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Les voyages de Gulliver

François Boulaire
Daniel Carey

Swift, Gulliver, and Human Nature

Daniel Carey

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, in The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Herbert Davis (ed.), 16 vol (...)

I have some Time since, with a World of Pains and Art, dissected the Carcass of Human Nature, and read many useful Lectures upon the several Parts … till at last it smelt so strong, I could preserve it no longer.1

1The objects of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s Travels are numerous and disparate, ranging from the follies of natural philosophers to the varieties of human pride, English politics under Queen Anne and King George, Walpole and ministerial government, and of course the genre of travel writing as a whole with its dubious attempt to establish the veracity of improbable observations. But among the most devastating satires is Swift’s portrait of human nature itself, an implicit topic in the first three books and an overt one in the fourth where Gulliver encounters the infamous Yahoos and their masters, the morally and socially superior Houyhnhnms. By addressing the theme of human nature, Swift entered a debate that had attracted the attention of the most distinguished philosophers of his day. Figures such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, and Francis Hutcheson had outlined rival and incommensurable visions of human nature, by turns characterizing mankind as subject only to motives of self-interest and as a sociable creature, enlivened by fellow-feeling and moral instincts.

2This essay attempts to situate Swift’s portrait of human nature in the intellectual landscape of his time. To focus the discussion, I set him in opposition to his contemporary Francis Hutcheson, a philosopher with a wide following who took a very different view of human potentialities, emphasizing instinctive moral impulses rather than our appetitive nature. The juxtaposition of these two figures is worth pursuing because they were active in Dublin at the same time, immersed in the same political, cultural and intellectual milieu, yet they emerged with diametrically opposed accounts of mankind.

  • 2 See Alfred Owen Aldridge, “Shaftesbury and the Deist Manifesto”, Transactions of the American Phil (...)

3One important complication in this account should be recognized from the start. The differences between Swift and Hutcheson cannot be mapped onto the opposition between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment tendencies in the period. While Swift’s satirical rendition of human behavior undoubtedly undermined an enlightened view of human progress and potential, we cannot assume that the only perspective available to the Lumières was to celebrate uplifting moral capacities. In fact, we find individuals with strong Enlightenment credentials, like Hobbes, Locke, and Mandeville, for example, developing a compatible version of human beings as prompted by self-love, even as they set an enlightened agenda which praised rationality and attacked superstition. Shaftesbury, on the other hand, deplored the cynical vision of mankind, replacing it with an elevated understanding of human potential for altruistic sacrifice and disinterested aesthetic impulses. Yet he was ardently anti-clerical and much admired by deists.2 Hutcheson, for his part, was an advocate of the new science, a moderate in church matters, and an admirer of Locke and supporter of Shaftesbury who played a decisive part in establishing the Scottish Enlightenment. Swift’s intervention is sometimes that of the satirist, sometimes that of the sceptic, elsewhere the opponent of excessive Enlightenment regard for reason. He too has a complex philosophical pedigree, and we are best to follow the texture of these debates on their own terms before reframing them in our own simpler language.


  • 3 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Crawford B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968.

4The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is unquestionably the key figure in seventeenth and early eighteenth-century debates over human nature, and it is appropriate to begin any review of philosophical argument on this subject with him. Hobbes upset a host of received views by defining good and evil not as permanent qualities attached to certain actions, but as purely relative ways of describing human likes and dislikes. What we enjoy we call good, what gives us pain we label evil. In other words, the difference between right and wrong is not part of the permanent structure of things but merely describes changing states of human passion and desire. Human beings are relentlessly motivated by the need to gratify these desires, a fact that places them in permanent competition with one another. Self-love is so all-consuming that no ground exists for disinterested behavior; everything is ultimately self-reflexive, however assiduously we try to disguise it. Hobbes did not see the resulting condition as one of order, but rather as a hostile predicament in the state of nature. Such a life, where the individual operated alone, was violent and insecure in the extreme. So bleak was Hobbes’s portrait that it merited the institution of an all-powerful sovereign, the Leviathan, to stabilize human affairs.3 Hobbes’s account gave comfort to no one, unsurprisingly. Those who held power gained a justification of sorts for their authority but it was far from transcendental in its origins. Just as threatening was the claim that moral tendencies had no foundation in human nature, no basis in “innate” ideas implanted by God in mankind.

  • 4 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), Peter H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford, Clare (...)

5Hobbes was an unorthodox figure and his position earned for him the kind of odium reserved for Machiavelli in the previous century. Yet for all the opposition, a number of people found his philosophy oddly attractive. John Locke (1632-1704), although careful not to associate himself with Hobbes explicitly, also emphasized that human beings were prompted by pleasure and pain, adjusting their moral language around these experiences. He also agreed that no moral ideas organized human nature innately. As evidence for this, he cited travel accounts that described an array of depravities around the globe.4 How could barbarism and disparities of moral practice be reconciled with a consistently ethical human nature? Although Locke reserved a higher vocation for reason which gave access to natural law and permanent moral principles, he was nonetheless demonized by some contemporaries as a “Hobbist”, intent on dismantling the dignity of human nature and reducing moral beliefs to purely relative preferences.

