Opposition between Savagery and Civilisation

The Opposition between Savagery and Civilisation as Concepts, as Presented in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Book 4


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Savagery and civilization are compared side by side on the island of the Houyhnhnms—horses who have the intellect of rational human beings and rule over humanoids—the Yahoos—who look like humans but have the intellect of irrational beasts. In Part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift inverts the traditional mores of Enlightenment ideology to display humankind as deeply flawed and irrational. The Enlightenment Era had prided itself on its use of and devotion to Reason. It placed logic and naturalism at its core—and yet Swift saw fit to take aim at the Enlightened ones of his own era and skewer them with ironic juxtapositions and satirical barbs. Humans are presented as savages on the island of the Houyhnhnms and beasts are presented as wise demi-god like creatures. Swift’s point is that man is neither wholly beast nor wholly rational (like an angelic being) but rather a combination of the two—a thing with two natures as it were: a rational, spiritual nature and a primal, physical nature. Leaning too far on one or the other would push one either towards the horses (out of rejection of the animal nature of one’s own humankind) or into bestiality (out of rejection for the mental and spiritual nature of humankind). In other words, on the one hand was savagery and on the other hand was civilization—and navigating the way is not easy, even for Gulliver who travels widely and sees much only to end up despising his own kind and preferring the stalls and stables at the end of his journeys. This paper will show how Gulliver in this sense represents Swift’s own rejection of the so-called Enlightened ones—the civilized society who treated the so-called savages abominably wherever the English sought to set up colonies abroad.

The Yahoos and Houyhnhnms

Gulliver finds himself on the island of the Houyhnhnms following an unfortunate incident at sea when his crew mutinies against his command and sets him adrift that they might go on to be pirates. The incident is helpful in framing the argument that arises in the same book—that humans are irrational and corrupt and ought to be avoided. The Yahoos—the humanoid creates on the island of the horses (the Houyhnhnms)—represent this irrationality on the part of the humans, who act like savages in Gulliver’s eyes. He prefers the sobriety, intellect, courtesy and grace of the horses, who communicate with him in their own language, which Gulliver gradually learns. The savage sailors who treated Gulliver so beastly foreshadow the beastly Yahoos who serve as the emblems of savagery. The horses represent civilization. The Houyhnhnms are described humorously and ironically by Swift:

Friendship and benevolence are the two principal virtues among the Houyhnhnms; and these not confined to particular objects, but universal to the whole race; for a stranger from the remotest part is equally treated with the nearest neighbour, and wherever he goes, looks upon himself as at home. They preserve decency and civility in the highest degrees, but are altogether ignorant of ceremony. They have no fondness for their colts or foals, but the care they take in educating them proceeds entirely from the dictates of reason.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Jonathan Swiift, Gulliver’s Travels, chapter 8.]

The fact that Gulliver identifies their two main virtues as being friendship and benevolence, when the horses are immediately thereafter described as having virtually no fondness for their children but rather take up the duty of their education from a cold and detached application of Reason shows that “friendship” is inaccurately applied by Gulliver as a term that aptly describes the “civilized” horses’ character. The Yahoos meanwhile are described as “the most filthy, noisome, and deformed animals which nature ever produced, so they were the most restive and indocible, mischievous and malicious; they would privately suck the teats of the Houyhnhnms’ cows, kill and devour their cats, trample down their oats and grass, if they were not continually watched, and commit a thousand other extravagancies.”[footnoteRef:3] The Yahoos’ less civilized traits, which are merely aspects of what the Old World would have considered a fallen human nature, are thus emphasized by the Houyhnhnms as being reasons for why the Yahoos should be exterminated. The Houyhnhnms’ inhumane characteristics (no fondness for children; all actions proceeding from Pure Reason—which of course would be a starting point for the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution by the end of the 18th century) are emphasized by Swift and completely missed by Gulliver, who wishes to be part of the ruling class of “civilized” horses—beasts, it should be noted—rather than part of the low class of Yahoos, who represent humanity—only represented as savages incapable of possessing civilized manners. This depiction is not wholly appropriate either, for when Gulliver is set to leave the island, he is driven to his canoe upon a carriage led by a Yahoo. [3: Swift, chapter 9.]

