Romanticism and Animal Rights

Romanticism and Animal Rights

Romanticism and Animal Rights

Romanticism and Animal Rights

Excerpt

Fellow feeling for animals, compassion, kindness, friendship, and affection are expressed in every time and place and culture, in primordial artifacts, Egyptian tombs, Homer’s description of the old dog Argos, as much as in Henry Moore’s 1980 drawings of sheep. Perhaps no argument for kindness to animals was ever made that had not already been made long before. In England, however, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, there was a change, a gradual, eventually enormous increase in the frequency of such expressions. Kindness to animals was urged and represented in sermons, treatises, pamphlets, journals, manuals of animal care, encyclopedias, scientific writings, novels, literature for children, and poems. There were also, of course, writings on the other side, defenses of traditional practices, such as bullbaiting, but they were far less numerous than the literature I foreground. To what extent all this writing registered or helped bring about a general change of mind, and to what extent it contributed to developments in the actual treatment of animals, are questions that cannot be answered with much certainty. I pursue them briefly in a moment, but the literature itself, the discourse, is my primary subject.

There was a close connection between the cultural world we call Romanticism, with its ideals of sympathy, sentiment, and nature, and the tender attitudes expressed in writing about animals. But these ideals might also be said to characterize what we call the Enlightenment, as might the practical, reforming benevolence that was strongly evident in this discourse, and the nexus I focus on might be called Enlightened as well as Romantic. The other half of my title, “animal rights,” is hardly more precise, for the phrase has become a catch-all for any protest against cruelty to animals. A headline in today’s newspaper reports “British Researchers on Animal Rights Death List.” Whether or not the terrorists who made this list believe that animals have rights is unknown, for even if they were motivated only by pity and rage, they would still be called “animal rights activists.” Accordingly . . .

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