  • 5 Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politic (...)

6As we move into the 18th century, the most important opposition to this line of thinking came from the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713). Paradoxically he was educated by Locke who served in the household of Shaftesbury’s grandfather. But when he came of age, the pupil overturned the master’s principles, proclaiming that human beings were sociable by nature, capable of disinterest, and spurred by moral instincts residing in their nature. The institution of the family, about which Hobbes and Locke had little to say, was founded in love, not selfish desire, and the evidence of our aesthetic judgements suggested, again, something other than self-regard.5

  • 6 Mandeville initially published the work as a poem under the title, The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves (...)

7Shaftesbury’s position became one of the dominant ones in Europe of his time, but it did not go uncontested. Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), an intriguing, eccentric figure with a Dutch background and medical training, called this view into question in The Fable of the Bees.6 He argued that Lord Shaftesbury’s elitism blinded him to the realities of social life which had nothing to do with virtue. What kept the prosperity of the nation in place was the pursuit of pleasure and self-aggrandizement. The economic order, whether we liked it or not, committed us to an endorsement of vice. Mandeville’s position provides a new and challenging dimension to the debate. He does not exactly deny the reality of good and evil, although he frequently introduces evidence of relativity to question human pride. Instead he wants us to accept the unpleasant paradox that we cannot be virtuous and prosperous at the same time; our “goods” are incompatible.

  • 7 See James C. Beckett, Protestant Dissent in Ireland, 1687-1780, London, Faber and Faber, 1948. Dis (...)
  • 8 See William R. Scott, Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching and Position in the History of Philoso (...)

8This background sets the scene for Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), whose philosophy attracted a wide audience in Ireland, Scotland, and America over the course of the 18th century. Hutcheson was born in Northern Ireland, the son of a Presbyterian minister whose father had emigrated from Scotland. Hutcheson was educated in Glasgow before returning to Ireland where he was licensed to preach. In 1719, legislation had been introduced in Ireland which gave a greater measure of toleration to members of the dissenting community,7 like Hutcheson, and he took advantage of the opportunity to set up a school or “dissenting academy” as it was known, in Dublin. Over the ten-year period of his residence in Dublin, Hutcheson produced his most famous philosophical writings, establishing an international reputation for himself. On this basis he was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a position he took up in 1730. Through his published works and teaching, Hutcheson reached a wide audience in the 18th century.8

  • 9 Swift’s Tory sympathies made him hostile to Molesworth’s Whig convictions at various points in his (...)
  • 10 London, John Darby for William and John Smith, Dublin, 1725. In this essay I have quoted from the (...)

9During the Dublin period, Hutcheson began to move in interesting circles. He established a rapport with various prominent Anglicans, a politic move given the precarious but improving situation of dissenters. He also made the acquaintance of Viscount Molesworth, the Irish peer and leading Whig figure.9 Molesworth was a close friend and colleague of the philosopher Shaftesbury, and when the latter’s philosophy came under attack from Mandeville, he asked Hutcheson to produce a reply. The work, published in 1725 just a year before Gulliver’s Travels appeared, became Hutcheson’s most famous text: An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, in which the Principles of the late Earl of Shaftesbury are explained and defended, against the Author of the Fable of the Bees [Mandeville]; and the Ideas of Moral Good and Evil are established10

10Hutcheson’s is perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to rehabilitate human nature from the accusations lodged by Hobbes, Locke, and Mandeville. He defended mankind as intrinsically moral and sociable, as guided by feelings of love and disinterest. However strong the pull of self-interest, a true moral impulse existed which was prior to rational calculation of desire. By looking more closely at his position, we will gain a valuable perspective on how Swift attacks and overturns the high-minded conception of mankind that prevailed among many of his contemporaries.

11Hutcheson systematized the assumptions that Shaftesbury had made in his essays, making explicit what Shaftesbury had introduced in conversational remarks, philosophical dialogues, and asides. Two points are essential to his position: the first is that human beings are motivated by benevolence. In other words, they are capable of disinterest:

If there be any Benevolence at all, it must be disinterested; for the most useful Action imaginable, loses all appearance of Benevolence, as soon as we discern that it only flowed from Self-love, or Interest… Wherever then Benevolence is supposed, there it is imagined disinterested, and designed for the Good of others. (135-36)

12There is a hint of circularity about this definition, as elsewhere in Hutcheson’s writing, but the main point is clear. He opposes Hobbes, Locke, and Mandeville by insisting that we can act on motives other than pure self-interest. We have a fundamental reserve of social affection that becomes the motive for doing good and avoiding evil.

