The engaging story of how an unlikely group of extraordinary people laid the foundation for the legal protection of animals
In eighteenth-century England—where cockfighting and bullbaiting drew large crowds, and the abuse of animals was routine—the idea of animal protection was dismissed as laughably radical. But as pets became more common, human attitudes toward animals evolved steadily. An unconventional duchess defended their intellect in her writings. A gentleman scientist believed that animals should be treated with compassion. And with the concentrated efforts of an eccentric Scots barrister and a flamboyant Irishman, the lives of beasts—and, correspondingly, men and women—began to change.
Kathryn Shevelow, a respected eighteenth-century scholar, gives us the dramatic story of the bold reformers who braved attacks because they sympathized with the plight of creatures everywhere. More than just a history, this is an eye-opening exploration into how our feelings toward animals reveal our ideas about ourselves, God, mercy, and nature. Accessible and lively, For the Love of Animals is a captivating cultural narrative that takes us into the lives of animals—and into the minds of humans—during some of history's most fascinating times.
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About the Author
A specialist in eighteenth-century British literature and culture, Kathryn Shevelow is an award-winning professor at the University of California in San Diego. She is the author of Charlotte: Being a True Account of an Actress's Flamboyant Adventures in Eighteenth-Century London's Wild and Wicked Theatrical World and Women and Print Culture. She lives in Solana Beach, California.
Kathryn Shevelow is an award-winning professor at the University of California in San Diego, teaching regular classes in Restoration and eighteenth-century drama. She has published widely on eighteenth-century topics and lives in Solana Beach, California. She is the author of Charlotte and For the Love of Animals.
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FOR THE LOVE OF ANIMALS
PART ONEDumb BrutesCHAPTER 1OF DUCHESSES AND DUCKS
ONE AFTERNOON in late May 1667, an oversized black coach with ducal arms emblazoned on its doors lumbered through the London streets, a multitude of tassels bobbing festively from its horses' harnesses. As it rolled into the mud- and manure-clogged thoroughfare of the Strand, the coach was mobbed by excited crowds straining to catch a glimpse of its passenger. Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, always attracted a crowd when, on her rare trips to London, she sallied forth from the family's grand Clerkenwell town house. Though she had arrived at the relatively advanced age of forty-four, the duchess was still a handsome woman. But it was her eccentricity as a controversial writer, her flamboyant dress, and her wholesale flouting of feminine niceties that made her a public sensation--along with her exalted rank, which allowed her to get away with this behavior in the first place.Earlier that spring, Samuel Pepys, the notable diarist (and equally notable philanderer), had tried very hard to get a look at Cavendish, who fascinated him. "All the town-talk is now-a-days of her extravagancies," he confided to his diary. "The whole story of this lady is a romance, and all she does is romantic." Once he and his friend Sir William Penn heard that she would be taking the air in St. James's Park and rushed there to see her, only to get caught in a horse-and-carriage traffic jam, all "horrid dust, and number of coaches, without pleasure or order." Half of London, it seemed, had come to see the duchess, as a result of which, Pepys reported sourly, "we could not, she being followed and crowded uponby coaches all the way she went, that nobody could come near her." On another day, he caught a glimpse of her coach ahead of him and tried to overtake it, but his way was blocked by "100 boys and girls running looking upon her."Margaret Cavendish had earned this degree of fame--of notoriety--because, almost astonishingly for a seventeenth-century woman, she was a prolific published writer who over the span of many years issued a torrent of contentious, brilliant, and singular books. Her literary output consisted not only of poems and fiction but also of discourses on a variety of topics in the masculine realms of "natural philosophy"--what we today call science--and philosophy. And she had much to say about the arrogance and downright stupidity of the beliefs most people in her day held about animals.Cavendish lived in a world where the majority assumed that animals existed only to serve human needs; concern for animal suffering or animal welfare seldom arose, either in the bear gardens and cockpits, in the rural fields and forests, or in the city streets and slaughterhouses. In her writing, the duchess confronted these attitudes directly, arguing in defense of the sensibility and intellect of beasts. Nonhuman creatures might not be able to speak or devise mathematical rules, she wrote, "yet may their perceptions and observations be as wise as men's, and they may have as much intelligence and commerce betwixt each other, after their own manner and way, as men have after theirs." As the historian Keith Thomas observes, "in the seventeenth century, no one had greater faith in animal capacity than Margaret Cavendish."Cavendish published her unconventional opinions in an age before widespread literacy, when only a minority of women, primarily within the upper classes, were able to read and write at all, and very few were given anything resembling a formal education. (This was also true of men, though a higher percentage of men were literate, and a much higher percentage were actually educated.) Those women who did write produced mostly letters; if they wrote poems and devotions, they usually shared these only with a small circle of family and friends. Very few women dared--or even wished--to see their writing in print, sincepublication was deemed both