Satire of the So-Called Civilized

Of course, it is an ironic juxtaposition that Swift is using to invert the Enlightenment doctrines of the day—i.e., that humankind is rational and civilized. Swift took exception to this doctrine and the imperialism of the British in the 18th century—particularly the tyrannical way in which the English ruled over the Irish, which Swift satirized sharply in Part III of the novel.[footnoteRef:4] However, there is an ironic inversion within the inversion—for while Swift appears to reduce the Enlightenment notion of man as rational to ashes by presenting man as a Yahoo, he recognizes that readers will still think that civilized man is represented by the Houyhnhnms, and lest any reader should think that civilized man is so much more rational than the Yahoo, who could simply be viewed as a savage and therefore not really a man like that British (who were supposedly civilized), Swift shows that the Houyhnhnms are just as inhuman as the savages—the Yahoos—and that they merely dress up their savagery in refined discourse and language that actually only puts a gloss on their own ignoble thoughts, ideas and ways. For example, at one point the horses discuss whether or not they should exterminate the humans—indeed it is the subject of chapter 9 in Part IV: “The Question to be debated was, Whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth.”[footnoteRef:5] This was essentially the question the British constantly asked about the Irish and that they did to some extent practically carry out during the Potato Famine, which the English in no way attempted to alleviate. The British, in other words—the so-called civilized society that had Empire—were inhumane, like the Yahoos, like the mutinous sailors who threw Gulliver overboard, and even like the Houyhnhnms, who openly discussed eradicating the Yahoos from the face of the earth because of their inherent savagery. [4: Rawson, Claude. “Gulliver, Travel, and Empire.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14, no. 5 (2012), 13.] [5: Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, chapter 9.]

This line of thought was evident in the American colonies established by the British as well. The colonists had no strong liking for the Native Americans and wished to take possession of their land and country, push them out of Virginia, and essentially run them into the ground. The wars against the natives were justified by the British colonists by their argument that the natives were savages who were cruel and who attacked at random and could not be trusted. Yet the natives were still human beings and many of them would go on to be integrated into American society over time. The real reason was that the Empire wanted the land and they were willing to make up any excuse for taking it. By labeling the natives as savages who had to be exterminated, the intellectual pretext for fighting them was provided.

The same concept applied to slavery. The British entered into the slave trade because they viewed the Africans as savages who were there to be exploited like the Yahoos in Swift’s novel. The British in this sense were actually like the Houyhnhnms, who lorded over the Yahoos and despised them for their inferiority. The slave trade was justified by the English by their argument that the slaves were a lesser species of human being. This sort of rationalization was what Swift was mocking in Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver himself doubles as both a Yahoo and a Houyhnhnm—a Yahoo because he is, ultimately, savage in his own rejection of the savages; a Houyhnhnm because he is, ultimately, possessed of the same arrogance and inhumane thoughtlessness that drove the horses to lord it over the Yahoos. Even the Houyhnhnm’s are intolerant of Gulliver, though he demonstrates great skill and use of reason in coming to learn their language: they view him as a threat who could lead to their destruction; after all, he does look like a Yahoo—and, moreover, he considers himself to be form a race of Yahoos: “When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or the human race in general, I considered them, as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the gift of speech; but making no other use of reason, than to improve and multiply those vices whereof their brethren in this country had only the share that nature allotted them.”[footnoteRef:6] Gulliver thus recognizes the savagery in his own kin—the supposed civilized race—while failing to recognize it in himself. The super-civilized horses, however, recognize the threat of savagery in Gulliver and thus send himi away. They represent the position of the super-civilized British Imperialists, passing judgment on the natives of foreign lands, who may not have shared in the customs and doctrines of their colonizers but who nonetheless possessed human faculties of reason and feeling and understanding. The British despised them generally, whether they were Irish or Native American or Indian—and their aim was to take the spoils of colonization—not to help develop the natives in most cases. [6: Swift, chapter 10.]

