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The Clash of Pseudo-Utopian Ideals: A Modern View of Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels

Updated on March 13, 2013

Jonathan Swift’s work, Gulliver’s Travels, presents a view of humanity as being less than venerable. Throughout the work Swift portrays humans as flawed, and does so through what can now be seen as a system of dichotomies. This structuring of ideals defines Book IV, as Gulliver finds himself an intermediary between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. Gulliver, not belonging to either group, is capable of serving as mean example of the dualistic nature of humanity; as opposed to the Houyhnhnms which are the highly intellectual beings representing one extreme and the yahoos which are detestably animalistic representing the other extreme. The work favors, of course, the Houyhnhnms (as they represent all the ambition of the Enlightenment Era), and places them as the Masters in hierarchy of their country. Gulliver, being a representative of the Enlightenment Era (and “author” of the work) also favors the Houyhnhnms, and tries to mimic them. Ultimately, the Houyhnhnms expel Gulliver from their society, but not before Swift has an opportunity to satirize the “utopian” society. This can easily be read as Swifts critique of his own situation, of falling between his perception of the English as Houyhnhnms and Irish as Yahoos, and his life in Ireland. To read this as a simple parable, representing his situation would be, however, a shallow interpretation of the ideas being expressed within the work. This essay will examine the philosophical ideas that surround the perceptions of human nature in society that were prominent in Swift’s time and the modern philosophical ideas that can be applied to the work.

The Enlightenment Era ethos can be defined as the search for objective truth in a rational universe, governed by causality. Philosophers of this time, working under these assumptions, attempted to amalgamate the role of the individual with the ideal structure of society. Thomas Hobbes writes that human nature, our natural condition, is to be warlike in our pursuit of desires, and so life will be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 76). So human nature is to be fearful and violent, that is, without the absolute power of the monarchy which happens to have the God-given authority to counter this natural condition with laws and justice. Despite this sunny description of human nature, Locke would later write a counter argument, “To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man” (Locke 2). For Locke, the bounds of the law of nature are reason, equality by birth, love for those that are thus equally born, and democracy as a form of justice, and that no man’s liberties can impose upon another man’s rights. So, for Locke, the nature of humankind is inclined toward cooperation, as opposed to Hobbes that saw humankind in a never-ending state of war that could only be quelled by a higher authority that would force cooperation.

Judging by the description of the Yahoos, which appear to be more humanlike, and the dichotomy which favors the Houyhnhnms, it would appear that Swift leaned toward Hobbes view of human nature. Swift’s character Gulliver, however, appears to favor Locke’s view as he admires the Houyhnhnms which tend to live in a state of superior reason which excludes war as a possibility. Wedel writes, “… Swift is clearly neither Hobbes nor Locke. Gulliver is neither Yahoo nor Houyhnhnm. He cannot attain to the rational felicity of the Houyhnhnms. Neither has he sunk to the level of the Yahoos, though this is doubtful advantage. He lacks the strength of a healthy animal, and his glimmering of reason has unhappily burdened him with the responsibility of conscience” (Wedel 443).

As before stated, Gulliver symbolically resides in the mean of these two extremes, but this precarious status cannot exist in a society that understands the quality of the individual by means of binary opposition. In this way, Swift has critiqued the very argument of social contract as it relates to Hobbes and Locke, illustrating the flaws in each system. Gulliver strains to fit into Locke’s model, lamenting his reflection, writing, “When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than of my own person” (Swift 2451). This description of Gulliver’s natural form coupled with the Houyhnhnms’ verdict that Europeans seem to be more like Yahoos than Houyhnhnms by nature seems to secure Swift’s general perception of human nature to fit more closely to that of Hobbes’s model. Yet, Gulliver’s description of feces-hurling Yahoos makes them repugnant, even beyond the common prejudices of misanthropy. It is in this dichotomy of rationality/animalism that one might find grounds for deconstruction, that is, except for the fact that this society is represented as a real place, likely even as an allegory for England and Ireland.

Locke’s model for the ideal society, or utopia, is democracy, something akin to libertarianism. In his model, the individual has complete freedom, that is, until that liberty begin to conflict with the natural rights of another. He understood nature as having enough resources that it could supply the wants and needs of all people assuming that no one took more than their own share of the resources. This ideology fit nicely into the Enlightenment Era ethos in that it espoused progressive ideology and the capacity for rationality in humankind, the perfection of said rationality leading to utopia. The Houyhnhnm Society, of course, fit some of these criteria but not all. The Houyhnhnms’ have no word for war or evil in their society, and yet they have a hierarchical system where some Houyhnhnms are favored to others (based on coloring, which could be read as race relations) and the Yahoos were not even considered people, as such, their very skin serving as material for Gulliver’s shoes (Swift 2450). They have no word for war, but have the ability to discuss whether the Yahoos should be exterminated or castrated, which displays the hypocrisy of their language. If human nature is as Hobbes describes, then Locke’s model is unachievable.

