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What does it mean that Swift models the rational non-humans of Gulliver’s Travels on horses, instead of other animals? Taking up this question, I argue that part 4 confronts readers with the incongruity between traditional admiration of horses as the noblest animals and their systematic exploitation as beasts of burden. To set Swift’s perspective in relief, I compare his satire with representations of horses in natural histories by Topsell, Jonstonus, and Buffon, as well as an equestrian manual by William Cavendish. While the exploitation of noble horses does not disturb Topsell or Jonstonus, Buffon’s text betrays signs of anxiety, which it nevertheless attempts to suppress. Cavendish, meanwhile, asserts that the human/horse hierarchy must be enforced with continual vigilance precisely because of the horse’s signal nobility. In contrast, Swift exposes attitudes toward horses as intolerably contradictory. Crucially, Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm master’s conversation about the treatment of horses emphasizes the disparity between their admiration and abasement. Swift offers an example of more logically consistent justifications for exploitation in characterizations of the Yahoos, but it is unclear whether the text advocates better treatment for horses (to accord with their status as the noblest animals) or debunks idealizations of horses (to produce a more compelling rationalization for exploitation). Although I distinguish Swift’s perspective on horses from modern arguments for the ethical treatment of animals, I conclude by suggesting that Gulliver’s Travels, in its resistance to modern paradigms, provides a vantage point from which we might undertake a radical re-evaluation of the human/animal relationship.


attitudes toward horses, ethical treatment of animals, Gulliver’s Travels, Houyhnhnms, Edward Topsell, Joannes Jonstonus, William Cavendish, Jonathan Swift, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon

As Gulliver recounts his surprising discovery of a species of rational equines in part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), readers make the parallel discovery of an interpretative dilemma that demands and resists explication: what does it mean that Jonathan Swift models his rational non-humans on horses, instead of (for instance) dogs, parrots, or monkeys?1 The question is especially urgent because Swift structures Gulliver’s Travels to culminate in interrogation of the human/animal relationship. Only in part 4 does it become apparent how the human form has operated tacitly—and, it turns out, fallaciously—as an index of rationality throughout the previous voyages. Gulliver makes this point as he answers the master Houyhnhnm’s questions about his ship:

I went on by assuring him, that the Ship was made by Creatures like myself, who in all the Countries I had travelled, as well as in my own, were the only governing, rational Animals; and that upon my Arrival hither, I was as much astonished to see the Houyhnhnms act like rational Beings, as he or his Friends could be in finding some Marks of Reason in a Creature he was pleased to call a Yahoo.2

It is easy to see that Swift could have used a rational variety of any familiar animal species in order to provoke Gulliver’s re-evaluation of human/animal distinctions. Swift chooses, however, to imagine rational horses, and the implications of that choice call out for interpretation.

The difficulties of providing such an interpretation can be illustrated by considering two classic and enduringly valuable essays, which have helped readers to appreciate Gulliver’s Travels as an intervention in debates about the definition of the human but which have not satisfactorily accounted for the horse-like qualities of the Houyhnhnms. Influentially, R. S. Crane has argued that the Houyhnhnm/Yahoo relationship inverts definitions of humans and animals from logic books that Swift studied at Trinity College, in which the [End Page 23] horse appears as the favored example of the irrational animals and the primary foil of the human, the rational animal.3 Although Crane’s essay provides an intellectual history for the Houyhnhnms (and Yahoos), the Houyhnhnm/horse resemblance still seems inadequately explained because the logic books pose the same interpretative dilemma as the literary text: no less than Swift’s decision to explore human nature in relation to the horse, rather than another species, the deployment of the horse in logic books demands explication.4 Drawing on the work of Crane and others, Irvin Ehrenpreis places part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels within a broader context of debates about the definition of the human, especially in the philosophy and correspondence of John Locke. Despite the merits of Ehrenpreis’s essay, his argument that the Houyhnhnms represent a moral standard that humans are constitutionally incapable of achieving arrives at a vague conclusion: “We may replace the equine symbol by what ideal we please.”5 Ehrenpreis thus attempts to account for the non-humanity of the Houyhnhnms without accounting for their horse-like status.6

A more compelling interpretation of the Houyhnhnms can be achieved by considering the distinctive place of the horse in eighteenth-century English culture. In one of the earliest commentaries on part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels, Patrick Delany writes, “next to man, a horse is generally allowed the noblest animal of the inferior world.”7 The commonplace view to which Delany refers imagines the horse in dignified—even aristocratic—terms. Such admiration seems strangely oblivious to the abjection of horses as members of what Rosi Braidotti would call England’s “zooproletariat.”8 While both oxen and horses commonly serve as animal laborers around 1500, the horse emerges as England’s primary beast of burden by 1750.9 As Peter Edwards writes, “Mankind exploited horses in numerous ways, to the extent that early modern society would not have functioned very effectively without them.”10 Significantly, Gulliver’s Travels is published at a time of wide disparity between admiration of the horse as the noblest animal and the exploitation of horses for menial labor.

