Stagnation: An Essay on A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift demonstrates the essentially destructive pursuit of reason in human society. Swift’s protagonist, Gulliver, believes perfect reason could solve the many problems of humanity, yet his emotional responses to what he considers to be a purely rational society casts doubt on his glorification of reason. By establishing Gulliver as an unreliable narrator subject to irrational emotions, Swift demonstrates that perfect reason can never be truly realized in human society and the pursuit of such reason can only lead to societal and psychological stagnation.

Before Gulliver elaborates his tale of this final adventure, he states that man can be “A little too positive in his own opinions, which [is] the cause of his destruction” (Swift 2418). This sets up an important frame from which to view Gulliver’s experiences. Although he is rightfully frustrated with humanity, the excessive regard he will later bestow on the Houyhnhnms and their pure reason is cast in a deprecating light. Similarly, his utter disdain for the Yahoos works as an indicator of his personal beliefs rather than their true nature.

Gulliver’s egregious encounter with the Yahoo’s comes immediately after a mutiny from his shipmates whom he calls rogues: “These rogues…formed a conspiracy” (Swift 2419). Through this detestation, Swift establishes Gulliver as a victim of human avaricious intent. “In this desolate condition I advanced forward” (Swift 2419). By wanting to advance forward from this bad experience, he is metaphorically seeking a repose from the pitfalls of humanity. He is already weary from his experience of humanity when he is attacked by the Yahoo’s. His regard for the Houyhnhnms is exaggerated because they save him while the human and human-like figures mistreat him.  This event works as an emotionally charged catalyst for his opinion of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoo’s.

Gulliver initially works to distinguish his race as different from the Yahoos: “to [whom] I owed my resemblance in every part, but could not account for their degenerate and brutal nature” (Swift 2428). He considers those he loves as similar to himself while anyone who has mistreated him he describes as a Yahoo. He states that “My birth was of honest parents” (Swift 2430) and later talks about his crew members “[I] had about fifty Yahoos under me” (Swift 2431). He deliberately attempts to distance himself from the Yahoos and their irrational behavior, but his reasoning is highly dependent upon his own emotionally charged opinions.

Gulliver states that “the Yahoos were the only governing animals in my country” (Swift 2429). This mockery indicates a strong dislike for the government of his own country.  Since he views the Houyhnhnms as his perfect saviors, it seems that he is motivated to consider their government and reason as a perfect solution. “That our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature” (Swift 2440). This point is flawed because the Houyhnhnms do, in fact, lack some virtues and therefore demonstrate an intolerant government.

According to Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms don’t understand many concepts of human society: “Power, government, war, law, punishment, and a thousand other things had no terms” (Swift 2431). This seems like a perfect society, but there exists some contradiction. The Houyhnhnms practice slavery within their own race. Furthermore, they practice eugenics as a way of segregation: “Therefore [the white, sorrel, and iron grey] 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” (Swift 2438). Gulliver doesn’t make any comment on these less than reputable practices. Instead, he quite ignores their use of slavery altogether and immediately states “I made his honor my most humble acknowledgments for the good opinion he was pleased to conceive of me” (Swift 2438). What is perhaps more alarming is that the Houyhnhnms consider genocide against the Yahoos and yet Gulliver considers them to have “a general disposition to all virtues” (Swift 2445). This disregard reveals that Gulliver’s is not judging the Houyhnhnms fairly, but rather through an emotional lens.

By demonstrating all of Gulliver’s emotionally biased views, Swift seems to be establishing him as an unreliable narrator. This unreliability is strengthened in the line: “It was impossible for me to do before a person of so acute a judgment as my master” (Swift 2439). In step with his glorified ideal of the Houyhnhnms, he shows an eagerness to liken himself to the Houyhnhnms by referring to a horse as a person. He states that he is willing to sacrifice everything for truth: “I had likewise learned from his example an utter detestation of all falsehood or disguise; and truth appeared so amiable to me, that I determined upon sacrificing everything to it” (Swift 2439).  It seems that his pursuit for truth and perfect reason renders him, at least partially, insane. As it is impossible for Gulliver to understand pure reason, Swift seems to state that a society of men cannot consider or experience pure reason and therefore has no means of establishing it as a perfect solution to its ails.

The Houyhnhnms complete disregard for the visceral Yahoos distinguishes pure reason as devoid of necessary emotion. Swift’s disclosure of man’s incapacity to exist happily in a world of perfect reason occurs after Gulliver is forced to leave and voyages home. He is pained by the Houyhnhnms lack of feeling and exhibits his newly disillusioned understanding of reason when he says the shipmates who rescued him “Spoke to me with great humanity” (Swift 2456). That Gulliver referred to kindness as “great humanity” even though he claims to experience “antipathy against mankind” (Swift 2457)  adds strength to the idea that the Houyhnhnms perfect reason is not the answer to all of human societies problems and demonstrates Gulliver’s easily swayed opinion.

Finally, Gulliver states that Don Pedro “put it upon me as a point of honor and conscience that I ought to return to my native country and live at home with my wife and children” (Swift 2457). Gulliver is forced to return to the emotionally charged life of his past, but after his experiences he is not capable of functioning in society. He is neither capable of demonstrating brutal reasoning by helping society improve nor is he able to fully love his family. He remains in the stagnate position of someone who attempted to live in the worlds of both the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. Painful emotional experience can propel one towards reason, but without those emotions, one is essentially cast away from “great humanity.” Gulliver cannot exist in either and it seems that the satire rests in the point that neither can humans. Therefore, the pursuit of pure reason in society will ultimately render it stagnant and flawed.