Any human hierarchy, insofar as it can be justified philosophically, is treated by Aristotle by analogy with the relation of men to animals. One could be forgiven for thinking that Aristotle’s real goal is not to establish the superiority of humans over animals, but the superiority of some people over others.
“The savage people in many parts of America,” writes Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan,” responding to the charge that human beings have never lived in a state of nature, “have no government and live in this brutal way ”. Like Plato, Hobbes associates anarchy with animality and civilization with the state, which for the first time gives our purely animal movement moral content and orders us into a defined hierarchy. But this line of thought also justifies the colonization or even the extirpation of the “savage”, the beast in human form.
Our supposed fundamental distinction of “beasts,” beasts “and” savages “is used to separate us from nature, from each other, and ultimately from ourselves. In Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates divides the human soul into two parts. The soul of the thirsty person, he says, “wants nothing but drink.” But we can hold back. “What inhibits such actions,” he concludes, “follows from the calculations of reason.” When we restrain or control ourselves, Plato argues, a rational being restrains an animal.
In this light, each of us is both a beast and a person – and the purpose of human life is to constrain our desires with rationality and to purify us from animality. These kinds of systematic self-divisions come to be reshaped in Cartesian dualism, which separates the mind from the body, or in Sigmund Freud’s distinction between the id and the ego, or in the neurological contrast between the functions of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
I would like to publicly identify this dualistic view as a disaster, but I don’t know how to refute it, exactly, except to say that I don’t feel like I am a logical program running on an animal body; I would like to consider myself much more integrated than that. And I would like to repudiate any political and environmental conclusions ever drawn by our alleged transcendence of the order of nature. I don’t see how we could stop being mammals and remain ourselves.
There is no doubt that human beings are distinct from other animals, but not necessarily more distinct than other animals from one another. But maybe we’ve been focusing too much on the differences for too long. Maybe we should point out what all of us animals have in common.
Our resemblance to squirrels should not be interpreted as a threat to our self-image. Instead, it could be seen as a sign of hope that one day we will be better at jumping trees.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is “Entanglements: A System of Philosophy”.
Now in print: “Modern ethics in 77 arguments, “and”The stone reader: modern philosophy in 133 arguments, With essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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