The Houyhnhnms As a Moral Ideal For Humans

Some of the most profound questions that arise after reading the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels are: What message is Swift trying to convey with the Houyhnhnms? Are they satiric figures or do they represent an ideal to which humans should aspire? Or is it something else entirely? James Clifford gives an account of a struggle between two approaches to the fourth book in the essay, “Gulliver’s Fourth Voyage: ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Schools of Interpretation”. ‘Hard’ critics assert that the Houyhnhnms do represent some sort of ideal. ‘Soft’ critics contend that their meaning represents a false ideal which Swift presents through satire. The purpose of this essay will be to support the ‘Soft’ interpretation by making an analysis of both schools of thought. Ultimately, it will be concluded that the Houyhnhnms do not represent and ideal standard of morality to which humans should aspire. Let us begin by presenting some of the arguments for the ‘Hard’ view and then we will determine whether they can withstand the scrutiny of an opposing view.

In a 1794 essay, Thomas Sheridan is one of the first to sing the praises of the Houyhnhnms as the moral ideal. Sheridan asserts that they are intended to inspire humanity to cultivate reason and suppress the bestial nature depicted by the Yahoos. On this point, we find no fault with Sheridan’s view. However, he goes on to say, “Here [in the Houyhnhnms] you may see collected all the virtues…which dignify man’s nature, and constitute the happiness of his life”. Sheridan’s view is that this is a warning to mankind not to allow the animal part of his nature to be predominant but, rather, to emulate the rational Houyhnhnm which will lead man to a life of virtue and happiness.

The problem with Sheridan’s conclusion is the same kind of problem that we encounter with Plato’s view of happiness and justice in the Ideal City as set forth in the Republic. Plato believes that finding the nature of happiness and justice is an intellectual task similar to the solutions of mathematical problems. This point is illustrated in the following excerpt of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in Book IX of the Republic: Socrates: If someone wants to say how far a king’s pleasure is from a tyrant’s, he’ll find, if he completes the calculation, that a king lives seven hundred and twenty-nine times more pleasantly than a tyrant. Glaucon: That’s an amazing calculation between pleasure and pain of the two men.

Like Plato, Sheridan sets forth that a totally rational life leads to virtue and happiness. However, moral dilemmas are not the same as mathematical equations. That total rationality leads to a moral ideal cannot be accepted without considerable qualification. Moral knowledge is not analogous to mathematical knowledge or to rigid rationalism. Sheridan, like Plato, makes the mistake of assuming that it is.

The first scholarly refutation of Sheridan’s view is provided by Henry Craik in an 1894 essay. Craik is the first to note that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos may be intended as satiric figures rather than Swift’s ideal for humanity. Craik poses the questions: “Did he [Swift] satisfy himself with the ideal Houyhnhnm? Was the formal Stoicism, typified in the ruling class, Swift’s conception of the highest morality? Was that absence of passion and emotion what Swift most admired?”. Craik goes on to speculate that if this was not so, then it may have been a satire on humanity, whose best ideals could be attained only by eliminating all that makes life worth living.

The remainder of the essay will, among other things, endeavor to show that Craik is on the right track with his polite allusions, but we will first look at another view from the ‘Hard’ school of interpretation.

A more recent (and more radical) mark of support for the ‘Hard’ school is found in a 1965 essay by Conrad Suits titled, “The Role of the Horses in ‘A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms'”. In it, Suits defends the following remark: “…the first three quarters of Gulliver’s Travels is an exposure of human folly and vice which even the most hysterical apologists for mankind have swallowed without difficulty. Why then should they choke at Book IV, in which Swift continues the attack?”.

There are many ways to respond to Suits’ contention, but we will respond by pointing to the issue of pride. In the first three books, Gulliver’s misplaced pride can almost be viewed as comical. It is funny, for example, when he somehow finds a way to maintain a noble disposition while he is licking the dust off the floor on his way to greet the Luggnaggian king. However, Gulliver’s blind pride magnifies to a dangerous pomposity in Houyhnhnmland that soon transforms into contempt for humankind. Harold Bloom suggests that when Gulliver tries to live a life of reason alone, the harmless self-satisfaction in a Houyhnhnm becomes in him a fanatical pride. Unlike the Houyhnhnms, the demands of a life of total reason in a man can only be sustained through pride, and Gulliver’s efforts to support this role lead to hatred and contempt. While Gulliver’s blindness to pride is part of the satire, we still have no reason to “swallow” Book IV as Suits insists, because there are plenty of example throughout the book that some members of the human race are better examples for Gulliver than are the Houyhnhnms. People tend to “choke” on the human folly presented in Book IV because Gulliver’s ability to cope with vice is complicated by the sense that moral norms have been replaced with values that are impossible to consider reasonable.