While others have read Gulliver’s Travels in terms of the contradiction between equine nobility and exploitation, they have described nobility as the characteristic of particular types or breeds of horses.11 I propose instead to situate equine nobility, in terms of the commonplace mentioned by Delany and more authoritatively documented in natural histories, as the property of horses as a species. I argue that a major satiric function of part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels is to confront readers with the incongruity between traditional beliefs about horses and their systematic exploitation; thus, Swift exposes the human/horse relationship as hypocritical, incoherent, and contradictory. To highlight how Swift’s satire attempts to bring about this recognition, I analyze other important representations of the noble horse before proceeding to a reading of Gulliver’s Travels. While seventeenth-and eighteenth-century natural histories tend to use the horse’s nobility to naturalize and justify exploitation, an equestrian manual by William Cavendish argues that the subjugation of horses must be enforced [End Page 24] with continual vigilance precisely because of the horse’s high degree of nobility. Setting Swift’s perspective in relief, these texts exemplify attitudes that Swift would reject.

While Swift’s satire exposes contradictions in attitudes toward horses, it admits an ambivalent response: it is unclear whether Swift’s text advocates better treatment for horses (to accord with their status as the noblest animals) or undermines idealizations of horses (to produce a more compelling rationalization for exploitation). In the final section of my essay, I consider the Houyhnhnms in relation to modern paradigms for thinking about the ethical treatment of animals. As Laura Brown writes, “Since the eighteenth century, . . . literary animals have inspired modes of thought that question conventional hierarchies, and they have projected such questions into the modern debate about the status of animals.”12 I would suggest that we can improve our understanding of both Gulliver’s Travels and the humane movement if we attend to ways in which Gulliver’s Travels resists modern paradigms. Although a better understanding of the Houyhnhnms cannot resolve modern controversies about the ethical treatment of animals, Swift’s satire provides a vantage point from which we can glimpse the limits of modern thought and begin the difficult task of imagining what lies beyond them.


As Gulliver concludes his travelogue, he promises “to lament the Brutality of Houyhnhnms in my own Country, but always treat their Persons with Respect, for the Sake of my noble Master, his Family, his Friends, and the whole Houyhnhnm Race, whom these of ours have the Honour to resemble in all their Lineaments, however their Intellectuals came to degenerate” (443). Although Gulliver suggests that horses are ennobled by their resemblance to Houyhnhnms, nobility is one of the most essential characteristics of the horse in natural histories as early as Edward Topsell’s Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607). Proving remarkably enduring, the idea of the noble horse reappears in other important natural histories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Joannes Jonstonus’s Historiæ naturalis de quadrupedibus (1650) and Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, published in successive volumes beginning in 1749. While the exploitation of noble horses seems not to disturb Topsell or Jonstonus, Buffon’s text betrays signs of anxiety, especially in its oscillation between encomiastic assertions of equine nobility and tragic images of equine servitude. Buffon, however, attempts to paper over such contradictions, unlike Swift, who confronts readers with the necessity of rethinking attitudes toward horses.

Topsell’s entry on the horse begins with high but peculiar praise: “we must needes account it the most noble and necessary creature of all foure-footed-beasts, before whom no one for multitude and generality of good qualities is to [End Page 25] be preferred, compared or equaled, whose commendations shal appeare in the whole discourse following.”13 In this passage, noble both positions the horse as an aristocrat among the quadrupeds and expresses moral approbation of the horse for its service to humans. Topsell also invokes a less familiar definition of noble: “having qualities or properties of a very high or admirable kind. Freq. in the comparative and superlative, denoting superiority to other things of the same name.”14 The evaluation, ranking, and praise of the horse above other creatures reinforce the sense that the horse enjoys aristocratic privilege. The word necessary, however, refers to the wide variety of menial labor that horses perform. When Topsell calls the horse “the most noble and necessary creature,” he yokes together admiration of the horse’s nobility and acknowledgment of its servile role, as though he does not consider that the horse’s high position in a hierarchy of animals would preclude the horse from labor.

Topsell seems to find the exploitation of horses entirely consistent with equine nobility. He writes, for instance, that the horse has “a Noble spirit, the principal wherof is a loving and dutifull inclination to the service of man.”15 Elisabeth LeGuin has claimed that “Characterizations of horses as noble and quasi-human” arise from their “extremely resourceful resistance to subjection, a quality long associated with moral integrity in humans.”16 For Topsell, in contrast, the horse’s nobility consists in obedience to humans. As he subsequently declares, “the naturall constitution of a Horsse, is whot and temperate. Whot, because of his Levity, and Velocity, and length of life; temperate because he is docible, pleasant, and gentle towardes his maister and keeper.”17 The crucial but now obsolete word docible means “apt to be taught; teachable, docile; submissive to teaching or training, tractable.”18 Paradoxically, Topsell estimates equine nobility so highly because of the horse’s supposedly natural propensity to serve humans, not in spite of it.

