Monday, January 18, 2016


Jean-François Lhermitte, L'animal vertueux dans la philosophie antique à l'époque impériale. Kaïnon - Anthropologie de la pensée ancienne, 2. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2015. Pp. 545. ISBN 9782812434709. €69.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Lisa Whitlatch, St. Olaf College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Animal studies are a hot topic in the Classics community. Recent contributions include not only the book under review, but also The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Life and Thought and Newmyer's Animals, Rights, and Reason in Plutarch and Modern Ethics.1 Jean-François Lhermitte's L'Animal vertueux dans la philosophie antique à l'époque imperial offers a few new observations. The overall structure of the book is two parts: "Moral Virtue and Animal Psychology" and "Moral Community and Relations of Justice," following a pattern established by Sorabji's groundbreaking Animal Minds and Human Morals, which is often cited in this text: discuss first the capacities found (or not found) in animals and then what they are owed in different communities based on those capacities.2 One already informed about the debate will find little new, but the book can serve as a very useful introduction to the issues involved for scholars. If the intended audience is general—as I imagine from the forward written by Florence Burgat, which is an impassioned plea for modern audiences to read the ancients, who have said everything—the book serves a more useful role than it would if intended only for classicists. The author ends his work with a clarification of his aim: "the current debate on our connection to other animals depends persistently on the philosophical concepts inherited from the ancients" (485, my translation). Lhermitte chooses to focus his examination on the imperial period, when arguments crystalized into two major ways of thinking: the Stoics, including Seneca, and the party in favor of animal intelligence, including the two most cited in this work, Plutarch and Aelian. But the book also provides a wider temporal perspective on each issue. Aristotle is perhaps the most cited after Aelian, as Lhermitte reiterates that it is Aristotle's work on logos that begins the major divide between human and animal.

Lhermitte begins with an overall introduction that sets the readers' expectations for this work, including the major questions under consideration: how do mental faculties arise (through moral intuition, or through reason?), from where do they come (are they inborn or acquired?), what can they do (remember, communicate?), and what are their social functions? Is there justice, naturally or by law, among animals, and is there social organization? What are the moral values witnessed by animal recognition? There are no definitive answers to these questions in this work, although the author seems to personally favor modern cognitive ethology, which sees animals in their own terms instead of in anthropocentric terms, a point to which I will return.

After traditional caveats about philosophical terms and modern biases, he moves to part one: "Moral Virtue and Animal Psychology." The main sections in the first part are an introduction, "Arete, psyche, noesis," "Self-perception, intention, and reason," "Animal intelligence and moral intuition," "The moral function of the pathos," "Memory, communication, and taming," and a conclusion. The main question under consideration is whether animals strive for virtue (arete). Arete, moral excellence, is an activity of the soul that disposes one towards doing good. Aristotle divides the soul into the rational part (theoretical reason and practical reason) and irrational (vegetative part and appetitive part, which is subject to reason); the soul works with the body to fulfill its duty, and animals have an inferior level of self-control, an argument that the Stoics maintain. Those favoring animal intelligence use Aristotle for his idea of continuum, but animal reason by this argument still does not seem the same as human reason. Lhermitte is sure to remind us about cognitive ethology here: thought is only awareness. Thought-as-awareness may have an emotional as well as intellectual dimension, and, if emotional, animals may have more access to thought than some in antiquity believed.

Lhermitte returns to the question of emotions later. First, he focuses on the issue of reason and perception. Cognitive ethology sets the frame again with two dimensions of awareness, awareness of phenomena and environment, because it is impossible to gauge animal awareness of self. Ancient philosophers nevertheless attempted to discuss the latter as well. Stoics argue that animal awareness is only for self-preservation, not moral good. Questions about intentionality of motion eventually reach an impasse between parties: can internal motivation be moral without the ability to reason and to assent to one's own movement? Much of the Stoic argument relates to the ability to form abstractions, but Aelian (as always) tries to elevate animal wisdom as a natural, mysterious process above human discourse. On the subject of emotions, Lhermitte presents how Aristotle and the Stoics separate feelings from morality, but Aelian unites emotions, nature, and morality. But if virtue is more than a natural impulse, can it be learned and can animals learn at all? In the final part of this section, Lhermitte explores this question and breaks it down into three parts, considering respectively whether animals can remember, whether they can communicate, and whether they can learn.

