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On the Trail of Nature

Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility

by Keith Thomas
Pantheon, 425 pp., $19.95

The Book of Revelation suggested that at the Resurrection, dogs, like other unclean beings, would be excluded from the New Jerusalem; this was accepted in medieval England. Chaucer has nothing good to say about the dog and neither has Shakespeare. Yet there were dogs and dogs, as Keith Thomas notes. Mastiffs and mongrels were called lecherous, incestuous, filthy, and truculent, and the butcher’s cur was snarling and sullen. But the hound was noble, sagacious, generous, intelligent, faithful, and obedient. Mr. Thomas guesses that the reason for this distinction was essentially social. An early-eighteenth-century writer noted that people tended to have dogs appropriate to their social position. But the charm of Man and the Natural World is that it does not insist too heavily on socio-historical explanations of this type. Mr. Thomas has a careful honesty as a historian, and a strong feeling for particularities. Having sketched a plausible generalization that might explain a changing attitude to nature in Britain, he forthwith produces a string of interesting counterexamples. He excels in details and in regional variety, and he avoids the heavy, Hegelian periodization that can become a deadening feature of social history.

In the “early modern period,” which Mr. Thomas is mainly concerned with—roughly from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries—domestic beasts were often dressed up with bells, ribbons, and other finery, and familiarly spoken to. Geese and chickens were called to their food by the words “Yuly, Yuly,” “Coom biddy” (Come, I bid thee). Pigs were called “sic, sic, sic” in the north; “chuck, chuck” in Hampshire; “sug, sug” in Norfolk; “sook, sook” in Devon. “Bawk up,” said the Suffolk milkmaid as she tied up her cows; “Rynt thee,” said her Cheshire counterpart, meaning “Move over, I’ve finished.”

The book engenders a desire to quote and to go on quoting in this vein and is itself largely composed of strings of quotations from an impressive range of English sources. The piling up of concrete details conjures up an untidy, vivid picture of the past, stretching from early modern England to the nineteenth century, a picture that is sometimes beautiful in its crude and contrasting colors and its antique vocabulary, and sometimes disgusting. Something like a smell of ritualized cruelty and barbarism comes from the pages about bearbaiting, cock-fighting, and other animal contests and tortures. How lumpish and odious our ancestors seem to have been, bullying animals and mocking idiots in their muddy villages; how leaden and insensitive the contemporaries of Shakespeare, in that age of respected wit and learning.

Yet the Anglo-Saxon words that picked out their harsh pleasures and formed their peasant taxonomies are often magical. Mr. Thomas most skillfully draws out the implicit poetry in the early names of natural kinds, both of animals and of plants. His lists make Rabelaisian English, for example, of plant names—hounds’ piss, bearfoot, bird’s eyes, cat’s tail, cranesbill, coltsfoot, goat’s beard, miller’s thumb, dead man’s fingers, bachelor’s buttons, shepherd’s purse, fool’s cap, ladies’ slippers. This from one of his lists chosen at random. At a banquet for Charles I at Lord Spencer’s house the bill of fare included ruffs, reeves, redshanks, dotterels, godwits, curlews, swans, bitterns, mallards, peewits, herons, storks, and dozens of other kinds of bird.

In the centuries before Pope and Addison, peasants and landowners, and even the professional and learned classes, were naturally closer to the singularities of nature, and to the pithy, concrete vocabulary of traditional bestiaries and of popular botany. Mr. Thomas’s learning brings the rustic language back again and recaptures the preliterate sense of day-to-day direct handling of plants and animals, the careless intimacy, which came before the abstract prose of true classification. Creatures had their local names and that was good enough. For us now, and after Linnaeus, the proper names of living things, fixed upon a grid of system and theory, are the tongs and probes with which useful creatures are singled out and manipulated, unless they are domestic pets or sheep dogs or foxhounds. We now feel “biodegradable” rather than ready to lie down with the worms.

Mr. Thomas reconstructs the familiarity and intellectual confusion of Englishmen’s relation to natural kinds when there were small clearings in the richly forested land, and when sheep greatly outnumbered persons, and when almost every hedge and shrubbery had a physiognomy, their plants smiling as potential medicine or threatening as known poison. He gives a picture in the style of Vico of the ages when poetry and concrete imagery governed men and women’s relations to natural kinds, which were followed by the ages of abstract understanding and rational dominance. His account is tinged by some uncertainty, which he evidently feels himself, when the full story is told; and by a historian’s repentance when he looks back at the records of exploitation of nature and wonders whether it makes sense in retrospect and whether it has a direction and where it must finally lead. If Bacon’s pride in the coming human dominance of nature seems now an empty, and outdated, sentiment, at least to a contemporary historian, does the record give any guidance to a new natural piety of the future?