indelicate for a woman and vulgar for an aristocrat.Unsurprisingly, then, for all the public's fascination with her, many of Cavendish's contemporaries considered the duchess arrogant and exhibitionistic. Some even called her mad, including other women who saw her as a disgrace to their sex. (As her biographer Katie Whitaker has shown, however, the disparaging nickname by which she is still sometimes known, Mad Madge, was actually not bestowed upon her until the nineteenth century.) After accompanying her husband to Newcastle House, Mary Evelyn, the wife of Samuel Pepys's friend John Evelyn, another well-known diarist of the period, acknowledged that their hostess had a good figure; however, she sneered, the duchess was vainer about her face than she had any right to be, and her talk was "as airy, empty, whimsical, and rambling as her books, aiming at science, difficulties, high notions, terminating commonly in nonsense, oaths, and obscenity." Mary expressed astonishment that there were supposedly wise and learned men (including, apparently, her own husband) who actually admired this monstrous female; "yet I hope," she remarked acidly, referring to Margaret's childlessness, "as she is an original, she may never have a copy."Cavendish's writing was as wildly original as everything else about her: her extraordinary narrative The Blazing World, in which she imagined another world inhabited by Bear-men, Fox-men, Wild-goose-men, Ant-men, Spider-men, and other types of wise and peaceable beastpeople, is among the earliest science fiction. In her books on philosophy and science, she dared to engage and attack the work of some of England's, and Europe's, leading intellectuals, all of them male. Cavendish flouted both old orthodoxies and the new, emerging systems of knowledge that were to transform Europe. She was a fierce critic of many of the practices and principles of the "new science" that was developing in her day, finding much about it to be arrogant, including its introduction of what we now call the scientific method, with its emphasis upon experimentation rather than abstract theorizing, and its reliance upon newfangled instruments such as the microscope.Bracing herself against the intellectual waves of the future, the duchess of Newcastle was not so much conservative as utterly idiosyncratic; her writings would quickly fade into obscurity. But despite her flamboyance, hers was a loud, often brilliant voice, and in some senses also a humble one, particularly when she addressed the topic of animals. Since other creatures do not display intelligence "the same manner or way as man," she observed, "man denies they can do it at all." But just because beasts cannot speak, "should we conclude they have neither knowledge, sense, reason, or intelligence?" This, she scoffed, is "a very weak argument." Despite Cavendish's resistance to modernity, her views of the natural world, which were considered extreme by her contemporaries, can seem to us today both sympathetic and perceptive.
ON THAT PARTICULAR May afternoon in 1667, Cavendish was crossing London not to take the air in St. James's Park or to pay a social call on another aristocratic lady, but to make history of a sort. She was on her way to a meeting of the Royal Society, the organization that more than any other institution in Britain was the representative of the new science. The Royal Society had been founded in 1660 for the purpose of promoting discussion and experimentation in natural philosophy. Cavendish was the first woman permitted to attend a meeting. (No woman was allowed to deliver her own paper until 1904, and women members were not admitted until 1945.) The gentlemen and peers who made up the Royal Society had granted Cavendish's request to visit after much debate and with considerable trepidation. Some fellows objected that the society, already the target of criticism and satire, would suffer more ridicule for opening its doors to a woman, and especially to this one. They feared that, as Pepys said, "the town will be full of ballads of it," making fun of both the duchess and her hosts. Cavendish had some powerful aristocratic friends within the society, however, and they convinced the majority to grant her wish.Her coach rumbled to a stop in the courtyard of Arundel House, inthe Strand. The society had been meeting at the great estate of the earls of Arundel, on the bank of the Thames, since its previous quarters had burned in the Great Fire, which had consumed nearly all of old London the year before. The place was unusually crowded, for Royal Society fellows were not immune to the lure of notoriety and spectacle. Mary Evelyn's husband, John, was there, as was Samuel Pepys, eager to get his long-awaited view of the duchess. Cavendish did not disappoint her spectators as she descended from her coach. Escorted by a group of noblemen, John Evelyn reported, she made her stately progress into the house with "great pomp."Pomp, indeed. For her visit, the duchess had chosen a gown with an eight-foot train, carried by six female attendants. Cavendish topped her gown with a "justaucorps," a knee-length coat tightly fitted through the torso with skirts that flared stiffly from the waist. In 1667, the justaucorps, or "pirate jacket," was on the cutting edge of fashion--men's fashion. On this occasion the duchess seems to have matched her man's coat, as she often did, with a cavalier's wide-brimmed hat. Quasimasculine dress was modish at this time among royalist women, but Cavendish, who designed her own clothes, put her own ostentatious spin on the prevailing style. "I endeavour," she remarked in one of the great understatements of fashion history, "to be as singular as I can." John Evelyn, who considered the duchess to be akin to the warrior queen Zenobia, memorialized her Royal Society visit in a ballad (just as Pepys had predicted). She looked "so like a Cavelier," he wrote, "but that she had no beard."Beards were otherwise much in evidence that day in the primarily male crowd. But to the great