Hobbes model for the ideal society rests solely on the concept of monarchy. He believed that by nature humankind is animalistic, unable to control their passions and greed, and willing to commit violence in order to achieve control of resources. This model requires an outside intermediary to create laws and a system of justice to control the desires of individuals and to protect the citizens of their social contract from outside threats, acting as a commander in chief of sorts. This model claims that the resources of the people are owed to the monarch in trade for governance and protection, and that once the social contract has been enacted it cannot be revoked, as it is the will of God that one should emerge as the monarch. In this, Hobbes would agree that the monarch should also be the principal religious figure of the nation, as was the case in England. This too fit nicely into the Enlightenment Era ethos in that it favors an objective perspective to that of the collective subjective perspectives that appear biased. This model does not fit the Yahoos perfectly. They remain in what Hobbes would consider the natural state, and if Hobbes was correct, then God should have assigned a monarch for them at some point which could have raised them from this natural state. In fact, the Houyhnhnms have the capacity for this, but do not employ it, seeing the Yahoos as cattle more than individuals to govern. The Yahoos seem devoid of rationality. If Hobbes model is correct, then the natural state of human nature does not allow for rationality, as portrayed by Swift’s Yahoos. How then could a monarch emerge, and how would one account for the rational capacity of humankind?

Both systems become all the more complex when the spiritual elements are introduced. Hobbes holds that the monarchy is the will of God, and that to dissent from the rule of monarchy is to dissent from the will of God. Locke on the other hand claims that nature was not given to one man; rather, it is a gift from God to be shared by all people and that the introduction of monarchy only serves to diminish God’s gift. Locke believes that cooperation is the natural state of human understanding and that through empathy and sympathy that all of humankind ideally loves one another for being alike. According to Judeo-Christian belief systems, neither is incorrect. In many ways, the Enlightenment Era ethos strayed from spirituality in favor of objective truth, but this is not an easy transition, especially considering that, like Swift, many of the educated people of England happened to be employed within the church. This too was a convention that was giving way, but historically, the Catholic Church was the only source of education for the entirety of the medieval period, and the question of religion was always a hot issue for the English of this time.

So, if the Houyhnhnms served as Locke’s model and the Yahoos served as Hobbes’s model, then what was Swift’s purpose of having the Houyhnhnms expel Gulliver from their country? Swift seemed to recognize both models as extremes, neither f which capable for account for the flaws of social contract theory. If, by nature, Gulliver could not fit into either model, and fitting into a model was the only means for survival, then Gulliver would have to be removed from this dichotomy in order to survive (or in this case avoid castration). His very presence in this dichotomy proved that it was flawed, that Yahoos were capable of rationality (being descendants of humankind). If the Yahoos were capable of rationality then they could not be the cattle that the Houyhnhnms believed them to be. Their treatment then would prove that Houyhnhnms were not the benevolent creatures they appeared to be on the surface, in fact, it would prove that they were more flawed than the depraved Yahoos. In this, Gulliver’s presence threatened the dichotomy that the powers at be promoted, and threatened deconstruction of their ideological mode, and so, the Houyhnhnms banished him.

Gulliver’s bias continues, however, even after his unfair expulsion from Houyhnhnm society. He continues to think of himself as being more Houyhnhnm-like even upon his return home, and he continues to think of all humans as Yahoos. This shows the fallibility of the subjective perspective which the Enlightenment Era ethos combated with science and logic. Allegorically, it also shed light upon the unfair treatment of the Irish by the English; even though science did all that it could to prove that the Irish weren’t as human. Swift seems to point to a lot of the problems of the Enlightenment Era ethos, but provides no satisfactory answer to these flaws in its application.

Perhaps the answers lie in the utopian ideals of another Enlightenment Era philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. His theoretical approach to syncopating the desires of the individual and the desires of the society as a whole was for the collective to reach a common objective understanding and to eliminate the Master/Slave dichotomy. Hegel suggested that this would be possible through dialectical process of realizing that all opposing ideologies converge at the level of Geist (which can be translated into English as either mind or spirit) and that once opposing ideas converge they are no longer two opposing ideas but one singular objective ideal. Hegel writes,“Spirit, in its ultimate simple truth, is consciousness, and breaks asunder its moments from one another. An act divides spirit into spiritual substance on the one side, and consciousness of the substance on the other; and divides the substance as well as the consciousness. The substance appears in the shape of a universal inner nature and purpose standing in contrast to itself quâ [particularized] reality. The middle or mediating term, infinite in character, is self-consciousness, which, being implicitly the unity of itself and that substance, becomes so, now, explicitly (für sich), unites the universal inner nature and its particular [realization], raises the latter to the former and becomes ethical action: and, on the other hand, brings the former down to the latter and carries out the purpose, the substance presented merely in thought. In this way it brings to light the unity of its self and the substance, and produces this unity in the form of a “work” done, and thus as actual concrete fact (Wirklichkeit)” (Hegel 436). For Hegel, the history of humankind is defined rationality. He writes that human history is a process of realizing freedom, the ability to control the conventions of our time as well as liberty. This model suggests that through the course of history that an increasing number of individuals, using reason, will realize freedom from governmental and conventional oppression. Reason would be the common tie between all individuals; this capacity for reason would collectively create a society which no rational individual would object, thus utopia.

