Home > Human/Animal seminar, Philosophy, Plato, Plutarch > On the accusation of sophistry in Plutarch’s “Beasts are Rational”

On the accusation of sophistry in Plutarch’s “Beasts are Rational”

This semester, I am taking a seminar on the various ways that the human/animal divide has been characterized in the history of western culture (primarily from the 16th century onward, but with a couple of earlier readings). Our first readings came from Plutarch—we are looking at the first half of the dialogue The Cleverness of Animals, the dialogue Beasts are Rational, and the poorly preserved On the Eating of Flesh. I want to focus on the second of these, with brief reference to the first. Specifically, I want to look at the charge of sophistry as it is deployed in Beasts are Rational.

First, some brief context. Plutarch was a Platonist, and nothing angers a Platonist quite like a Sophist. Much of the motivation for Plato’s own work stemmed from his distaste for the Sophists, a group of teachers who taught a person how to appear convincing, but not how to seek truth. They favored glamour and glitz over reality, as it were. They prided themselves on being able to argue for any position, however outrageous, in a persuasive fashion, using whatever tricks would impress people in the right way. In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ interlocutor, Thrasymachus, is a noted Sophist, and my analysis of that book gives some indication of the antics of the Sophist in action—admittedly, an indication of how they appear from the biased perspective of Plato.

The charge of sophistry or of being a Sophist, when it appears in a dialogue written by a Platonist, thus carries heavy weight. It is a moral accusation, one that discredits whatever the person has to say. I want to look at the way that Plutarch uses this accusation to great effect in Beasts are Rational, as I think it quite interesting.

Beasts are Rational is a dialogue between Odysseus and Gryllus (with a brief appearance of Circe). Its jumping off point is the episode from The Odyssey in which Odysseus leaves Circe’s island to begin his voyage home. In the dialogue, Odysseus requests that Circe turn his men back into human form, for Circe has turned them into pigs. Circe agrees, on the condition that Odysseus can convince one of them to resume his human form. In what follows, Gryllus, one of the men who have become pigs, rejects Odysseus’ offer and argues at length why it is better to be an animal than a human.

Some reflections on the dialogue format are in order. Plato famously used various techniques to create several degrees of separation between himself and the characters in his dialogues, and particularly Socrates—thus preventing a too easy identification of Socrates’ views with those of Plato himself. Such techniques are not in evidence in Beasts are Rational, and it is tempting to identify Gryllus as functioning effectively as Plutarch’s avatar. After all, he is defending the worth of animals, something that Plutarch does in On the Eating of Flesh (a treatise defending vegetarianism as natural and humane) and in The Cleverness of Animals, in which the dominant voice (of the first half) defends the thesis that animals possess reason.

However, such an identification is difficult to maintain when we look at the content of the views in the various texts in greater detail. While both Gryllus (in Beasts are Rational) and Autobulus (in The Cleverness of Animals) defend the value of animal life, they do so in different ways. Autobulus works primarily by questioning the validity of drawing a line between humans and animals: there is no difference in kind between the two. He accepts, generally speaking, that in terms of the virtues and of reason, humans are more developed, but it is not because they possess something that animals lack. That is, Autobulus aims to show primarily that humans represent a higher development of something already present in animals, but nothing new in kind.

Gryllus, by contrast, argues for a much stronger, much more controversial position: that it is preferable to be an animal than a human, in part because animals are more virtuous than humans. For instance, in discussing the virtue of courage, Gryllus claims, “These facts make it perfectly obvious that bravery is an innate characteristic of beasts, while in human beings an independent spirit is actually contrary to nature.” Gryllus claims that virtues in humans are not natural, but in fact contrary to nature: they result only from external, social compulsion and not from innate virtuousness. Thus Gryllus is drawing a sharp line of demarcation between humans and animals, only he is putting humans on the wrong side of it. There is a difference in kind: human virtues are not natural, merely socially enforced, whereas animal virtues are natural (and better).

This should give us pause before identifying Gryllus as a mere avatar for Plutarch. He is taking an exceptionally strong position, and we would do well to find out why. I hope to go some way to elucidating this by placing Gryllus’ strong claims in their proper context. Plutarch, I want to claim, does not aim to show absolutely that it is better to be animal than human. Rather, he wants to show why an animal could rationally prefer such a state. The charge of sophistry that Odysseus levels at Gryllus, and the manner in which Gryllus throws it off, is instructive in this regard.

The broad form that the dialogue takes is a sequential discussion of the different virtues, and the extent to which animals and humans possess them. Thus Gryllus starts by defending the superiority of animals with respect to courage, then discusses their superiority with respect to temperance. No other virtues are discussed, perhaps because the dialogue as we have it is incomplete, perhaps because there is simply nothing more to say. (The notes to the translation I read say that it is an undecided question whether or not the dialogue as we have is missing a great deal from the end.)

