Gulliver's Travels, Socratic Method, the Interwebs, and That Big "Light Bulb" Moment

I have been interested for some time in the Ignatius Critical Editions series. This interest began when I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and then later was researched the book for reading it aloud here. I was intrigued by this description.
The Ignatius Critical Editions represent a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford World Classics,  and are designed to concentrate on traditional readings of the Classics  of world literature. While many modern critical editions have succumbed  to the fads of modernism and postmodernism, this series will  concentrate on tradition-oriented criticism of these great works.
I was not really sure what "tradition-oriented criticism" meant but I thought it would be interesting to  compare with the other materials I came across. [Turns out they are talking about traditional classical education style materials.] However, I wasn't sufficiently impelled me to pursue a copy at the time because there was so much material to cover for UTC.

I never could shake the series from the back of my mind, however, and recently got the Ignatius edition of Gulliver's Travels because my interest was piqued upon having a discussion on an SFFaudio podcast where one of the participants claimed it was a celebration of existentialism. That was far  from my understanding of the book. Satire, yes. But existentialism? I  last read Gulliver's Travels when in high school (on my own though, with  no deeper understanding than that of enjoyment). This critical edition  with several essays and some excellent contextual information seemed  just the ticket for revisiting the book with a critical eye as to just  what Swift was really talking about. I also got the study guide which  looks very interesting at first glance.

This has proven incredibly fruitful from the beginning .... and I admit that I am just getting started by perusing various essays and the study guide. Understanding the context in which Swift wrote is invaluable in having a proper perspective on whether we can trust Gulliver as a narrator. Additionally, without knowing about the real world events with which Swift was in heavy debate, we can't properly understand the four countries that Gulliver visits.

However, it was when reading the Study Guide's introduction, Why a Great Books Study Guide?" that a big light bulb went on for me.
This manner of learning is greatly facilitated when the reader also engages in a dialectic exchange—a live conversation (in person or now online)—with other readers of the same books, probing and discussing the great ideas contained in them and, one hopes, carrying them a few steps further. This method of learning is often referred to as the Socratic method, after the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates, who initiated its use as a deliberate way to obtain understanding and wisdom through mutual inquiry and discussion. This same "questioning" method was used by Christ,* who often answered questions with other questions, parables, and stories that left the hearers wondering, questioning, and thinking. He already knew the answers, as Socrates often did. The goal was not merely indoctrination of the memory with information, facts, and knowledge, but mind- and life-changing understanding and wisdom.
This may seem blindingly obvious to many but for me, as I said, it was a new idea in terms of my own participation. I suddenly realized that the internet and podcasts especially had plunged me head-first into mind-broadening inquiry through dialogue and considering other's questions or information. A few examples that sprang to mind:
  • Heather Ordover at CraftLit is the one who began it all for me with her thoughtful commentary on classics. Heather gives background, thematic information and more, and then plays a few chapters of the classic under discussion in each episode. She is a teacher who loves facilitating conversation with her many listeners. They in turn give plenty of feedback and raise thoughtful questions of their own. Thanks to Heather, I revisited the dreaded Scarlet Letter that high school had ruined for me ... and found it to be good. Very good. Right now, in going through A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, Heather is raising significant points about satire and the necessity for readers' to remember that the protagonist is not the author and not necessarily trustworthy. These points are especially timely for me as they will weave into my reading of Gulliver's Travels, which is just such a story.
  • SFFaudio from Scott Danielson and Jesse Willis is a spot where I actively am engaged in Socratic method as I often participate in their "read alongs" where a few people connect via Skype to discuss a book that everyone read. Those who read science fiction know that more likely than not the good reads also are discussing larger issues. They are not afraid to delve deep into themes and how they resonate through life today. In fact, it was a discussion of Mindswap by Robert Sheckley that led me to pursue Gulliver's Travels and the existentialist claim. If that isn't an example of mind broadening, I don't know what is. Plus, their other episodes are just as likely to open larger vistas as they interview audiobook producers, narrators, authors, and anyone else of interest who comes their way.
  • ChopBard (the cure for boring Shakespeare) from Ehren Ziegler is a newer addition to my podcast listening but I now have a completely new way of thinking about Shakespeare, thanks to Ehren's enthusiasm and practical comments as we proceed act-by-act through these great plays. I have listened to Hamlet and am about halfway through Romeo and Juliet (the play he began the podcast with). First, Ehren provide the context and translation we need in modern times (warning: Romeo and Juliet deserves an R rating if you are reading it right). More importantly, he uses the works themselves to delve deep into people, motivations, and big issues of love, existence, happiness, and suchlike. This necessarily makes listeners ponder and respond, leading again to Socratic method in my own thinking about how this is communicated not only in these great works but in others I have read, and in my life itself.
All this is by way of recommending that you sample the Ignatius Critical Editions, into which I am now digging with even greater enthusiasm. In fact, they have Macbeth available and ChopBard will be covering that after the next play (which will be The Tempest, beginning Oct. 27... hey, that's today! ... c'mon Ignatius, get me something on that play!). These books are the perfect gateway into enjoying classics, whether for the first time or rereading, and having at least one "light bulb" moment on the way.

