In Gulliver's Travels, what is Swift's message for humanity?

In Gulliver's Travels, Swift's message for humanity is that different cultures should learn from each other. To some extent, Gulliver represents the insularity of Swift's Britain. And it is only by getting acquainted with myriad different cultures that he's able to break free of that insularity and learn more about the world around him.

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Gulliver's various journeys can be seen as providing him with valuable experience of the wider world. A somewhat naive and insular young man at the start of his journeys, Gulliver becomes more worldly wise due to his first-hand experiences of different cultures and their customs.

Like many of his contemporaries,...

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Gulliver's various journeys can be seen as providing him with valuable experience of the wider world. A somewhat naive and insular young man at the start of his journeys, Gulliver becomes more worldly wise due to his first-hand experiences of different cultures and their customs.

Like many of his contemporaries, Gulliver initially has an instinctive belief that all facets of British life are the best in the world. It's only when he comes into contact with representatives of different cultures that he realizes just how bizarre some of his country's customs appear to others. The rational equine creatures, the Houyhnhnms, find British political traditions positively irrational, not to say outright barbarous.

Encountering these creatures gives Gulliver a perspective on British life that he would otherwise never have acquired had he remained back home in Blighty. In learning about other cultures, he's learned so much more about his own.

Armed with the new insights he's been given by his many experiences of strange and distant lands, he will now be in a position to identify all the many things wrong with British society and perhaps play his own small part in correcting some of the narrow-minded assumptions of his fellow countrymen.

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Swift's message for humanity is that people will flourish when they exercise strong compassion toward other humans and common sense.

Swift does this by creating a naive, gullible character (Gulliver) who doesn't know enough to lie. He therefore baldly reports what he sees. By speaking honestly about European society, Gulliver reveals its barbarism. But, because he also honestly records the behavior of the people he travels among, Gulliver also show the flaws in human behavior as a whole. Often, these have to do with putting personal pride and ego needs ahead of seeing the bigger picture: the Lilliputians, for instance, want to execute Gulliver for putting out a palace fire with his pee, saying it was disrespectful, but they miss the bigger picture— by reacting quickly, Gulliver probably saved lives.

Likewise, the scientists at the academy at Lagado, a spoof on the British Royal Academy, put their own ambitions ahead of the well-being of their experimental subjects and cause suffering through performing nonsensical experiments. Once again, lack of compassion and empathy for other beings, along with a lack of any common sense, is shown to cause human suffering.

On the other side, the Houyhnhnms behave more rationally than the Yahoos and European humans, but they can be too cold and lacking in compassion.

Arguably, Swift hoped that by using exaggeration to satirize human weaknesses, he might inspire people to change their ways. The central importance of compassion and common sense to a humane society is the core of the message Swift wants to convey.

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In part II, Gulliver's voyage to Brobdingnag, his conversations with the king seem to satirize the human race as being warlike, destructive, exploitative, and self-centered. The king, who is gentle and peace-loving, is abhorred by Gulliver's depiction of the British government and military. The king says to Gulliver,

"I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."

Portraying such a gentle king as so critical of humanity, and especially Britain, is one method that Swift uses to point out our human propensity toward cruelty, violence, and selfishness.

Swift continues this criticism in part IV, with Gulliver's voyage to Houyhnhnmland. The Yahoos are "filthy," vulgar, and animalistic, and Gulliver describes them as a "cursed race" without any irony. This is especially remarkable because he recognizes how very like him they are (at least in form). He does not realize, however, how similar they are to humans in other ways, such as their greed. Swift draws this parallel between the Yahoos and humans in order to show that much of our own behavior is so animalistic, so base. We believe that we are better than all of these other animals, and yet we treat each other so badly and fail to care for one another properly.

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Gulliver's Travels is often seen as an indictment of humanity as the dominant civilized and intelligent species on Earth. Although Swift spends much of the book satirized specifically-English culture, by the fourth book (written before the third, but placed last) he is viciously attacking almost every convention of human society. The idea that the Houyhnhnms have a perfect culture based entirely on logic all-but eliminates the possibility that Humans can attain the same status; depending on which psychological model is followed, Humans depend on logic for half or more of their reasoning.

And is there less probability in my account of the Houyhnhnms or Yahoos, when it is manifest as to the latter, there are so many thousands even in this country, who only differ from their brother brutes in Houyhnhnmland, because they use a sort of jabber, and do not go naked?
(Swift, Gulliver's Travels, gutenberg.org)

This streak of misanthropy runs off-and-on through the novel, and has often been interpreted as meaning that Swift was specifically writing a book of anti-human principles and themes. However, since human achievement -- even the silly achievements of the Laputa scientists -- are upheld objectively as great, it is more likely that Swift was aiming his pen specifically at the people in society who destroy rather than create. The quote above refers to people who, in Gulliver's view, are as Yahoos because they have no greater purpose in life; Swift's message, then, could be interpreted as criticism of under-education and lack of ambition, both of which cause failure of life and often of larger society.

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