Transcript: 346. Cecilia Muratori on Animals in the Renaissance

An interview with Cecilia Muratori, an expert on the surprisingly modern ideas about non-human animals that emerged in the Renaissance.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We normally think of animals as being sort of between plants and humans. And of course, Aristotle thought about them this way too. And so I guess the first question that arises here is whether Renaissance philosophers just follow those sort of lines. Do they say, well, there are defining characteristics of plants on the one hand and humans on the other, and then there's going to be some defining characteristics of non-human animals in the middle?

Cecilia Muratori: One of the perhaps most interesting characteristics of the Renaissance, especially if we look at the problem of the animal soul, is that there is a variety of positions and it's very hard to bring it down to one main position. So in a sense, the Renaissance philosophies resist a sort of simplification into one main strand, one main theory. But still, having said that, as you mentioned, Aristotle, these texts that are read and circulated had an impact. And of course, the question of whether animals are rational is one main strand of the discourse. The first problem that we encountered, though, if we look a bit closer at this problem of animal rationality, is what actually, what is meant by rationality. There is the issue of translating the texts. So as Aristotle's De Anima, On The Soul, is translated from Greek into Latin. What actually are we talking about when we talk about rationality? And what is the part of the soul that animals are supposed to have or not to have? Is it "anima?" In the sense of soul. Is it "mens," which we could translate as mind? And what does this mens do? So what is the activity, what is rational thinking that we are attributing or not attributing to the animals? One interesting example to just approach this problem today is the treatment of animal rationality in Campanella. And Tommaso Campanella is in one of his main works, which is the Sensurero, was published for the first time around 1620s. He deals with the question of whether animals can abstract universals, for instance. Is that part of rationality? And what he argues there is that whether we believe that animals are rational or not, if we look at what animals do, we must conclude that they abstract universals. So a dog, this is Campanella's example, a dog would see a man approaching, for instance, and growl because he has learned that human beings can be quite dangerous. So the man proceeds and he recognizes that it's Peter. And it's really "Peter" in the text. He recognizes Peter as his owner and he stops growling because he's actually happy to see Peter. And what this example teaches us is that animals are capable of abstracting universals and then from the universals they produce the particular. 'So it's Peter, my owner, so I don't need to be worried.'

Peter Adamson: I see. So the dog can distinguish between humans in general, which he's hostile towards, and Peter in particular, which he's not hostile towards.

Cecilia Muratori: Exactly. So if we consider that that is one feature of thinking rationally, so being capable of using this universal concept, then obviously animals do that too. So what do we mean when we say that animals are not rational? And this is a problem that, by the way, leads us also directly to Descartes. So when we say animals don't have a soul, actually what is meant even for Descartes is that perhaps they don't have a mind, so the capability of thinking rationally. So the theory of Animancia, that all living beings have a soul, is pretty controversial, even for themselves through the whole Renaissance through to Descartes. What is at stake is do animals have a mind in the sense of mens? And what does this mind do? So what are precisely the characteristics? Is it calculating? Is it conceiving universals?

Peter Adamson: What you were just talking about, so this question of whether animals are rational or not, that seems to be a way of negatively defining animals in opposition to humans. So we say that humans are rational, animals are non-human, and the reason they're non-human is that they lack, let's say, mind, even though they have souls. What about a more positive way of defining animals? And maybe here this would be what distinguishes them from plants. What faculties do animals need to have to distinguish them from something like a mushroom or even a Venus flytrap?

Cecilia Muratori: Isn't it the problem with sensation? So if we try to define rationality, we slide into the problem of how do we actually define sensation? What can just sensation do? And we have, as you rightly say, we have the problem on both borders, so to speak. So the border dividing sensation from rationality, but also the border dividing sensation from lack of sensation in plants. That's another problem that is very prominent in Campanella, but also in Bernardino Telesio, who's one of the main sources for Campanella, is the author of the book De Romantura of 1886, which is one of the main sources of Campanella himself. And the problem that both Telesio and Campanella deal with is precisely this. So how do we trace borders between different classes of beings? And does nature allow us at all to do that, to draw precise borders? Which is a problem not just for psychology, but for ethics as well. If we can't trace precise borders, for instance - this is a problem we might get to later. What do we eat if we can't divide plants?

