Jonathan Swift's superior use of satire in Gulliver's Travels makes it one of the most subtle and thought provoking works of British literature. Although Swift's satire has numerous targets, the one he hits most often and most poignantly is that of the depravity of human nature. Humanity's arrogance, tendency toward corruption and lawlessness, and above all, its lack or misuse of reason, are all points upon which Swift's satire strikes. This diagnosis of the causes of the woes of mankind is best presented in Gulliver's travels to Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and the country of the Houyhnhnms. Here, many of the faults of human nature are examined, sometimes by very subtle yet effective means.
The moral superiority felt by many people is questioned and satirized throughout the four books of Gulliver's Travels. After some time in Brobdingnag, Gulliver is asked to recount, in considerable detail, the workings of European governments, especially that of Britain. Despite Gulliver's efforts to taint his description of the administration of his home country so that a more idyllic image is portrayed, the King of Brobdingnag detects the corruption of British politics and society:
But, by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, 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.
This stinging summation of the system of government is a very obvious statement as to its corrupt nature -- a corruptness that is inevitably the result of the depravity of the people who comprise the institution. Any false notions that Gulliver, or the reader had concerning the superiority of the British system of government are thoroughly dispelled by the arguments and questions that the King presents to Gulliver in his scrutinizing of the follies of this institution. This scene would be particularly significant to contemporary readers of Gulliver's Travels, who would be very familiar with the happenings of their government.
However, this is not the scene which best illustrates Swift's contempt for the arrogance of society and its people. That situation occurs shortly after the one previously discussed when Gulliver, in trying to over come his feelings of insignificance, attempts to make himself indispensable to the King by offering him a weapon of great magnitude: gun powder. Swift displays his mastery of satire here when Gulliver, trying to convince the King of all the benefits of this awesome powder, cites its most destructive and violent uses:
That we often put this powder into large hollow balls of iron, and discharged them by an engine into some city we were besieging, which would rip up the pavement, tear the houses to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every side, dashing out the brains of all who came near.
The King is appalled by Gulliver's audacity as to insinuate that, like a common European monarch, the King would be interested in a weapon so violent in nature and capable of such death and destruction. Thus, twice are the arrogant assumptions of Gulliver are refuted by the reasonable King of Brobdingnag.
Another way in which Swift demonstrates the arrogance of humanity is much more subtle and intricate than Gulliver's discourse with the King of Brobdingnag. This lengthy demonstration begins with Gulliver's sojourn in Lilliput. Throughout his stay in this land, Gulliver increasingly sees himself to be, not only physically, but morally superior to the Lilliputians. The justification for Gulliver's arrogance comes with the decision of the King of Lilliput and his ministers to punish Gulliver for his transgression of their law against urination on palace grounds. Gulliver, however, notes that in order to punish him, the Lilliputians must circumvent other laws, including one that the King describes as being the most important of all: the crime of ingratitude. The use of satirical irony here is impeccable because the Lilliputian ministers are perceived as jealous and vengeful, capable of using any means to achieve a favorable end, since they conveniently replace any feelings of gratitude that they might have toward Gulliver for sparing their country from invasion with feelings of injustice due to Gulliver's apparent disrespect toward their palace. Undoubtedly, this is another criticism of institutions that may operate without regard for guidelines they themselves established: hypocritical and unscrupulous administrations such as those which impeached Oxford and Bolingbroke, two of Swift's contemporaries, for high treason. However, Swift's brilliance and mastery of satire are demonstrated by the fact that the same man who felt so far above the Lilliputians is later portrayed as existing in a realm far below the morality of the Brobdingnagians, and even further below the Houyhnhnms. This discrepancy between Gulliver and the Brobdingnagians is aptly manifested in the difference in their sizes: the Brobdingnagians are superior to Gulliver physically as well as morally, in the same respect that Gulliver is superior to the Lilliputians. Also, the use of the character of Gulliver throughout the four books serves as a "benchmark" to which the morality and reason of any people he encounters can be compared.
Through the use of this "benchmark," the most potent criticism of European society is expressed in Gulliver's travels to the country of the Houyhnhnms. Their he encounters a simple society, governed solely by reason:
...he thought nature and reason were sufficient guides for a reasonable animal, as we pretended to be, in showing us what we ought to do, and what to avoid.
In this last book, Swift's call for the use of reason in the lives of his contemporaries and peers is best articulated. The Houyhnhnms are governed by reason in all aspects of life, and reason dictates that their actions and feelings should move them closer to their eventual goal of the betterment of their society. Thus, being reasonable creatures, they do not understand such corrupt concepts as deceitfulness, war, selfishness, or law. The tendency of humankind toward depravity becomes most clearly evident in this final book, where the degenerate yahoos, so long removed from a structured civilization, abandoned or perverted reason to such a degree that their actions were incomprehensible to the completely reasonable Houyhnhnms. Eventually, Gulliver comes to see the unfortunate truth that he is a member of a race of yahoos who live by a deformed conception of reason, and therefore are doomed to corruption.
"The satirist is to be regarded as our physician, not our enemy." These words, spoken by Henry Fielding, are an accurate depiction of the satire of Jonathan Swift. Through his sometimes subtle or obvious characterization of human depravity, Swift attempts to help diagnose the ailment of contemporary society. Although many of his examples are in the context of his time period, his argument for a society that is founded in reason is definately applicable to today's less than idyllic world.