The Enlightenment as Satirized through the Houyhnhnms

Jonathan Swift’s satirical use of the Houyhnhnms, a superior race to that of the Yahoos (including Gulliver himself), allows Swift to create a conversation about the overwhelmingly positive effects of the Enlightenment, but also its negative effects. Gulliver explains in Chapter 6 of Part IV, that life with the Houyhnhnms is everything he could have dreamed of; he enjoys there “perfect Health of Body and Tranquility of Mind” (254) and is not subject to the temptations of “Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy” (254). All of the degenerate, problematic, deceiving sinners and the things that bring with it misfortune that are common in Gulliver’s home country, were absent in the land of Houyhnhnms:

here were no gibers, censurers, backbiters, pickpockets, highwaymen, housebreakers, 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 seducement or examples; no dungeon, axes, gibbets, whipping-posts, or pillories; no cheating shopkeepers or mechanics; no pride, vanity, or affectation; no fops, bullies, drunkards, strolling whores, or poxes; no ranting, lewd, expensive wives; no stupid, proud pedants; no importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing companions; no scoundrels raised from the dust upon the merit of their vices, or nobility thrown into it on account of their virtues; no lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters (254).

The country of the Houyhnhnms is vastly superior, based primarily on the fact that the Houyhnhnms have effectively eradicated all those disagreeable, their traits, and their vices. Gulliver mentions several times throughout this Chapter about how the Houyhnhnms have a vastly superior intellect and way of running things than Gulliver’s own country. It is for this reason that he submits himself to the Houyhnhnms, referring to them as his master, and obeying them as if a slave: “I never presumed to speak, except in answer to a Question, and then I did it with inward Regret, because it was a Loss of so much Time for improving myself” (254). What is interesting about this submission is that Gulliver happily allows himself to be subjected to the critique of his superior. When Gulliver’s master gives his discourse on the topic of a being’s rationality, Gulliver falls to his feet, completely vexed and praiseworthy of the discourse. However, his master, seeing Gulliver on the floor, reaffirms this notion that Gulliver, in the eyes of the Houyhnhnms, can easily be manipulated with a call to Reason, since “a Rational Creature can be… only advised, or exhorted, because no Person can disobey Reason, without giving up his Claim to be a Rational Creature” (257).

This directly correlates to the Enlightenment, which would have been happening around Swift’s time. Swift’s mockery of the Enlightenment, done with the use of the Houyhnhnms (the Houyhnhnms representing those philosophers of the Enlightenment), creates an interesting dialogue about the ramifications of the Enlightenment. On one hand, humankind would be happier if they could think and behaved as the Houyhnhnms do, however, as the reader realizes, on the other hand, they become slaves to discourse and philosophy (“Loss of so much Time for improving myself”), unconcerned with the human emotion (like Gulliver displays when he falls to his master’s feet and the master is unimpressed).

-Sara Nuila-Chae

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One thought on “The Enlightenment as Satirized through the Houyhnhnms

  1. I am unclear on what your main idea is mainly because you talk about both the behavioral traits of the Houyhnhnms and the way Swift satirizes Europe through the use of intelligent horses and Gulliver’s slavery. Perhaps if you were to focus on one more than the other it would be more clear.

    Extra Credit 20/25/4

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