Human-Animal: Hierarchies of Beings in Aristotle and Ecclesiastes
Animal rights have recently become a topic of interest in contemporary society, primarily due to the endangerment of many species, and the use of animals for types of lab testing. Human understanding of animals in the western world is shaped by the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ideas of the human-animal relationship – present in his work Nicomachean Ethics. Other definitions of the human-animal relationship contrast with Aristotle’s, such as Qoheleth’s in Ecclesiastes, a book included in the bible. Aristotle determines that animals are subservient to humans due to their inability to reason, whereas Qoheleth suggests a form of equality between humans and animals due to their shared fate. By contrasting these philosophical texts, I argue that Aristotle’s faulty logic of human superiority creates a problematic mindset that can lead to human exploitation of their relationship with animals. However, Qoheleth’s interpretation places humans in an inferior context, promoting a sense of equality that allows for a respectful relationship between humans and animals.
Aristotle distinguishes humans as superior due to their ability to reason and attain happiness, aspects he sees absent in animals. To define the work of humans, Aristotle characterizes each form of life: plants have a “life characterized by nutrition as well as growth,” animals have a “life characterized by sense perception,” and humans have an “active life of that which possesses reason,” (Ethics 1.7.1098a 1-4). Aristotle uses the term “sense perception”, referring to perception gained from one’s five senses, to describe the ability of animals. This contrasts with intellectual perception, or in Aristotle’s terms the reason that characterizes the life of humans. Aristotle’s distinction between animals and humans has two impacts. First, by creating categories, Aristotle narrows one’s perspective, subjecting animals to a single defining factor and ignoring all others. He has restricted the viewpoint of animals to this term, to an extent causing other possibilities to be ignored. Secondly, Aristotle creates a hierarchy, in which humans are at the top, followed by animals and plants. Aristotle makes humans a superior being to whom animals are subservient. This is problematic, as in seeing animals as lesser beings, humans can act without consideration of their lives. Humans can ignore pain and suffering caused to animals since they are not equal beings and are thus undeserving of a respect for life.
Aristotle further divides animals and humans by their ability to attain happiness. Aristotle states that humans are endowed with reason, and “the work of a human being is an activity of the soul in accord with reason,” (Ethics 1.7.1098a 7). Through reason humans can attain eudaimonia, a state of happiness. However, animals are unable to reach eudaimonia, for they are unable to reason; “we do not say that either a cow or a horse or any other animal is at all happy, for none of them can share in such an activity,” (Ethics 1.9.1099b 32 -1100a 1). Aristotle uses examples of domesticated animals to present another image of superiority and the difference in human and animal ability to achieve happiness, once again places humans into a realm of superiority as they are the only beings that can experience the true meaning of life. In addition, by determining that animals lack the ability to achieve happiness, Aristotle, implies that animals are insignificant. They do not possess what the meaning of life is said to be; thus, animals must possess trivial lives. In maintaining this mindset, it becomes easy for humans to exploit animals; if their lives are meaningless, what difference will their misuse make? Humans begin to take the lives of animals for granted. The difference in the characteristics between humans and animals creates an unequal relationship, which justifies the mistreatment of animals.
In contrast to Aristotle, Qoheleth indicates that animals and humans share the same fate, framing humans in the context of a higher power, proposing a sense of equality between humans and animals. In his revelation of the meaninglessness of life, Qoheleth argues “that God is testing them [humans] to show that they are but animals,” (Ecclesiastes 3.18). In this statement, Qoheleth acknowledges the tendency of human beings to feel superior to animals and returns human beings from a state of superiority to inferiority, by placing humans in the frame of God, subjecting them to a higher power. In reducing human beings to animals, Qoheleth implies the presence of an equality between them. He explains that “the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other… all go to one place; all are from dust, and all turn to dust again,” (Ecclesiastes 3.19-20). Qoheleth uses language and syntax to parallel the fate of human beings and animals, offering a visual representation by mirroring his words. Also grouping animals and humans together using the word “all.” He does so to explain that regardless of being an animal or human, all are born and all die, suggesting an equality in death. Qoheleth emphasizes that “humans have no advantage over the animals,” (Ecclesiastes 3.19). A human advantage would likely be identified as the reason Aristotle speaks of. Qoheleth deems this irrelevant as the differences between humans and animals in their abilities is unimportant since their fate is death – the paths animals and humans take may be different, but they begin and end in the same place. The shared fate of humans and animals is why humans cannot be considered superior beings.
Qoheleth also explores the possibility of humans and animals both having a soul in his statement that “they all have the same breath,” (Ecclesiastes 3.19), suggesting a spiritual equality. He rhetorically asks, “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3.21), and purposefully leaves the question unanswered to indicate the lack of knowledge humans possess about animals and even themselves. The highlight of a lack of human knowledge further prevents the development of superiority and distinctions made between humans and animals, as the truth is unknown. Whereas Aristotle seems to know so much, Qoheleth declares that humans know too little and, therefore, cannot claim a superiority over animals. He continues the idea of a shared fate between humans and animals throughout the passage by using similes relating the two, “Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity,” (Ecclesiastes 9.12). Qoheleth uses an example of land and aquatic animals, indicating that all forms of animals and humans are included in a shared fate. This is contrary to assumptions usually made, in which humans are said to be related to mammals, a specific category of animals. Qoheleth proposes a unique idea in which there is equality of fate between animals and humans, even the fish in the sea and birds in the sky. By asserting that humans are not superior to animals, Qoheleth prevents the adoption of the mindset Aristotle presents. Instead, Qoheleth defines the relationship with this shared fate between animals and humans to be one of respect for life, as neither is above the other in the eyes of God, the higher power.
The two texts send different messages about the human-animal relationship, one defines it as superiority and the other as a form of equality. Aristotle’s relationship defined by superiority is the one that currently influences human behavior towards animals and has created a conflicting relationship that calls animal rights into question. Issues such as overfishing, hunting, wildlife trade, and animal abuse have been created from Aristotle’s theories. It is for this reason that it is essential to reflect on Qoheleth’s definition of the human-animal relationship so that a relationship governed by a respect for the lives of animals is formed, and the destruction of life by human hands is no longer incurred. In redefining the contemporary human-animal relationship, one must look away from Aristotle, and towards Qoheleth, remembering to maintain an open perspective – not defining animals, creating a hierarchy, or assuming humans are all-knowing, and understanding that animals, like humans, live on earth. Their lives are not inferior and deserve to be respected.
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