Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Swift: Gulliver's Travels


Blogger SMJ said...

In book IV, "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms," Jonathan Swift explores the idea of a society founded on truth and rational order. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, power is invested in a sovereign (the "master horse") who rules as a kind of benign despot (actually, more like a personnel director than a king) over the population by virtue of his superior wisdom, though every few years he receives advice from a grand council. The Houyhnhnm have no word in their language to express lying. That which is untrue has no objective reality. Thus, according to their logic, why have a symbol to represent that which does not exist? Their language is based on a simple one-to-one correspondence between that which is perceived and that which is. No provision is made for naming things which could only be imagined. The Houyhnhnm do not indulge in fantasy and have no language to support it. The expression, "the thing which is not," is their way of referring to anything which is unfactual.

Technologically speaking, the Houyhnhnm are a primitive culture. They have no weapons or industry to manufacture them. They live within the bounds of a subsistence economy. They create no surplus and suffer from no privation. Since their needs exactly match their available resources, there is no conflict between them, and no need for government. It is not until Gulliver himself makes an appearance that even the slightest discord occurs among them. In most respects, it is a society that cultivates virtue, and reason alone distinguishes one member from another. Thus, in procreation, they limit their numbers to what the available resources can sustain, and live without the messy complications of mixing sexuality with pleasure. They disdain all forms of romantic longing. Marriages are arranged according to prevailing notions of good taste, avoiding, where possible, any degeneration of the race due to poor breeding. They care no more for their own children than for the progeny of their neighbors. Yet, all children are raised in an environment where reason molds their development, with no sentimentality to spare. Love and hospitality are extended to the whole species, as nature dictates.

The Houyhnhnm are neither deceitful or creative. They live only in "the here and the now." The word "houyhnhnm" means "the perfection of nature." And as a result of this perfection, they have no need for law and no concept of jurisprudence. Nor do they use currency. In fact, they lack any desire for accumulating wealth. "Wealth" is a concept foreign to their nature. Their guiding principle seems to be "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," which sounds rather Marxist, but is actually quite Platonic. For the arrangement of Houyhnhnm society is based strictly on intelligence; those endowed with less "talents of the mind" are employed in tasks suited to their abilities. Since they aspire to nothing higher, they are content with their station in life. Having no concept of evil, they lack the human impulse for pride or prejudice. Friendship and benevolence are virtues held in common and extended to every member of the race.

The Houyhnhnm believe in the certainty of knowledge and, like Hegel, equate reality with reason. That which is uncertain or irrational lacks authenticity, and therefore is not worth considering. For them, the world consists only of "what is"; everything else belongs to "what is not." And since opinions lack certainty, they belong to the same metaphysical category as lies and fantasy, meaning "that which has no being." In truth, the Houyhnhnm reject all forms of speculative philosophy as being unworthy of their time. Rather, they are grounded in the cold, hard facts of reality. They wage no war, but will not shy away from violence when the occasion calls for it. Their subjection of the Yahoos is justified because the Yahoos are deficient in every virtue, and, as Aristotle would say, those inferior in virtue must be ruled by those superior.

The Houyhnhnm are a society ruled by the principle of reason. They have devised for themselves a kind of Platonic utopia, in which logic rules, but passion is dormant. They use no written language, but have perfected the art of speaking. Other than poetry, they have no arts, no comedy or tragedy. They indulge no hatred, other than a strong objection to rudeness and bad manners. Since they have no word for "evil," when they want to describe something bad, they use a derivative of "Yahoo," a word that refers to a race of barbarous creatures, incapable of reason, who are ruled by the Houyhnhnm. For the most part, the Houyhnhnm constitute a society of the contented, creatures entirely satisfied with what nature has provided. They lack nothing essential, and they aspire to be nothing beyond what they already are. If it can be said that humans are in a constant state of evolution, then houyhnhnm are in a state of perfect harmony or equilibrium with nature. They are a temperate people, and because they do not over indulge in food or drink harmful to the body, they mostly enjoy good health and live a reasonably long life.

After reading Gulliver's Travels, the question I ask myself is whether Jonathan Swift is describing a utopian society that we should admire, a society superior in virtue to the one we inhabit today; or is he depicting a totalitarian regime, cloaked in benevolence and rationality, but founded on a idea of racial superiority. In many ways, the Houyhnhnm have enacted a model of Plato's ideal state, a republic governed by the principles of reason and virtue. But reason and contentment have their price, and in this case the price seems to be the loss of passion, along with its moral cognate, compassion. Yes, the Houyhnhnm have succeeded in banishing war, poverty, injustice, and crime, but they lack the creative energy to produce anything in the way of genius, either in science or art. The one art they have perfected is the art of speaking, which, as Plato said, is an art suited to lawyers and politicians. Is social harmony worth the loss of any future Shakespeare, Einstein or Michaelangelo? It seems to me that the Houyhnhnm exist on a kind of monastic island in which desire and discontent have vanished, along with any restless longing for adventure. So is Swift trying to say that civilization, as we know it, evolves from the struggle to perfect ourselves? But don't our human defects come from the same nature that enables us to succeed? What happens when the struggle for perfection is over and paradise is finally achieved? Do we sit back in our Lazy-boy recliners and surf through an infinite choice of cable channels? Is the destiny of the human race to perfect ourselves and then turn into a race of Yahoos? And if we become the Yahoos, where do we look to find the Houyhnhnm?

5/04/2005 2:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home