Date of this Version

July 1998

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Details

Harrison, Peter (1998) ‘The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought’, Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (3), pp. 463-85.

©1998 John Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

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[Extract]: Discussions about animals - their purpose, their minds or souls, their interior operations, our duties towards them -have always played a role in human self-understanding. At no time, however, except perhaps our own, have such concerns sparked the magnitude of debate which took place during the course of the seventeenth century. The agenda had been set in the late 1500s by Montaigne, who had made the remarkable (if somewhat rhetorical) claim that animals were both moral and rational, and moreover, more moral and rational than humans. In the century which followed, Descartes, not to be outdone, put forward the even more contentious counter-proposal that animals were not only neither rational nor moral, but that they were not even conscious. The Cartesian hypothesis fueled a debate which continued until well into the eighteenth century. 1 While in recent years much attention has been given to issues of animal consciousness and cognition in seventeenth-century thought, the related question of the moral capabilities of animals has been by comparison neglected. In this paper I shall explore the converse side of the better known arguments about the rational capabilities of the beasts, focusing on seventeenth-century discussions concerning the behaviors and passions of the beasts and the extent to which animals were thought to participate in the moral universe of human beings.



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