One of the most important differences between humans and all other forms of life can be seen in our ability to think and rationalize our decisions and choices as humans. Without reason, we as humans would be no different than a cat or dog. God, in his infinite wisdom, blessed man with the ability to reason, but left it entirely up to us whether or not we choose to use it. Alexander Pope and Jonathon Swift, two prominent writers of the eighteenth century, take two very different approaches when it comes to the importance or insignificance of reason.
Pope chooses to argue that reason is the balancing factor in our lives and helps us to achieve the most possible success if we listen to its judgment. Swift, on the other hand, chooses to take reason to the extreme and show the effects of its very possible distortion. Although entirely different, these men show the very best and worst applications of reason. In Gullivers Travels, Jonathon Swift shows what happens when we place too much emphasis on reason. In his satire, Swift pokes fun at those who are consumed with the Enlightenment way of thinking.
He believes that to place reason in such high esteem is not as necessary as some are making it out to be. Although he seems to believe that reason has its place in our society and every day life, it is not the governing factor by which we should live. In Gullivers Travels we see what can happen when people loose touch with reason and the consequences that follow their decisions. In Gullivers third voyage to the island of Laputa, Swift pokes fun at those that are obsessed with learning science and abstract thought. He gives us a detailed account of the inhabitants lives and daily activities.
He begins to describe the Laputians physically by saying that they always have their head tilted to one side or another. He also talks of the eyes of the citizens. He claims that one is poked out, looking upward and the other is turned slightly inward. Swift satirizes their attention span as well. He tells that someone must follow the inhabitants around and continuously poke their ears or mouths because their attention span is so short and they must be remind to pay attention. He even goes as far as to make fun of the clothes they wear.
He tells that they are covered with musical instruments and various forms of celestial bodies. By referencing the Laputians clothing, Swift seems to be making fun of the importance placed on reason in England during the period of Enlightenment. He does not seem to think that reason is important at all or at least not to extent that others make it out to be. The other voyages in Gulliver’s Travels seemed strange for obvious reasons such as the drastic size difference of the inhabitants, but the voyage to Laputa is preposterous based on its sheer impracticality.
He finds it humorous how the inhabitants of the island can be so consumed with absolutely nothing. They spend their whole lives attempting to figure out seemingly impossible things. What they are concerned with is abstract thought and nothing that is even close to practical or concrete. The Laputians are so consumed with not doing anything practical that they even completely renounce right angles. The absence of right angles only limits them further in their ability to advance. Swift also makes fun og the inhabitants and their seeming obsession with language.
They seem to take it to the extreme when they assign a certain letter to certain parts of a machine, but then using different letters or symbols to describe the movements of these parts. Language is a fundamental element of any civilization, but Swift appears to believe that they are taking their language too far and he finds it ridiculous. Gulliver even becomes bored with his conversation with the inhabitants and desires to leave. In turn, the Laputians do not find him very interesting either and are more consumed with their own mathematics and music.
During the same voyage, Gulliver visits a nearby town where he learns there is an academy. The academy is a place where the inhabitants have been working for years and have not accomplished or achieved any new results. They are engaged in seemingly ridiculous and ludicrous acts that will not do anything to better the society or the lives of the citys people. The academy is nothing more then a distraction from real life. The people are obsessed with useless little projects while the real tragedy, the decay of the city, is taking place and no one seems to care.
Even if the academy were real, there would not be any gain that could come from their scientific foundations. It does nothing to promote the mind, but rather only fill it with useless information. Swift seems to use this to show that although these people were intelligent, they were not smart enough to realize their waste of time or that there was no reason for them to continue in their endeavors. What was even more surreal was the thought that this academy was in actual existence in England. Swift though it unnecessary for these kinds of scientific experiments to take place and thought it a waste of time.
Swift has already begun to distort the value of reason and its distortion on gets worse as the story continues. There is a point in the journey when Gulliver makes a trip to Glubbfubdrib where he is allowed to speak with historical figures such as Homer, Dante, and Aristotle. In most cases, these ancient authors are held in high esteem and most would consider it a great honor to have an occasion to speak with them, but it appears to do nothing for Gulliver. He does not elevate these people in the least and it seems as though he thinks of them much in the same way he would think of any man.
On his last visit to the neighboring town of Luggnagg, he encounters people that seek to gain eternal life. You would think that with age would come wisdom and knowledge, but these people have gained the opposite. Instead they become cynical and selfish. They become very bitter in their thought process and become a burden on the town. Reason is again poked fun at when Swift seems to simply say what is the point of reason? He seems to feel as if it gets you absolutely nowhere. He looks as if he is almost disgusted with the Laputians because they seem to be so stuck in the here and now.
He feels as if they are not intelligent enough to look past today and see how there actions today might affect them in the long run. The last voyage in Gullivers Travels is to a village that is populated by horse like creatures that are the dominant species. The Houyhnhnms, as they call themselves, have the ability to speak and are completely governed by reason. Swift seems to take reason to the ultimate extreme by granting it to animals and not man. This seems to be his very last dig at all those caught up in intellectual thinking and the Enlightenment. The humans in this voyage, called Yahoos, are without rule and are quite untamed.
Swift portrays the horses as intelligent creatures, much more so than the Yahoos. The irony in the story comes when Gulliver desires to stay and live among the horses. One would think that he would be anxious to leave and return to his own people, but the exact opposite is true. He seems to hold nothing but disdain and contempt for his own people now. The Yahoos are made out to be greedy and selfish and after Gulliver describes the people of England to his master, he tells Gulliver that the people of England and the Yahoos do not seem to be so different.
