Gulliver's Travels

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Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Analysis

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Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Icon
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Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Icon

By placing Gulliver amongst people of extremely different physical circumstances than his own, Gulliver’s adventures dramatize the distinction between moral and physical power. In Lilliput, Gulliver’s huge size advantage over the Lilliputians would make it easy for him to treat them like inhuman vermin and to assert himself against them by physical force (he even imagines squashing them by the handfuls during their initial encounter on the beach). But Gulliver’s willingness to empathize, reason with, and respect the Lilliputians despite their diminutive size yields a much more meaningful, rewarding experience (at least until the prince turns against him). Conversely, in Brobdingnag, the Brobdingnagians could easily dehumanize and squash Gulliver, but Gulliver is impressed by their kindness and willingness to listen and empathize with him (though they do treat Gulliver a little more like a cute clown than he would like). Through the example of the Lilliputians’ ridiculous, futile battles over how best to crack an egg, the novel suggests the absurdity of all warfare as a means to settle matters of the mind and faith. Through the example of the Laputian king and the Luggnaggian king, the novel presents a parody of tyrannical excess and shows the dangers of rulers who assert themselves through physical power. In Laputa, the king is totally out of touch with his people and maintains his hold over the people simply by making himself “taller” than they are by floating above them on his island. In Luggnagg, the king demands grotesque demonstrations of physical supplication, making subjects crawl on their stomachs licking the dirty floor before him.

As the novel considers the dangers of physical power in society, it also considers the physical character of the individual and reflects on how best to handle one’s body. The Laputians’ and Lagadans’ obsession with reason and knowledge has rendered them utterly out of touch with their bodies. Their inability to function in the practical, physical world has in turn destroyed their society, and their example indicates that ignoring physical reality inevitably leads to suffering. Among the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver learns that the possession of a human body does not automatically elevate a person over the animals. The Yahoos, it turns out, are much more bestial than the animal Houyhnhnms. This directly contradicts the common European assertion of the time that human bodies were automatically superior to animal bodies because the human form necessarily contained moral and rational power. Indeed, the Houyhnhnms possess a stronger moral compass and sense of reason than the Yahoos and the Europeans alike. At each instance, the novel thus shows that true superiority and worthy power come from a moral, rational mind in harmony with the body it inhabits.

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Moral vs. Physical Power Quotes in Gulliver's Travels

Below you will find the important quotes in Gulliver's Travels related to the theme of Moral vs. Physical Power.
Book 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

I confess, I was often tempted, while they were passing backwards and forwards on my body, to seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground. But the remembrance of what I had felt, which probably might not be the worst they could do, and the promise of honor I made them—for so I interpreted my submissive behavior—soon drove out those imaginations. Besides, I now considered myself as bound, by the laws of hospitality, to a people who had treated me with so much expense and magnificence.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputians
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gulliver has arrived on the island of Lilliput. He's been captured (tied down) by the Lilliputians, a race of tiny, mouse-sized people. Although the Lilliputians eventually free Gulliver from his restraints, Gulliver doesn't immediately attack the Lilliputians--and it's important to understand why.

As Gulliver puts it, he refrains from attacking the Lilliputians because he has made a promise to them. While the "promise" is ambiguous (Gulliver himself doesn't entirely understand it, and merely interprets his own behavior), it seems to force Gulliver to be peaceful. Perhaps Gulliver refuses to attack the Lilliputians because he follows the laws of hospitality--laws which hold a great deal of sway in his European homeland. As Gulliver travels across the world, he's introduced to a great number of strange cultures. Although the cultures have strange customs and rules, they all treat Gulliver with some measure of respect, offering him food and shelter. In short, Gulliver and his hosts cooperate according to the unwritten rules of hospitality: Gulliver is the visitor, meaning that he deserves some respect.


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Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

…taking them one by one out of my pocket…I observed both the soldiers and people were highly delighted at this mark of my clemency, which was represented very much to my advantage at court.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputians
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gulliver, now friendly with the emperor of Lilliput, is presented with the "traitors" who fired arrows at him. Instead of hurting the traitors, Gulliver scares them and then releases them. He notices that his behavior has endeared him to the emperor--everyone seems delighted with his mercy.

Gulliver is something of a showman--he knows that he has to make a good impression on the emperor, and he also knows how to go about intimidating the Lilliputians, who are righty terrified of his enormous size. And yet Gulliver also seems genuinely merciful--he's given an opportunity to hurt the Lilliputians, but doesn't. For all his faults, Gulliver is still, essentially, a gentle person.

Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

It is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy…

Related Characters: Redresal (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Swift describes an ongoing feud between Lilliput and Blefescu, the two imaginary countries Gulliver visits on his first adventure. The people of Lilliput and Blefescu have been at war for many years, because they can’t agree on the right way to break an egg. Some think it’s best to break it at the small end; some prefer the larger end. Because of the tremendous controversy over this incredibly trivial difference, Blefescu and Lilliput fight with one another, and many people die.

Swift may have intended this quote to symbolize the feud between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. (See Background Info for more.) Beginning with the Protestant Reformation, Europe fell into civil war: the two main sects of Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism, fought over the correct way to worship Jesus Christ. Swift seems to be suggesting that by fighting over relatively minor religious differences, Christians in Europe were ignoring all the similarities between them: a classic example of the “narcissism of petty differences.” Swift might also be alluding more generally to the relatively small cultural differences or arguments over borders that have sometimes led neighboring countries to go to war.

