Essayist Stassa Edwards, over at Aeon, gives us extensive examples of talking animals in literature and some of the history of our views of animals.
Stassa tells us of two competing views of animals. The first that animals offer us nothing because of their obvious inferiority to humans due to their lack of “logos”(Aristotle) or reason (Descarte). Yet she points to a contradiction to this philosophical position when she gives examples of people gruesomely executing animals who had killed humans, just as they would humans whose souls were bad, thus hinting at the a different intuition we have about animals.
This other view, typified by Montaigne, puts animals on the same plane as humans. Here Stassa tells us :
In his Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576), Michel de Montaigne ascribed animals’ silence to man’s own wilful arrogance. The French essayist argued that animals could speak, that they were in possession of rich consciousness, but that man wouldn’t condescend to listen.
While Descartes view permeates a large part of culture — especially the sciences, the virtuous view tends to permeate literature where talking animals have long been used to instruct humanity in lofty morals — yet some not all animal stories are lofty.
The ancient Hindu text, the Panchatantra (conspicuously missing in Sassha’s essay), gives moral guidance to budding princes through the tales of talking animals. Machiavelli would agree that princes need guidance, and like his work, the Panchatantra stories tell opportunistic wisdom mixed with apparently compassionate wisdom. Maybe it was more palatable to let the animals speak this soul-less wisdom? Perhaps this is why the Panchatantra was preserved in the sacred category of Indian literature, to balance out the dry unobtainable wisdom of the lofty Upanishads.