What is an "Human Being"? Review of Over the Human by Roberto Marchesini

Roberto Marchesini. Over the Human: Post-humanism and the Concept of Animal Epiphany. No translator given. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2017. 160 pp. $89.99.

review by Boria Sax

Perhaps the first Humanist ever was Protagoras, a Sophist who is best known for saying, “Man is the measure of all things.” In Plato’s dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras gives a mythological account of the origins of humankind. The gods had molded all creatures from clay, and then assigned the brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus to equip them with the abilities they would need to survive. Epimetheus passed out qualities such as speed, strength, horns, claws, flight, tough skin, and great fertility. He made some creatures into predators, while others were to eat roots or grass. When he had finished, Prometheus came to inspect the work, and noticed that all the gifts had been assigned, and there was nothing left for man, who was left naked and defenseless. To enable human beings to survive, he stole technical skill and fire from the gods, and gifted it to the humankind. With this, people soon developed language, as well as the ability to make homes and clothes. They were still prey to wild beasts, so they came together in cities for protection, but then began to make war on one another. Zeus, fearing human beings would destroy themselves completely, then game them the gifts of justice and morality.[1] This is a highly sanitized (We might say “Disneyfied. . .”) version of the far more violent and chaotic account in Hesiod’s Theogony.

In many books, most recently Over the Human, Roberto Marchesini has understood the story as the foundational myth of humanism. Marchesini points out that, contrary to Protagoras, human beings are not lacking in specific abilities, but have many such as unparalleled fine motor coordination and an excellent sense of balance. Furthermore, the possession of about 100 billion neurons is too specific a feature to be anything but a highly developed specialization. But the idea, contained in the myth, that human beings were characterized by incompleteness, effectively emptied humankind of predicates, which might otherwise have joined man to other creatures. It rendered man thoroughly abstract, and set us apart from other animals. This fiction, according to Marchesini, also enabled man to be cast in as the hero of a story, in which he overcomes adversity to triumph in the end.

Marchesini then traces this idea in Western thought through Leonardo’s famous drawing of Vitruvian Man to the anthropology of thinkers such as Andrew Gehlen and Helmut Plessner, who interpret human technology as compensation for a lack of natural abilities. He succeeds, in my opinion, in documenting the seemingly improbable way in which a myth that was probably never widely believed has come to pervade much of Western tradition.

In so far as we take the story as an anthropological theory, Marchesini’s objections are convincing. If we regard it as a myth, in the sense of a traditional story, the important question is less one of its correctness than of what gave rise to it. Socrates and Protagoras lived in a world in which human life, on a day-to-day basis, was vastly more precarious than it is today. It was not very unusual for people to be killed by predators such as wolves, as is still the case in some of the poorest parts of the world today, and there was hardly any defense against calamities such as plague or fire. Human life expectancy was approximately one quarter of what it has become in the twenty-first century.

Protagoras’ idea that Zeus gave justice and morality to human beings so that they would not completely destroy themselves through wars is one part of the tale that still resonates in contemporary times, and directs attention to an often-unappreciated side of Humanism. The dialogue takes place around the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), which was unprecedented in its duration. Early Modern Humanism developed in a time of continuous wars, mostly ─ but not exclusively ─ between Catholics and Protestants. Humanists such as Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus were advocates of tolerance, who emphasized human solidarity. This generally had the unfortunate effect of setting people apart from the natural world, but it at least softened some of the hostilities.

The story told by Protagoras expresses a feeling of utter human fragility that may not have been objectively correct even in Socrates’ time. Protagoras comes across as, though very eloquent, a little too glib, but that certainly could not be said about many laments about the human condition from the ancient world, for example those in the Biblical Book of Job or Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. As expressed in Job, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upward” (5:7, King James Translation).

Is it true that human beings have a unique vulnerability? The question might seem preposterous in the context of contemporary middle-class life, where human beings enjoy unprecedented comforts as countless species are driven to extinction. In a larger perspective, it hovers strangely between sentimentality and profundity. Perhaps the human intellect entails a special liability to extreme disorientation and panic. Perhaps our efforts to allay this anxiety have often had the ironic result of making us more susceptible to it, since the comforts of “civilization” increase our alienation from the natural world.

Socrates, who narrates the dialogue, neither endorses nor challenges the myth, which serves mostly as a segue into a discussion about whether virtue can be taught. My impression is that he was skeptical of, if a bit indulgent toward, the tale recounted by Protagoras. The master of dialogue believed that human beings and animals were joined through transmigration of souls. A person might be reborn as an animal, and that would not necessarily be a cosmic demotion. In Plato’s dialogue “Phaedo,” he says that people who were good citizens could be reborn as bees. In “Phaedrus,” he tells that dedicated artists of the past returned to the world as cicadas. At the end of “The Republic,” he reports that the warrior Aias, who was disillusioned with humankind, chose to be reborn as an eagle.

