Swift and the Limits of Cynicism

If I have been most entertained by Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa (see previous post), I have been intrigued, and mystified, by the final voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms. This part of Gulliver’s Travels earned Swift no end of disapproval in the years following his death. Apparently the violent contrast of degraded humanity (the ape-like Yahoos) with the noble, intelligent horses (the Houyhnhnms—pronounced “whinny-ms”) was intolerable. The misanthropic parable was made all the worse, it seems, by the fact that Gulliver returned home and for years shunned the company of other humans including his own family.

Undoubtedly there is a strong element of cynicism in Gulliver’s Travels. As a “Tory radical,” Swift invites comparison with some latter-day reactionaries who are almost subversive in their criticism of modernity. While Swift sought amelioration of many evils along legal lines, he intensely distrusted the utopian claims of rationalism. It is an animosity that seems partly warranted as we look back upon the mixed legacy of the Enlightenment. After all, real progress depends on man’s moral intentions, and people have not always made the best use of new inventions and developments.

Still there is a point at which social criticism becomes excessive. Whether Swift went that far is a point that critics will continue to debate. Certainly there are malcontents today who have adopted Gulliver’s overweening pessimism. By the last voyage, the English captain espouses an eighteenth century version of the moral equivalency argument which places all human societies on the same miserable level. The problem with such perfectionism is that it is destructive of practical ethics. It fails to make important distinctions, or acknowledge that virtue is something we progress towards by degrees rather than at all once. As such it is not only conceited, it is hypocritical, as we see in Gulliver’s increasing hubris, which is even more repulsive than the Yahoos’ brutality.

W. A. Speck, in his fine 1970 literary study of Swfit, provides an interesting explanation. He sees the comparison of the Yahoos and Houyhnhms as a subtle commentary on Calvinist and deist beliefs, representing two extreme philosophical attitudes. For the one, man is an incorrigibly depraved sinner whose reasoning only leads him more deeply into vice. For the other, rationalism, unaided by divine revelation, is capable of lifting man above all errors and vicissitudes. While the Yahoos are repugnant, the Houyhnhnms are unappealing, emotionless creatures whose intellectual hauteur conceals some glaring ignorance about the world. “To Swift… men were not like the Houyhnhnms, rational creatures; they were only capable of reason.” If so, Swift is not so much a cynic as he is a champion of common sense.

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