I Feel, Therefore, I Am: The Role of Reason in the Houyhnhnms’ Utopia

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In Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift juxtaposes the houyhnhnms’ “Reason” with the yahoos’ passion. Through this positioning, he illustrates the completely opposite characters of the houyhnhnms and the yahoos—while the houyhnhnms are perfectly logical and rational, the yahoos are instinctive and impulsive. This contrast allows Swift to depict the full spectrum of human qualities; only, all the traits associated with ‘reason’ and ‘passion’ are segmented and individually attributed to the houyhnhnms and yahoos respectively. Plus, since ‘reason’ is seen as being more virtuous than ‘passion’ in this utopia, the houyhnhnms, who Gulliver idolises, sit higher in the social order than the yahoos, with whom Gulliver locates many similarities with himself, and despises. However, unlike the houyhnhnms and yahoos, Gulliver (and the human race for which he is a stand-in) does not have a similarly divided character. He has both reason and passion, and this makes him a poor fit with both the houyhnhnms and the yahoos and their vision of utopia. Therefore, in this essay I explore the rigid nature and effects of the houyhnhnms’ Reason in their utopia, and I, hence, argue that the houyhnhnms’ utopian society is incompatible with human nature.  

The utopia depicted in Gulliver’s Travels is a facsimile of a socialist republic. Here, all the houyhnhnms live democratically, share all the resources with each other, and lead perfectly harmonious lives. They do not have the words (and familiarity) for concepts like “Courtship, Love, Presents, Joyntures, Settlements” (Swift 149); they do, however, understand the logical and useful notions of friendship and benevolence. These unemotional traits allow the houyhnhnms to uphold the ideals and laws which ground their vision of utopia; a vision which is founded upon “their grand Maxim [which] is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it” (Swift 148). There’s no place for passion in this utopia. 

It then follows that there is no place for the yahoos in this utopia either. The human-like yahoos in this society are solely governed by passion; a characteristic which places them in stark contrast to the reasonable houyhnhnms. In the text, the yahoos are depicted as lazy, selfish, greedy, and violent—the absolute antithesis of the “noble Houyhnhnms” (Swift 147). Because of their lack of Reason, the yahoos place below the houyhnhnms in the social order, and are treated by the houyhnhnms much like other animals like cows. On festive days, “the Servants drive a Herd of Yahoos into the Field, laden with Hay, and Oats, and Milk for a Repast to the Houyhnhnms; after which, these Brutes are immediately driven back again” (Swift 149). I locate the effects of the houyhnhnms’ cold Reason in this harsh treatment of the yahoos. I argue that even though the houyhnhnms claim to strive for friendship and benevolence, they only offer its gifts to the houyhnhnms themselves—the yahoos, with their differing desires and lifestyles, are relegated to “brutes” (Swift 149). Plus, this entire passage and specifically, the word choices of “a herd of yahoos” (Swift 149) and “brutes” (Swift 149) depict a lack of consideration for the ‘other’; a feature which makes it impossible for the yahoos—and, in this model of utopia, for any creature different from those in power—to find a respectful place in the houyhnhnms’ utopia.  

Based upon this familiar quality of passion and the yahoos’ human-like bodies, Gulliver and his houyhnhnm master classify himself (and humans) as more similar to yahoos than houyhnhnms. They conclude that all humans are similar to yahoos; only, “by what Accident he [Gulliver’s houyhnhnm master] could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen” (Swift 141) upon them. Despite this similarity, humans are completely different creatures for while they have passion, they also have enough reason to temper those urges. This amalgamation has curious effects: while talking about a lawsuit between the yahoos, Gulliver comments that “the Plaintiff and Defendant there lost nothing beside the Stone they contended for; whereas our Courts of Equity, would never have dismissed the Cause while either of them had any thing left” (Swift 143). This statement highlights a stark difference between the yahoos and humans: the presence of the ego, or an awareness of the self in the latter. Hence, the remark, “whereas our Courts of Equity, would never have dismissed the Cause while either of them had any thing left” (Swift 143) depicts both the yahoo-like quality of possessiveness and ownership which is also present in humans (a feature completely absent in the socialist houyhnhnms), and the value humans ascribe to material objects, and the associations they create between these objects and their own self-image. Therefore, the humans would fit even worse than the yahoos into the houyhnhnms’ utopia for, unlike the yahoos, they are not impulsive and egoless. Hence, it would be quite tough for them to forget slights, and tolerate the houyhnhnms’ derisive behaviour and their oppressive culture. 

The amalgamation of reason and passion also has other effects, namely the presence and optimum utilisation of imagination. In the text, Swift only uses the word ‘imagination’ once, and solely with regards to the yahoos (Swift 146). This specific word choice reflects Swift’s ascription of the quality of imagination to the yahoos and, as it follows, to humans. The lack of this quality in the houyhnhnms is a particular choice, one I see reflected in the houyhnhnms’ engagement with poetry, astronomy, and architecture in which they always use “a Kind of Tree, which at Forty Years old loosens in the Root, and falls with the first Storm…(for the Houyhnhnms know not the Use of Iron)” (Swift 150). The houyhnhnms’ lack of knowledge about iron, alongside their elementary knowledge of astronomy and uncreative poetry, reflects this lack of imagination and the consequent lack of motivation to discover new ideas. This is very unlike humans who are wont to build non-utilitarian, beautiful buildings just for the sake of beauty and architectural advancements, and who plan expeditions to space and unravel astronomic mysteries to satiate mere curiosity. This characteristic of efficient imagination then sets humans apart from yahoos and houyhnhnms, and finds them incompatible with the houyhnhnms’ utopia. 

The houyhnhnms’ language also reflects the unimaginative nature of both the houyhnhnms themselves and their utopia. Their language has “no Letters, and consequently, their Knowledge is all traditional” (Swift 150). This supports their ideal of serving objective Reason; for without letters, no subjective interpretations can occur. The lack of differing meanings is also depicted in the houyhnhnms’ lack of understanding of the word ‘opinion’, “or how a Point could be disputable; because Reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our Knowledge we [the houyhnhnms] cannot do either (Swift 148). This, alongside the lack of a word in the their language for lying, exhibits their lack of comprehension and consequent lack of regard for differing perspectives. Because they tell everything as it is; they give up on the potential to envision a different world, a world which could be both better or worse. This stagnation allows them to create and preserve an isolated world which is not perfect, but utopian—primarily because it precludes conflicts by wielding rational Reason.  

The houyhnhnms’ utopian society, hence, is incompatible with human nature which is always on the lookout for imagining, executing, and satisfying novel ideas and conflicting desires. Unlike the houyhnhnms for whom whenever there’s “any Want (which is but seldom) it is immediately supplied by unanimous Consent and Contribution” (Swift 150, emphasis mine), lively humans have both unending wants and the creativity to fulfil them. This renders them severely unfit for the houyhnhnms’ Reason-governed utopia—a lifeless space in which death seems no different than life itself.


Swift, Jonathan. Travels into several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver [pseud.]. Volume 3 of Works (Dublin: George Faulkner, 1735) 315–52, 356–60. Originally published 1726 and better known as Gulliver’s Travels.