Like many people, I first encountered Gulliver’s Travels as a children’s story in an abbreviated (and as it turns out, expurgated) version with pictures, a version that included, as I recall, only the first Book, and was billed as an entertaining  story about a giant among dwarves.  Only later, in college, did I learn that the story had four books, telling of four different lands, comprising an elaborate satirical allegory of ancients and moderns.  And only later still have I come to appreciate the extent to which Swift’s Lilliput is, not just any vision of modernity, but Hobbes’–the Leviathan writ small.

The joke may have been suggested by the Leviathan itself, which has a frontispiece graved to Hobbes’ specifications, showing the sovereign, sword in one hand, crozier in the other, looming over a peaceful town:



The engraving was intended as a visual depiction of the Leviathan’s teaching:  that civil peace could only be secured by authorizing a powerful sovereign to overawe his subjects. But to Swift, it seems to have presented comic possibilities: if the sovereign was incomparably larger than any one of his subjects, what happens to his subjects?  Are they not correspondingly reduced in stature? Are they not made–Lilliputians?

Allusions to Hobbes run throughout the book but are nowhere more explicit than in the social contract by which the “Mighty Emperor of Lilliput, Delight and Terror of the Universe” joins Gulliver to the Lilliputian social body. It is quintessentially Hobbesian, requiring Gulliver to lay down all the rights he possesses in the state of nature in order to enter the Lilliputian society, and promising him peace, security, and a degree of commodious living in recompense (in fact, state support of food and clothing for life–although it also appears that they cheat him; such are administrative states).

On its face, the contract is benign. Just under the surface, however, it proves to be an exquisite instrument of administrative cruelty. The drama of Book One is largely comprised of Gulliver’s gradual recognition of what that contract always involved–and then choosing, as he recounts, to break his sacred oath and flee rather than honor its terms.

The contract is exquisitely cruel, first, because the power which Gulliver transfers to the sovereign is unlimited.  This is not, of course, explicit.  Superficially, the articles of the contract enumerate specific duties that  Gulliver is expected to perform–some of them quite reasonable, as when he is to give warning before entering the Lilliputian metropolis.  Others, as Gulliver says, were not so honorable as he could have wished–such as that he carry messages, provide a survey of the Lilliputian territory, and help move heavy stones for building projects–but one could at least see them as a sort of fair bargain for the food and upkeep that Gulliver receives.

More troubling is the very first provision of the contract: that Gulliver “shall not depart from our Dominions without our Licence under our Great Seal.”  For why should the Lilliputians wish to bind Gulliver by oath from leaving?  The answer of course is that the social contract is–for Hobbes–not a conditional contract.  They want to own him, and acknowledge no possible circumstances under which he could return to the state of nature and so, freedom.  The Hobbesian contract reflects this; there are, quite literally,  no conditions under which the contract can be voided by either sovereign or subject (the contract is after all, not between sovereign and subjects, but between the subjects themselves to appoint a sovereign over them all.)

There is, thus, a darker side to the contract: even as it is appears to specify–and thereby limit–Gulliver’s duties and obligations to the sovereign, it provides no corresponding limitation of the sovereign’s power over Gulliver, while at the same time declaring that their relation of sovereign and subject cannot be terminated by Gulliver. Stripped of its benevolent veneer, the contract in fact binds Gulliver to an unconditional and unlimited obedience without any right, even of conscience, left to him. Worse, it secures Gulliver’s own authorization for whatever the sovereign does to him–and that to which one has assented, as Hobbes observes, no man can call injustice.

Subsequent events thus bring out the meaning of what was implicit in the contract all along.  Once Gulliver has defeated the Blufuscun navy, the Emperor of Lilliput orders him to enslave the now helpless Blufuscuns.  Gulliver refuses, because, as he tells us, he would not be an “Instrument of bringing a Free People into Slavery.” And this, together with an unfortunate fire and a bit of unfounded scandal (so we are assured–though the account is suspicious), is enough to bring Gulliver’s career among the Lilliputians to an end.  The Emperor is angry and Gulliver will have to be gotten rid of.  Secret articles of impeachment are accordingly drawn up.

It is difficult to do justice to Swift’s satirical abilities here.  It is probably enough to note that it is no easy task to draw up a loftily-worded article of impeachment whose essence is that a man has peed on a palace to put a fire out, thereby committing high treason. And yet Swift manages  Even more impressive is his ability to parody the infinite hypocrisies and limitless cruelties of the administrative state at its most “benevolent.”  This hypocritical cruelty is brought out in the report of the secret council that the Emperor’s advisers hold, urging that Gulliver’s house be set on fire at night, and he himself poisoned with arrows about his eyes and hands, and through his clothing and sheets.  Fortunately, Gulliver’s friend Reldresal spoke for him:

 He said, the friendship between you and him was so well known to the world, that perhaps the most honourable board might think him partial; however, in obedience to the command he had received, he would freely offer his sentiments. That if his majesty, in consideration of your services, and pursuant to his own merciful disposition, would please to spare your life, and only give orders to put out both your eyes, he humbly conceived, that by this expedient justice might in some measure be satisfied, and all the world would applaud the lenity of the emperor, as well as the fair and generous proceedings of those who have the honour to be his counsellors. That the loss of your eyes would be no impediment to your bodily strength, by which you might still be useful to his majesty; that blindness is an addition to courage, by concealing dangers from us; that the fear you had for your eyes, was the greatest difficulty in bringing over the enemy’s fleet, and it would be sufficient for you to see by the eyes of the ministers, since the greatest princes do no more.


As the proposal was received with utmost disapprobation by the whole board, however, his majesty conceived that the mere loss of eyes was too slight a punishment, and gradually came around to another proposal:

“But his imperial majesty, fully determined against capital punishment, was graciously pleased to say, that since the council thought the loss of your eyes too easy a censure, some other way may be inflicted hereafter. And your friend the secretary, humbly desiring to be heard again, in answer to what the treasurer had objected, concerning the great charge his majesty was at in maintaining you, said, that his excellency, who had the sole disposal of the emperor’s revenue, might easily provide against that evil, by gradually lessening your establishment; by which, for want of sufficient for you would grow weak and faint, and lose your appetite, and consequently, decay, and consume in a few months; neither would the stench of your carcass be then so dangerous, when it should become more than half diminished; and immediately upon your death five or six thousand of his majesty’s subjects might, in two or three days, cut your flesh from your bones, take it away by cart-loads, and bury it in distant parts, to prevent infection, leaving the skeleton as a monument of admiration to posterity.


Thus, we are told, the affair was compromised.

At last, Gulliver tells us, he entered upon a resolution and fled-though if he had known then what he knows now of the mercy of princes–and we might say administrative states–he would sooner have submitted.