John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, One of us, is filled with egregious errors of fact in its narration of the history of man’s attitudes towards animals, down through the ages. In today’s post, I’ll be focusing on the period from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages.
I wrote at the beginning of my essay that when an essayist aims to inform his readers – as Sullivan clearly does – then he has an obligation to get his facts straight. In Part One and Part Two of my reply to Sullivan, I detailed his scientific and philosophical errors, respectively. These errors are excusable, as there is currently a very wide range of views among scientists and philosophers on the subject of animal consciousness. There can be no excuse, however, when an award-winning author gets his facts wrong when writing a historical narrative whose accuracy can be easily checked by his readers. I was able to immediately spot several major errors of fact in Sullivan’s narrative of how our attitudes towards animals have changed over time, and a search of the Internet uncovered many more mistakes. At the end of my research, I could find almost nothing in Sullivan’s highly partial narrative that withstood scrutiny. Indeed, his essay would be better described as propaganda than as history.
I have targeted Sullivan’s short essay because it is a bouquet of beautiful lies – popularly repeated lies which Sullivan himself believes in so thoroughly that he never bothered to check them out. I hope that by exposing them all here, I can provide some valuable intellectual ammunition to seekers of truth, wherever they may be.
Part Three: Sullivan’s historical errors
Chapter 9 – Paleolithic fantasies: Did prehistoric hunters really thank their prey?
Hunters and elephants: a cave painting created by the nomadic San people in the Cederberg Cave near Stadsaal, between 300 and 6,000 years ago. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Let’s begin with human prehistory. Sullivan claims that our Paleolithic forebears had a deep reverence for animals:
Trying to recapture the thought life of prehistoric peoples is a game wise heads tend to leave alone, but if there’s a consistent motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago, its animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else – lion or bird or bear. Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom. They were beings in a world of countless beings. Taking their lives was a meaningful act, to be prayed for beforehand and atoned for afterward, suggesting that beasts were allowed some kind of right.
The notion that our prehistoric ancestors thanked their prey after killing them is a TV trope which recurs again and again in the media, but its sole basis in fact appears to be the custom of certain bear-hunting tribes, from Lapland to Labrador, to make apologies to bears after killing them, and to perform a ritual offering to the dead bear. (See Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear, by David Rockwell. Roberts Rinehard, Lanham, MD: revised paperback edition, 2003.) As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that hunters showed similar reverence towards the small creatures they killed, as well as the larger ones. Additionally, there are no grounds whatsoever for the sweeping assumption that all or even most of the hunter-gatherer cultures around the world engage in such practices of appeasing the animals they kill. Like Rousseau’s myth of the Noble Savage, it is the stuff of Hollywood fantasy: liberals believe it because they want to.
An oft-cited 1960 article by Alfred Irving Hallowell entitled, Ojibwa ontology, behavior and world view, is often adduced in support of the thesis that hunter-gatherers regarded animals as “other-than-human” persons. But if one reads the article, it becomes apparent that Hallowell’s article confines its attention to a single tribe of Native Americans: the Ojibwa tribe of Canada. Evidently, the Ojibwa did not regard all animals as persons, but only some animals: thus a bear would normally be an ordinary animal, but a bear that kept visiting a camp, night after night, was deemed to be a spirit in disguise. The reason why hunters had to be careful to treat the animals they killed in the proper manner and to perform the appropriate ritual is because these animals were believed to be under the control of spirit “masters,” who were believed to be capable of transforming themselves at will, and who might retaliate by starving the hunters and their families if they were not suitably appeased. Reading Hallowell’s essay, I was more struck by the evidence he marshaled for the Ojibwas’ belief in the efficacy of sorcery than for their alleged belief in the personhood of animals. Finally, I would caution that “person” is a tricky concept that needs to be translated from one language to another with great care: the Japanese language, for instance, lacks a term that equates to our Western concept of “person” (a term which is broad enough to include God, angels, Martians, human beings and possibly some non-human animals, while excluding mindless entities).
A 2011 article by Erica Hill entitled, Animals as Agents: Hunting Ritual and Relational Ontologies in Prehistoric Alaska and Chukotka (Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21:3, 407–26) provides extensive documentation to support the author’s claim that animals were regarded as other-than-human persons, and as agents, in the myth and ritual of the Native Eskimos who inhabited the North Pacific coasts of Alaskan and Chukotka. In particular, “prey animals, especially marine mammals and caribou or reindeer, were conceived of as agents, as other-than-human persons capable of making decisions about when, where and how they interacted with humans.” However, Hill qualifies her claim about animal agency at the outset:
Below, I use the term ‘animal’ to refer to those kinds of animals that are perceived of as other-than-human persons. Not all animals were so perceived, and not all individuals within a certain kind of animal group – caribou, for example – are persons. But some of them are.
Despite its impressive citation of sources, Hill’s article fails to address the fundamental question: did these Native American peoples regard certain animals as personal agents, or did they ascribe personal agency to the spirits controlling those particular animals? The difference is a philosophically and morally vital one.
If we go back to our Paleolithic forebears, we find that their attitude towards killing animals was a decidedly unsentimental one, from the start. Around 250,000 years ago, at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, Neanderthal man stampeded mammoths and drove them off nearby cliffs. That doesn’t sound too reverent to me – in fact, it sounds more than a touch arrogant. The Neanderthals who plotted the demise of the animals they killed cannot have had too high a regard for their intelligence, if they kept falling for the same old trick, again and again. The Neanderthals used the same cliff fall hunting strategy at other locations in Europe as well, including La Quina in south-western France and a site in the French Pyrenees.
It is difficult to know what to make of Upper Paleolithic carvings and statuettes of part-human part-animal hybrids. Sullivan concludes that their makers regarded the animals they carved or fashioned as wise creatures, to be killed with reverence. But a more economical hypothesis would be that the artists who created these images did so because they envied the powers of the animals they depicted. Who would not wish for the courage of a lion, the ability to soar of a bird, or the strength (and imposing height) of a bear? Paleolithic hunters may have admired the animals they killed; but that does not mean that they revered them.
Chapter 10 – Sullivan’s egregious blunder: Did the ancient Greeks invent the notion of human uniqueness?
Confucius recognized the moral uniqueness of human beings long before the ancient Greek philosophers did. Gouache on paper (The Granger Collection, New York). Circa 1770. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
But enough of the Paleolithic; let us turn to the Greeks. Sullivan’s most egregious historical blunder can be found in the following paragraph of his essay:
Only with the Greeks does there enter the notion of a formal divide between our species, our animal, and every other on earth. Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equaled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results. For them the matter was even simpler. The animals lack souls. They are all animal, whereas we are part divine.
How ancient Chinese philosophers distinguished man from the animals
If he had known anything about ancient Chinese philosophy, Sullivan would never have made the absurd claim that it was the Greeks who originated the notion of a formal divide between humans and every other animal on earth. Thus Confucius, in his Analects, teaches that only human beings are capable of genuine filial piety, even as he allows that dogs and horses exhibit something vaguely resembling it:
Tsze-yu asked what filial piety was. The Master said, “The filial piety nowadays means the support of one’s parents. But dogs and horses likewise are able to do something in the way of support;-without reverence, what is there to distinguish the one support given from the other?” (Analects, Section 1, Part 2.)
Confucius certainly considered humans to be of greater intrinsic worth than horses, as shown by the following story from the Analects of how he reacted when his stable was burned down:
The stable being burned down, when he was at court, on his return he said, “Has any man been hurt?” He did not ask about the horses. (Analects, Section 2, Part 10.)