Almost fifty years later, Jonstonus’s natural history offers a similar account of equine nobility. In the first entry, he writes, “wee begin with the Horse, which hath the preeminence among the labouring beasts.”19 Once again, the horse occupies a strange position of both exaltation and abjection. Even as Jonstonus acknowledges the horse’s reputation as a particularly noble animal, he takes for granted that horses labor in the service of humans. Like Topsell, Jonstonus claims that horses are naturally obedient: “Unto their inward sences, their witt, teachablenesse, memory, love, and faithfulnesse towards their masters, chastity, and courage doe belong.”20 For Jonstonus, admiring equine nobility is tantamount to celebrating qualities that are supposed to facilitate subordination and exploitation.

What makes the continuity between Topsell and Jonstonus especially remarkable is that historians of science have argued that Jonstonus’s work marks a shift to a new paradigm of natural history. Following Michel Foucault, William B. Ashworth describes the shift as a transition from viewing living creatures as symbols for interpretation to viewing them as objects for classification.21 [End Page 26] Foucault uses Jonstonus’s entry on the horse to exemplify the claim: “The whole of animal semantics has disappeared.”22 It is true that taxonomic concerns differentiate Jonstonus from Topsell: while Topsell organizes his entries alphabetically, Jonstonus organizes his entries into groups of anatomically similar animals. But a closer reading suggests that a significant amount of animal symbolism persists in Jonstonus’s work. Traditional conceptions of equine nobility not only shape his characterization of the horse but also help to determine the placement of its entry at the beginning of Jonstonus’s natural history.

The location of Buffon’s entry on the horse is similarly overdetermined. Buffon’s natural history proceeds from the entry on the human in volumes two and three (1749) to the entry on the horse in volume four (1753), with only (excepting Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton’s contributions) a general discussion of animals and a more specific introduction to domesticated animals in between.23 As Phillip Sloan explains, Buffon rejects the taxonomic approach of his contemporary Linnaeus and chooses instead to organize living things according to their degree of familiarity.24 The meaning of Buffon’s juxtaposition of human and horse cannot be explained by his method alone, however, as is abundantly clear from the very beginning of the entry on the horse: “The reduction of the horse to a domestic state, is the greatest acquisition [La plus noble conquête] from the animal world, which was ever made by the art and industry of man. This noble animal [ce fier & fougueux animal] partakes of the fatigues of war, and seems to feel the glory of victory.”25 Inflected by the language of martial heroism, Buffon’s opening account of the noble horse imagines it simultaneously in triumph and defeat.

While Buffon initially suggests that the subjugation of such a noble creature redounds to the credit of humans, later passages reveal considerable anxiety about the exploitation of horses. For instance, Buffon presents the domesticated horse as the subject of tragedy:

When employed in labour, he is always covered with the harness; and, even during the time destined for repose, he is never entirely delivered from bonds. If sometimes permitted to roam in the pasture, he always bears the marks of servitude, and often the external impressions of labour and pain. His mouth is deformed by the perpetual friction of the bit; his sides are galled with wounds, or furrowed with cicatrices; and his hoofs are pierced with nails.26

In addition to acknowledging the suffering of horses, the passage emphasizes the indignities of exploitation. It stands in stark contrast to the subsequent encomium on wild horses:

Examine those horses which have multiplied so prodigiously in Spanish America, and live in perfect freedom. Their motions are neither constrained nor measured. Proud of their independence, they fly from the presence of man, and disdain all [End Page 27] his care. They search for, and procure the food that is most salutary and agreeable. They wander and frisk about in immense meadows, and collect the fresh productions of a perpetual spring. Without any fixed habitation, or other shelter than a serene sky, they breathe a purer air than in those musty vaults in which we confine them, when subjected to our dominion. Hence wild horses are stronger, lighter, and more nervous than most of those which are in a domestic state. The former possess force and dignity [noblesse], which are the gifts of Nature; the latter have only address and gracefulness, which are all that art can bestow.27

This description of wild horses continues the tradition of admiring horses as especially noble animals, but unlike Topsell and Jonstonus, Buffon does not believe that serving humans befits equine nobility. Instead, he finds the fullest manifestation of equine nobility in the autonomous existence of wild horses. Especially upon comparison, the above passages suggest that the use of horses as beasts of burden is incompatible with their noble nature. Although Buffon begins by celebrating the subjugation of horses, he turns out to have compunctions about the exploitation of such purportedly noble animals.

Another example of these compunctions occurs in one of Buffon’s most striking assertions of equine nobility. Buffon writes that the horse “elevates his head, as if anxious to exalt himself above the condition of quadrupeds. In this noble attitude, he regards man face to face.”28 Imagining the horse in a liminal position between quadrupedal animals and the bipedal human, Buffon suggests that the horse resents not only its subordination but also its subhuman status. The rapprochement between human and noble horse, emblematized in a reciprocal gaze, calls into question the appropriateness of the horse’s use as a beast of burden.

