Lands of Logic

We all know that Gulliver’s Travels is both an adventure story and a satire, but one thing that seems to confuse critics is how much we’re supposed to read into Gulliver’s worship of the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms are sentient horses who live on an isolated island, and have developed a society based entirely on reason. Or at least that’s what they claim they’ve done. There are certainly some appealing aspects to Houyhnhnm society, like how they are incapable of lying and have no desire for power or wealth. They don’t fear death, and are all good neighbors who get along with everyone else in their community. On the other hand, they have no opinions, reasoning that any argument where there isn’t a right answer is ultimately futile. I see the logic, but at the same time this more or less removes any sense of individuality. Even more troubling is that the Houyhnhnms have a stratified society, with class based partially on color. The reasoning is that some types of horses are better at certain jobs than others, but it’s still very unsettling. Families are each limited to two children, and swaps make sure everyone has one male and one female colt. Also, the horses have an utter contempt for humanity, which in fairness to them is based largely on the fact that the human inhabitants of their island, the Yahoos, are completely undeveloped and uncivilized.

That the Houyhnhnms treat the Yahoos as beasts of burden can be partially traced to the fact that they can be considered too dangerous to be kept at large, but they take it to extremes, and it’s been proposed that the treatment of Yahoos is a commentary on how badly many humans treated their horses. It’s probably sort of a role reversal. After Gulliver is expelled from Houyhnhnm society on the basis that he could potentially lead the less intelligent Yahoos in revolt, he returns to his home in England, but acts like a total prat. He largely ignores his wife and family and humanity in general, preferring to hang around the horses in the stable. While we can, to a certain extent, understand Gulliver’s admiration of his former hosts, I don’t think we’re meant to see Gulliver’s withdrawal as a good thing. What I’ve heard about Swift himself was that he wasn’t too fond of humanity, but he liked individual humans. His protagonist apparently embraced the former part of that philosophy without the latter.

I know I’m not the first person to make the comparison between the Houyhnhnms and the Vulcans from Star Trek (it’s made here for instance), but I thought it would be interesting, as I’m inclined to think it was fully intentional. The Vulcans (who presumably don’t call themselves “Vulcans,” but I’m not a big enough Trek nerd to know what their name for themselves is) are not horses, and indeed are very humanoid for aliens, to the point where they can actually breed with Earth people. In fact, that’s where Spock comes from. If Wikipedia is correct, Spock’s lack of emotion basically came about because viewers didn’t like a woman coming across as cold (as a character played by the actress who would later portray Nurse Chapel was in the pilot), but apparently didn’t mind it from a man, perhaps especially an alien man. It was presumably from this that Vulcan society came to be one that embraced logic and the suppression of emotions, much as the Houyhnhnms do. It’s been established that Vulcans actually have strong emotions, but they’ve learned to keep them in check, although not too many of them are able to disregard them entirely. Similarities to Jonathan Swift’s intelligent equines include their refusal to lie (well, most of the time) and that they have arranged marriages. Unlike the Houyhnhnms, however, they are said to embrace diversity, and I doubt you’d see Vulcans having a race-based class system. Still, the general idea seems to be the same, which is that a society based on logic and reason has some clear advantages, but the total suppression of emotion and individuality is not a good thing. Not for humans, anyway.

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