The Chinese Confucian sage Xunzi, who lived in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., taught that humans were distinguished from other animals by virtue of their capacity to follow moral norms:
…[W]hat distinguishes us from animals is our capacity for artifice – our ability to act independently of, or even contrary to, our spontaneous tendencies. Xunzi does not explain this difference in cognitive terms. According to a passage in Book 9, animals, like humans, have knowledge; this is what distinguishes them from plants. What sets humans apart is our capacity for morality and our tendency to form norm-governed societies. (In this he agrees with other Confucian philosophers, notably Mencius.) Perhaps this implies a difference between human and animal knowledge. But even if it does, Xunzi consistently drew the distinction between humans and animals in social and normative rather than cognitive terms.
(Robins, Dan, “Xunzi“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .)
Hindus and Buddhists also distinguish man from the animals
Some of the world’s religions – notably Hinduism and Buddhism – teach the doctrine of reincarnation. According to this doctrine, animals can be re-born as people. One might therefore think that these religions would be inclined to blur the distinctions between man and the beasts. Surprisingly, however, we find that these religions, while teaching that all animals have the same moral worth, also teach that man and the other animals are fundamentally distinct in their capacity for moral agency: people have a sense of right and wrong and can follow rules and improve their karma, while animals cannot.
(a) Hinduism on man’s moral uniqueness
The religion of Hinduism might be thought to favor the view that there is no fundamental difference between humans and other animals, as humans can be reborn as animals and vice versa, but even here we find a radical distinction: only humans can distinguish right from wrong, so only humans are in a position to transform their karma by doing the right thing at the right time. As Hindu devotee Madhavananda explains in an online article entitled, Hindu Afterworlds: A Journey Across Heaven and Hell:
While the other species feature only evolution in consciousness, the human being is endowed with a capacity to distinguish right from wrong, to judge between good and evil, and is given a due afterlife in heaven, in hell, in the lower species or in a human form. Then, the human realm is a springboard to diverse destinations across the universe. A human life is also distinct in its opportunities for following the path of dharma that awards freedom from the endless wanderings across the universe.
(b) Buddhism on the uniqueness of the human condition
What about Buddhism? At first sight, Buddhism might also be thought to deny the existence of any fundamental differences between human and non-human animals, since Buddhists regard animals as sentient beings, capable of suffering and of attaining enlightenment, like human beings. However, humans alone can grasp the distinction between cause and effect, and hence understand the moral concept of karma. What’s more, humans can improve their karma; other animals can’t. The following excerpts are taken from Chapter 3 (Animal characters in the jatakas) of a Ph.D. thesis by Nguyen Thi Khieu Diem, entitled, “Role of Animals in Indian Buddhism with Special References to the Jatakas”:
In cosmological terms, the animals were believed to inhabit a distinct “world”, separated from humans not by space but by state of mind. This world was called Tiryagyoni in Sanskrit, Tiracchanayoni in Pali. Rebirth as an animal was considered to be one of the unhappy rebirths, usually involving more than human suffering. Buddhist commentarial texts depict many sufferings associated with the animal world: even where no human beings are present, they are attacked and eaten by other animals or live in fear of it, they endure extreme changes of environment throughout the year, and they have no security of habitation. Those that live among humans are often slaughtered for their bodies, or taken and forced to work with many beatings until they are slaughtered at the end of their lives. On top of this, they suffer from ignorance, not knowing or understanding with any clarity what is happening to them and unable to do much about it, acting primarily on instinct… (pp. 71-72)
The human realm is the only one in which one’s choices (good or bad) affect one’s future; in all the others, one is either rewarded or punished for one’s actions as a human being… As conscious moral agents human beings have agency that the beings in the other realms do not; this clearly underscores the importance of moral action and spiritual development. The difference between humans and the other realms is that we can practice Dharma. Furthermore, falling into the lower realms is like losing a wish-fulfilling jewel. A human life has incredible potential. Humans have the intelligence to comprehend the relationship between good and bad and the relationship between cause and effect. If we are born as animals, we will not be able to see beyond immediate events… (p. 84)
Animal behavior is seen as the result of past sins, and one expiates these sins through suffering in animal form (being hunted, worked, driven, slaughtered, etc.), often for thousands of consecutive births (as a dog, pig, dung beetle, etc.). Animal behavior is also run by instinct, which means that animals cannot generate good karma; they are merely working off the bad. This suffering and lack of control make birth as an animal undesirable. The conviction that animals are sentient beings also underlies the prohibition on intentionally killing anything, which goes back to the Buddha’s earliest teaching… (p. 85)
Thus although Hinduism and Buddhism both ascribe the same moral worth to humans and other animals, as all animals are capable of attaining enlightenment, they nevertheless distinguish human beings from the beasts by virtue of their capacity for moral agency and their ability to understand the relationship between cause and effect, and between right and wrong. For Hindus and Buddhists too, then, there is “a formal divide between our species, our animal, and every other on earth.”
The Bible clearly distinguishes man from the animals
Now, I could forgive Sullivan for his lack of familiarity with Chinese and Indian religions, but surely he has read the Psalms. How, then, does he explain away the following verse from Psalm 32, which was penned centuries before Plato ever taught that human beings were distinguished from other animals by their rationality?
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
(Psalm 32:9, NIV)
And what about Psalm 49, which likens rich people who fail to understand that everything they have comes from their Creator to brute animals?
People who have wealth but lack understanding
are like the beasts that perish.
(Psalm 49:20, NIV)
And how could Sullivan have forgotten Genesis 1:26-27, which declares that of all the animals, only man was made in the image and likeness of God, “so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”? The Jewish rabbis had several theories as to exactly what the image and likeness consisted in – was it reason, intellect, free will, spirit, the ability to conquer and rule Nature, or something more mysterious? But whatever the author of Genesis 1 had in mind, he clearly meant to distinguish man from the other animals.
The same goes for the narrative in Genesis 2, which tells us that man, like the other animals, was formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7; Genesis 2:19), but that only Adam was infused with the Divine breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Both of these creation narratives were composed centuries before Plato.
In short: the notion that a formal divide between human beings and every other species of animal is an invention of the ancient Greeks is a canard, which collapses under closer scrutiny.
Chapter 11 – What did the ancient Greeks really say about animals?
Fragmentary horse from the colossal four-horses chariot group which topped the podium of the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Sullivan talks about the ancient Greeks’ disparagement of “dumb” horses, yet he omits to mention that the Greeks esteemed their horses so highly that they placed them at the top of their Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, the Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World. Horses, unlike sheep, goats, cattle and pigs, were not normally sacrificed to the Greek gods; they were regarded as noble animals. Wealthy people were even buried with their horses, as a way of indicating their social status.
Sullivan points the finger of blame at Plato and Aristotle for drawing a sharp dividing line between man and the other animals. He would have been well-advised to have consulted Richard Sorabji’s excellent book, Animal Minds and Human Morals (1993, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.) before making crude, sweeping generalizations about the views of the ancient Greek philosophers on man and the animals. He would have been surprised to find that while Plato’s elevation of reason at the expense of sensation appeared to widen the gap between humans and other animals, his teaching that souls could migrate across species lines reduced the psychic space between man and beast. According to Sorabji, Plato wavered on the subject of whether the animals were capable of reasoning or not, right up to the very end of his life: on the one hand, he denies reasoning to animals (Symposium 207A-C, Republic 441 A-B, Laws 963E), and in Cratylus 399C, he even informs his readers that man (anthropos) is so named because he reflects on what he sees (anathrei ha opope); yet on the other hand, he appears to grant intellect (nous) to animals (Laws 961D). Plato also ascribed not only perceptions but also beliefs (doxa) to animals: in his Republic 430B, he seems to allow that a precarious form of true belief can be found in a beast and a slave.