Buffon does not, however, consistently advocate better treatment of horses; on the contrary, he often attempts to justify their exploitation. Despite his characterization of wild horses, Buffon declares “horses to be naturally of gentle dispositions, and much disposed to associate with man.”29 In direct contradiction to the passage about the horse’s uplifted head, Buffon insists that horses “seem uniformly to prefer bondage to liberty.”30 For Louise E. Robbins, Buffon provides an important example of newly incoherent attitudes toward animals in eighteenth-century France: “Alongside language lauding domination and domestication, a contradictory strain became widespread in the eighteenth century—often in the very same texts—that portrayed animals as victims of the human race and exalted the freedom and independence of wild creatures.”31 I would suggest that such contradictions are especially pronounced in Buffon’s discussion of the horse because of the extreme disparity between admiration of equine nobility and the treatment that horses typically receive. Although post-dating Gulliver’s Travels, Buffon’s natural history provides an instructive contrast with Swift’s satire because of the way that Buffon struggles to repress contradictions, unrecognized as such in earlier natural histories. [End Page 28]

When Gulliver praises the Houyhnhnms as “admirable” (388) or “noble” (401), or when Gulliver claims that horses participate in the Houyhnhnms’ nobility by virtue of the form that they share (443), he seems comically oblivious to the horse’s reputation as the noblest animal—even as it becomes apparent that Swift extrapolates the Houyhnhnms from such ideas. This intertextual relationship to natural histories enables an ambiguous reading of Gulliver’s final perspective on horses. Swift either critiques the exploitation of horses by making it appear hypocritical or debunks the idea of the noble horse through comical exaggeration. In the first case, readers should join Gulliver in treating horses like Houyhnhnms because of beliefs that horses themselves are noble beings; in the second case, readers should reject Gulliver’s new attitude as the reductio ad absurdum of admiration of equine nobility. Either way, Gulliver’s Travels departs from representations of horses in natural histories by imagining the exploitation of noble horses as a contradiction demanding resolution.


William Cavendish’s equestrian manual, La méthode nouvelle et invention extraordinaire de dresser les chevaux (1658), which eventually appears in English as the first volume of A General System of Horsemanship (1743), also helps to demonstrate the distinctiveness of Swift’s satire because Cavendish refuses to naturalize the subordination of the noble horse even though he wholeheartedly endorses it.32 Whether or not Swift read Cavendish’s text, examining its statements on equine nobility, intelligence, and labor can increase our understanding of early modern views of horses—and thus our appreciation of the meanings of the Houyhnhnms’ resemblance to horses, rather than other animals.33

Cavendish makes his crucial statement on equine nature in a section entitled “The Epitome of Horsemanship.” From his uniquely authoritative position as England’s preeminent horse trainer,34 Cavendish writes, “the horse being, after man, the most noble of all animals (for he is as much superior to all other creatures as man is to him, and therefore holds a sort of middle place between man and the rest of the creation) he is wise and subtile; for which reason man ought carefully to preserve his empire over him, knowing how nearly that wisdom and subtility approaches his own.”35 Esteeming the horse even more highly than the natural historians do, Cavendish defines the horse’s signal nobility in terms of its approximation of human intelligence and places the horse just beneath the human in his version of the chain of being. Although Cavendish has no qualms about enforcing the human/horse hierarchy, he views the horse’s intelligence as a threat to human mastery, instead of claiming that subordination is an aspect of the horse’s noble nature.

Cavendish’s high estimate of equine intelligence not only shapes his attitude to the subordination of horses but also brings him into conflict with Rene Descartes. In a letter to Cavendish dated 23 November 1646, Descartes attempts [End Page 29] to account for the phenomenon of animal training in terms of his mechanistic view of animals. He primarily addresses the case of the talking bird because of his belief that thought reveals itself only in “words, or other signs that are relevant to particular topics without expressing any passion.”36 Nevertheless, Descartes includes the horse among his cast of remarkably teachable—but nevertheless unthinking—animals:

If you teach a magpie to say good-day to its mistress, when it sees her approach, this can only be by making the utterance of this word the expression of one of its passions. For instance it will be an expression of the hope of eating, if it has always been given a titbit when it says it. Similarly, all the things which dogs, horses, and monkeys are taught to perform are only expressions of their fear, their hope, or their joy; and consequently they can be performed without any thought.37

Once Descartes has addressed the case of animals capable of imitating human speech, he even more confidently dismisses the intelligence of horses and other commonly trained animals, who lack the human capacity for language in more obvious ways than magpies.

