Attack on the Enlightenment: Swift’s Satirical Analysis of Enlightenment Thinkers in Gulliver’s Travels

Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson" (1632) depicts new enlightenment thinkers curiously studying a dissected human body. Picture courtesy of

Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” (1632) depicts new enlightenment thinkers curiously studying a dissected human body. Picture courtesy of

     Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one of the greatest known and most effective works of satire in the 18th century. At the heart of this satirical theme was the concept of ridiculousness, specifically during his time at the institution and his encounters with the yahoos, houyhnhnms, and the struldbugs. This satirical attack was directed towards the actions and interests of Great Britain during this time of Enlightenment and conquest.

Swift’s writings on the academy show his doubt towards the Enlightenment’s “new science” and the way they used this science. This new empirical method was of course wholly based on hands on experiments that used new tools such as the microscope, telescope, and even the air pumps mentioned during Gulliver’s time at the academy. These new tools relied heavily on the senses of the individual (Kristin 65). Swift’s skepticism towards the human senses become evident in chapter five, particularly during the experiment during which attempts were made to revive a dog by pumping air up its digestive tract. Swift observes that “the dog died on the spot, and we left the doctor endeavoring to recover him, by the same operation”(Swift 2373). This portrays Swift’s perspective that science and scientific research are ultimately established on paths that lead to nowhere, partially because we as insensible humans are attempting to push our limits on concepts we do not entirely understand. The Enlightenment during the 18th century was seen as a phenomenon that freed man from a dark and stagnant past, but Swift suggests through his creation of the academy that it was actually a senseless voyage that fixed nothing of importance, such as tyranny and oppression of man by their power thirsty government (Kristin 66).

Swift, while not entirely deviating from the theme of ridiculousness or foolishness, starts by addressing this power hungry mindset of Great Britain through Gulliver’s encounter with the Struldbruggs. With this new enlightenment thinking arose the lust for immortality. The scientific minds of that time period began to see existence as measurable and observable rather than divine and spiritual, therefore more and more concepts that once seemed absurd began to look quite possible (Freedman 458). The belief that all ailments could eventually be healed was a very popular view of the early enlightenment because of this new mindset.

Swift thought this earthly desire just as ludicrous as taking sunbeams from a cucumber. He depicted this belief through Gulliver’s interaction with the Struldbruggs. Gulliver was “struck with inexpressible delight” when he first heard of these immortal beings. He at first assumes that because they are able to live without the fear of death that they are very happy people. He begins to dream greedily of what he might do with such a great power, as would any British Enlightenment thinker, but is soon caught off guard when he finds out what the long life of the Struldbrugg is really like. After they reach the age of eighty, they begin to decay and become isolated. They are eventually “uncapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection” (Swift 2379). This is Swift’s attempt at portraying what immortality would actually be like, and therefore revealing its true ridiculousness.

The most profound of Swift’s satirical concepts of the enlightenment were the yahoos and the houyhnhnms. The houyhnhnms show both what man isn’t and what they can never hope to be, that is, devoid of passion and emotion, relying on their reason more than their corruptible feelings (Sullivan 500). It seems at first glimpse that the enlightenment of the early 18th century relied more on logic and reason rather than emotion, but the lust for more knowledge by pushing experimentation to its limits and the need for dominion over new people in new worlds says otherwise. Gulliver, being exposed to two extremes of behavior, begins to reflect upon himself and his society.

Gulliver, after interacting with the yahoos, sees them as very foolish and frankly annoying beings. Upon meeting the houyhnhnms however, he realizes that he and his entire race are in fact yahoos. The foolishness of their meaningless experiments, their earthly desires brought about by uncontrolled emotion, are all characteristics as yahoos, making them unfit to govern themselves and unable to lead a truly successful society. This is Swift’s way of showing the futility of the so-called progress being made at the time.

The houyhnhnms themselves being void of emotion that would otherwise lead them to silly conquests rule without turmoil and without tyranny. Being void of emotion is, of course, impossible, so this shows that men in their foolishness will never be able to successfully govern themselves. This shows another side of Swift’s argument that suggested the enlightenment thinkers, instead of directing their experiments and discoveries toward possible progress, actually were only performing them for personal gain and domination. These horse people represent the philosophers of the time that Swift saw as the only reasonable people that had a chance of creating a successful society, but because of the popularity of the enlightenment they were overpowered by the experimental thinkers, or Swift’s yahoos.

This satirical adventure written to portray human folly in the enlightenment was written to serve as a mirror to those experimental thinkers just as the yahoos were a metaphorical mirror to Gulliver.  Rather than conforming to the common view that the enlightenment was going to send man into an era of progress, Swift attacked this mode of thinking through the ridiculousness and exaggeration of human characteristics and the events that followed as a result.

Works Cited

Freedman, William. Swift’s Struldbruggs, Progress, and the Analogy of History. 1. 2002.     <file:///Users/irockoutloud/Documents/Blog source 3.pdf>.

Sullivan, E.E. Houyhnhnms and Yahoos: from Technique to Meaning. 1. 2001.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Damrosch, David, Kevin Dettmar,      Christopher Baswell, Clare Carroll, Andrew Hadfield, Heather Henderson, Peter Manning, and Anne Schotter. Fourth.      New York: Pearson, 2010. 2371-2426. Print.

Girten, Kristin. “Mingling With Matter: Tactile Microscopy and the Philosophic Mind in Brobdingnag and Beyond.” The      Eighteenth Century. 54. Pittsburgh: 2013.