13The second major aspect of Hutcheson’s position is that human nature is endowed with a special faculty which makes it possible to perceive moral qualities in actions. He calls this faculty the moral sense. The moral sense functions very much as the other “external” senses do, like sight or touch, notifying us when we have had a sensation. But the moral sense is different in that it is internal. What it tells us is that we respond with pleasure and approval when we see a good action done (by ourselves or someone else), and we respond with displeasure when we witness something evil. In short, good and evil are part of reality; we respond to them automatically, just as the other senses respond automatically. We cannot control and calculate with the moral sense; we receive its information passively as we do the data of sensation. But the fact that we have these sensations means we cannot deny the reality of moral qualities and we cannot make them relative. These impulses are immediate and prior to instruction; they inhere in nature rather than resulting from society. We may try to overcome them and allow self-interest to gain the upper hand, but the basic foundation of morality remains in place.

14The benefit and at the same time the weakness of such an argument is the analogy with the senses. If moral perceptions result from an internal sense, then our responses must be unavoidable and natural. They become normative as a result. By the same token, we may end up describing any immediate reaction that human beings happen to have as a sense. Indeed Hutcheson was later moved to add a “public sense” as well as the sense of humor to the list of these internal endowments, a collection later supplemented by the Scottish philosopher Lord Kames to include a socalled “sense of property”.

  • 11 Vincent Hope, Virtue by Consensus: The Moral Philosophy of Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith, Oxford, (...)

15Hutcheson followed Shaftesbury in assimilating aesthetic and moral judgments. Shaftesbury had maintained that a standard of taste existed by nature, as much in the arts as in morals, which served as a rule for orienting judgments. Furthermore he believed that each of these areas of human experience was characterized by consensus.11 Ostensibly, not only intersubjective agreement but also cross-cultural agreement existed in matters of beauty and ethics. Such a strategy may strike us now as unlikely, but in the 18th century the plausibility of a moral consensus received active support from the notion of consistency in aesthetics. Issues of taste were not subject to irreconcilable dispute but resolved themselves into agreement by referring to immutable norms. The eighteenth-century artist and critic Sir Joshua Reynolds gave expression to this view in his Discourses on Art:

  • 12 Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, Robert R. Wark (ed.), London and New Haven, Yale Universit (...)

We have no reason to suspect there is a greater difference between our minds than between our forms, of which, though there are no two alike, yet there is a general similitude that goes through the whole race of mankind; and those who have cultivated their taste can distinguish what is beautiful or deformed, or, in other words, what agrees with or deviates from the general idea of nature.12

16Nature is the norm, here as in the case of morals.

17For Hutcheson, as for so many in the period, one of the key moments linking the aesthetic and the moral occurs in our appreciation of a sense of design in the universe. The evidence of design in nature suggests the benevolent intentions of the Deity. Much hinges on this point, since our sense of belonging to a moral system is partly dependent on the notion of a benevolent God, who has providentially designed the structure of the things. Hence considerable energy is expended by Hutcheson to instill a proper sense of appreciation for the wonders of the created world. Occasionally he takes this to extremes, as when he pays tribute to the existence of feathers:

The peculiar Beauty of Fowls can scarce be omitted, which arises from the great Variety of Feathers, a curious Sort of Machines adapted to many admirable Uses … besides all the Beauty of lively Colours and gradual Shades, not only in the external appearance of the Fowl, resulting from an artful Combination of shaded Feathers, but often visible even in one Feather separately. (26)

18There is a degree of strain evident in Hutcheson’s attempt to emulate the virtuoso sensibility cultivated by Shaftesbury. Yet encomia of this kind were common throughout the 18th century.

19For Hutcheson, the internal sense that operates in the sphere of beauty is matched by a sense that instructs us in moral matters. We instinctively appreciate examples of moral benevolence, independently of any interest we may have at stake. He takes on Locke and Hobbes directly by appealing to the understanding we have of ourselves:

We are all then conscious of the Difference between Approbation or Perception of moral Excellence, which Benevolence excites toward the person in whom we observe it, and that Opinion of natural Goodness, which only raises Desire of Possession toward the good Object. (111)

20He followed the distinction drawn by Locke between natural good and evil which merely related to feelings of pleasure and pain, and moral good and evil, a higher category supervised by the moral sense.

21On the basis of these arguments Hutcheson constructed one of the first accounts of utilitarianism in moral philosophy. This might come as something of a surprise given his dread of reason as an instrument for calculating self-interest. But Hutcheson does not see any difficulty here. In his philosophy, the moral sense has its greatest coherence when it is considered as a tool for moral perception, that is, when he takes the perspective of the viewer of moral actions who responds either negatively or positively. But no moral philosopher could neglect the question of moral choice and how we resolve the conflict between competing choices. Where a direct conflict occurs, we had little alternative but to trust reason to sort out priorities, a point at which the moral sense takes something of a back seat. Hutcheson develops the following formula for dealing with the problem:

In comparing the moral Qualitys of Actions, in order to regulate our Election [choice] among various Actions proposed, or to find which of them has the greatest moral Excellency, we are led by our moral Sense of Virtue to judge thus: that in equal Degrees of Happiness, expected to proceed from the Action, the Virtue is in proportion to the Number of Persons to whom the Happiness shall extend. (179)

22The outcome is a utilitarian position because it purports to use the maximization of happiness as the criterion for choice of action, something that depends on a calculation of consequences rather than intrinsic worth.

