Move Over Nostradamus, Jonathan Swift Is the New Prophet


“… 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. It doth not appear, from all you have said, how any one virtue is required, towards the procurement of any one station among you; much less, that men are ennobled on account of their virtue; that priests are advanced for their piety or learning; soldiers for their conduct or valor; judges for their integrity; senators for the love of their country; or counsellors for their wisdom.”

The above statements could reflect the sentiments of someone commenting about the current state of affairs that exist in many countries around the world, including the United States.

It might surprise you to learn that those words were written in 1726 by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. That’s right, 1726, almost 300 years ago. The words were spoken by the King of Brobdingnag to Gulliver.

Another passage that caught my attention was the following:

“He (the King of Brobdingnag) then desired to know, What arts were practiced in electing those whom I called Commoners: whether a stranger, with a strong purse, might not influence the vulgar voters, to choose him before their own landlord, or the most considerable gentleman in the neighborhood. How it came to pass, that people were so violently bent upon getting into this assembly, which I allowed to be a great trouble and expense, often to the ruin of their families, without any salary or pension.”

While the part about not getting a salary or a pension is no longer true, Swift’s words almost seem prophetic when looking at the 2016 Presidential election.

In another part, Gulliver is explaining to the King of Brobdingnag the invention of gunpowder-based weapons, and how they could be effectively used in battles. However, the King was not as impressed with this invention as Gulliver thought he would be:

The king was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made. “He was amazed, how so impotent and grovelling an insect as I” (these were his expressions) “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. As for himself, he protested, that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom, than be privy to such a secret; which he commanded me, as I valued any life, never to mention any more.”

This King was indeed a wise man, and perhaps one of the first opponents of guns.

I did learn one fact while reading Gulliver’s description of the location of the country of Brobdingnag:

I cannot but conclude that our Geographers of Europe are in a great Error, by supposing nothing but Sea between Japan and California.

I thought at first that perhaps the version of the book I was reading was an updated translation of the book that used the current names of places, since I did not think California was really a place in the 1720s when the book was written. My guess would have been that the name California didn’t come about until the time of the gold rush in the 184os and 1850s. However, after checking Wikipedia, I found the following:

The name “California” was applied to the territory now known as the state of California by one or more Spanish explorers in the 16th century and was probably a reference to a mythical land described in a popular novel of the time: Las Sergas de Esplandián.

I’ve only read the first two of his voyages – to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and I’ve found the book humorous, satirical, and insightful. I guess there’s a reason why it’s considered a classic. I’m looking forward to finishing it.

In the meantime, I found it amazing that some of the problems we have today are the same ones we had 300 years ago. I thought that is why we study history, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off our history books.

*panegyric is a formal public speech, or (in later use) written verse, delivered in high praise of a person or thing, a generally highly studied and undiscriminating eulogy, not expected to be critical.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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