I am overcome now as I was then with Swift's keen insight into human nature. His perceptiveness about the contradictory essence of fallen human nature is brilliantly exemplified in one story in particular involving Lemuel Gulliver stranded in a foreign land inhabited by perfectly rational horses, the land of the Houyhnhnm. When I say perfectly rational it is not meant as an over exaggeration. We are told that the etymology of the word Houyhnhnm is the perfection of nature. So, these horse beings are meant to exemplify what an uncorrupted, rational being should be. Swift juxtaposes these horses and their understanding of the world with human nature as Gulliver conveys it in his description of humans and their dealings with each other of which these horses have never had an encounter and, on more than one occasion, completely baffles them. It is in this genius juxtaposition that Swift forces the reader to face a fundamental and terrible truth about man's condition.
At first, the difficulty in communication between Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms seems to stem from a barrier of language. The horses have their own language in which they communicate. Gulliver is attempting to learn this language in order to satisfy the Houyhnhnm's desire to learn more about him and his kind. But as we read the dialogue between Gulliver and one particular Houyhnhnm, which he calls master, it becomes apparent that the difficulty in understanding one another is of a more fundamental nature because it comes from a fundamental difference in their nature. This is conveyed through the use of language when the master has difficulty expressing in their language what is common to human experience. There isn't a word in their language, for example, for the concept of falsehood or lying. He has to revert to talking about falsehood as "saying the thing which was not", a practice that is "so little known in [his] country, that the inhabitants cannot tell how to behave themselves under such circumstances." In talking to Gulliver about this, the master would not accept that truly rational beings could engage in such things. It seems to go so far against what is obviously reasonable that no truly rational being would do such a thing. He argues that "...the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now if anyone said the things which was not, these ends were defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him, and I am so far from receiving information, that he leaves me worse than in ignorance..." As Gulliver explains to the master more about his kind and their systems of government, law, war, nourishment, nobility and other sociological aspects of humanity, the master becomes less and less convinced that Gulliver and his kind are rational beings governed by reason. He says that rather than possessing reason it seems more likely that humans are "only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill shapen body, not only larger, but more distorted."
He is also mystified with Gulliver's description of suffering caused by sickness and disease. He says that "Nature, who works all things to perfection, should suffer any pains to breed in our bodies, he thought impossible, and desired to know the reason of so unaccountable an evil." As Gulliver continues to explain the ins and outs of humanity to these beings, the gross truth Swift is demonstrating about human nature becomes more obvious.
The confusion of the master Houyhnhnm should also be shared by us as we reflect on human experience. It seems that the master has a hard time understanding not only why but how beings with rational capacity could go against what is so obviously reasonable and betray what plain reason would dictate is an appropriate way to think and act. We should find that hard to understand too. What causes rational men to lie when reason shows lying is irrational? Why would men be irrational when they have obviously been endowed with the capacity to reason? What is it about Nature that has bred sickness and disease in the world, indiscriminately effecting the lives of all living things? Why is there "unaccountable evil?"
Man's ability to reason, make laws, govern, involve himself in commerce, make beer, communicate, express himself artistically, make music, smoke, and a host of other things are all good and are evidence of Original Goodness, the fact that when God created He pronounced his creation "good". So why are these things now corrupted by lying, taking advantage, war, coveting, gluttony, greediness and a host of other sins? The master's analogy is very perceptive; just as the original image is distorted by a turbulent stream, man's original goodness has been corrupted by the turbulence of sin in such a way that it causes the master to "Look upon [humans] as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions." What the master has observed is the result of man's fall from original goodness, a reflection of created man that shows only a residual semblance of the pristine picture, only enough to demand any serious observer to conclude, with the master, that human nature is corrupt, that something along the way went terribly wrong.