Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver?s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is regarded as one of the greatest satires in modern history. The purpose of the book, although some of his contemporaries didn?t realize it, is to ridicule his government, his rulers, and human nature as a whole. His generalization of the human condition doesn?t manifest itself completely until Part IV of the book, where the main character, Lemuel Gulliver, finds himself on an island inhabited by two main species ? the Houyhnhnms, horse-like animals, and the Yahoos, human-like animals. The difference between this island and reality as we know it is the fact that the Houyhnhnms are intelligent, noble creatures governed wholly by reason, and the Yahoos are naked, dirty humanoids that seem at best, barbaric creatures. The purpose of Part IV is to show the extremities of human nature, and to display both the good and bad qualities through two different examples. Swift makes the good quality of human nature seem more foreign to the reader by attributing that good quality, reason, to a horse. It also puts the period of Enlightenment in perspective for the reader. The main purpose of Book IV of Gulliver?s Travels is to exemplify the two extremes of human nature, as well as show what position on that spectrum we humans should strive to achieve.
The "positive" extreme Gulliver encounters on his arrival to the island is the Houyhnhnm, a horse ruled by reason. Gulliver almost immediately admires these creatures as well as everything about them, especially their speech: "?their language approaches nearest to the High Dutch or German, of any I know in Europe, but is much more graceful and significant" (Swift 189). He tries throughout his visit to become a Houyhnhnm by learning their language, among other things, despite the fact that he looks nothing like them. Many things about their race impress him, especially the fact that there is no word for "lie" in their vocabulary. Instead, it is described as, "the thing which was not" (Swift 190). The Houyhnhnms seem to take their "life by reason" to the extreme: For example, they only marry for the strength of the species by using arranged marriages to yield the best offspring. They also lack any consciousness for their own death, something that almost seems animalistic, not noble. "Philosophers, poets, artists, and scientists have long held that it is man?s consciousness of his death, and his complex feelings toward it, that set him apart from other animals" (Feitlowitz). This seems too inhuman, and it appears that it would be impossible to be that intelligent and noble, yet still disregard the importance of death. Overall, however, Gulliver?s view of the Houyhnhnm is a perfectionistic vision of how human nature, for the most part, should be ? ruled by reason.
The "negative" extreme of human nature that Gulliver encounters is the Yahoos. The Yahoos are naked, dirty creatures that physically resemble humans: "My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure?" (Swift 186). Immediately, Gulliver does not want to be considered one of the Yahoos. He never takes off his clothes to reveal his likeness to the Yahoo body. The Houyhnhnms still regard Gulliver, however, as either a "noble Yahoo" or something in between a Yahoo and a Houyhnhnm -- it seems they are unable to decide. At one point, one of the Houyhnhnms describes Gulliver?s body to be extremely inefficient: "That I could not walk with any security, for if either of my hinder feet slipped, I must inevitably fall. He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head?" (Swift 195). The Houyhnhnm even goes as far as to give examples of how even the Yahoo has certain physical traits that better those of Gulliver. This conversation takes a direct shot at the period of Enlightenment, when humans had great regard for themselves, their bodies, their minds, and their accomplishments. (Feitlowitz). Later, Gulliver goes on to describe many things about humans in a greatly negative light. For example, the petty and barbaric reasons for war, the immoral ways people attempt to gain money, and how lawyers are hired to prove "that white is black,