Cavendish’s equestrian manual publicly refutes Descartes’s views. On his authority as a trainer, Cavendish asserts that the horse’s teachableness explodes Descartes’s theories:

If he does not think (as the famous philosopher DES CARTES affirms of all beasts) it would be impossible to teach him what he should do. But by the hope of reward, and fear of punishment; when he has been rewarded or punished, he thinks of it, and retains it in his memory (for memory is thought) and forms a judgment by what is past of what is to come (which again is thought;) insomuch that he obeys his rider not only for fear of correction, but also in hopes of being cherish’d. But these are things so well known to a complete horseman, that it is needless to say more on this subject.38

Cavendish agrees with Descartes that “hope of reward” and “fear of punishment” motivate animals; but he argues that reward and punishment affect the horse’s behavior because they provoke rational thought. The parenthetical asides noting manifestations of equine “thought” give the impression of Cavendish administering corrections to Descartes, the subject of the first parenthetical aside. The passage thus suggests that Descartes, no less than the horse, requires instruction—and discipline—from the trainer.

Unlike Descartes, Cavendish attributes little importance to the linguistic limitations of horses. He writes, “altho’ horses do not form their reasonings from the ABC, . . . they draw their reasonings from things themselves.”39 Despite the prominence of language in human education, evoked by the reference to the alphabet, Cavendish compares the horse to a human pupil: “the horse is [End Page 30] dress’d in the same manner that children are taught to read. The horse is taught first to know, and then by frequent repetition to convert that knowledge into habit. It is in like manner in what men learn.”40 While Descartes distinguishes the horse’s teachableness from the human’s rationality, Cavendish argues that the horse’s teachableness attests to its human-like rationality. Indeed, his approach to horse training is predicated on equine rationality: as Cavendish insists, “a horse’s reason is to be wrought upon.”41 In this way, Cavendish makes the noble horse the crux of debates about the line between human and animal intelligence.

Cavendish’s belief in the similarity of humans and horses entails an attitude toward exploitation differing significantly from that of the natural historians. He writes, “force subdues men, as well as beasts. If the wisest man in the world were taken by a savage people, and put to draw in a cart proportion’d to his strength, and if he were beaten when he refused to do his duty, would not he draw just as a horse does when he is threaten’d?”42 In this imaginary but instructive scenario, even “the wisest man in the world” behaves just like a horse when treated as a beast of burden. By putting an exemplary human in the horse’s position, Cavendish does not invert the human/horse hierarchy, for the human serves “a savage people,” not a species of rational equines like Swift’s Houyhnhnms. Nevertheless, the substitution of human for horse drives home Cavendish’s point that docile obedience is a rational response to the threat of violence—not an aspect of the horse’s noble nature, as the natural historians would have it.


While Cavendish differs from the natural historians in that he does not naturalize the horse’s subordination, he differs from Swift in that he questions neither the horse’s reputation as the noblest animal nor the appropriateness of exploiting such a noble creature. One of the distinctive effects of Swift’s text is that it generates a perspective from which attitudes toward horses appear intolerably contradictory, such that they must be rethought.

The crucial passage is the account of the treatment of horses that Gulliver delivers to the Houyhnhnm master. Gulliver recalls this excruciating experience:

I owned, that the Houyhnhnms among us, whom we called Horses, were the most generous and comely Animal we had; that they excelled in Strength and Swiftness; and when they belonged to Persons of Quality, employed in Travelling, Racing, and drawing Chariots, they were treated with much Kindness and Care, till they fell into Diseases, or became foundered in the Feet; but then they were sold, and used to all kind of Drudgery till they died; after which their Skins were stripped and sold for what they were worth, and their Bodies left to be devoured by Dogs and Birds of Prey. But the common Race of Horses had not so good Fortune, being [End Page 31] kept by Farmers and Carriers, and other mean People, who put them to greater Labour, and feed them worse. I described as well as I could, our Way of Riding; the Shape and Use of a Bridle, a Saddle, a Spur, and a Whip; of Harness and Wheels. I added, that we fastened Plates of a certain hard Substance called Iron at the Bottom of their Feet, to preserve their Hoofs from being broken by the Stony Ways on which we often travelled.


This passage constellates attitudes toward horses around the two opposite poles of admiration and abasement. By framing the treatment of horses in terms of indignities to which they are subjected, Gulliver generates a sense of contradiction between the horse’s reputation as the noblest animal, to which he alludes at the beginning, and the treatment of horses that he subsequently describes.

The statement about horse carcasses suggests that Gulliver is concerned not only with the suffering of horses but also with the theme of abjection, which unites his negative examples. Significantly, horses meet what the heroes of classical epic regard as a fate worse than death. For instance, in Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715–20), Achilles taunts the dying Hector: “Thee, Birds shall mangle, and the Dogs devour.”43 References to scavenging birds and dogs recur in passages about the defilement of warriors’ corpses throughout The Iliad.44 Echoing the formula, Gulliver claims that the noblest animals routinely undergo the degradation from which Hector’s body is, ultimately, saved. As with Gulliver’s other examples, a main effect is to open a chasm between beliefs about horses and their treatment.

