- In the Eye of the Animal: Zoological Imagination in Ancient Christianity by Patricia Cox Miller
Patricia Cox Miller's In the Eye of the Animal falls into what can be broadly described as the history of animals in Christian thought. Miller writes that she is concerned to "read Christian texts for their imaginative engagement with images of animals" (p. 1). This considerably understates what she accomplishes with this volume, which is essential reading for anyone interested in nonhuman animals in historical perspective. It ranges widely through Christian and "pagan" theology, philosophy, and literature as well as engages with more recent poetry and scholarship to counter the "absurdly reductive" equation of Christianity with anthropocentrism (p. 51).
Miller herself is W. Earl Ledden Professor Emerita at Syracuse University and is a scholar in the broad area of late antique Christianity. This period spans roughly the third to eighth centuries. Miller's work ranges widely within late antiquity, with her books having titles such as Biography in Late Antiquity (UC Press, 1983), Dreams in Late Antiquity (Prince-ton, 1994), The Poetry of Thought in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2001), and Women in Early Christianity (CUA Press, 2005). Like these, In the Eye of the Animal is lucidly written, bringing Miller's considerable experience and historical knowledge to bear while also intelligently connecting historical to present manifestations of the issues under examination.
Worth mentioning at the outset is that Miller provides a generous appendix (p. 197) of ancient authors for those whose experience is not in the area of late antique history. One of the few faults with the structure of this book is that the extent of this appendix is not made clear earlier, containing as it does summaries of significant figures, their context, and their contributions. This makes the book easy to recommend to nonspecialists in late antiquity, but only if they are aware that any confusion about the difference between Ovid and Origen or what Porphyry has to do with Plato can be swiftly resolved with a glance at the end of the book.
Setting aside this useful appendix, the book is laid out across five chapters with an introduction and an afterword. The first chapter is "Animals and Figuration: The Case of Birds." Aside from the rich and interesting material for Christian and Platonic reflection on birds that Miller draws out, supported by some excellent images of late antique art, Miller deals directly with the problem of metaphor in this chapter. She is sensitive to the problem of real animals disappearing into the metaphorical apparatus used by some authors and engages well with the contemporary literature on this pressing topic (p. 18). Chapters 2 and 3 are [End Page 203] grouped together and called "On the Pensivity of Animals" and are subtitled "Zoomorphism" and "Anthropomorphism" respectively. Drawing their shared title from prolific French author Jean-Christophe Bailly, these chapters, acknowledging that the language of neither zoomorphism or anthropomorphism was available to ancient authors, present a nuanced reading of texts that necessarily do not self-describe as either zoomorphic or anthropomorphic (p. 84). Miller is especially to be commended for a nuanced exploration of the conceptual ground of anthropomorphism. Chapter 4 is "Wild Animals: Desert Ascetics and Their Companions" and engages with the difficult texts of the Desert Fathers. This necessitates a navigation between the clear spiritual significance of the sayings of the desert monks and what they nevertheless have to say about the mutuality of human and nonhuman animal (p. 145). Chapter 5 is "Small Things: The Vibrant Materiality of Tiny Creatures." Venturing into territory that too rarely receives any treatment, let alone a theological one, Miller here explores the "zoological imagination" evoked by worms, flies, mosquitoes, and other creatures less evocative than the birds, wolves, and big cats of earlier chapters (p. 171). The decision to organize the text into broad thematic categories means that many of the most significant authors are returned to throughout, while other less prolific and well-known...