  • 13 On this subject, see Daniel Carey, “Method, Moral Sense, and the Problem of Diversity: Francis Hut (...)
  • 14 See Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry…, pp. 205-7. For discussion, see Seamus Deane, “Swift and the An (...)
  • 15 For further discussion of Hutcheson, see David F. Norton, David Hume Common-Sense Moralist, Scepti (...)

23Hutcheson exposed himself to another difficulty by maintaining not only that human beings are disinterested and benevolent, but that this should be evident as a fact of our experience. Compared to Shaftesbury, he democratized the moral sense, making it part of everyone’s nature, not the preserve of a select and elevated club. Thus he required some empirical confirmation for his views and a response to those who suggested that human beings showed no signs of possessing such a sense, especially the likes of Mandeville and others in the “hedonist” tradition. Hutcheson confronted the dilemma in a long section devoted to the problem of moral diversity.13 On the one hand he acknowledged the existence of diversity but traced it to causes that did not diminish our belief in the moral sense. His second strategy was to argue that reports of diversity were blown out of proportion. In this context he objected to the writings of contemporary travellers, of the sort cited by Locke in his attack on innate moral ideas. Such travellers had littered their accounts with tales of barbarous practices and monstrous people, but their information could not be trusted.14 Hutcheson denied that they represented human nature accurately and he proposed a reform of travel literature which would enlist it in the service of confirming the moral sense.15


  • 16 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Paul Turner (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. x (...)

24The question of travel and human nature brings us directly to Gulliver and his adventures in the “remote nations of the world”. Published in 1726, Swift’s book, Gulliver’s Travels, resolutely resists Hutcheson’s proposal for a reform of travel writing. On the contrary, Gulliver’s empirical observations confirm our worst fears – not so much that human nature is radically diverse around the world but that it is perversely always the same. The sameness emerges at the level of pretence, pride, and corruption, denying any principle of benevolence as a center of motivation or of a moral sense linking all mankind. Indeed, “Gulliver” acknowledges in his prefatory letter to the 1735 edition that he was charged, among other things, with “degrading human Nature, (for so they have still the Confidence to stile it)”16.

25These issues come to a crux in Part IV. Having remained at home for a mere five months following his adventures in Laputa and elsewhere, Gulliver returns to the high seas, this time as captain, only to find himself in charge of a ship full of rogues who quickly relieve him of his command. After a journey of indeterminate length and direction, locked in his cabin, Gulliver is forced into the longboat and set upon a strand of an undiscovered island. He proceeds to investigate the new terrain, armed only with a hangar – a modest sword – and pockets full of trifles with which to purchase the affections of the local savages whom he expects to deprive him of his life (a fear he shares with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

26His first encounter comes with an unfamiliar species whose characteristics are noted in the observational style of natural philosophy. They lack tails, climb trees, possess “strong extended Claws”, and have a “very singular, and deformed” shape, which, Gulliver notes, “a little discomposed me” (215). He concludes:

I never beheld in all my Travels so disagreeable an Animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy. (215)

  • 17 See Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), Graham Petrie (ed.), H (...)

27As if to confirm his reaction of disgust, he is immediately cornered by one of the creatures whom he addresses with his hangar, drawing the attention of the others who surround him and discharge excrement on his head from the height of a tree. Even by Gulliver’s standards this is not a very promising beginning, placing his voyage at the far remove from the conventions of what later emerges as sentimental travel.17

28His predicament becomes all the more alarming when he realizes that these remarkable creatures are nothing less than human beings. One of the ironies attached to this initial episode relates to the emphasis that Shaftesbury and Hutcheson placed on our attachment to one another as members of the same species. In their reply to Hobbes and Locke they both stressed the orderliness of the natural world, its composition as a chain of being in which each species recognized its own and reproduced itself, following the dictates of nature. This process was regarded as an example of the principle of love animating human life, a starting point for the sociability and affection that they asserted lay at the heart of our experience. Swift, on the contrary, ironizes the high-minded principle of belonging to a species: Gulliver initially fails to identify those of his own kind, but once he does, he is deeply horrified at the thought of his inclusion in this class of animals. Later he records the observation of his host that

the Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different Species of Animals; and the Reason usually assigned, was, the Odiousness of their own Shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves. (252)

29Gulliver rallies himself with the thought that these examples of humanity are surely degenerate, but he is forced to acknowledge his lack of fundamental difference in a later chapter when he records a distasteful anecdote:

