Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 02, 2009

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels and the Use of Language

Not many writers add an entirely new word to the English language. Jonathan Swift has: the word yahoo. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary a Yahoo is defined as 1 (capitalized): a member of a race of brutes in Swift's Gulliver's Travels who have the form and all the vices of humans. 2 [influenced by yahoo]: a boorish, crass, or stupid person. Swift’s Yahoos are actually worse than just plain boorish, crass, and stupid; much worse. These so-called “Yahoos” are imaginary human beings in a state of nature. Swift describes them as those filthy Yahoos, although there were few greater lovers of mankind at that time than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew…

Let’s back up a bit and put this word Yahoo in perspective. The French philosopher Rousseau wrote that human beings in a state of nature are like noble savages. In our natural state we follow our primitive instincts and for Rousseau that’s a good thing. It’s only when we become infected by the vices of civilization that we behave badly and get into trouble. Voltaire is said to have written to Rousseau in response: One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work. This is not a compliment. Swift is even more emphatic. In a state of nature people aren’t just bad, but the worst of all creatures. Why? Because we’re savage alright, but not in a noble way; we’re savage in the worst sense of the word. What makes us worse than snakes or scorpions is the fact that we’re rational creatures. We should know better than to lie, cheat or steal. But because we’re gifted with the use of reason we not only practice these vices, we even justify our actions through the perverted use of both reason and language. First we subvert our reason to justify to ourselves that it’s ok to lie, cheat or steal. Then we exploit language in an attempt to convince others that it’s ok for us to lie, cheat or steal. At our best we may be just a little lower than the angels, but at our worst we’re just plain savages.

A truly rational creature would behave more like the creatures Swift calls Houyhnhnms. They look like horses but behave like rational beings. The term “Houyhnhnm” is a word that not only signifies “horse” in their language but its etymology stems from the phrase "the perfection of nature.” These creatures follow Reason and Nature as their guides and don’t let passions dictate their actions. For example, the Houyhnhnms don’t even have a word for “lying” in their vocabulary. When they don’t believe some of the things Gulliver (a transplanted Yahoo) tells them, they have to search for a phrase and the best they can come up with is that Gulliver said the thing which was not. For the Houyhnhnms language is intended to communicate thoughts clearly and truly. Why would anyone wish to say “the thing which was not”? Houyhnhnms have no need to deceive and they don’t expect to be deceived in return. Here’s the Houyhnhnmian explanation: the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now if one said the thing which was not, the ends were defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving information, that he leaves me worse than in ignorance, for I am led to believe a thing black when it is white, and short when it is long. This would have made Socrates smile. The irony is that Swift himself made up this whole story. Are we supposed to believe that somewhere in this world there’s an island with talking horses? Swift has said the thing which is not. Is fiction itself a form of lying?


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