Peter Adamson: If they're rational.

Cecilia Muratori: Exactly. If we can't divide rational beings from irrational beings, but also animals from plants. And one of the main problems that is discussed in many Renaissance texts is how do we bridge this border? So both Telesio and Campanella deal with this border between sensation and rationality by claiming that there is a logical problem there because we are forced to multiply the faculties in between. So we are trying to bridge a gap which can't be bridged. And they interpret in this frame, for instance, the fact that Avicenna's estimation is stuck in between, so to speak, sensation and rationality. So we see this through the history of philosophy, so to speak. There is an attempt to bridge this distance between sensation and rationality and between sensation and lack of sensation.

Peter Adamson: Just to explain briefly what that means, Avicenna has this idea of what in Arabic he called "wahm," which means or was at least translated as, "estimation." So this is an animal's capacity to perceive a cognitively rich content. So something you can't see, his famous example is the hostility of a wolf being pursued by a sheep. And so this kind of pushes the animal's capacities in the direction of what humans can do, right?

Cecilia Muratori: Yeah, and distinguishing between enemies and friends is quite a key capacity. Campanella himself claims that 'animal' is an awkward category. It's almost unusable. So animal includes, that's his example, an oyster and an elephant. And how are we supposed to bring those two creatures together that they can do such different things? Also, the elephant is a very important animal in the Renaissance. It's a religious animal, something that we might come to later perhaps in the reception of natural history - the elephant is a creature who is even capable of adoring the moon. So very, very close to human beings.

Peter Adamson: Like worshipping the moon. Elephants were thought to be doing this?

Cecilia Muratori: Yeah, kneeling before the moon. That's why if we were sketching a sort of scale, the elephant would be quite high up, very close to human beings in Renaissance texts. While the oyster obviously being also fairly mobile, it's lower down if you want to picture it.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, the oyster is almost a plant in the downward direction and the elephant is almost a human.

Cecilia Muratori: Exactly. And still they're both animal.

Peter Adamson: To what extent did they think that these differences between plants, animals, and humans were grounded just in something like the difference between their bodies? I mean, is the idea that the poor animal just doesn't have the right kind of mixture of physical material in their body and that's why they can't think? Or is the idea more that whatever their body is like, the real problem is that they have a different kind of soul, which you might think is the message you're getting from Aristotle. So Aristotle seems maybe to be, it's obviously controversial, but Aristotle seems to maybe be saying, 'well, there's three kinds of soul faculties. So three kinds of souls, there's vegetative souls, which plants have, there's animal souls which are capable of sensation, which animals have, non-human animals, and then there's rational souls.' So which way do they go there? Do they just think it's a different type of soul or do they think it's really the body that explains the difference?

Cecilia Muratori: And it's a difficult combination of both, how a soul inhabits the body. There's a Platonic problem already and it's another reception history that we might think about when we talk about animal souls in the Renaissance. So for instance, the problem of how a soul inhabits the body could lead us back to Plato's Timaeus, where we find this example of the fish. The worst thing that can happen to the soul in Plato's Timaeus is being reincarnated in the fish body, which leads us to this problem of what can a soul do according to the body it inhabits?

Peter Adamson: Is this just a sign that Plato didn't like to swim or what's so bad about reincarnated as a fish?

Cecilia Muratori: It seems to be that mainly the fish doesn't have limbs. So what a body can express and what a soul can express to the body without having limbs is very little. And also the element that the fish inhabits is different, so the water versus air. In the Renaissance, one of the main organs that fascinates philosophers is of course the brain, because at least in Galen, that's supposed to be the seat of the rational faculty.

Peter Adamson: So at least part of the explanation then of the difference between animals and humans should be that they literally have different kinds of brains.