This passage’s contradictions are generated again—and thus intensified—in its context. After Gulliver finishes his account, the Houyhnhnm master responds with “some Expressions of great Indignation” (356). He thus takes the treatment of horses as an affront to his own equine nobility. Gulliver later relates, “it is impossible to express his noble Resentment at our savage Treatment of the Houyhnhnm Race; particularly after I had explained the Manner and Use of Castrating Horses among us, to hinder them from propagating their Kind, and to render them more servile” (356–57). Extrapolating the Houyhnhnm master’s “great Indignation” and “noble Resentment” from the idea of the noble horse, Swift turns representations of the horse against themselves by having an exaggeratedly noble equine condemn the use of horses as beasts of burden. Whether or not readers share the Houyhnhnm master’s outrage, it reiterates the contradictions that Gulliver acknowledges and finds embarrassing.

In his society’s defense, Gulliver resorts to the argument that the horse’s teachableness differs qualitatively from the rationality of humans and Houyhnhnms, but comically, this explanation does little to excuse the contradictions that have become conspicuous in Gulliver’s conversation with the Houyhnhnm master. Gulliver makes the following case about horses: “they were indeed sensible of Rewards and Punishments; but his Honour would please to consider, that they had not the least Tincture of Reason any more than the Yahoos in this [End Page 32] Country” (356). This argument resembles the Cartesian view in acknowledging that horses are responsive to “Rewards and Punishments” while claiming that they utterly lack “Reason.” As Gulliver reports, the Houyhnhnm master has a corresponding opinion of him: the Houyhnhnm master wonders “how I was taught to imitate a rational Creature” (349, my italics). While Timothy J. Reiss and Richard Nash have each argued that the Houyhnhnms conceptualize intelligence in terms of teachableness, I suggest that the Houyhnhnm master distinguishes Gulliver’s teachableness from the Houyhnhnms’ rationality and thereby assumes a perspective analogous to that of Descartes.45 The inadequacy of the master Houyhnhnm’s perspective on Gulliver casts doubt on Gulliver’s perspective on horses, which is already weak as an explanation for the horse’s simultaneous exaltation and abjection. As Swift seems to join Cavendish in refuting Descartes, Gulliver provides a manifestly ineffective defense of the exploitation of Europe’s preeminently noble animal.

Swift provides an example of more logically consistent justifications for exploitation in characterizations of the Yahoos, who perform many of the same kinds of labor as horses. While natural historians praise horses for their teachableness and for their noble willingness to serve humans, the Houyhnhnms regard the Yahoos as almost entirely “indocible” (408) and “averse from Labour” (422). One Houyhnhnm explains that the Houyhnhnms have “brought them [the Yahoos] to such a Degree of Tameness, as an Animal so savage by Nature can be capable of acquiring; using them for Draught and Carriage” (409). Gulliver reaches a similar conclusion: “By what I could discover, the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all Animals, their Capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry Burthens” (399). Such characterizations of the Yahoos indicate that the tasks of the beast of burden befit only the most unintelligent and ignoble animals. The Houyhnhnms have rarely, if ever, made any species other than the Yahoo serve as beasts of burden—not even the ass, which one Houyhnhnm describes as “a comely Animal, easily kept, more tame and orderly, without any offensive Smell, strong enough for Labour” (409). By contrast with attitudes toward the Yahoos, attitudes toward horses appear so contradictory as to be untenable. It is unclear, however, whether the Yahoos function as a model for more logical justifications for exploitation or whether they dramatize the hypocrisy entailed in exploiting the noblest animals for menial tasks.


Surveying Swift criticism, Erin Mackie has sought to “underscore the explanatory advantage the perspective from modernity affords scholars as they attempt to account for Swift’s wizardry.”46 While it is true that such scholarship has improved our understanding of Swift’s works, I want to suggest that Gulliver’s Travels resists modern paradigms in ways that have the potential to [End Page 33] unsettle them. Critics who have evaluated part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels in relation to the rise of interest in the ethical treatment of animals have tended to emphasize continuity with modern advocacy. Arguing that Swift has “proleptically arrived at the literary and narrative structures of an age with a different attitude to animals,” Sarah Wintle calls part 4, though with some qualifications, “a prototypical text in the animal rights movement.”47 Ann Cline Kelly similarly writes, “at the end of his narrative, Gulliver takes up a position that PETA could approve.”48 I would suggest instead that Swift’s satire resists modern assumptions about the ethical treatment of animals and thus has the potential to provide a new vantage on them.

Modern arguments for animal welfare almost invariably begin from premises about the ontological status of animals.49 This pattern is evident already in Jeremy Bentham’s influential assertion that, with animals, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?50 Continuing the utilitarian tradition, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) belabors a distinction between animals and objects after citing Bentham’s famous question: “A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer.”51 In The Case for Animal Rights (1983), meanwhile, Tom Regan proposes that a creature has “inherent value” if it meets his “subject-of-a-life criterion,” which requires a creature to have certain psychological faculties.52 Addressing limitations of earlier theories, Martha C. Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006) continues to emphasize the ontological status of animals: her “capabilities approach,” she writes, “wants to see each thing flourish as the sort of thing it is.”53 Despite significant differences among these theories, they all begin from premises about the nature of animals, as though such premises are fundamental to the modern engagement with animal welfare.

