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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Theriophily is a word coined in 1933 by the author
of this article to name a complex of ideas which express
an admiration for the ways and character of the ani-
mals. Theriophilists have asserted with various
emphases that the beasts are (1) as rational as men,
or less rational than men but better off without reason,
or more rational than men; (2) that they are happier
than men, in that Nature is a mother to them but a
cruel stepmother to us; (3) that they are more moral
than men.

The whole idea or movement, insofar as it is a fairly
widespread set of attitudes, is a reaction against the
dogma of the superiority of mankind to all other forms
of life. The dogma, as it influenced Western Europe,
had two sources: one in pagan antiquity, one in the
Bible. The former maintained that man's uniqueness
lay in his rational animality. He shared his senses and
appetites, as Aristotle puts it in his De anima (413b)
and elsewhere, with the beasts and the plants; but his
reason was his possession alone and it elevated him
above all creation. It is clear that anti-intellectualists
would not agree with the second clause in this sentence
and would put a higher value on instinct than on
rationality. The biblical source of man's superiority is
Genesis 1:28, where God gives man dominion “over
every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” In the
later history of theriophily the biblical verse, as
revealed evidence of human uniqueness and nobility,
is used to refute the idea of animal nobility. The matter,
however, was complicated since the pagans did not
deny that the beasts had souls, whereas the Christians
either denied it outright or granted them an inferior
kind of soul which could not be said to survive
death—a soul which in the words of Deuteronomy
12:23 was in their blood or was identical with it.

The Background in Folklore. The cleverness, the
stupidity, the faithfulness, the prudence, the temper-
ance, as well as their antitheses, of certain beasts is
witnessed in fables and legends which go back to early
Indian civilization. The Sanskrit book of parables
Pañchatantra, like the Pali Buddhistic Jātaka, is full
of such tales, and they reappear in Aesop, Babrius, and
Phaedrus. They are retold, as in Reynard the Fox (Le
Roman de Reynard,
ca. 1170-1250), and with elegance
by Jean de La Fontaine in the seventeenth century.
But alongside such legends and fantasies we find Aris-
totle listing animal characteristics in the opening of
Book VIII of his Historia animalium. There he points
out that human psychological traits are shared by the
beasts—traits such as gentleness or fierceness, mildness
or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence,
high spirit or low cunning, and “something akin to

Sometimes, as in Pliny and Aelian, science and folk-
lore were blended and stories of the most improbable
kind were preserved for future generations to use as
scientific fact. Such stories include that of Chrysippus'
dog which, looking for its master in a wood, comes
to a triple fork. He sniffs down two of the branches
and finds no scent of his master. He then without
sniffing darts down the third branch, thus proving his
reasoning powers. It was, as appears, customary to
explain the behavior of the beast in human terms,
projecting into them the same psychological motives
that might be found in human beings on analogous

Diogenes of Sinope. The first theriophilist of impor-
tance is Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 412-323 B.C.), the
famous Cynic (from κύων, κυνός, “dog”). Diogenes was
looking for an exemplar of the life according to nature,
something that his contemporaries had often found in
savages. But animals seemed even more natural than
Scythians or Ethiopians; for human beings, in whatever
state they might be found, were after all living in a


society controlled by law and law was a human, not
a natural, invention. “Natural” to the Cynic meant that
which was untouched or, as he would say, uncorrupted
by art. But almost every act of a man was changed
by invention, technique, artificiality. Diogenes seeing
a dog drinking by lapping up water from a puddle,
saw that cups were a superfluity. He threw away his
cup. He saw that the beasts wore no clothing except
their fur or feathers; why then should a man need more
than a rag or two to shield him from the rain and cold?
Diogenes wrapped a coarse cloth round his body; it
became known as the tribon or philosopher's cloak.
Again, the beasts had no houses and were satisfied with
dens in the ground or a cave; Diogenes crept into a
wine jar. The beasts had no regulations for eating or
copulation; they simply satisfied their innate appetites.
Why should a man do differently? The beasts ate their
food raw; why then cook? Polygamy, incest, can-
nibalism are wrongly censured; they all follow from
natural habits and should be adopted rather than

None of this tended to show that the animals were
rational, and indeed, as far as the Cynics were con-
cerned, reason was of doubtful value. Instinct was more
natural than reason and if one were seeking the life
according to nature, then one would follow instinct
and “divorce old barren reason from his bed.” Follow-
ing the animals, moreover, increased one's autonomy,
one's autarky, that goal which the Greek ethicists
strove to reach: to be free of all claims made by any-
thing external to one's self. One became self-dependent
and never dependent on externals. By abandoning
family ties, social relations, political duties, and all the
delights that come from one form or another of artistry,
one became completely free and at the same time close
to the animal.

Plutarch. The Cynic's point of view, since it
deprecated the use of reason, did not include any
theory of animal rationality. But at the beginning of
the Christian period Plutarch wrote a dialogue (usually
called Gryllus, from the name of the protagonist) in
which Odysseus, cast up on the witch Circe's island,
is allowed to speak with some of the Greeks whom
Circe has turned into animals; if any wish to regain their
human shapes, they may do so. Gryllus is a pig. He
is far from wishing to become a man again. To begin
with, the life of the beasts is more natural than that
of human beings, for the souls of the beasts are able
to produce that virtue which is peculiar to each species
without any instruction. Animals moreover have more
wisdom and prudence than men, for these virtues are
implanted in animals by Nature, not by art. If you do
not want to call this reason, says Gryllus, “it is time
for you to find out a finer and more honorable name
for it as, it cannot be denied, it exhibits a power greater
in its effects and more wonderful than either.” Animals
all reason, but some are more rational than others. “I
do not believe,” says Gryllus (in a sentence that was
to be reproduced by Montaigne and to echo through
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), “there is
such difference between beast and beast in reason and
understanding and memory, as between man and man.”

The General Superiority of the Beasts. Some
admirers of the animals cared nothing for reason and
were especially interested only in man's inferiority to
the beasts in some detail or other. The question of
whether or not man was favored by Nature had
apparently been discussed as early as the fifth century
B.C. by Xenophon; he depicts a conversation between
Socrates and Aristodemus who discuss the question
(Memorabilia I, iv, 2 and IV, iii, 9-12). Anaxagoras,
another fifth-century philosopher, is also reported to
have recognized degrees of intelligence in the beasts,
though he admitted that mankind stood at the head
of the animate hierarchy. Our real difference from the
animals, he thought, is not our intelligence—for they
too possess that faculty—but the fact that we have
leaders, laws, arts, and cities (something that was to
be said of the animals too later on).

That some people anticipated the Cynics in using
the animals as exemplars is seen in a passage of the
Clouds of Aristophanes (lines 1427-29), where Pheidip-
pides justifies beating his father by the example of
“cocks and other beasts.” The joke would have meant
little if some debaters had not used similar arguments.
By Aristotle's time the question must have been
commonly discussed, since in the De partibus animal-
(687a), he refers to the argument that the beasts
are better off than we because of their corporeal
endowment—horns, claws, hooves—whereas man is
born naked and defenseless. Aristotle's reply to this,
a reply which hardly meets the point, is that the human
hand is a better weapon than anything given to the
beasts for it can vary the weapons as the need arises.
Though Aristotle himself believed in the superiority
of man, he was used by others to demonstrate the
antithetical idea. For in his Historia animalium here
and there he speaks of the cleverness of the swallows
in building their nests, the medical knowledge of the
Cretan goats, the singing lessons given by the mother
nightingale to her young, and so on.

As early as Democritus (fifth century B.C.) we find
the animals praised for their sobriety, for knowing the
extent of their needs and never seeking to go beyond
them. Diogenes again is cited as witness to the animals'
health and longevity as well as to their lack of super-
fluities. The New Comedy also played on this theme
of man's misery as compared with the animals: men


use their reason for endless arguments; the beasts are
free from contention. We are slaves to opinion; they
simply follow the commands of Nature. In a fragment
of Philemon (ca. 361-263 B.C.) we find the beasts
praised for their “single nature”: all lions are brave,
all hares timid, all foxes live in the same way. But every
man lives according to his own individual nature. In
Menander (342-291 B.C.) man is the one “unnatural
animal.” Whatever evils happen to an animal come
from Nature. But besides those which are natural, men
invent evils. “We are pained if someone sneezes; if
someone speaks ill, we are angry; if someone has a
dream, we are frightened; if an owl hoots, we are
terrified. Struggles, opinions, contests, laws, all these
evils are added to those in nature.” And like Gryllus,
one of Menander's characters declares that if he were
to be born again, he would choose any animal rather
than the human. The beasts have no flatterers, no
sycophants, no criminals.

One of the major sources of later theriophily is Pliny
(ca. A.D. 23-79), for Pliny was read by everyone and
his Natural History was a sort of encyclopedia. In the
proemium to this work (VII, 1) he wrote the famous
words, “it is hard to tell whether Nature has been a
kindly parent to man or a cruel stepmother.” To the
other animals she has given a natural covering—shells,
hulls, spines, shaggy hair, fur, feathers, scales, fleeces—
but man “she casts forth on his natal day, naked upon
a naked soil, casts him forth to weep and beg; and
no other animal weeps from the moment of its birth.”
What folly, he continues, to think that such a creature
is born to a high estate! Other animals know from birth
whether they are to walk, swim, or fly. But man lies
helpless and can neither talk, walk, nor eat without
instruction. Man alone knows grief, the desire for excess
or luxury, ambition, avarice, superstition. He alone
worries about his sepulture and an afterlife. Man alone
makes war on his kind. In short, man is the most
unhappy of all animals and most of man's evils come
from man.

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

Eighteenth Century and Later. The eighteenth cen-
tury was on the whole anti-Cartesian. Hester Hastings
(1936) has shown how the scientific approach to animal
life took precedence over the philosophic; and while
men did not weary of the theoretical refinements of
their predecessors' doctrines, theriophily became more
of a feeling for the sufferings of animals than an
appraisal of human life. The feeling as it grew in
intensity started the Humane Societies. Because of the
efforts of Richard Martin, an Irish M.P., the Royal
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was
founded in 1824. In the United States the American
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
(A. S. P. C. A.) was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh.
It came to be believed that whether beasts had a
material or immaterial soul, whether they could reason
or not, they were capable of suffering, and that sufficed
to create a bond between them and us. As for the
question of their rationality, instinct and its supposed
wonders supplanted it; a scientific zoology took the
place of natural history, the questions that had stirred
the theriophilists were settled in the laboratory and
field rather than in the study.

At the same time new philosophic tenets developed
in the eighteenth century brought the animals and man
closer together. The gap between animal and human
psychology created by Cartesianism was bridged by
the epistemology of John Locke as modified by E. B.
de Condillac in France. Condillac's Essai sur l'origine
des connaissances humaines
(1746) puts the source of
all ideas in sensation. In his Traité des animaux (1755)
he argues that animals have the same sort of feelings
that men have, on the ground that they have sense
organs just like ours. They are not capable of the subtle
reasoning of men but as far as their needs demand
intelligence, they posses it. They are therefore not
superior to men, in the opinion of Condillac, for after
all we are not automata. Once it was granted that they
could have ideas and feelings of the same general type
as human ideas and feelings, the kinship of all animate
life was established. The eighteenth century saw the
quickened development of entomology and zoology;
and as men investigated the behavior of the beasts and
insects, they found grounds for greater admiration for
these creatures. This admiration has continued into our
own times and there are few men who are not
awestruck by such things as the migration of birds, the
dance of the bees, the provisions made by wasps of
food for their larvae which they will never see. A
philosopher like Henri Bergson, though hardly a
theriophilist, nevertheless utilized the work of the
zoologists to demonstrate his theories of intuition. The
work of J. H. Fabre in entomology supplemented that
of R. A. F. de Réaumur, just as the work of Konrad
Lorenz supplemented that of G. J. Romanes.

If one wishes then to depreciate intelligence, one
has as much material in the writings of the scientists
as our forefathers had in those of Aristotle, Aelian,
Pliny, and Plutarch. Moreover it is based on better
evidence. Inane as some of the traditional stories are,
they lie behind the long history of man's admiration
for the beasts, which in modern times has been ex-
pressed in stories of animal courage, fidelity, kindness.
An outstanding expression of modern theriophily is
contained in the famous lines of Walt Whitman from
Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long,
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thou- sands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

The one outstanding item that is missing from
Whitman's lines is mention of the rationality of the
beasts. But its absence would not have been lamentable
to a mystic like Whitman.



For the documents illustrating ancient theriophily, see
A. O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas
in Antiquity
(Baltimore, 1935), Chs. 4 and 13; for Mon-
taigne, his predecessors, and disciples, see G. Boas, The
Happy Beast
(Baltimore, 1933); for the eighteenth century,
see Hester Hastings, Man and Beast in French Thought of
the Eighteenth Century
(Baltimore, London, and Paris,
1936), which contains a detailed bibliography. For a criti-
cism of the writer's views on the Gryllus and on Gelli's
Circe, see Merritt Hughes, “Spenser's Acrasia and the Circe
of the Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (Oct.
1943). For one of the most fertile sources of theriophilist
ideas in the eighteenth century, see Pierre Bayle, Diction-
naire historique
(1697), the article on Rorarius, especially
remarks C, E, F, G, H; see also the article on Barbe, remark
C. A modern edition of Circe is Giovanni B. Gelli, Circe,
ed. Robert M. Adams, trans. Thomas Brown (Ithaca, 1963).


[See also Chain of Being; Hierarchy; Longevity; Man-
Machine; Nature; Primitivism;
Rationality; Skepticism.]