Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Part 4, Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Gulliver presents the history of Europe to his master, including past wars and wars in progress. He explains that the causes of war tend to be based on differences of opinion, often relating to small details. In fact, the smaller the difference of opinion, the greater the conflict. Wars may also start based on quarrels between monarchs, often with one monarch eager to start the fight before the other one can. Countries weakened by famine, disease, or civil war are also targets for invasion, and at other times strong countries are invaded simply because a monarch wants the land, even if this means betraying an ally. The master thinks the European Yahoos like Gulliver appear too weak to make war, so Gulliver describes some of their weaponry and describes battles he has seen at sea. The master makes Gulliver stop talking because these descriptions make the European Yahoos sound even worse than those on the island.

Gulliver also explains the English legal system because the master does not understand how laws can be used to undo a man, as happened with some members of Gulliver's mutinous crew. Gulliver paints a bleak picture of the legal profession, describing lawyers as lacking moral fiber and intelligence.

Analysis

Like the Brobdingnagian king who found Gulliver's proposal to make gunpowder offensive and barbaric, the Houyhnhnm master is revolted by Gulliver's description of European wars and weaponry. Unlike the other civilizations Gulliver has encountered, the Houyhnhnms do not seem to understand the concept of war in any form. They do not battle with one another, and while they have subjugated the Yahoos to their will, this practice appears more in line with the taming of working animals than with armed conflict. The master is most offended by the European Yahoos' making war because they now appear no better than the Yahoos on the island, and in a sense they are worse because they possess reason. Whatever the island's Yahoos do, they can be presumed to do out of animal impulse. The European Yahoos have some capacity for reason, yet they continue to wage wars over matters of opinion or ego instead of using that reason for good. The Houyhnhnm master believes that creatures with a sense of reason should know better than to treat one another so violently, suggesting that the definitions of civilization and savagery are highly subjective.

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