Being one Day abroad with my Protector the Sorrel Nag, and the Weather exceeding hot, I entreated him to let me bathe in a River that was near. He consented, and I immediately stripped myself stark naked, and went down softly into the Stream. It happened that a young Female Yahoo standing behind a Bank, saw the whole Proceeding; and inflamed by Desire, as the Nag and I conjectured, came running with all Speed, and leaped into the Water within five Yards of the Place where I bathed. I was never in my Life so terribly frighted … She embraced me after a most fulsome Manner; I roared as loud as I could, and the Nag came galloping towards me, whereupon she quitted her Grasp, with the utmost Reluctancy, and leaped upon the opposite Bank, where she stood gazing and howling all the time I was putting on my Cloaths. (258-59)

  • 18 On this episode in Gulliver’s Travels, see Claude Rawson, God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism a (...)

30Gulliver’s pride receives a blow from this episode, reminding him of his species-being, however much he tries to distinguish himself. Just as importantly, his reaction is not one of spontaneous love and affection, consistent with the account of man provided by Shaftesbury and reconfirmed by Hutcheson. Rather, the untutored response is one of disgust and dismay, aversion not attachment.18

31What the account of the Yahoos provides, in effect, is a description of the state of nature: this is mankind stripped of the appurtenances of civil society, reduced to its most basic features. The result turns out to be much more in accord with the description outlined by Hobbes and Mandeville, and not the sociable traits imagined by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. On the contrary, as we discover in chapter seven, when his master relates that 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 it self. (252)

32If a cow should happen to die in a field, neighboring Yahoos would

come in Herds to seize it, and then would ensue such a Battle … with terrible Wounds made by their Claws on both Sides, although they seldom were able to kill one another, for want of such convenient Instruments of Death as we had invented. (252)

33On other occasions, battles between rival groups would break out for no apparent reason, but if these excursions failed, civil war ensued among them. Swift can be linked with Hobbes on this point – who based his portrait of the state of nature on the grim realities of the English Civil War. The state of nature among the Yahoos is similarly one of relentless conflict and ruthless competition, savage attacks and endless squabbles prompted by self-interest.

34At the same time there are reminders of Mandeville’s view that we are, in a perverse way, sociable – but only to the extent, here, that we congregate in herds. Of course this sociability, such as it is, always threatens to break down completely, and there is one important difference in that Mandeville sees the result of this condition as an orderly economic system while Swift narrates only chaos and disorder. But Swift agrees with Mandeville on another fundamental point, the deep-rootedness of avarice in mankind:

in some Fields of [this] Country, there are certain shining Stones of several Colours, whereof the Yahoos are violently fond; and when Part of these Stones are fixed in the Earth, as it sometimes happeneth, they will dig with their Claws for whole Days to get them out, and carry them away, and hide them by Heaps in their Kennels; but still looking round with great Caution, for fear their Comrades should find out their Treasure. (252-53)

35Greed and covetousness lie at the heart of our nature, confirmed in the Yahoos’ pointless accumulation of stones, worthless in themselves yet eagerly sought after and jealously guarded. Gulliver concludes this particular account by relating an experiment performed by his master:

One day he privately removed a Heap of these Stones from the Place where one of his Yahoos had buried it: Whereupon, the sordid Animal missing his Treasure, by his loud lamenting brought the whole Herd to the Place, there miserably howled, then fell to biting and tearing the rest; began to pine away, would neither eat nor sleep, nor work, till he [Gulliver’s master] ordered a Servant privately to convey the Stones into the same Hole, and hide them as before; which when his Yahoo had found, he presently recovered his Spirits and good Humour; but took Care to remove them to a better hiding Place; and hath ever since been a very serviceable Brute. (253)

36As the chapter progresses, we learn that the Yahoos have an “undistinguishing appetite”, that is, they devour everything in their way,

whether Herbs, Roots, Berries, corrupted Flesh of Animals, or all mingled together: And it was peculiar in their Temper, that they were fonder of what they could get by Rapine or Stealth at a greater Distance, than much better Food provided for them at home. If their Prey held out, they would eat till they were ready to burst (253-54).

37Fortunately nature had provided a nearby root which, when consumed, “gave them a general Evacuation” (254). Among the other roots available for ready consumption was a particularly juicy variety which the Yahoos sucked with great delight, producing the following effect:

It would make them sometimes hug, and sometimes tear one another; they would howl and grin, and chatter, and reel, and tumble, and then fall asleep in the Mud. (254)

38Swift’s portrait is again consistent, in comic terms, with Hobbes, who asserted that human beings are impelled by their appetites, hedonistically maximizing pleasure. The only infringement on this endless pursuit of gratification was the competitive risk of engaging with other beings intent on the same course of action. The difference, however, is that Swift’s use

  • 19 On the interpretation of Swift’s satire in this book, see Anthony D. Nuttall, “Gulliver Among the (...)