Thus, the British Imperialists could easily be likened to the Houyhnhnms for it was the latter who discussed eradicating their lesser—not the other way around. The problem of Gulliver’s appearance as a Yahoo becomes a problem for his master horse, who is chastised by the other Houyhnhnms for employing him as a Houyhnhnm: “the representatives had taken offence at his keeping a Yahoo (meaning myself) in his family, more like a Houyhnhnm than a brute animal; that he was known frequently to converse with me, as if he could receive some advantage or pleasure in my company; that such a practice was not agreeable to reason or nature, or a thing ever heard of before among them.”[footnoteRef:7] As the horses cannot abide that one so unlike them should be allowed to be part of their society (a representation of British racism and classism—attitudes demonstrated towards the Irish, the Native Americans and the Indians), Gulliver is banished. He has demonstrated that he can be reasonable—but also that he can be clumsy (after all, he is “only” human). The joke is that the British ruling class thought they were supra-human because of their civilized natures and that this gave them a right to determine who could live and who could die. The Irish could be allowed to starve to death because they were not civilized like the British and therefore were not human. The Native Americans could be run off their land and killed because they were not civilized like the British and therefore were not human. The Indians could be exploited and ruled because they were not civilized like the British and therefore were less than human. [7: Swift, chapter 10.]

Yet, the British could rape and pillage and plunder with the best of them—as Swift shows in Part IV when his sailing crew mutinies with the ambition being to become pirates. The life of piracy was their grand goal—and so what happened to the so-called qualities and characteristics of civilization that they were supposed to represent by virtue of their being British? They were gone, thrown overboard like Gulliver, in the blink of an eye. What Swift is showing in other words is that human nature has both Yahoo and Houyhnhnm in it. Indeed, Houyhnhnm and Yahoo are two sides of the same coin—one reveling in the lower nature and one reveling in the higher nature and neither considering that they are two in one substance and adopting a humbler or nobler perspective. The Houyhnhnms could stand for acquiring a little humility; the Yahoos for acquiring a little learning and nobility. In this manner they could meet in the middle, where they existed in the Old World, prior to the unwinding of centuries’ of thought, labor and development (which all went to seed during the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing Ages that followed, each in their own attempt to make sense of a world that had already been explained once before but that now needed a new explanation because the past and its lessons were no longer sufficient or good enough for the Enlightened Ones). The savages and the civilized were really not so different—the civilized just chose to be beastly towards those they deemed inferior, and in the process they made themselves to seem as morally deficient and bankrupt as the savages they despised.

Because the British ruled the world in the 18th century, their outlook was inherently prideful. The Houynhnhnms carry themselves in a similar bearing, which is attractive to Gulliver, who despises the lower impulses of human nature and those who demonstrate them—like the Yahoos. Gulliver’s desire to be with the horses at the end of the novel, upon his return to England, is Swift both making fun of Gulliver and making fun of the “civilized” people who think they are the best sort of people one should want to be around. No doubt, the antipathy of the Irish toward the English would tell another story.


Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels shows in Part IV that the British view of the world was that of the Houyhnhnms. Whoever was not a Houyhnhnm was a Yahoo. Houyhnhnms had culture and learning: they were civilized. They alone could rule the world. They alone had use of Reason. And, yet, oddly they had no ability to love or show real friendship that was not predicated on racist or classist views. In other words, the Houyhnhnms, aka the British, lacked a core component of the Christianity they used to espouse—charity. Swift thus depicted humanity as Yahoo-like but also as very much like the Houyhnhnms who demonstrated their great gift of reason in inappropriate pursuits of power and discrimination. Whereas the Old World Catholics had seen in the natives of America a group of people who could be educated and taught the faith, the English Protestants viewed the natives of America as savages who ought to be removed from the land and exterminated in whole so as not to pose a threat to English civility. Swift’s conclusion was that the English were the savages.


Rawson, Claude. “Gulliver, Travel, and Empire.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and

Culture 14, no. 5 (2012): 7.

Switf, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels.

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