Mr. Thomas marks a big break between our scientific perspective and that of the medieval and early modern period, but he avoids any sharp division because of his faithful interest in the crosscurrents and complexities. He remarks that in the ancient world the Aristotelian view of absolute human superiority was not universally shared, and he cites Plutarch and, in the third century, Porphyry as counterexamples. The claim has recently been made that no one between Porphyry and Montaigne condemned cruelty to animals as such. It is very improbable that any such general statement should be true, and in fact many refuting instances throughout the centuries can be found without difficulty. For Pepys animal sports were “a very rude and hasty pleasure” and John Evelyn wrote of “butcherly sports or rather barbarous cruelties.” Nor is it true that there was a unified and consistent view in the Christian churches and sects, taken as a whole, or even within a single tradition, that of English Puritanism.

Certainly there was the long established Christian doctrine that human beings, uniquely endowed with immortal souls, can justifiably do what they will with animals and plants, put into the world for their use and delectation; God became man, and he was not expected occasionally to turn into an animal or tree, as in some pagan mythologies. Mr. Thomas records that there was no shortage of godly figures, and specifically of puritans, who in the seventeenth century and earlier were passionately addicted to hunting, and who felt no pangs of conscience about cruelty. But a different view also existed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as it does today. Not only did Thomas More think hunting “the lowest, the vilest, and most abject part of butchery,” but many more obscure, less philosophical writers from the same period or later are cited by Mr. Thomas to the same effect; and not only outright animal lovers in the modern sense, such as Margaret Cavendish in the seventeenth century.

Resisting by deft quotation the more simple-minded notions of progress, Mr. Thomas admits that there was a noticeable, though ill-defined, shift in sensibility in the early eighteenth century. It is not always unhistorical and a fallacy in method to attribute that which is manifestly a change in the prevailing style of expression to an underlying change in widely shared sentiments, although this is the line of inference that often leads to exaggerated periodization. The cultivation of gentle feeling, the philosophies of moral taste and of sympathy, the essays on moral themes in the new periodicals, and, later, the novels that formed the fashions of a soft femininity—all probably expressed, and also contributed to, a new refinement of sentiment, at least in the middle classes. The brutal intimacies of English rural life, with dependent animals called by proper names, and the casual cruelties of rustic sports, were slowly to be modified, or at least concealed, by a new urbanity, as more of the land was cleared for improved agriculture and the provincial towns expanded. All this is discernible well before the romantic movement made inhuman nature venerable and sometimes sublime, and before Bentham found in mere sentience the foundations of all morality, and therefore put a human being alongside the brutes and away from his metaphysical pedestal.

As Mr. Thomas moves cautiously forward through the centuries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth, he plainly has in mind this question: how is a historian to be seriously truthful, and not merely entertaining, if he relies upon unsystematized literary evidence and selective quotation to establish a pattern? He resists the seductive impressionism of such writers as G.M. Young and Lytton Strachey, who liked to infer changes in ways of life from changes in conventions of style, and who might lead their readers to confuse the history of art and of literacy with the history of social change, discernible in institutions and customs. Mr. Thomas repeatedly draws attention to the complexity of the relation between aesthetic fashion and style on the one hand and substantial social change on the other. For example, the cultivation of small flower-gardens, following the allotment movement in the nineteenth century, can perhaps illustrate the emergence of a nonutilitarian attitude to nature, and this Mr. Thomas himself proposes as the general theme that makes sense of his survey, lending it a direction. But he immediately qualifies this too-simple application of the theme; and one can easily enough find a Virgilian aesthetic associated in different periods with agriculture, if one looks for the right quotations among the contemporaries of Gainsborough and George Morland, for instance, but also much earlier in history.

Apart altogether from avoiding the dangers of founding a substantial theme upon literary impressions, Mr. Thomas, as the historian of witchcraft,* has already confronted the problem in historical thought that can be summed up in the name of Lecky. It is tempting to think, as Lecky thought, that the history of Western Europe can be represented without too much distortion as a progressive widening of the circle of sympathy and of equal moral concern; and this supposed advance goes together with scientific enlightenment, and with the decline of magic and the development of strongly secular moralities. Just as slaves and inferior races and women were gradually included within the circle of equal concern, so finally animals and their sufferings were swept into the circle of sympathy in a later unfolding of enlightenment around 1800.

This nineteenth-century picture of “the gradual elevation of the moral standard” is not altogether implausible, even though it is also schematic and conveniently one-sided: conveniently, because this historical theory, if true, points to the future, and in this supposed normal course of things the advances of “animal liberation” should certainly succeed.