39of satire and irony resists making this condition normative, even if we are so bound to the nature he describes that little alternative seems to exist.19

40The chapter ends with a few other sobering thoughts on the primitive condition of mankind. In contrast to other animals, the Yahoos have a “strange Disposition to Nastiness and Dirt” (255). Others show an unaccountable tendency to melancholy, retiring into a corner to lie down and howl. Hard labor provides the only solution, demonstrating that the seeds of spleen were implanted in our constitution, as we see in the “Lazy, the Luxurious, and the Rich” (256). Swift draws ironically on Shaftesbury and Hutcheson’s account of the virtuous and sociable tendencies in man; he confirms the presence of instinctive motivations, but confines them to our undesirable qualities, including, to Gulliver’s regret, his realization that “the Rudiments of Lewdness, Coquetry, Censure, and Scandal, should have Place by Instinct in Womankind” (256). He concludes with a series of odious qualities that characterize human nature:

For they are cunning, malicious, treacherous and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly Spirit, and by Consequence insolent, abject, and cruel. (258)

41Thus Swift appeared to meet Hutcheson’s requirement for a refutation of the moral sense. As Hutcheson put it, to disprove the moral sense we would have to introduce evidence of

  • 20 Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Glasgow, R. and A. Foulis, 2 vols, 1755, vol. 1, (...)

nations or great numbers of men [who] … are pleased with cruelty, treachery, ingratitude, unprovoked murders, and tortures, when not practised toward themselves, just as much as with their contraries: they should in some nations be deemed as reputable and lovely as humanity, compassion, liberality, faith.20

  • 21 Ibid.

42Hutcheson was confident that “such nations have not yet been discovered to us, not even by the invention of the boldest traveller”,21 but Swift managed the task through the medium of the imaginary voyage.

43As if this were not bad enough, it transpires that the Yahoos Gulliver has encountered descended from an original band who were even worse. The Houyhnhnms hunted down their forebears, who, in all likelihood were the offspring of stranded voyagers, and bred the remainder to perform service. The disheartening implication is that, without the Houyhnhnms’ brutal intervention, human nature has a tendency to degenerate, not improve. Here again Swift’s satire places him at odds with Shaftesbury and Hutcheson who, in different ways, were convinced of the possibility of human progress if not perfectibility. Swift constitutes an instance of counter-enlightenment sensibility in this context, opposing the notion of progress and reform, exposing the pretence of reason and the dream of “projectors”. It is reason alone that distinguishes Gulliver from the Yahoos, but reason is not a source of liberation, a path to perfection, but an exacerbation of our natural vices. His Houyhnhnm master is prepared to excuse the Yahoos, who live according to nature, and cannot be blamed in consequence for their cruelty; but Gulliver’s portrait of European society suggests a view consistent with Mandeville, that “instead of Reason, we were only possessed of some Quality fitted to increase our natural Vices” (240).

44Several considerations lead to this conclusion. The first is Gulliver’s account of the art of war, which is perfected, in comparison with the rudimentary practices of the Yahoos, by the invention of various engines of destruction:

I gave him a Description of Cannons, Culverins, Muskets, Carabines, Pistols, Bullets, Powder, Swords, Bayonets, Sieges, Retreats, Attacks, Undermines, Countermines, Bombardments, Sea-fights; Ships sunk with a Thousand Men; twenty Thousand killed on each Side; dying Groans, Limbs flying in the Air: Smoak, Noise, Confusion, trampling to Death under Horses Feet: Flight, Pursuit, Victory; Fields strewed with Carcases left for Food to Dogs, and Wolves, and Birds of Prey; Plundering, Stripping, Ravishing, Burning and Destroying. And, to set forth the Valour of my own dear Countrymen, I assured him, that I had seen them blow up a Hundred Enemies at once in a Siege, and as many in a Ship; and beheld the dead Bodies drop down in Pieces from the Clouds, to the great Diversion of all the Spectators. (239-40)

45Gulliver, by turns knowing and naïve, here fails to make the connection between the Yahoos and his own people as he is caught up in nationalist fervor. But the reader appreciates the ironic point, that the warlike nature of the Yahoos has a parallel in civil society. Similarly, just as the Yahoos suck on roots, so we imbibe wine and spiritous liquors. Their avarice is translated into the accumulation of money, as well as their excess, which leads the civilized to acquire luxury goods, sending abroad for extravagances which serve little more than to supply us with “the Materials of Diseases, Folly, and Vice, to spend among ourselves.” Pursuing Mandeville’s logic to a parodic extreme, this practice drives others, in a catalogue of erratic behavior,

  • 22 Freethinking, a contemporary term for deist inclinations, was one of Swift’s favorite targets as a (...)

to seek their Livelihood by Begging, Robbing, Stealing, Cheating, Pimping, Forswearing, Flattering, Suborning, Forging, Gaming, Lying, Fawning, Hectoring, Voting, Scribling, Stargazing, Poysoning, Whoring, Canting, Libelling, Free-thinking,22 and the like Occupations. (244)

46Gulliver admits at the end of this long list of complaints that he has some difficulty making his host understand the intricacies of his terminology.

