The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 17/Essay on the Origin of Sciences

While this work is included within The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift and is not attributed to anyone other than Jonathan Swift, it may have been written by another member of the Scriblerus Club. The club, which was founded in 1714, included Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry St John, and Thomas Parnell.







Written to the most Learned Dr. —— F.R.S. from the Deserts of Nubia.

AMONG all the inquiries which have been pursued by the curious and inquisitive, there is none more worthy the search of a learned head, than the source from whence we derive those arts and sciences which raise us so far above the vulgar, the countries in which they rose, and the channels by which they have been conveyed. As those, who first brought them among us, attained them by travelling into the remotest parts of the earth, I may boast of some advantages by the same means; since I write this from the deserts of Æthiopia, from those plains of sand, which have buried the pride of invading armies, with my foot perhaps at this instant ten fathom over the grave of Cambyses; a solitude to which neither Pythagoras nor Apollonius ever penetrated.

It is universally agreed, that arts and sciences were derived to us from the Ægyptians and Indians: but from whom they first received them is yet a secret. The highest period of time, to which the learned attempt to trace them, is the beginning of the Assyrian monarchy, when their inventors were worshipped as Gods. It is therefore necessary to go backward into times even more remote, and to gain some knowledge of their history, from whatever dark and broken hints may any way be found in ancient authors concerning them.

Nor Troy nor Thebes were the first of empires; we have mention, though not histories, of an earlier warlike people called the Pygmæans. I cannot but persuade myself, from those accounts in Homer[1], Aristotle, and others, of their history, wars and revolutions, and from the very air in which those authors speak of them as of things known, that they were then a part of the study of the learned. And though all we directly hear is of their military achievements, in the brave defence of their country from the annual invasions of a powerful enemy, yet I cannot doubt, but that they excelled as much in the arts of peaceful government; though there remain no traces of their civil institutions. Empires as great have been swallowed up in the wreck of time, and such sudden periods have been put to them, as occasion a total ignorance of their story. And if I should conjecture, that the like happened to this nation from a general extirpation of the people by those flocks of monstrous birds, wherewith antiquity agrees they were continually infested; it ought not to seem more incredible, than that one of the Baleares was wasted by rabbits, Smynthe by mice[2], and of late Bermudas almost depopulated by rats[3]. Nothing is more natural to imagine, than that the few survivors of that empire retired into the depths of their deserts, where they lived undisturbed, till they were found out by Osiris in his travels to instruct mankind.

"He met, says Diodorus[4], in Æthiopia a sort of little Satyrs, who were hairy one half of their body, and whose leader Pan accompanied him in his expedition for the civilizing of mankind". Now of this great personage Pan we have a very particular description in the ancient writers; who unanimously agree to represent him shaggy-bearded, hairy all over, half a man and half a beast, and walking erect with a staff, the posture in which his race do to this day appear among us. And since the chief thing to which he applied himself, was the civilizing of mankind, it should seem, that the first principles of science must be received from that nation, to which the Gods were by Homer[5] said to resort twelve days every year, for the conversation of its wise and just inhabitants.

If from Egypt we proceed to take a view of India, we shall find, that their knowledge also derived itself from the same source. To that country did these noble creatures accompany Bacchus in his expedition under the conduct of Silenus, who is also described to us with the same marks and qualifications. "Mankind is ignorant, saith Diodorus[6], whence Silenus derived his birth, through his great antiquity; but he had a tail on his loins, as likewise had all his progeny, in sign of their descent". Here then they settled a colony, which to this day subsists with the same tails. From this time they seem to have communicated themselves only to those men, who retired from the converse of their own species to a more uninterrupted life of contemplation. I am much inclined to believe, that in the midst of those solitudes they instituted the so much celebrated order of gymnosophists. For whoever observes the scene and manner of their life, will easily find them to have imitated with all exactness imaginable the manners and customs of their masters and instructors. They are said to dwell in the thickest woods, to go naked, to suffer their bodies to be over-run with hair, and their nails to grow to a prodigious length. Plutarch[7] says, "they eat what they could get in the fields, their drink was water, and their bed made of leaves or moss". And Herodotus[8] tells us, that they esteemed it a great exploit to kill very many ants or creeping things.

