Swift knew from his reading of history that “the same vices and the same follies” were a ubiquitous feature of human institutions and efforts to create any kind of utopia were destined to fail. As an avid reader of antiquarian texts, he “had a sense of belonging to a civilization with a tradition of inherited political wisdom that stretched back to fifth-century Athens” (Lock, 33). Therefore, he “did not look at the problems of his age as new or unique” (Lock, 34). As he did in The Battel of the Books, Swift employs actual historical figures in “A Voyage to Laputa” to illustrate the timelessness of human folly.

It was Swift’s religious background which instilled in him the sense of innate human fallibility which was only reinforced by his personal experiences. Jonathan Swift was an Anglican clergyman who devoted his life to the promotion of the precepts of Christianity as he understood them. This perspective predisposed Swift to view humanity as both unworthy and incapable of achieving anything remotely approaching worldly perfection:

A fundamental element of Swift’s pessimism was his religious conviction that political corruption and disorder were, in man’s fallen state, more natural than their opposites (Lock, 4).

Of course, there is no single valid biblical interpretation of human nature. Ironically, in many ways, Swift’s low regard for humanity was closer to Hobbes’ deistic “doctrine of humankind’s essential power hunger and egotism” than it was to his fellow theologian, the Third Earl of Shaftsbury, who portrayed humankind as altruistic and benevolent in his Characteristics (Knowles, 25). Though Swift was repulsed by Hobbes’ theology, Gulliver’s Travels presents a very Hobbesian portrait of humanity.

The pervasive picture of human depravity depicted in Gulliver’s Travels is aided by the satirical technique of reversing the reader’s perspective of Gulliver’s physical stature. By transforming Gulliver via his travels from behemoth to dwarf, Swift assaults his reader’s expectations and perceptions of the story’s protagonist. In Lilliput, Gulliver towers over his captors not only in physical stature, but also in his moral character. In refusing his Emperor’s order to destroy the Blefuscudian forces, Gulliver is displaying his superior ethics. When Gulliver travels to Brobdingnag, however, his situation is completely reversed. Not only has his physical stature suddenly diminished, but his moral standards vis-a-vis his new hosts are likewise reduced. As a result of this reversal Gulliver “becomes the object of satire, whereas on Lilliput he had largely been the vehicle for satire on what he observed” (Knowles, 82-3).

Gulliver’s moral stature, and, by inference, the ethical standing of the human race, shrinks along with Gulliver’s body because the residents of Brobdingnag have much higher standards than human beings. This becomes clear through Gulliver’s interactions with the King of Brobdingnag. Swift employs some of his most brilliant satire as all of Gulliver’s efforts to impress the King with examples of the achievements of European civilization simply confirm his suspicions about innate human depravity. After the King has meticulously questioned Gulliver on European culture, he offers this assessment of Western civilization:

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century; protesting it was only an Heap of Conspiracies, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce (Gulliver, 107).

The King’s estimation of English political institutions is equally harsh. When Gulliver explains to him the qualities required to succeed in court, he observes wryly: “You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator” (Gulliver, 108). It cannot be denied that such pithy commentary by the King of Brobdingnag reflect Swift’s own political experiences. But the King’s final appraisal of human nature goes much farther than simply criticizing the excesses of a particular monarchy or the vulgarities of royal intrigue. The King is appalled when Gulliver, in an effort to gain his favor, offers to reveal the secret to the destructive power of gunpowder. He is “amazed how so impotent and groveling little Insect as I (these were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman Ideas” (Gulliver, 110). The King eloquently articulates the deep-seated misanthropy which permeates much of Swift’s writing when he offers this harsh indictment of human nature:

But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pains wringed and extorted from you: I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of odious little Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth (Gulliver, 108).

