In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought
  • Peter Harrison

Discussions about animals—their purpose, their minds or souls, their interior operations, our duties towards them—have always played a role in human self-understanding. At no time, however, except perhaps our own, have such concerns sparked the magnitude of debate which took place during the course of the seventeenth century. The agenda had been set in the late 1500s by Montaigne, who had made the remarkable (if somewhat rhetorical) claim that animals were both moral and rational, and moreover, more moral and rational than humans. In the century which followed, Descartes, not to be outdone, put forward the even more contentious counter-proposal that animals were not only neither rational nor moral, but that they were not even conscious. The Cartesian hypothesis fueled a debate which continued until well into the eighteenth century. 1 While in recent years much attention has been given to issues of animal consciousness and cognition in seventeenth-century thought, the related question of the moral capabilities of animals has been by comparison neglected. In this paper I shall explore the converse side of the better known arguments about the rational capabilities of the beasts, focusing on seventeenth-century discussions concerning the behaviors and passions of the beasts and the extent to which animals were thought to participate in the moral universe of human beings.

I. During the first sixteen hundred years of the common era, those thinkers who directed their attention to the natural world had tended to be preoccupied neither with questions of how animals came into being nor with the direct [End Page 463] causes of their various operations but rather with the question of why they existed at all. Almost without exception responses to this question were variations on a single theme: animals had been placed in the world to provide for the physical needs of human beings. 2 While this response proved to be satisfactory in general terms, there were acknowledged deficiencies. Many living things seemed to have been rather extravagantly designed for their putative purpose. Others seemed blatantly to contradict it. Why were our meat supplies, for example, not more conveniently presented, like the fabled Scythian lamb which grew on a tree? Why was it that a significant number of creatures appeared to be useless or even downright harmful to those whom they were designed to serve? And why, finally, were human beings created such that they were dependent upon lesser creatures for their survival?

Responses to these difficulties generally took one of three forms, each of which was influential throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. First, it could be asserted that as a result of the Fall, human beings had forfeited their dominion over the creatures, many of which now served as instruments for their punishment and correction. Augustine observed that “there are many things, such as fire, frost, wild beasts and so forth, which do not suit but injure this thin-blooded and frail mortality of our flesh, which is at present under just punishment.” 3 In the seventeenth century this view still attracted many supporters. Thus Godfrey Goodman, in The Fall of Man (1616), wrote that “all the creatures, forsaking their first and naturall use, did serve for mans punishment, and rebelled against him.” 4

Second, an appeal could be made to the Platonic principle of plenitude and the related idea of the chain of being. The principle of plenitude taught that more is better and that variety is preferable to uniformity. God, wrote the third-century Christian apologist Lactantius, “wished to display His providence and power by a wonderful variety of many things.” 5 It followed that all existing things could be ranged in a vast scale from non-existence to God himself, with each link in the chain separated from its neighbor by a small difference. Again, this view found many adherents in the early modern period. Thomas Robinson declared that “it was necessary that there shou’d be a variety of Natures, and [End Page 464] different Degrees of Life and Perfection.” Thus “every Creature even of the lowest Degree of Life, is Good and Perfect in its Kind.” 6 Important for our...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 463-484
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.