Next, Suits comments that “the ideal [of the horses] is unattainable but still to be admired. But if the ideal is out of reach, what is the point of offering it up to mankind?”. Then, Suits asks in the very next sentence, “…if [humans] cannot imitate the horses, what are [they] there for?”

The most immediate response to these silly speculations from Suits is that he contradicts himself. He concedes that the ideal of the horses is unattainable, yet then goes on to imply that their sole purpose is to provide a model for humans to imitate. But does Swift really intend for us to find the horses admirable? We contend that he does not.

The horses embody pure reason. At first, they may seem the perfect moral ideal until Swift exposes them as dull, unfeeling creatures. They derive no pleasure from sex, nor do they experience joy or sadness. They are not human. For those, like Suits, who think that the horses set a standard for humans to follow and admire, Bloom explains that Swift deliberately emphasizes the Houyhnhnms’ least attractive trait-their coldness. If Swift had intended to gain our admiration for them, he would have done well not to repeatedly call our attention to their poor opinion of Gulliver. Bloom goes on to note that the purely reasonable nature of the Houyhnhnms has none of the qualities from which humanity can arise and flourish: love, pity, gratitude, charity, and kindness, for example. These are the traits that make life worth living for humans, and they are totally absent in the coldly rational Houyhnhnms. The nearest approach to human warmth is the devotion of the sorrel nag who was “not born with equal Talents of Mind”. The nag, with his incompletely rational mind is the only creature in Houyhnhnmland to show any affection.

To address Suits’ second question: “What are the horses there for?”, Bloom offers a more levelheaded answer than the one provided by Suits. Bloom suggests that it is in the contrast between Houyhnhnm and Yahoo that Swift’s main thesis lies hidden. Gulliver’s moral position between the two is Swift’s allegorical picture of the dual nature of man.

Suits makes his most harebrained argument in regard to the master horse’s decision to banish Gulliver: “This may seem an iron kind of benevolence, but in the circumstances, it would have consisted with reason to have exterminated Gulliver, Yahoo-more or less-that he was”.

The image that springs to this reader’s mind after “choking down” this unsavory passage is that of John McEnroe angrily heaving his tennis racket to the Wimbledon turf and exclaiming, “You cannot be serious!”. The problem that arises for a human in the discussion among the Houyhnhnm assembly comes from hearing people discussed in terms of “cattle control”. As Bloom interprets it, the Yahoo, like the Jew under Hitler, is a problem in pest control. Genocide appears to be a rational solution to the Houyhnhnms, as it was to the Third Reich. One can almost imagine that the Houyhnhnms might have temporarily lost their stoical composure with a grin of joy had they been privy to the Nazi extermination techniques to provide a Final Solution to the Yahoos.

Suits makes plenty more assertions that would be fun to refute, but since our point has been made, we will now, thankfully, turn our attention to some other important issues that lend support to our thesis; and leave Suits behind in his tangled web of delusion.

An interesting point to confront is the issue of clothing and nakedness in Gulliver’s Travels. Nigel Dennis shows that clothing plays a significant role throughout the book. In Lilliput, little tailors climb over Gulliver to measure him for a suit; in Brobdingnag, the silks hang like ponderous woolens upon the little mannikin. The intellectuals of Laputa express their metaphysics through the absurdity of their garments; and in Houyhnhnmland, rabbit skins make adequate suits and the skins of Yahoos are used for the soles of shoes. Unlike the naked Houyhnhnms, clothing is necessary to man. It not only provides warmth and comfort, but aids in civilized behavior.

Another interpretation connects the Houyhnhnms’ plain, direct language with their nakedness. The connections between truth and nakedness, and clothing and deception are old ones that can be found in such authors as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Behn. Bloom calls our attention to the significant fact that the Houyhnhnms are horses who do not wear clothing when he writes: “They are beings whose physical difference is thrust upon our notice to suggest that they are of a quite different order, and that their rational virtue is alien to mankind”. To put it simply, the Houyhnhnms speak the naked truth while the European Yahoos’ language is clothed in deception.

While this trait may, at first glance, make the Houyhnhnms appear admirable, we should ask ourselves whether we are to admire the sorrel nag when he not only does not know how to react to Gulliver’s explanation of “the thing which was not”, but lacks even the minimal imagination that might allow him to apprehend the human need for fictions. If the sorrel nag’s inability to comprehend fictions was present in humans, it would be impossible for us to enjoy and appreciate Macbeth, or Moby Dick, or Gulliver’s Travels, for that matter. The virtues of the Houyhnhnms would result in a cultural stalemate if they were imported into the human condition.

On that note, it is now fitting to take a closer look into the human condition. An appropriate method to explore this will be to consider the roles of the Brobdingnagians and Pedro de Mendez, and how they serve to strengthen our thesis.

