The Times Literary Supplement recently addressed how people are often mislead into thinking Jonathan Swift presents a negative view of human nature in Gulliver’s Travels, a book read in the second year of the Core Humanities:
Yet what readers tend also to be told is that the moral system of Houyhnhnms, according to which no value is to be attached to personal affections, and death, whether that of others or one’s own, should not be the occasion of any emotion, represents Swift’s notion of an ideal civilization. Gulliver’s account is perfectly explicit.
“They [the Houyhnhnms] have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles; but the Care they take in educating them proceedeth entirely from the Dictates of Reason. And I observed my Master [a dapple-grey horse] to shew the same Affection to his Neighbour’s issue that he had for his own. They will have it that Nature teaches them to love whole Species, and it is Reason only that maketh a Distinction of Persons, where there is a superior Degree of Virtue . . . . If they can avoid Casualties, they die only of old Age, and are buried in the obscurest Place that can be found, their Friends and Relations expressing neither Joy nor Grief at their Departure, nor does the dying Person discover the least Regret that he is leaving the World.”
That Swift means us to regard the Houyhnhnms as an ideal contrast to the wayward or sinful behavior of ordinary humanity is plainly false – indeed, frankly, rather absurd. The sooner a reader has cleared his (or her) mind of this idea the better; for it obscures the function that Swift has, in fact, and most ingeniously, assigned to the Houyhnhnms in his scheme. What he presents us with in his Houyhnhnms is an only slightly exaggerated version of the outlook of an early eighteenth-century Deist or devotee of Nature and Reason; and the point that his narrative is making, with steadily increasing force, is that, for a fallible and unwary mortal like Gulliver (or ourselves) an encounter with such rationalizing and Pharisaic doctrines could have a quite lethal effect on our character.
Care to offer an opinion? Is Swift really giving the reader a warning about rampant misanthropy rather than presenting a version of it himself? Feel free to leave a comment elaborating on your perspective, or discuss it on the EnCore Facebook page.