Monthly Archives: October 2012

Reason, Compassion, and Humanness in the Animal World

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

During the Renaissance, debates raged about the necessary properties that defined humanness and human superiority.  For some, including Jean Bodin, “the real essence of a human being…was not physical form, but the rational faculty.”  While such a position sat in line with humanism, which privileged human interiority and cogita, Bodin’s assertions did not sit well with all.  Contemporaries such as Reginald Scot claimed that the separation of humanness from human physicality might too broadly construe humanness, allowing us to locate examples of animal reason that would suggest “euerie asse, woolfe, or cat that we see, were a man, a woman, or a child” (in Fudge 53).

More recently, philosophers such as Peter Singer have argued that there is, in fact, no essential property that elevates humans above non-human animals.  Indeed, humanness is merely a species condition the same as an animal’s being labeled as feline or canine.  Drawing on utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s ethical assertion that a being’s ethical value emerges from its ability to suffer, animal rights philosophers and activists suggest that the choice to rescue a child or a chicken from drowning should not rest on the creature’s species, but on the level at which it would experience distress and suffering.

Not confined to the halls of academe, these philosophical discussions persist in daily life as well.  “Compassion,” so often considered synonymous with “humanity,” has been called to question each time a news story emerges in which witnesses to a crime video or tweet updates during its commission, failing in the process to stop and render aid to a human victim.  Only one of many examples was a recent convenience store stabbing in Wichita, Kansas: as 27 year old stabbing victim LaShanda Calloway laid dying of internal bleeding, 5 shoppers stood by. According to the local police chief, “she lay on the floor while people continued to do their shopping […] They’re taking photographs.”  Another account stated that a witness  “step[ped] over the body to reach the snack food display near the counter” (Todd).

How are our assumptions about human superiority and human compassion troubled or broadened when we find greater reason or sympathy among non-human animals?  In a recent video released on YouTube, for example, a young goat falls into a petting-zoo pond and begins to drown. Behind the camera, a man consistently comments, “Goat in the water, goat in the water” while continuing to film.  At no point do any zoo staff or visitors attempt to aid the struggling kid.  Yet the kid does not ultimately drown: from the right corner of the screen, a pig appears and purposefully swims into the water and nudges the goat to shore and safety.  The same unhelpful cameraman from early in the video acknowledges the amazing thing that he’s witnessed, dubbing the rescuer a “hero pig.” 

Such a moment of cross-species aid draws attentions to the failures of the humans observing a creature in pain—a creature different from themselves and potentially less deserving of their own efforts or inconveniences.  How does such an example of compassion, of problem-solving—of so-called “humane” or “human” qualities—function for us?  How does it differ from other moments when animals rescue animals within their own species or families, inspiring our awe because they are “like us” in their affections or biologically instinctual drives?  It seems that an instance like that of the petting zoo brings an interesting contrast and blurs boundaries in crucial ways.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of early modern literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book manuscript examines Renaissance drama and women’s silent authorial performances in England.


 Images: Jean Francois Largot, “Lioness Saves Cub” (Mail Online, 26 September, 2011).  Screenshot from “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.”

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals (University of Illinois Press, 2002).

‪jebdogrpm. “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.” (YouTube, 19 September, 2012)

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Harper Classics, 2009).

David Todd, “People Snapped Pictures But did not Assist a Dying Woman. Could they be Charged with Failing to Render Aid?” David Todd Law Letter (

Party Animals, Hibernating People

Performing Humanity will be taking a content-hiatus this week in honor of Ball State’s fall break.  We fully encourage you to peruse the archives, leave comments, and consider sending in submissions.  Once the break ends, we will pick back up with regular content!


By Dr. Blake Hestir

The eccentric pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Acragas in the mid-Fifth Century B.C.E. heroically wrote in dactylic hexameter of the origin of animals:

 By her [Love] many neckless faces sprouted,

And arms were wandering naked, bereft of shoulders,

And eyes were roaming alone, in need of foreheads. (Trans. McKirahan)

 He continued,

 Many came into being with faces and chests on both sides,

Man-faced ox-progeny, and some to the contrary rose up

As ox-headed things with the form of men, compounded partly from men

And partly from women, fitted with shadowy parts.

 Aside from an interest in surreal barnyard animals—and if sources are correct, a penchant for wearing purple robes, a gold crown, and bronze shoes—Empedocles was an avid intellectual whose poems were well stocked with philosophical insights about the nature of the cosmos and how one ought to live. One of his remarkable views suggests that the sundry species of living organisms did not come about for some natural purpose or end (telos), but because their parts randomly combined to form creatures that could survive and reproduce.

