Gulliver’s Travels: Dead Philosophy Debates, aka Neo-Scholasticism

By Jonathan Swift, 1726.

Get it: Amazon, IndieBound, WorldCat

Dearest Feral Scholars,

Tell me what you think of the new title: take the poll.

Last June, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to travel to Ireland and visited the farm where my Great-Grandmother was born. On the first day we saw St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin where Jonthan Swift was the (Anglican) Dean. Desiring a taste of his sharp wit, I stopped in The Book Centre in Kilkenny during our travels and picked up a cheap paperback version of Gulliver’s Travels. While much of the biting satire still holds true today, there were a few points where I wasn’t sure exactly what Swift meant to lambast.

Also, I’m not sure why Jonathan Swift hated math so much, but he certainly shares that in common with many of my GED students & instructors.

One of the initially confusing parts for me is when Gulliver visits the island of Glubbdubdrib (though I would love to see these chapters as a Peter Jackson movie):

Glubdubbdrib, as nearly as I can interpret the word, signifies the island of sorcerers or magicians. …The governor and his family are served and attended by domestics of a kind somewhat unusual. By his skill in necromancy he hath a power of calling whom he pleaseth from the dead, and commanding their service for twenty-hour hours, but no longer; nor can he call the same persons up again in less than three months. …his Highness, the governor, ordered me to call up whatever persons I would choose to name, and in whatever numbers, among all the dead, from the beginning of this world until the present time, and command them to answer any questions I should think fit to ask; with this condition, that my questions must be confined within the compass of the times they lived in.

…Having a desire to see those ancients who were most renown for wit and learning, I set apart one day on purpose. I proposed that Homer and Aristotle might appear at the head of all their commentators; but these were so numerous that some hundreds were forced to attend in court and outward rooms of the palace. I soon discovered that both of them were perfect strangers to the rest of the company, and had never seen or heard of them before. And I has a whisper from a  ghost, who shall be nameless, that these commentators always kept their distance from their principals in the lower world, through a consciousness of shame and guilt, because they had so horribly misrepresented the meaning of those authors to posterity.

This didn’t make sense to me. Most people I know in the contemporary U.S. have been educated in philosophy (and in general) through the study of source documents, or at least English translations. We love anthologies, not commentaries. My experience with commentators is that you don’t touch them until you’ve already read & discussed your own interpretations of a text. So I wasn’t really sure why Swift would bother taking the time to kick in the teeth of commentators on the ancients? Isn’t commentary just another voice in the dialogue, I thought? There’s something I’m missing in Swift’s context, I thought.

Swift’s passage came to mind when I recently learned of a lovely trend (that would’ve been taking place in 1726) called “Neo-scholasticism.” The closest thing we might find of this genre still in circulation is the really boring 3 volume Baltimore Catechism that Catholics were forced to memorize before the revisions of the Second Vatican Council started in the 1960s. “Neo-scholasticism” is a term for a style that takes complex classical literature and compresses it down into black & white, simplistic answers in an attempt to be palatable and easy to memorize. It is called “Neo” scholasticism because it is meant to be a “new” presentation of the “scholastic” giants. Catholic Church seminary manuals (and maybe the Anglican seminary manuals at the time? Anyone know the answer to this?) were especially centered on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica from the 13th century. Basically, Neo-scholasticism presents a “Cliffs Notes” version of the “classics” so you can regurgitate it for the “pop quiz.”

Ironically, in the 1200s, Thomas Aquinas thought his Summa Theologica was a theological summary for beginners.  It’s already written in question and answer format. So why the switch from the rich source document to the stripped down catechism? Aquinas takes the time to address the major objections, deviations, misunderstandings, and heresies that might arise from each question before presenting his final, reasoned answer. Studying this method, of course, means you’d actually have to acknowledge and discuss alternate points of view from The Right Answer. I think this was a big “no no” when Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels. In his day, the commentators told you what you should know about the classics and what they meant. We could compare them now to the sound-byte political pundits filling our TV screens today.

So why should you care about the treatment of dead philosophers? These dead philosophers have important lessons for how we can engagingly teach any subject, including math (take that, Jonathan Swift!). As educators–and I believe we are ALL educators–do we settle for textbooks that give us easy questions & answer with worksheets so we can quiz ourselves? Or do we present a challenge with alternate viewpoints to ponder in order to find and explain one’s own answer?

Especially in religious education, we are now living in a globalized, multicultural world surrounded by multiple perspectives. This diversity of thought is where we live and move and have our being. In religious education, we should not settle for preparing people to answer the right questions for confirmation (or whatever your age-of-reason initiation rite is called). Instead we need to challenge each other to prepare our answers to the questions of our increasingly diverse friends, family, and colleagues about what we believe and why we believe it. Do friends, family, and colleagues always stick to asking us the questions in the Baltimore Catechism? No! Similarly, the quantitative problems we face in daily life don’t materialize nicely for us as a brief word problem.

Our students and learners don’t just need memorized answers. They need to develop and practice the skills of acknowledging, understanding, considering, and ultimately making a decision about the many religious and philosophical perspectives they will be offered. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Homer, and Johnathan Swift all offer great models of a truly timeless, “classical” education appropriate for real life in the 21st century. I don’t agree with all of their answers, but I appreciate that they knew how to ask probing questions or present scenarios that stimulated creative thought. Finding answers to life’s persistent questions is the way to find meaning and truth in our own time. As an example, I present to you one of the first series of questions tackled by Thomas Aquinas back in the 1200s. Let me know whether you’ve heard this one:

Does God exist? Can God’s existence be demonstrated? Is God’s existence self-evident?

Time to sound off, feral scholars. You can choose to tackle Aquinas’s questions, or try this one instead: What “classic” ancient literature has taught you methods to find meaning and truth (not just simple answers)?

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