Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels anonymously in 1726, during the height of the 18th Century Age of Reason. Swift was an Irish Protestant clergyman and satirist. He thus disguises his allusions to the political and philosophical thought of his time, allowing the reader, not Gulliver, to discover them. Gulliver’s Travels was a satire on man, especially the European man. In Book IV, Swift presents two extremes of the dual being, that being the purely rational, and the other being the purely passionate.
He finally presents the true ideal for humanity through Captain Mendez, the practical guide to follow. As a humanist, Swift was concerned for preserving the moral and spiritual qualities that distinguish men from beasts. The Houyhnhnms are horses that maintain a simple, peaceful society, in which the Yahoos are subordinate. The principle virtues of the Houyhnhnms are their friendship and benevolence. They are more concerned with the community than with their own personal advantages, even choosing their mates in order to promote the race as a whole.
They are creatures of absolute rationality. Gulliver is dazzled by their freedom from passion, envy, hatred, and greed. The master describes all the flaws of the Yahoos, principally detailing their greed and selfishness. He admits that the humans have different systems of learning, law, government, and art, but says that their natures are not different from those of the Yahoos. They are unable to learn anything; they are strong, cowardly, and malicious. The Yahoos represent what the humans can become of they give up reason and give themselves over completely to their passions.
In many ways, Gulliver’s role as a “generic human” is more important than any personal opinions or abilities he may have. By minimizing the importance of Gulliver as a specific person, Swift puts the focus on the social satire itself. Gulliver stands for man himself. He is the symbol of humanity caught between both extremes of nature. Man occupies the most uncomfortable position on the chain, since he shares the intelligence of higher creatures, and the emotions of animals. Gulliver makes the mistake of evaluating human conduct on the basis of Houyhnhnm standards, and later is not able to recognize human kindness.
He personally believes that he reached the Houyhnhnms’ ability to reason, and becomes prideful and useless to society. Gulliver’s Travels provides a definition of human kind – what we are and what we are not. If we know this much, then we know what is in the realm of human capability and our conception of the good life can become a practical goal. Moral perfection is an “idea” in the sense that we cannot achieve it. In that sense, every kind of perfection is for us humans an ideal. Swift makes it very clear that Houyhnhnm reason is beyond the reach of even the best of humans.
Throughout, Swift has shown that humans are not naturally good, but do not have to be hopelessly bad. We must recognize our limitations if we are able to be aware of our capabilities. There is one thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. The one thing is Man. Despite all the advances in technology, people live under a facade of society. They deny their limitations, thus failing to work at controlling or their human nature.