BMCR 2007.09.60

Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers. Humanity and the Humane in Ancient Philosophy and Literature

Catherine Rowett, Dumb beasts and dead philosophers : humanity and the humane in ancient philosophy and literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xi, 262 pages). ISBN 9780191515705 £40.00.

Table of Contents

Catherine Osborne’s Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers is an inquiry into ‘what we think animals are, how we perceive ourselves as like or unlike them, and about the humane attitude towards animals and other natural things’ (239). The book is not simply intended as a historical study, but is also concerned with the validity of ancient philosophical writing on the topic and what these texts can contribute to contemporary debate. It is then, a work of philosophy as well as of philosophical history. Osborne (hereafter O.) draws, moreover, not only on philosophical texts but also on literary ones: Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Ajax and Antigone, and in her introduction Blakes’ Auguries of Innocence and ‘The Fly’ from Songs of Experience. The inclusion of non-philosophical writings follows from O.’s conviction that poetry or storytelling can be more effective than argument as ways of leading to an alternative viewpoint (5). Her readings are in general acute and clear-headed across the range of texts which she approaches, and the book should prove valuable for those interested in the topic of animal ethics as well as for classicists, whether or not one feels able to share all of her conclusions.

Studies dedicated in whole or in part to human attitudes towards animals in antiquity have been steadily increasing in recent years. Dumb Beasts certainly stakes out its own territory in the field. It is a very different book, for instance, from both Richard Sorabji’s Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (reviewed at BMCR 94.10.02) and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’ recent Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas. The former of these focuses deliberately on the philosophical evidence to the exclusion of other kinds, and deals especially (as its title would suggest) with arguments concerning animal consciousness and their implications for human ethics. Sorabji is in fact thanked in O.’s acknowledgements, though O. states her differences from him at several points. Gilhus’ book, on the other hand, is a study of Roman attitudes to animals, and concerns itself far less than either Sorabji or Osborne with the possible value for contemporary debate of the texts which it analyses.

O’s book is divided into three sections: ‘Constructing Divisions’, ‘Perceiving Continuities’ and ‘Being Realistic’. The first of these, ‘Constructing Divisions’, consists of an ‘Introduction: On William Blake, Nature and Mortality’ and one further chapter ‘On Nature and Providence: Readings in Herodotus, Protagoras, and Democritus’. In the first of these O. outlines her approach: she argues that attempting to base ethical arguments on value-neutral, natural features is misguided, as these are inevitably selected on the basis of prior valuations and are in any case not the sort of facts which could answer ethical questions. Instead, O. wishes to base ethical valuations in a ‘true moral vision’ which is ‘objectively better’ (12-13). She argues that even if this difference cannot be argued philosophically, it can be demonstrated by poetry and stories (12). The point that the selection of natural features cannot be a neutral one is well made, but the alternative proposal of basing ethical choices in a ‘true moral vision’ is questionable (see further on this below in the discussion of Chapter Seven).

The second chapter of section one, ‘On Nature and Providence’, looks at the questions about the providence of nature and humanity’s place in it raised by Protagoras and Democritus. O. uses Herodotus ‘to set the scene for the more revisionary theories’ which constitute the chapter’s main focus. While Herodotus presents ‘an impartial preservation that does not favour one species above another’ (29), Protagoras (as depicted in Plato’s Protagoras) draws attention to the radically different survival strategies of humans compared to animals and suggests an affinity between humans and gods. He, like Democritus, sees humanity as relatively helpless, thus justifying the use of any means for securing advantage, and considers morality precisely such a tool with which to fight against the beasts. That is, by providing a united front against other species, morality improves humanity’s chances of survival. Thus, O. observes, Protagoras’ emphasis on the instrumental value of morality is entirely compatible with a cultural relativism (32-33). O.’s reading of Protagoras’ myth as a narrative designed to engineer a change towards a more aggressive moral stance is astute and well developed.

