«William O. Stephens I. Introduction The significance of animals in Epictetus’s Stoicism has yet to be explored in detail. Yet Epictetus’s views ...»
Epictetus on Beastly Vices and Animal Virtues
William O. Stephens
The significance of animals in Epictetus’s Stoicism has yet to be
explored in detail. Yet Epictetus’s views on nonhuman animals—or Nanimals, as
I will call them—their traits, abilities, habits, and virtues, profoundly shape his
view of what human beings are and what we ought to be. It is hardly surprising
that Epictetus’s texts on Nanimals have not been scrutinized by philosophers
who write about animals,1 by environmental ethicists, or by researchers in the emerging field of human-animal studies. This is in part because a common but superficial interpretation of the ancient Stoics holds that they summarily judged all Nanimals to lack logos (speech/reason) and so to fall outside the bounds of justice and morality, and therefore to be essentially irrelevant to the human art of living.2 Yet I will argue that Epictetus’s Stoic account juxtaposing beastly vices and animal virtues with monstrous, inhuman vices and humane virtues continues to be relevant. Finally, I will suggest that some aspects of his outlook on Nanimals resonate unexpectedly with the ideas of two quite different modern-day thinkers.
Some of the complex ways in which human beings conceive of Nanimals, how we relate to certain kinds of Nanimals, and how we use certain kinds of Nanimals, have changed little from Epictetus’s day to our own. On the other hand, our much better scientific understanding of our kinship to them, the industrial complexes we have erected to bring huge numbers of select kinds of Nanimals into existence for a short time before disassembling them in order to gratify our conditioned tastes, the extent to which our ways of life recklessly exterminate billions of Nanimals every year, and the accelerated rate at which our unwillingness or inability to share this planet with other living things drives to extinction countless species of Nanimals, vastly distance our world from Epictetus’s. The ancients domesticated, hunted, fished, and trapped animals, used them in religious sacrifices3 and agriculture,4 and used them for 1 For example, Epictetus is entirely absent from Stephen T. Newmyer, Animals in Greek and Roman Thought. (Bibliographic information for all references can be found in the Select Bibliography at the end of this essay.) 2 For a corrective to this superficial and oversimplified interpretation, see Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals.
3 See Maria-Zoe Petropoulou, Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity.
4 Timothy Howe, Pastoral Politics: Animals, Agriculture and Society in Ancient Greece.
William O. Stephens 205 food,5 clothing, raw materials, labor, transportation, warfare, andsport.6 We continue to exploit nonhuman animals for nearly all of these purposes, but instead of ritually sacrificing them to the gods, we clone them, vivisect them, and genetically design them to be optimal experimental subjects and monstrously fast-growing but typically physically deformed protein machines to fuel our bodies. We routinely slaughter shiploads of bycatch.7 We kill millions of cats and dogs that aren’t cute enough to adopt as pets in order to spare ourselves the costs of spaying and neutering their parents.
How might Epictetus the moralist evaluate the following statistics?
Roughly 58 billion land animals worldwide each year are killed to become our food.8 In 2009, approximately 20 billion sea animals were killed in U.S. waters for human consumption. Unlike the ancients, we breed designer species to experiment on in laboratories in order to test new shampoos, soaps, cosmetic products, drugs, and biomedical instruments and treatments. Millions of rabbits, cats, dogs, and monkeys are sacrificed in such experiments. Estimates range widely, from 17 million to 100 million animals annually, because mice, rats, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates killed in experiments are unreported. Today we kill over 40 million animals a year worldwide for their fur. Over 200 million animals are reported killed legally by hunters in the United States each year. This number excludes those animals killed illegally by poachers, animals who are injured, escape, and die later, and orphaned animals who die after their mothers are killed. According to the Humane Society of the United States, three to four million cats and dogs are killed in animal shelters in the U.S. every year.
Today many of our activities and various aspects of the world we have constructed both directly and indirectly cause vast numbers of birds to die.
