English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Study Guide to

Book IV of Swift's Gulliver's Travels
(Gulliver's Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms)

In reviewing this philosophical tale, you'll want to keep in mind the topics outlined for the out-of-class option on the final, since these point you to the kinds of issues that connect the work to the themes we have been pursuing in the course.

For the rest, your fresh re-reading for the Final Exam will be more lively if you keep track of all references in the text to the following ideas

Put an "R" in the margin whenever you come across this concept in any of its guises.
You may find it useful to put a "P" in the margin when ever you come across the idea of "passion" (even though of course it falls also under the concept of irrationality). You could use this to cover anything that connects with the concept of concupiscence. (Even though that term does not appear in the language of the book, it is surely active!)
Since the Houyhnhnms are animals, they are possessed of desires and appetites. These do not per se qualify as concupiscence, since that concept applies to inordinate desire and appetite. For this reason, you might want to index the terms appetite and desire separately, with "A" and "D," and then decide in each case whether you are dealing with appetites or desires conforming to reason or deviating from what reason would authorize.

Tuning in to these motifs should put you on a good footing to discuss how the Houyhnhnms are designed as exemplars of the concept "rational animal" and the Yahoos of "pure brutes," and how these serve as two foils with reference to which Swift can indicate what an animale rationis capax (an "animal capable of reason") is like. (Cf. Swift's letter to his friend Alexander Pope, pp. 503-4 of our Bantam paperback edition of Swift's selected works).

Keep in mind that this latter concept allows of two polar possibilities with a complex continuum in-between: the capacity for reason might be realized, or it might go unrealized. If it were not realized according to its intrinsic purpose (telos), the realization would count as a perversion. If it were partially realized according to its purpose, the realization would count as positive but incomplete. In individual cases, we might have to do with a combination of both kinds of "development of the capacity of reason."

What sort of case do you take Gulliver to be illustrating in his discussions with his Houyhnhnm master of the history and customs of his native land?

What sort of case do you infer Swift thinks he is dealing with in, say, Alexander Pope?
What sort of case are we to recognize in the Portuguese sea captain we meet towards the conclusion of the book?
What kind of case do we have in Gulliver himself, in his relations with his family upon his return?

Here's something else it might be useful to reflect upon.

Apparently it is possible for rational animals to disagree among themselves, since the Houyhnhnms do have an institution for resolving differences among themselves and arriving at policy consensus. What questions are typically decided? What is the big question that remains unresolved? What are the issues in debate here?

What question eventually arrives concerning Gulliver himself? What are the issues that arise, and the different arguments brought forth concerning them? Which side eventually prevails, and on what basis?

Do the Houyhnhnms reach the correct decision here, in your judgment?
Gulliver's master accepts the decision, but does he agree with it?
Can reason, after careful collective deliberation, reach a mistaken conclusion?
Is it rational to agree to a mistaken policy?

What do you think Swift's view is, on these questions?  Must reason, if it is to be reason, be infallible?  Are there special circumstances in which it rational to accept certain dictates that your own reason rejects?

The Yahoos.

Pay special attention to Gulliver's encounters with the Yahoos.  What are some occasions on which he is distressed in these? 

What are some other occasions on which he is embarrassed by them?

In how many ways do the Yahoos exemplify the concept of "brutishness"?  Does the concept of concupiscence -- as inordinate desire -- apply to them?  Are they possessed of a will?  Do they show any evidence of intelligence?  (If they do, what are the evidences that this intelligence is limited?  is ruled by / at the service of desires?)

What is the perennial subject of debate, among the Houyhnhnms, concerning the Yahoos?  What are the arguments, pro and con?

Is it surprising that rational animals cannot come to a consensus on this question?  Or is this a question which cannot be resolved by an appeal to Reason?  On the basis of the evidence you have concerning the Yahoos, do you think one side has the better case?  What reasons would you give for claiming that one side's reasoning is better than the other's?  (This would have to amount to more than merely repeating the reasoning of the side you endorse.  You would need to explain what is fallacious about the other side's reasoning, or explain how it has failed to appreciate the force of something said by the partisans of the side you support.)

How does the manner in which Gulliver ends up in the Land of the Houyhnhnms relate to the theme of Book IV as a whole?

Examine carefully Gulliver's reaction to the Portuguese sea captain who brings him home.

What kind of a man is the captain, to judge from what he says and what he does?

How does Gulliver relate to him?

Why is this?  (How does Gulliver himself explain it?)

Is this reaction on Gulliver's part reasonable, rational?

If the Portuguese sea captain were introduced to the Houyhnhnms, how do you think they would receive him?

How does Gulliver behave when he finally reaches home and settles down?

What are we to make of this?

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  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 26 January 1999.