The second section of Dumb Beasts consists of three chapters. The first of these, ‘On the Transmigration of Souls: Reincarnation Into Animal Bodies in Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato’, begins from the observation that ‘the structure of our world reflects our value judgements, rather than dictating what value judgements we are to make’ (43: italics O.’s) and argues that rather than theories of reincarnation leading to the revisionary moral outlook associated with Pythagoreanism, it is the revisionary moral outlook which inspires theories of reincarnation in its support.

Chapter Four (‘On Language, Concepts and Automata: Rational and Irrational Animals in Aristotle and Descartes’) examines Aristotle’s attempts ‘to explain the continuity between animal capacities and the, supposedly distinctive, human capacity to think in conceptual terms’ (63), and argues that neither Plato nor Aristotle draws a strong divide between animals which use concepts and those which cannot. O. contrasts Aristotle on animal movement with Descartes’ view of animals as automata, and argues that Aristotle uses the concept of phantasia, or ‘imagination’ to ‘provide continuity of mental content between beasts and mankind’ (79).

In Chapter Five (‘On the Disadvantages of Being a Complex Organism: Aristotle and the scala naturae‘), O. addresses the question of whether Aristotle considers complexity superior to simplicity and whether he places human beings at the apex of existence. On both of these points O. argues in the negative, warning that it is a distortion of Aristotle’s thinking to import an idea of evolution into it, and stressing that ‘for Aristotle, as for his contemporaries, it is normal to think that what is pure, simple, non-composite, and primary is of superior value’ (108). This chapter ends with an Appendix considering Aristotle’s views on slaves and women alongside his views on animals. Here O. concludes that though Aristotle does acknowledge a hierarchy of reason, this does not amount to a hierarchy of value (132).

The third and longest section, ‘Being Realistic’, covers a great deal of ground chronologically and conceptually as well as in genre. Beginning with Aelian’s version of the story of Androcles and the lion, Chapter Six moves to a discussion of similar stories of interaction between animals and humans in the Lives of the Desert Fathers, and examines the notions of sentimentality and anthropomorphism. As O. observes, the story of Androcles is useless as a proof of animal memory, though it is ostensibly to this end that Aelian tells it. Rather, she sees in it a proof that what counts for moral evaluation are not abilities but more practical deeds and motives (138). O.’s reading here as elsewhere is close and careful, but it is seems too large a claim, or rather the wrong sort of claim, to say that this (or any) story offers ‘a proof’. In a footnote a little later O. more cautiously states that ‘we may see the story as a thought experiment designed to prove that these notions (or projections) are coherent and conceivable’ (138-139, n. 4). This is much more promising, as also is her argument elsewhere that what narrative can do is different from what can be achieved by philosophical argument (e.g. 5). To speak about proof, however, in describing the effects of stories seems inappropriate.

In this same chapter O. explores the nature of ‘sentimentality’ and considers the various attitudes which might be described as sentimental, such as feeling too much for a particular object or for an inappropriate one, arguing against the notion that a proper attitude towards animals (or anything else) is a mean between too much and too little. Her reference here to ‘perfect Christian love’ (142) however, is likely to fall flat with non-Christian readers.

In Chapter Seven (‘On the Notion of Natural Rights: Defending the Voiceless and Oppressed in the Tragedies of Sophocles’) O. addresses the connected questions of the appropriateness of speaking of rights in general, and of using this language in speaking about animals. Through a reading of Sophocles O. develops the argument that where in our own time we tend to employ rights language to express moral outrage, other forms of language were employed for the same purpose in antiquity, in particular that of religion (182). Following this analysis, O. gives a ‘Possible Historical Sketch’ of how the vocabulary of rights developed. O. concludes that what has occurred is the replacement of ‘one set of imaginary entities, the gods, with another set of imaginary entities, rights’, neither of which makes clear ‘the real source of the constraint . . . absolute moral value’ (193). On this replacement of imaginary entities, O. is very convincing, but the invocation of ‘absolute moral value’ here and elsewhere in the book is more problematic. The existence of an absolute standard is asserted on several occasions, but not really argued, raising the objection that replacing both the gods and rights with absolute moral values appears to be simply the introduction of a third imaginary entity or group of entities to replace the previous two. The questions of the sense in which these absolute values can be said to exist, how we can know about them and how we can be sure that we perceive them and are not perceiving something which is merely culturally constructed are also not directly addressed.