disappointment of Pepys, who seems to have expected some kind of scene, Margaret seemed uncharacteristically muted in these surroundings and said little. This extravagant aristocrat, so bold in writing, was actually shy and awkward in company. She was possibly all the more intimidated by the presence of the society's most celebrated fellows, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, both of whom she had attacked in print. Pepys, that incorrigible scrutinizer of the fair sex, found the duchess to be "a good, comely woman; but herdress so antick, and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say any thing that was worth hearing, but that she was full of admiration, all admiration." The fellows treated their admiring guest to a display of the kind of scientific experiments that were the centerpieces of their meetings, including looking at a louse through a microscope and dissolving a piece of mutton in a liquid that, Pepys reported, turned it "into pure blood, which was very rare." ("Rare" had the scientific meaning of "thin"; let us accept the pun as intentional.)The society's experiments often involved an air pump, a new, expensive device commissioned and redesigned by Boyle that pumped air out of a globe so that researchers could observe the effects of a vacuum on the object within it. On that day, the society used the pump to show Cavendish how to determine the weight of air and how marble disks could be made to cohere. On other occasions, they put the air pump to different uses, including experiments on "animal respiration," when the object placed in the globe might be a mouse, a frog, or a sparrow whose struggles and gasps for breath were dispassionately noted in the record books and published in the society's journal, Philosophical Transactions . Sometimes the animals were brought to the point of suffocation and then revived; usually, they died. Animal experiments involving the bell jar, the injection of poisons, and the dissection of live animals were often on the agenda at Royal Society meetings, but the members refrained from them that day, perhaps in deference to the duchess, whose sympathies were well known.The fellows of the Royal Society, as well as countless other gentlemen natural philosophers who experimented on live animals in their homes, were not particularly hard-hearted men; some of them acknowledged, and regretted, the suffering of their experimental animals. Occasionally, a fellow might even put compassion ahead of science and terminate an experiment examining what happened to an animal trapped in a bell jar as the air was pumped out of it, if the animal happened to survive the first few evacuations. However, many of these experimenters, along with most others in the Western world at that time, believed that the essential differences between humans andbeasts allowed humans to claim superiority to, and dominion over, other creatures. Animals existed to provide humans with food, clothing, implements, labor, and, in the case of science, knowledge. In the opinion of Francis Bacon, the intellectual father of the Royal Society, "Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world; insomuch that if man were taken away from the world, the rest would seem to be all astray, without aim or purpose." All things in the world work to man's service so completely, he wrote, that they "seem to be going about man's business and not their own."Bacon was not unsympathetic to animals; he believed that man's God-given dominion over nature must be tempered by the equally God-given quality of compassion: only "narrow and degenerate spirits," he wrote, ignore the instruction of Proverbs, "A just man is merciful to the life of his beast" (12:10). But his science required the exploitation of nature nonetheless, and the language in which he wrote about it can be quite disturbing to modern ears. The advancement of knowledge, Bacon thought, required men to force nature to reveal "her" secrets: nature was routinely represented as female, and Bacon characteristically used imagery of rape and torture to describe his scientific project. Once man had penetrated nature's secret places, he wrote, he would be able to master her, to break her to human service--to make her his slave.Echoing Bacon's idea that the progress of science necessitated the mastery of man over nature, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle celebrated the ability of new technologies such as the microscope and the air pump to give humans greater knowledge of, and therefore power over, the natural world--if only they were not barred by ancient scruples and superstitions. "The veneration wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God," Boyle complained.Margaret Cavendish was probably not so eccentric (or so populist) as to join the wild and often radical ranks of seventeenth-century vegetarians (some of whom, such as the religious radicals Roger Crab, the self-described "English hermit," and Thomas Tryon, a merchant andprolific author, would have been both politically and socially repellent to her). But Cavendish did scoff at the notion that the world exists solely for the benefit of humans. She would have agreed with the twentieth-century scholar Arthur Lovejoy, who called this idea "one of the most curious monuments of human imbecility." She also rejected the power relationships and sense of hierarchy presupposed by the new science. Cavendish was one of a small number of intellectuals who believed that all creatures possess their own kinds of knowledge, which are by definition limited to their spheres--and that this is true of humans, too. Rather than superior knowledge, it is actually "the ignorance of men concerning other creatures," Cavendish wrote, that permits them to despise nonhuman animals, considering themselves "petty Gods in Nature." The duchess expressed her contempt for this self-importance in her speech, in her prose, and, most eloquently, in her poems:[Man] is so Proud, thinks onely he shall live, That God a God-like Nature did him give. And that all Creatures for his sake alone, Was made for him, to Tyrannize upon.1