Cecilia Muratori: Exactly, and ventricles of the brain. So the compartments and how well organized are these compartments? That could be one example of the difference. One very vivid example that we find in Bruno's Kabbalah, where there is a transformation, a description of a transformation from a snake into a human body. And this description of a transformation is a very good example of how the relationship between the body and the soul is thought in terms of interaction, but also can be brought to extremes to saying 'it actually depends on the body what a creature can do and also how well or how bad a creature can think,' can be just due to bodily features. So in the Kabbalah, the transformation goes like this. Bruno writes, if we imagine that the head of the snake can get bigger and limbs can germinate out of the body, it's kind of getting us back to the Timaeus again. The fish without limbs, here we have a snake without limbs. So if we imagine the head gets bigger, the limbs germinate from the body and the creature gets hands and the tongue, interestingly. Then he says what we would have at the end is nothing different than a man. And then he had, in fact, it would because it would be a man. So it's just the bodily construction that defines whether a creature is a human or a man. So the fact that I can talk right now is just due to the tongue and the palate.

Peter Adamson: It's a very physical explanation.

Cecilia Muratori: And the hands again. So for Bruno, having hands is defining. So it's something that a Timaeus fish doesn't have.

Peter Adamson: You mentioned before that there's this issue about what we're allowed to eat. And that calls to mind some texts that we know of from antiquity. So especially Plutarch and an author who used Plutarch, namely Porphyry, the student of Plotinus, one of the major Neoplatonists. And Porphyry - just to remind listeners, because I covered this quite a long time ago in the podcast series - Porphyry wrote this treatise called On Abstinence from Consuming Animals, in which he argues that a philosopher should lead a vegetarian life. And I guess that this text was known in the Renaissance. And so I'm wondering what they did with that. Were they interested in this text? Did they use his arguments to argue for vegetarianism?

Cecilia Muratori: Both texts of Plutarch's Bruta animalia ratione uti, 'the brute animals using reason.' It's a dialogue where the protagonist, Grillos, is one of Ulysses' companions and he had been transformed into a pig by the sorcerer.

Peter Adamson: Right, and it taught him not to eat other pigs, basically.

Cecilia Muratori: Exactly. And that text circulated widely in the Renaissance. It was included in pretty much every edition of Plutarch's Moralia from the 1509 one onwards. So it was well known. And Porphyry's On Abstinence was also first translated by Marsilio Ficino in a British version. And then from 1547, 1548, also started to circulate in Latin translation and in Greek. There is a variety of authors who refer to these texts. Also with regard to the issue of rationality. So the question would be, 'if we say the animals are rational, wouldn't eating them be basically the same as eating humans?' And it's important to remind us that Porphyry's aim in On Abstinence is a practical one. So arguing in favor of the rationality of animals there serves the purpose of saying that if animals are rational, if, then would it still be legitimate to eat them or wouldn't be rather like eating people?

Peter Adamson: Which is assumed to be not okay.

Cecilia Muratori: And yet at the same time, that's precisely what certain populations in the New World are doing. So we should also remember that there is a lot of information coming from the New World in terms of travel reports, also very imaginative travel reports about the habits of the cannibals. Which is another interesting feature of Renaissance discourses on animals. So what are those human looking creatures in the New World who don't speak? So we go back to the issue of talking and having a tongue. And that's another characteristic that Porphyry discussed in On Abstinence. Another trace of rationality. If animals are supposed to be able to speak, then do they express logos basically? So they are rational. So do we consider, for instance, the songs of the birds as a sign that they are rational? Or we have these populations in the New World who are not speaking.

Peter Adamson: Apparently not speaking. So the idea is that just like animals might threaten to become too human by being rational or for your example, of a dog that can perceive universals or something like that. So they were running into these humans, or apparent humans, who were engaging in behaviors that they thought made these humans more like animals than humans.

