Freitag, 16. Dezember 2016

Animals in Greco-Roman Consciousness. A lecture by Prof. Stephen Newmyer

A weblog entry by Mari Yamasaki.

On December 1st 2016, within the Lecture Series "Kult, Kunst und Konsum – Tiere in alten Kulturen", Prof. Stephen Newmyer (Duquesne University - Pittsburgh, PA) presented his lecture on the contradictions and interactions between humans and animals in Greco-Roman consciousness.

In the classical Greek philosophization of animals, we mostly witness a clear distinction between humans and animals, denoting a stark superiority of the former over the latter, mostly due to the success of the Aristotelian notion that man alone of all animals possesses intellect. However, as shown by Prof. Newmyer, the picture is more complex than it appears.
Whilst no significant reference to the animal world appears in the Homeric poems, Hesiod is the first to state a hierarchy in creation that puts Man above all other creatures. Humans and gods, although the latter remain infinitely superior to the former, are similar in their ability of producing reasoning, whereas the animals cannot. Such attitude of definite superiority of humans, and their belonging to a group distinct from that of animals, culminates in Aristotle. Not as extreme as the Stoics, who believe that animals solely exist to provide for humans, Aristotle firmly denies their intelligence (although he does make some concession on the qualities of some species).

This position, although predominant, was not the only one in the classical world. The Pre-Socratics, for instance, conceived a most modern approach to animals, recognizing in them emotions and some degree of intelligence. Empedocles considered immoral to eat animals, referring to them as "next of kin", and Pythagoreans would not eat flesh on the principle of inter-species soul transmigration. Plutarch, among the classical authors is the one who most thoroughly discussed the human-animal relationship. In "On the Cleverness of Animals", he hypothesizes an ability of producing language: one, however, that humans are incapable of understanding and that is therefore erroneously interpreted as meaningless noises. This concept is exemplified through the very powerful image of a crying beast led to the butcher. Again, in "On the Eating of Flesh", he openly argues against the consumption of meat. His surprisingly modern positions remain mostly ignored due to the predominance of Aristotelian philosophy. These are found again, centuries later, in Neoplatonic Philosopher Porphyry (3rd, 4th centuries C.E.) who reprises very similar vegetarian positions in his treaty "On the Abstinence from Animal Food".

The ever so pragmatic Roman world proved to be generally less sensitive to the topic of the cruelty towards animals. Practices of intensive-farming are often criticised by Roman authors, and both Pliny and Cicero dedicate a passage to the horrific show of animals being slaughtered in the arena during venationes, such as the one depicted in Figure 1. Even in these two examples, however, compassion mostly arises by the futility and tastelessness of such blood thirsty entertainment, rather than from a real sensitivity towards the animal world. A different attitude is found in regards to the beasts that have served in the army. Some form of respect is often shown for these "veterans", whose service – in a similar way to their human counterparts – should be rewarded with a favourable retirement. 

Figure 1: Detail of a roman mosaic in discovered in Zliten, Lybia, dated 2nd century AD; currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli.

The issue on the possession of intellect seems to revolve around a most critical philosophical question: do non-human animals have a soul? And would having a soul make them inedible? In fact, in the case of both Pythagoreans and Pre-Socratics, it is interesting how the possibility that animals might possess a soul is directly related to the reasons to refrain from the consumption of meat (for instance, the firm belief that animals possess souls did not stop other cultures from consuming meat, such as in Japan or among some Native American tribes).

Professor Newmyer’s lecture effectively reminded the audience how the issue on the morality of eating animals and, more generally, concerning their status in relation to humans has been at the centre of a centuries-long debate: one that to all intents and purposes still continues nowadays.

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