01.04.2020 in Literature

Swift’s Idea of Utopia in Gulliver’s Travels

In his Republic, Plato maintains that two things are needed to form an ideal society, namely, the entities absolute in their essence and the entities that are not. A utopian novel presents a model of an ideal society. Portraying ideal societies is one of the characteristic features of the age of Enlightenment. Thus, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift can be understood an attempt to artistically reconsider the concept of ideal society. Swift’s idea of utopia satirizes the society and the order known to him. The utopian world, in Swift’s understanding, is a place where all people are equal, co-exist in harmony with nature, take their duties responsibly, and attempt to combat ignorance and indifference.

Many critics, researchers, and connoisseurs of literature note that in his magnum opus Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift “drew upon several literary traditions”. The literary traditions that the author has referred to are assumed to range from miscellaneous satirical writing to the accounts of fantastic voyages that became popular in the eighteenth century. In portraying the fictional worlds of his own, Swift was inspired by Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Plato’s Republic, and Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis.

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The impact of the writings mentioned above on Swift’s own was so pervasive and considerable “that it has become a literary commonplace”. Particularly, researcher maintain that Book III, “The Voyage to Laputa”, from the Gulliver’s Travels actually imitates Bacon’s New Atlantis, while Book IV, “The Voyage to the Houyhnhnms” is seen as an attempt to reconsider and comment on Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia. At this point, it is important to take the following facts into account. It is not in the nature of Swift’s Houyhnhnms to be deceitful. In other words, the Houyhnhnms do not know what lying is and they need no laws. The Houyhnhnms are governed by pure reason alone. However, it is worthy of note that the Houyhnhnms are non-humans; the Yahoos, on the other hand, are the humans turned savage and in Swift’s novel represent  Thomas More’s the Utopians. At this point, further discussion of the connections between More’s and Swift’s respective models of the utopian society is needed. 

Many biographers, critics, and researchers assert that it is More’s pragmatism that Swift found most appealing. More’s major work contains the chapters discussing the most topical social and economic issues of the day, such as, for example, national defense and regulation of trade and travel. Swift’s satirical mindset and his disillusionment with the realities of that time were prompted by More’s social criticism. In addition to that, Swift thought about More as the opponent of tyranny, mostly, the opponent of tyranny that tolerates change for the sake of change alone. Apart from Thomas More’s Utopia, Swift also drew inspiration from some classical works. Some researchers note that Swift’s idea of a satiric journey was prompted by Lucian’s Vera Historia. Some researchers also make a rather astute observation by pointing out that Swift may have consciously imitated Homer’s Odyssey. Other allusions detectable in Gulliver’s Travels include but are not limited to referring to the Colossus, Socrates’s and Plato’s writings.

However, admitting Swift’s admiration for rationalism largely oversimplifies the model of utopian society he has come up with. Book I, chapter 2 of Aristotle’s Politics contains a passage that reflects what Swift himself believed in. Aristotle had foreseen the advancement of science and technology and the beginning of the armaments race, as well as the terror and corruption they would summon. Swift was perceptive and receptive enough to bring the subject up in his own writings. 

At this point, it is essential to take a small detour to point out the following. Jonathan Swift’s disillusionment with people and society is typically explained by the fact that the author was a clergyman. Naturally, the author spent no small amount of time ruminating over righteousness, moral decay, corruption, honor, dignity, loyalty, and honesty. As Theodore Otto Wedel put it, “against the language of the heart he harbored an almost Freudian complex”.Thus, Swift is often blamed for being misanthropic. The problem is that Swift saw a connection between reason, virtuous life, and justice. With regard to this, it seems obvious why the thinker choses to satirize the institutional injustice of society that he has been a part of through comparing the actual society itself to the virtually perfect justice of entirely rational and yet imaginary society. For one thing, Gulliver’s Travels abound with the portrayals of the acts of injustice. On the other hand, all injustice in the novel is institutionalized. 

In the fictional universe of the Houyhnhnms, Swift has created the images of egalitarianism, utility, and simplicity that are unprecedented in their vividness. Swift’s vision is a somewhat idealistic model. However, he creates that kind of model to show the contemporaries what to aspire to, which is, probably, why one of Gulliver’s greatest wishes in the novel is for the Houyhnhnms to visit Europe and to teach people “the first Principles of Honour, Justice, Truth, Temperance, publick Spirit, Fortitude, Chastity, Friendship, Benevolence, and Fidelity”. In their day-to-day activities the Houyhnhnms are ruled by the maxim that urges them “to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it”. Apart from that, the Houyhnhnms believe that “Nature and Reason [are] sufficient Guides for a reasonable Animal”. As used by the Houyhnhnms, the terms ‘nature’ and ‘reason’ are interdependencies. Nature, according to the Houyhnhnms, is one of the very few things a man can trust. Even more importantly, reason and nature go hand in hand: nature is a key to knowledge and people’s harmonious co-existence with it brings the peace of mind. In a way, Swift has foreseen the beginning of the age of human alienation form nature.

First and foremost, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a prophetic work. In the novel, the author portrays a series of fictional worlds until the novel’s protagonist finds himself in the one that, with quite a few exceptions, is ideal. Swift’s novel amazes the audience with the vividness of the imagery, which makes the portrayal of the fictional world even more striking. Jonathan Swift is, probably, one of the most renowned masters of satire and yet, one of the most controversial figures in the world literature. The land of the Houyhnhnms represents the author’s vision of the utopian world. Through his novel, Jonathan Swift showed how deeply corrupted societies are and how the world can be changed to became a happier and safer place.

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