Much to the readers dismay, Gulliver comes to agree with his master. He seems to be losing some of the value that should be place on human life. During the previous voyages, we experience things through the eyes of Gulliver, but this last voyage forces the reader to examine Gulliver and what he has become. When Gulliver himself spends time with the Yahoos, he begins to view them in the same light as the horses. He sees their character as very fragile and ignorant. The Yahoos seem as if they are unable to learn anything.
Another odd thing about the Houyhnhnms is that they have no written language. A written language is important to most cultures but seems to make little difference to the horses. After a while on the island, Gullivers master is instructed not to keep Gulliver in the house because he is a yahoo. This is quite upsetting to Gulliver because he does not even want to be around people of his own kind. Having no choice, Gulliver is asked to leave. When he goes off to find a new island to call home he is rescued by a sailor named Don Pedro.
Gulliver can not stand to be around him. When he looks at him, he does not see a fellow man, but instead someone who is less than human, a Yahoo. Eventually upon his return to England, he buys two horses and talks to them for four hours a day. One might think that his ability to reason might come back, but he seems to have lost all touch with reality. During his stay with the Houyhnhnms, he believes himself to be only half as rational as they are. He never seems to questions the horses quality of life. What kind of life would it be to live like the horses?
To have a loveless marriage, mundane daily existence, and a relatively boring life does not seem to bother Gulliver at all. Alexander Popes Essay on Man takes on a completely different approach to reason than Jonathon Swift. To Pope, reason is something to be highly prized and is viewed as something that keeps us in check with our mind and body. We see Pope speak of reason mostly in the second epistle of his essay. Pope believes that man should focus the majority of his effort learning the ways of mankind. He does not seem to see the importance of learning such great detail regarding science.
Pope seems to believe that passion itself will rule man, but reason shall be its counselor: But when his own great work is but begun, What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone. (42) He seems to say that passion and desire will always be stronger, but we have reason as help to ensure that things do not get out of hand. Pope explains that there are two principles that govern human nature, self love and reason. He claims that the role of self love is to urge and that reason stands as a measure of restraint. If man was without reason there would be no order or law in the world.
Man would have no conscious and he would go after whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He says, Reasons comparing balance rules the whole. (60) This seems to signify the importance of having balance in our lives. In regards to Swift, the third island completely lacks the balancing part of reason. This balance is not present on the island of Laputa. The inhabitants become so consumed with their experiments that little else in their life matters to them. Pope shows us that we need reason to be able to think about the future and about what consequences our actions might have when he says, Reason, the future and consequence. 74)
Although we know that passion and self love are stronger, reason still enters the picture and many times wins. Without reason, man would do what was good for him at the moment and would never think about the future. Self love and reason are not completely different as we see when Pope says, Self- love and Reason to one end aspire, Pain their aversion, Pleasure their desire. (87) Pope says that we can indulge our selfish desires such as studying science or religion, but we should put more effort into trying to understand ourselves. Like Swift in repeating the excess of reason, Pope reiterates the necessity of reason.
He says that reason keeps us on the right path and he seems to imply without it we would be lost and over indulgent of our passions. Love, Hope, and Joy, fair pleasures smiling train, Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of pain: These mixd with art and to due bounds confind, Make and maintain the balance of the mind. (117) In relation to Swift on the island with the horses, their world lacks those basic, very important aspects. Their lives are mundane and repetitious. Pope implies that without the balance of good and bad, the mind would not live up to its full potential and not be functioning properly.
Pope also describes reason as a weak queen. Reason stands as a type of sounding board. It does not tell us what to do or what path to take, but rather what in the end will be best. In regards to Swift again, the third island seems to completely disregard this idea. They do not think about their action in practical ways, but instead just go about their lives without thinking of the future. Pope seems to very concerned with making clear that reason is not a guide, but rather a guard. (162) We as humans do not listen to reason perhaps as often as we should and as a result, we suffer the consequences.
Reason is not an absolute. If we choose to listen to reason, that is our choice as it is not forced upon us. Reason is what sets us apart from all other species. When Swift takes reason away from the humans (Yahoos) in the last voyage, he removes a defining human characteristic. Pope also points out a very good point when saying, The same ambition can destroy or save, and make a patriot as it makes a knave. (201) Whatever we do with our lives results from our ambition. If we are content doing nothing with our lives that is own choice. Reason does not interfere with this decision.
It is left to us whether we choose to use reason or cast it to the wayside. Although written in the same time period, these two men have two seemingly opposing views regarding the importance of reason in daily life. Swift gives us a rather humorous, but disturbing account of what happens with both the lack and misplacement of reason. He shows us how twisted our minds can get and how we can be completely consumed with things that make no sense. He also shows how easily we can loose ourselves if we begin to just accept what goes on around us.
Pope shows us the importance of having reason and how it serves as a guard for the ultimate fulfillment of our lives as both humans and individuals. Without the ability to reason, we would make many mistakes and would quite possibly be very disappointed in ourselves and in the way our lives turn out. He presents man as unique with only humans having the ability to reason. He also shows the importance of free choice showing that we ourselves chose whether or not we listen to reason. Animals merely give into their passions, but man has a choice.
Overall I must say that I enjoyed both of these interesting, insightful and quite disturbing accounts of the importance of reason and what happens when it no longer used. I would have to say that I enjoyed reading Popes account of the importance of reason much more, but Swift was also quite interesting. It amazes me how two men are able to look at one principle and interpret it in two completely different manners. Whether we choose to value reason or cast it aside, I have learned we must be careful not to take it to either extreme, for therein the problems lie.