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Gulliver’s Travels as a Critique of the Enlightenment

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The work is concerned to set forth the miserable conditions of man, his weakness, pride, and vanity, his unmeasurable desires, the prevalency oh his passions, the corruption of reason. -Swift during a sermon.

Gulliver in his travels through the four books gains a lot of new experiences and perspective on life and his way of seeing the world. Swift has used the element of these adventures to criticize England in the eighteenth century and humankind in general. It seems at first glimpse that the enlightenment of the early 18th century relied more on logic and reason rather than emotion, but the lust for more knowledge by pushing experimentation to its limits and the need for dominion over new people in new worlds says otherwise.

In book three Gulliver points out that he felt that the minds of the residents of Laputa were so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither could speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external action. Finding reason through science according to Swift was beyond ones capability. Swift here has used Gulliver as a mouthpiece. His contemporaries argued that Swift’s thought process bing a christian divine might have also had a strong influence.

The part also talked about the interconnectedness between all the advancements and music and astrology, all being important themes of the time Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels. This also brought out the ironical bigotry practice by people in Swift’s world. For he gives the example of a lord who was universally reckoned stop, unwise and ignorant simply because he didn’t have an ear for music or the correct skills for maths even though he had offered many services to the crown.

Swift also points out a state of impossibility that humans have been trying to reach through the university of Lagado where the residents were trying to achieve unachievable goals, like turning feces back to food and reviving a dead dog by blowing air into it. While Swift was writing this similar experiment on a d go were being conducted later of which inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

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In book four Gulliver, after interacting with the yahoos, sees them as very foolish and frankly annoying beings. Upon meeting the houyhnhnms however, he realizes that he and his entire race are in fact yahoos. The foolishness of their meaningless experiments, their earthly desires brought about by uncontrolled emotion, are all characteristics as yahoos, making them unfit to govern themselves and unable to lead a truly successful society. This is Swift’s way of showing the futility of the so-called progress being made at the time.

The houyhnhnms themselves being void of emotion that would otherwise lead them to silly conquests rule without turmoil and without tyranny. Being void of emotion is, of course, impossible, so this shows that men in their foolishness will never be able to successfully govern themselves. This shows another side of Swift’s argument that suggested the enlightenment thinkers, instead of directing their experiments and discoveries toward possible progress, actually were only performing them for personal gain and domination.

These horses represented the philosophers of the time that Swift saw as the only reasonable people that had a chance of creating a successful society, but because of the popularity of the enlightenment they were overpowered by the experimental thinkers, or Swift’s yahoos.

This satirical adventure written to portray human folly in the enlightenment was written to serve as a mirror to those experimental thinkers just as the yahoos were a metaphorical mirror to Gulliver. Rather than conforming to the common view that the enlightenment was going to send man into an era of progress, Swift attacked this mode of thinking through the ridiculousness and exaggeration of human characteristics and the events that followed as a result.

A lot of scientific advancements were taking place at the time and It is through the use of these veiled attacks on the ideas popularly held and often worshipped by society that satire had its greatest effect upon it. It destroyed the conceptions and opinions people have of various things through metaphor, comparison and by making ludicrous what is held dear indirectly which then used to a growing sense of finding reason and progressing through science.

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Gulliver’s Travels as a Critique of the Enlightenment. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
“Gulliver’s Travels as a Critique of the Enlightenment.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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