Gulliver's giant feet walking in the diminuative forest of the lilliputians

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

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

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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, 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,

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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What is Swift's attitude towards Mankind in Gulliver's Travels?

In general, it is clear that Swift's depiction of the societies his protagonist, Gulliver, encounters during his adventures suggests a cynical perspective. Swift's point of view is not positive or encouraging. Many interpreters regard his character, Gulliver, as a symbolic representation of the objective viewer--someone who does not make any judgments and who does not discriminate. It is through Gulliver's eyes that we are made aware of humankind's iniquities, idiosyncrasies, and foolishness. Each adventure depicts an experience that exposes one or more of these shortcomings.

Gulliver's experiences in Lilliput, for example, seem to depict our desire for material wealth, our arrogance, and our obsession with pride and self promotion. We are, in our feebleness, intent on proving ourselves better than others by conducting irrelevant excursions and undertakings to prove an insignificant point. In the end we are really left with nothing.

Gulliver's experiences in Brobdingnag accentuate our insignificance. We are small, feeble, and unimportant in the greater scheme of things. Gulliver's encounters here show how we can be fooled by our own perspective when we believe that we are superior and above everything. Gulliver is humbled by his encounters in Brobdingnag and becomes a mere plaything. This depiction surely indicates that there are powers greater than ours that dominate us. We should therefore not allow our egos to lay claim to a greater importance.

Through his depictions of Gulliver's adventures on the flying island, Laputa, Swift ridicules our foolish adherence to impractical and idealistic philosophies and theories which serve no real purpose. He clearly expresses disdain for the fact that we adopt these as ultimate proof of our intellectual superiority when, in fact, such ideologies do not prove anything nor empower our advancement. It is all smoke and mirrors.

Swift's most damning criticism of humankind is revealed in Gulliver's journey to the land of the Houyhnhnms. The onomatopoeic nature of the name sounds like a jeer and, to a certain extent, copies the neighing of a horse. This, in itself, depicts Swift's view of humankind. It is as if the superior horses are displaying their contempt for humans when they neigh. The horses are depicted as wise, intelligent, compassionate, and caring, unlike the humans, the Yahoos, who are shown to be savage idiots.

It should be evident that Swift, through the persona he has created, is deeply disappointed by the folly of humankind. Being human, it seems, means very little or nothing at all.  

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What is Swift's attitude towards Mankind in Gulliver's Travels?

Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope, or hater of humanity, because of the viciousness of his satires on human nature and government. However, it is more accurate to say that Swift saw the inherent indecency in much of human culture, such as corruption in government and overpowering religion in education, and took steps to identify it in his work. For example, when describing the social structure of the Yahoos, he writes:

" most herds there was a sort of ruling Yahoo (as among us there is generally some leading or principal stag in a park), who was always more deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition, than any of the rest... He usually continues in office till a worse can be found."
(Swift, Gulliver's Travels, eNotes eText)

This is a direct jab at the tendency to elect leaders who are incompetent or corrupt because of social pressures. Swift was not writing in order to condemn humanity for its mistakes, but to demonstrate those mistakes and encourage mankind to change their ways. It is likely that Swift was disgusted by the deterioration of civilization, as wealth and technology made people complacent, and desired to wake the common man up and give purpose to the idea that humanity can deliberately change for the better.

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