Isaac Newton in Gulliver’s Third Book

by PammyMcB

It is common knowledge that Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels falls in the satire genre. However, the true definition of satire means a more general critique than what can be seen in “Book III”. Throughout the book, Jonathan Swift consistently parodies everything about Isaac Newton. Not only does Swift specifically criticize Newton, but he also criticizes Newton’s discoveries, the Royal Society, which Newton was the president of at the time the book was written and published, and Newton’s views on religion. It seems as if Swift did not understand anything about Newton. He did not understand the purpose in Newton’s projects, and Newton’s personal life. One might say that Swift just did not care for all things Newtonian.

According to Michael White, a biographer of Isaac Newton, Swift had visited Newton’s home on numerous occasions; however, he never mentioned Newton in his various published letters. It is not surprising that Swift would have a dislike for the actual person. Robert Lacey reports, “Isaac Newton did not, in fact, get on very well with this illustrious fraternity [Royal Society]” (237). Swift’s portrayal of Newton and his colleagues is often absurd and amusing. This is common ground that authors to this day remain to stand on. Throughout literary history “the scientist has contributed to a still current subliterary cliché which represents the scientist as at best eccentric and faintly comic, often alien, often somehow “unsound,” and frequently positively evil” (Millhauser 288). Millhauser goes on to say about scientists in literature, “He was, rather, many unsavory things in one person: wizard, alchemist, atheist, vivisectionist, poisoner – not to mention that bumptious fellow who went in for the Other Discipline” (304). The utter contempt that must have been felt by Jonathan Swift toward Isaac Newton will become clear through careful observation of the text.

First, Newton’s discoveries brought a great deal of controversy into focus in the Eighteenth Century mind. Throughout “Book III,” Swift brings this controversy into view. Newton’s discoveries in optics were the first few noted. “He believed that white light was composite and not pure…” (Berlinski 78). In his composite light experiment Newton drilled a whole in his window shutters. The daylight from outside beamed in as a narrow stream of white light. In the path of the stream, Newton placed a prism, which broke the light into various colors. Furthermore, Newton worked the experiment backwards in order to return the colored light to its original form, white light. The experiment worked, and today we may be tempted to say that was an ingenious discovery; but the Eighteenth Century mind would question the purpose of this experiment. This experiment is much like those performed in the Academy of Projectors in Lagado. For instance, one projector was trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, one wanted to return human excrement to its original form, and one wanted to have spiders weave colorful webs. Though the projectors saw the utility in their work, it was difficult for others to see. Likewise, it was difficult for Swift to see any utility in Newton’s work, though Newton was certain utility existed. “It is proposed that Swift regarded the Newtonian science as not only useless, but, more importantly, as being essentially immoral in its consequences” (Kiernan 710).

Other discoveries of Newton include universal gravitation, laws of motion, principles of conservation, the reflection of telescopes, and developing a mathematical technique called calculus. One question spurred the fame of this philosopher, why should the apple fall straight down toward earth, not up, or diagonally, but down? This is where the idea of attraction entered the mind of Isaac Newton. From this precept, Newton worked out that the planets move in an ellipse, and the three laws of motion, “the second of these explaining the power of gravity and how it determined the motion of the planets and their moons, the movement of the tides, and apparently the eccentric behavior of comets” (Lacey 238). For the first time in history there was a mathematical formula to work out how and why the universe behaves the way it does. Again, Modern man would venture to say this is the greatest discovery of all time, but during the Eighteenth Century, this discovery had no utilitarian value. How was knowing how the planets are going to behave able to help with the problems that many people in the era face? This is the question that led Swift to parody such a great scientific mind as Newton. However, it should be noted that the argument that Swift made then still rings true today. With all of the pestilence, war, famine, and death consuming many modern nations, why do governments continue to spend billions of dollars to see what the other side of Mars looks like, or how other galaxies appear? To Swift the answer made just as little since as it does to us today. In “Book III,” Swift states, “They have likewise discovered two lesser Stars, or Satellites, which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the Center of the primary Planet exactly three of his Diamers…” (144). Swift, himself, seems to not give us the answer to the unstated question that he has posed.

Swift does, however, go on to critique Newton’s mathematics. To the most intelligent educated man, Isaac Newton’s Calculus was very hard to understand. In Robert Lacey’s book Great Tales from English History, Newton often lectured “to the walls” at Cambridge University. Lacey also states, “students often avoided his [Newton’s] lectures” (238). Swift parodies this when Gulliver:

…was at the Mathematical School, where the Master taught his Pupils after a Method scarce imaginable to us in Europe. The Proposition and Demonstration were fairly written on a thin Wafer, with ink composed of a Cephalick Tincture. This the Student was to swallow upon a fasting Stomach, and for three Days following eat nothing but Bread and Water. As the Wafer digested, the Tincture mounted to his Brain, bearing the Proposition along with it. But the Success hath not hitherto been answerable, partly by some Error in the Quantum or Composition, and partly by the Perverseness of Lads, to whom this Boluse is so nauseous, that they generally steal aside, and discharge it upwards before it can operate, neither have they been yet persuaded to use so long an Abstinence as the Prescription required” (158).

