The Great Conversation:
By Matt McKeown
The significance of animals in the "Great Conversation" is as diverse as the millions of species the word covers.
Animal is a term that, in the history of western philosophy, tends to lie at one end of a triad, with angel at the far end and man in the middle. Men and angels on the one side are typically held to share the traits of consciousness, intelligence, morality, and (by some lights) immortality; on the other, men and animals share corporeality and its attendant traits, such as sense perception and physical sex. Fantasy author Terry Pratchett summarized humanity as “the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
The definition of man as a “rational animal”—today we might use the expression “spiritual animal”—is at least as old as Aristotle. The distinction this implies is that other animals are irrational, which seems clearly to be true of most of them. Serious questions have been raised about some of the smarter animals, such as dolphins, apes, domestic dogs and cats, elephants, and some bird species like ravens and parrots. The members this vaguely-defined group often display complex social structures and distinctive personalities; they are sometimes referred to by the phrase “the higher animals” for this reason.
If the border between animal and man seems porous in certain places, so too can the border between animal and plant. The scientific discipline of taxonomy, or classification, has seen extensive revision in the last several decades. Carl Linnæus had begun in the eighteenth century with a simple division of the physical world into animals, vegetables, and minerals, and innovated the genus-species naming convention we still use today. Modern taxonomy is far more complex, particularly when it comes to the various kinds of microbial life; one interesting wrinkle in the plant-animal distinction is that fungi are in many ways more like animals than plants.
Of course, it is impossible to discuss animal life without considering human impact on that life, which takes several forms. One is the driving of many animals to endangerment or extinction, sometimes by direct hunting and sometimes by the ruin of their habitats. The most famous case of the former is probably the dodo; the mammoth may also have gone extinct due to over-hunting, and the bison in North America came close during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Damage to forests (notably tropical rainforests) and coral reefs are prominent causes of extinctions, and conservation efforts are often contested.
But humans and animals display other relationships as well, such as parasitism and domestication—pests and pets, so to speak. Of course, domestication most likely meant livestock (such as cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs), beasts of burden (such as horses and camels), and hunting animals (dogs) long before it meant keeping animals merely for pleasure. Pests like rodents and insects came on their own when agriculture began, taking advantage of the large increase in easily-gotten food. Fascinatingly, house cats appear to be self-domesticated: they originally associated with humans for much the same reasons rodents did, except that the easy food in question was the rodents. Since this behavior was positive, from the human point of view, a symbiosis developed that eventually turned into full domestication.
Lastly, we may consider the important role animals play in art, literature, and religion. The animal-headed deities of Egypt and the fables of Æsop are some of the earliest examples of using animals to symbolize human qualities, while a number of religions, notably Judaism and Hinduism, accord a profound ritual importance to this or that species. These uses are not restricted to real animals: the unicorn, the phoenix, and the dragon are recurring characters all over the globe. It is also not confined to the past, as we see everything from sports mascots to animated films featuring anthropomorphized animals. For all their differences from us, for some reason, one of our favorite things to do with animals seems to be to use them as mirrors.
Aristotle, On the Soul
St. Basil the Great, Hexameron, Homily IX
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
William Harvey, On Animal Generation
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other content, like these author profiles of John Bunyan and Carl Jung, this “Great Conversation piece on custom and convention, this reflection on education and creativity, or these student essays on the epistemic function of evil and character growth in Pride and Prejudice. And don’t forget to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.