Staging an encounter between modern perspectives and the perspective on horses in Gulliver’s Travels sets in relief their differing assumptions and limitations, but it also opens avenues for reimagining animals outside of existing paradigms. From the vantage point of the humane movement, which aspires to advocate for animals on their own behalf, we can—and should—doubt the extent to which Swift’s text is concerned with real animals at all. The reason is not just that the text can be read to suggest a more compelling justification for exploitation; more importantly, the contrary reading merely leverages beliefs that horses are the noblest animals against justifications for exploitation, instead of suggesting that all animals deserve better treatment regardless of how they are viewed. Whereas modern philosophers of animal welfare have attempted to ground their arguments on essential truths about animals, the materials of Swift’s satire are attitudes toward horses in eighteenth-century Europe. A consequence is that Swift’s perspective on horses cannot necessarily be generalized to other animals or cultural contexts. Thus, at the same time that we gain a better understanding of what it means that Swift models his rational non-humans on horses, we also see that he is not making anything like a modern argument for animal welfare. [End Page 34]

From the vantage point of part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels, however, the animal welfare movement’s premises begin to seem strange or even suspect. If it seems intuitive that the humane movement should rely on claims about animal ontology, then a text with another paradigm, like Gulliver’s Travels, can give us access to an external perspective from which to perceive and assess a feature of modern thought. We might begin to wonder whether premises about animal nature really are a more certain foundation for ethics than the beliefs about horses that Swift presents in contradiction with exploitation. Debates about animal welfare are frequently caught at an impasse as proponents attempt to prove their claims about animal nature while opponents reject such claims as anthropomorphizing mystifications. In its resistance to modern paradigms, part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels challenges us to question the terms of such debates—and to undertake a radical re-evaluation of the human/animal relationship.

Bryan Alkemeyer
The College of Wooster
Bryan Alkemeyer

BRYAN ALKEMEYER is Assistant Professor of English at the College of Wooster. His book project, “Shapes of Reason: Animals, Metamorphoses, and Natural History before the Rise of the Ape,” shows how rational elephants, indulgent pigs, political honeybees, and noble horses undermine speciesism more than apes until the eighteenth century.


For comments and suggestions on drafts, I am grateful to Laura Brown, Fredric Bogel, Neil Saccamano, Rayna Kalas, Jenny Mann, Ian Duncan, Julia Saville, Maria Teresa Micaela Prendergast, Laura Burch, India Mandelkern, Grant Johnson, Antonia Leotsakos, anonymous reviewers, and the editors from The Eighteenth Century.

1. I name these animals as alternative possibilities because Laura Brown has shown them to function in the eighteenth century as “the collective protagonist of a cultural fable that explores the nature of being in relation to humanity” (“The Orangutang, the Lap Dog, and the Parrot: The Fable of the Nonhuman Being,” in Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century [Ithaca, 2001], 221–65, 223).

2. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels [1726], ed. David Womersley (Cambridge, 2012), 353. Subsequent citations appear parenthetically in the text.

3. R. S. Crane, “The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas,” in Reason and the Imagination: Studies in the History of Ideas, 1600–1800, ed. Joseph Anthony Mazzeo (New York, 1962), 231–53, 243–50.

4. For a discussion of problems with using historical documents to explicate literary texts, see Jean E. Howard, “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (1986): 13–43, esp. 18, 24–27.

5. Irvin Ehrenpreis, “The Meaning of Gulliver’s Last Voyage,” Review of English Literature 3 (1962): 18–38, 37.

6. The same point could be made about Terry J. Castle’s argument in “Why the Houyhnhnms Don’t Write: Swift, Satire, and the Fear of the Text,” Essays in Literature 7 (1980): 31–44, esp. 41–42.

7. Patrick Delany, Observations upon Lord Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (London, 1754), 165.

8. Rosi Braidotti, “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA 124, no. 2 (2009): 526–32, 528.

9. Peter Edwards, Horse and Man in Early Modern England (London, 2007), 183–85, 209.

10. Edwards, 241.

11. See Gene Washington, “Natural Horses → the Noble Horse → Houyhnhnms,” Swift Studies: The Annual of the Ehrenpreis Center 3 (1988): 91–95, esp. 94–95; and Donna Landry, Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture (Baltimore, 2008), 123–48, esp. 126, see also 6. [End Page 35]

12. Brown, Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes: Humans and Other Animals in the Modern Literary Imagination (Ithaca, 2010), 24.

13. Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1607), 281.

14. The Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. “noble” (entry dated 2003).

15. Topsell, 281.

16. Elisabeth LeGuin, “Man and Horse in Harmony,” in The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World, ed. Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (New York, 2005), 175–96, 184.