Similar to the students at Lagado, the students at Cambridge literally could not absorb the information that Newton was teaching them. Swift argues the inability to understand and absorb such theories is due to “error” in the computations. These elaborate calculations were used throughout Newton’s lifetime for the purpose of finding answers to man’s greatest questions. To Newton, everything could be explained through the use of mathematics. Edward Davis and Michael Winship state, “Galileo science must be applied only to knowledge that was absolutely certain – the kind that only mathematic and logic could provide” (123). If Davis and Winship were to stand before Newton in Glubbdubdrib while making that statement, they may have had an argument on their hands. Newton chose to use mathematics to prove the existence of many speculative notions. Constantly Newton searched through mathematical equations for the existence of God. Once he figured out that each planet traveled on a specific elliptical path, Newton realized that the planets were attracted to the Sun, which lead them to follow this path. Furthermore, he suggested that comets were God’s method of restarting the slowing universe. To Swift, questioning nature that we cannot control is irrelevant, and all scientific discoveries should benefit mankind.

The lack of utility in Eighteen Century Europe was a growing problem. Therefore, the problem that Swift had with Newton was not entirely scientific. Swift believed there was a lack of morality when it came to ‘philosophizing.’ Scientists in Laputa and Lagado were so focused on their discoveries and themselves that they were unaware of the world around them. This is similar to the science of Swift’s era. He felt that Newton’s science had a “tendency to lead men away from their moral fulfillment” (Kiernan 711). This cynicism could be due the widespread starvation of many of Swift’s fellow Irishmen. He felt that the money spent on these outrageous experiments could benefit his fellow countrymen. One particular section of the story echoes Swift’s frustration with the philosophers of his time:

In these Colleges, the Professors contrive new Rules and Methods of Agriculture and Building, and new Instruments and Tools for all Trades and Manufactures, whereby, as they undertake, one Man shall do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week, of Materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the Fruits of the Earth shall come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase an Hundred Fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy Proposals. The only Inconvenience is, that none of these Projects are yet brought to Perfection; and in the mean time, the whole Country lies miserably waste, the Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths (150).

Furthermore, the constant “projecting” keeps the men from living their life to its fullest extent. This is reflected in the life of Isaac Newton. At the age of eighty-three, when Gulliver’s Travels, was written, Newton had never married. He never had seemed to have done anything to suggest that he had actually lived his life. Swift would argue that Newton’s quest was actually a quest for immortality, rather than that of reason.

To gain immortality in the Eighteenth century, one had to gain fame. From ancient history, men had discovered three tactics guaranteed fame: be in a position of power, be a notorious criminal, or make important discoveries. The latter being the tactic that Swift believed Newton was consumed with. “The tactic is applied in the episode of the Struldbruggs by turning the metaphorical immortality of those who have fame into literal immortality. Thus the lives of the Struldbruggs ironically parallel the lives of those who pursue fame in the real world” (Fitzgerald 492). For this reason, the Struldbruggs can be viewed as a direct parody on Newton. First, they do not seem to be able to relate or talk to their mortal neighbors. They come to a point when they can no longer enjoy the taste of food and drink. Therefore, the Struldbruggs, like Newton, do not enjoy the pleasures in life. Again, Swift leads us to believe that Newton is one of the people being parodied by speaking of how much they are hated by others. Swift states, “They were not only Opinionative, Peevish, Covetous, Morose, Vain, Talkative, but uncapable of Friendship…” (180). Furthermore, after eighty years old the minds of the Struldbruggs begin to deteriorate; therefore, they are removed from their employment, and property, which their heirs take over. As previously noted, at the time the novel was released, Isaac Newton was eighty-three years old. The removing of Struldbruggs from their place of employment could have been a hint to the members of the Royal Society that Newton had out lived his usefulness, and should be replaced.

Unexpectedly, Swift has Gulliver toy with the notion of living the life of those who wish to become immortal. This is a extremely tempting fantasy to Gulliver until he realizes in order to reach immortality, one has to give up much quality of life and one’s soul. For him, it would be horrid to be seconds from death for an eternity. Swift has Gulliver state, “The Reader will easily believe, that from what I had heard and seen, my keen Appetite for Perpetuity of Life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing Visions I had formed, and thought no Tyrant could invent a Death into which I would not run with Pleasure from such a Life” (181). Therefore, to Swift, there comes a point in time that a person can no longer contribute to the betterment of mankind. When a person no longer is capable of discovering the smaller pleasures in life, such as companionship, they are no longer capable of bringing the future closer to utopia.

