Personal Identity in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels Essay

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Personal Identity in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

What establishes a person’s identity? What changes this personal identity? Psychologically, we have the ability to change our beliefs. Physically, our human bodies change. How do we frame the issue to better understand man’s inability to decipher his own self-identity, and more importantly, how do we know when and precisely where this change in identity occurs? Issues of personal identity are apparent in Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Gulliver, the ambitious protagonist, has an insatiable desire for exploration, and throughout his four travels to four very different lands, he allows himself to be shaped by his environment, ironically in a negative way. In fact, his perspectives have changed so much that Gulliver is no longer the same person at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning. The period in which the book was written, the 18th century, is characterized by the intellectual study of the nature of man, as well as the progress of morality. Taking this into consideration, and examining Gulliver’s character, will bring to light issues of morality.

Furthermore, examining Gulliver’s change in behavior and temperament from Derek Parfit’s reductionist point of view will offer further insight into non-religious ethics, since this 20th century philosopher holds ideas that are in accordance with the Age of Enlightenment and Reason, despite the lapse of two centuries.

Parfit, author of Reasons and Persons, presents the concept of “Relation R,” or psychological continuity; this is key to understanding the change in personal identity of Gulliver, which occurs by degrees, and not in absolutes. Because of this, we cannot judge Gulliver based o...

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... changed to so large an extent, we could no longer hold him responsible to his former commitments. This idea of Parfit’s is revolutionary, since it makes us rethink our instinct to label concepts in absolutes, and changes our perception of morality and punishment. Indeed, Parfit sought to effect change in society at large, arguing that most of us have a false belief about our own nature, and our identity over time, and when we understand and realize the truth, we realize we should change our beliefs. Gulliver’s lack of innate morality allowed him to be shaped by his surroundings, but the changes he experienced reflect the base nature of mankind and its ability to corrupt the good. Gulliver’s Relation R, symbolic of evil nature, forced his original self to break the promises he had made; the lack of justice in this situation showcases the need for moral progress.

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