Cecilia Muratori: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And also the effect is that practically we have subdivided again the categories of animals and of humans. So in Porphyry the categories of humans is subdivided because what he's arguing is that not everyone should abstain from animals, but this might be a suitable diet for the philosopher. So it has to do with virtue, with virtuous behavior. So the philosopher might want to think about abstaining from eating creatures that might possess rationality. Conversely, what happens encountering cannibals is that we have human, at least human looking creatures, who eat each other. Who display the most brutal behavior of all. So again, it's difficult to trace a clear line between humans and animals. And we see that in the reception of Plutarch as well, which is the other text that you just mentioned. For instance, a good example is Giambattista Gelli's Circe of 1549, which is a text in which Gelli uses the story of Toba Plutarch. So it's Grillos had been transformed into a pig and Ulysses had been negotiating with the sorcerer the possibility to have his companions back, so the transformation back into human. And he's surprised when the animals refuse to be turned back into human form. And in Gelli's Circe, eventually Ulysses does find one creature who wants to be, who is willing to regain his human shape. And that's the elephant, not by chance. It's the elephant in the dialogue who had previously been a philosopher - and possibly even an Aristotelian philosopher judging from the kind of language that he uses. And what this text interestingly does for this question we are talking about today of what defines an animal in the Renaissance, is that there we have an animal comparing the previous human condition with the current animal condition, evaluating which of the two is best. So whether it's better to be turned back into human or to stay as an animal, all of that from the point of view of an animal who is supposed to have lost rationality in the process.

Peter Adamson: And despite that the animal is deliberating about - it's really fascinating because in theory animals should be non-rational, and yet here is an animal deliberating about whether to become rational, which doesn't even make any sense.

Cecilia Muratori: Another point that they discuss is that we should mention is the happiness factor. So is it a happy life, necessarily a human life, which brings us back to Aristotle as well. So the happy life is the virtuous life of the Nicomachean Ethics. Or can animals be happy at all, especially if they are not rational? Or does happiness precisely consist into not being rational?

Peter Adamson: Oh, for an animal their happy life would be not being rational.

Cecilia Muratori: So instead of just one criterion, the one we started with, rationality, we have now at least three. Rationality and happiness and virtue.

Peter Adamson: The picture then seems to be a kind of continuum with blurry edges where at the bottom we have plants and then above plants we have maybe something like an oyster, then we have other animals at the top of the animals, we have something like an elephant - but then there are cannibals, which seem to be in some ways maybe even worse than an elephant. And then we have humans and even within humans we might have normal humans and philosophers at the very top, of course. And to me that's very striking because that idea of the blurriness between humans on the one hand and non-human animals on the other hand is something we associate very strongly with Darwinian evolutionary theory. So that makes me wonder to what extent Renaissance authors were already kind of anticipating this idea that there's no hard and fast distinction between the two.

Cecilia Muratori: This makes me think first of all of this problem of the transformation from human into animal, so continuing from the topic we've just been discussing and from animal into human. So physiognomy is another important discipline in the Renaissance which helps us get into the bottom of this animal. So question, De La Porta, for instance, in the Physiognomy, it's a text published in 1586, has a sort of map of characteristics that should help us decode what moral character certain humans have. So he's using animals, so for instance a dog or a horse, to interpret human characteristics. So if a human being would look like a horse, for instance, that would mean that that human being is particularly faithful or particularly gentle, for instance. He creates some kind of map for seeing how similar we are in the body and what that means for the similarity in the character. So that's one example of how the border is really blurred. So we use the animals actually to interpret ourselves. Another very striking example we find in a text by Giulio Cesare Vanini, who was burnt in France in 1619 for his erratic views. And in one of his two main texts, which is called the Ad Mirandis, there is a passage about the generation of humans and of animals. Generation is very important if we are thinking in terms of pre-Darwinian in the sense of scientific. So we look at the generation of all creatures and the question of where do humans come from. And in that text, he answered these questions by saying that, so it's a dialogue, I should say. So there is irony in it and it's in dialogical form. So it's not straightforward, his theory. Now here, the theory that is presented is that humans not only come from rotten matter, which is playing on the idea of spontaneous generation. So the idea that certain creatures, usually small creatures, could be generated spontaneously for instance after heavy rain. It's a theory also drawn from Aristotle. He's playing on that idea of saying that humans come from rotten matter, but actually from the rotten matter of pigs, frogs and monkeys. And it's a passage that of course has inspired quite a lot of Darwinian debates. So does he mean that we come from them, so to speak? But without going into that, what's important for our topic is the fact that there is an obvious connection and this connection is in the bodies, in the generation. And the borders are not just blurred, but also we get once again to the subcategories. So the category is not anymore humans or animals, for instance, but in many Renaissance texts, it's between the animals generated in a womb or without a womb. So the so-called perfect animals, those bigger, more complex bodies usually generated in a womb and the imperfect animals, which are smaller, sometimes born spontaneously like after heavy rain. So once again, the humans would just be one instance of a perfect animal together with other perfect animals, for instance, the pigs and the monkeys.