Between the discussion of courage and that of temperance, Odysseus levels his accusation: “Bless me, Gryllus, you must once have been a very clever sophist…” Why level this accusation? Because Gryllus has been defending an apparently outrageous position: that humans are not courageous by nature, but only against nature, whereas animals are naturally courageous. (A further premise of the discussion is a natural teleological commitment to virtue as the aim of reason—if animals outstrip humans in virtue, they probably outstrip them in reason as well.) It seems very much sophistical to argue such a position—after all, the sophists were the perennial devil’s advocates, defending any position they thought would win them glory (or money).

This is a very serious accusation, yet it does not much trouble Gryllus. Indeed, he does not even discuss it at first, instead beginning, at Odysseus’ prompting, the discussion of temperance. Only a bit later does he respond to the charge, and in a very interesting fashion: “Now since you are not unaware that I am a sophist…” He accepts the charge. This is tantamount to accepting that he is not arguing in good faith, that he does not believe what he says. To accept that this is really going on would be to cheapen the dialogue—it seems to stop having a point, if Gryllus is truly a sophist. Further, while Gryllus’ position is not consistent with that of Autobulus in The Cleverness of Animals, it is at least in sympathy with it in two respects: both defend the worth of animals, and both go against the prevailing view of the extreme superiority of humans. While distinct views, in light of their shared minority status, they are natural allies. So it is hard to imagine Plutarch simply admitting that Gryllus’ view is sophistical.

If we follow the dialogue, however, we can see that Gryllus does, in a way throw off the charge of sophistry. The conclusion to the sentence I began above, in which Gryllus accepts the charge, reads, “…let me marshal my arguments in some order by defining temperance and analyzing the desires according to their kinds.” Gryllus does this, finding (predictably) that animals are superior to humans in terms of temperance. And once he has done this, once he has marshaled his arguments, he concludes by saying, “Since I have entered into this new body of mine, I marvel at those arguments by which the sophists brought me to consider all creatures except man irrational and senseless.” Here Gryllus precisely reverses the charge: he is not the sophist, rather, the sophists are those who claim humans are rational and animals irrational. What a ridiculous claim that is, in light of Gryllus’ arguments!

Now, one could see this as simply a clever rhetorical trick, appropriate to the sophist. Accept the charge of sophism as a ruse, only to throw it back on the unsuspecting opponent, to great rhetorical effect. And this effect cannot be denied here: Gryllus does just that. He turns (accused) sophistry into common sense, and common sense into sophistry.

But there is more going on. To see it, reflect on the circumstances of the dialogue. This is no idle dispute. If Gryllus accepts Odysseus’ claim that humans are rational and the animals not, and thus that it is superior to be a human, then he will be turned back into a human. That is, Gryllus gets to choose whether to be animal or human, and by arguing as he does, he is simultaneously making the choice to be animal. That is, this is no idle dispute. A great deal is at stake, and conditions are such that Gryllus is forced to abide by the position he accepts: if he claims it is better to be animal, he will be an animal. But this is exactly not what characterizes the sophist: the sophist is the consummate hypocrite, the person who will say anything without necessarily living up to it. One reason Gryllus can accept Odysseus’ accusation of sophistry without taking offense is that he knows it cannot stick. The very conditions of the dialogue preclude the sophist’s trickery, because here self-interest lines up exactly with seeking the truth.

In that way, Gryllus can successfully and compellingly throw off Odysseus’ accusation. But now we are left with the question of the discrepancy between Gryllus’ position and that of Autobulus—whose is right. One (appropriate) thing to say is simply to note the dialogue format, which aims to encourage the reader to reflect for himself rather to encourage the reader to convert to a specific view (though it may try to guide the results of the reader’s reflection).

But I think more can be said than just this (without denying that it is right). I think it is important that Gryllus never explicitly denies the charge of sophistry, but merely throws it back on the opposing view. In a way, Gryllus is saying that both sides are sophistical. Yes, Gryllus admits, I am a sophist, only a sophist would try to convince a human that it is better to be an animal—but, equally, only a sophist would try to convince an animal that it is better to be human. The end result, then, is not a viewpoint that exalts animals, but a position of equality: it is as good to be an animal as to be human. Of course a human will prefer to be human, but the same is true of the animal, and one can bring no argument against the other to change its mind.

This last paragraph is quite speculative, and I do not want to strongly endorse the conclusion. I will note that if it is right, then it lends some credence to the view that the dialogue as we have it is fairly complete, for after Gryllus has established that both views are equally sophistical there really is little more to be said. But that, as noted, is an open question, to which I do not have the answer.

Kindly perturb

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