Gulliver's Travels

Rational Man: A critique and analysis of R.S. Crane's interpretive essay on Book IV of Swift's Gulliver's Travels Since its first publication nearly three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift's satirical prose Gulliver's Travels has been the subject of a wide variety of literary critique and social interpretation. Although many readers, at first glance, take this tale to be simply a fantastic narrative of a common man and his encounters with unusual locations and people through several journeys, further inspection reveals Swift's true purpose of creativity - satire. Using the then contemporary style of the Travel Narrative, Swift is able to insert his own personal criticisms of modern life into the experiences of Gulliver. Gulliver, representing a common man, encounters a wide variety of characters along his travels, each representing a subject Swift wishes to criticize. Ranging from relatively simply political criticisms in his experiences in Book I and II, to a socio-political criticism in Book III, to the social, philosophical criticism of man in Book IV. It is to this final book that we turn our attention. If Book IV is read literally, with no knowledge of satire, it appears to be another bizarre journey of Gulliver, no more unusual than his other travels. However, upon further inspection, we see that Book IV criticizes the nature of man as a rational being (Crane, 402). Of interest to the readers of today is Swift's choice of creatures inhabiting this land; a barbaric, man-like creature dubbed the Yahoo, and the civilized, good-natured horse-like creature, the Houyhnhnms. R.S. Crane explains the reason for this choice in his essay "The Houyhnhms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas". Crane begins his analysis of Book IV by discussing how Gulliver is able to discard his preconceived notion of man as a superior being for a more cynical outlook after interacting with the inhabitants of Houyhnhnmland. Crane suggests that Gulliver's transition from a "lover of mankind"(403) to misanthropy comes as a result of a realization that man is not as he considers himself, but rather more "compatible, indeed, only with a formula, infinitely more humiliating to human pride, which pushes man nearly if not quite over to the opposite pole of the animal world"(403). Crane then continues to describe how Gulliver is able to come to this realization. According to Crane, Gulliver sees the Yahoos not as beasts far-removed from the European man, but rather that the European man is merely a "more civilized variety of Yahoo" who is subject to an "irrational disposition which motivates his habitual behaviour"(404). This leads Crane to note the need for "rational" thought to determine the level of civilization a creature is able to attain (404). Crane expands on the satirical force at play in Book IV's "man as a rational animal" theme. "[T]here would be a high degree of satirical force, for readers in 1726, in a fable which began with the notion that man is pre-eminently a 'rational creature' and then proceeded to turn this notion violently upside down, and which, in doing so, based itself on a division of animal specias into the extremes of 'rational creature' and irrational 'brutes' and on the paradoxical identification of the former with horses and of the later with being closely resembling men" (404). A particular fact worth noting in Book IV is Swift's choice of the rational creature and irrational animal. Crane is able to explain where this comparison is derived - the writer Neoplatonist Porphyry's Isagoge of the third century A.D (405). This work of logic was commonly studied in Swift's time, and the comparison would be obvious to an educated reader. The Isagoge contains the juxtaposition of a rational animal, man, and an example of an irrational animal, the horse (405). Since this comparison was common knowledge amongst his readers, Swift used the horse and the man as the creatures of Houyhnhnmland. By reversing the roles of these two animals, Swift is able to comment on the true nature of man as the supposed "rational" animal. Book IV of Gulliver's Travels, in my own personal opinion, contains the most interesting encounter in Gulliver's journey. It is here that Swift not only is able to satirize on political matters of his time, but on the nature of man and many preconceived notions still existent today. I find that Crane's essay further explained the origin of the Yahoo