Good Horse Sense: Swift and the Houyhnhnm
by Horace T. Palomino
In the fourth part of Johnathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” we read of Gulliver’s encounter with the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The Houyhnhnms, in Swift’s work, are a race of horses occupying their God-given place on the social ladder. That is to say, the top. Swift portrays these horse “masters” as erudite, intelligent, reasoned and commanding. The Yahoos, a species of naked ape, are appropriately human in appearance. In comparison to the civilized and reserved Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos savage the world around them. They are a bestial lot, quick in temper, violent in behavior, intemperate in their appetites. In Swift’s hands, humanity (the Yahoos,) despite an overweening pride, fails to measure up to the Houyhnhnms in every way. (2426) Gulliver, by comparing the Yahoos to the Houyhnhnm, recognizes the social poverty of Yahoo culture, its corrupt and foolish nature. The reader understands that Swift is lampooning humans and their Yahoo practices. The more interesting question is: Why, of all animal-kind, did Swift choose to use the horse as his model of good reason? Why not choose, one might ask, the wolf, the bear, the bullock, the sheep, or some yet unknown, superior form of Yahoo? Swift, by all accounts an exceptional Yahoo, does not fall into so gross an error. No, our Mr. Swift, wise and humble enough to realize that humans are mere babes playing in the shadow of their betters, goes directly to the ultimate source of nobility, wisdom and civilized behavior, the horse. He had his reasons.
Yahoos, for all of their faults, have recognized the horse as the embodiment of nobility for as far back as their grubby and disgusting species has been able to record. Indeed, even before clambering from their foul-smelling dens, humanity labored to scrawl their best impressions of the noble horse on the rocky walls of their caves. The Yahoos have dated some of these doodles (Lascaux) to c. 17,000 BCE. Since that early and grim era, the Yahoos have continued to fix their artistic efforts on their noble betters. Indeed, I challenge you to find any (good) Yahoo statue or painting of the last 22,000 years that does not revolve around the horse. Routinely, the Yahoos insist on perching ridiculous humans like Napoleon Bonaparte or the Lady Godiva somewhere in the scene, but the horse itself is eternally the focus of the medium. Why?
Artists, the Yahoos who come closest to escaping humanity’s undignified state, recognize greatness when they see it. History has given them many proud equines to work with. Bucephalus for one, who, in 336 BC, single-hoofedly reunified horsekind from the doric paddocks of Greece to the elephantine pastures of India. Alas that his bumbling equerry, Alexander the so-called Great, kept picking fights with other Yahoos. Incitatus, a horse so wise, so obviously patrician, that his Yahoo pet, Emperor Caligula, requested his assistance straightening out the Roman Senate. Alas, the closed-minded fools of the Yahoo state, unable to see past their own Yahoo conventions, foiled that plan and insured that Incitatus would never don his senatorial robes. Lastly, Pegasus, perhaps the greatest of the equine breed, said to be descended from the Gods themselves. Embodiment of wisdom, deliverer of thunder and lightning and friend to the storied muses, this great horse still found time in his schedule to repeatedly rescue his bumbling pet Yahoo, Bellerophon. The examples are numerous, too numerous for this short paper.
One Yahoo, Patrick Delany, writes, “next to man, a horse is generally allowed the noblest animal of the inferior world.” (Delany) In The Natural History of the Houyhnhnms: Noble Horses in Gulliver’s Travels, Bryan Alkemeyer, quotes numerous ancient Yahoos who share Delany’s view. (Alkemeyer, 2016) Here we find a nearly identical quote from Joannes Jonstonus, “wee begin with the Horse, which hath the preeminence among the laboring beast.” (Jonstonus, 1678) Forgiving Delany, Alkemeyer and the rest for their typically Yahoo arrogance, it is apparent that humanity views the horse as exceptional in nature. Man’s natural worship of his equine betters is the first reason that Swift elected to use the horse as his example of superiority.