Sullivan would have also learned that while Aristotle defined man as a rational animal, he was not always consistent: “Aristotle does admittedly hedge … on whether it is only mankind that thinks” (p. 15). And although he denied reason (logos), thought (dianoia), intellect (nous) and belief (doxa) to non-human animals, Aristotle was willing to credit animals with a rudimentary knowledge of universals: “Whether or not Aristotle’s lion perceives the ox as an ox, it certainly perceives it as a meal” (p. 62). Moreover, Aristotle’s own disciples did not always agree with their master that reason was unique to man: Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as leader of the Peripatos, credited animals with some capacity for reason and viewed them as differing from humans in degree rather than kind. Sorabji contends that ancient Greek philosophical thought on animals contained a rich tapestry of views: “By and large, despite some opposing tendencies, my impression is that the emphasis of Western Christianity was on one half, the anti-animal half, of a much more wide-ranging and vigorous ancient Greek debate” (p. 204). For his part, Sorabji points the finger of blame at the Stoics, who influenced the early Church Fathers, for having downgraded the moral status of animals.
I find it remarkable that in his entire piece, Sullivan says nothing about the Stoics, as they went much further than Plato and Aristotle, by denying not only reason but also emotions to animals: emotions, they argued, are really judgments about what is good or bad for us, and since animals are incapable of making judgments, they cannot truly said to feel anything. The Stoic view of animals made it possible to view their suffering with equanimity – for if animals are incapable of feeling, then they are not really capable of suffering. If there is a philosophical view of animals in antiquity that deserves censure, it is this one.
Chapter 12 – Giving credit where credit is due: How Aristotle anticipated Spinoza’s views on animal souls
Left: Bust of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.
Right: Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Portrait, circa 1665. Gemaldesammlung der Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbuttel, Germany. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Further evidence of Sullivan’s lamentable ignorance of Greek philosophy can be found a passage in his essay, where he fawns over the rationalist Dutch philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677) for “his lovely definition of the soul” which gives each kind of creature its own kind of soul, without appearing to realize that the first philosopher to define the soul in this way was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who features as one of the villains of Sullivan’s historical narrative.
Here is how Sullivan sums up Spinoza’s definition of the soul:
…[I]t is in some way wrapped up with, coextensive with, the “essence” of the creature possessing it. The particular nature in which every creature is able to rejoice precisely by being most entirely itself is the soul. That settles the matter of whether animals have souls. Of course they do. The horse has a horse soul, the fish has a fish soul.
And here’s how Aristotle defined the soul in his De Anima Book II, Part 1:
Of natural bodies some have life in them, others not; by life we mean self-nutrition and growth (with its correlative decay). It follows that every natural body which has life in it is a substance in the sense of a composite.
But since it is also a body of such and such a kind, viz. having life, the body cannot be soul; the body is the subject or matter, not what is attributed to it. Hence the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it…
We have now given an answer to the question, What is soul? – an answer which applies to it in its full extent. It is substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence. That means that it is ‘the essential whatness’ of a body of the character just assigned.
The soul, according to Aristotle, is “the essential whatness” of a living body – a definition which antedates by 2,000 years Spinoza’s description of the soul as “coextensive with, the ‘essence’ of the creature possessing it,” to quote Sullivan’s paraphrase. (I’ll say more about Spinoza in my next post.)
Aristotle elaborates on his definition in his De Anima Book II, Part 4:
The soul is the cause or source of the living body. The terms cause and source have many senses. But the soul is the cause of its body alike in all three senses which we explicitly recognize. It is (a) the source or origin of movement, it is (b) the end, it is (c) the essence of the whole living body.
In De Anima Book II, Part 3, Aristotle explicitly declares that not only animals, but even plants have a soul:
Of the psychic powers above enumerated some kinds of living things, as we have said, possess all, some less than all, others one only. Those we have mentioned are the nutritive, the appetitive, the sensory, the locomotive, and the power of thinking. Plants have none but the first, the nutritive, while another order of living things [animals – VJT] has this plus the sensory. If any order of living things has the sensory, it must also have the appetitive; for appetite is the genus of which desire, passion, and wish are the species; now all animals have one sense at least, viz. touch… Certain kinds of animals possess in addition the power of locomotion, and still another order of animate beings, i.e. man and possibly another order like man or superior to him, the power of thinking, i.e. mind… Hence we must ask in the case of each order of living things, What is its soul, i.e. What is the soul of plant, animal, man?
I think Sullivan should give credit where credit is due, and acknowledge that his critical evaluation of Aristotle in his essay was both unfair and uncharitable.
I should also point out that Aristotle’s definition of the soul was endorsed in the thirteenth century by the Catholic theologian St. Albert the Great and his pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas. For both of these philosophers, the notion that plants and animals had their own kinds of souls would have been a commonplace. And as we’ll see below, Christian theologians were explicitly teaching that animals had souls as far back as the third century.
Chapter 13 – Neither persons nor objects, but creatures: What the Bible really teaches abut animals
The influence of Judaism on Christian attitudes to animals
The rainbow is the modern symbol of the Noahide Movement, recalling the rainbow that appeared after the Great Flood of the Bible. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Sullivan would have us believe that the early Christians, who identified logos with reason, sanctioned the exploitation of animals, even if Jesus Himself did not. But the roots of the Christian religion are not Greek but Jewish, and since time immemorial, Judaism has stressed the importance of kindness to animals. Thus Proverbs 12:10 tells us that “The righteous care for the needs of their animals,” and Deuteronomy 25:4 exhorts farmers: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” On no less than three occasions, the Bible issues the solemn prohibition, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21) – a puzzling command that may refer to a proscribed Canaanite ritual for boiling sacrificial kids in milk (although the damaged Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra which describe the practice do not clearly specify whether it was the mother’s milk), or that may reflect God’s detestation of the barbarous practice of boiling a dead kid in the very substance which had sustained its life. In a similar vein, in Genesis 9:4, God warns Noah and his family, “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” – a prohibition that made its way into the Noahide code, a set of seven laws developed as early as the 2nd century B.C., which the Jews considered to be binding on all mankind. The binding nature of this law is confirmed by Leviticus 17:10-14, where God declares that He will set His face against against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats an animal or bird without first draining its blood (which was equated with its life) from its body. The sixth Noahide law is generally understood to prohibit eating flesh from a still-living animal, in particular, and more generally, to prohibit any kind of cruelty towards animals.
This, then, was the intellectual milieu of the early Christians. The religious conviction that human beings alone were made in the image and likeness of God existed side by side with the ethical conviction that sentient creatures must be treated with kindness and that cruelty towards them was a thing odious to God.
What the Bible actually says about the value of people and animals
A male house sparrow in Victoria, Australia in March 2008. Jesus said that not one sparrow is forgotten by God (Luke 12:6). Image courtesy of fir0002, flagstaffotos.com.au and Wikipedia.
Sullivan is aware of verses in the Bible that display sensitivity towards animals, but he makes the fatal mistake of reading into them a meaning never intended by their authors, and attempting to show that the Bible recognizes, albeit dimly, the personhood of animals. He writes:
In the Book of Isaiah, God says that the day will come when the beasts of the field will “honor” Him. If there’s a characteristic of personal identity more defining than the capacity to honor, it’s hard to come up with.
And yet if one examines the passage in Isaiah 43, an altogether different picture emerges. The verse in question reads:
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen.
(Isaiah 43:20, NIV)
The term “beasts of the field,” quoted by Sullivan, has pastoral connotations to modern ears, but it is actually a King James rendition of what is now translated “wild animals” – including unclean ones, such as the jackal and owl. These animals honor God for providing water in the wilderness, but the water is not for them: it is for God’s chosen people, Israel, whom God describes in the following verse as “the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.” The very passage cited by Sullivan is a ringing affirmation of human uniqueness. And there’s more: a mere two verses later, God rebukes the Israelites for not sacrificing animals to Him:
You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings,
nor honored me with your sacrifices.
