Jonathan Swift : A Misanthrope or Hater of Mankind in The Gulliver’s Travels

“I hate and detest that animal called man…”  This is a portion of a sentence from a letter of the world famous satirist Jonathan Swift to Alexander Pope. “The Gulliver’s Travels” is Swift’s masterpiece, a universal satire satirizing the mankind as a whole. However, Book I of this satire is actually directed to the political circumstances and corruption of the then England. Yet, it is also applicable to general tendency of the political leaders of other countries alike. Again, the Book II shows the abuse of power. But Swift most violently attacks the human being and shows his utter hatred towards the whole mankind in the Book IV. For this reason, Swift is called a misanthrope, a hater of mankind. Now let us evaluate the point giving references from the text and comments of different critics.

At the very first travel, Gulliver, Swift’s mouthpiece, appears to such a land where lives an unbelievable ‘human creature not more than six inches high’ . Actually, Swift’s this presentation of an impossible physical smallness of the human race is desired to show the possible mental smallness.

At the second book of the travels, Swift introduces us with a dangerous ‘rope-dance’ among the political competitors, which may cause their serious physical injury, in performing their ‘dexterity and magnificence’ in front of the king to achieve his favour. Even, “Flimnap would have infallibly broke his neck if one of the King’s cushions that actually lay on the ground had not weakened his fall.”  This symbolical story ironically means Walpol’s (Flimnap’s) keeping his power ok by using one of the King’s mistresses (King’s cushions), with whom he had an illegal relationship. Though it seems a personal attack, it actually aims at the common human tendency to keep power by unfair means.

The human beings have an instinct to make quarrel and war. The long war between the ‘Lilliputians’ and the ‘Blefuscus’ on a trivial issue for a long time proves their love for war. They continue the war for many years on the point that which end of an egg to break, larger or smaller end.

Swift’s mouthpiece of misanthropy now is the king of Brobdingnags who having heard an account of Gulliver’s native people throws a pungent attack on the whole mankind-

“I can not 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.”

Swift’s most serious attack on mankind lies in the fourth book, A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms, where he introduces us with two sorts of inhabitants- Yahoos or monkeys, representing mankind and Houyhnhnms, representing horses.  But the most objectionable thing is that Yahoos have been shown to be deformed, ugly and inferior in both physical and mental make-up, while the Houyhnhnms are ‘endued with a proportionable degree of reason’ and ‘orderly and rational, acute and judicious’ . The Houyhnhnms  are ‘the Perfection of Nature’ while “the yahoos … were observed to be the most unteachable of all brutes”

“Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels describes man as ‘a lump of deformity and disease both in body and mind, smitten with pride’.”

Swift has so much  hatred towards mankind that he makes Gulliver tell-

“I expressed my uneasiness at his giving me so often the appellation of Yahoo, an odious animal, for which a had so utter an hatred.”

Gulliver having described to the master Houyhnhnm of how the human being or Yahoos of his country travel upon the seas by ships, the master Houyhnhnm gets surprised to hear such a thing. Gulliver says-

“He asked me who made the ship, and how it was possible to that the Houyhnhnms of my country would have it to the management of brutes.”

Can any human being bear such a pungent attack on the whole human being as ‘brutes’?

        Gulliver did not, any time, want to disclose his body in front of the Houyhnhnms for he always wanted to distinguish himself ‘as much as possible from the cursed race of Yahoo’. But once the secret of his dress is discovered and he is asked to put off his dresses in front of them. But he feels ashamed ‘ to expose those parts that nature taught us to conceal’. However , the master surprises in not wanting to disclose the dress.

        Hence, the use of the phrase ‘the cursed race of Yahoo’ and the incident demand a religious interpretation:

        According to the ‘Doctrine of Original Sin’ of St. Augustine, who has a great influence on Christianity, human being is originally of sinful nature sharing the sin of Adam and Eve who were ‘cursed’ and expelled from the garden of Eden. Again Adam and Eve felt ashamed of their nakedness in front of God after experience of having the forbidden fruit. Same is the case of Gulliver in front of the Master Houyhnhnm after his ‘original’ state having been discovered. But the Yahoos of the land actually represent the pre-fallen or innocent state of mankind. So they do not have any shame of nakedness.  

