Lilliputian Competition Authority
By Bart Wilson
This fall my student reading and dinner group is concurrently reading Personal Knowledge and Gulliver’s Travels (beautifully annotated by Asimov).
I have been fascinated with Gulliver’s Travels since high school but it has been several years since I last read it. This time I was particularly struck in Part One, Chapter 6 by Swift’s satire of the Whig’s legal priorities:
There are some laws and customs in this empire very peculiar; and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear country, I should be tempted to say a little in their justification…
They look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death: For they allege, that care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man’s goods from thieves; but honesty hath no fence against superior cunning: And since it is necessary that there should be a perpetual intercourse of buying and selling, and dealing upon credit; where fraud is permitted or connived at, or hath no law to punish it, the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage. I remember when I was once interceding with the King for a criminal who had wronged his master of a great sum of money, which he had received by order, and ran away with; and happening to tell his Majesty, by way of extenuation, that it was only a breach of trust; the Emperor thought it monstrous in me to offer, as a defence, the greatest aggravation of the crime: And truly, I had little to say in return, farther than the common answer, that different nations had different customs; for, I confess, I was heartily ashamed.
My inner dialogue with the book goes something like this:
Do I want to understand Swift’s satire? It bites.
You know you want to figure it out.
Yeah, those Lilliputians are ridiculous.
I know, they’re miniature people.
Lilliputians punish fraud with death. Damn, Swift, that’s clever. [Chuckle]
Are you sure you want to laugh at the Lilliputians?
Oh, I’m more honest with myself than that simpleton Gulliver.
Honesty hath no fence against superior cunning. Do you get it?
Haha. Those Lilliputians…Doh.