(Isaiah 43:23, NIV)
Sullivan makes much of the passage where wild animals are said to honor God in Isaiah 43:20, but he overlooks the fact that even the sun and moon, which are dismissively referred to as “the greater light” and “the lesser light” in Genesis 1:16, are exhorted to praise God in a joyful passage in Psalm 148: “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.” No-one would dream of citing this verse in order to show that the heavenly bodies were acknowledged as persons in the Bible; and it is equally absurd of Sullivan to cite Isaiah as a proto-animal liberationist.
But Sullivan’s mangling of Scripture does not stop there. Jesus is also depicted as teaching that animals, like people, are morally significant others:
Deeper than that, though, in the New Testament, in the Gospel according to Luke, there’s that exquisite verse, one of the most beautiful in the Bible, the one that says if God cares deeply about sparrows, don’t you think He cares about you? One is so accustomed to dwelling on the second, human, half of the equation, the comforting part, but when you put your hand over that and consider only the first, it’s a little startling: God cares deeply about the sparrows. Not just that, He cares about them individually. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus says. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” Sparrows are an important animal for Jesus.
I don’t wish to sound uncharitable to Sullivan here, for he makes a valid point. Each animal matters in its own right, for Jesus. But Sullivan wants to say more: according to him, the passage show that God cares deeply about animals and about people – placing them in the same moral category (which we might call “persons” or “morally significant others”). In making this claim, Sullivan over-reaches himself. The passage in Luke, taken in its entirety, actually undermines Sullivan’s thesis, as it re-affirms human superiority over the animals, in a sermon where Jesus exhorts His followers not to fear persecution:
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
(Luke 12:4-7, NIV)
I ask: if Jesus declares a human being to be “worth more than many sparrows,” then how can this possibly be construed by Sullivan as evidence in favor of his contentious claim that the other animals have a logos of their own, like the logos found in man?
Sullivan’s lack of depth is likewise apparent in his discussion of the parallel Scriptural passage in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 10:29), in which Jesus declares that even a sparrow “shall not fall to the ground without your Father.” He omits to mention the fact, pointed out in Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, that some ancient manuscripts render the phrase “without your Father” as “without the will of your Father” – which certainly lends it a very different meaning: that God decides when each and every sparrow is going to die. The Commentary also notes that the term “will or counsel” is added here by “Origen, Coptic, all the Arabic, latter Persic, Gothic, all the Itala except two,” and lists Tertullian, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Novatian, and other Latin fathers as favoring the longer reading. And once again Jesus tells His disciples, “So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:31, NIV)
Before I finish my discussion of Scripture, I’d like to turn to Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment, in Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable of the sheep and the goats, the wicked are consigned to eternal punishment for failing to help people in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger in their midst, the naked, the sick and those in prison. Jesus’s Jewish audience would have understood this condemnation, for the Torah also emphasizes our duty to help those in need: thus Leviticus 19 enjoins the Israelites to leave part of the harvest for the poor and the foreigner, and even to love foreigners “as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Curiously, though, the entire parable says nothing about those who fail to help God’s animal creatures. While the Bible condemns cruelty to animals, they are not our “neighbors.” We do not owe them a living.
In short: the verdict of both the Old and New Testaments is that we are obliged to help the stranger, but that we are permitted to kill the beast, so long as we avoid cruelty in doing so. For the Biblical authors, people inhabit a different moral plane from non-human animals, even if the latter are in some fashion “others.”
Chapter 14 – Did the Christian Church ever teach that animals had no souls?
Paradise by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
I now pass to Sullivan’s potted version of Christian attitudes towards animals. In his essay, he makes the remarkable claim that according to the early Christians, “the animals lack souls.” This, I have to say, is pure and utter rubbish, and I defy him to find a single Church Father, Latin or Greek, who said any such thing. Had Sullivan consulted the writings of the early Christian Fathers, he would have found frequent references to animal souls.
Thus the Christian theologian Origen (185-254 A.D.) writes in his De Principiis Book II, Chapter 8, paragraph 1: “Now, that there are souls in all living things, even in those which live in the waters, is, I suppose, doubted by no one. For the general opinion of all men maintains this; and confirmation from the authority of holy Scripture is added, when it is said that God made great whales, and every living creature that moves which the waters brought forth after their kind.” He goes on to define “soul” as a principle of sense and motion, and he also cites Leviticus 17:14, which “intimates most clearly that the blood of every animal is its life,” before adding (correctly) that even animals like bees and oysters, which do not have red blood, have a “liquid which is within them, although it be of a different colour.”
Or I could cite Tertullian (c. 150-230 A.D.), who in chapter 32 of his De Anima, rejects the Empedoclean view that humans are reincarnated as animals, not on the grounds that animals have no souls, but that their souls are different from ours, each animal’s soul having been made to fit the kind of body it is assigned to. Tertullian acknowledges the Scriptural passage, “Man is like the beasts that perish” (Ecclesiastes 3:19), but goes on to argue that “if a man likewise be designated a wild beast or a harmless one, there is not for all that an identity of soul,” for “by the very fact of your judging that a man resembles a beast, you confess that their soul is not identical.”
I cannot omit mention of St. Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.), who in Homily VIII of his Hexaemeron, explicitly ascribes souls to animals, in his exegesis of Genesis 1:24, which depicts God as decreeing, “Let the earth bring forth a living soul,” when making the land animals on the fifth day. Aquatic animals are also said to have a soul, albeit of a lesser kind: “in aquatic animals, the carnal life originates their psychic movements, whilst in terrestrial animals, gifted with a more perfect life, the soul enjoys supreme authority.” While acknowledging that “without doubt terrestrial animals are devoid of reason,” he goes on to affirm that they “express by cries their joy and sadness, recognition of what is familiar to them, the need of food, regret at being separated from their companions, and numberless emotions.” He even goes so far as to declare that “the conduct of storks comes very near intelligent reason,” praising the way in which they take care of their aged: “The storks surround their father, when old age makes his feathers drop off, warm him with their wings, and provide abundantly for his support, and even in their flight they help him as much as they are able, raising him gently on each side upon their wings.”
And yet for all that, Basil recognizes that there is a vast distinction between man and the other animals. Even as he exhorts Christians to imitate the solicitude shown by the nobler animals towards others of their kind, he recognizes that it reflects no virtue on their part, for it is entirely due to the fact that “divine Providence has established these marvellous laws in favour of creatures devoid of reason.” Basil also asserts that “the soul of creatures devoid of reason” is “an earthy substance” which perishes when they die, and he mocks “the nonsense of those arrogant philosophers who do not blush to liken their soul to that of a dog.”
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) is often castigated by animal lovers for adamantly denying that we have any duties towards animals, in a celebrated passage in his book, On the Morals of the Manichaeans (Chapter XVII, paragraph 54), where he declares that the Manichaean practice of “abstaining from the slaughter of animals and from injuring plants is shown by Christ to be mere superstition; for, on the ground that there is no community of rights between us and brutes and trees, He both sent the devils into an herd of swine [Matthew 8:32] and withered by His curse a tree in which He had found no fruit [Matthew 21:19],” even though “[t]he swine assuredly had not sinned, nor had the tree.” Yet these critics overlook another work of Augustine’s, entitled, Of Two Souls, in which he attacks the dualistic Manichaean view that there are two kinds of souls in the world, one of which is God’s handiwork, while the other is not from God. In his refutation of this view, St. Augustine draws attention to an intellectual inconsistency on the part of the Manichaeans: on the one hand, they regarded light as something divine in its origin, while on the other, they vehemently denied that the soul of an unclean animal, such as a fly, could possibly come from God. In Chapter 4, paragraph 4, of his book, Augustine insists that the soul of a lowly fly is far nobler than any light:
And here, if perchance in their confusion they had inquired of me whether I thought that the soul even of a fly surpasses that light, I should have replied, yes, nor should it have troubled me that the fly is little, but it should have confirmed me that it is alive. For it is inquired, what causes those members so diminutive to grow, what leads so minute a body here and there according to its natural appetite, what moves its feet in numerical order when it is running, what regulates and gives vibration to its wings when flying? This thing whatever it is in so small a creature towers up so prominently to one well considering, that it excels any lightning flashing upon the eyes.
