Posts Tagged ‘animal-human divide’

Nietzsche at Sea

2013/11/10 1 comment

Mindful of this situation in which youth finds itself I cry Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of skepticism. Let us only make land; later on we shall find good harbours right enough, and make the landfall easier for those who come after us. (UD 116)

What is it that could bring Nietzsche to cry “Land! Land!”? From what skepticism is he running? Above all, what is the mood of this passage, and of the essay that contains it? Might there be a situation in which Nietzsche could celebrate the sea and skepticism? (Citations to On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, designated UD, are from the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale. Citations to On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, designated TL, are to the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.)

In both On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche attempts to characterize the liberated intellect, which is to be contrasted with the enslaved intellect. To achieve this, he plays with the theme of the human/animal boundary, using it now for one purpose, now another. A brief summary of these uses will then be helpful.

The opening paragraph of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense could not be clearer: humans are animals; we achieve nothing that extends beyond human life, which is just a sort of animal life; all we get from cognition, which supposedly separates us from the animals, is an ungainly and bloated pride. At the same time, Nietzsche does allow our intellect to separate us from the animals: we turn our metaphors into concepts—or, in other words, we let our metaphors die. In all of this, we are characterized by forgetting: we forget how language originates in dissimulation and metaphor, and from this we get our drive to truth; we forget ourselves as artistically creative subjects, and so we become slaves to the facts—facts that amount to little more than conventions we’ve established. Our truths capture little more than the relations of things to humans. The enslaved intellect erects these inventions into a life raft to which we can cling as we move through life. The liberated intellect, by contrast, smashes up concepts, brings unlike things together, and proceeds via intuition rather than concept. The liberated intellect is, in this way, quite animal.

Things are less straightforward in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche characterizes animal life as fundamentally unhistorical, characterized by forgetting, whereas human life involves memory and thus history. The contrast between the liberated and enslaved intellect arises again: the enslaved intellect treats history as a science, and overwhelms life with history. The enslaved intellect is chained to memory, and will not allow itself to forget even the slightest detail. The liberated intellect, by contrast, uses history in the service of life. Sometimes, as in the case of critical history, this involves remembering details and faithfulness to the facts, but in the case of monumental history, a great deal of falsification and forgetting is required. When the intellect is in chains, Nietzsche claims, we are permitted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, but not vivo, ergo cogito. We do not live. Instead, “the feeling that tells me I exist warrants to me only that I am a thinking creature, not that I am a living one, not that I am an animal but at most a cogital” (UD 119). Here the animal is placed above the cogital. Yet Nietzsche earlier says of the great man that his body does not contain his life, and when his body dies all that is left behind is “the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down” (UD 69) and which was an object of his contempt. Nietzsche here seems caught between two tendencies: the one to lower the human to a place below the animal, the other to suggest something more than animal that the human can achieve. Some sense is made of this by Nietzsche’s later admission of “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly” (UD 112). Nietzsche thinks the animality of the human is a truth that must be handled delicately, in a way that preserves and engenders rather than destroys life. Nietzsche’s oscillation reflects his attempt to do just that.

The desire to suggest something higher than the animal in Nietzsche’s essay on history is the key to understand his cry of “Land! Land!” In the finest passage of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, there is no such desire for land.

That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition. (TL 152)

I take the “vast assembly of beams and boards” to be a boat, for Nietzsche earlier describes it as erected on “flowing water” (TL 147). I confess also that I cannot help but reading this passage anachronistically, in light of Neurath’s boat. Neurath’s boat metaphor runs as follows:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (I took it from here)

Nietzsche’s account of the liberated intellect is that of one who, instead of clinging to this boat, uses it as the springboard for acrobatic leaps—perhaps at the cost of destroying and sinking the boat. What is absent is any sense of reaching land. Neither Neurath’s nor Nietzsche’s boat ever reaches land: there is no indication that it reaches any destination, or even that there are any destinations it could reach. In this way it is like animal life: it serves no purpose, has no end goal. There is simply play, then death.

Nietzsche’s cry for “Land! Land!” is a cry for some solid resting ground after a voyage through the sea of skepticism. How do we end up in this sea? “The madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web…” (UD 108). Nietzsche is clear: this skepticism is the result of the “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal” (UD 120-121). In so robbing us of all foundations, Nietzsche thinks that science may tyrannize over life, and life enslaved to science is weak and fearful. The liberated intellect and life should reverse this relationship and dominate science, using it to its own ends. And what is life? In great individuals, at least, the purpose of life is to “form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming” (UD 111) and so to be a foundation for those with whom they live contemporaneously—i.e. the great individuals of other ages.

This is something stable, permanent, and eternal—or at least untimely. The vision of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is a lonesome, animal vision of the individual playing at sea, for no audience, present or future. That of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is more social and more human, if not more cogital and not less animal. The historicity of humanity, set against their forgetful animality, leads to the extinguishing of life. But when unified with that animality, when yoked to the service of life, it makes possible something above the animal, something that ignores, perhaps willfully, the dangerous truth that humans are just another sort of animal, no more.

Addendum to my previous post

At the end of my last post, I speculated that Plutarch might indeed mean for us to take Gryllus’ arguments as sophistical, but as part of an attempt to bring us (the readers) to the realization that arguments for the superiority of humans over animals are equally sophistical. I think some further support for this view (toward which I am leaning more strongly now) comes from the fact that some techniques of sophistry are apparent in Gryllus’ arguments. For instance, Gryllus argues that sexuality in animals is more restrained than in humans: it is seasonal and aims at reproduction, and once that function is satisfied it goes away. They do not act in the licentious ways that humans act, and this shows that they are more temperate than humans. We certainly know now that this is hardly true of all non-human animals, and I think we can say the same of Plutarch: he deliberately has Gryllus selectively choose those examples that support his position, while ignoring entirely those that do not. The Cleverness of Animals, for instance, clearly shows that Plutarch was aware of divergence in the degree to which different animals possess different “virtues”. This selective use of examples is disingenuous on Gryllus’ part and I think it’s reasonable to say that Plutarch expects us to realize this—and then to notice how equally disingenuous are the efforts on the parts of those philosophers who rate the human so highly.

This, then, I think lends some further support to my closing speculation.

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

2013/09/04 2 comments

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.