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Gulliver’s Travels and Phaedra – Passion or Reason
Do you base your decisions on passion or reason? The way one bases his or her decisions affects the quality and happiness of his or her life. Neither passion nor reason should be the sole basis for one's philosophy or lifestyle, because passion without reason is uncontrollable, and reason without passion takes the spark out of life. Works such as Phaedra and Gulliver's Travels show that either extreme will likely result in chaos and unhappiness, teaching one to pull from both sides.
In Racine's Phaedra, the characters face problems that are caused by their passions, in a society based on reason and the roles they play in it. Phaedra finds that she loves Hippolytus, who is her stepson, and she feels guilty about it, because it goes against the grain of society. She is crazed with the passion she feels, and convinces herself, for a time, that she should die without telling anyone, so that her shame is not made worse by being known to others.
Phaedra says, " my frenzied love's burst forth in act and word. I've spoken what should never have been heard" (Phaedra 181). This shows how much she regrets her decision to verbalize her feelings, because she knows she spoke out of passion instead of reason. Her indignity is so strong in her heart that she cannot even let herself take the responsibility for it. Phaedra claims that, " the Gods have robbed [her] wits"(Phaedra 168) as a way of passing the blame on to someone else in an effort to remove some of the dishonor from herself and onto the Gods. Eventually, she gives into the passion she is feeling, and tells Hippolytus how she feels. Her passion horrifies Hippolytus, because of the wrongness of the situation. Phaedra is so bound to a world of reason that once she decides to explore her feelings she removes her boundaries all together, forgetting how serious the affects on other people are going to be. Meanwhile Hippolytus finds strength of will, driven by passion, to pursue the woman he loves, who was banned by his father Theseus. Hippolytus says, " my reason can't rein in my heart" (Phaedra 176) when he is thinking about the crime he is committing against his father because of his love for Aricia.
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Another example of passion, devoid of reason can be found in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In the Houyhnhnm society, the primitive human-like creatures, called Yahoos, are ruled completely by passion. Gulliver refers to the Yahoos as " ugly monsters" (Gulliver's Travels 237) and "the most unteachable of all animals" (Gulliver's Travels 263) because of their lack of knowledge, behavior, and cruelty towards each other. These creatures are looked down upon by the Houyhnhnms, because they lack the ability to think reasonably, and therefore, were thought to be ignorant and animal-like. The Yahoos cannot reason. They have become lower life forms that live completely in the moment, taking what they want and do not think ahead for any reason. These creatures can perform basic functions but they do not have the ability to use reason to better their understanding of the world or to increase the comforts in their lives. The Yahoos are a good example of passion without reason, because even though they have passion, they do not have the reason to stabilize it, so that they can think things through or learn from their mistakes.
In Phaedra, the problems are caused because of strong passions in a society of reason. The society, in which Phaedra and Hippolytus live, believes strongly in doing what is best for society as a whole, and is less concerned with the individual. The people around her consider Phaedra's passions selfish and troubling. Phaedra is even told by her nurse, Oenone, that she is "[feeding] a flame which best were beaten out" (Phaedra 181). She is expected to ignore her own self-interests, in favor of making things run smoothly for the others in the world around her. Phaedra, herself does not even agree with her feelings, because she has been taught that they are wrong.
Another instance of reason lacking passion can be found in Gulliver's Travels. The Houyhnhnm Society is one that is based solely on reason. These creatures have halted their growth as a civilization, because their lack of passion prevents improvement. The Houyhnhnms do not even realize that they are missing something vital to nature. Without passion, they cannot better themselves or their society. They have halted the growth of the mind, because no one strives to invent anything new, improve their lifestyles, or to become anything better than what they already are. The Houyhnhnms community is structured by the type of coat that they have:
Among the Houyhnhnms, the white, the sorrel, and the iron grey were not so exactly shaped as the bay, the dapple grey and the black; nor born with equal talents of mind, or capacity to improve them; and therefore continued always in the condition of servants, without ever aspiring to match out of their own race, which in that country would be reckoned monstrous and unnatural. (Gulliver's Travels 257)
These creatures do not have the passion to say this is unfair or to do something about the way things are done. Their reason tells them that that is the way things are and always have been so it must be the way it should be. Gulliver finds this society to be refreshing and enjoyable, away from the intrigues and uproar of England. He finds that the Houymhnhnms live a life of order without the need for laws because no one ever does anything against the grain of reason. These creatures of reason cannot even understand the concept of a lie, because it is not an idea derived from reason, and as a result they refer to this concept as "the thing which was not" (Gulliver's Travels 247). Although Gulliver is amazed by this society and seems to think of it as perfect, because of their abandonment of passion, it is ultimately the reason for his expulsion from the Houyhnhnm community. The Houyhnhnms cannot see past the fact that he looks like a Yahoo, to realize that he is a higher evolved being, because their reason tells them that since he looks like a Yahoo, then that is what he must be.
Reason is a wonderful thing but on its own can hamper the natural growth of a person or a community. Passion is also a good thing but it can stall or prevent ideas or actions that should occur in the development of things, because it does not have anything to keep it from going out of control or reason to support it. In many ways, Jean Racine and Jonathan Swift show the dangers of societies that are based on either reason or passion, but do not include a combination of the two. The dangers of chaos and unhappiness occur in both of these works, because of lack of either passion or reason.
Racine, Jean. Phaedra. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Gen. ed. Sarah Lawall. 7th ed. Vol. 2. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1999. 163-201.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Gen. ed. Sarah Lawall. 7th ed. Vol. 2. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1999.