Sullivan should also be aware that the Catholic Church’s most esteemed theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), explicitly ascribed souls to animals in his Summa Theologica, part I, question 75, article 3, even while affirming that the souls of brute animals are not subsistent, and that they are incapable of existing apart from the body, unlike the human soul, which is capable of performing non-bodily acts such as grasping abstract concepts and making free choices. Indeed, for Aquinas, the soul can be simply defined as “the first principle of life,” which means that plants have souls too. Thus in his Summa Theologica, part I, question 78, article 1, he approvingly cites Aristotle’s dictum (De Anima ii, 3) that “The powers are the vegetative, the sensitive, the appetitive, the locomotive, and the intellectual.”
Although Aquinas, following Aristotle, defined man as a rational animal, he allowed that some animals possessed a “natural estimative” capacity which is similar to the human capacity for reason, except that its object is the particular, rather than the general. In his Summa Theologica, part I, question 78, article 4, Aquinas goes on to explain that this capacity “is also called the ‘particular reason,’ to which medical men assign a certain particular organ, namely, the middle part of the head: for it compares individual intentions, just as the intellectual reason compares universal intentions.” He goes on to say that memory is something that man shares with the animals, but only human beings are capable of reminiscing. And he approvingly quotes Avicenna as saying that while animals could imagine things they had seen before – e.g. a color such as gold, or a mountain – only human beings could combine the two and imagine something new, that they had never seen before: a golden mountain.
The only Church Father I can find who came anywhere close to saying that animals do not have souls is St. Gregory of Nyssa, who after pointing out in Chapter XV, paragraph 1, of his work, On the Making of Man, that “some things in creation [i.e. plants] possess the nutritive faculty, and others again [i.e. animals] are regulated by the perceptive faculty,” goes on to declare that “as the soul finds its perfection in that which is intellectual and rational, everything that is not so may indeed share the name of ‘soul,’ but is not really soul, but a certain vital energy associated with the appellation of ‘soul.'” However, St. Gregory is inconsistent on this point, for he acknowledges in the same work that the “rational animal, man, is blended of every form of soul; he is nourished by the vegetative kind of soul, and to the faculty of growth was added that of sense, which stands midway, if we regard its peculiar nature, between the intellectual and the more material essence” (Chapter VIII, paragraph 5).
In short: the unanimous witness of the Christian tradition is that animals have souls. What Christians have always taught, however, and what the Church Father Origen affirmed in Book IV, chapter 83 of his Contra Celsum, is that “the human soul was created in the image of God,” which is why Christians utterly reject the Platonic view that “all souls are of the same species, and that there is no difference between that of a man and those of ants and bees.”
Writing around 250 A.D., Origen, in his De Principiis Book III, Chapter 1, paragraph 3, summed up the traditional Christian view that while some animals have a power of judgement approaching reason, only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God:
“But since a rational animal not only has within itself these natural movements [appetites], but has moreover, to a greater extent than other animals, the power of reason, by which it can judge and determine regarding natural movements, and disapprove and reject some, while approving and adopting others, so by the judgment of this reason may the movements of men be governed and directed towards a commendable life. And from this it follows that, since the nature of this reason which is in man has within itself the power of distinguishing between good and evil, and while distinguishing possesses the faculty of selecting what it has approved, it may justly be deemed worthy of praise in choosing what is good, and deserving of censure in following that which is base or wicked. This indeed must by no means escape our notice, that in some dumb animals there is found a more regular movement than in others, as in hunting-dogs or war-horses, so that they may appear to some to be moved by a kind of rational sense. But we must believe this to be the result not so much of reason as of some natural instinct, largely bestowed for purposes of that kind.”
Chapter 15 – The debate about animal rationality in the third and fourth centuries A.D.
(a) The dissenters: early Christian apologists who regarded animals as rational, but unable to know God
The Origenist view that reason was unique to human beings came to dominate the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, it had a couple of prominent Christian dissenters. At least two Church Fathers in the early fourth century A.D. imputed the capacity for reason to non-human animals: Arnobius of Sicca and his pupil Lactantius. The early Christian apologist Arnobius (died c. 330 A.D.) vigorously defended animals’ capacity to reason in his work, Against the Heathen, Book II, chapter 17:
17. But we have reason, one will say, and excel the whole race of dumb animals in understanding. I might believe that this was quite true, if all men lived rationally and wisely, never swerved aside from their duty, abstained from what is forbidden, and withheld themselves from baseness, and if no one through folly and the blindness of ignorance demanded what is injurious and dangerous to himself. I should wish, however, to know what this reason is, through which we are more excellent than all the tribes of animals. Is it because we have made for ourselves houses, by which we can avoid the cold of winter and heat of summer? What! Do not the other animals show forethought in this respect? Do we not see some build nests as dwellings for themselves in the most convenient situations; others shelter and secure themselves in rocks and lofty crags; others burrow in the ground, and prepare for themselves strongholds and lairs in the pits which they have dug out? But if nature, which gave them life, had chosen to give to them also hands to help them, they too would, without doubt, raise lofty buildings and strike out new works of art. Yet, even in those things which they make with beaks and claws, we see that there are many appearances of reason and wisdom which we men are unable to copy, however much we ponder them, although we have hands to serve us dexterously in every kind of work.
Arnobius’s pupil Lactantius (ca. 240-320 A.D.) wrote a spirited defense of the Christian faith between 303 and 311 A.D. In Book III, chapter 10 of The Divine Institutes, Lactantius argued that man’s distinguishing feature lay on his ability to know his Creator, God. The other animals possess reason, but are incapable of religion:
Therefore the chief good of man is in religion only; for the other things, even those which are supposed to be peculiar to man, are found in the other animals also. For when they discern and distinguish their own voices by peculiar marks among themselves, they seem to converse: they also appear to have a kind of smile, when with soothed ears, and contracted mouth, and with eyes relaxed to sportiveness, they fawn upon man, or upon their own mates and young. Do they not give a greeting which bears some resemblance to mutual love and indulgence? Again, those creatures which look forward to the future and lay up for themselves food, plainly have foresight. Indications of reason are also found in many of them. For since they desire things useful to themselves, guard against evils, avoid dangers, prepare for themselves lurking-places standing open in different places with various outlets, assuredly they have some understanding. Can any one deny that they are possessed of reason, since they often deceive man himself? For those which have the office of producing honey, when they inhabit the place assigned to them, fortify a camp, construct dwellings with unspeakable skill, and obey their king; I know not if there is not in them perfect prudence. It is therefore uncertain whether those things which are given to man are common to him with other living creatures: they are certainly without religion. I indeed thus judge, that reason is given to all animals, but to the dumb creatures only for the protection of life, to man also for its prolongation. And because reason itself is perfect in man, it is named wisdom, which renders man distinguished in this respect, that to him alone it is given to comprehend divine things.