Peter Adamson: It makes me wonder what kind of implications this all has in a religious context. I mean, obviously the Renaissance is still a very religious society. And if you blur the distinction between humans and animals in this way, I mean, we've been talking about ethical implications to do with vegetarianism, for example. But what about the religious point of view? I mean, if you think that animals might be moral agents, does that mean that they can sin? Does it mean they need to be redeemed in order to be saved? Can they be saved? Do they ever talk about this sort of issue?

Cecilia Muratori: First of all, if we're going to continue on the cannibalistic strand, we have the issue there already. So can those cannibals be saved? So there is a big topic for debate. So can we convert them? And does that depend on rationality? So we have to first assess whether they can talk, whether they can think. So again, this connection, talking and thinking. Then are they rational? And if they're rational, then can we intervene at that point and actually convert them to Christianity? So we have that issue already at the level of human beings, actually. With animals, the problem derives from the issue of rationality. If rationality isn't the border anymore - strictly dividing humans from animals, then is there still another border, another line that we can draw to definitely say 'this is something animals don't have?' And could that be religion? That's one main topic. So animals are not religious like us.

Peter Adamson: I see. So they are rational, but we can still eat them because they don't worship Christ. I'm not sure that's going to convince too many vegetarians out there at this stage! But just as a final wrap up question, it's one thing that's struck me throughout everything you've been saying is how much this anticipates later developments and conceptions of animals. So it seems in a way to have a lot more in common with modern day attitudes towards animals than medieval attitudes towards animals. So I mentioned Darwin before, but I guess maybe a more immediate point of comparison might be what happens in what we usually call early modern philosophy. And there, one thing that leaps to mind, for example, is Descartes' notorious position that animals are basically just machines. And some of the more physicalist ways of thinking about this that you mentioned, so that the real difference between animals and humans might just be their physical makeup, that would seem to anticipate what Descartes is saying to some extent. Is that right?

Cecilia Muratori: Well, one interesting thing is that if we delve into the continuity of animals and humans, we always at some point come to the continuity of the Renaissance and early modern period. That's an interesting feature. And in a sense, what Descartes is claiming about animal automatism, which is basically the theory that we can explain fully animal behavior by studying their bodies. That's really, I think, what it means. So we can't fully interpret human behavior by simply studying the human body. And that's when the mind, the mens, comes into play. Or we can fully explain animal bodies, animal behavior. That theory is in itself not new at all, even if Descartes is usually considered a watershed with regard to debates on the animal soul. And in a sense, it was because the ethical debate that Descartes - so the way Descartes presented the theory, those ethical debates were really something more powerful, in a sense, new than ever before. So for instance, the question, 'what can we do with animals if they really don't feel, if they are like machines?' So in a sense, the reception of Descartes' theory might still be considered something new. But the idea itself, that animals might be like machines, is not new. So one famous precedent is a book by a Spanish doctor called Gomez Pereira. The book is Antoniano Margarita, 1554. It's particularly interesting because Gomez Pereira argues that if we say that animals have sensations, we're back to the issue we discussed at the beginning, then we have to say that they are rational as well. There is no way of stopping them from being rational if we say that they have sensation, because of the issues we already talked about. So it's really difficult to draw a clear cut line there. And that, he claims, is absurd. So we can't say that animals are rational like us. So what remains is the other position. So they either, so they come in a packet together, either sensation and rationality, or neither sensation nor rationality. And that's...

Peter Adamson: So they deny that animals have sensations.

Cecilia Muratori: So the conclusion he comes to before Descartes is that they lack sensation. Interestingly, then he also goes on to distinguish between two different kinds of sensation. So he says maybe there is a way in which animals can feel in a sort of unconscious way while we feel consciously, which is also an interesting idea to think about in the reception, if we compare it with Descartes. So in a sense, animal automatism was also a theory that was discussed and partly also rejected. So Campanella, for instance, rejects it well before Descartes. For Campanella, it's just not a viable solution. So we must find a distinction somewhere else. It doesn't, it simply doesn't work.


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.