Anywhere between 100 million and 900 million birds annually are estimated to die in the U.S. from flying into glass windows.9 The National Audubon Society estimates that 100 million birds fall prey to cats each year in the U.S. Between 50 and 100 million birds per year are estimated to be killed by cars and trucks on U.S. highways. Perhaps as many as 174 million birds die by colliding with power lines each year in the U.S. According to the Smithsonian Institution, 5 See Michael MacKinnon, Production and Consumption of Animals in Roman Italy.
6 See George Jennison, Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome.
7 Bycatch are the sea creatures we don’t want to eat who are killed or lethally maimed because they have the bad luck of getting in the way as we fish and trawl for the marine animals we do like to eat.
8 The source of the statistics reported in this paragraph is http://animalrights.about.
com/od/animalrights101/tp/How-Many-Animals-Are-Killed.htm (accessed July 13, 2012).
9 The source of the statistics reported in this paragraph is http://www.currykerlinger.
com/birds.htm (accessed July 13, 2012).
206 EPICTETUS: his continuing influence and contemporary relevance pesticides may poison as many as 67 million birds per year. Communication towers, guy wires, electric power lines, livestock water tanks, oil and gas extraction, commercial fishing, logging, strip mining, airplanes, and fireworks kill perhaps between 5 and 12 million birds annually. According to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 100 million ducks, geese, swans, doves, shorebirds, rails, cranes, and other birds are legally hunted and killed each year.
How would Epictetus regard the fact that we directly and indirectly kill so many millions of birds every year as a result of what we decide to build, how we choose to travel, how we elect to produce our food and energy, and how we like to entertain ourselves? I will return to this question at the end of the paper.
Our contemporary understanding of the origin of all animal species was of course transformed by Charles Darwin.10 Yet as scientists continue to refine evolutionary biology, our attitudes about breeding, eating, wearing, hunting, owning, training, working with, experimenting on, domesticating, cuddling, and euthanizing nonhuman animals remain deeply ambivalent and ultimately, one could argue, incoherent.11 So enticing is the convenient belief 10 For a lucid argument for the ethical lessons to be drawn from Darwinian evolutionism, see James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.
11 Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals, 25, observes that “The French, who love their dogs, sometimes eat their horses. The Spanish, who love their horses, sometimes eat their cows. The Indians, who love their cows, sometimes eat their dogs”. We could add that Kashrut prohibits observant Jews from eating eels, lobster, oysters, clams, shrimp, crabs, cats, dogs, monkeys, pigs, rabbits, camels, hawks, eagles, owls, rodents, reptiles, and amphibians, while permitting them to eat properly slaughtered tuna, salmon, carp, herring, goats, sheep, deer, bison, cattle, chickens, ducks, and geese. There is some disagreement among Jewish communities about the permissibility of eating turkeys and locusts. Muslims may not eat pigs or any animal that has died from falling, being beaten, strangulated, or suffocated, but may eat as Halal fish, sea animals, and properly slaughtered chickens, ducks, turkeys, deer, bison, goats, sheep, and cattle. Observant Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday, and during Lent. Some Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays year around, while others substitute a penitential practice or charitable practice for abstaining from meat on Fridays outside of Lent. This diversity of religious dietary rules and
restrictions resists any scientifically informed philosophical justification. Consider:
Americans train dogs to assist the physically disabled, guide the visually impaired, and provide therapy for those in emotional need. In 2009, Americans spent about 45 billion dollars on toys, accessories, and veterinary care for their pets (http:// www.dancingdogblog.com/2009/06/454-billion-spent-on-pets-top-5-categoriesbasic-annual-costs/ — accessed July 13, 2012). Yet Americans euthanize three to four million dogs and cats every year, and the corpses of many of these animals William O. Stephens 207 inherited from Aristotle and the Stoics and re-affirmed in many of the world’s religions that Nanimals are given to us by Nature Herself (or Zeus, God, Yahweh, Allah), and so belong to us as our property to use however we wish, that selfishness and self-deception seduce us into denying our post-Darwinian epistemically undeniable kinship with the other animals.12 The ancients disagreed about whether considerations of justice apply to the other animals. Even if we assume that justice excludes wild animals, might the beasts living among us in our community belong to the moral community?
