Plato’s Swift Idolization of Rationality

March 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

How far can an ancient ideal stretch? From Euclidean geometry to Plato’s Republic, ancient ideas are still being analyzed and furthered. One example, the fourth book in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, is directly related to Plato’s ideal state, Kallipolis. In that book, we follow Gulliver on his journey from England into a moral and physical foil of the society we currently understand. There, Houyhnhnms — purely logical horses — reign over the humanoid epitomes of irrationality, the Yahoos. This provides a perfect opportunity for Swift to show us the essential aspects of humans and how they are still prevalent in his society as in Plato’s, and indeed in ours as well. From the fundamental question of life’s meaning to a not-so-simple depiction of the human soul, Swift follows Plato’s example of an ideal society to a T. In holding rationality highest among the various aspects of the human soul, Swift and Plato both spin a tale in which the three parts of a human soul are split, resulting in an immediate realization that all are necessary in order to properly function in society. Initially, reason is held out as the most valuable component of the human soul in Plato’s Kallipolis and on Swift’s island. As Gulliver notices,Neither is Reason among them a Point problematical as with us, where Men can argue with Plausibility on both sides of the Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction; as it must needs do where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by Passion and Interest. I remember it was with extreme Difficulty that I could bring my Master to understand the Meaning of the Word Opinion, or how a Point could be disputable. –Swift, VIIIFurthermore, Plato designates the overseers of Kallipolis, the ones with the ultimate authority, to be the most rational ones: the philosophers. The Houyhnhnms’ subjugation of the Yahoos appears more necessary than cruel, and perhaps the best way to deal with an unfortunate blot on their otherwise ideal society. The Yahoos, being the perfectly crude antithesis of the otherwise refined Houyhnhnms, act in every way as a base, unrefined, and — most importantly — irrational being would act. Swift pulls some of his ideas straight from Plato’s Kallipolis. In discussing eugenic breeding, for example, Swift exactly replicates these Platonic idealizations. Rationality runs rampant, as seen in the stoic moderation of affection even within families — again, as seen in Kallipolis. The Houyhnhnms also practice strict and logical family planning, dictating that the parents of two females should exchange a child with a family of two males, which is as unemotional with regard to family as are the citizens of Kallipolis. Also, as in Plato’s ideal community, the Houyhnhnms have neither the need to lie nor any word for lying. They do not use force but only strong exhortation. Just as rationality is idealized by Swift, so too is it idealized by Plato; that can be seen in his separation of the soul and in his subsequent placement of the component parts within his ideal state. Plato’s Kallipolis is a macrocosm for the human soul, or more precisely, for the tripartite division of the soul: rational, spirited, and desiring. To each of these divisions, he assigns a place in the “caste.” The overseers are a symbol of the rational, the guardians a representation of the spirited, and the craftspeople a manifestation of the desiring. According to this hierarchy, the rational is obviously most important to Plato. In this sense, he would highly approve of Swift’s hyper-rational Houyhnhnm culture. Since they ignore passion, the Houyhnhnms not only do not fear death, seeing it as a logical ending of life, but they also view mating as a mere necessity; both of those viewpoints are contradictory to the natural, human way of perception. These Houyhnhnms are a foil in every way to the other species on the island, the Yahoos. Whereas the Houyhnhnms are the embodiment of logic and rational thought, the Yahoos act on their every appetitive whim — going as far as to defecate on Gulliver, the narrator, on first sight. Plato would highly approve of this hierarchy and the great division between rationality and passion, with one distinction: Swift’s imaginary culture utilizes two distinctive species, while Plato’s is a macrocosm of three different aspects of the soul. However, the Yahoos are the embodiment of both the desiring and the emotional — irrational — parts of the soul, thereby fitting the mold of Kallipolis, minus the separation between the desiring and spirited. Other than this small distinction, Swift’s “utopia” fits perfectly with Plato’s Kallipolis. In addition to the physical and societal separation of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, there is also a power split: because the Houyhnhnms are so wise, they have virtually complete power over the very base Yahoos. Plato would approve of this unequal distribution of power, but more importantly, he would approve of the deliberation that the powerful Houyhnhnms make: the castration of the Yahoos. Plato’s highest ideal is the complete isolation of the rational aspect of the soul to allow for purely logical actions. This is demonstrated in his assignment of the rational people to philosopher-kings and the subsequent, infamous “Ultimate Lie” to the people of what is kept from them. Likewise, the Houyhnhnms see the Yahoos as a blight on society and consider castrating them all so that they cannot reproduce, effectively committing genocide on the Yahoo population. This would leave the Houyhnhnms as the sole habitants of the island. However, the Houyhnhnms understand that there is necessary labor that needs to be done by these Yahoos, so they do not castrate them in the end for precisely the same reason that Plato leaves the other two parts of the soul in his Kallipolis even though he values wisdom the most. Both Swift and Plato realize that however valuable the rational thought processes are, they are best complemented by the desiring and spirited ones because otherwise life would not be worth living. That attitude is seen in the question inherent in both utopian ideals: why is everyone, or every animal, alive? Neither the citizens of Kallipolis nor the inhabitants of Swift’s island are happy whatsoever. Plato ironically portrays his society as one in which no one has a goal, and any change — which is the fundamental source of pleasure — would be for the worse. All pleasure is derived from a change in the current state, like a mathematical derivative. The derivative of a constant is zero, while deriving a complex function yields a similarly complex function. When everything remains constant in life, expectations are prevalent and never dashed or exceeded. Without this change from the expected, pleasure cannot be derived. In a highly rational society, expectations dictate the actions of everyday life. Without the “lesser” aspects of the soul — the appetitive and the spirited — life would become boring and useless. Plato is showing us through a polar comparison that rationality, while useful in many cases, cannot be allowed to run rampant.If Kallipolis and Swift’s island are truly utopian, then they are ideal states; thus, if they are changed in any way, they become non-ideal. Because pleasure is derived from change, no happiness can exist. It is hard to imagine a life in which there is no pleasure because it would be a purely rational life. The satire abounds in this seeming paradox in many ways, but namely in the sense that happiness can only flourish where there is a system of checks and balances among the various divisions of the soul. They are meant to function seamlessly instead of being forced apart. Swift saw this in Kallipolis and reiterates it in his emotionless Houyhnhnms ruling over the irrational Yahoos. Both of these utopian societies are portrayals of the consequences of separation of the three parts of the soul.After comparing both of these stories, it is apparent that Swift had read Plato’s Republic, or at least the part concerning his idealized state. What is not apparent is the satirical extent in both works. Obviously, Plato and Swift both satirize the idea of utopia. Neither Kallipolis nor Swift’s island are ideal states. Because they are both so vastly different from real human society, a vast minority with an experience of our comparatively joyful life would want to be a lifetime citizen of an emotionless society. However, perhaps Plato is not just emphasizing the tripartite soul, but also the state of living. He notices many faults in society (poverty, homelessness, crime) and finds a way to alleviate every single one. Perhaps he’s pointing out that these things are necessary “evils” where any freedom exists. In contrast, perhaps Swift’s portrayal of his island is speaking of different evils. Whereas Plato was a philosopher, Swift may have been more of a political advocate. In order to tease apart these issues, the extent of the authors’ respective satirical intents would have to be determined, which would require much more extensive research into biographies and historical context.

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