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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Montaigne. Whether the ancients were serious in
their praise of animals cannot be answered simply.
Sometimes, as would seem to be true of Plutarch, they
used the theme for purposes of satire. But it is likely
that the Cynics at any rate were serious since they
seem to have carried over their theriophily into action.
The theme could not very well be continued into
Christianity because of the biblical passage cited above
and of the dogma of man's superiority. One could
hardly rank an animal above the image of God
endowed with soul. Yet the Christian belief in man's
superiority was sometimes shaken by the awareness of
evil, and there were plenty of writings on the problem
of evil during the Middle Ages to show how worried
men were by it. From Saint Augustine to Saint Thomas
Aquinas and beyond runs a thread of explanation of
something which is and ought not to be. Yet for all
their preoccupation with human misery and sin, for
all their contempt for the world and their yearning
to escape into a happier realm, the men of the Middle
Ages seem never to have maintained that human beings
were inferior to the beasts, though some might be

In the sixteenth century, when skepticism and the
depreciation of learning went hand in hand, when faith
arose once more to preeminence as against reason, and
when the classical writers became better known, there
also began a wave of theriophily which is hard to
distinguish from satire. It may be said to begin with
G.-B. Gelli's Circe (1549). This work takes up the theme
of Plutarch's Gryllus but extends it from the pig to
all the animals, beginning with the oyster and ending
with the elephant. Circe seems to the writer of this
article to be one of those books of paradoxes which
were current at the time and which go back at least
to Maximus of Tyre (second century A.D.). One of the
best known of such writings is Ortensio Landi's
Paradossi (1543). The whole purpose of the paradoxes
is to startle public opinion by proposing, in apparent
seriousness, ideas generally supposed to be false, such
as, that it is better to live as a peasant than as a
courtier, better to be poor than rich. Others have
maintained that Circe is a serious book and that its
major theses are to be taken as the genuine opinion
of its author. Such problems are difficult, if possible,
to solve and we shall simply describe the contents of
the little book.

In Circe Ulysses interviews a large range of animals
and finds that all but one have no wish to return to
humanity. Each points out some advantage that ani-
mals have over men. The oyster, relying on Pliny, says
that Nature has given oysters an instinctive dread of
their enemies—something which she has not given
men—a shell for clothing, and a habitation. The mole,
who was a farmer in his previous existence, laments
man's need to work, famine, drought, and that steady
war against hostile forces which is man's lot. Animals
have none of this to endure. The snake, who was a
physician before his enchantment, knows more than
the average man about human disabilities, speaks of
human intemperance which leads to so many ills. When
Ulysses points out that medicine can cure these, the
snake launches into one of those diatribes against med-
icine which were common at the time and furthermore
points out that the beasts have no need of that
empirical art, a fact which shows their superiority to
man. And when Ulysses mentions human longevity as
contrasted with the brevity of animal life, the snake


replies that the beasts at any rate don't worry them-
selves about death. The hare, who comes next, delivers
a sermon on all the forms of human misery. A man
is miserable if rich, for he is surrounded by envious
enemies; if poor, well, says the hare, there is no need
to say why he is miserable. There are no rich nor poor
among the beasts. No beast has to sell himself because
of poverty. The roebuck prefers animal life for four
reasons: the animal has no economic worries, no fear
of the future, no suspicions of his fellows, no fear of
the law. The doe, who had been a woman, gives Ulysses
a feminist sermon. Female animals are not slaves to
their mates; they do not bring forth their young in pain;
they have no trouble rearing them; they are the equals
of the males in every way. The lion objects to human
psychological evils—ambition, envy, anger—none of
which exists among the beasts. So it goes until Ulysses
comes to the elephant. The elephant had been a
philosopher and can see the superiority of human
knowledge. Animals cannot know universals; their
knowledge is confined to particulars. Moreover human
knowledge is more certain than that of the beasts.
Therefore he alone of Circe's animals will return to
human form, bewailing the shortsightedness of his fel-
lows, who prefer a momentary sensory pleasure to the
lasting delights of reason.

Circe had a great vogue, and imitations of it and
of the Gryllus theme continued down into the eight-
eenth century. It appeared in the theater and Merritt
Hughes has shown how it was used even in Spenser's
Faerie Queene (Hughes, 1943). To see society from the
point of view of a foreigner—a Persian or Chinese or
American Indian—was a favorite device for gaining
distance and an apparent objectivity; to see it from
the point of view of an animal was even better. The
idea gained such popularity that it can be found in
popular imagery in the caricatures of Le monde
where beasts play the roles of men and men
those of beasts. The device reappeared in our own time
in Edmond Rostand's Chantecler (1910).

