SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels [Part IV]

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Part 4: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

  • Chapter 1: “The author sets out as captain of a ship.  His men conspire against him, confine him a long time to his cabin, and set him on shore in an unknown land.  He travels up into the country.  The Yahoos, a strange sort of animal, described.  The author meets two Houyhnhnms.”

There is more scatological humor in the manner of Rabelais in this chapter. The yahoos, a very odious creature resembling clawed Neanderthals, surround Gulliver, climb a tree, and defecate on him.

  • Chapter 2: “The author conducted by a Houyhnhnm to his house.  The house described.  The author’s reception.  The food of the Houyhnhnms.  The author in distress for want of meat.  Is at last relieved.  His manner of feeding in this country.”

Gulliver describes his diet. It is very plain, but Gulliver has learned that man can grow accustomed to the most extreme privations. He even learns that salt is an entirely unnecessary luxury, and finds upon his return to England that any food with salt is unpalatable. This chapter reiterates the notion that habit is very powerful, and that man can accustom himself to many disparate ways of life through the force of repetition.

  • Chapter 3: “The author studies to learn the language.  The Houyhnhnm, his master, assists in teaching him.  The language described.  Several Houyhnhnms of quality come out of curiosity to see the author.  He gives his master a short account of his voyage.”

This chapter reminded me of the Planet of the Apes movie. Gulliver is in a land governed by creatures that are intellectually inferior to humans in the world from which he came. These creatures are as astonished that Gulliver displays marks of rationality as Gulliver is surprised that the horses display the same capacities. Swift also draws attention to the absurdity of Gulliver’s explanation of why humans wear clothes. Gulliver explains that nature teaches us to cover some of our parts. The Houyhnhnm thinks that it is absurd to believe that nature would desire us to conceal something that she gave us.

  • Chapter 4: “The Houyhnhnm’s notion of truth and falsehood.  The author’s discourse disapproved by his master.  The author gives a more particular account of himself, and the accidents of his voyage.”

The Houyhnhnms have no conception of the several vices of mankind, such as lust, intemperance, falsehood, avarice, envy, malice, etc. They are a morally superior race than us, and it is striking to perceive the absurdity of the typical actions of many of mankind.

  • Chapter 5: “The author at his master’s command, informs him of the state of England. The causes of war among the princes of Europe.  The author begins to explain the English constitution.”

“There was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid.”

“It is a maxim among these lawyers that whatever has been done before, may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice, and the general reason of mankind.”

In this chapter, Swift gives the most scathing criticism of lawyers that I have ever read. As a former law student, I found a great deal of humor and truth in many of his statements. Besides the obvious fact that lawyers have their own jargon that no other person can understand which only hinders the ability of the common man of defending or bringing a case before the law without the assistance of a lawyer, Swift writes that lawyers are accustomed to defend injustice, so that when a just person brings a complaint to them, they are at a loss how to conduct the suit.

Swift also describes war in the most lurid terms. The Houyhnhnm reflects that mankind is not endowed with Reason, but rather with a quality that serves to increase their vices.

The Houyhnhnm makes the observation that Reason will always prevail over brute strength. “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Indeed, reason has made the human species masters of the earth. We have subdued other animals and even nature itself – e.g. dams – to satisfy our desires.

  • Chapter 6: “A continuation of the state of England under Queen Anne.  The character of a first minister of state in European courts.”

Gulliver describes that the state of affairs in Europe is one in which the majority of people work to satisfy the vanity and intemperance of a few privileged persons of the nobility. However, this sect is plagued by its free indulgence in vice. They are typically fragile and sickly. The Houyhnhnm expresses shock that England does not have sufficient resources to feed and nourish its population, but must instead scour the globe for food and drink. Gulliver explains that the land of England does produce three times as much food and drink that the population requires, “But, in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, whence, in return, we brought the materials of diseases, folly, and vice, to spend among ourselves.”

  • Chapter 7: “The author’s great love of his native country.  His master’s observations upon the constitution and administration of England, as described by the author, with parallel cases and comparisons.  His master’s observations upon human nature.”

Swift continues his tirade against the degeneracy of mankind. While reading this chapter I felt a strong urge to defend our species. Indeed, many of our kind are despicable creatures that serve no purpose but to bring evil into the world, but our flaws are part of our natures. Having just read Pascal, I am very apt to consider the duality of man’s nature. We are both spirit and flesh according to Pascal, and therefore we are in a sort of limbo. We cannot know the spiritual world, where true virtue presumably exists, nor can we be utterly deprived of reason as is pure body.

  • Chapter 8: “The author relates several particulars of the Yahoos.  The great virtues of the Houyhnhnms.  The education and exercise of their youth.  Their general assembly.”

