Comparing Houyhnhnms & Vulcans: How Swift’s Critique of Society is Still Used Today
Gulliver’s Travels, anonymously published by Jonathan Swift in 1726, satirizes the travel narrative, an immensely popular genre at this time due to the vast number of explorers who published their own adventures and experiences in the form of a narrative. Swift’s satire explores the vice and folly of society, seen clearly when Gulliver is stranded on an island where wild and brute-like humans are ruled and maintained by peaceable, rational horses. These horses, called the Houyhnhnms, (pronounced whinnums) are very similar to Spock, one of the central characters in the fictional Star Trek franchise, and his fellow race of Vulcans. These characters come from very different ends of the entertainment spectrum, Gulliver’s Travels being a satirical work and Star Trek a science fiction adventure. However, each provide pivotal insights into the closely related themes of their respective stories.
Gulliver’s stay in the land of the Houyhnhnms has a lasting impact on him, as he comes to view them as something akin to gods, superior in intelligence and form to humans, or the Yahoos that serve them. The horse he refers to as “master” conducts long conversations with Gulliver, asking deep, probing questions about the inner workings of his society, and the nature of the people who belong to it. These discussions serve as a mouthpiece for Swift, who is attempting to criticize society’s contemptible hypocrisy by way of intense sarcasm, and the master’s astounded responses to Gulliver’s answers. He and the master even have difficulty communicating as he relates the falsehoods in human nature, because the Houyhnhnms have no understanding of dishonesty and falsities. Swift takes this even further by suggesting that they don’t even have a word in their language that defines this, and so they must say “the thing which is not”, because it literally does not exist for them. Through this, Gulliver is able to learn much about the nature of the Houyhnhnms. He discovers them to be rational, logical creatures, that base everything on reason and fact. They can’t conceive the idea of lying because there is no rationality behind it; to lie is to completely defeat the purpose of language and communication, arguing that the “use of speech was to make us understand one another.” Most notably, it’s this kind of rationality that also governs the way they view family and friendship. They are all equally benevolent towards one another, no one puts particular value on anyone else. This is why their marriages are always arranged based on desirable physical and mental attributes that would produce viable offspring. They are primarily concerned with educating their young foals about the virtues of reason, but do not have a particular fondness or love for them. Two parents would care about their neighbors’ foals just as much as they would care for their own. There is no love or emotional investment, because to them there is no logic behind prioritizing one Houyhnhnm over their entire community.
In light of this concept, it becomes clear how similar the Houyhnhnms are to the race of Vulcans to which Spock belongs. Once a violent and war-like people, Vulcans strive to govern their lives with reason and logic, completely void of the passions and emotions that nearly led to their extinction. They suppress their emotional selves and dedicate their time to mastering logic, as the Houyhnhnms do. They value this way of life so much, that any deviation is met with serious consequences. When Spock’s brother, Sybok, rejects their cultural norms, he is exiled. The Houyhnhnms allow Gulliver to stay among them for a few years, but their general assembly eventually comes to the decision that he is indisputably a Yahoo, and so must either leave or go to work with the others of his kind. The master relates this news to Gulliver with blunt honesty, devoid of any empathy despite the fact that they had spent a great deal of time in each other’s company. The master and Commander Spock are both alike in this way, believing that all choices should be made based on hard fact and logic.
Throughout the series and consecutive films, Spock is the one to remain calm and rational in stressful situations, always urging Captain Kirk to think through things before acting on a rash decision. On the surface he seems very expressionless, void of feeling and detached. Spock even admits in the series that he has trouble working with people like Captain Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew. “I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant,” he tells Scottie, the ship’s engineer. However, Spock is half human, and so underneath this facade, he is constantly struggling to accept the fact that he does have emotions, which do rise to the surface on occasion throughout the series. He reveals anger when his heritage is insulted, breaks down when he realizes he could never express love for his family, and even sacrifices his own life when crew is in danger.
Both Gulliver’s Travels and Star Trek seem to be relating the same sorts of themes through the Houyhnhnms and Spock’s character arc. Spock’s multifaceted personality and progressive development throughout the series show the impact that his journeys and experiences, as well as his deep friendship with Captain Kirk are having on him. This type of story is very common, in which a calculative, rational and intelligent character is paired with an empathetic, passionate and deeply feeling character, and the two are able to teach one another a lot about perspective through their relationships. Star Trek, the TV series Bones, and the Sherlock Holmes series are just a few examples of this trope. What Spock and Kirk are able to teach each other provides insight into the overall theme of creating balance between two extremes, between one who is immeasurably intelligent, and one who is exceedingly emotional. Swift takes a different approach, but argues for the same principle. He sets up the dichotomies between the idealistic Houyhnhnms and the animal-like Yahoos, and allows their respective virtues and vices to speak for themselves, or show his argument through the satirical sense of Gulliver. In his essay, “Satiric Structure and Tone in the Conclusion of Gulliver’s Travels”, Raymond Bentman suggests that Swift’s tone of voice throughout Gulliver’s stay in Houyhnhnmn land implies his overall argument that humankind is too complex to attribute just one ideal. He mandates that “Swift’s belief that man and his environment are desperately complicated, and that any attempt to reduce them to simple schemes, whether the reduction be in terms of politics, science, history, psychology, literary theory, or critical practice, only demonstrate man’s limitations the more clearly.” To try and set one idealized version of society is nonsensical, because not every one person is the exact same. Swift’s presentation of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos is meant to satirize the kind of thinking going on during the Enlightenment Era, a time when many were encouraging an emphasis on reason and intellect over emotion and instinct. The point he’s trying to make is that rationality and emotion are completely ridiculous without each other. There must be a middle ground, a proper balance between logical thinking and empathy towards others.
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