Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) is a satiric novel aimed at revealing the trends of seventeenth-century philosophy, including ideas on human nature. For instance, as Gulliver, the main character embarks on a journey to discover what man is, he descends into a journey of pure madness.
Swift separates man into two groups in this novel -- the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. Swift's theme of human nature is very strong here, as the Houyhnhnms resemble horses in every way except that they possess absolute reason, while the Yahoos look just like humans except for their savage brutality.
The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are used by Swift to illustrate the problem of the nature of man. Swift also uses a fairytale setting, makes it acceptable to the audience, and then taunts his readers with questions about their own lives. Using the character of Gulliver as his voice, Swift creates a society that does not conform to the normal ideas of the human race.
When Gulliver is abandoned on a remote island, he discovers a culture unlike any other he has seen. The Houyhnhnms occupy the island and run it using true ideas of reason. The Yahoos are also creatures of this island, although they are the opposite of the Houyhnhnms, and portrayed by Swift as the worst possible form of humanity.
The Yahoos represent the crudest and most vile characteristics of humanity, both externally and internally. The Houyhnhnms represent the voice of true reason. At the time that this book was written, the trends of philosophy leaned toward acting entirely based on reason. People desired to live truly enlightened lives. For this reason, Swift's Houyhnhnms represented a superior way of life to Gulliver, while the Yahoos represented what people did not want to be.
Although Swift's satire is clearly aimed at philosophical thinking, particularly regarding human nature, Swift's characters are not used to educate his readers, or teach them a moral lesson. Instead, Swift seems to be trying to make his readers question their lives and the society they live in.
When Gulliver first arrives on the remote island, he meets the Yahoos first. While the Yahoos possess distinct human characteristics, they are a barbaric and disagreeable species, in Gulliver's mind. Swift carefully describes how isolated Gulliver felt from the Yahoos, while making sure his readers understand how deeply linked the Yahoos were to humanity.
Swift's theme of man in a state of nature is apparent during this chapter, as he describes how the Yahoos came to exist. According to Swift, two members of the culture appeared on a mountain, and then multiplied at rapidly increasing rates, only to "overrun and infest the whole nation" (p. 124). Swift tells this story parallel to the existence of humans, showing a strong correlation between man and the Yahoos. The Yahoos are violent by nature, says Swift, as are humans.
The island is basically governed by the other species of the island, the Houyhnhnms, which are used to portray the reason-based society that was so popular during the Enlightenment age in England. The Houyhnhnms represented the ideal society introduced by philosophers, such as Kant and Rousseau. Unlike the Yahoos, the Houyhnhnms spoke with no lying, deception or doubt. According to Gulliver's "master," a Houyhnhnn, the group used language to understand each other and to learn. If they used their language to deceive each other, then the purpose of language would be defeated.
This concept is most likely based on Kant's ideas of an ideal society (1983). According to Kant, rather than considering what the benefits of the particular act will be, one who is acting according to good will would instead consider the implications of the underlying maxim being a universal law. If there is a contradiction that would not allow them to will that the maxim be a universal law, then the act is wrong.
Kant is basically saying that, because we cannot rationally will that lying should be universal laws, it is wrong under any circumstance. Kant's theory holds that saying something which conflicts with something that is universally considered to be true is morally wrong.
The Houyhnhnns reasoned that, because their ability to speak exists because they must communicate and learn from one another, lying is useless and defeats the purpose. When Gulliver's master asks Gulliver how he was able to persuade men from different countries…