Although Swift makes it clear that the giants can be cruel, like Gulliver’s first owner; or jealous, like the dwarf; they can also be warm and caring. The loyal affection of Glumdalclitch is an example of well-regulated affections in human relationships. Bloom also points out that while the Brobdingnagians are not perfect; they are, precisely, the least corrupted of fallen humanity. This, however, does not suggest despair for humankind. Unlike the Houyhnhnms, the virtues of the giants are within our grasp, but it takes much work to reach the stature of a “moral” giant.

The introduction of Pedro de Mendez represents an even stronger example of the virtue possible to man. Captain Mendez treats Gulliver kindly and shows himself to be a virtuous and charitable man. However, Gulliver is now blind to common sense as a result of aspiring to the Houyhnhnm ideal, and he treats Mendez as a mere Yahoo. This aspiration to become a horse exposes Gulliver’s fatal flaw-his pride. Pride is preventing him from recognizing human virtue even when it slaps him in the face. According to Bloom, the presentation of Mendez shows us that Gulliver’s mistakes could have been avoided, because as we stated earlier, he has met several examples of that kind of goodness to which it is possible for man to attain: the king of Brobdingnag, Glumdalclitch, Gulliver’s wife, and Mendez, to name a few. Mendez makes a strong impression because he represents the course that man should follow. In contrast, Gulliver has aimed too high, and can no longer perceive the achievable goodness of man.

This achievable goodness is, perhaps, taken to its pinnacle in Plato’s Republic. We have already alluded to the parallels between Houyhnhnmland and the Ideal City, but now we will study it a bit more closely.

The comparisons that can be made between the two places are staggering, therefore, we will just take a look at some of the more significant ones. Like Plato’s Ideal City, the Houyhnhnms are also governed entirely by reasonable justice, educating their offspring out of reason rather than love, and showing no preference for their own young over those of their neighbors. The mating arrangements and the control over the heredity of the offspring also promote the eugenics touted in the Republic. Bloom relates that the life of the Houyhnhnms has the simplicity of the Golden Age, with its poems of friendship, praise of athletic achievement, and it simple diet of milk and oats. Similarly, the children in the Ideal City are given intense education in the arts and physical training, fed simple and wholesome food, and taught to avoid any kind of excess. The philosopher-kings and auxiliaries in the Ideal City are like the Houyhnhnms-they are rational creatures.

So, what is the significance in making this comparison? The answer is that Plato’s Ideal City is proposed by Socrates as a way to cure men’s vices and allow justice to reign. It is obvious from the comparisons the Houyhnhnmland contains details borrowed from Plato. The significance of this “borrowing” allows Swift to demonstrate that this type of society is only suitable for totally rational creatures. The only kind of being that could successfully flourish in such an atmosphere is the kind that does not require a cure from vice in the first place.

If we accept the latter statement to be true, then the “gullible” Gulliver’s quest to become horse-like is doomed from the start. Our final point will be to take a look at Gulliver’s folly and ridiculousness in his misguided aspirations.

Gulliver has simplified his thinking to the point where he does not comprehend that a human being is much more complex than a Houyhnhnm or a Yahoo. Bloom lends strong support to this claim when he declares, “Gulliver has become, through choosing to judge mankind by an alien standard, a ludicrous yet terrible misanthrope”. Gulliver’s behavior is utterly ridiculous when he returns home: he detests the company of other humans, he walks like a horse and speaks in a neighing tone, and he spends most of his time in the stable. This is plain foolishness, and it is obvious to this reader that Swift does not intend for Gulliver to be taken seriously at this point. Gulliver is a blathering fool at the end of the book, and Swift uses this to end the story on a note of irony. Gulliver glorifies reason, but displays none of it; he condemns pride, but pride has driven him to madness. Bloom sums it up perfectly when he explains, “Swift sets the extremes firmly before us, and suggests that the proper course is to avoid extremes and the distortions to which they give rise”.

In conclusion, we have refuted the ‘Hard’ interpretations of Gulliver’s Travels to show that the Houyhnhnms do not represent a standard of morality that would be ideal, desirable, or even possible for humans. The Houyhnhnms have been shown to be incapable of the virtues which unite reason with passion and are, therefore, as useless as a model for human morality as a gelding is for procreation. We have shown the human need for fictions and the implausibility of a life of pure reason. And we have compared the Houyhnhnms to the Brobdingnagians and Pedro de Mendez, and drawn parallels to Houyhnhnmland and Plato’s Ideal City; all to drive home the point: The Houyhnhnms do not represent an ideal to which humans should aspire.

Finally, we have examined the disastrous results met by Gulliver when he makes this futile attempt. We are to understand that we should not aim too high, as Gulliver does when, in trying to ignore part of his human nature, he becomes less than a human being. In the end, Gulliver has turned the virtue of reason into a vice and, in doing so, he has abandoned the common “horse sense” that is necessary to humans.

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