The land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopian vision of communal life. Gulliver desires to spend the rest of his life there so that he may pass the rest of his days in the contemplation and practice of virtue. He reasons that there is no incitement to vice in this land. But I could not help but consider the notion that it is not difficult to be “a saint in a monastery.” The truly admirable individual is one who is virtuous despite innumerable temptations to vice. It is difficult to become an alcoholic if there is no alcohol to drink; it is difficult to become a glutton if there is not an excessive quantity of food; it is difficult to become a lecher if there are not beautiful members of one’s own species, etc.

  • Chapter 9: “A grand debate at the general assembly of the Houyhnhnms, and how it was determined.  The learning of the Houyhnhnms.  Their buildings.  Their manner of burials.  The defectiveness of their language.”

The Houyhnhnms acceptance of death is admirable. As they near death, they calmly take their leave of their intimate friends and family, and depart life without grief, as if they were merely moving to another location to pass the rest of their days. The Houyhnhnms disposition towards death is similar to Marcus Aurelius’ exhortation to cheerfully accept all that happens as in accordance with nature, even death. However, I could not help but recall Dylan Thomas excellent poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” written to Dylan’s own father, who was lying on his death bed. Dylan urges his father to resist death to the very end, not to quit fighting death and not to accept it. I believe that both approaches have some value. The truly worthless and despicable disposition to death is the one in which the individual fears death, and pursues cowardly and vicious means to preserve their life for as long as possible. Those who adhere to the advice of Aurelius have no danger of falling into this mode of behavior; but those who wish to adhere to Dylan’s noble defiance must take care not to fight death because of fear, but rather because it is honorable to do so.

Chapter 10: “The author’s economy, and happy life, among the Houyhnhnms.  His great improvement in virtue by conversing with them.  Their conversations.  The author has notice given him by his master, that he must depart from the country.  He falls into a swoon for grief; but submits.  He contrives and finishes a canoe by the help of a fellow-servant, and puts to sea at a venture.”

“Nature is very easily satisfied. Necessity is the mother of invention.”

I was indignant after reading Gulliver’s utter dismissal of humanity as a mean and altogether despicable species. He enumerates many of the vices to which some people succumb, and also the various criminal acts that people commit. But this list only proves that there are some among the human species who are evil, not the whole species is corrupt. I grew resentful toward the Houyhnhnm race, likely because of my pride as a member of mankind. Indeed,  some believe that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, but I believe that some pride is better than none at all. Like Aristotle’s theory of virtue being a kind of middle point between two vices – a moderate amount of pride is virtuous, while utter humility and vanity are the two extremes from which one ought to avoid.

Chapter 11: “The author’s dangerous voyage.  He arrives at New Holland, hoping to settle there.  Is wounded with an arrow by one of the natives.  Is seized and carried by force into a Portuguese ship.  The great civilities of the captain.  The author arrives at England.”

Upon returning to England, Gulliver has a difficult time adjusting to his proximity to Yahoos. He abhors the presence of even his own family, and is horrified by the thought that he propagated such a despicable species. He bought a couple of horses and converses with them for four hours a day. In my opinion Swift is satirizing the excessive wish some hermit have to seclude themselves from society so that they will not be tainted by the corruption of mankind. Swift shows how unnatural this thought is, and how impractical it is. The Portuguese captain persuades Gulliver that there is no such island where a man can live alone. I believe that this is Swift’s own sentiments that man is not a solitary creature. Or, in the words of Aristotle, man is a social animal – the creature that lives without society is either a beast or a god.

Chapter 12: “The author’s veracity.  His design in publishing this work.  His censure of those travellers who swerve from the truth.  The author clears himself from any sinister ends in writing.  An objection answered.  The method of planting colonies.  His native country commended.  The right of the crown to those countries described by the author is justified.  The difficulty of conquering them.  The author takes his last leave of the reader; proposes his manner of living for the future; gives good advice, and concludes.”

Gulliver praises Houyhnhnms as excellent examples of virtuous creatures, and criticizes Yahoos as examples of vicious beings. Gulliver reasons that examples are powerful inducements, so that if he lives among Yahoos, he will reacquire those vices particular to the Yahoo race. This line of reasoning reminded me of Falstaff’s amusing claim that “It is certain that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught, as men take diseases, one of another: therefore let men take heed of their company.”

Gulliver asserts that he has not published his writings with any hopes of attaining fame; for even the greatest authors are obscured in the flow of time. He does everything for the public good, for the sake of virtue alone, which is very reminiscent of Aurelius’ exhortations.

I enjoyed reading this novel. It had both humorous and serious philosophical parts. The four kingdoms – Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and the country of the Houyhnhnms – are memorable and will likely serve as excellent sources for comparison of other texts in this reading plan.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift


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