A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals
Selections From The Ark
Number 201 - Autumn/Winter 2005
BY MICHEL EYQUEM DE MONTAIGNE (1533-1592)
Some extracts from the Essays of the French writer, including his treatise on the language of animals:
Some mothers think it great sport to see a child wring off a chicken’s neck, and strive to beat a dog or cat. …yet are they the true deeds or roots of cruelty, of tyranny, and of treason. In youth they bud, and afterwards grow to strength, and come to perfection by means of custom. After they had accustomed themselves at Rome to the spectacles of the slaughter of animals, they proceeded to those of the slaughter of men, to the gladiators.
There is nevertheless a certain respect, a general duty of humanity, not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and graciousness and benignity to other creatures ... there is a certain commerce and mutual obligation betwixt them and us.
I have never been able to see, without displeasure, an innocent and defenceless animal, from whom we receive no offence or harm, pursued and slaughtered . . .
Presumption is our natural and original disease. The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world ... and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the heavens under his feet. ’Tis by the same vanity of imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals – his fellows and companions – and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit.
How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals? – from what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.
Plato, in his picture of the golden age under Saturn, reckons, among the chief advantages that a man then had, his communication with beasts, of whom, inquiring and informing himself, he knew the true qualities and differences of them all, by which he acquired a very perfect intelligence and prudence, and led his life more happily than we could do. ... The defect that hinders communication betwixt them and us, why may it not be in our part as well as theirs? ’Tis yet to determine where the fault lies that we understand not one another – for we understand them no more than they do us; and by the same reason they may think us to be beasts as we think them. ... We must observe the parity betwixt us: we have some tolerable apprehension of their meaning, and so have beasts of ours – much about the same. They caress us, threaten us, and beg of us, and we do the same to them.
As to the rest, we manifestly discover that they have a full and absolute communication amongst themselves, and that they perfectly understand one another, not only those of the same, but of divers kinds:
In one kind of barking of a dog the horse knows there is anger, of another sort of bark he is not afraid. Even in the very beasts that have no voice at all, we easily conclude, from the society of offices we observe amongst them, some other sort of communication: their very motions discover it:
... What is this faculty we observe in [animals], of complaining, rejoicing, calling to one another for succour, and inviting each other to love, which they do with the voice, other than speech? And why should they not speak to one another? They speak to us, and we to them. In how many several sorts of ways do we speak to our dogs, and they answer us? We converse with them in another sort of language, and use other appellations, than we do with birds, hogs, oxen, horses, and alter the idiom according to the kind:
... The difference of language which is seen amongst us, according to the difference of countries, is also observed in animals of the same kind. Aristotle, in proof of this, instances the various calls of partridges, according to the situation of places.
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