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The Aristophanic Swift

Robert H. Nordell, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Jonathan Swift relies on Aristophanes' the Clouds and its stereotypical views and stagecraft to structure Gulliver's Travels, A Tale of a Tub, and other works. For example, in Part III of Gulliver's Travels, the flying island of La Puta is Socrates' suspended basket &parl0;kremar av&d12;&parr0; . The basket itself is Aristophanes' satiric attack on sophistic relativism which is subsequently expressed in Plato's tidal-flow metaphor (Phaedo 90C). ^ Criticisms of sophistry common to Aristophanes' the Clouds and Plato's Protagoras, Phaedo, and Gorgias are reworked by Jonathan Swift into satiric attacks on extreme subjectivism and what would later be known as solipsism. The Phaedo (89 D), moreover, likely provided at least one definition of misanthropy used by Swift which he transforms into something new: autostygesis or self-hatred. Neither Gulliver nor Swift is, strictly speaking, a misanthropist. Gulliver is neither a pre-Romantic individual-versus-society, nor a Hobbesian natural man-versus-the-state. ^ In the Travels, Swift addresses the question regarding the teachability of virtue through the notion of autodidacticism. Swift consistently uses a metaphor traceable to Aristophanes to express this notion. This metaphor (clothing/language acquisition) would have had particular resonance with Swift's eighteenth-century readers. Protagoras' man-measure principal, with its underlying subjectivism, relativism and phenomenalism, is incorporated into the Travels in a manner that structures the work while simultaneously maintaining distinctions subsisting between Swift and Gulliver. ^ In addition to specific images and objects of attack borrowed from the Clouds, Swift, particularly in Gulliver's Travels, appropriates antilogic ( antilogik h&d13; q.v. Phaedrus 261E). Antilogic is “an art which sets up contradictory predicates for the same subjects” (Kerferd 60). What appear to be inconsistencies, omissions, and outright contradictions are subsumed under a rhetoric which has for its end the aggrandizement of subjective authority. Swift satirizes the resulting subjectivism and relativism. Swift, moreover, relies upon the creation myth in Plato's Protagoras to develop his artistic rendering of “animal rationale” and “rationis capax.” ^ Gulliver's pride is manifested in his solipsism. Gulliver's solipsism and antilogy are traceable to the Clouds. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Classical|Philosophy|Theater|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Nordell, Robert H., "The Aristophanic Swift" (2000). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9991999.