Although the eloquent defense of animal rationality by Arnobius and his pupil Lactantius was never censured by the Church, it failed to gain any significant support, and its influence on the Christian tradition was marginal. This may have been because the two apologists’ theological views lay outside the Christian tradition in many respects: the Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on Arnobius, forthrightly states that “Arnobius is more earnest in his defence of Christianity than correct in his tenets”; and in its article on Lactantius, declares even his classic work, The Divine Institutes, to have been a flawed masterpiece: “The beauty of the style, the choice and aptness of the terminology, cannot hide the author’s lack of grasp on Christian principles and his almost utter ignorance of Scripture.” In contradistinction to what eventually came to be the common Christian view that the soul was immortal and immediately created by God, both authors denied the immortality of the soul and taught that it was created, not by God, but by intermediate beings; and they also held, bizarrely, that the pagan gods were real beings, who were nevertheless subject to the power of the Christian God.
Another possible reason why Arnobius’s and Lactantius’s arguments in support of animal rationality were ignored is that they had already been refuted by the Christian apologist, Origen, more than fifty years earlier.
(b) The pagan philosopher Celsus’s arguments for animal rationality (177 A.D.)
Reading through Book IV of the Christian apologist Origen’s classic work Against Celsus, I find it astonishing that many of the arguments which the pagan philosopher Celsus put forward in support of rationality in animals in the late second century anticipate those brought forward by modern defenders of animal intelligence. Thus Celsus scoffs at the notion that humans possess more intelligence than the other animals, arguing that “if men appear to be superior to irrational animals on this account, that they have built cities, and make use of a political constitution, and forms of government, and sovereignties, this is to say nothing to the purpose, for ants and bees do the same. Bees, indeed, have a sovereign, who has followers and attendants; and there occur among them wars and victories, and slaughterings of the vanquished, and cities and suburbs, and a succession of labours, and judgments passed upon the idle and the wicked; for the drones are driven away and punished.” The manner in which Celsus adduces these facts seems to strikingly anticipate that of Charles Darwin, arguing for the intelligence of ants in his Descent of Man (London: John Murray, 1871, 1st edition):
Ants communicate information to each other, and several unite for the same work, or games of play. They recognise their fellow-ants after months of absence. They build great edifices, keep them clean, close the doors in the evening, and post sentries. They make roads, and even tunnels under rivers. They collect food for the community, and when an object, too large for entrance, is brought to the nest, they enlarge the door, and afterwards build it up again. They go out to battle in regular bands, and freely sacrifice their lives for the common weal. They emigrate in accordance with a preconcerted plan. They capture slaves. They keep Aphides as milch-cows. They move the eggs of their aphides, as well as their own eggs and cocoons, into warm parts of the nest, in order that they may be quickly hatched; and endless similar facts could be given.
(Volume I, Chapter VI, On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man, page 187.)
Have we really advanced from the second century, with this kind of reasoning about animals’ alleged mental feats? Plus ca change…
The reader will notice that Celsus’s argument here is similar to the arguments advanced in the early fourth century by Arnobius of Sicca and his pupil Lactantius.
However, there is a ready answer to arguments of this kind, and the Christian philosopher Origen nailed it down, over 1700 years ago.
(c) Origen’s reply to Celsus: the importance of reflective consciousness
An ant transporting an aphid to a leaf on a walnut-tree. Image courtesy of Luisifer and Wikipedia.
In his response to Celsus in Book IV of his work, Against Celsus, Origen writes that the pagan philosopher “did not observe the difference that exists between what is done after reason and consideration, and what is the result of an irrational nature, and is purely mechanical.” The origin of the structures made by ants and bees “is not explained by the existence of any rational principle in those who make them, because they do not possess any such principle.” Origen argues that “ants and bees merit no approval, because they do not act from reflection.” Rather, the credit for their impressive feats belongs to “the divine nature, which extended even to irrational animals the capacity, as it were, of imitating rational beings.”
Origen’s telling point, that ants and bees “do not act from reflection,” also answers Celsus’s claim that animals behave in accordance with their own rules. In our modern age, we tend to mock the unthinking compliance of men who follow rules blindly and unreflectively, like the soldiers in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade:
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do or die.
But at least the soldiers could have reasoned why, had they wished to. And that ability makes all the difference. After all, is there not a fundamental distinction between following a rule and being able to articulate why you are follow it, and merely behaving in accordance with a rule without being able to say why you are doing so, as is the case for non-human animals? Indeed, the distinction is so basic that we tend not to describe the latter behavior as “rule-following” at all: conformity would be a better name for it.
In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas articulated the grounds for denying reason to animals even more clearly, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Book III, chapter XI, (Lectio 16). According to Aquinas, the real reason why non-human animals are said to be irrational, despite being endowed with imagination and a natural estimative capacity, is that they are incapable of weighing up alternatives in relation to some rule to be followed, as humans do. “And this deliberation requires some sort of rule or end by which to reckon what most needs to be done.” Because animals lack the capacity to grasp general prescriptive rules and form universal judgments, they can also be said to lack the capacity for free choice.
In addition to the complexity of animal behavior, the pagan philosopher Celsus put forward further arguments for ascribing rationality to animals. He argued that animals, like rational human beings, are capable of innovating, for they sometimes make new discoveries, which benefit them:
“If, however, men entertain lofty notions because of their possessing the power of sorcery, yet even in that respect are serpents and eagles their superiors in wisdom; for they are acquainted with many prophylactics against persons and diseases, and also with the virtues of certain stones which help to preserve their young. If men, however, fall in with these, they think that they have gained a wonderful possession.”
(Against Celsus, Book IV, Chapter 86.)
In his reply, the Christian apologist Origen pointed out that what distinguishes humans from serpents is that humans employ reason in making these discoveries:
…[H]ow can serpents be in this respect wiser than men, when they make use of the well-known fennel to sharpen their power of vision and to produce rapidity of movement, having obtained this natural power not from the exercise of reflection, but from the constitution of their body, while men do not, like serpents, arrive at such knowledge merely by nature, but partly by experiment, partly by reason, and sometimes by reflection and knowledge? (ibid.)
In his follow-up discussion of animals’ ability to self-medicate when they are sick, Origen contended that the fact that each species of animal uses the same one or two herbs to medicate itself tells heavily against rational intelligence being the cause of these alleged discoveries: “if reason were the discoverer, this one thing (or, if you will, one or two more things) would not be (exclusive of all others) the sole discovery made by serpents, and some other thing the sole discovery of the eagle, and so on with the rest of the animals; but as many discoveries would have been made among them as among men.” Driving home his point, Origen concluded that “it is manifest from the determinate inclination of the nature of each animal towards certain kinds of help, that they possess neither wisdom nor reason, but a natural constitutional tendency implanted by the Logos towards such things in order to ensure the preservation of the animal.”
In our own day, we are familiar with even more impressive-sounding innovations performed by animals, but the general line of response made by Origen in the third century remains valid. The crucial point here is that animals are unable to explain why they performed their actions they did, as a rational agent should be able to do. The tool-making feats of Betty the crow look impressive, but we cannot ask her: “Why did you make it that way?” as she is incapable of justifying her actions.
Chapter 16 – The Church from late antiquity to the Middle Ages: Advances in animal welfare
The suovetaurilia, an ancient Roman sacrifice in which a pig, a sheep, and a bull were sacrificed. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.
In his historical narrative of human attitudes towards animals, Sullivan glides over the Middle Ages in silence. We are simply told that the early Christians inherited the intellectual fruits of Plato’s and Aristotle’s identification of logos with rationality, and came to adopt the same exploitative attitude towards them as the ancient Greeks:
The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equaled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results.
