Reason, Passion, Nature, Utopia, Dystopia in Gulliver’s Travels

Nick Guenther


Reason, Passion, Nature, Utopia, Dystopia in Gulliver’s Travels 


         In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels a European man travels to other worlds and investigates their cultures and governments.  In book four, Gulliver’s mutinous crew abandons him on an island where he is plunged into a world governed by the Houyhnhnms horse creatures who live and govern in accordance with pure reason and nature, that is also populated by a despicable race of humans called the Yahoos, who live only for vice and squalor.  These exaggerated attitudes call attention to the way the humans in power rule Europe and to human nature in general.  But do the Houynhnms provide a model for the Europeans to follow? Is the island of the Houynhnms a utopia, a dystopia, or something in between?  Using the clear distinction between the Yahoos and Houynhnms, Gulliver’s ultimately failed attempt to emulate the Houynhnms, Gulliver’s relationship with the Houynhnms, and Gulliver’s life after exile from their land, Swift represents the idea of a great utopian society as impossible.  The unobtainable nature of the quest for a perfect society reflects that a society like the Houynhnm’s is not right for mankind.  Like the Yahoos in Houynhnmland, the humans of Europe and the known world are not meant to have such reason.  Swift depicts pure reason as contrary to human nature- as neither possible nor desirous.  

         Book four of Gulliver’s Travels does seem to represent the country of the Houynhnms as a utopia, at least in the eyes of Gulliver.  There are numerous scholarly articles attempting to link it in style and content with Thomas More’s Utopia. Chloe Houston’s writes “Broadly speaking there is a distinction between those critics who take utopian to mean idealistic or perfectionist about human society and perfectibility, and those for whom the deciding factor is the nature of its engagement with the utopian tradition or with a particular utopian text, usually (indeed, almost exclusively) More’s Utopia” (Houston 426).  In this essay I will look at whether book four of Gulliver’s Travels represents a utopia in the former sense, but Houston also looks at comparisons with More’s Utopia and other similar works as a basis for determining how utopian or dystopian book four and Houynhnmland are.  Houston writes, “Swift’s take shares with the utopian form its use of fantastic journeys and shipwrecks, the naive narrator, stories of new places and seemingly ideal societies” ( 427). She finds that Gulliver’s Travels may be Utopian but that does not necessarily mean the lands he encounters are utopian. She argues that “a closer reading of the text reveals a more complex use of utopian features by highlighting not only the satirical nature of Swift’s text but its deliberate mockery of earlier descriptions of new and ideal societies.”   She sees the different lands of Gulliver’s travels as satires of utopian literature and the idea of an “idealistic” or “perfect” utopian society.  In particular she cites Gulliver’s journey to Laputa, comparing its academy to Salomon’s House in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. 

         She uses the theory that this satire enforces the idea that the possible utopia found Houynhnmland as well as those found throughout Gulliver’s Travels  and other utopian works are unachievable, saying,  “Gulliver’s Travels can be seen as utopian in its refusal to concede that the ideal society can exist in the real world. As in Utopia, a seemingly ideal society can only be imagined far from English shores” (Houston 435).  She supports this conclusion by citing Hermann J Real who argues “Swift’s purpose is to manifest Gulliver’s ideal and simultaneously to show its impossibility; by ‘parading the Houyhnhnms, the epitome of virtue and rationality, before and for Gulliver, Swift exhibits the ideal which the philosophy of the schools…claimed for man’s nature’ (Real 100) (Houston 435). Houston comes to the conclusion “that the text is neither a utopia, nor a dystopia, nor even an anti-utopia (as it has variously been read); rather it contains images of and interactions with ideas of utopia and dystopia which reflect its engagement with the utopian mode and qualify it as simultaneously utopian and dystopian” (427).

          Eugene R. Hammond links Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels based on the supreme value of reason in the societies encountered by Gulliver and Raphael, the protagonist of Utopia. His primary goal in his comparison of the two is to explore the role of justice in societies ruled by reason. “In both Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, reason is intimately linked with the virtue of justice, and in each, the institutional injustice of contemporary society is pointedly satirized through comparison with the impressive (if not perfect) justice of an imaginary, rational society” (Hammond 445). He also claims that in both Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels nature and reason are linked, and defined saying, “The distinctive features of the terms ‘nature’ and reason,’ as the Utopians and the Houyhnhnms use them, are: 1) that nature is idealized and taken to be a reliable normative standard; and 2) that reason is in perfect accord with nature” (Hammond 450).  He cites, as evidence, Gulliver’s assertions that Houyhnhnm society’s “grand maxim, is to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it” (Swift 2408), and the Houyhnhnm’s belief that “Nature and reason [are] sufficient Guides for a reasonable animal” (Swift  2403).

