CSotD: Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians and Historians

Pearls Before Swine (AMS) sums up the post-holiday.

When I get up each morning at O-Dark-Thirty, I check Facebook and Twitter, not only for cartoons that haven’t yet made the syndicate sites but for news stories people are reacting to.

There’s rarely any shortage of outrage, but, my goo’ness, there’s even less in the wake of a holiday that provides so many reasons to piss and moan and feel generally awful about life, if that’s what you want to do.

Rat’s reference to Hobbes (the real one) is to his proposal that life unbounded by science and society — not to mention a wise monarch appointed by God — offers

no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

We didn’t read Hobbes until junior or senior year, and then in the context of Locke and the other Enlightenment types who inspired America’s Founders with a vision of what could be, absent the aforementioned divine-right king.

They had softened us up sophomore year by contrasting Rousseau’s rhapsodic descriptions of the Noble Savage with Ruth Benedict’s anthropological findings which, as it happened, were a lot more in line with harsh, near-Hobbesian reality than with Rousseau’s armchair fantasies.


This, O Best Beloved, in a era when many of us believed that handing flowers to people would inspire them to see the light and would convert the world into a peaceful paradise, which is even more in line with Voltaire’s comically naive Candide than with Rousseau.

(We got over it.)

Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter this morning indicates that most people think Hobbes wasn’t pessimistic enough, that life is solitary, poor, nasty and brutish alright, but not short enough.

As evidence of which we proclaim with one accord that both Thomas Jefferson and fireworks suck.

There’s a bit of Edmond Burke in all this, mind you.

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.

Anyone in politics, publishing or the arts knows that people rarely bother to express their satisfaction or even their joy, but leap to the barricades to announce their fury, bless them.

And so, according to Facebook, we live in a world where every dog is terrified by fireworks and every sentence in the Declaration of Independence is a deliberate, hypocritical lie.


F’rinstance, Steve Breen (Creators) points out that, in 1776, we still had slavery.

Can’t argue with that.

And you can’t argue with the notion that it would have been a wonderful thing for the new nation to have emancipated everyone in it.

But that puts you in Rousseau’s idealistic armchair rather than out in the real world with Ruth Benedict, where people are complex and, if not as rapacious and blindly selfish as in Hobbes’ imagined universe, at least prone to making errors and to being who they are.

Demanding that 18th century people have 21st century values is as idealistic and foolish as believing that the Declaration of Independence is unflawed and pure.

To pull one last classical reference out of the bag, Gulliver considered the Lilliputians beautiful but was repulsed by the Brobdingnagians, not because they were different one from the other, but because, while he couldn’t see the natural flaws of the tiny Lilliputians, he couldn’t avoid noticing every mole, pimple, hair and smell of the enormous Brobdingnagians.

Gulliver, like Candide, was satire.

We shouldn’t assume that that which we cannot examine closely is beautiful and perfect, nor should we be shocked and horrified that looking too closely reveals some appalling flaws.

Studying history is not memorization of names and dates but, rather, learning to put things in perspective so that we can see those inevitable flaws clearly without being repulsed by our childish, unrealistic expectations of perfection.


JD Crowe offers this balanced view, in which he focuses not on the dark facts of our past but on the bright ideals to which we aspire, contrasting them with the dangers we face from those who have other goals in mind.

I’m not a huge David Brooks fan, but he had a good Fourth of July piece in the NYTimes yesterday, about our divided views of the nation.

A major part of history is the stories we tell of ourselves to define ourselves, he argues, and, though he doesn’t mention Gulliver, he cites that dual, conflicting vision, in which truth falls victim to passion.

I was particularly annoyed, yesterday, with the number of people only now discovering Frederick Douglass’s famous — or maybe not — speech, “What July 4 Means To The Negro.”

It’s a brilliant, furious address, his anger not intended as a protracted whine but as a call to action, and it’s shameful that any graduate of an American high school should just be discovering it as an adult.

And, even without reforming the textbooks, it’s an indictment of our educational system that students weren’t inspired to become, as the phrase goes, “lifelong learners” who would naturally discover that speech on their own, and sooner than yesterday.

However, yes, we should definitely reform the textbooks, which doesn’t mean simply adding new names, new dates, new facts, and cramming them down our children’s gullets like corn force-fed to foie gras geese.

It requires throwing everything on the table and being willing to discard as well as to add.

Keith Knight suggests, and Charlie Sykes agrees, that we cannot, must not, allow foot-dragging whiners to keep us from seeing each other not as Lilliputians or Brobdingnagians, but as normal people.

“Normal” including zits and moles and hairs and even odors, like our own.


(That brilliant Candide illustration is by Sheila Beckett)

3 thoughts on “CSotD: Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians and Historians

  1. Everyday I try to Like your work. Actually, everyday I DO like your work. Well, everyday that your work appears, that is.

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  2. Last night was a bit of a relief in that our new dog (he’s been here two weeks now) didn’t go nuts. He did bark some at similar noises two days before, but on the event, he seemed calm. Must be because his previous five or six years were spent in Texas, probably Houston, where he was brought in.

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