The second is that we horses, unlike the other creatures at Swift’s disposal, are both peaceable and vegetarian. (Cows and sheep don’t count. They are stupid.) The 18th century “cult of sensibility,” or “desire to live emotionally,” led to a growing personification of animal life in literature and a corresponding expansion of Yahoo empathy for their fellow creatures. Due to this, vegetarianism was much discussed, anti-vivisectionist campaigns were launched and the idea of the peaceable kingdom, in which the lion lies down with the lamb, (Isaiah 11:6, NASB) was very much in vogue. (Kelly, 2007) According to the Yahoo Bible, prior to the fall of man, (Genesis 3, NASB) vegetarianism ruled in the Garden of Eden. Thus, Swift ties the Houyhnhnm culture to the concept of an earthly paradise. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, the enlightened do not eat meat. Arguably, the most embarrassing interaction between Gulliver and his Master revolves around the sailor’s carnivore nature. (Swift, 1999) Gulliver, a sinful Yahoo, bears the burden of man’s original sin. The Houyhnhnm do not. The horse, over the wolf, bear, lion, etc. allowed Swift to weigh in on all of these topics by inference. The other historically noble beasts, mentioned above, are meat eaters and, therefore, “dangerous” or “fallen.” It is embarrassing to add that the treatment of the horse in Gulliver’s (Swift’s) homeland was abhorrent. The poor creatures were often overworked, underfed, beaten and slaughtered for their hides, hooves and meat. Swift, by reporting Gulliver’s experience of a reversed role, underlines this treatment and slyly asks his Yahoo audience to consider how Gulliver’s treatment at the hooves of his equine master compares to the Yahoo treatment of their enslaved horses.
In the end, Swift, a Houyhnhnm at heart, has used the horse intentionally. Only one creature, the majestic equine, could bear the weight of all of the arguments and moral conjectures that the author attempts to transport. Plato, in “Phaedrus,” describes a journey of awakening, a path whereby the Yahoo can overcome their baser natures. What, one may ask, is the motive power for that journey? What does Plato use to symbolize the striving nature of man? Two horses, a white and a black. (Nicholson, 1999) Perhaps, Swift hopes that the horses in part four of “Gulliver’s Travels” will be able to do for his Yahoo contemporaries what Plato’s horses did for the ancient Greeks. Ambitious, you say; unfounded, you ask? I say, “Nay.”
Alkemeyer, B. (2016). The Natural History of the Houyhnhnms: Noble Horses in Gulliver’s Travels. The Eighteenth Century, 57(1), 23-37.
Delany, P. (n.d.). Observations upon Lord Orrery’s remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathon Swift. London.
Jonstonus, J. (1678). A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts. Amsterdam.
Kelly, A. C. (2007). Gulliver as Pet and Pet Keeper: Talking Animals in Book 4. ELH, 74(2), 323-349.
New American Standard Bible. (1971). La Habra, CA: Foundation Publications, for the Lockman Foundation.
Nicholson, G. (1999). Platos Phaedrus:the Philosophy of Love. Purdue: Purdue University Press.
Swift, J. (1999). Gulliver’s Travels. In K. J. David Damrosch (Ed.), The Longman Anthology of British Literature (Fourth ed., Vol. 1C, pp. 2381-2426). Pearson.
Artist Unknown. Horse. c. 17,000-15,000 BCE, Lascaux Cave, Montignac . Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Lascaux_Cave/.
Steell, John. Alexander & Bucephalus. 1883, Edinburgh City Chambers, Edinburg, UK . Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_%26_Bucephalus_by_John_Steell.JPG .
Artist Unknown. Statue (Boy with a Horse). The British Museum, The British Museum, London, UK. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=459813&partId=1&museumno=1864,1021.2&page=1 .
Lequesne, Eugène. Renown holding back Pegasus. 1865. Bronze, southwest corner of the stage flytower roof of the Palais Garnier, Paris. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pegasus_Lequesne_Palais_Garnier.jpg.