Hence we see, that the two nations which contend for the origin of learning, are the same that have ever most abounded with this ingenious race. Though they have contested, which was first blest with the rise of science, yet have they conspired in being grateful to their common masters. Egypt is so well known to have worshipped them of old in their own images; and India may be credibly supposed to have done the same from that adoration, which they paid in latter times to the tooth of one of these hairy philosophers; in just gratitude, as it should seem, to the mouth, from which they received their knowledge.

Pass we now over into Greece: where we find Orpheus returning out of Egypt, with the same intent as Osiris and Bacchus made their expeditions. From this period it was, that Greece first heard the name of satyrs, or owned them for semidei. And hence it is surely reasonable to conclude, that he brought some of this wonderful species along with him, who also had a leader of the line of Pan, of the same name, and expressly called king by Theocritus[9]. If thus much be allowed, we easily account for two of the strangest reports in all antiquity. One is, that of the beasts following the musick of Orpheus; which has been interpreted of his taming savage tempers, but will thus have a literal application. The other, which we most insist upon, is the fabulous story of the Gods compressing women in woods under bestial appearances; which will be solved by the love these sages are known to bear to the females of our kind. I am sensible it may be objected, that they are said to have been compressed in the shape of different animals; but to this we answer, that women under such apprehensions hardly know what shape they have to deal with.

From what has been last said, in is highly credible, that to this ancient and generous race the world is indebted, if not for the heroes, at least for the acutest wits of antiquity. One of the most remarkable instances, is that great mimic genius Æsop[10], for whose extraction from these sylvestres homines we may gather an argument from Planudes, who says, that Æsop signifies the same thing as Æthiop, the original nation of our people. For a second argument we may offer the description of his person, which was short, deformed, and almost savage; Insomuch that he might have lived in the woods, had not the benevolence of his temper made him rather adapt himself to our manners, and come to court in wearing apparel. The third proof is his acute and satirical wit; and lastly, his great knowledge in the nature of beasts, together with the natural pleasure he took to speak of them upon all occasions.

The next instance I shall produce is Socrates[11]. First, it was a tradition, that he was of an uncommon birth from the rest of men: secondly, he had a countenance confessing the line he sprung from, being bald, flat-nosed, with prominent eyes, and a downward look: thirdly, he turned certain fables of Æsop into verse, probably out of his respect to beasts in general, and love to his family in particular.

In process of time the women, with whom these Sylvans would have lovingly cohabited, were either taught by mankind, or induced by an abhorrence of their shapes, to shun their embraces; so that our sages were necessitated to mix with beasts. This by degrees occasioned the hair of their posterity to grow higher than their middles; it rose in one generation to their arms, in the second it invaded their necks, in the third it gained the ascendant of their heads, till the degenerate appearance, in which the species is now immersed, became completed. Though we must here observe, that there were a few, who fell not under the common calamity; there being some unprejudiced women in every age, by virtue of whom a total extinction of the original race was prevented. It is remarkable also, that even where they were mixed, the defection from their nature was not so entire, but there still appeared marvellous qualities among them, as was manifest in those, who followed Alexander in India. How did they attend his army and survey his order! how did they cast themselves into the same forms for march or for combat! what an imitation was there of all his discipline! the ancient true remains of a warlike disposition, and of that constitution, which they enjoyed, while they were yet a monarchy.

