Tag Archives: philosophy

“An Animal”: Human Behavior, Labels, and Governance

In December of 2012, a lone gun-man walked into an elementary school at Newtown, CT and killed a group of over twenty people that included the school principle, several teachers, and a range of students under the age of 10. As news coverage informed Americans of the tragedy in their midst, pundits, politicians, and activists also began dealing with two large, weighted questions:

What role did gun control play in this event?

Is it too soon to consider the role of gun control in relation to this event?

Representatives from the NRA released several statements, with vice president Wayne LaPierre asserting that the organization stands by its beliefs: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Meanwhile, gun-attack victim Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) visited with the families of victims in order to share communal stories of pain and loss, and several gun-shows in the region were canceled out of respect for survivors in the community.

Students of the humanities will recognize that the debates surrounding both the Newtown shooting specifically and the issue of gun control more generally tap into larger, more long-term vocabularies that questions the foundations of humanity and, in connection, the levels of need for human governance.

Emerging from the bloodshed of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes composed The Leviathan as a credo on humanity and its governance.  According to Hobbes, human beings struggle with a need for a social contract that will bring them out of a State of Nature and into a cooperative order.  Such order is constructed and can only exist with enforcement because humans are by nature selfish and violent, they share a common tendency to war with others in order to achieve individual survival. In such a situation, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Clearly cooperative order is more desirable; the problem is that the social contract can only function when all behave according to its law.  So how do you effectively urge such violent creatures to trust one another and to avoid breaking rules when it suits their individual desires?  For Hobbes, the answer is the Leviathan: a singular tyrant whose absolute power coerces the masses into performing the social contract together.

While Hobbes’ approach to human nature and political governance echoes in our own lives (one need only listen to recent debates regarding gun control, for example), he is one of myriad philosophers whose work shapes attitudes toward human nature. Writing 38 years after Hobbes, John Locke posited in his Two Treatises on Human Government that human beings were devoid of violent survival instincts because they were born tabula rosa: blank slates.  Together in the State of Nature, individuals could live in “perfect equality.” Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 11.19.53 PMThrough socialization and education, humans learn how to generate individual and collective identities; and, for this reason, a humanistic education can teach human beings to create balanced, free societies wherein each individual’s rights count.  Much like Hobbes’ views, Locke’s persist.  Students of American history and politics undoubtedly hear his voice in the Constitution’s assertion of the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

When we consider contemporary political and legal discussions in our own country and worldwide, what does it mean that two such drastic approaches to humanness exist?  In what ways can they be used to triangulate as we navigate our own humanity?  And to what degree might these debates also signal our role as animals?

After all, humans are not unique in their squabbles, feuds, and power struggles. Animal communities across species experience the same challenges. Wild and domesticated horses turn to the leadership of an alpha-female, who is powerful enough to provide direction and protective strategies and gentle enough to care for weaker omega horses at the lower ends of the herd.  Wolf packs and lion prides, meanwhile, function under the governance of alpha-males who can protect from attacks, lead aggressive strikes against intruders, organize breeding, and direct members toward good hunting. Amidst these groups, leadership is never stable. As documentaries such as Meerkat Manor remind us, even in the animal kingdom there is the odd coup d’etat and a variety of allegiances surrounding them.

Performing Humanity invites submissions from philosophers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists with interest in further discussion of these issues.


Dr. Miranda Nesler is the editor of Performing Humanity and is an assistant professor of Early Modern & Medieval Literature at Ball State University in Indiana.


Image: Shannon Hicks, The Newton Bee (via The Atlantic Wire, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/12/newtown-connecticut-school-shooting/59999/)


Katy Steinmetz, “The NRA Responds to Newtown.” Time: Swampland (http://swampland.time.com/2012/12/21/the-nra-responds-to-newtown-america-needs-more-good-guys-with-guns/)

John Christoffersen, “Gabrielle Giffords’ Newtown Visit.” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/05/gabrielle-giffords-newtown-visit_n_2415720.html)

Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (London, 1651).

John Locke, The Two Treatises on Human Government (London, 1689).



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: http://publishing.cdlib.org/

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.

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