On the subject of utopia, Swift warns that a utopian society cannot exist unless all of mankind is freed from suffering. Because Swift did not see utility in the discoveries of Newton, Newton seemed to be the perfect target for “Book III.” “The story of Laputa made it possible to condemn Newtonian science because of its inhumanity, which is what Swift intended” (Kiernan 712). Newton’s intentions are arguable. On the one hand, he seems to have made a discovery that had a cascading effect, which has led to the comforts that we enjoy today. On the other hand, he felt that his discoveries were a way to prove the divinity of God. For this reason, Newton has been painted as a devout theologian. To Swift, a man cannot be both theologian and philosopher. In Laputa, Swift describes how incompatible science and mathematics were when Gulliver was fitted for a new suit of clothing. Swift stated, “He first took my Altitude by a Quadrant, and then with Rule and Compasses, described the Dimensions and Out-Lines of my whole Body, at which he entred upon Paper, and in Six Days brought my Cloths very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the Calculations” (136). The six days was representative of the creation story. In six days, God created the Heavens and Earth. In six days, Gulliver’s clothing was created with faulty calculations. During the Eighteenth Century, it was common knowledge that Newton was using mathematics “to compute when the Church of Rome would become the 11th Horn of the 4th beast in prophet Daniel’s vision” (Zacks 258). Furthermore, Newton’s work was to prove the existence of God. Instead, the discoveries lead to a new religion in which “the Breed of naked sheep” were led astray by Voltaire (Swift 154). In essence, the discoveries made by Newton unraveled the long withstanding work of the already fractured Church.

For the first time, it had been proven that “science contradicted Scripture” (Millhauser 302). The mystery and awe had been stolen away from the Christian faith. Swift felt that Newton and his astronomy colleagues “have great faith in judicial astrology, although they are ashamed to own it publickly” (138). Often Newton defended his position for discovery as the proof of the existence of God, who is still active in the world. However, his discoveries lead to the idea of an absent god. Swift warned that there was great danger in this way of thinking. He felt that the work of philosophers was being done in order to exalt themselves above God. Colin Kiernan paraphrases Swift as stating, “ Man should not magnify himself, nor demean God, to the point where he believes that, by his own powers, he can derive absolutes other than those given by God” (720). Newton, however, would argue that his discoveries prove the existence of God and do not debunk the Creator. In regards to Newton’s discoveries Richard Westfall quotes Newton as stating, “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being” (Westfall 155). It seems Newton and Swift would never see eye to eye on their ideas.

Newton felt that his discoveries could lead to a utopian society. However, Swift argued the failure to work for the betterment of mankind could bring no man closer to utopia or to God. There is, throughout “Book III,” a direct attack on Isaac Newton, his discoveries, the Royal Society, Newton’s religious beliefs, projects, and personal life. Though, in present day society, utility can be found from the discoveries that Newton made so long ago; the experiments he conducted in the Eighteenth Century made no sense to the modern gentleman. There was no way that Swift could have foreseen Newton’s impact on the world that we live in. It is important to understand that “Book III” was not solely a critique on Newton, although he was a leading, unseen character. Swift’s goal was to critique the various institutions that broke down he morality of all mankind and oppressed the masses. Though there may have been Gulliver’s Travels if Newton had never discovered a thing, in most probability, “Book III” may not have been as interesting.

Works Cited

Berlinski, David. Newton’s Gift. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Davis, Edward B. and Michael P. Winship. “Early Modern Protestation.” Science & Religion: A historical Introduction. Ed. Gary B. Ferngren. Maryland: Johns Hopkins U P, 2002. 117-129.

Fitzgerald, Robert P. “Swift’s Immortals: The Satiric Point.” Studies in English Literature. Vol. 24. Houston: Rice UP, 1984. 483-496.

Kiernan, Colin. “Swift and Science.” The Historical Journal 14.4 (1971): 709-722.

Lacey, Robert. Great Tales from English History. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.

Millhauser, Milton. “Dr. Newton and Mr. Hyde: Scientists in fiction from Swift to Stevenson.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 28.3 (1973): 287-304.

Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels.” Gulliver’s Travels: Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Albert J. Rivero. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. 1-250.

Westfall, Richard S. “Isaac Newton.” Science & Religion: A historical Introduction. Ed. Gary B. Ferngren. Maryland: Johns Hopkins U P, 2002. 153-162.

White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. Great Britain: Fourth Estate, 1997.

Zacks, Richard. An Underground Education. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1997.

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