the value of knowledge and its best applications in life. The novel surveys many different kinds of knowledge and examines the effect they have on the people possessing them. Gulliver’s worldly knowledge about other societies and lifestyles makes him tolerant and open-minded person, able to see both sides of most stories while many of the minds around him are more rigid. Still, it’s unclear if this knowledge actually serves Gulliver well—it ends up, after all, leaving him dissatisfied and lonely, estranged from his family and his society and wishing futilely that he was one of the Houyhnhmms. In Brobdingnag and the land of the Houyhnhnms, the novel considers the kind of political knowledge that both the Brobdingnagian king and the Houyhnhnms lack. Yet, while both are ignorant of gunpowder, Machiavellian strategies, and the use of fear and violence to keep people in line, both organize successful, happy societies that seem much more functional than those governed by the more “sophisticated” political knowledge of Europe. The novel also compares practical scientific knowledge, as practiced to valuable effect by the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms, to abstract scientific knowledge, as practiced to useless effect by the the Laputians. The Laputians’ knowledge, Swift shows, may as well be ignorance, for they don’t put their theories to any useful purpose and only waste their lives on fruitless experimentation. Finally, the novel considers self-knowledge as it is gradually acquired by Gulliver over the course of the novel, most so in Book 4. One could see Gulliver’s end as an awakening to his true self (and the true self of all human beings), which leaves him disgusted with human nature. However, one could also see Gulliver’s end as a tragic exaggeration of self knowledge such that he amplifies human evil beyond its actual proportions and thereby bars himself from integrating productively into the human society he should be a part of.
In most of these instances, knowledge becomes harmful when it approaches an extreme: problems arise if one only understands scientific and mathematic abstraction, as the Laputians do, or if one only pursues knowledge of foreign lands without spending time at home among one’s own people, as in the case of Gulliver himself. Thus, the novel seems implicitly to advocate a moderate balance between practical and abstract knowledge, between knowledge of the outside world and knowledge of one’s own position in it.
Knowledge Quotes in Gulliver's Travels
I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us.
He was amazed, how so impotent and groveling an insect as I…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.
Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevel, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined fro the intellects of their workers, which occasions perpetual mistakes.
They were indeed excellent in two sciences for which I have great esteem, and wherein I am not unversed; but, at the same time, so abstracted and involved in speculation, that I never met with such disagreeable companions.
He replied, “that I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not;” for they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood. “He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon water. He was sure no Houyhnhmn alive could make such a vessel, nor would trust Yahoos to manage it.”
I here take a final leave of all my courteous readers…to apply those excellent lessons of virtue which I learned among the Houyhnhmns; to instruct the Yahoos of my own family, is far as I shall find them docible animals; to behold my figure often in a glass, and thus, if possible, habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creatures…