SIX YEARS AFTER he witnessed Margaret Cavendish's visit to the Royal Society, John Evelyn went to see an exhibition called Paradise, a mechanical reenactment of the creation of the world. Evelyn admired"the representations of all sorts of animals, handsomely painted on boards or cloth, & so cut out & made to stand & move, fly, crawl, roar & make their several cries, as was not unpretty." Clockwork scenes such as this were extremely popular throughout the eighteenth century (and after), whether exhibited at shops and private showrooms or amazing the crowds at Bartholomew Fair. In the early 1700s, the clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck became particularly celebrated for his remarkable mechanical extravaganzas. The "Wonderful and MagnificentMACHINE" he displayed in 1729, for instance, featured, among several other marvels, a scene of Orpheus charming the wild beasts and an "Aviary of Birds," whose song (or so Pinchbeck's advertisement boasted) was "imitated to so great Perfection as not to be distinguished from Nature itself." The machine also contained a dog and a duck playing, fish jumping in the sea, and a river in which swans swam, fished, and fledged, "their Motions as natural as tho' really alive."Human and animal machines had been a sight on the European cityscape since the advent of the great town clocks adorned with figures that creaked into motion at certain hours. The fourteenth-century clock tower in the cathedral of Strasbourg, for instance, housed a mechanical cock that announced noon by crowing and flapping its wings. In the form of animated waxworks, peepshows, panoramas, and the playhouses' increasingly elaborate mechanized pantomimes, such contraptions became the stuff of popular entertainments, where people marveled at the ingenuity of their construction and their "natural" movements. Considered particularly lifelike were automata--in essence, early robots--created in the shapes of both humans and animals. They achieved remarkable sophistication: automaton humans played instruments, and mechanical birds, dogs, elephants, and monkeys sang, stretched, and jumped, to spectators' delight and showmen's profits.Most remarkable of all the eighteenth-century automata was Vaucanson's duck. In 1739, the French inventor and engineer Jacques de Vaucanson fashioned a duck-shaped automaton of gilt copper that featured hundreds of movable parts and innards made of rubber tubing. This remarkable mechanical duck moved its head, craned its neck, stirred water with its bill and drank it, quacked, stretched its leg, flapped its wings, shook its tail, swallowed grain, and "digested" food--then excreted it. Open panels in the duck's sides allowed one to view its rubber intestines in action. Having created a sensation in Europe, Vaucanson's duck crossed the Channel to London in 1742, where it flapped, ate, and shat in the Royal Opera House four times a day, to the delight and wonder of the British public.A cross section of a mechanical duck, with arrows showing how what goes in at one end comes out of the other. From Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gélis, Le monde des automates. (Courtesy Biomedical Library, University of California, Los Angeles)
Vaucanson's duck, a metal and rubber machine, was so convincingly able to imitate the movements of its feathered counterparts that it, too, seemed to live. Perhaps an automaton could appear so credibly "alive" because the nature of animal life itself was still a matter of intense speculation and heated debate. There were many people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who believed that a real duck was a machine as well.One of the most prominent lines of thinking about animals was the "mechanical philosophy" of the French philosopher René Descartes. The bodies of both human and nonhuman animals, Descartes thought, are essentially organic mechanisms (though very sophisticated ones, since they were designed by God rather than man). However, unlike both animals and true machines, we humans possess rational souls,which are completely independent of our bodies and do not die when our bodies do. Lacking rational souls, animals are, in essence, biological automata--"beast-machines" (bêtes-machines). In fact, he argued, when we see an animal automaton, we have no way of knowing whether its nature is any different at all from that of a beast made of flesh and blood.Descartes and his followers believed that since animal and human bodies were both mechanical, they followed the same laws; man's position was not privileged in this sense. But he also argued that because, as he presumed, animals had no language and could not communicate, they lack rationality. Among humans, he noted in his Discourse on the Method, those who are physically incapable of speech can still communicate through signs. That even dull-witted children and madmen can string words together to form meaningful utterances shows that it takes only a small amount of reason to be able to use language. Animals cannot speak, and they lack the ability to reason; therefore their being is very different in nature from ours. If this were not so, Descartes argued, a particularly talented parrot or monkey should be able to speak at least as well as a brain-damaged child. Furthermore, the fact that many animals can do some things better than we can does not prove they have intelligence. A clock keeps time more accurately than we can do, but this is mechanical action, not understanding. Animals are essentially biological clockworks--as we would be, too, were it not for our rational, that is immortal, souls.Descartes also called into question animals' ability to feel sensations, including pain. Because animals are simply material systems of organic responses, beast-machines that have no consciousness, he wrote, they also lack "real feeling or emotion." If they appear to experience human feelings such as joy, fear, and hope, these