“Mute equaled brute.” That’s what Sullivan would have us believe the early Christians thought about animals. This, I have to say, is nonsense, as I can show with a short quote from St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), the eloquent Christian orator who became Archbishop of Constantinople. Here’s what he says about kindness to animals in Homily XXIX, 471 of his Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans:
For the souls of the Saints are very gentle and, loving unto man, both in regard to their own, and to strangers. And even to the unreasoning creatures they extend their gentleness. Wherefore also a certain wise man said, “The righteous pities the souls of his cattle.” But if he does those of cattle, how much more those of men. But since I have mentioned cattle, let us just consider the shepherds of the sheep who are in the Cappadocian land, and what they suffer in kind and degree in their guardianship of unreasoning creatures. They often stay for three days together buried down under the snows. And those in Libya are said to undergo no less hardships than these, ranging about for whole months through that wilderness, dreary as it is, and filled with the direst wild beasts (theria may include serpents). Now if for unreasonable things there be so much zeal, what defense are we to set up, who are entrusted with reasonable souls, and yet slumber on in this deep sleep? For is it right to be at rest, and in quiet, and not to be running about everywhere, and giving one’s self up to endless deaths in behalf of these sheep?
From reading Sullivan’s account, you might well imagine that animals were frequently abused and mistreated during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. But you would be wrong. The Dark Ages were actually a time when animals were treated with great respect, as Rod Preece narrates in his book, Awe for the Tiger, Love for the Lamb: A Chronicle of Sensibility to Animals (Routledge: New Ed edition, paperback, 2002).
Sullivan might have mentioned the fact that the early Christians abolished animal sacrifices that had been practiced under the Romans, as well as the killing of animals for mass entertainment. These simple measures must have saved the lives of millions of animals.
Even historians who have little sympathy with Christianity have attested to its powerful civilizing influence in ameliorating the way in which animals were treated. The historian W.E.H. Lecky, in his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 2, pp. 161 ff. (New York: D. Appleton, 1921, Third edition, revised), paints a generally unflattering picture of the Catholic Church’s treatment of animals in the Middle Ages, writing that “Catholicism has done very little to inculcate humanity to animals,” as “the rights of animals had no place in the ethics of the Church.” Nevertheless, even Lecky acknowledges that the Church made a genuine attempt to inculcate feelings of tenderness towards animals in the minds of ordinary people. Animals figured prominently in pious legends about the saints, which were intended to edify the masses:
Before dismissing the saints of the desert, there is one other class of legends to which I desire to advert. I mean those which describe the connection between saints and the animal world. These legends are, I think, worthy of special notice in moral history, as representing the first, and at the same time one of the most striking efforts ever made in Christendom to inculcate a feeling of kindness and pity towards the brute creation…
…[W]hile what are called the rights of animals had no place in the ethics of the Church, a feeling of sympathy with the irrational creation was in some degree inculcated indirectly by the incidents of the hagiology. It was very natural that the hermit, living in the lonely deserts of the East, or in the vast forests of Europe, should come into an intimate connection with the animal world, and it was no less natural that the popular imagination, when depicting the hermit life, should make this connection the centre of many picturesque and sometimes touching legends. The birds, it was said, stooped in their flight at the old man’s call; the lion and the hyena crouched submissively at his feet; his heart, which was closed to all human interests, expanded freely at the sight of some suffering animal; and something of his own sanctity descended to the companions of his solitude and the objects of his miracles. The wild beasts attended St. Theon when he walked abroad, and the saint rewarded them by giving them drink out of his well. An Egyptian hermit had made a beautiful garden in the desert, and used to sit beneath the palm-trees while a lion ate fruit from his hand… St. Erasmus was the special protector of oxen, and they knelt down voluntarily before his shrine. St. Antony was the protector of hogs, who were usually introduced into his pictures. St. Bridget kept pigs, and a wild boar came from the forest to subject itself to her rule. A horse foreshadowed by its lamentations the death of St. Columbs. The three companions of St. Colman wore a cock, a mouse, and a fly. The cock announced the hour of devotion, the mouse bit the ear of the drowsy saint till he got up, and if in the course of his studies he was afflicted by any wandering thoughts, or called away to other business, the fly alighted on the line where he had left off, and kept the place. Legends, not without a certain whimsical beauty, described the moral qualities existing in animals…
Many hundreds, I should perhaps hardly exaggerate were I to say many thousands, of legends of this kind exist in the lives of the saints… In our eyes they may appear extravagantly puerile, yet it will scarcely, I hope, be necessary to apologise for introducing them into what purports to be a grave work, when it is remembered that for many centuries they were universally accepted by mankind, and were so interwoven with all local traditions, and with all the associations of education, that they at once determined and reflected the inmost feelings of the heart. Their tendency to create a certain feeling of sympathy towards animals is manifest, and this is probably the utmost the Catholic Church has done in that direction. A very few authentic instances may, indeed, be cited of saints whose natural gentleness of disposition was displayed in kindness to the animal world. Of St. James of Venice — an obscure saint of the thirteenth century — it is told that he was accustomed to buy and release the birds with which Italian boys used to play by attaching them to strings, saying that ‘he pitied the little birds of the Lord,’ and that his ‘tender charity recoiled from all cruelty, even to the most diminutive of animals.’ St. Francis of Assisi was a more conspicuous example of the same spirit. ‘If I could only be presented to the emperor,’ he used to say, ‘I would pray him, for the love of God, and of me, to issue an edict prohibiting any one from catching or imprisoning my sisters the larks, and ordering that all who have oxen or asses should at Christmas feed them particularly well.’
On a more practical level, medieval Europe had regulations in place which ensured that farm animals were treated humanely, as contemporary documents attest. The Seneschaucie (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890) was a document written in the late thirteenth century, mainly for lawyers and estate auditors. It contains a number of animal welfare regulations, relating to the care of oxen, horses, cattle, pigs and sheep:
The ploughmen ought to be men of intelligence, and ought to know how to sow, and how to repair and mend broken ploughs and harrows, and to till the land well, and crop it rightly; and they ought to know also how to yoke and drive the oxen, without beating or hurting them, and they ought to forage them well… And they must not flay [skin – VJT] any beast until some one has inspected it, and inquired by what default it died.
The waggoner ought to know his trade, to keep the horses and curry them, and to load and carry without danger to his horses, that they may not be overloaded or overworked, or overdriven, or hurt, and he must know how to mend his harness and the gear of the waggon… Each waggoner shall sleep every night with his horses, and keep such guard as he shall wish to answer for without damage; and so shall the oxherds sleep in the same way with their oxen…
The cowherd ought to be skilful, knowing his business and keeping his cows well, and foster the calves well from time of weaning. And he must see that he has fine bulls and large and of good breed pastured with the cows, to mate when they will. And that no cow be milked or suckle her calf after Michaelmas, to make cheese of rewain; for this milking and this rewain make the cows lose flesh and become weak, and will make them mate later another year, and the milk is better and the cow poorer. And he ought to see that the avers be well supplied with forage, and well kept in winter and summer, as he shall wish to answer, and that no cow or aver be flayn [skinned – VJT] before his superior has seen it and known by what default it died… And every night the cowherd shall put the cows and other beasts in the fold during the season, and let the fold be well strewed with litter or fern, as is said above, and he himself shall lie each night with his cows…
The swineherd ought to be on those manors where swine can be sustained and kept in the forest, or in woods, or waste, or in marshes, without sustenance from the grange ; and if the swine can be kept with little sustenance from the grange during hard frost, then must a pigsty be made in a marsh or wood, where the swine may be night and day. And then when the sows have farrowed, let them be driven with the feeble swine to the manors and kept with leavings as long as the hard frost and the bad weather last, and then driven back to the others…
Each shepherd ought to find good pledges to answer for his doings and for good and faithful service, although he be companion to the miller. And he must cover his fold and enclose it with hurdles and mend it within and without, and repair the hurdles and make them. And he ought to sleep in the fold, he and his dog; and he ought to pasture his sheep well, and keep them in forage, and watch them well, so that they be not killed or destroyed by dogs or stolen or lost or changed, nor let them pasture in moors or dry places or bogs, to get sickness and disease for lack of guard. No shepherd ought to leave his sheep to go to fairs, or markets, or wrestling matches, or wakes, or to the tavern, without taking leave or asking it, or without putting a good keeper in his place to keep the sheep, that no harm may arise from his fault…
The dairymaid ought to help to winnow the corn when she can be present, and she ought to take care of the geese and hens and answer for the returns and keep and cover the fire, that no harm arise from lack of guard. (pp. 111, 113, 115, 117 and 119)
In a similar vein, Walter of Henley’s Husbandry (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890), which was also written in the late thirteenth centiry, contains some sensible recommendations for the proper care of oxen and cattle:
You must keep your plough beasts so that they have enough food to do their work, and that they be not too much overwrought when they come from the plough, for you shall be put to too great an expense to replace them; besides, your tillage shall be behindhand. Do not put them in houses in wet weather, for inflammation arises between the
skin and the hair and between the skin and the wool, which will turn to the harm of the beasts… And let the cattle be bathed, and when they are dry curry them, for that will do them much good… And let your cows have enough food, that the milk may not be lessened… And let them have water in dry weather within the houses and without, for many die on the ground of a disease of the lungs for lack of water. Further, if there be any beast which begins to fall ill, lay out money to better it, for it is said in the proverb, ‘Blessed is the penny that saves two.’
