In Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels’ time, the role of culture and civilization is to defend individuals against a state of nature, and also to allow individuals to reconcile themselves to the idea of making personal sacrifices that ensure the propagation of civilization. But these sacrifices are not easy for everyone to make, and they show themselves most clearly in the individuals who set an example of the essential sacrifice for the sake of others. This sacrifice is shown to support civilization through both the mastery of nature and the distribution of wealth.
It is problematic because representatives of inductive sacrifice are separated from the masses, and often fall back to the level of the masses instead of setting the right example of inductive and sacrificing example. In Swift, the state of nature is portrayed in the society of the Yahoos, or humans, whereas civilization is portrayed in the society of the Houyhnhnms; Gulliver is not able to make the sort of sacrifice that would confirm his essential humanity, since he is deemed inferior by the Houyhnhnms’ culture and expelled.
In general, Swift seeks to condemn human nature as being a state that is assimilated by all in terms of unthinking servitude to individuals’ own desires and needs, which conflict and contrast to create a sort of messy chaos that is not ruled by reason or logic. His condemnation of human nature is not light satire, and is rather a general indictment of humanity as being naturally loathsome and horrible to behold.
That is, Swift does not see any saving grace in civilization, but instead concentrates on the innate debasement of humanity as being a constant, which causes revulsion in both the Houyhnhnms and his narrator. In the first three books of the work, Swift is more artfuland perhaps reserved about criticizing human nature, although he does have moments of scatological debasement and disgust, but in the fourth book, his criticism becomes outright and explicitly scathing as it moves from the specific to the general. “The author seems to condemn ordinary human nature, blaming all mankind so indignantly that the comical foundation of Gulliver’s Travels dissolves under the acid of Swift’s rage. ” (Ehrenpreis, 1993 p. 458).
This rage is especially portrayed by Gulliver’s renunciation of human society when he returns to his home, where he finds that he cannot stop thinking of humans as Yahoos who follow a state of debased nature to their graves without stopping to think or reason in a way that is exemplified by the society of the Houyhnhnms. In the end, Swift condemns human nature and defines it as being a state of debasement and ignorance from which there is little hope of rescue or salvation. His narrator, a human, is unable to live up the standards of his horse masters, who think of him as a sort of hyper-attenuated Yahoo, and eventually dismiss him from their realm, leaving him feeling unworthy and despondent. It is possible that the narrator blames
Yahoos for his dismissal, and reacts to them with the sort of spite and loathing that he has always evinced towards them, even after arriving back in England. That is, the narrator displays the hopelessness Swift sees in human nature, because in the end, he is hopeless himself, driven from the noble Houyhnhnms and cast adrift to find the Yahoo-humanity that he loathes in its state of debased consumption and unthinking and disgusting avarice and malice. He has failed to meet the cultural norms of the horses because he is too steeped in Yahoo nature. This makes the final book of Swift’s story all the more damning in terms of its definition of human nature as debased and venial. “Gulliver’s inability to live up to the norm, however, scarcely denies either that Swift designed the Houyhnhnms as norms or that norm’s validity… why we should believe the truth of three-fourths of the fiction and declare the final part a lie is a nice question for casuists” (Weinbrot, 2000 p. 504).
The answer is that, whether favorably or unfavorably, Swift, through his narrator, sees human nature as a stain. In the fourth book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, human nature is revealed through various stages that occur as the narrator is first tempted to treat his horse masters in an anthropomorphic manner, then accepts their nature and superiority as horses, and finally evinces significant disgust at the conduct and nature of humans or Yahoos, both in the Houyhnhnm society and in his native England.
Human nature is finally revealed as the symptomatic and incurable condition of being a Yahoo. At first it appears as if the Yahoos are animals and savages that are set apart from humanity, but through the process of narrative revelation, Swift links the savagery and debasement of the Yahoos to human nature directly.