are simply the responses of their mechanisms to stimuli, utterly different from what we experience. As for pain, Descartes wrote, it "exists only in the understanding"--and only we humans possess understanding. A dog may jump away if he puts his nose on a hot iron or cry when cut with a knife, but this is a reflex action, not a response to pain.Descartes had been a visitor to the Cavendish lodgings in Paris where Margaret and her husband, William, having supported the royalists in the English Civil War, lived in exile during Cromwell's rule. Descartes and William Cavendish also engaged in philosophical correspondence. Margaret would certainly have read and disapproved of Descartes's letters, such as the one from 1646 in which he told her husband, "I cannot share the opinion of Montaigne and others who attribute understanding or thought to animals. I am not worried that people say that human beings have absolute dominion over all the other animals." While some animals might be stronger or more cunning than we are, he continued, they are only our equals or superiors in actions that do not involve the ability to think.Descartes was setting himself in opposition to the opinions of the Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who wrote that when he considered how close a relationship and "mutual obligation" exist between animals and us, he willingly abdicated that "imaginary kingship" we assume we have over other creatures. It was arrogance, vanity, and presumption, Montaigne wrote--the duchess would later use the same kind of language--that allowed us to deny "soul, and life, and reason" to our "fellows and companions." We might consider animals stupid, but since we did not understand them any more than they understood us, was it the animals' fault that we could not communicate, or was it ours? "When I play with my cat," Montaigne famously remarked, "who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?" (That we are certainly our cats' pastimes seems obvious to cat lovers today, but this was a radical thing for a sixteenth-century European to say.)Montaigne had his followers in the seventeenth century, but Descartes scoffed at their notion of a bond between humans and animals and dismissed the idea that animals possess minds and some form of understanding. He argued to William Cavendish that while we might be able to train parrots and dogs to appear to act like humans, they were expressing not rationality but only their "passions," which are not conscious states but purely bodily movements. We are sadlymistaken if we think that animals are trying to speak with us and we just don't understand them: "Since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had any." Just because a dog is made of flesh, as we are, does not mean that the dog is like us in other ways, he said elsewhere: "I observe no mind at all in the dog, and hence believe there is nothing to be found in a dog that resembles the things I recognize in a mind."For animals themselves, the legacy of Cartesian thinking about nonhuman creatures could be disastrous. Some of Descartes's early supporters logically extended his ideas about pain to appalling degrees: one follower argued that when you pound an organ's keys it makes a sound, but this does not mean that the organ is feeling pain; so, too, when you beat a dog it cries, but this does not mean that the dog is suffering. If beasts could actually feel, Cartesians observed, then no God who is truly good would permit us to be so cruel to them; in order to believe in God's goodness, we must believe that animals are machines.Descartes's thinking about animal nature was not adopted by everyone in Europe, either in his own day or thereafter. Voltaire, for instance, launched a scathing attack on Cartesian ideas in his Philosophical Dictionary, where he observed how readily canaries can be taught tunes, and castigated the "barbarian" experimenters who would cut open a living dog to display its nerves, yet deny that the presence of those nerves meant it could feel. (Voltaire's liberal ideas about animals, however, were unusual, especially in France.) In England, there was nothing like a consensus among writers and philosophers about his ideas. The enormously influential John Locke remarked that it seemed obvious to him that beasts did reason; their reasoning was inferior to humans', since they were incapable of generalizations and abstraction, but they were not mere machines. Writing in Addison and Steele's Guardian, Eustace Budgell mockingly imagined a pretentious undergraduate who shows off his abstract university learning by pinching one of his sister's lapdogs and then arguing that the dog cannot feel it. In 1724, the philosopher Bernard Mandeville movinglydescribed the slaughter of an ox and then asked: "When a creature has given such convincing and undeniable proofs of the terrors upon him, and the pains and agonies he feels, is there a follower of Descartes so inured to blood, as not to refute, by his commiseration, the philosophy of that vain reasoner?"Anatomists dissecting animals found that their nerves and senses functioned very like humans'--and if such creatures had feeling, might not they have minds, and reason, as well? John Bulwar, following Montaigne's lead in asserting that animals could communicate in their own ways, wrote a book about hand gestures, which he understood to be a universal, natural human language analogous to that of animals, who both reason and express themselves through their own gestures. The qualities they express, he said, included honor, generosity, industriousness, intelligence, courage, magnanimity, love, fear, subtlety, and wisdom.Margaret Cavendish certainly found it absurd to think that other animals cannot communicate just because they cannot speak. First of all, she observed pointedly, speech is overrated as a sign of intelligence, since people often say very stupid things. Other creatures have their own forms of expression and understanding. Confronting the idea that man is superior to