While conversing with the ghosts of the ancients in Laputa Gulliver continues to be confronted with the specter of inborn human degeneracy. It is here that Swift is asserting most cogently that human depravity is universal and timeless, and, therefore, not simply a product of a particular age or a single political institution. After speaking with an assortment of philosophers and kings, Gulliver is overwhelmed by the ubiquity of political corruption. Swift makes the amusing observation that personal integrity, rather than being the stuff of great leaders, is actually anathema to the machinery of government:

Three Kings protested to me, that in their whole Reigns they did never once prefer any Person of Merit, unless by Mistake or Treachery of some Minister in whom they confided: Neither would they do it if they were to live again; and they shewed with great Strength of Reason, that the Royal Throne could not be supported without Corruption; because, that positive, confident, restive Temper, which Virtue infused into Man, was a perpetual Clog to publick Business (Gulliver, 171).

This is a vituperative assault upon the humanistic view of human nature. Yet things continue to go from bad to worse as Swift saves his most potent salvos against humanity for Gulliver’s final journey, the “Voyage to the Huoyhnhnms.” Just as Swift, a great lover of hoaxes, must have enjoyed shrinking Gulliver in order to demonstrates humanity’s minuscule moral stature, he surely delighted in creating a breed of humanity subservient to its favorite beast of burden–the horse: “As Gulliver experienced a huge reversal from giant to pygmy, now the world is turned upside down as he recounts the relationship between human and horse in England” (Knowles, 121). This forces the reader to reevaluate many of his/her basic assumptions about human nature.

By creating a world where humanity is represented by the Yahoos, Swift personifies humanity’s most wretched feral tendencies. By forcing the reader to observe the Yahoos from the perspective of a wholly rational creature the novel demonstrates how indistinguishable Western man is from his animal nature. Gulliver is driven mad by the realization that an animal which appears to be a common horse is his moral superior in every way. Swift catalogues various vices and shortcomings in order to demonstrate how a race of truly rational beings might compare to humanity.

In the land of the Houyhnhnms there were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, House-breakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, Splenetics, tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuosos; no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; No Encouragers to Vice, by Seducements or Examples (Gulliver, 242).

Even more damning of humanity than its status and ethically inferior to the Houyhnhnms is the inability of Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm Master to distinguish him from the Yahoos. He is never willing to concede that Gulliver represents a race which might differ significantly from the Yahoos in moral stature despite the fact that Gulliver speaks, reasons and wears clothes. Gulliver’s descriptions of human exploits confirm his master’s worst suspicions about humanity, just as Gulliver’s braggadocio had appalled the King of Brobdingnag. The master actually comes to regard Gulliver as representative of a life form even lower than the detested Yahoos who have no excuse for their lewd behavior. Humans, on the other hand, have intellectual gifts which logically should prevent them from committing the type of atrocities Gulliver has described to his master who concludes that

although he hated the Yahoos of this country he no more blamed them for their odious qualities, than he did a Gnnayh (a Bird of Prey) for its Cruelty, or a sharp Stone for cutting his Hoof. But, when a Creature pretending to Reason, could be capable of such Enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that Faculty might be worse than brutality itself (Gulliver, 215).

When Gulliver finally accepts his master’s appraisal that all the people he has ever known are, in essence, “Yahoos in Shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized”, he is echoing Swift’s gloomy assessment of human nature (Gulliver, 243). As the reader follows Gulliver through his descent into madness, it is difficult to remain optimistic about human nature. Gulliver begins his journeys as a proud man who is happy to brag about human exploits; he ends up revolted by the mere presence of people, preferring the company of horses.

This leaves us with the question of why Swift would write a book which paints such a dismal portrait of human nature. Is Gulliver’s Travels, as has been suggested, simply the misanthropic ravings of bitter, frustrated man who was himself headed into the throes of insanity? Or did Swift write, as he insisted, for the “Universal Improvement of Mankind”? It is notable, however, that Swift never proposes any strategy for such a daunting task. When one considers that Swift’s theological predisposition was based upon the innate corruption of humanity such protestations ring hollow. It seems likely that this was simply another one of Swift’s jokes.

by Richard W. Bray

Case, Arthur E. Four Essays on Gulliver’s Travels. Gloucester: Princeton UP, 1958
Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. London: Prentice Hall, 1996
Lock, F.P. The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990
Swift, Jonathan. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York:Norton, 1973
Varey, Simon “Exemplary History and the Political Satire of Gulliver’s Travels,” The Genres of Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Frederik N. Smith. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990 (39-54)

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