The narrator is shocked at the foul and scatological conduct of the Yahoos when he is first stranded on the island, and is eventually rescued by the horses, who rule the society based on virtue and honesty. At first, as mentioned, the narrator is tempted to think that the horses are human sorcerers who have changed their form, and thus explains how they are able to converse and reason logically. He even thinks of riding one. But it soon becomes clear that the horses are simply horses, not humans, and that they are in almost all ways superior to the humans over whom they rule, the Yahoos. Still, when the
narrator is first introduced to the society of Houyhnhnms, he keeps looking for their human masters, thinking at one point that a society that is able to domesticate its beasts of burden to such an advanced degree must be stellar in intelligence and virtue. The narrator is disabused of this notion when it becomes clear that the Houyhnhnms are the masters of their society, and that their conduct is obviously superior to that of the Yahoos they keep as a subservient class of laborers who live, apparently contentedly, in filth, squalor, and general wretchedness. When the narrator accepts that the horses are his social superiors and masters, he does so after some amount of discussion, having learned their language enough to give a rather proud account of his native land, which is summarily dismissed by the horses as being typical of Yahoo behavior.
The horses remark that it is not unheard of in their land to also see Yahoos squabbling and killing each other over certain minerals, and that the dominant Yahoo is also surrounded by fawning subservient attendants who herd female Yahoos into his camp and help to clean the lead Yahoo’s feet and behind. Hearing this, the narrator is taken aback, but it is not long until he realizes that the society of the
Houyhnhnms is superior to the nature of the Yahoos. The revelation of human nature as debased and disgusting is sealed when the narrator begins to see all human beings as Yahoos, both in the land of the Houyhnhnms and in his own native England, to which he returns with a marked respect for horses and a severe distaste for human company, even that of his family. According to many critics, Swift defines human nature by a series of inductive or sacrificial reckonings, rather than deductive planned ones, that center around the otherness of exotic civilizations as they are seen through the perspective of his narrator.
He uses this other cleverly to draw attention to the general aspects of human nature, especially in the fourth book. Thus, the revelation of human nature is the effective transplantation of the other civilization onto the civilization of the narrator to show basic human (or Yahoo) similarities. This principle was perhaps first put forth by Temple, and “Swift, I think, seized on Temple’s principle—i. e. , to define human nature by induction, taking examples from cultures untouched by European civilization and therefore revealing the properties underlying the behavior of all mankind.
But Swift… substituted an attack on humanity for Temple’s seductive hopefulness” (Ehrenpreis, 1993 p. 459). There is nothing hopeful or graceful about Swift’s final condemnation of human nature in the fourth book. The narrator is again adrift, but this time he is adrift on his home soil, where “he becomes proud of not being proud, tries to behave like the horse he is not, and rudely dismisses the human family he has established and now regards as hateful Yahoos” (Weinbrot, 2000 p. 504).
It is actually rather tragic, aside from being scathing and vitriolic, that this is the eventual revelation of human nature in the narrator: he is venial and prideful himself, in the end, and shows himself to be a Yahoo too. This sets up the problematic end of the story, “for while Gulliver visits the reasonable horses, and after he returns from them, the author pokes fun at both him and them. The comic element survives in this form, and we have at last to choose… Gulliver ends up crazy… or else that Swift agrees with Gulliver” (Ehrenpreis, 1993 p. 458). In my opinion, it is the latter that is the case, or perhaps even both. Thus, Swift provides a vitriolic satire of human nature as it is seen to be continued through societal functions.
The avarice and veniality, as well as the pride and flattery, of the Yahoos is institutionalized in England, as Gulliver tells the horses the mechanics of his society and then receives the news that these mechanics are typical of Yahoos.
Ehrenpreis, Irvin (1993). Show and Tell in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: WW Norton Company. Swift, Jonathan (2002). Gulliver’s Travels. New York: WW Norton Company. Weinbrot, Howard D. (2000). Swift, Horace and Virgil: Brave Lies, Dangerous Horses, and Truth. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: WW Norton Company.