*I suppose we might also call this the rabbinical method as well as Christ was following that teaching method.


  1. Hi Julie:

    I glad to have contributed to the discussion that has partially motivated this post and would like to offer some background. I’ve seen the Ignatius Edition of Macbeth and believe their Socratic method is actually more in line with Scholasticism.

    The dialectic method to which you refer dominated Christian thinking and teaching from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Its central figure was Thomas Aquinas. This formal method of teaching was called “scholastica disputatio” and it involved putting a question forth which was then negated on the strength of canonical evidence. It was then followed by a positive statement that was also backed by scriptural and dogmatic evidence. This method became the foundation of university education and eventually, in revised form, of virtually all schooling up to the 20th century.

    Scholastics were united not by common philosophical or theological tenets but by the approach to learning embodied in the formal disputation and by the general position that reason and faith are compatible, by virtue of their common source in the mind of God. However, in any apparent contradiction between the two, revelation, as the specific word of God, was considered superior.

    Scholastics put great store in the “authorities” of the classical philosophers and early church fathers like Aristotle and St. Augustine. They emphasized form over content which was ultimately seen as a weakness and caused them to fall out of favor. Some of the more prominent thinkers in the group included Albertus Magnus, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, St. Anselm, and Peter Abelard.

    I have not seen the Ignatius version of Gulliver’s Travels but knowing their approach and the source text leads me to believe you will have a satisfying experience. Enjoy.

    I’m sure we’ll be talking again on some future podcast and I look forward to that day.



  2. Now if only I could contribute something more than ... "oh wow, um, yeah..." we would know we would be anywhere close to equal footing for the discussion! Which I cannot! :-D

    Seriously, thank you for going so thoroughly into the concept. In fact, what I read also discussed the back and forth between negatives and positives ... although I don't recall them mentioning scriptural and dogmatic evidence as they really kept talking about Socratic method. I have, however, been greatly enjoying the essays in the few spare moments I've had to devote to them. If nothing else, just as with our discussions, they have caused me to examine the text with new eyes (even if merely my memory) and greatly look forward to reading it again with a wider context.

    Cheers! :-)

  3. I've put GULLIVER'S TRAVELS on the podcast schedule for next year.

  4. Oh pooh.
    I was looking forward to doing Gulliver. Golly, now I'm just going to have to kick back and relax and knit and listen to it. Jeepers, what will I ever do?
    As my husband says, if I'm not doing a hundred things at once I'll collapse. Perhaps I should start doing time-trials of relaxing to work up to listening to someone else doing a great book that I can enjoy too!
    I think I could get into this.
    Thank you Julie--for the shout-out and for the education you always provide.
    Someday we WILL sit and have a beer...or tea...or something liquid...but definitely in each others presence,

  5. NOOOOOO! I'm not "doing" Gulliver. I'm reading it TO MYSELF and then at some point will join the SFFaudio guys for discussion of the book.

    It ain't "forgotten" and we're stayin' away from reading it here. Please do Gulliver at CraftLit! :-)

  6. Thank you, Julie for pointing out the Ignatius Critical Editions. I love literature, but get very tired of modern interpretations of many of the classics. I'll be checking out ChopBard too.

  7. Would you mind sharing what particular study guide you used? There are so many out there. I would love to find THIS particular one. Thanks!

  8. Nevermind. I visited the ICE site and realized they not only sold books, but study guides too. I am assuming that is the study guide to which you are quoting. Thanks again.

  9. Hi Paula. :-)

    Yes, you are right. That was the point of these two sentences.

    This critical edition with several essays and some excellent contextual information seemed just the ticket for revisiting the book with a critical eye as to just what Swift was really talking about. I also got the study guide which looks very interesting at first glance.

    "the study guide" referred back to "this critical edition." :-)


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