Chapter Eight (‘On Self-Defence and Utilitarian Calculations: Democritus of Abdera and Hermarchus of Mytilene’) looks at attempts to give a guide to moral action by dividing animals into helpful and harmful. O. first considers the fragments of Democritus regarding the ethics of killing animals, and finds in them a moral approach that comes down to killing whatever is harmful (whether human or animal) and not killing everything and everyone else. As O. observes, Democritus is more often discussed for his atomic theory and in connection with the cosmological tradition in Presocratic philosophy, so the discussion of some of the fragments on ethical subjects is welcome. O. goes on to consider the opinions of the Epicurean philosopher Hermarchus of Mytilene as they are preserved in Porphyry’s De Abstinentia, which pursue similar lines to Democritus, reducing morality to ‘a set of strategically effective rules for maximizing the beneficial consequences’ to agents and their societies (219). O. considers that the fundamental fault with Hermarchus’ reasoning lies in seeking a justification for treating others decently. Expanding on this point, O. argues that it is an error to choose a morally decent option for any other reason than that it is what it is, and sees ‘the intuitive sense of what can and can’t be admired’ as ‘more secure than the philosophers’ proposed foundations that claim to ground it.'(222-223). Indeed, my objections to the lack of a foundation for her absolute moral values in the previous chapter and elsewhere might well be regarded by O. as a request for just the sort of ulterior motive which she rejects in this one. But perhaps some account can be given of the nature of these values which does not require founding them in less worthy motivations, and which will state what it is that the moral intuition intuits?

The ninth and final chapter (‘On Eating Animals: Porphyry’s Dietary Rules for Philosophers’) examines Porphyry’s arguments in favour of vegetarianism. Beginning with a summary of De Abstinentia, O. argues that for Porphyry health (and in particular the health of the intellect) is the primary justification for a vegetarian diet. Though a large part of De Abstinentia is devoted to arguing that it is unjust to kill animals, O., following Bouffartigue and Patillon in the introduction to their edition and translation of De Abstinentia, sees this as subordinate to his focus on the good of the philosopher. O. moves from the discussion of Porphyry to a critique of vegetarianism in general, arguing that it is a phenomenon of wealthy societies and is made possible only by a degree of luxury obtained by exploiting the poorer parts of the world. O.’s argumentation here becomes rather sketchy. In response to the assertion that vegetarianism is a phenomenon of affluent societies, one might wonder what O. thinks about the case of India, surely part of the ‘less developed half of the world’ (237). Furthermore, must it always be the case that a vegetarian diet depends on unfair and exploitative forms of trade? O. asserts rather than proves this point, moving from the observation that ‘it seems probable’ that this choice is available because of unfair trade, to the assumption that it must always be so, without any further argumentation or evidence. Nor is it obvious that a vegetarian must entirely ‘disdain the traditional local home produce’ for the factory-made veggie-burger (238). O.’s critique makes the valid point that the choice of eating meat or not is far from being the only ethical decision involved in a choice of diet, but her conclusions as they stand are overly sweeping.

O.’s conclusion succinctly brings together the various arguments advanced in the book and rightly stresses the historical and philosophical importance of the questions which it addresses. She ends by reiterating the view that the best way to engineer changes of opinion is through the telling of stories, in particular those of antiquity. This may well be the case, but if it is and philosophy is, as O. states earlier, ‘a form of human arrogance’ (161), the question arises of why one would write a philosophy book at all. Presumably O. feels that there is a place for philosophical discussion as well as narrative.

Dumb Beasts is indeed concerned with retelling and understanding ancient narratives as well as with ancient philosophy. It covers a great deal of intellectual ground and offers some insightful and unexpected readings in ancient philosophy and literature. It is perhaps these readings and retellings which will prove the most valuable part of the book. It will certainly prove stimulating and informative not only to classicists or those interested in views of animals in antiquity, but to the far wider public concerned with animal ethics.