If one man is to be selected as the main vehicle of
theriophily in the seventeenth century, it is Michel de
Montaigne. In his essays On Pedantry (I, 25) and On
the Cannibals
(I, 31) he expresses his primitivistic
sympathies, whether in earnest or not, and in the
Apology for Raimond Sebond (II, 12) he engages in
a eulogy of the animals which maintained that their
brutal stupidity surpasses all that our divine intelli-
gence can do. With that equilibrium of temper that
characterizes Montaigne, he ends his essay not by
concluding that the beasts are our superiors but simply
by saying that Nature, “our great and puissant mother,”
gives to each that which is suitable to its kind. His
adversaries in the seventeenth century, and they were
many, either failed to read his essay through or failed
to understand it. They read into its author a theriophilic
prejudice that was not there.

Montaigne did pick up from the ancients all the
stories of animal intelligence and morality which had
been passed on by Plutarch and Pliny. He speaks of
the government of the bees; the architectural skill of
the swallow; the deliberation and foresight of the
spider in spinning her web; the medical knowledge,
the temperance, the chastity of various animals. He
argues that if it would require reason in men to pro-
duce works of art such as the beasts produce, it must
require reason in the beasts as well. He substantiates
his argument by resorting again to Plutarch, this time
to the piece “On the Cleverness of the Beasts” (De
sollertia animalium,
in Moralia XII, 959A). In Thrace,
for instance, the foxes when they come to a frozen
river, put their ears close to the ice to test its thickness.
If they hear the water running beneath, they conclude
that the ice is too thin to support their weight. This
is a case of syllogistic reasoning on their part. Not only
can the animals reason, regardless of what tradition
has said, but they are morally better than men. They
do not war on others of their kind nor are they sub-
servient, like human beings, to one another. They have
their own medical lore: the goats of Candia cure their
wounds by eating dittany, the tortoise purges itself by
taking origanum. Many of them show that they are
capable of learning things that are not relevant to their
natural way of life—e.g., dancing to music, guiding
the blind, working a treadmill. Finally, since it takes
greater intelligence to teach than to learn, they have
been our teachers; for we have learned weaving from
the spider, building from the swallow, music from the
swan and nightingale, medicine from various animals.
Montaigne gives examples of animal piety, fidelity,
gratitude, magnanimity, and thus proves an “equality
and correspondence” between them and us.

Probably the most shocking thing about these
thoughts was that they lowered man from his pinnacle
and to all intents and purposes reduced him to the level
of the animals. Man had always had a special position
between the angels and the beasts and now it began
to look as if he was losing that position. Montaigne,
moreover, had support for his ideas; not only his main
disciple, Pierre Charron, but also from the early zoolo-
gists, Rorario, Gilles the piscatologist, Franzius, Wilde,
and Goedaert the entomologist, none of whom rank
with the great names in their fields but all of whom
were respected in their day. These men, either because
they were credulous or because they had an unshakable
confidence in ancient authority, repeated many of the
old yarns and lent the prestige of their scientific posi-
tion to the spread of such ideas.


It was Descartes who made the most effective attack
on theriophily with his doctrine that animals were
simply complicated machines; their soul, as the Bible
seemed to say, was their blood. Descartes did not say,
as has been asserted, that they had no feelings, but
merely that their feelings were material effects of what
were known as animal spirits, a gaseous substance
which moved the muscles. But the most important
point for Descartes was that if the beasts could reason,
then they would have to have immaterial souls, for
reason depends on the apprehension of immaterial
ideas, universals. Since the immaterial is unchanging
and hence indestructible, an immaterial soul would be
immortal; but that would be unthinkable if their soul
is their blood. Hence theriophily is contrary to Scrip-
ture. With the Cartesian thesis propounded, the seven-
teenth century split on the issue; and various books
were written pro and con. The clash in opinion was
not so much over the question of whether the animals
were happier, more moral, more rational than man,
but whether they had souls or were machines. The only
relevance of the issue to our topic is whether the
possession of a soul is in itself a mark of superiority.
Some seventeenth-century writers, La Rochefoucauld
for instance, saw little to praise in the mere pos-
session of that instrument, but he may not have been