            Hammond mentions that the Houyhnhnms are frequently criticicized for being cold and passionless.  He cites Samuel Holt Monk’s statement that “The Houyhnhnms are the embodiment of pure reason.  They know neither love nor grief nor lust nor ambition” (Monk 241), then says, “Monk’s ordering of the passions – love, grief, lust, ambition – is significant.  The control of lust and ambition by reason we all admire.  And most of us would accept the control of grief by reason.  But by placing love, a passion we value, in the first and most prominent position, after stating that the Houyhnhnms embody pure reason, Monk is implicitly arguing that since their reason suppresses such an admirable quality, it must be flawed” (Hammond 461-462).  While their form of justice is based on the interaction of reason and nature, it is an unquestionable justice. “The Houyhnhnms have no choice but to obey a decree of their assembly” (463 “Even the freedom of thought of the Houyhnhnms seems to be severely restricted.  The Houyhnhnms can think of nothing but what is reasonable” (463).

         When Gulliver’s crew abandons him on the island of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, the reader sees an obvious and stark contrast.  The Houyhnhnms embody perfection, in fact “the word Houyhnhnm, in their tongue, signifies a horse, and in its etymology, the Perfection of Nature” (Swift 2889).   Indeed the Houyhnhnms possess many laudable qualities.  They cannot lie, or have no concept of it, “for they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood” (2389). They too “are endowed by Nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature” (Swift 2408).  The Houyhnhnms are not only innocent of evil and lying, they are completely ignorant of it.  They are good natured, friendly, and kind, “Friendship and benevolence are the two principal virtues among the Houyhnhnms, and these are not confined to particular objects, but universal to the whole race” 2409).  This indicates that their pure and intense reason is not just cold and impersonal.  It is rational for the Houyhnhnms to be kind to one another, their value of friendship and benevolence fosters a productive, happy society since there is no ill will, no hatred, and every member of the society wishes well for every other member of the society and; therefore, society in general.  Hammond states that “The concern for fellowship shown by the Houyhnhnms breaks down the barriers of pride (including family pride and lovers’ pride) which all of us erect; this fellowship, far from being absurd, is the personal virtue that makes possible the social justice in the Utopian and Houyhnhnm societies” (Hammond 459). They raise their youth well and educate them in their values, “Temperance, industry, exercise, and cleanliness, are the lessons equally enjoined to the young ones of both sexes” (Swift 2410).  They have an efficient effective form of government, which consists only of a “representative Council of the whole nation” which meets once every four years, “Here they inquire into the state and condition of the several districts…And wherever there is any want (which is but seldom) it is immediately supplied by unanimous consent and contribution” (2410).  On the surface their civilization seems perfect.

         The land of the Houyhnhnms indeed looks like what every human would want his or her country to look like. Soon after arriving on the island, Gulliver reflects a desire to take use the teachings of the Houyhnhnms to improve England by “celebrating the praises of the renowned Houyhnhnms, and proposing their virtues to the imitation of mankind”, by the end of his time with the Houyhnhnms, however, he has completely forsaken this idea.  He tries not to become a more rational human being, but to become a Houyhnhnm. He becomes disgusted with his human body, saying “When I happened to behold the relection of my own form in a lake or a fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself…By conversing with the Houyhnhnms, and looking upon them with delight, I fell to imitate their gait and gesture” (2415).  He cannot obviously become a Houyhnhnm, though.  He merely imitates them.

         The Yahoos seem to represent the filth, greed, hatred and selfishness of human nature.  These speechless humans exemplify human flaws in primitive ways. The Yahoos “were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals”, if “you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself”, and they covet “certain shining stones of several colors”.  The Yahoos represent the complete opposite of the Houyhnhnms.  If Houyhnhnm society is a utopia, Yahoo society is a Dystopia.  It is not so simple, though. 

            Houyhnhnm society is clearly not utopian in the “idealistic and perfectionist” sense mentioned by Houston.  Their society includes something very much like a caste system, for “among the Houyhnhnms, the white, the sorrel, and the iron-grey were not so exactly shaped as the bay, and the dapple-grey, 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”  (Swift 2402).  While this is appalling to readers, it is rational for the Houyhnhnm society.  If certain breeds of horses are better suited for certain work it makes sense for the productivity of their society that they should do that work and do it without the distraction of ambition for a higher position or fear of demotion.  In human society, however something like this would completely disregard things we hold as dear such as hope, individuality, genius, and fairness.  A world without these things cannot represent a utopia for humans.