The Stoics believed that our rationality makes us superior to the other animals and that Providence gifts their bodies to us. The Epicureans believed that since Nanimals cannot make social pacts with us, they are unprotected by the constraints of justice. The Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of the souls of all animals, both human and nonhuman, and they propounded a philosophy of vegetarianism. Dedication to empirical biology led Theophrastus, Aristotle’s favorite pupil, to the realization that Nanimals can feel, sense, and reason just as human beings do. So, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum, rejected the practice of eating meat on the grounds that it robbed are converted into protein pellets that become feed for poultry and cattle. Which Nanimals we love, which we hate, which we love to eat, which we hate to eat, which we fear, which we fondle, which we admire, which disgust us, and when, varies, sometimes widely, from culture to culture, religion to religion, place to place, profession to profession, social class to social class, and perhaps also from gender to gender. Though the period she covers ends three and a half centuries before Epictetus, see Louise Calder, Cruelty and Sentimentality: Greek Attitudes to Animals, 600–300 BC. Studies in Classical Archaeology.
12 Does our kinship with the other animals entitle us to exploit them, or does it
give us a good prima facie reason not to exploit them? Some argue as follows:
(1) Nanimals use, kill, and eat other animals; (2) It is not wrong for Nanimals to do so; (3) Human beings are animals too; (4) Hence, it is not wrong for human beings to use, kill, and eat Nanimals. This argument seems to assume that (a) no Nanimals are moral agents with obligations to each other or to us, and so (b) no human beings are moral agents with any obligations regarding Nanimals.
Yet most recognize that some human beings—normal adults, for example—are moral agents with various kinds of obligations. Interestingly, this moral status is invoked by some to argue as follows: (1) Human beings are moral agents and Nanimals are not; (2) Hence, human beings are superior to Nanimals; (3) Therefore, this superiority provides moral justification for human beings to use Nanimals however we choose. Arguments like these have been cogently criticized by more than a few philosophers who write on animals. See, for example, Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter; Steven F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals; Evelyn B. Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice: The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals.
208 EPICTETUS: his continuing influence and contemporary relevance Nanimals of life and so was unjust. The most extensive catalogue of arguments for and against the permissibility of killing, ritually sacrificing, or eating animals that survives from antiquity is On Abstinence from Animal Food, written by the philosopher, religious critic, opponent of theurgy, and music theorist Porphyry of Tyre.13 Porphyry, born to Phoenician parents about a century after Epictetus’s death, studied with Cassius Longinus in Athens and with Plotinus in Rome.
Porphyry edited Plotinus’s Enneads and authored the monumental and highly influential fifteen-volume polemic Against the Christians,14 which, along with the commentaries on it, was condemned by the imperial church in CE 448 and burned. The Latin translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge became the standard textbook on logic throughout the medieval period. A very learned intellectual, philologist, and historian, Porphyry was a scathing wit, a vegetarian on spiritual and philosophical grounds, and a staunch defender of animals.
Born into slavery as a slave woman’s son in Hierapolis, Phrygia, Epictetus may well have had a fair amount of firsthand experience interacting with and observing Nanimals. When Epictetus relocated to Rome, his familiarity with Nanimal behavior was adumbrated by the philosophy he learned from the great Stoic teacher Gaius Musonius Rufus. But instead of beginning my analysis of Epictetus’s account of Nanimals by situating it among the other major philosophies of Nanimals in antiquity, for my purposes in this paper it should prove more instructive to compare Epictetus’s zoology to a common contemporary view of animals.
Today, many sort Nanimals into five basic categories: (1) valuable resources we are free to generate, modify, destroy, and consume however we wish; (2) entertainers who provide us sport, spectacle, or amusement; (3) companions; (4) useless, benign bystanders who do not impede our activities;