47The effect of this appalling array of abuses is to weaken the body: our appetites are so excessive that we paradoxically feed when we’re not hungry, drink when we have no need to slake our thirst; slothfulness, meanwhile, inclines us to lewd activities, like consorting with prostitutes, who yield yet further diseases. What Swift creates is a sense of the grotesque proportions of human life, describing proclivities that are at once natural and unnatural. We do not gain from his narrative a sense of the providential order of the universe, the beauty of the human form, the principle of design structuring all reality. In Part III this is achieved by magnifying mankind, a process that reveals not the grandeur of the Brobdingnagians but rather the hideous texture of their skin. In Part IV, it comes home to Gulliver when the inconveniences of his physical form are pointed out; he soon acquires a loathing of his own appearance, and draws back in horror whenever he catches a glimpse of himself in a reflection.

48Much of Part IV focuses on the dubious capacity of human reason. Like Hobbes, Swift sees reason as an ability to calculate the best means to achieve whatever ends we propose to ourselves. Unfortunately these ends are always disastrous, so the exercise of reason merely leads us further astray rather than towards an ultimate good or sense of proportion. The question, of course, is whether the Houyhnhnms represent a higher ideal which human beings should try, like Gulliver, to emulate. The initial indications are certainly positive. Despite the fact that they are horses, they discourse at a rational level; vice is unknown to them; lying is such an alien concept that they can only translate Gulliver’s notion as “saying the thing which was not.” As Gulliver describes them:

these noble Houyhnhnms 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; so their grand Maxim is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it. (259)

49This is reason not as a calculative capacity but in the substantive sense of connecting oneself with reality, the order of things, sometimes called “right reason”, on which consensus naturally emerges. Significantly enough, the favorite topics of discussion among the Houyhnhnms, and the two principal virtues they display, are friendship and benevolence.

  • 23 See Frank Stringfellow, “Irony and Ideals in Gulliver’s Travels”, in Critical Essays on Jonathan S (...)

50Despite this, there is some difficulty in wholeheartedly sanctioning their social practices and philosophical beliefs. After all, they meet in assembly to debate the question of whether the Yahoos should be “exterminated from the Face of the Earth” (263), and of course they conclude that Gulliver, notwithstanding his capacity for speech and sociable behavior, should be driven off the island.23 This seems at odds with their benevolence, to say the least. But, on reflection, the inconsistency is only apparent. They appear to exercise a form of utilitarianism similar to the one outlined by Hutcheson. That is, they are obliged to make a moral choice, and, as Hutcheson had suggested, they reckon up the greatest possible good. The Yahoos having no redeeming features, and more tractable asses being to hand, ready for breeding, the conclusion becomes obvious. As for Gulliver, he poses an undoubted threat since he could lead the Yahoos in an insurrection. Benevolence and utility coincide, but we are still left with nagging reservations about their resolution without being able to contest its reasonableness.

  • 24 For Hutcheson’s account of these affections, see An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passion (...)

51What’s lacking in the Houyhnhnms is a strong sense of fellow-feeling (evident in their breezy reaction to the death of loved ones). In this respect, their reasoning power does not distinguish them, ultimately, from the narrator of Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729) who devises an ingenious scheme for making the excessive quantity of impoverished Irish children useful to the society as a whole. In the case of the Houyhnhnms, they are prompted not by the zeal of the projector seeking a social solution, but by the dictates of reason and virtue in a Stoic sense. In this context, Stoic probity, their regulation of themselves according to reason alone, prompts a reaction of disapproval by its very extremity. If viewed from Hutcheson’s perspective, the Houyhnhnms possess the appropriate measure of benevolence, but they are not animated by a moral sense which links human beings (or horses) by a tie of affection.24 For his part, Gulliver is also excessive in his rejection of his own species, which is one thing among the Yahoos but quite another once he is saved by a passing ship and kindly treated by the captain, a Portuguese mariner named Pedro de Mendoza. On returning to his family, Gulliver’s misanthropy is so extreme he cannot endure the sight or smell of his wife or children, a reaction that remains largely unrelieved after five years at home.

52Swift is at his best as a satirist when undermining pride, introducing a loathing of human nature or disengagement from practices of reasoning and reflection that seem otherwise innocent. He has much in common with Hobbes, but he does not naturalize the view of human nature that Hobbes portrayed. Rather, he estranges it, but he leaves us with no alternative. We are left in a shadowy middle ground, uncertain of what, if anything, we should identify ourselves with. In general, the 18th century was nothing if not contradictory on these questions – divided in its assessment of human nature, the prospects for reform and improvement, the attainment of virtue and the struggle against self-interest. Swift and his contemporary Francis Hutcheson developed opposing but forceful visions of human possibility, one of which was comforting and easy to embrace, the other which left the reader in an awkward predicament, confronted by an image of himself but unable or unwilling to claim it as his own.


