Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne on “the audacious arrogance of today`s human race towards animals” – Part I

«It ultimately comes down to this: anything not like us is useless. Thus, God himself has to be human-like in order to be deemed useful. It is quite evidently not by rational consideration, but out of unreasonable, brain-numbing pride that we consider ourselves to rank higher than other living beings and that we separate ourselves from their way of existence and withdraw from their society.» (Michel de Montaigne)

Human arrogance

The following deliberations of Michel de Montaigne offer us exemplary insight into his complete works and thoughts on the relationship between humans and animals. He bases his argumentation partly on his own observations and also on knowledge and stories passed down from antiquity:

“In fact, animals are equally justified to consider us as irrational as we them. We should therefore turn our attention to the equality between humans and animals. We have about the same degree of apprehension for the sentience of animals as they have for ours: They have demands from us, please us, threaten us, and we do the same to them.

Communication and understanding

Unrestricted communication among animals exists not only within the same species. A horse can recognize whether a dog is aggressive by a certain kind of bark, whereas a different sort of bark will not alert the horse in the least. We can conclude that animals without a voice have other means of communication. They converse with each other and convey their thoughts by their movements or actions. It is simply our inadequacy that hinders us from participating in this communication. That we nevertheless think we can judge them only shows how foolish we are. 

The philosopher Cleanthes observed ants crawling from their hill to carry a dead fellow ant to another anthill nearby. Other ants were coming from there meet them, as if to talk to them. After spending some time together, the ants from the second hill returned home, presumably to consult with their cohabitants. Apparently due to difficulties, this procedure was repeated two or three more times. They finally brought a worm from out of their hill and handed it over to the visitors. As if it were a ransom for the dead ant, the ants from the first hill took the worm and carried it home, leaving the corpse to the other colony.

Speech and reception

Horses and dogs, oxen and sheep, poultry and most other creatures around us recognize our voice and are guided by it. Even the moray eel of Crassus immediately came swimming upon being called, as did the eels in Arethusa’s well. I have myself often seen fish in ponds darting toward their keepers upon a specific call.

Moreover, animals are by all means capable of learning in much the same way as we do. Thrushes and ravens, magpies and parrots can be trained to speak, and they display an amazing ease in forming their breath and voice to imitate sounds and syllables. Such astonishing capacity and readiness to learn is an indication of innate comprehensive capabilities.

If I am not mistaken, Lactantius ascribes to animals not only the ability to speak, but also to laugh. Regional variations of speech as can be observed among humans are also found among animals within one and the same genus. Aristotle in this context points out the calls of partridges, which differ from location to location. 

Beyond our abilities

Animals accomplish many other things that by far exceed our abilities. We even lack the imagination to merely recognize these accomplishments, let alone imitate them. Chameleons change colors to blend in with their surroundings, while polyps take on the coloring of their choice according to the situation. Sometimes in order not to be easily detected by their predators, at other times to catch their own prey more easily. So chameleons change passively, polyps actively. How is it that spiders, if actually incapable of making logically consistent decisions, weave their webs tighter or looser or use different types of knots?”

Photography: Youssef Limoud


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