Our Views on Talking Animals

panchatantra_how_the_jackal_ate_the_elephantEssayist 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.

Religious_Texts_PanchThe 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.

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

3 responses to “Our Views on Talking Animals

  1. Your blog is one amazing place to tour, Sabio! I am not sure where you Cinquain poem is hidden but I enjoyed this commentary immensely. Animals relate to us on so many levels, if only we pay attention, open our minds and hearts to them.

  2. @Lydia: “Animals relate to us on so many levels, if only we pay attention, open our minds and hearts to them.” I agree with the first part of your sentence. We don’t have to do anything to relate to animals. Animals do relate to us and (to use a cliche) they’re our friends (and biological relatives). Aristotle is actually wrong on that. (Just as many other things.) How could he have known that animals and us have common ancestors? You don’t have to go too far back (in relation to the lifespan of Earth) to see that chimps and us share common great-…grandparents. And if you go a bit further back you see how cats are related to humans. There is no lack of “logos” for animals. There are degrees of “logos”. Some animals have culture and can make tools. Some can do more, some can do less. We, humans, are acting like feudal lords when we abuse animals, obviously trying to cover up our insecurities and boosting our egos. We, after all, are animals too.

  3. It’s interesting to me that even though we’ve come so far technologically, we are still inseparable from nature. We consider ourselves “higher”, but I think that animals have a wisdom and a genius we could never possess.
    I listened to an interview with Alex Grey, and he talked about the Gods and Goddesses that have animal parts. Even angels are part bird. It makes sense that animals have a wisdom to share and that we sense it in some deep part of us.
    This is a theme that keeps coming up for me 🙂 Interesting

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