To proceed to Italy: at the first appearance of these wild philosophers, there were some of the least mixed who vouchsafed to converse with mankind; which is evident from the name of Fauns[12], a fando, or speaking. Such was he, who coming out of the woods in hatred to tyranny, encouraged the Roman army to proceed against the Hetruscans, who would have restored Tarquin. But here, as in all the western parts of the world, there was a great and memorable era, in which they began to be silent. This we may place something near the time of Aristotle, when the number, vanity, and folly of human philosophers increased, by which men's heads became too much puzzled to receive the simpler wisdom of these ancient Sylvans; the questions of that academy were too numerous to be consistent with their ease to answer: and too intricate, extravagant, idle, or pernicious, to be any other than a derision and scorn unto them. From this period, if we ever hear of their giving answers, it is only when caught, bound, and constrained, in like manner as was that ancient Grecian prophet, Proteus.

Accordingly we read in Sylla's[13] time of such a philosopher taken near Dyrrachium, who would not be persuaded to give them a lecture by all they could say to him, and only showed his power in sounds by neighing like a horse.

But a more successful attempt was made in Augustus's reign by the inquisitive genius of the great Virgil; whom, together with Varus, the commentators suppose to have been the true persons, who are related in the sixth Bucolick to have caught a philosopher, and doubtless a genuine one of the race of the old Silenus. To prevail upon him to be communicative (of the importance of which Virgil was well aware) they not only tied him fast, but allured him likewise by a courteous present of a comely maiden called Ægle, which made him sing both merrily and instructively. In this song we have their doctrine of the creation, the same in all probability as was taught so many ages before in the great pygmæan empire, and several hieroglyphical fables under which they couched or embellished their morals. For which reason I look upon this Bucolick as an inestimable treasure of the most ancient science.

In the reign of Constantine we hear of another taken in a net, and brought to Alexandria, round whom the people flocked to hear his wisdom; but as Ammianus Marcellinus reporteth, he proved a dumb philosopher; and only instructed by action.

The last we shall speak of, who seemeth to be of the true race, is said by St. Jerome to have met St. Anthony[14] in a desert; who inquiring the way of him, he showed his understanding and courtesy by pointing, but would not answer, for he was a dumb philosopher also.

These are all the notices, which I am at present able to gather, of the appearance of so great and learned a people on your side of the world. But if we return to their ancient native seats, Africa and India, we shall there find, even in modern times, many traces of their original conduct and valour.

In Africa (as we read among the indefatigable Mr. Purchas's collections) a body of them, whose leader was inflamed with love for a woman, by martial power and stratagem won a fort from the Portuguese.

But I must leave all others at present to celebrate the praise of two of their unparalleled monarchs in India. The one was Perimal the magnificent, a prince most learned and communicative; to whom in Malabar their excess of zeal dedicated a temple, raised on seven hundred pillars, not inferiour in Maffæus's[15] opinion to those of Agrippa in the Pantheon. The other, Hanimant the Marvellous, his relation and successor, whose knowledge was so great, as made his followers doubt if even that wise species could arrive at such perfection: and therefore they rather imagined him and his race a sort of gods formed into apes. His was the tooth which the Portuguese took in Bisnagar 1559, for which the Indians offered, according to Linschotten[16], the immense sum of seven hundred thousand ducats. Nor let me quit this head without mentioning with all due respect Orang Outang the great, the last of this line; whose unhappy chance it was to fall into the hands of Europeans. Oran Outang, whose value was not known to us, for he was a mute philosopher: Oran Outang, by whose dissection the learned Dr. Tyson[17] has added a confirmation to this system, from the resemblance between the homo sylvestris, and our human body, in those organs by which the rational soul is exerted.

We must now descend to consider this people as sunk into the bruta natura by their continual commerce with beasts. Yet even at this time, what experiments do they not afford us, of relieving some from the spleen, and others from imposthumes, by occasioning laughter at proper seasons! with what readiness do they enter into the imitation of whatever is remarkable in human life! and what surprising relations have le Comte[18] and others given of their appetites, actions, conceptions, affections, varieties of imaginations, and abilities capable of pursuing them! If under their present low circumstances of birth and breeding, and in so short a term of life as is now allotted them, they so far exceed all beasts, and equal many men what prodigies may we not conceive of those, who were nati melioribus annis, those primitive, longeval, and antediluvian mantigers, who first taught science to the world?