        Therefore, from the theological point of view, this can not have any satirical purpose, but just a religious interpretation. But Swift’s misanthropy is expressed in his own words in a letter to Pope (Sep. 29, 1728) after finishing the travels. Swift says-

“I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communitys and all my love is towards individuals …… I hate and detest that animal called man , although I heartily love John, Peter , Thomas.”

That is, he hates the ‘cursed’ race of ‘man of original sin’, but loves some individuals. But, don’t Peter, John and Thomas bear the original sin? ...  So Swift is here self-contradictory. Actually his “chief end … is to vex the world rather than to divert it”. “Upon this great foundation of misanthropy the whole building of my travels is erected”,  Swift himself says.

        Swift’s misanthropy reaches the climax when Gulliver says,

“I began last week to permit my wife to sit at dinner with me…. Yet the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my  nose stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves. “

He has no anti-climax of his misanthropy. Rather he speaks against human pride,  

“When I behold a lump of deformity and disease both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.”

But is Swift without pride? - ‘No’ can be the appropriate answer according to Swift’s own letter to Charles ford (Jan 19th, 1724). In that letter, he feels proud of his ‘Abilityes’. Moreover, having corrected his sins by keeping company with Houyhnhnms, now Gulliver tries to keep himself aloof from the ‘cursed’ race of Yahoos, i.e. from mankind. But as far as the Doctrine of Original Sin is concerned, how can he, being a descendant of Adam and Eve, be apart from the basic fallen nature of human being? … Therefore, Swift himself is the irony of his treatment, and he is completely a misanthrope.

        However from the book I to the book IV of this travel story, we can draw a progress in the religious perspective. In the book I, Gulliver discharged his urine to extinguish the fire and left his stool without any shame. It became possible for he was in the state of innocence. But in the book IV, he feels very much ashamed to disclose his dresses for he is now in the experienced stage. Gulliver in the first book was a superior man but now inferior. The first was pre-fallen state of Adam and Eve while the fourth is post-fallen.

        Swift so violently ‘vexed’ the world that different critics from his own time the 18th century to the 20th century bitterly criticized him. Even his defenders could not but consider the 4th book to be most objectionable.

        Among the 18th century critics, there was Earl of Orrey, Swift’s earliest biographer, who says,

“no man [was] better acquainted [than Swift] with human nature, both in the highest’ and in the lowest scenes of life.” (p. 338)*

Yet he considers Swift’s misanthropy in book IV ‘intolerable’ and says “voyage to the Houyhnhnms is a real insult upon mankind” (p. 190)** Another  was Partrick Delany calling the book IV to be ‘moral deformity’, ‘defiled imagination’. Thus, the 18th century critics, taking a high moral line, considers that Swift’s misanthropy led him to write ‘a monostrous fiction’ which was actually ‘an artistic failure’.

        Of the 19th century commentators who were less harsh than the 18th century commentators, Gosse was the harshest. He uses some phrases indicating Swift’s tendency, Swift himself and his book- ‘the horrible satisfaction of disease’ , a brain ‘not wholly under control’ and ‘the horrible foulness’. The softest critic of this century was W. E. H. Lecky who tries to answer Gosse in a differet angel. He sees Swifts misanthropy as a constitutional melancholy “mainly due to a physical malady which had long acted upon his brain”. But this answer is not suitable to us for Swift survived for a long time even after writing this book. However, Thackeray advised us not to read the book. Walter Scott in his edition of Swift’s Works (1814), says “the nakedness with which Swift has sketched this horrible outline of mankind degraded to a bestial state” (1883 ed., I, 315)

        However, the 20th century psychoanalysts have found an attractive subject for their study in Swift as well as Gulliver and tried to explain in terms of neuroses and complexes. The following quotation can be quoted from the ‘Psychoanalytic Review of 1842’

“It furnishes abundant evidence of the neurotic makeup of the author and discloses in him a number of perverse trends indicative of fixation at the anal sadistic stage of libidinal development. Most conspicuous among those perverse trends is that of coprophilia, although the work furnishes evidence of numerous other related neurotic characteristics accompanying the general picture of psychosexual infantilism and emotional immaturity.”   

        Now, from the above discussion it must be said that Jonathan Swift is completely a misanthrope for he has expressed his utter hatred towards the whole mankind in his writing as well as in his letters to his acquaintances. However, he has been so bitterly criticized that we sometimes feel pity for him.

Work Cited:

Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (1752)