17. Topsell, 329.

18. The Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. “docible” (entry dated 1989).

19. Joannes Jonstonus, A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts, trans. J. P. (Amsterdam, 1678), 1.

20. Jonstonus, 4.

21. William B. Ashworth, Jr., “Emblematic Natural History of the Renaissance,” in Cultures of Natural History, ed. Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord, and E. C. Spary (Cambridge, 1996), 17–37, 35–36, and “Natural History and the Emblematic World View,” in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman (Cambridge, 1990), 303–32, esp. 312, 317–18.

22. Quoted in Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1994), 129; see also 128–29, 144–45.

23. Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi, in Œuvres complètes, ed. Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière, 8 vols. (Paris, 2007–).

24. Phillip Sloan, “The Gaze of Natural History,” in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, ed. Christopher Fox, Roy Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley, 1995), 112–51, 129–30.

25. The English translation is from Buffon, Natural History, General and Particular, trans. William Smellie, 2nd ed., 9 vols. (London, 1785), 3:306. The French text is from Schmitt and Crémière’s edition of Buffon, 4:253.

26. Buffon, Natural History, 3:307; Histoire naturelle, 4:253.

27. Buffon, Natural History, 3:308; Histoire naturelle, 4:254.

28. Buffon, Natural History, 3:329; Histoire naturelle, 4:272.

29. Buffon, Natural History, 3:313; Histoire naturelle, 4:260.

30. Buffon, Natural History, 3:313; Histoire naturelle, 4:261.

31. Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Baltimore, 2002), 189; see 189–95.

32. Karen Raber warns against confusing the 1658 treatise with William Cavendish’s subsequent treatise, A New Method, and Extraordinary Invention, to Dress Horses (1667), which appears to be but is not an English translation of the French treatise (“‘Reasonable Creatures’: William Cavendish and the Art of Dressage,” in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday, ed. Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt [Philadelphia, 1999], 42–66, 63n4, and “A Horse of a Different Color: Nation and Race in Early Modern Horsemanship Treatises,” in The Culture of the Horse, 225–43, 241n1).

33. Betsy Bowden presents evidence that Swift may have read Cavendish’s text, and she quotes passages that she deems especially relevant to Gulliver’s Travels (“Before the Houyhnhnms: Rational Horses in the Late Seventeenth Century,” Notes and Queries 39, no. 1 [1992]: 38–40).

34. Edwards notes that Cavendish is early modern England’s only horse trainer to command respect abroad (83).

35. Cavendish, La méthode nouvelle et invention extraordinaire de dresser les chevaux, trans. anonymous, in A General System of Horsemanship, vol. 1 (London, 1743), 122.

36. Rene Descartes, “From the Letter to [the Marquess of Newcastle], 23 November 1646,” in Descartes: Philosophical Letters, trans. and ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, 1970), 205–8, 206. [End Page 36]

37. Descartes, 207.

38. Cavendish, 12.

39. Cavendish, 12.

40. Cavendish, 11.

41. Cavendish, 13.

42. Cavendish, 12.

43. Alexander Pope, trans., The Iliad of Homer, 6 vols. (London, 1715–20), vol. 6, page 22, book 22, line 424.

44. For other examples from Pope’s translation, see vol. 5, page 11, book 17, line 170, and vol. 6, page 168, book 24, line 503.

45. See Timothy J. Reiss, “Gulliver’s Critique of Euclid,” in The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca, 1982), 328–50, 346; and Richard Nash, Wild Enlightenment: The Borders of Human Identity in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville, 2003), 109–10. For a comparison of the Houyhnhnm perspective on Gulliver to European perspectives on parrots, see Philip Armstrong, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (London, 2008), 20–21.

46. Erin Mackie, “Swift and Mimetic Sickness,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 54, no. 3 (2013): 359–73, 361.

47. Sarah Wintle, “If Houyhnhnms Were Horses: Thinking with Animals in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels,” The Critical Review 34 (1994): 3–21, 10, 17.

48. Ann Cline Kelly, “Gulliver as Pet and Pet Keeper: Talking Animals in Book 4,” ELH 74, no. 2 (2007): 323–49, 342.

49. I am using “animal welfare” as a general term for all philosophies advocating ethical treatment of animals. For a more typical use of “animal welfare” to name the utilitarian perspective, understood in opposition to the rights-based perspective, see Tom Regan, “The Rights of Humans and Other Animals,” Ethics & Behavior 7, no. 2 (1997): 103–11, 107.

50. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Printed in the Year 1780, and Now First Published (London, 1789), cccix n. Keith Thomas discusses Bentham’s question as an influential example of the eighteenth century’s “new emphasis on sensation and feeling as the true basis for a claim to moral consideration” (Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500–1800 [New York, 1996], 176, quotation on 180).

51. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York, 1990), 8.

52. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley, 1983), 243.

53. Martha C. Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), 349. [End Page 37]

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