This account, which is entirely my own, I am proud to imagine has traced knowledge from a fountain correspondent to several opinions of the ancients, though hitherto undiscovered both by them and the more ingenious moderns. And now what shall I say to mankind in the thought of this great discovery?

what, but that they should abate of their pride, and consider that the authors of our knowledge are among the beasts ? that these, who were our elder brothers by a day in the creation, whose kingdom (like that in the scheme of Plato) was governed by philosophers, who flourished with learning in Æthiopia and India, are now undistinguished, and known only by the same appellation as the man-tiger and the monkey?

As to speech, I make no question, that there are remains of the first and less corrupted race in their native deserts, who yet have the power of it. Eut the vulgar reason given by the Spaniards, "that they will not speak for fear of being set to work," is alone a sufficient one, considering how exceedingly all other learned persons affect their ease. A second is, that these observant creatures, having been eye-witnesses of the cruelty with which that nation treated their brother Indians, find it necessary not to show themselves to be men, that they may be protected not only from work, but from cruelty also. Thirdly, they could at best take no delight to converse with the Spaniards, whose grave and sullen temper is so averse to that natural and open cheerfulness, which is generally observed to accompany all true knowledge. But now were it possible, that any way could be found to draw forth their latent qualities, I cannot but think it would be highly serviceable to the learned world, both in respect of recovering past knowledge, and promoting the future. Might there not be found certain gentle and artful methods, whereby to endear us to them? Is there no nation in the world, whose natural turn is adapted to engage their society, and win them by a sweet similitude of manners? Is there no nation, where the men might allure them by a distinguishing civility, and in a manner fascinate them by assimilated motions? no nation, where the women with easy freedoms, and the gentlest treatment, might oblige the loving creatures to sensible returns of humanity? The love I bear my native country prompts me to wish this nation might be Great Britain; but alas! in our present wretched, divided condition, how can we hope, that foreigners of so great prudence will freely declare their sentiments in the midst of violent parties, and at so vast a distance from their friends, relations, and country? The affection I bear our neighbour state, would incline me to wish it were Holland —— Sed lævâ in parte mamillæ Nil salit Arcadico. It is from France then we must expect this restoration of learning, whose late monarch took the sciences under his protection, and raised them to so great a height. May we not hope their emissaries will some time or other have instructions, not only to invite learned men into their country, but learned beasts, the true ancient man-tigers I mean of Æthiopia and India? Might not the talents of each kind of these be adapted to the improvement of the several sciences? the man-tigers to instruct heroes, statesmen, and scholars; baboons to teach ceremony and address to courtiers ; monkeys, the art of pleasing in conversation, and agreeable affectations to ladies and their lovers; apes of less learning, to form comedians and dancing-masters; and marmosets, court pages and young English travellers? But the distinguishing of each kind, and allotting the proper business to each, I leave to the inquisitive and penetrating genius of the Jesuits in their respective missions.

Vale & fruere.

  1. II. iii. Hom.
  2. Eustathius in Hom. II. i.
  3. Speede, in Bermudas.
  4. L. i. ch. 18. Diod.
  5. II. i.
  6. Diod. L. iii. ch. 69.
  7. Plutarch in his Orat. on Alexander's fortune.
  8. Herodot. L. i.
  9. Πὰν Ἂνάξ, Theocr. Id. i.
  10. Vit. Æsop. initio.
  11. Vid. Plato and Xenophon.
  12. Livy,
  13. Vid. Plutarch, in Vit. Syllæ.
  14. Vit. St. Ant.
  15. Maff. l i.
  16. Linschot. ch. 44.
  17. Dr. Tyson's Anatomy of a Pigmy, 4to.
  18. Father le Comte, a Jesuit, in the account of his travels.