Empedocles thinks the cosmos consists of four elements or “roots,” earth, water, air, and fire, as well as two natural principles or forces, what he calls Love and Strife. By Love what is unlike is attracted to what is unlike, and by Strife like attracts like. Under the influence of these principles, the elements mix randomly over time to form compounds, eventually the parts of animals, which are “fitted together” into various configurations, some amusingly grotesque like the man-faced ox-progeny. Humans, other animals, and plants are those combinations that retained the ability to survive and reproduce due to the fortuitous arrangement of their parts.

Empedocles makes no mention of humans holding any special status over animals and plants, and in fact in his religious writings, he claims that humans return again as animals or plants:

For I have already once become a boy and a girl

And a bush and a bird and a [mute] fish [from the sea].

 And further that justice is universal and extends to all living things:

 But what is lawful for all extends far

Through the wide-ruling aither and through the immense glare.

 There are accompanying prohibitions against eating meat and even some plants. Remarkably also, Empedocles’ view of the generation of animals looks something like a proto-evolutionary view (or perhaps de-evolutionary depending on whether the cosmos is moving towards a dominant period of Strife or Love) with some nod towards something vaguely similar to what we post-Darwinians have come to describe as natural selection. But it would be a long time before Darwin.

Why so long? One significant obstacle to the proliferation of the Empedoclean conception of biological development—aside from its poetic obscurity—was Aristotle, who in the Physics outwardly attacks the randomness at the heart of the Empedoclean cosmogony. Aristotle argues that the random “fitting together” of parts cannot account for the regularity and complexity of nature.

Aristotle replaces randomness or material “necessity”—that things are the way they are exclusively because of their material nature—with what he considers the more plausible and defensible explanation: nature is inherently purposive. Enter the Aristotelian teleological worldview.

In his biological work the Generation of Animals, Aristotle writes, “we must not say that each [of the products of nature] is of a certain quality because it becomes so, rather that they become so and so because they are so and so” (Gen. An. V.1). On Aristotle’s view, nature does not operate randomly as a series of “pushes” by material composition, but rather as a series of “pulls” by essence into proper form. Each type of living being is shaped by its characteristic essence that explains what it is and what it is for. For example, a human is essentially a rational bipedal animal. To reason is our natural purpose, the cause of our existence as human. We are pulled into our fully functional form by our natural telos.

An implication of the Aristotelian view is that although creatures such as humans, lions, dogs, fish, and birds, etc. share the feature of being animals, each species is essentially different from the other species. So, humans are essentially different from other animals—this biological difference amounts to a metaphysical difference. Moreover, Aristotle thinks that the rational faculty is the most divine of all, and so humans are naturally positioned above the other animals to the extent that all those creatures lack the rational faculty.

Aristotle’s response to the materialism of Empedocles, as well as that of the ancient Greek atomists, was important and influential. The strength of Aristotle’s position was due in large part to his rigorous methodological and systematic approach to science. Yet the dominance of the Aristotelian worldview perpetuated an unfortunate speciesist attitude toward animals. In the end, Aristotle’s teleology and accompanying view of animals was to win out over Empedocles’ man-faced ox-progeny, at least for a while. The resurgence of materialism and science during the Modern period marked the beginning of the end of the Aristotelian paradigm. Darwin would deliver the final blow.


Blake Hestir is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Texas Christian University.


Image: Web:

Aristotle. Generation of Animals. Intro., text, trans. A. L. Peck. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963. Print.

The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1984. Print.

Henry, D. “Generation of Animals.” A Companion to Aristotle. Ed. G. Anagnastopoulos. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 368–84. Print.

Johnson, M. Aristotle on Teleology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Kirk, G.S., J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957/1983. Print.

Lennox, J. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

McKirahan, R. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.,Inc., 1994. Print.

Silence and the Human Animal

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In 2008, I wrote a post titled “Silence and the Scold’s Bridle.”  As a graduate student in the throes of dissertating, I had become enthralled by both the ideological and material methods through which early modern culture sought to silence women—and from this interest emerged both my dissertation, and my current book manuscript on women’s disruptive use of silence in drama. 