animals because he alone can generalize and theorize, she retorted:Who knows whether fish do not know more of the nature of water, and ebbing and flowing, and the saltness of the sea? or whether birds do not know more of the nature and degrees of air, or the cause of tempests: or whether worms do not know more of the nature of earth, and how plants are produced? or bees of the several sorts of juices of flowers, than men.When the English philosopher Henry More, who criticized the anthropocentrism that would deny animals any existence in and for themselves, nonetheless described man as the "flower and chief" of all of nature's products, Cavendish protested that man is hardly a disinterested party when it comes to the question of his status. For her part, she said,she could not see that man has greater abilities than beasts do. He may build a grand house, but cannot build a honeycomb; he can plant a seedling, but he cannot make a tree; he can forge a sword, but he cannot make the metal. And just as man uses other animals, so do they use man--"as far," she qualified, "as he is good for any thing."Still, as Keith Thomas observes, Descartes "had only pushed the European emphasis on the gulf between man and beast to its logical conclusion." Though modern scholars disagree about the extent to which the Cartesian animal-machine concept was influential in Britain, it was, Thomas points out, "the best possible rationalization for the way man actually treated animals." Among those who even required a rationalization, the notion that animals were organic machines helped to influence at least some thought and behavior, whether by the scientist suffocating a bird or by the gentleman in a hurry commanding his coachman to whip the horses until they dropped. Cartesianism assuaged any guilt humans might feel about their brutal exploitation of animals, and exonerated the God who allowed it. Descartes himself commented that his system was not so much cruel to animals as kind to humans, since it absolves us of culpability for harming them.
IF MARGARET CAVENDISH set herself against the contemporary current of Descartes's "mechanical philosophy" as a theory of animals' natures, she also stood at odds with the long philosophical and theological tradition that underlay prevailing British and European attitudes toward animals. These traditions extended back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly Aristotle and the Stoics, and from them into Christianity, where they underpinned the strongly anthropocentric worldview promulgated by theologians. At the center of the mainstream Western tradition of thinking about animals was the belief, most influentially articulated by Aristotle, that animals possess very low forms of intelligence at best, and are incapable of higher reason. Although the question of animal rationality was certainly debated among the Greeks and Romans, and some writers, among themPlutarch, stressed the importance of treating animals kindly, Aristotle's position came to hold the greatest authority after his work was rediscovered in the West during the late Middle Ages.Aristotle believed that humans are the only truly rational animals because only we can think. He argued that while animals possess appetite and sensation and are capable of pleasure, pain, and desire, they are not capable of "calculation and thought." The order of nature, he said, is a hierarchy in which animals make use of plants and humans make use of animals. These assumptions, as the historian of philosophy Gary Steiner puts it, "are foundational for the entire subsequent tradition of Western thinking regarding the relationship between human beings and animals."The Roman Stoic philosophers added that the concepts of justice and injustice apply only to humans. Although the Stoics believed that humans should live in conformity with nature, they also held that since animals are irrational, humans have no fellowship with them and no moral obligations toward them. The Stoics believed, in Steiner's words, that "nothing that we do to animals can ... be considered an injustice."When Christianity incorporated and superseded the ancient philosophical traditions, similar attitudes prevailed. St. Paul denounced the Egyptian practice of worshipping gods in the form of beasts; God punished their corruption, he asserted, by instilling in them "vile affections," that is, homosexual lusts (Romans 1:23-27). He also denied the literal interpretation of the passages in Mosaic law that require animals to be treated humanely: allowing work animals a day of rest on the Sabbath, for instance, and forbidding the muzzling of the ox that treads the grain (Deuteronomy 5:14; 25:4). "Doth God take care for oxen?" he asked. "Or saith he it altogether for our sakes?" (I Corinthians 9:9-10). He saith it altogether for our sakes, he answered: the passage must be read allegorically, meaning that it is the plowman, not the ox, who may hope for a share of the crop. As one modern commentator remarks, "For Paul, the ox is not even a co-worker."The influential thinkers of the European Middle Ages adapted theideas of Aristotle and the Stoics to the Christian context. Although some Christians disagreed, mainstream doctrine taught that God made animals for human use, pointing to the passage in Genesis where God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" (1:26-27). A passage from Psalms expresses the same idea: "Thou madest him [man] to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet; All sheep and oxen; yea, and the beasts of the field" (8:6-7). In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, there was more than one way of interpreting "man's dominion." As early Christian theologians vied to establish mainstream Christianity's core doctrines, some saw this concept as containing limitations on our use of animals and incorporating obligations to them. But other powerful and influential traditions viewed "dominion" to mean man's complete subjugation of other living things.One tradition, which persisted into