Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) is an adventure story, political satire, and philosophical treatise. Lemuel Gulliver’s voyages may take him to fantastical lands filled with fantastical peoples, but Swift’s subject, always, is human nature – what is best for man, and how should he live? Through Gulliver’s explorations of four very different societies, Swift engages in age-old philosophical arguments – particularly the quarrel between “the ancients and moderns.” But rather than provide a simple resolution of the quarrel, Gulliver’s Travels sets out the terms, stakes, and significance of that debate.

This seminar will meet online weekly on Mondays from 6 to 8 PM ET. All course materials will be provided. Fellows will receive a $200 stipend contingent upon participation in the course and completion of a brief response paper and evaluation.

Image: Sawrey Gilpin, Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, 1789.

Ryan Hanley on teaching Gulliver's Travels


Ryan P. Hanley

Ryan Patrick Hanley is Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His research in the history of political philosophy focuses on the Enlightenment. He is the author of Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life and Love’s Enlightenment: Rethinking Charity in Modernity.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session




  1. What sort of man is Gulliver?  Does he have a great soul or a great mind to go with the body that defines him in the first voyage?  With what sorts of concerns is he preoccupied, and what might these say about his character?
  2. What is distinctive in the domestic politics of the Lilliputians? What specific customs and practices and institutions does Swift focus on?  What effect does Swift hope to induce in his reader by portraying these customs and institutions in the way that he does?
  3. What is distinctive in the Lilliputian approach to foreign affairs? How do they understand international relations, and what ought we to make of the role that Gulliver plays in their dealings with Blefuscu?




  1. How does the Gulliver of the second voyage compare to the Gulliver of the first voyage? What might this new Gulliver share with the Lilliputians? What should we make of the several accounts of Gulliver’s interactions with animals in this voyage?
  2. How do the Brobdingnagians compare to the Lilliputians? What is revealed of their minds and souls in their treatment of Gulliver? What specifically are we meant to take away from the story of the Brobdingnagian king’s questioning of Gulliver as to whether he is a Whig or a Tory?
  3. The political centerpiece of the second voyage is the discussion of British history between Gulliver and the king. What specifics does Gulliver focus on, and what does this reveal of him? What specifics does the king focus on, and what might this say about the Brobdingnagians and their political vision?
  4. What offer does Gulliver make to the Brobdingnagian king, and why is it refused? What more does this episode reveal of both their characters?




  1. The Laputans are devoted to science. But what kind of science?  And how does their love of science shape their politics, and specifically their political dealings with the island below?
  2. What kind of science is practiced at the Academy of Lagado? How does the science of these “projectors” compare to the science of the Laputans?  What elements of thisscience does Swift hold up for criticism?  How does this criticism comport with his portrait of the Academy’s political projectors
  3. Glubbdubdrib’s magic gives Gulliver the opportunity to summon up ghosts ancients and modern. How does Gulliver understand the differences between the ancients and the moderns? Why does he prefer the former to the latter?  What specific elements of antiquity does he admire?
  4. Why does Swift devote an entire chapter to the Struldbrugs? What exactly is so disturbing about them?  Why do you think he uses this episode to conclude the third voyage?




  1. How does Swift portray the Yahoos? What reaction does Gulliver have when he encounters them?  What reaction is Swift trying to elicit from us in describing them as he does?
  2. What are the distinguishing characteristics of the Houyhnhnms? What about them might be admirable?  What about them might be troubling?
  3. What place does politics play in Houyhnhnm life? How does this follow from their dedication to reason?  What is the one topic they in fact debate in their political assemblies?  What political lesson ought we to draw from their relationship to the Yahoos?
  4. Gulliver is a changed man when he returns to England after his voyage to the Houyhnhnms? In what specific ways has be changed?  Has he been improved or corrupted by his time among the Houyhnhnms?




  1. What is the cause of the “Battle of the Books,” and what is its result? How does Swift’s portrait of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns here compare to his treatment of these themes in Gulliver’s Travels, and especially the third voyage?
  2. How does the humor of “A Modest Proposal” compare to that of Gulliver’s Travels? In particular how does Swift’s description of the Irish and their conditions compare to his treatments of various peoples Gulliver encountered? Is this ultimately a document animated by philanthropy or misanthropy?
  3. What aspects of his own life and character does Swift emphasize in his verse autobiography? What is the effect of framing it as he does with the verse from La Rochefoucauld? How does it help us see why Swift described himself in the epitaph over his grave as one who “served human liberty”?

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