Marchesini challenges Protagoras’ anthropocentrism far more explicitly, through another, perhaps equally profound, bond of identity between animals and human beings. This is what he calls “animal epiphany,” an encounter with an animal in which the self is mirrored, challenged, and ultimately changed. It is a philosophy similar to social constructivism, except that the self is created not so much in relation to people as to other creatures. Human identity, in other words, is shaped by a perpetual dialogue with other species. Most of his book Over the Human is dedicated to elucidating that concept, from biological, philosophical, and poetic points of view.

One thinker who is especially close to Marchesini, at least on a theoretical plane, is Paul Shepard, who, in The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, advances a conception of human identity that is extremely similar, perhaps almost identical, to Marchesini’s. In Shepard’s words, “Personal identity is not so much a matter of disentangling the self or “the human” from nature as it is a farrago of selected correspondences in which aspects of the self are projected into the dense, external world where they are discovered among a variety of animals who are both similar to and different from us.”[2]

But, working from almost the same foundation, the two thinkers come to very different practical conclusions. Shepard is dubious about pet-keeping, which he views as an expression of human domination, and sees the hunt as a consummation of animal epiphanies. For Marchesini, the opposite is true. The reason, in my opinion, for this is divergence is because both thinkers underestimate the range of forms that an animal epiphany may assume. Both hunting and pet keeping may both be legitimate, though limited and imperfect, ways of relating to animals and the natural world.

I have long had a fascination with the work of Shepard and his regard for the hunt, which Marchesini, judging from his scattered references to Shepard may share, though I have never hunted and never will hunt. In many rural areas of the United States, hunting is a center of community life. When I taught high school for a brief time in rural upstate New York, almost all the boys and a large number of the girls would be absent on the first day of hunting season. Many hunters speak with considerable passion about how the activity bonds them to the natural world and to game animals, with something like what Mircea Eliade, an historian of religion, called “the mystical solidarity of predator and prey.”[3] Animal rights advocates respond with a combination of anger, incomprehension, and exasperation, and the two parties then often accuse one another of promoting human dominance. I use this example because it is particularly extreme, but it illustrates the difficulty of moving from theory to practice. Traditional farmers, herders, bee-keepers, naturalists, zoo custodians, and many others are likely to claim a special solidarity with animals, as may even feel they are on the side of the natural world in its confrontation with human civilization. In every case, I suspect that they are partly, but only partly, right.

What is particularly troubling here is not that people should disagree, but that there is no means of even talking about, much less trying to resolve, the difference. But this is part of an even broader problem, which is the lack of a framework and vocabulary that is adequate to discuss our relations with animals. Over the Human is an important contribution to Western intellectual history, which elucidates some continuities in philosophical perspectives on animals through the ages. It seems to me, however, that none of our philosophies do a decent job of explicating the myriad ways in which people have regarded animals, as deities, lovers, guides, slaves, demons, companions, and far more. The epiphanies that people experience with animals are almost always highly personal and difficult to explain to others. They are generally also elusive, and subject to the suspicion of being illusory ─ “Does my dog really love me or is she simply programmed to act affectionate?” They can easily render us vulnerable and place us on the defensive.

Articulating the concept of an animal epiphany is important, because, simply by placing a name on the phenomenon, we take a step towards opening it to cooperative investigation. The concept by itself provides little tangible guidance in structuring our relationships with animals, but it may at least provide the foundation for a dialogue. How does one tell a genuine animal epiphany from an imagined one? Despite analyzing the concept in detail, Marchesini has no rules for this, and I don’t think that there are any. But perhaps the attempt to make the distinction, and the integrity that requires, may be part of the process by which human beings develop an authentic sense of identity.

One point on which the concept of an “animal epiphany” might be refined is a clarification of the meaning of “animal.” That concept is not universal, in fact several languages including ancient Egyptian and Classical Chinese have not had any synonym for it. Might a similar epiphany take place with, say, a plant, an object, or another human being? Marchesini’s answer here is eloquent, but, in my opinion, not entirely convincing: “Of course we admire the violence of a waterfall, a bright sunset, the magnificence of mountains or the vastness of the ocean, but we do not feel the sense of solidarity that comes from being under the same fate?” (p. 99). But might we? I know of no expression of life’s transience that is more direct and poignant than an orange-brown leaf falling in autumn.

[1] Plato, Selected Myths, ed. Catalin Partene, trans. Robin Waterfield et al, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp.4-8.

[2] Paul Shepherd, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, Washington, D. C.: Shearwater Books, 1996, p. 5.

[3] Mircea Eliade, From the Stone Age to the Elysian Mysteries (Vol. 1 of A History of Religious Ideas), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 86.

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