Ultimately, the first part establishes several of the major ways to think about the nature of souls, virtue, reason, emotion, and learning, but the validity of any ancient perspective is outside the scope of the book or is undercut by a preference for cognitive ethology. In antiquity, however, we should take away that the Stoics are the dominant school of thought, and anyone who wants to argue on behalf of animals needs to address Stoic doctrine primarily.

In the second part, we find an introduction, "The double foundation of moral law," "The limits of the moral community," "Vegetarianism and religion," "Moral responsibility, worth, and dignity," and a conclusion. There are three main problems with examining moral communities and justice: 1) the good and the just are not necessarily the same; 2) vocabulary for the terms can be unclear; and 3) if justice relies on contracts, and animals cannot assent and make contracts, they cannot receive justice. But does justice rely on contracts? Hesiod once said that animals have no justice, and the debate began from there, but Lhermitte provides ancient examples of natural law that animals follow—values like temperance and filial piety. The double foundation of moral law seems to be natural law and contracts. Nature provides these values for animals without contracts.

Societies, as well, exist on both human and animal levels, even according to Aristotle who says only that humans are the most political animal. Every community requires moral treatment of others. That treatment might include vegetarianism, although most arguments for vegetarianism are anthropocentric. Another problem with vegetarianism is that it stands in opposition to religious sacrifice, to which Aelian offers an alternative, and he further emphasizes the relationship between gods and animals, both as worshippers as well as part of the divine plan. But if humans owe anything to animals, what is an animal's responsibility towards humans? Humans have to consent to their actions, but in most philosophical schools, animals simply follow their impulses. Nevertheless, ancient law often held animals accountable for damages, even to the penalty of death. And if they are punished, then shouldn't work animals obtain some rights, contrary to Plutarch's account of Cato?

The overall conclusion is followed by what I found to be the most useful parts of the book: a glossary of philosophical and ethological terms and a glossary of Greek terms. Given the very precise nature of philosophical work, particularly when dealing with the fine distinctions between human and other animal behavior, close attention to the primary language is necessary. It is a shame that the ancient texts cited within the work were not given in the original language, but only in French translation taken from various translations. The author explains certain Greek terms when he felt it necessary, but I would have preferred to have the Greek as well as the translation. Perhaps this choice was due to a matter of space or for consideration of a general instead of a scholarly audience. In terms of lesser style issues, the book is divided into many small sections, which makes it easy to identify topics under discussion. The downside to this approach is that examples and discussion are often repetitive, as none of these topics is truly independent from another. There were only a few typos I noticed, and the discussion of the philosophical texts were reasonable.

Over the course of his work, I found two trends most successful and engaging: 1) Lhermitte's criticism of Aelian and 2) his references to cognitive ethology, which to his mind is inappropriate for use on ancient texts, but which is nevertheless useful to modern readers as one way to distinguish our reading of animals from ancient approaches. Aelian, by the fair arguments of this book, is not a philosopher and is inconsistent in his views and his use of philosophical terms. One might then wonder why he is in a book about ancient philosophy, but for the sake of variety as well as amount of content, Aelian's presence is not unexpected. The use of cognitive ethology was a productive choice, but through its use, I took away the opposite point to what I expected: we need to move away from the modern debates that merely echo classical arguments. Lhermitte goes only so far as to observe that antiquity has influenced modern debate, but I think there is a latent view that this is a problem. There are no clear answers to any of the issues debated by ancient philosophers. Lhermitte's general conclusion includes some broad strokes on modern arguments: the importance of altruism, animals being protomoral, and that morality may have an emotional origin. I feel from this conclusion that we are no closer to finding the answers to the arguments than the ancient philosophers were, but one must read ancient philosophers to understand the state of the argument. I think Lhermitte would argue that this foundation should now be replaced by cognitive ethology, and while he never clearly makes the move to argue such, his use of cognitive ethology throughout leads his readers (or at least this reader) to the conclusion that animals have to be accepted on their own terms, away from anthropocentric morality To evaluate that claim would require another book focused on that point. The much narrower aims of this book have, I find, been met.


1.   Gordon Lindsay Campbell, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Life and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Stephen T. Newmyer, Animals, Rights, and Reason in Plutarch and Modern Ethics. New York: Routledge, 2006. The latter author has been particularly prolific with his sourcebook Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. New York: Routledge, 2010. BMCR 2011.07.38.
2.   Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. BMCR 94.10.02.

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