As Gulliver travels from society to society, he observes each one’s organization in detail and compares and contrasts it with the English state. Though all of the societies visited are flawed, several possess some admirable qualities and almost all of them play out the consequences of a particular utopian ideal. Their admirable qualities include the peaceful Brobdingnagian king’s disgust at the thought of gunpowder and rule by violent force; the Lilliputian king’s initial generosity and warmth towards the foreign Gulliver; the Houyhnhnms’ reason-driven peace and order. But the societies also demonstrate the unfortunate outcome of certain utopian ideals. Lilliput separates its children from their birth parents (as Plato himself advised in), but the practice does not end up yielding very mature or reasonable adults. The Lilliputian king and his court are petty grudge-holders, no better than the monarchs of Europe. Laputa dedicates itself to reason and scientific progress but its devotion produces only trivialities and useless inventions, leaving the useful parts of society to decay. The Houyhnhnms practice strict family planning, but the plans leave no room for the passionate and beautiful parts of love and marriage. The Houyhnhnms’ also transcend humanity’s ills and evils, but this, too, ends up stripping them of personal identity so that their society lacks humanity’s rich vividness and seems to the reader a bit too robotic, even as Gulliver professes to love it. Gulliver himself attempts to live the ideal of uniting with nature by living among the Houyhnhnms, but this commitment only dooms him to dissatisfaction and insanity in the human life he must inevitably return to.
Swift never draws up a formula for an ideal state and society because he does not believe that one exists. However, by showing the goods and ills of the vastly different societies Gulliver visits, Swift implicitly points out the errors of human society while also cautioning against the embrace of certain “utopian” solutions.
Society and the State ThemeTracker
Society and the State Quotes in Gulliver's Travels
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.
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.
…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.
I was chiefly disgusted with modern history. For having strictly examined all the persons of greatest name in the courts of princes, for a hundred years past, I found how the world had been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war, to cowards; the wisest counsel, to fools; sincerity, to flatterers; Roman virtue, to betrayers of their country…