On the opposite side were the defenders of animals, in particular Plutarch and Porphyry. Their ideas derived in part from those of Theophrastus, the disciple and successor of Aristotle, but mixed with mystical conceptions of the Orphic or Pythagorean type. What were their positions?
Basically these: animals are endowed with reason, and to varying degrees also with language; between men and animals there is a form of “kinship” – therefore the distance that separates them is not at all abysmal, as the Stoics claimed – while the typically human virtue of philanthropy,, must push us to use “justice” also in their comparisons. But what of the Jewish thinkers?
In the Bible they found the explicit affirmation of the inferiority of animals. “Let us make man in our image and likeness” says the God of Genesis “and dominate over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over livestock, over all wild beasts and over all reptiles that crawl on the earth.” Consequently, those who wanted to keep faith with the sacred text certainly could not recognize the “rights” to beings that God himself had placed at the service of men.
In a dialogue entitled “On animals”, Philo, a great commentator of the Bible, entrusts the character of Alexander with the task of representing the ideas of those philosophers who also wanted to recognize the faculty of reason to these beings. The interlocutor, therefore, argues that birds not only chirp melodiously but even articulate “words”, in short, they possess a form of language.
However, Filone is not of this opinion. At most, he counters, birds can be said to emit “sounds”, in the manner of musical instruments. He concludes in this way: «let us, therefore, stop criticizing nature and commit sacrilege. Raising animals to the level of men and thus guaranteeing equality to those who are not equal, constitutes the worst of injustices ». “injustice” is committed not when the “rights” of animals are denied, but when they are affirmed.
As regards Christian thought, if we take Augustine as his representative, the situation is quite disheartening. It would be enough to recall that passage in which, to answer those who considered the suffering of childbirth common also to animals, he affirmed: “the animals have not told you if their moan [at the moment of birth] is a song or a lament … Who can he know if the motions and sounds that animals manifest on this occasion – they who are mute, and therefore cannot reveal what is happening inside them – not only do not express pain, but even some form of pleasure? ‘ Augustine here intended to oppose those thinkers who recognized animals, if not the ability to communicate rational contents, at least that of expressing their emotions or passions. The poet Lucretius, for example, had been one of them. But the bishop of Hippo was unwilling to concede even this. In any case, anyone who has seen at least their cat gives birth will easily be able to judge Augustine’s insensitivity on this ground.
rhetorician from Palestrina named Eliano
Tto stand out for originality is a rhetorician from Palestrina named Eliano. He fervently advocated the thesis that animals had virtues such as wisdom, patience, temperance, and in short, he was absolutely certain that they had intellectual and moral qualities not only equal to, but even superior to, those of men. He did so as a rhetorician, recalling mythical paradigms to which animals, with their skills and virtues, could be assimilated: for example, the female seabird would have equaled Alcestis in conjugal devotion (who gave his life in exchange for that of his husband Admetus) and Evadne (who wanted to die on the same stake on which her husband Capaneo burned); not to mention the care with which animals would shy away from incest, which Oedipus notoriously failed; and so on. In particular, Eliano also tried to demonstrate that the sounds emitted by his darlings could have a real linguistic value, that is, that they were instruments of communication. In fact, he wrote: «Nature has endowed animals with an immense variety of voices and languages, just as it did with men. The Scythian in fact speaks differently from the Indian, the speaking of the Greeks is different from that of the Romans. This is also the case with animals, in which each emits the tone and the sound that is most natural for its own language: one in fact roars, the other lower, of one it is the neigh, of the other the braying; the other still bleating or doing “meh!” … ». The reasoning is sophistical, of course, because Eliano does not bother to argue about what – already in Aristotle’s opinion – constitutes the fundamental difference between human and animal sound emissions: the former is equipped with “articulation”, that is, they are structured in words capable of organizing themselves into discourse; the voices of animals, on the other hand, do not enjoy this possibility. But Eliano still allows himself to be appreciated for his generous disposition towards our (unfortunate) life companions on the planet.