the seventeenth century, held that, with the Fall, humans lost our dominion over animals; the fact that many beasts were now dangerous to us was a fitting punishment for Adam's sin. But although St. Augustine agreed that the existence of wild predators was a punishment, he echoed his Stoic predecessors in arguing that there was no "community of right" between humans and animals and therefore no restriction at all on our use and killing of them.The late medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, who was strongly indebted to Aristotle, did the most to establish subsequent mainstream Christian doctrine on these questions. "All animals are naturally subject to man," he wrote; lacking the higher functions of reason and language, animals lack conscience, moral responsibility, and an immortal soul. Man alone is made in the image of God; therefore, it is proper that other animals are governed by him. "By the divine providence [animals] are intended for man's use according to the order of nature," Aquinas wrote. "Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing or in any other way whatever." Unlike Descartes, Aristotle,Aquinas, and the others did believe that beasts can feel sensations, including pain--but they did not think that this entails any particular moral obligations to them. Aquinas acknowledged that Scripture sometimes appears to instruct us to be kind to animals, as when we are counseled against killing a mother bird with its young (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). But such passages really refer to human behavior, he asserted, since being cruel to animals might lead to being cruel to people.By no means were all early and medieval Christian writers comfortable with the notion that God intended humans to exercise unrestricted power over the lives of animals. Some took at face value the many exhortations in the Hebrew Bible to treat animals humanely, rather than deemphasizing these passages or reading them only as allegories applying to humans. Such positions were in some ways more in line with Judaism: as the twelfth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides argued, Genesis depicts the world as good before God created man; therefore, it contravenes Jewish belief to hold that all creation exists only for man, when clearly all other creatures, who were here before us, were intended for their own sakes.Some early Christians also emphasized that we are all God's creatures, and thought of animals as man's brethren. A few, such as Clement of Alexandria and St. John Chrysostom, argued for vegetarianism, saying that all humans were vegetarians before the Flood. This belief was based upon Genesis 1:29: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." (After the Flood, this changes; God tells Noah, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb, have I given you all things" [Genesis 9:3-4].)In medieval times, some Christians also felt a connection with animals. The legends that circulated around Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, told of wild beasts approaching him without fear. He tamed the vicious wolf that had been terrorizing the people of Gubbio, convincing "Brother Wolf" to give up his bloodthirsty ways. He also preached to the birds, exhorting them to praise God, who out of greatlove for them gave them the feathers that clothe them, the earth for their food and shelter, and freedom from toil. Although recent scholarship has called into question St. Francis's credentials as an animal protector (he advocates respect for beasts in his writing, but never actually calls for compassion for them), his status as the Catholic church's best-known friend of animals remains firm in the present day.The beautifully illustrated medieval Christian bestiaries--books of beasts--were, in essence, early nature writings, based upon biblical injunctions to learn from the examples of animals, such as "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise" (Proverbs 6:6). The bestiaries, along with other medieval churchly writings on animals, posited a world of nature in which beasts possessed both virtues and vices, and were created by God to serve as moral examples to humans. This was certainly a form of anthropocentrism, in which the human world could see itself in the world of animals and learn from them the way to redemption; the habit was analogous to that of reading scriptural references to animals as allegories of human concerns. But it did show that animals could be positive (as well as negative) examples. One early-thirteenth-century British bestiary, for instance, describes how long and faithfully crows tend their offspring, comparing them favorably to irresponsible women who wean their babies as soon as they can; the author advises: "Men should teach themselves to love their children from the crow's example."Furthermore, for all that medieval theologians had to say about the unbridgeable gap between man and beast, long-established folk traditions often saw the animal world as deeply connected with--and akin to--the human one. Dix Harwood, in his groundbreaking (and recently reprinted) 1928 book Love for Animals and How It Developed in Great Britain, points out that strains of popular anthropomorphism at times coexisted with, and contradicted, the official anthropocentric line. The assumption that animals "feel and act like men" was expressed in numerous stories of animal intelligence and emotion: the greyhound who saved a child from a poisonous snake; the horse who let no one but his master ride him; the grateful lion from whose paw St.Jerome removed a thorn; and the raven who fed St. Benedict. Aesop's fables first appeared in English in 1484 and went through dozens of editions, translations, adaptations, and imitations throughout the eighteenth century. In their Latin form, stories such as "The Tortoise and the Hare" were used to teach schoolboys grammar, while their English versions inculcated into all types of readers moral lessons based upon these animal characters.
