The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, and New South Wales share a common birth year, 1788. By the time of his death in 1860, he was acknowledged as a skilled thinker and posthumously is viewed as one of the great contributors to the Western philosophical tradition. In 1851 he released Parerga und Paralipomena. Although it covers many areas the interest here is with his views on animals.
Here is what he says:
Another fundamental error of Christianity is that it has in an unnatural fashion sundered mankind from the animal world to which it essentially belongs and now considers mankind alone as of any account, regarding the animals as no more than things. This error is a consequence of creation out of nothing, after which the Creator, in the first and second chapters of Genesis, takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation of kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes; subsequently, in the second chapter, the Creator goes on to appoint him the first professor of zoology by commissioning him to give the animals the names they shall thenceforth bear, which is once more only a symbol of their total dependence on him, i.e their total lack of rights.
It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls … It is obviously high time that the Jewish conception of nature, at any rate in regards to animals, should come to an end in Europe, and that the eternal being which, as it lives in us, also lives in every animal should be recognised as such, and as such treated with care and consideration. One must be blind deaf and dumb, or completely chloroformed by the foetor judacicus, not to see that the animal is in essence absolutely the same thing that we are, and that the difference lies merely in the accident, the intellect, and not in the substance, which is the will.
The greatest benefit conferred by the railways is that they spare millions of draught-horses their miserable existence.
The first thing I would highlight is that Schopenhauer’s dismissal of ‘creation out of nothing’ must be read in its historical context. To modern ears it sounds rather weak for what is the Big Bang theory if not creation out of nothing? In Schopenhauer’s time, however, the popular arm of anti-theism supposed that the universe was itself eternal and many of the Romantic poets of the day, essentially worshipped nature. Schopenhauer, as the extract reveals, was a theist but not a Christian under any orthodox banner. He believed in a transcendent spirit of good and bad but denied their personification as G-D and the devil.
Schopenhauer’s views on animal rights cannot be seen entirely as a Christian versus non-Christian debate. On the one hand he was arguing the similarly anti-Christian Baruch de Spinoza who held rather an antithesis view on the matter. Inside the Christian world there was also a range of opinions. The Catholic canon is littered with discourses on animals and their role in the world. Many sects of the Protestant tradition held a ‘dominion over the animals’ mentality, however, this way of thinking declined rapidly in the nineteenth century. London’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1841, much to Schopenhauer’s delight. Less to his delight, one imagines, would be the dominating presence of Christian ministers and lay-people in both the London chapter and the equivalents which sprang up around the world.
I suppose what appeals to me most is Schopenhauer’s rejection of biblical literalism. Those familiar with my thoughts will be already aware that I strongly reject the literalist approach and feel the Bible needs to be rescued away from Fundamentalists. Hence, I very much see eye to eye with Schopenhauer when he insists that Genesis can not be entertained as an accurate work of science. Whatever truth lies in the Bible is surely to be gleaned through a philosophical and metaphysical prism (and it is there Schopenhauer and I part company).
To my mind, the Bible can not reasonably be called the word of G-D. It is, to paraphrase Bishop Spong, the word of men trying to reach the mind of G-D, but their humanity got in the way. The Bible contains a wealth of wisdom and, its greatest component, the philosophy of the most influential man to ever live. Be that as it may, it is pregnant with cultural and time specific bias. Modern Western cultural norms with regards to women, slavery and mental illness (i.e demon possession) are completely alien from the various historical periods when the books of the Bible were penned. To this list Schopenhauer happily adds the treatment of animals.
It is truly ironic that for Fundamentalist Christians the Bible itself has become the golden calf it preaches against. If the Bible is read blindly, as if an invisible general gave you specific orders concerning every facet of your life, it can lead only to elitism, homophobia, sexism and all shades of discrimination. It is used poorly when the intellectually lazy hide behind it as their excuse for not thinking. If, however, it is taken in proper historical and philosophical context, the Bible may just be the greatest book you ever read.