Book 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

And so immeasurable is the ambition of princes, that he seemed to think of nothing less than reducing the whole empire of Blefuscu into a province, and governing it as a viceroy…by which he would remain the sole monarch of the whole world…And I plainly protested that I would never be an instrument of bringing a free and brave people into slavery.

Related Characters: Redresal (speaker), The Lilliputian King, The Blefuscans
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Gulliver has helped the Lilliputians win a great war against the people of Blefescu: he's surprised the navy of Blefescu, tying together all the ships and pulling them to Lilliput, where the people of Blefescu surrender right away. Although the emperor of Lilliput is pleased with Gulliver's actions, he's angry when Gulliver refuses to go further and enslave the people of Blefescu.

Gulliver's refusal to enslave the people of Blefescu is a mark of his virtue--in spite of his many faults, he's not the type to actively cause pain to other people, whether they're human beings or Lilliputians. The irony, however, is that Gulliver, as a European man, lives in a society that does enslave the people of other countries (Irish, Africans, etc.)--Gulliver seems too naive to realize the truth about his own homeland.

Book 1, Chapter 7 Quotes

It was a custom, introduced by this prince and his ministry…that after the court had decreed any cruel execution either to gratify the monarch’s resentment or the malice of a favorite, the emperor always made a speech to his whole council, expressing his great lenity and tenderness, as qualities known and confessed by all the world…nor did anything terrify the people so much as those encomiums on his majesty’s mercy; because it was observed that, the more these praises were enlarged and insisted on, the more inhuman was the punishment, and the sufferer more innocent.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputian King
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this fascinating quotation, Gulliver describes how the emperor of Lilliput maintains power over his people. Whenever he executes someone, he makes a great show of claiming to be "merciful"--to the point where the Lilliputians come to associate mercy itself with deadly executions.

Swift is satirizing the systems of absolute monarchy of the early modern era--in which a single, volatile, all-powerful ruler aimed to be (like God) both loved and feared. In The Prince, Machiavelli argued that a great ruler had to intimidate his people into submission, to the point where even the ruler's gentleness held the possibility of more cruelty behind it--Machiavelli set the tone for centuries of absolute kings and emperors, whom Swift satirizes here. It may seem strange to say that mercy can be intimidating, but in fact we already have evidence for such an idea: Gulliver's decision to spare his Lilliputian attackers (see quote above) intimidated the people of Lilliput more, not less.

Book 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

…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.

Related Characters: The Brobdingnagian King (speaker), The Brobdingnagian King
Page Number: 122-123
Explanation and Analysis:

The King of Brobdingnag comments on the speech Gulliver has just delivered, in which Gulliver describes his own European society. From Gulliver’s perspective, his home is  a perfectly ordinary place—Gulliver accepts the corruption and hypocrisy of his world, simply because he’s used to it. The King of Brobdingnag, by contrast, questions everything about Gulliver’s world—because he’s defamiliarized with Europe, he has no problem seeing what’s absurd, contradictory, or otherwise immoral about it.The King’s comments reinforce Swift’s reason for writing Gulliver’s Travels in the first place. By offering a novel perspective on a familiar topic (such as the Brobdingnagian King’s perspective on Europe), Swift satirizes the institutions of his own society, encouraging readers to see them in a new light, as if for the first time.

Book 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Brobdingnagian King
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

The King of Brobdingnag studies Gulliver's pistols, and Gulliver explains--very calmly--that people use these weapons to murder their enemies. The King is appalled that anyone, big or small, could speak so calmly of killing other people. Gulliver, for his part, seems puzzled that the King is so puzzled: he's so used to owning pistols and using them to "defend" himself that he can't understand why anybody would question his behavior.

It's ironic that the King supposes that some "enemy of mankind" invented the pistol. Logically, the King supposes, human beings themselves would never invent something that would cause them so much pain. But, as we know very well, humans did invent guns. The message is clear: people don't know what's good for them--they have an unlimited imagination for machines of pain, misery, and self-destruction.

Book 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

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; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill shapen body, not only larger but more distorted.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Master Horse (speaker)
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, the Master Horse asks Gulliver about his own society. Gulliver explains that in Europe, people have used their intelligence to build instruments of war, causing death and destruction to their fellow men. The Master Horse is astounded that it’s possible to use intelligence for such nefarious purposes. He concludes that humans aren’t actually intelligent at all—they’ve just found a way to increase the amount of evil in the world.

The Master Horse’s comments bring up an interesting idea: do morality and reason necessarily work together? As Gulliver’s own society proves, the smart thing and the right thing aren’t necessarily one and the same. The Master Horse, used to a society in which his fellow horses use their intelligence for the betterment of one another, is naturally reluctant to believe that humans are really intelligent at all—he can’t stand the idea that morality and reason need not agree. (We’ve already seen other examples of how reason and morality can oppose one another; for example, in Laputa Gulliver realizes that the supposedly great men of the past have been just painted in a positive light by the artists and writers of the past, and weren't morally "great" at all.)