Saturday, November 8, 2014

Animals in Ancient Texts

It has been argued by some ancient philosophers that animals are fundamentally different from humans, while others believed that we share important attributes.  This essay shall review the opinions of six of these ancient philosophers, three on each side of the debate, and the criteria used to form those opinions as reproduced in the sourcebook Animals in Greek and Roman Thought by Stephen T. Newmyer.

Animals Were Fundamentally Different than Humans

Alcmaeon of Croton is held to be the first of the Great Greek thinkers that created clear delineations between the intellectual capacities of man and those of animals.[1]  Springing from these delineations that Alcmaeon created also began a belief that man is the only creature on Earth that is rational, and this subsequently became the fundamental base for the classical speculation on animals which was to follow.[2]  Using the reason that animals lacked a spoken language and had no cultural advancements, he decided that animals lacked rationality.  Newmyer believes that it is Alcmaeon’s research on human sensory organs (such as the eye) that influenced his conclusions on the state of animal mentality.  Theophrastus in his treatise On the Senses quotes Alcmaeon as saying, “…man differs from the other creatures in that he alone has understanding (xuniesi), while the other creatures have perception (aisthanetai), but do not have understanding.”[3] 

Plato also shared the opinion that animals lacked reason and other certain mental faculties that humans possess.  Through Plato’s comparisons of humanity to the animal kingdom, it is evidenced that he had an interest in animals more from a metaphysician standpoint rather than that of a biologist.[4];[5]  His comparisons were used as a metaphor to express his opinion of what kind of a person someone was, such as an uneducated person being no better than the lowest of the savage beasts.[6]  While this clearly uses the animal kingdom as a means of derision, Plato also held some animals in a higher regard such as the bee and the ant.  These animals, he believed, were good examples of how humans should structure their world in direct juxtaposition to lions and wolves, whose conduct he found to be undesirable in civilisation.[7] 

When discussing metempsychosis[8], Plato believed that humans could assume the form of other animals.    However, depending on which of Plato’s works are consulted, the views on which animal forms could be taken differ.[9]  Also in The Republic, Plato discusses that animals (such as swans) are able to take the forms of other animals as well as humans.[10]  This duality of conflicting viewpoints in Plato has perplexed scholars from antiquity until now.[11]  It remains unclear what Plato’s actual position on the intellect of animals in comparison to that of humans actually was.  It appears that while Plato denied animals rationality, he would on some instances attribute to them a portion of intellect.  This can be interpreted as Plato making a distinction between intellect and rationality, and coupled with his views on animal intellect as compared to mans, shows that he believes animals are not similar to humans.

As a student of Plato’s, it is not surprising to find that Aristotle also had a few self-contradictions in his opinions on the rationality and relationship of animals to man.  Aristotle was a more prolific writer concerning the life sciences than any other philosopher of the ancient times.[12]  He wrote a very long treatise called Historia Animalium (History of Animals) which spans 10 books and in them he focused on classification, reproduction, and movement of different animal species.  He also developed an idea called sunecheia, which is a biological graduation from one type of animal to another, similar to that of evolution, but differing by believing in the permanence of genera and species.[13]  Aristotle also believed that nature allowed for a difference between humans and animals as far as reason goes by denying animals reason fully, but only allowing them “traces” of some human characteristics and “resemblances” of intelligence.[14]

Aristotle appears to have been very concerned with the life sciences and to have spent a great deal of time researching animals and making observations of their behaviour and attributes as a background to his theories.   He wrote another treatise called De partibus animalium (Parts of Animals) in which he discussed his views as to why each animal is the way that it is, according to how he depicted them in the Historia.  While Aristotle believed that animals had a consciousness, he denied that they had any reason, reserving that attribute for humans alone.  He also did not believe that the soul was a spiritual entity that could migrate to a different body upon death, but that it was biologically connected to the body that it dwelt in.[15]  Even though Aristotle seemed to be a contradiction between whether or not he believed animals were like humans, he maintained assertions that because humans have so little in common with animals, they can stand in no relation of justice with them and that animals were intended for use by man.[16]  Further, Aristotle also said that “Some [animals] are knavish and mischievous …others are gentle and readily tamed… But only man is deliberative.”[17] While Aristotle’s arguments are strong, they are based in preconceived ideas carried over from Plato that animals are not rational, and as such seem to lack open-minded objectivity.

Animals were Fundamentally the Same as Humans

Not much is revealed about Alexander in the Newmyer text, other than that he was the nephew of Philo of Alexandria, and that he gave lectures.[18]  One of Philo’s works, called On Animals, was the record of a lecture given by Alexander and the subsequent rebuttal by Philo himself.  In it, Alexander maintains that animals must have a degree of reason like unto humans in order to be able to make the choices and decisions that they do.  Alexander maintains the stance that animals contain to a degree both the logos endiathetos (inner reason) and the logos prophorikos (uttered reason).[19]  Alexander refuted the Stoic[20] doctrine of animals being without the hegemonikon[21] with his claims that animals have both types of reason to some degree.  Continuing to refute these beliefs, Alexander used the examples of ants, bees, and birds to show that animals have to have reason, as otherwise they would not be able to build the houses that they do.[22] 

Alexander continued to show that animals have reason and are like humans by displaying the fact that they have vices, the same as humans.  “It is obvious that not only men but also various other animals have inherited the faculty of reason.  Furthermore it is believed that they possess both virtues and vices.”[23]  Alexander felt that this line of reasoning should be self-evident to anyone that had some amount of education or ever looked at animals in a contemplative way.  

