Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, February 09, 2013

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels (Part IV/A voyage to the country of the houyhnhnms)

One of the advantages of reading through the Great Books Series is the opportunity to compare authors. This is a helpful way of clarifying in our minds exactly what someone is saying and what they are not saying. In our last reading, for example, John Locke presented his case for pursuing a rational life. He said the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind… If we look to nature to guide us then we’ll find the path to a rational life. In Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift shows us what this sort of rational life might look like. It doesn’t much matter if the creature is a human being or a horse. The guiding principle is the rational life.

Swift demonstrates this principle by making horses the rational creatures in an imaginary country of Houyhnhnms. The word Houyhnhnm, in their tongue, signifies a HORSE, and, in its etymology, the PERFECTION OF NATURE. We human beings consider ourselves to be at the absolute top of the scale of nature too. If horses were highly rational creatures would they not do the same? Locke’s definition of the law of nature as “reason” makes perfect sense if we think that the more rational we are, the more perfected we become. And living a rational life surely beats the alternative. Swift shows the reader what a non-rational life might look like: …as to 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, while I stayed in that country. Yahoos are us. That is, Yahoos are human beings without the benefit of being guided by rational principle. This is what Hobbes warned us about: living outside of civilized society means living lives that are short, nasty, and brutish. These Yahoos prove it. It’s much better to turn to Reason and let government guide us back to the relative comforts of town and city life. That’s the place where wealth and the arts can flourish.

But before we go full speed ahead and fully adopt that lifestyle we should pause and ask a few questions. First of all, is Reason really the PERFECTION OF NATURE? If a thing is perfect then it can’t be improved. Houyhnhnm society is much preferable to living with the Yahoos. But is it perfect? No. Here’s one flaw. This perfect society is totally susceptible to fraud and deceit. Houyhnhnms believe (correctly I think) that the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now, if any one said the thing which was not, these 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. It’s inconceivable to them that anyone would “say the thing which is not.” So that’s exactly what their enemies would do. Another flaw (in my opinion) is that …the inhabitants have not the least idea of books or literature; nor, for that matter, any of the other arts. They’re content to live in a state of nature. But as someone once said: art is man’s nature. We wouldn’t feel at home in a world without books and art and music. Finally among the Houyhnhnms, the white, the sorrel, and the iron-gray, were not so exactly shaped as the bay, the dapple-gray, and the black; nor born with equal talents of mind, or a capacity to improve them; and therefore continued always in the condition of servants, without ever aspiring to match out of their own race, which in that country would be reckoned monstrous and unnatural. In their country it’s perfectly acceptable (because it’s reasonable and natural) that some should be servants and others should be masters. Is that what Americans want?


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