BUT DOMINANT CHRISTIAN doctrine stressed a different set of relationships between the human and animal worlds. Melding the authority of Aristotle with that of Scripture, Aquinas and his followers fixed anthropocentrism firmly in the religious, philosophical, and political institutions of the West. Most of Margaret Cavendish's contemporaries, even if they dismissed the Christian rationale for man's superiority and the extremer consequences of the Cartesian beast-machine, believed that only humans possess true rationality, language, and immortal souls. Her countryman Thomas Hobbes, for instance, rejected the idea that God created the world for us--"When a lion eats a man and a man eats an ox, why is the ox more made for the man than the man for the lion?" he asked, provocatively. But he also believed that man rightly dominated beast. Humans in a state of nature must control and kill animals in order to survive, he said, but we are able to do that not because of God's anthropocentric ordering of the world, but because of the superiority conferred upon us by our reason, language, and dexterity.Some dissenters from extreme anthropocentrism were quite prominent: Isaac Newton, for instance, believed in the duty of mercy to animals and thought that the injunction to love one's neighbor encompassed four-footed as well as two-footed neighbors. Taking an even more outré and (for her day) idiosyncratic position, Cavendish considered man's arrogant attitudes about the natural world downright sacrilegious. She credited animals with religious feeling as well as with rationality. "I should rather think it irreligious to confine sense and reason only to Man, and to say, that no Creature adores and worships God, but Man," she wrote, "which,in my judgment, argues a great pride, self-conceit, and presumption." To Cavendish, man becomes downright blasphemous when he supposes that reason and reverence exist in only a single, human form.Throughout history there have been individuals who, like Cavendish, dissented from mainstream thinking about animals. However, the great majority of people in her day took for granted the notion that the rest of creation was made by God to serve humans. Richard Bentley, an eighteenth-century Anglican priest who was also a distinguished classicist and a member of the Royal Society, proclaimed that nature is "principally designed for the being and service and contemplation of man." Keith Thomas remarks that it is difficult for us today to fully comprehend how "breathtakingly anthropocentric" was the spirit in which the clergy of Cavendish's time interpreted the Bible. And she was dissenting not only from the philosophical and theological traditions known to the educated elite but also from the beliefs of most ordinary people, who were utterly unaware of the intellectual arguments and even the scriptural authority that underlay, or justified, their attitudes and behavior. Most people simply used, and abused, animals as labor, food, and sport because that was what people had always done. One did not have to be a conscious Cartesian to believe that sympathy for an animal's suffering when we injure it was nearly as preposterous as concern for a tree's pain when we prune its limbs.Copyright © 2008 by Kathryn Shevelow
Table of Contents
Introduction: Saved 1
Of Duchesses and Ducks 17
Rude and Nasty Pleasures 39
Pets and the City 55
Dancing Dogs and Horses of Knowledge 76
Animal Crimes 90
Parliaments of Monsters 106
Stages of Cruelty 127
The Meanest Worm Is Our Sister 147
Throw Down the Butcher's Knife 164
Hair-Trigger Martin and the Wolfhound 182
Speaking for Animals
Taking the Bull by the Horns 201
The Unfortunate Tourist's Dog 223
Humanity Dick 245
For the Love of Animals 265
Conclusion: The Legacy of Animal Protection 281
The Text of Martin's Act 285
A Note to the Reader 291