But it’s no longer 2008.  And in addition to finalizing Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, I’ve also begun realizing that new projects are possible and will likely tackle similar questions from different angles.  Returning to these images in 2012, I’m struck that implements such as the scold’s bridle not only seek violently to silence women—an attempt which highlights their dangerous expressive power—but that these tools also attempt to dehumanize women.  Such dehumanization not only emerges out of the bodily control that bridles offered to oppressive husbands and fathers, who guided women’s movements with the use of the bit.  It also results from the sheer act of silencing itself.  As Erica Fudge has pointed out in her recent work, the early modern legal system struggled to define humanness as either based in an individual’s physical appearance or in his ability to produce rational discourse.  Given that Galenic theory and the single-sex model positioned women’s bodies as imperfect and incomplete—their penises tucked inside a result of improperly cool consummation—the former definition barred women’s fully human status.  Yet cases of male birth defects or congenital hypertrichosis problematized physical judgments of humanness and promoted discourse as the measure.  Herein lay the problem: unless you silenced women and prevented them from practicing discourse, they too could gain legal human status that would overturn laws of coverture and male-primogeniture.  Materials like the scold’s bridle, then, treated women’s bodies like animal bodies and created a circular justification.  For, regardless of whether the women had the capacity for rational discourse, their inability to recognizably “produce” it in speech foreclosed recognition of them as humans.  And a man’s ability to prevent such production proved his mastery.  Or did it?  After all, if a woman was in any form a beast, and a man in any way sexually engaged her, then he committed bestiality.  His morality and his heirs’ humanity were at risk.

This blog has and will continue to explore issues like this one, raising questions about how early modern culture defined animals and humans, how it valued speech and language, and what logical tangles emerged.  Even more than that, it also pushes readers and encourages contributors to contemplate the persistence of these logical infelicities, these slippery vocabularies, in the periods following the “Renaissance”—even in our own time.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of English at Ball State University and is the editor and founder of “Performing Humanity in the Renaissance.”  


Images:  (1) Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered. London, 1655. (Bodleian Library); (2) W.R. Chambers, “Scold’s Bridle or Brank.” The Book of Days. London, 1870.

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern Culture.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Bestial Empowerment: Approaching Polymorphous Nature

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In a recent PMLA article, early modern scholar Melissa E. Sanchez seeks to “make available a mode of reading that reintegrates some of the foundational work of queer theory […] into understandings of female sexuality” (493).  Examining The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sanchez reads against the grain by deemphasizing the moments of masculine power or feminine subservience so often studied within the texts. Rather, she emphasizes moments of “deviant” female sexuality as instances of female empowerment:  Guyon’s intrusion into the Naked Damsels’ sado-masochistic bath, Hellenore’s decision to perform orgiastic sex with satyrs rather than go home to her impotent husband, and Helena’s self-figuration as an animal desirous of men and women’s violent sexual advances. Such instances trouble hetero-normative gender assumptions that male-female sex always disempowers women; they further unveil and disrupt problematic gender assumptions that homoerotic female couplings are necessarily egalitarian, emotional, or companionate.  For Sanchez, these moments urge us to perform readings of early modern texts that break free from rigid modern categories to instead embrace the polymorphous nature of Renaissance sexuality.  By extension, such reading urges us to perform more truly “queer” analysis that defies binarism.

By drawing attention to bestiality as one empowering mode of deviant sexuality for female literary characters, Sanchez’s research taps into issues at the heart of “Performing Humanity.”  Questions of bestiality enter into and complicate women’s roles as social, legal, and sexual subjects during the Renaissance.  Previous posts by Brittany S.Marc K., and myself have discussed how conduct literature, art, science, law, and religion represented women as unstable hybrids.  Women were considered part human, part animal, wholly dangerous, wholly helpless, and always in need of masculine containment.  Yet when bestiality becomes a site of empowerment, it becomes what I call “disruptive compliance”–an act through which an individual’s compliance with social expectation disrupts rather than reaffirms the dominant social order.  If women were, in fact, animals as law/religion/science posited, then it would be only natural for them to couple with other beasts.  Female literary characters’ participation in bestiality, however, causes uproar and as a result draws attention to three problematic possibilities: 1) That women are human despite social traditions’ assertion, and therefore are treated unfairly under law,  2) That women are beasts and implicate human men in bestiality when marital or non-marital erotic couplings occur.  A third possibility arises in cases like Hellenore’s, when sexual activity takes place between a women and a man-beast hybrid such as a satyr or centaur.  Such instances draw attention to the fact that just as women might be animal-human hybrids, so too might men regardless of their socially vaunted physical and rational capacities.  From the perspective of “Performing Humanity,” Sanchez’s work does double duty.  Not only does it remind us that Renaissance sexuality was polymorphous, but that human status was as well.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is the editor of “Performing Humanity” and is an assistant professor of early modern and medieval literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book project, Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, argues that through the strategic use of silence, women were able to generate space for dramatic authorship and acting in the Renaissance.


Image: Piero di Cosimo, “A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph.” (Italy, c. 1495).

Sanchez, Melissa E. “‘Use Me But as Your Spaniel’: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities.” PMLA 127:3 (May 2012), 493-511.

%d bloggers like this: