Thursday, October 7, 2010

Evil Non-Men and Some Very Dangerous Newts


 For the natural science theorists in the late Middle Ages, Aristotle's word was law - and advancing interpretations that were too novel required some very careful side-stepping and sliding around in order to make it seem like there were no conflicts with the theoretical standard. The Resl's "Philosophical Beliefs" chapter references this complication quite explicitly, most memorably in the case of Jean de Jandun and Albertus Magnus's suggestion that some degree of imagination and fantasy exist in all animals - and it wasn't that Aristotle's denied this in his description of bees and ants in De Anima but rather that the translator must simply have gotten it wrong.
     For this reason, among a host of others, it behooves us to take a closer look at pre-Medieval natural science commentators. These men, who lived their lives in the wake of the sack of Rome and before the full onset of the Dark Ages, interpreted the hierarchy of beasts in Christian Neo-Platonist terms - often in the best cases with Aristotle as a non-infallible commentator and source. Of these, perhaps Boethius is one of the most well-established early Aristotelians and most ultimately influential authors (as is noted in the Resl, it was his early Latin translations of Aristotle's logical corpus that eventually found their way into the Medieval mind). In his Consolation of Philosophy, he makes this powerful remark about the moral symbolism of animals and the construction of the tripartite soul:

"What follows from this is that you cannot regard as a man one who is disfigured by vices. A man who in seizing the possessions of others is consumed by greed is comparable to a wolf. The aggressive and restless man who devotes his tongue to disputes can be considered a dog. The underhand plotter who rejoices in stealthy theft can be likened to young foxes. The man of ungovernable temper who roars his head off can be regarded as having a lion's disposition. The fearful man who does not stand his ground and trembles when there is nothing to fear can be compared with hinds. The idle sluggard who is a slave to sloth lives a donkey's life. The fickle, capricious person who passes from one thing of interest to another is no different from the birds. The one who steeps himself in foul and unclean lusts lingers over pleasures like a filthy sow. In this sense he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal."
- Book 4, Chapter 3, lines 16-23

While Albertus Magnus just asserts that an animal's characteristics and behavior must be contained within its natural form, Boethius's Philosophy has no problem asserting a much stranger ontology - that if you diverge from your natural form you simply cease to exist. As she responds when articulating some of the natural divine rejection of evil:

"…every existing thing is a unity, and that unity itself is the good. The conclusion drawn from this is that everything that exists is also good. In this sense whatever departs from the good ceases to exist, so evil men cease to be what they had been before. Of course, the very appearance of the human frame which they still possess shows that they were men; thus by resorting to wickedness they have lost their human nature as well."
- Book 4, Chapter 3, lines 14-16

To Boethius the hierarchical organization of plants, animals, humans, and the divine certainly exists - it is just much easier for an individual, by its actions, to move between the steps. And, of course, this is an almost undiluted Neo-Platonic import. It is very hard to Boethius to justify his cosmology and metaphysics (both drawn extensively from the Timaeus) unless it is possible for man's rationality to be pushed closer and closer to a divine understanding by unrelentless pursuit of the good. This view, while it may be quite at odds with Magnus's much more grounded philosophy, does have a great deal in common with Daston's description of scholastic angelology. This is not particularly surprising, as efforts by Boethius's Latin contemporaries preserved Neo-Platonism through a unification with Catholic doctrine (Augustine and the Fathers' division of the City of God and the City of Man, for example, was in some form permanently entrenched in orthodox theology). But there are some important differences. Daston refers only to "the challenge of imagining minds defined not only as different from but also superior to those of human beings," while Boethius helps show us that perfections could be thrust down from human benchmarks as easily as they could be "carried to their outermost limit."

One last thing. I was thinking about our discussion on bestiaries-as-zoos or bestiaries-as-dolphinariums when I came across this line in Sperber:

"Dolphins, on the other hand, should look quite benign since the thrill of their display consists in evoking not a submissive and integrated fauna, but an independent and potentially competitive animal society the idea of which, thought at first attractive, might easily become sinister, as in Karel Capek's 1937 novel War with the Newts."
For those of you who haven't read War with the Newts, I would like to highly recommend it. It is classic satirical science-fiction, straight from the pen of the Czech historically noted for coining the word "robot." Also: although we probably shouldn't take Sperber's reference to the novel too seriously, it does raise some legitimate questions about what it means for a species to be seen as "competitive."

While in class I defended the moralizing in The Book of Beasts as something not quite (but certainly similar to) putting animals on the same theological level as men - invoking both the dolphinarium's "conflicting ideals" and challenging us to rise to the challenge of virtues exemplified in certain beasts. Now I'm starting to wonder whether or not Sperber actually meant "competitive" in the biological sense. And even though we discussed things in Albertus Magnus that looked quite a bit like early early early "evolutionary thinking" I'm not sure any Medieval author encountered thus far has been brave enough to honestly suggest that humans exist on the same organically competitive plane as other animals. But I'm not sure. Maybe some of you have ideas. After all, in his novel Capek chalks up the newt advances mostly to comically exaggerated biological traits and moral or sociological inadequacies on the part of man. That almost sounds like a one-animal bestiary right there. But even as early as Boethius's flexible hierarchies do we find the faculties of all animals facing off against each other in ways they perhaps weren't conceived to do as easily later. Consider the poem with which he ends Book 4 of the Consolations:

Hercules gained fame by his taxing labours.
Arrogant centaurs he overcame in battle.
From the savage lion he bore away the plunder.
Birds he impaled too with unerring arrows.
He looted the apples from the sleepless dragon,
His left hand laden with the golden metal.
Cerberus by a triple chain was dragged up.
As victor, they say, he set the cruel master
Before his fierce carriage-team to serve as their fodder.
The Hydra perished, and its venom was ignited.
The river-god Achelous, his brow sore disfigured,
Plunged his dishonoured face below the river-margins.
On Libyan sandbanks he laid low Antaeus.
Cacus sated the anger of Evander.
Shoulders, soon to bear the weight of the heavens,
Were earlier fouled with the bristly boar's saliva.
On neck unbent he endured as his last labour
The weight of heaven; as reward for that last labour,
Heaven was the prize he attained through his great merit."
- Book 4, Chapter 7, lines 13-31

Early approaches to Aristotle's natural science and theology give us ground, perhaps, for declaring parts of later efforts to be more conservative than initially appraised at in the freedoms that they extend to animals. For Boethius and his ilk the animal may not have been able to climb up the ladder, but men - by committing evil acts - could certainly forsake their higher impulses and lose the privileged of association to their distinguishing rationality.

PS: If you're interested, I put a few pictures of some of the early cover art for War with the Newts below. Great stuff.

- BB

I'm not sure how exactly to format bibliographies on blogs like some of you fancy kids... But here's whom I cite:

Resl, Brigitte, ed. A Cultural History of Animals in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Berg, 2007. Chapter Six: "Animals and Anthropology in Medieval Philosophy," by Pieter de Leemans and Metthew Klemm: pg. 172. 

Daston, Lorraine and Gregg Mitman, eds. Thinking: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism with Animals. New York: Columbia University Press. Chapter Two: "Intelligences: Angelic, Animal, Human," by Lorraine Daston: pp. 41-45.

Sperber, Dan. "Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?" Method & Theory in the Study of Religion Vol 8-2 (1996): pp. 160-166.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. P.G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. All of the citations are from Books 4 and 5 as indicated in-text: pp. 79-94.


  1. I think it is probably a little strong to say that Aristotle's word was "law" for medieval philosophers. Strictly speaking, only God's word was "law"! The problem was rather that Aristotle was so amazingly comprehensive: you couldn't talk about nature without taking account of his descriptions, and who could test all of them when the scholastic ideal was to include everything? And why did the scholastics feel that they needed to include everything? For exactly the reasons you set out so well in your discussion of Boethius: because only by understanding everything could they hope even to begin to understand themselves as creatures of God. But this is somewhat by the by, as what you are really concerned with here is the understanding of Nature and what it means to live according to one's nature. You are absolutely right that there is a huge difference between present-day evolutionary thinking about our relationship to animals and medieval understandings of acting "bestially." I liked very much the way in which you showed us how Boethius understood the hierarchy of creation and the problem of diverging from your natural form as an issue of existence. What would it mean to act like a newt? As with DF's post on medieval and modern approaches to animals, we are beset yet again with the disjuncture between the way in which we use animals to think about our place in the cosmos and the older tradition upon which our thinking has been built.


  2. Your invocation of Boethius raises a really, really good question about what it means, and what it takes, to "be" a human and/or an animal. This is one case where I think Boethius can be read as representative of many other philosophers of late antiquity and the early middle periods, because I've run into similar ideas in Avicenna and now Albertus Magnus. While we now tend to think in purely biological and material terms, i.e., what is there, what can we describe, and how do we sort and classify this information, there seems to be much more emphasis given to an imagined state of potential being within creatures. That is to say, biology still matters—you can't blame a fish for not contemplating virtue because it's simply beyond its capacity—but it is your *actions* within the context of your biological capabilities that really matters. Thus, neither humans nor animals are biological absolutes, but rather creatures in potencia who can "be" different species on the basis of what they do. I don't think Boethius is being facetious or dramatic when he says a sneaky, treacherous person *is* a fox; it is only our ability to grow into what we are capable of being that we transcend the animal state. Now, this movement is *almost* possible the other way around, which is why we keep seeing stories of dogs, lions, lambs, and various birds and insects who "show" intelligence, wisdom, art, loyalty, love, etc, and thus become "like" humans. I think a key distinction can be found if we ask this question—if humans can "be" animals, what, if anything, keeps wise, loyal, and loving animals from truly "being" human?