Plutarch was a very prolific writer and covered a vast array of topics.  While not always staying true to the Platonic manner of true argument, he usually set his writings in the form of lengthy discourses and speeches.[24]  He covered topics from religion to interpersonal relationships.  Three of his works dealt with the human-animal relationship, one of which is called On the Cleverness of Animals and is a defence of the position that all animals possess some degree of reason.  There are other intellectual attributes other than rationality and reason that Plutarch ascribed to animals, and he said that these allowed them to cope successfully with their lives and entitled them to respectful treatment from human beings.[25]  This was significant because possession of reason was considered to be a prerequisite for human moral concern, and was frequently demanded in ancient philosophical discussion of human-animal relations.[26]

Some of the arguments that Plutarch used in the defence of the rationality and intellectual attributes of animals could be referred to as common sense.  Examples would be: why hunters would pit themselves against certain animals if they did not find the animals to be worthy adversaries that possessed intellectual endowments which made them a true test of wits to hunt; or, how would animals know how to build nests or spin webs or choose one path as opposed to another if they did not possess sufficient enough reason to carry out a decision?[27]  Most of these arguments are argued against the Stoic line of thinking, which denies reason and intellectual properties to animals.  Plutarch even used some of the Stoic’s own theories against them in this argument, by arguing that in nature everything has its opposite, the rational and the irrational, those possessing a soul and the soulless.  According to the Stoics things that have souls have rationality, and they also attribute souls to animals, yet they say that they have no rationality.[28]  This is a contradiction, and therefore Plutarch clearly used the Stoic’s own beliefs against them to show that animals have reason.  This was also stated by Soclarus who said, “[T]here is plenty of the irrational in all things that do not have a share of soul, and we need no other counterpart to the rational; but everything that is soulless, insofar as it is without reason and understanding, is opposite to that which has reason and thought, along with a soul.”[29]

Lastly, Porphyry’s treatise On Abstinence from Animal Flesh is a large defence to the anti-Stoic position that animals and humans share rationality and have a kinship to each other.  He chastised the Stoics and their doctrine that animals have a portion of rationality but are still denied any kinship with humans.[30]  He also mentioned the Epicurean[31] theory that animals cannot be rational because they do not form contracts with people.  He further refuted this line of thinking by arguing that even though not all people make contracts; this does not mean that those people are not rational.[32]  Porphyry also stated, as did Alexander previously, that animals are also able to have vices, which proves that they are rational as the definition of vice is a failure to heed reason, and they must possess rationality so that they can choose to ignore reason. 


Newmyer, S.  (2011).  Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook.  Routledge, New York.

[1] Newmyer, Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011:3)
[2] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:3)
[3] Theophrastus, Alcmaeon, DK 1a (trans.) Newmyer (2011:3)
[4] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:4)
[5] Plato’s constantly varying classification system for animals also contributes to him not being regarded as one of the great Greek biologists. 
[6] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:4)
[7] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:4)
[8] The belief that the soul of a person or animal can migrate at death into the form of another person or animal dependant upon what type of manner of life they previously lead.
[9] See Phaedrus, Republic, Phaedo, and Timaeus
[10] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:5)
[11] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:5)
[12] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:6)
[13] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:7)
[14] Aristotle, History of Animals, 588b4-12 & 588a20 (trans.) Newmyer (2011:7)
[15] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:8)
[16] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1161a30-1162b2 (trans.) Newmyer (2011:8)
[17] Aristotle, History of Animals, 488a20-26 (trans.) Newmyer (2011:9)
[18] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:11)
[19] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:11)
[20] (Στωικισμός) – a philosophical movement during the Hellenistic period which believed in emotional reservations that bordered on detatchment.
[21] The part of the soul according to Stoic belief that becomes rational in humans and not in animals
[22] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:12)
[23] Philo, On Animals, 85 (trans.) Newmyer (2011:14)
[24] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:15)
[25] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:15)
[26] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:16)
[27] Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals, 966A & 966E, 969B-C (trans.) Newmyer (2011:16-17)
[28] Chrysippus, On Opposites, SVF 2.281 (trans.) Newmyer (2011:3-4)
[29] Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals, 960C (trans.) Newmyer (2011:18)
[30] Newmyer, Animals, (2011:33)
[31] School of philosophy started by Epicurus.  Newmyer, Animals, (2011:28-29)
[32] Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Flesh III, 13. 1-3 (trans.) Newmyer (2011:34)

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