Houyhnhnms and the People of the Lie

The Houyhnhnms are a race of highly intelligent and civilized horses. They live in a remote land first revealed by the Englishman Lemuel Gulliver in the 18th century, and described by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

The Houyhnhnms speak a language, and use the curve between the hoof and the pastern to grasp objects, in the same way that humans use their hands.

They have no wars, no poverty, and almost no disease. They are completely ruled by reason and the laws of nature. They live together with all our human virtues and none of our vices. The very idea of “evil” is unknown to them.

One reason for this is that Houyhnhnms do not know how to lie. They use language for communication and understanding, and not deception, so “to say a thing that is not” makes no sense to them.

Current research sponsored by Ormondroyd’s suggests that the Houyhnhnms’ inability to lie stems from equine nature, not nurture. Most human children have learned to lie, or at least dissemble, by the age of two. Indeed, learning to lie might be part of human psychological maturation.

Our first lies represent “the beginning of the end of idealizing parents”, according to David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.-- the dawning realization that parents are not omnipotent. He cites Psychiatrist Arnold Goldberg remark, "The first time you see a limit to your parents' powers is a developmental step forward, towards a more realistic view of others." The reader is also referred to Twain’s My First Lie, and How I got Out of It.

What then do we make of the adult lie, the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance that devastate our world? It is our ability to lie to ourselves and to others that makes it possible to murder, steal, wage war, cheat widows and orphans, and pave over forests. Men like Joel Schumacher and Paul Verhoeven continue to be employed as film directors despite all evidence to the contrary.

As highly intelligent creatures, Houyhnhnms have the ability to imagine a crime against another. They are not kept from villainy because they are angels, but because they cannot rationalize such a crime. They cannot lie to themselves about motives or justification.

Both Orwell and Solzhenitsyn have written much more profoundly about how lies provide the fertile ground necessary for human misery to grow.

We can only add the casual observation that humans prefer lies to truth; we are drawn to them like a crack baby seeking its addiction in its mother’s milk. The forced laughter of the radio sidekick telling us these people are having a good time, the avuncular politician who flatters and panders, the body count fantasies of the action film, we are surrounded by lies and elevate the master liars to the highest ranks. Those who delude themselves as well as their followers run for president.

Truth tellers are only honored in retrospect, when Truth is the daughter of Time. The little boy who announced that the emperor had no clothes was not rewarded for his vision, and as Robert Heinlein put it, “in the Country of the Blind, the one-eyed man is in for a hell of a rough ride.”

How do we make the truth as attractive as the lie? How do we ask Americans to listen to complex issues when simple answers are so much sweeter? We discover democracy when we recognize that every serf in Wat Tyler’s army has some value equal to the king; we did not anticipate that the American mob would prefer bleached and sugared bread to whole wheat thought. This is a bitter realization for sons and daughters of Athena, a triumph for the children of Machiavelli.

We cannot imitate the Houyhnhnms, because they are virtuous by nature, not by choice. Animals are not often pulled in two directions, feeling two things at once as humans do. Jim Harrison has observed, “When a cat doesn’t know what to do, it sits down.”

A degenerate species of humanoids called “Yahoos” live in the land of the Houyhnhnms. They are very stupid and very nasty, and have to be controlled by the Houyhnhnms because they cannot control themselves. Yahoos have spread out over most of our planet and can interbreed with homo sapiens.

For this reason Lemuel Gulliver wished he could always live with the Houyhnhnms. It only takes a moment for a handful of Yahoos to destroy even out noblest achievements. Men and women like Jonathan Swift, with their heads and hearts broken by their fellow man, may well turn to the company of animals for comfort. Fanny Hackabout-Jones, in a biographical novel by Erica Jong, observed that Swift’s misanthropy was not that of a malicious conservative; rather it was the bitterness of a disappointed lover.

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