Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Animals, Extraterrestrial Life and Anthropocentrism in the Seventeenth Century

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Animals, Extraterrestrial Life and Anthropocentrism in the Seventeenth Century

Article excerpt

Both the issue of early modern attitudes toward animals and the early modern debate on the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life have received ample attention in early modern scholarship. However, almost no attention has been given to possible connections between these two issues. Such a connection nevertheless exists, since the early modern debates of both these issues were closely linked to the development of an anthropocentric outlook in western culture, according to which man had a God-given right to make use of nature. While the specific term 'anthropocentrism' was not in common use at the time, early modern thought, as discussed below, presents distinct phenomena which answer to the definition of this concept in its modern sense, i.e. a world-view placing man and human interests above those of the rest of the natural world. In the present article we shall therefore not be concerned with a separate discussion of the debate on the possibility of existence of other worlds and creatures on the one hand, and the debate on the status of animals and the possibility of moral duties toward them on the other. Rather, we shall centre on various cases where they were discussed in the same context, or on cases when the same person expressed distinct views on both these issues. As we shall see, there were many such cases, and their study has a profound influence on the understanding of early modern anthropocentrism. In the following discussion the connection between these two issues will be considered as a distinct phenomenon, sui generis in the history of ideas. Suffice it to say here, by way of introduction, that the rise of empirical science, particularly modern astronomy, gave an added impetus to speculations and debates on the possibility of the existence of other worlds and creatures, perhaps even rational creatures. As for the debate regarding animals, it fell broadly into two camps: on the one hand the theriophiles, who apportioned various degrees of feeling and rationality to animals (although usually less than human beings), and occasionally inferred from this a need for consideration toward them; and on the other hand the antitheriophiles, who denied or belittled the capacity for feeling and rationality in animals, and consequently also their right to moral consideration. Of particular importance in this context was the Cartesian theory of the 'beastmachine', which regarded animals as senseless automata. While Descartes himself remained rather agnostic toward this issue, certain of his followers developed more extreme variations of it, and the theory in general also bore the brunt of many theriophilic attacks.1

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Before discussing the literature on extraterrestrial life, one should mention some examples of a somewhat related type of literature, the Utopian genre. Indeed, the supposition of 'another place' always contained a potential for anti-anthropocentric argumentation, and of discussions of animals, albeit this potential did not always materialize. In Thomas More's Utopia (1516) most people eat animals, but the slaughtering of livestock is done by slaves, and ordinary people are not allowed to become accustomed to the cutting up of animals, since it tends to destroy the natural feelings of humanity. Hunting and hawking are also left to the slave-butchers. Hunting is regarded as the vilest department of butchery, since a butcher kills animals to satisfy a need, whereas a hunter does so for pleasure, exemplifying a blood-lust not found in any but the most savage animals. Hunting is a cruel sport and a stupid pleasure which should arouse pity rather than amusement. The Utopians also refrain from religious sacrifice of animals, believing that God would not enjoy slaughter and bloodshed. Some of the Utopians believe that animals have an immortal soul, although inferior to man's, and they generally believe that man's reason and intelligence is superior to that of the animals. As a child More himself did not seem to exemplify kindness toward animals, and even excelled in the cruel custom of cock-throwing. …

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