That all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end

Monday, March 16th, 2020

While listening to the audiobook version of Gulliver’s Travels, I came across this explanation — by Reldresal, principal secretary (as they style him) for private affairs — of an old and important controversy that explains the conflict between Lilliput and Blefuscu:

Which two mighty powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine. Now, the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the emperor of Blefuscu’s court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war has been carried on between the two empires for six-and-thirty moons, with various success; during which time we have lost forty capital ships, and a much a greater number of smaller vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best seamen and soldiers; and the damage received by the enemy is reckoned to be somewhat greater than ours. However, they have now equipped a numerous fleet, and are just preparing to make a descent upon us; and his imperial majesty, placing great confidence in your valour and strength, has commanded me to lay this account of his affairs before you.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    This sort of satire seems dated. Kids read it and think “oh, I’d never be that stupid!” And so they are inoculated against a particular strain of now-obvious stupidity.

    But the world is always inventing new ways of being viciously stupid. And I know no way to satirize vicious stupidity per se.

    I used to love satire. Now I’m not sure it serves any great purpose beyond self-congratulation of the reader. It all seems facile to me. Satirists are too shallow, too focused on ephemera. They have no deep insights and no solutions.

  2. Kirk says:

    Swiftian satire had its place and time; it was appropriate then, and spoke to the people of that era. Today, not so much.

    I think satire is still as vital and effective as it always was, it is just that the forms and the conventions have morphed around it. Compare “Young Frankenstein” to Swift, and neither looks very much alike, but… They are still send-ups of the same thing, human foolishness. Which is ever and eternally with us.

    I don’t think satire is ever going to serve the uses Swift tried to put it to, which was to encourage reform. There’s a naive earnestness to it all, “A Modest Proposal” being the most obvious example, which simply does not work. Satire is at its most effective when it has been internalized and made a part of everyone’s mental furniture such that they find the satirized idea risible when it comes up. It’s subtle, and not all that effective, but that is its limitation. Only the knowing are affected by it, and you probably didn’t really need to point that out to those parties in the first place.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    When has sending up human foolishness ever stopped humans from being foolish? Idiocy is constantly mutating. To vaccinate against a strain that will soon be obsolete accomplishes little.

    And it has a bad side effect: laughing at previous generations instills a false sense of self-superiority, which leads to self-righteousness, which leads to beating people up for not sharing your views.

    We are not better than our ancestors. We’re just bad in different ways.

    And don’t talk to me about societal progress. That’s a mirage created by cherry picking the data and redefining terms in self-serving ways. It’s not progress, it’s just changing moral fashions. Reform is meaningless. It’s just churn.

    (Technological progress is real, but satire contributes nothing to that. Besides, moralists tend to oppose technological progress.)

  4. Dave says:

    Devout Catholic relatives ask why I talk to my kids about homos and trannies so much. I say, you think you just have to teach them God’s eternal truth and they’ll grow up right. Miriam Weeks was raised in such a family as theirs. Truth isn’t enough; you also have to teach them to reject falsehood, and for that you need an up-to-date list of the latest fashionable falsehoods.

  5. Graham says:

    I didn’t used to think about trannies at all. Now society wants us to think of little else, barring a crisis.

    Whatever else may be said for or against, the idea that a person can completely self define against biology is a pretty hard rejection of just about every philosophical tradition I’ve ever heard of, including very much Enlightenment traditions. Even Romantics didn’t think that. Or Marxists.

    And yet somehow religion is carrying all the weight of criticism.

    But more to the point, part of how this worldview has won, at least for now, is getting itself normalized fast and hard and throwing the satire all the other way. A complete reversal in just a few years. Remarkable, except no one will ever discuss it in such an observational way in any published works.

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