Jonathan Swift's view of science and scientists is explicitly portrayed in his novel, Gulliver's Travels. Swift, in satirizing science, asserts that much of their studies are essentially useless for mankind. To him, the goal of science should be to benefit man; the speculative sciences and many of the so-called utilitarian projects are a waste of time and energy. In Part III of Gulliver's Travels, Swift describes many projects undertaken by the scientists at the Academy of Lagado; many of these projects were “modelled on actual research carried out by members of the Royal Society" (Turner xx). Swift also endeavors to show how not using science for utilitarian purposes is, not only useless, but also detrimental to mankind.
The placing of the scientists (and intellectuals in general) on a floating island symbolizes their detachment from mankind. Gulliver's physical description of the scientists that he encounters on Laputa further emphasizes this detachment:
Their Heads were all reclined either to the Right, or the Left; one of their Eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the Zenith (Swift 149).
Thus the Laputians do not look at objects directly, since their eyes are either “turned inward" or focused above them. This characteristic gives them a limited perception of their surroundings. This does not matter to them since they are not interested in much of what goes on around them, being “so taken up with intense Speculations that they neither can speak, nor attend to the Discourses of others" without the use of flappers to draw them back from their thoughts (Swift 149).
Swift shows the absurdity of the Laputians in various ways. One of these is their overwhelming obsession with the end of the world. This fear of world destruction causes them not to “sleep quietly in their Beds" nor “have any Relish for the common Pleasures or Amusements of Life" (Swift 155). Swift mocks how their disdain for “practical geometry" causes their homes to be very “ill built" (Swift 153). The implication is that scientists refuse to see the value and usefulness of applying science in practical ways.
The Laputians’ engrossing contemplation of mathematics and music (neglecting all other forms of knowledge) makes them neglectful of their surroundings to such an extent that their wives and their lovers “may proceed to the greatest Familiarities" in his presence without his being aware of it (Swift 155).
Swift also criticizes scientists for their unsociability and lack of interest in their fellow man. During Gulliver's two-month stay on Laputa, he complains that the King had not the least interest in the “Laws, Government, History, Religion, or Manners" of his homeland or the lands Gulliver had visited (Swift 156). Even when Gulliver is discussing the subject of mathematics with him, the King listens “with great Contempt and Indifference" (Swift 156). Thus, the Laputians show their total disregard for the opinions, beliefs, values, etc. of their fellow man; their own opinions are the only ones that matter to them.
For the Laputians, people who do not live up to their expectations in mathematics and music are looked down upon. Gulliver describes a “great Lord at Court" who had “performed many eminent Services for the Crown" and was “adorned with Integrity and Honor" (Swift 165). Despite these qualities, the Lord was “universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid Person among them" because he had no natural inclination towards mathematics or music (Swift 165). But this Lord was interested in his fellow man, who “desired to be informed in the Affairs of Europe, the Laws and Customs, the Manners and Learning of the several Countries" where Gulliver had traveled (Swift 166). This illustrates Swift's view that scientists and intellectuals are not in touch with humanitarian issues.
Swift describes the devastation to mankind that can be caused by scientists who experiment with new methods without foresight to consider the consequences. When Gulliver leaves Laputa and arrives at the metropolis Lagado below the flying island, he asks his guide about the condition of the countryside:
I could not forbear admiring at these odd Appearances both in Town and Country; and I made bold to desire my Conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me what could be meant by so many busy Heads, Hands, and Faces, both in the Streets and the Fields, because I could not discover any good Effects they produced; but on the contrary, I never knew a Soil so unhappily cultivated, Houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a People whose Countenances and Habit expressed so much Misery and Want (Swift 167).
After seeing his guide's country house which was a “noble structure built according to the best Rules of ancient Architecture" and seeing the outlying farms “containing Vineyards, Corngrounds, and Meadows, " Gulliver learns the reason behind the discrepancies (Swift 168). His guide informs him that forty years ago, several people went to visit Laputa and came back to Lagado with a “very little Smattering in Mathematicks" (Swift 168). These people began “to dislike the Management of everything below" and “fell into Schemes of putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanicks upon a new Foot" (Swift 169).
The Academy for Projectors was established, where 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 (Swift 169).
But since these projects are “not yet brought to perfection, " the lands are not being cultivated, the houses are in disrepair, and the people “without food or cloaths" (Swift 169). This description illustrates Swift's view that scientists are so eager to try out their new ideas without considering the consequences that it may lead to harming the people that they propose to help. Also that when they see the ill effects of their schemes, instead of admitting that they have failed, they are “Fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair" (Swift 169).
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Paul Turner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Turner, Paul. “Introduction and Footnotes". Gulliver's Travels. By Jonathan Swift. Ed. Paul Turner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ix-xxvi, 289-371.
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