While some of these regulations relating to the proper care of animals were undoubtedly in the best economic interests of the animals’ owners, they also manifest a genuine concern during the Middle Ages for the welfare of the animals themselves: care must be taken not to harm or endanger the beasts, which are not to be beaten. Farm animals are to be kept well-fed and adequately sheltered. Sullivan says nothing about these humane expressions of sympathy for animals in the Middle Ages, in his essay.
Aquinas on pity for suffering animals
Aquinas is generally given a bad rap by animal rights advocates for denying that we have any duties towards animals. What is not so widely known, however, is that Aquinas also declares that we should pity the suffering of animals. In his Summa Theologica I-II, question 102, article 6, reply to objection 8, St. Thomas explains that although human beings cannot have any rational affection for animals, since they lack reason, it is nevertheless possible for us to feel pity for suffering animals:
…[S]ince the passion of pity is caused by the afflictions of others; and since it happens that even irrational animals are sensible to pain, it is possible for the affection of pity to arise in a man with regard to the sufferings of animals. Now it is evident that if a man practice a pitiful affection for animals, he is all the more disposed to take pity on his fellow-men: wherefore it is written (Proverbs 12:10): “The just regardeth the lives of his beasts: but the bowels of the wicked are cruel.”
Catholic ethics has been criticized by some zoophilists because it refuses to admit that animals have rights. But it is indisputable that, when properly understood and fairly judged, Catholic doctrine — though it does not concede rights to the brute creation — denounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and as logically as do those moralists who make our duty in this respect the correlative of a right in the animals.
In order to establish a binding obligation to avoid the wanton infliction of pain on the brutes, it is not necessary to acknowledge any right inherent in them. Our duty in this respect is part of our duty towards God. From the juristic standpoint the visible world with which man comes in contact is divided into persons and non-persons. For the latter term the word “things” is usually employed…
But while these animals are, in contradistinction to persons, classed as things, it is none the less true that between them and the non-sentient world there exists a profound difference of nature which we are bound to consider in our treatment of them. The very essence of the moral law is that we respect and obey the order established by the Creator. Now, the animal is a nobler manifestation of His power and goodness than the lower forms of material existence. In imparting to the brute creation a sentient nature capable of suffering — a nature which the animal shares in common with ourselves — God placed on our dominion over them a restriction which does not exist with regard to our dominion over the non-sentient world. We are bound to act towards them in a manner conformable to their nature. We may lawfully use them for our reasonable wants and welfare, even though such employment of them necessarily inflicts pain upon them. But the wanton infliction of pain is not the satisfaction of any reasonable need, and, being an outrage against the Divinely established order, is therefore sinful.
(Fox, J. (1908). Cruelty to Animals. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.)
Many of my readers will disagree vigorously with the writer’s view of animals in the foregoing passage. Be that as it may, it does demonstrate one thing: that even from a philosophical perspective which subordinates animals’ interests to those of human beings, it is perfectly consistent for someone to denounce cruelty towards animals.
Chapter 17 – How singular was St. Francis of Assisi, and what did he really say about animals?
A garden statue of St. Francis of Assisi with birds. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.
How Sullivan misconstrues the message of St. Francis of Assisi
In his essay, Sullivan makes a brief mention of St. Francis of Assisi, preaching to the little birds, his “sisters.” Sullivan then proceeds to completely misconstrue St. Francis of Assisi’s views on animals, arguing that St. Francis viewed these animals as other persons, like ourselves. Sullivan wryly observes: “Needless to say he represented a radical extreme, conclusions of which regarding the right way of being in the world would not seem reasonable to most of the people who have his statue in their gardens.” He then adduces the Franciscan penitential practice of monks letting themselves be devoured by other animals as further evidence that St. Francis viewed them as genuine persons:
In one of his salutations, that of virtues, he goes as far as to say that human beings desiring true holiness should make themselves “subject” to the animals, “and not to men alone, but also to all beasts.” If God grants that wild animals eat you, lie down, let them do “whatsoever they will,” it’s what He wanted.
However, Sullivan is completely misreading the evidence in his discussion of St. Francis’ views on animals. For instance, the mere fact that St. Francis referred to birds as his “sisters” in no way implies that he viewed them as persons, since in his Canticle of the Sun, he also speaks of “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon” and “Brother Fire,” before concluding:
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
I take it that even Sullivan will agree that St. Francis didn’t believe that non-human animals were capable of dying in mortal sin and experiencing the “second death” in Hell. The conclusion is unavoidable: when St. Francis wrote that “no living person” can escape bodily death, he wasn’t talking about non-human animals, because he didn’t regard them as persons.
Why, then, did St. Francis urge his monks to show no resistance to wild animals trying to make a meal of them? What St. Francis actually said in his Salutation of the Virtues was that “Holy obedience” has the salutary effect of confounding “all bodily and fleshly desires,” as well as keeping the body mortified. For St. Francis, letting animals eat you alive was an extreme form of obedience to God (not the animals), so it proves nothing whatsoever about animal personhood. Moreover, nowhere in his writings did he command ordinary people to pursue this extreme self-mortification.
Further evidence that St. Francis of Assisi did not view animals as persons comes from his habit of eating meat. Francis actively encouraged members of his Franciscan order to eat meat, as his biographer Augustine Thompson, O.P., reveals in a biography entitled, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012), which Christopher Blum discusses in a review entitled, The Francis We Never Knew: Surprising Revelations About the Man From Assisi (Crisis magazine, September 5, 2012):
It is interesting to note, however, that for all of the ways Francis’s new community reflected conceptions of holiness that had been emerging for almost a century in central Italy, there were also distinct divergences—as, for instance, Francis’s determination that he and his followers should eat meat. In Francis’s Italy, one who pursued a seriously mortified life, even a layman or woman, would often go without meat during many days of the week and year, in accord with various liturgical observances. But Francis thought these observances went beyond the letter of the Gospel and so should be set aside in favor of a more literal, and hence more humble, following of Christ.
Let my readers judge. Does this sound like a man who viewed animals as equals?
I shall stop here for today, as the historical errors contained in Sullivan’s essay are too numerous to refute in a single post. In my next post, I shall discuss the period from Montaigne to Haller – roughly, the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.