            The Houyhnhnm society works and works without the flaws of human society, but the goal of humanity is not simply to work.  Gulliver forgets this when he sees how well the Houyhnhnm society functions, and how poorly the Yahoo society works and sees in them the exaggerated flaws of human nature.  He recalls the ills of European society, the wars started by the “the ambition of princes” and “difference of opinion” (Swift 2395), the lawyer, “being practiced almost from his cradle in defending falsehood” (2397), the Minister of State who possesses “no other passions but a violent desire of wealth, power, and titles” (2401).  He does not however, relate any examples of beauty, art, love, compassion, opportunity, sacrifice, or literature, the things that seem to make the human experience worth living.  The implication is that to achieve a world governed solely by reason many positive elements of the human experience must be sacrificed.  And the question is whether pure reason is worth this sacrifice.

            The Houyhnhnms and their pure reason represent human desire for a better form of government, a better society, something that makes sense.  This desire is impossible as we see from Gulliver’s failed attempts to emulate them. Gulliver has encountered a society which he feels to be truly ideal, but he is not fit to live there.  Although he claims to have a “happy life among the Houyhnhnms” and that he sees a “great improvement in his virtue by conversing with them” (Swift 2413), he does not belong there.  The Assembly of Houyhnhnms deemed that the Master Houyhnhnm’s friendship and the gain of any “advantage or pleasure in [Gulliver’s] company; was not agreeable to reason or Nature, or a thing ever heard of before among them”.  As Hammond stated “The Houyhnhnms have no choice but to obey a decree of their assembly” (463). “Even the freedom of thought of the Houyhnhnms seems to be severely restricted.  For they can think of nothing but what is reasonable” (463).   

         Gulliver must leave his utopia -the world he wanted to be a part of. Houston describes his life after expulsion, “Forever changed by his experience, he is unable to re-assimilate into his own environment, and ends up caught between the perfect society he remembers and the real world in which he is obliged to live” (433-434) That Gulliver cannot integrate the Houyhnhnm way of life into the humanity he returns to suggests that this way of life is not meant for humans.  This is clearly demonstrated by the stark divide of Yahoo and Houyhnhnm kind, and by Gulliver’s exile from their island.  It is not that humans are simply incapable of the reason displayed by the Houyhnhnms, they are not meant to live that way.  When Gulliver gives up on trying to learn and apply the lessons of the Houyhnhnms and instead tries to become one of them, it is clear that he has not learned the teachings of the Houyhnhnms, for he does not behave rationally at all, he does not try to work for the greater good of the species, rather he becomes selfish and withdrawn in a way no Houyhnhnm would, spending his time with his horses. As Houston puts it “Gulliver’s travels leave him sheltering in his stables, unable to bear human society, having learned nothing that will improve the life he is ultimately obliged to live” (437).”  One of the few Houyhnhnm traits he does display upon his return to England is contempt for human kind and a devotion to the unchangeable hierarchies of Houyhnhnmland.  He finds his family completely disgusting describing his first sight of them after their long separation; “the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust, and contempt” (Swift 2422).

         The relationship between the purely reasonable Houyhnhnms and humans or Yahoos must be dichotomous.   The Houyhnhnms even consider exterminating the Yahoos completely, and the one human who does try to integrate into Houyhnhnm society is exiled.  The Houyhnhnm society is neither utopian nor dystopian for the simple fact that it is not human, so it can be neither ideal nor completely bad for humans, it is simply not for us.  Swift is trying to say that humankind is not meant for pure reason, since it entails the abandonment of so many things that are intrinsically human.  Yes, we should attempt to curb our vices, and should not live as the Yahoos, and “kill and devour cats” or live in wretchedness, but neither should we try to eliminate our humanity.  In Hammond’s article, he suggests the Houyhnhnms are so reasonable that they do not sense any coercion from their societies, they become paradoxically so much the less admirable as individuals. Since they make almost no moral choices, it has been suggested that they are no more to be admired than the Yahoos are to be blamed”(466).  The Houyhnhnms cannot be admired or emulated because they are just doing what they inherently do.  The same reason is not inherent in humans.  Houston suggests that Gulliver’s Travels represents a “double-edged” satire which simultaneously ‘shows that humanity does not measure up to its own standard’ and moreover that ‘this standard is not for man.'” (Houston 435).”  These suggestions are apt.  Through the possible utopian and dystopian societies encountered by Gulliver and his interaction with them, Swift depicts the flaws and beauties of human nature, our intrinsic desire for something more and the failure to find it in reason alone. 



Works Cited 

Hammond, Eugene R. “Nature-Reason-Justice in Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22.3 (1982): 445-68. Web.


Houston, Chloe. “Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-utopia? Gulliver’s Travels and the Utopian Mode of Discourse.” Utopian Studies 18.3 (2007): 425-42. JSTOR. Web.


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