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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion
The Covenant with All Living Creatures
Stephen R. L. Clark
'Things are God's Love'
Awakening to realize the real beings of the creatures amongst whom we live, we have the opportunity to forge new images, new ways of living, that accommodate the interests of all. In attempting this, we have all art and literature to draw upon. For the mistake too often made has been to think that we should dispense with all such historical or mythological or personal associations if we are to realize the truth. `Enlightenment' has been equated with a decently modern emancipation from superstitious reverence or compassion - but even Spinoza (who followed Stoic argument in holding that only a `womanish and sentimental pity' stood in the way of using everything non-human as we pleased, would have drawn the line at irreverence. It is true enough that an amorous adolescent would do well to distinguish the real being of his inamorata from the dramatic and emotional fictions in which he cloaks her. It is quite untrue that he should therefore think her as no more than bare, forked animal: that would itself be a dramatic and emotional fiction. What matters is that he, that they, should wake up to the possibility of friendship. That friendship is incompatible with the `knowingness' that is too often inculcated. A foolish work of elementary English criticism, examined by Lewis, sought to `debunk.. a silly piece of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the "willing servants" of the early colonists in Australia' (on the plea that horses are not much interested in colonial expansion). Lewis comments that its actual effect on pupils will have little to do with writing decent prose: `some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost: some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received: some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds' - but `of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job - nay, even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit - of man's prehistoric piety to "our brother the ox" they will have learnt nothing'.
Treating our friends, or our potential friends, as merely flesh - which is, merely material - is no advance at all on treating them as characters, even if the characters and parts that we impute to them are faulty. `Don't you see that that dreadful dry light shed on things must at last wither up the moral mysteries as illusions, respect for age, respect for property, and that the sanctity of life will be a superstition? The men in the street are only organisms, with their organs more or less displayed. For such a one there is no longer any terror in the touch of human flesh, nor does he see God watching him out of the eyes of a man'. Even of a fish it is blasphemous to say that it is only a fish. We do not know what fish are meant to be, nor what, in the restoration, they will be - except that God will reckon they are `good'. We can go further: `Picasso was right when he said that we do not know what a tree or a window is. All things are very mysterious and strange and we only overlook their strangeness and their mystery because we are so used to them. We only understand things very obscurely. But what are things? Things are God's love become things'.
So we should live as non-violently as we can manage, building up our friendships and respecting the limits that are needed to allow each kind its place. Let us live according to those rules that will allow as many creatures as possible, of as many kinds, their best chance of living a satisfactory life according to their kind. Let us acknowledge our particular duties of care and forebearance to those creatures who have been part of our society for millenia. Let us acknowledge that, as the Koran told us, there are other nations in the world, with whom we should not expect to be at war. Until the nineteenth century every civilized society kept slaves. Until the twentieth every civilized society believed that property could be acquired by military conquest (brigandage). There are still brigands, and slave-runners, in the world, but no-one else acknowledges their claims.
In the twentyfirst (I live in hope) we might begin to acknowledge that we have no right, no general entitlement, to treat our kindred as no more than means. The robbery will, no doubt, continue. Particular legislation, in particular times and places, may be required to identify some acts as crimes. The global commonwealth may need to lay down minimal conditions of common decency in the treatment of non-humans. It is one thing to recognize that `animals' have feelings, and lives of their own to live, and so to include their interests in any impartial calculation of the greater good. It is another to acknowledge that this recognition demands of us that we not think them merely means to an end, even so benign an end as that same `greater good'. It is yet another to seek to live in ways that we can bear to remember when we meet our kindred in the eschaton.
The covenant God made, we are told, in the beginning and affirmed since then, is to grant all things their space. `The mere fact that we exist proves his infinite and eternal love, for from all eternity he chose us from among an infinite number of possible beings'. Every thing we meet is also chosen: that is a good enough reason not to despise or hurt it. Whether it will be a strong enough reason to prevent us, I do not know. God knows.
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