Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins 2017-8, Meeting #2
Peter Struck (UPenn), Donovan Schaefer (UPenn), Matt Chalmers (UPenn): Thinking with Ancient Animals
On November 2, the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins scrutinized something a little zoological. How do claims, explicit or implicit, about what animals are—and what they do, suffer, or feel—reflect assumptions about what people are? And what types of knowing engage animals? This is not a new question. Thus, Benjamin Disraeli, later British Prime Minister, in a speech discussing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (London, 1859) opined:
“Now, I am sure there is not one in this theatre who is not prepared to do full justice to the merits of scientific men, and who does not fully appreciate those discoveries of science which have added so much to the convenience of life and to the comfort of man. But it is of great importance, when this tattle about science is mentioned, that we should annex to it precise ideas…The question is this—is a man an ape or an angel? (loud laughter). My Lord, I am on the side of the angel (laughter and cheers).” (Evening Standard, 26th November 1864)
To Disraeli, the comparison of human to animal, and the scientific claim—evolution over time as explanation for difference between species—that lay behind it really mattered. Grasping the true meaning of life depended on understanding the relationship between animals and human beings. So too, the ancient world—and scholarship working with it.
First of a three-person panel, Matt Chalmers began with a simple question. If we want to discuss ancient animals, what sources do we have? Ancient writers were amazed by creatures such as the great sixth-century whale, Porphyrius. Animal-human hybrids, like the dog-headed Cynocephali, offered monstrous specimens at the edge of the world, with which to debate the nature of the soul—and the limits of minimally civilized behaviour. Animals provided a metaphor for heresy, through which Christians could render the threat of sin and heresy vivid and omnipresent. And, in rabbinic literature, especially tractate Avodah Zarah, the flesh of animals, made sexually vulnerable and/or dismembered, could act as a fleshly frontier. They could signal, by eliciting certain behaviours and desires, the difference between Israel and the nations.
Next, Donovan Schaefer reflected on how animality, thinking through animals, affects theories about the place of humans in the world. Thinking through animals, he argued, affects how we think about both ontology and subjectivity. On the one hand, we see a textured, deeply complex premodern set of relations to animals, a modern streamlining of categories which box off “Animal” versus “Human,” and a postmodern deconstruction, via Derrida and others, of the “animal/human” distinction. On the other, a triangle of what Schaefer called “wounds” show how animal-talk rocks the conceptual boat. Darwinian and Freudian “wounds” cut off humans from thinking either that they are the centre and pinnacle of a natural hierarchy of species—or that they are the centre of their own individual existence. A series of “swerves” against Darwinian evolution since the nineteenth century signal how uncomfortable this act of decentring is, both for religious (in the form of, for example, Creationism) and scientific worldviews (in the form of emphasis on human exceptionalism). How do we talk through animals without defaulting to categorical human difference?
And finally, Peter Struck discussed how a hierarchy of animal/human life shaped the technical act of Greco-Roman divination. He had gone looking to understand divination, he said, and had realized that animals were more central than he had thought. Yes, the Greco-Roman context was a hierarchical world, in which humans sat at the apex of one type of structure for categorizing the cosmos. But also, animals—especially in the context of sacrifice—disrupted that clarity. This was particularly true of divination as well. Thus, ancient thinkers like Aristotle argued that when humans dream the human component sleeps. This makes way for the sleeping body—the animal, irrational—as a fleshly instrument for visions and dreams. In the same way, the flesh of an animal serves as a map, making meaning for the skilled reader of entrails. So, understanding divination became understanding non-volitional knowing— “animal” knowledge. And here Struck converged with Schaefer, talking through contemporary models for understanding non-volitional cognition, or “intuition.” Animals are “emblems” of this type of knowing, both in contemporary scientific approaches and in ancient philosophical writings. How to articulate such “ancillary information processing systems”? Both ancient and modern inquirers look to animals.
The interlocking concerns of the three presenters generated equally varied questions. How precisely to model the “gradient” of the animal in Aristotle? What about animal bodies, as material stuff? How does all this link to specific individuals laying claim to specific technical authority? What are the effects of domestication, both in historical terms and conceptual? How do relationships between very holy men (such as monks) and animals intersect with similar relationships of power and vulnerability with demons or djinn? Many of the questions circled around to the anxiety to which Schaefer pointed. Perhaps the difficulty of understanding animals is not a bug but a feature; how far do animals fracture any attempt at human exceptionalism?
What, then, does thinking through animals get scholars of ancient religion? It opens a rich ancient archive, articulated with an alternative framework than those which we often use—religion, theology, scripture, or human history. It encourages us to engage more closely with possible relationships between religion and science. Technical knowledge, like that of divination or medicine or psychology functions within regimes of knowing entangled with non-human animals. And it cheerfully impedes taking our intellectual desires and projects for granted. If we are animals as well, what to do with conceptions of ancient religion that have space only for the human?
Peter Struck is Evan C. Thompson Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book, Divination and Human Nature (Princeton, 2016), analyses ancient concepts of intuition and its role in manufacturing ethical people.
Donovan Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke, 2016) asks whether nonhuman animals have religion - and what the answer says about ourselves.
Matt Chalmers is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Week in Review editor of Ancient Jew Review. His work interrogates early Christian and Jewish representations of Samaritans.
Audio recording of the session available here.