1 Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, in The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Herbert Davis (ed.), 16 vols, Oxford, Blackwell, 1939-74, vol. 1, p. 77.

2 See Alfred Owen Aldridge, “Shaftesbury and the Deist Manifesto”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series, 41, part 2, Philadelphia, 1951, pp. 297-385.

3 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Crawford B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968.

4 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), Peter H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975, Book 1.

5 Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

6 Mandeville initially published the work as a poem under the title, The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turned Honest in 1705. In 1714 he reprinted the text together with a commentary as The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits; he added further sections in editions of 1723 and 1724.

7 See James C. Beckett, Protestant Dissent in Ireland, 1687-1780, London, Faber and Faber, 1948. Dissenters were Protestants who dissented from the Church of England, the established religion. Their political position was always precarious after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 since members of various dissenting sects had been instrumental in the English Civil War in which Charles I was deposed and executed. However, in Scotland the dominant church was Presbyterian, not Anglican. The Scottish population which formed the backbone of the Ulster plantation was predominantly Presbyterian.

8 See William R. Scott, Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching and Position in the History of Philosophy (1900), reprinted Bristol, Thoemmes Press, 1992.

9 Swift’s Tory sympathies made him hostile to Molesworth’s Whig convictions at various points in his career, but the two converged in their opposition to Wood’s coinage project. The fifth of Swift’s Drapier’s Letters was addressed to Molesworth and published on 31 December 1724, during the time that Hutcheson was becoming active in Molesworth’s circle. See Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, 3 vols, London, Methuen, 1962-83, 3: 284-94.

10 London, John Darby for William and John Smith, Dublin, 1725. In this essay I have quoted from the third edition (1729); references are provided in the text.

11 Vincent Hope, Virtue by Consensus: The Moral Philosophy of Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989.

12 Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, Robert R. Wark (ed.), London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 1975, p. 131.

13 On this subject, see Daniel Carey, “Method, Moral Sense, and the Problem of Diversity: Francis Hutcheson and the Scottish Enlightenment”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 5, 1997, pp. 275-96. For a discussion of this problem in the French tradition, see Tzvetan Todorov, Nous et les autres: la reflection française sur la diversité humaine, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1989; Henry Vyverberg, Human Nature, Cultural Diversity, and the French Enlightenment, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.

14 See Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry…, pp. 205-7. For discussion, see Seamus Deane, “Swift and the Anglo-Irish Intellect”, Eighteenth-Century Ireland/Iris an dá chultur, 1, 1986, pp. 9-22.

15 For further discussion of Hutcheson, see David F. Norton, David Hume Common-Sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1982, chapter 2; Knud Haakonssen, Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, chapter 2; John J. McMammon, “Francis Hutcheson’s Inquiry and the Controversy over the Basis of Morality, 1700-1750”, Eighteenth-Century Life, 5, 1979, pp. 1-13; Susan M. Purviance, “Intersubjectivity and Sociable Relations in the Philosophy of Francis Hutcheson”, Eighteenth-Century Life, 15, 1991, pp. 230-38.

16 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Paul Turner (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. xxxv. Subsequent references are given in the text.

17 See Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), Graham Petrie (ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1986.

18 On this episode in Gulliver’s Travels, see Claude Rawson, God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination, 1492-1945, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, chapter 2.

19 On the interpretation of Swift’s satire in this book, see Anthony D. Nuttall, “Gulliver Among the Horses”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays, Claude Rawson (ed.), Englewood Cliffs (N.J.), Prentice Hall, 1995, pp. 264-79; more generally, see Claude Rawson, Gulliver and the Gentle Reader, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, chapter 2.

20 Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Glasgow, R. and A. Foulis, 2 vols, 1755, vol. 1, pp. 91-92. Compare the Inquiry, pp. 202-3.

21 Ibid.

22 Freethinking, a contemporary term for deist inclinations, was one of Swift’s favorite targets as a churchman. See Daniel Carey, “Swift Among the Freethinkers”, Eighteenth-Century Ireland/Iris an dá chultur, 12, 1997, pp. 89-99.

23 See Frank Stringfellow, “Irony and Ideals in Gulliver’s Travels”, in Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift, Frank Palmeri (ed.), New York, G.K. Hall, 1993, pp. 91-103. For the debate over Swift’s attitude to the Houyhnhnms, see James L. Clifford, “Gulliver’s Fourth Voyage:’ Hard’ and’ Soft’ Schools of Interpretation”, in Quick Springs of Sense: Studies in the 18th Century, Larry S. Champion (ed.), Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1974, pp. 33-49.

24 For Hutcheson’s account of these affections, see An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. With Illustrations on the Moral Sense, London, J. Darby and T. Browne for John Smith and William Bruce, Dublin, 1728.


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