When this model is applied to Gulliver’s Travels at first, it appears that the Houyhnhnms have achieved this particular utopia. The Houyhnhnms have, after all, created a society based entirely on rationality and virtue (Swift 2448). That is until one considers the fact that the Houyhnhnms have servants. These servants, their servitude determined their color; represent the slave in the Master/Slave dichotomy. In Hegel’s model, the dichotomy must be eliminated in order to establish true utopia. The Yahoos would also fit into this model, in that at the age of twelve they are also used as slaves. It could be, as Hegel suggests in the Philosophy of History, that the Houyhnhnm society, though governed by rationality, is still in the dialectical process of realizing freedom universally. If this is the case, then it is merely a matter of realizing the unity implied by the phenomenology of the mind, or the capacity of rationality as the common link between all individuals that are capable of being representatives of this rationality. This, of course, would rely on the Houyhnhnms ability to recognize the rationality of the slave classes of society. Swift suggests that this is recognition is an impossibility.

Recognition, or rather the lack thereof, is a major theme of Gulliver’s Travels, expressed at length in Book IV. In Gulliver’s first encounter with the Houyhnhnms he fails to recognize that the “horses” that he encounters are rational beings, he writes, “Upon the whole, the behavior of these animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded, they must needs be magicians, who had thus metamorphosed themselves upon some design…” (Swift 2421). This misrecognition is based in an old convention in satyr where the norm is inverted thus thwarting expectations. Gulliver, in the spirit of Enlightenment Era ethos, soon recognizes the rationality of the Houyhnhnms, and soon comes to admire them. In this admiration he accepts their prejudices as enlightened thought, and participates in the misrecognition of the Yahoos as having the capacity for reason. It isn’t long in the narrative of Book IV before Gulliver is analyzed and, in the fashion of the Enlightenment, the Houyhnhnms attempt to classify him. He is neither completely rational nor completely brutish, and thus defies classification. According to Hegel’s model, Gulliver would represent the conversion of opposing ideas that would reflect the natural dialectical process at play. Still, if the Houyhnhnms were the representatives of a true utopia, by Hegel’s definition, they would use Gulliver as an example of how their model is flawed and they would begin the next step of the dialectical process. The Houyhnhnms, however, do not. Instead, they banish him from their kingdom in an effort to deny the rational conclusions that have been drawn from his very presence, that Yahoos might in fact be rational creatures. Gulliver is saddened by his banishment, but his very logic in this is failed. He is saddened because he sees the Houyhnhnms as the most rational creatures that he has ever encountered, however, had the Houyhnhnms been the rational creatures Gulliver thought they were, he would not have been banished. In this failed logic, Gulliver exposes yet another misrecognition of the Houyhnhnms, an over-correction if you will; an example of Enlightenment Era hubris. Because the Houyhnhnms cannot correct their collective utopian ideology, by recognizing the significance of Gulliver’s capacity for reason in relation to the Yahoos or through self recognition which would eliminate the hierarchy of the Houyhnhnm society itself, they cannot then fit into the Hegelian model of utopia. This is misrecognition and banishment may very symbolize the bias that exists in human nature.

Three popular forms of Enlightenment Era ideology regarding utopias have been presented and shown to be flawed through a careful analysis of the text of Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels. Though even the reader that is not familiar with these philosophies can see that the Houyhnhnm society isn’t a utopia, a deeper meaning can be derived from Swift’s writing. It wasn’t the concept of utopia that Swift was combating; rather, he was criticizing the Enlightenment Era’s belief that utopia was a possibility by way of objective philosophy. He demonstrates the failures in these models but in order to make an overarching point that utopia cannot be attained so easily through objective understanding, that in fact this very idea that such a thing is possible can lead to horrendous results, such as the mistreatment of another race of people (like the Irish) as represented in the mistreatment of the Yahoos.

Works Cited

Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels, Book IV”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature 8th edition Vol. 1.Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2418 -2462. 2006. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. J.B. Baillie. London: Sonnenschein, 1910. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin Edition of 1668. Ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1994. Print.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. Ed. Tom Crawford. Mineola: Dover. 2002. Print.

Wedel, T.O. “On the Philosophical Background of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’Studies in Philology Vol. 23, No 4. U of North Carolina, Oct. 1926. 434-50. JSTOR. 28 April 2011.


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