Mr. Thomas’s many learned instances do not support this uncomplex linearity, the view of English sympathies with the natural order as a single river that steadily expanded as it flowed toward the sea of contemporary enlightenment. There are too many exceptions. For example, Mr. Thomas quotes Henry Power, author of Experimental Philosophy, arguing as early as 1664 that contemplation of nature was a moral duty, a homage due to the creator: “‘Tis a tribute we ought to pay him for being men.” This is a quite different sentiment from Montaigne’s famous, and wholly modern, view that there was “a kind of respect and a general duty of humanity which tieth us…unto brute beasts that have life and sense…. Unto men we owe justice, and to all other creatures that are capable of it, grace and benignity.” Montaigne’s Essays were twice translated in the seventeenth century, and there is no good reason to suppose that his views had no echo in England and were entirely peculiar to himself, although perhaps no one, whether before or since, has expressed them so intelligently and so beautifully. There are some philosophies of nature, and of man’s place in nature, which naturally suggest themselves to articulate persons in every age in which speculative philosophy is not unknown. There are always anticipations and recurrences.

Why is the nineteenth-century doctrine of the progressive expansion of sympathy so plausible, and not without its influence even in Mr. Thomas’s development of his themes? I think part of the answer may be that the accelerating expansion of scientific knowledge, and consequently of technology, has led to constantly improving communications, and this is often confused with constantly improving sympathies. The reality of progress, and of the expansion of sympathy, is that everyone in England and Europe now hears about animal liberation and the slaughter of seals and whales, and sees pictures of cruelty and of the destruction of the countryside. The softening of manners in the eighteenth century and in the ensuing romantic movement came in combination with a new reading public, educated in its sympathies by reading the new periodicals.

This is just one of the many general issues that Mr. Thomas’s work raises. About the early modern period as a whole he writes:

If we look below the surface we shall find many traces of guilt, unease and defensiveness about the treatment of animals: and many of the official attitudes which have been described…were remote from the actual practice of many people. The rest of this book will try to do justice to other, more ambiguous, modes of thought and action.

He reviews the history of the study of natural history; the herbals of the Tudor and Stuart periods; changes in diet and cooking; the social history of hunting; the dominant theory of a great chain of being, in the great Professor Lovejoy’s sense, stretching from angels to the lowest species; animals in heraldry and emblems; the rich vocabularies—“the barking of curs, bawling of mastiffs, bleating of sheep,…tattling of jackdaws,…the girning of boars,…cheeping of mice….” He writes of peasant cures and superstitions and vernacular names of eighteenth-century pet keeping, and finally of the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824 and the legislation against baiting and cockfighting (1835 and 1849).

These last are real institutional evidences of progress, beyond the literary sources. But as I write this review, I read in the newspaper that eleven men have been arrested for arranging a cockfight in a barn in Hertfordshire. Yet Henry VI could not bear to see animals slaughtered by hunters, and Mr. Thomas reminds the liberationists of today that the legends of medieval holy men represented them as saving animals from hunters and birds and snares. The romantic opposition, often stated, between wild nature, which liberates, and cultured society, which confines; the story of landscape gardening and of the English garden; the native tradition of landscape painting: these are among the crosscurrents usefully documented in Man and the Natural World. But probably many readers will look to the historical record for some leads into the vexed and difficult question of the moral foundations of the movement for animal liberation and against the exploitation of animals in factory farming and in blood sports: what moral principles for such attitudes are suggested in Mr. Thomas’s account?

Jeremy Bentham emerges as certainly the philosophical founder of the movement and his work as a turning point in this as in so many other human concerns. He rested the case for consistently humane treatment of animals on their sentience, having argued that the only morally relevant characteristic of any creature must be its capacity to suffer and enjoy. He brought rejection of cruelty to animals, and of their exploitation, within the general philosophy of utilitarianism, treating such cruelty as a special case. There can be little doubt that sensitiveness to long familiar forms of extreme suffering—whether of transported slaves, or of children in factories and cleaning chimneys, or of wounded soldiers in field hospitals—did increase, step by step, during the last century, as the facts became more widely known and advertised; and the new philosophy probably had some part in this change as it was reflected in institutions. It was natural that this new sensitiveness and increasing gentleness of manners should also be extended to animals.

But it is far from clear that a utilitarian philosophy has since Bentham been the only basis for the protection of animals, or that it is the most secure basis for such protection, from the moral point of view. Mr. Thomas’s record, both before and after Bentham, suggests that the basis generally has been both more complex and more uncertain. That this is the suggestion of history is a relief and a satisfaction for those who believe, as I do, that the utilitarian philosophy gives an impossible account of morality. Mr. Thomas shows that well-established moral intuitions point toward other grounds. Both in Christian theology and in enlightened humanism there is a longstanding and well-documented opposition between the explicit or implicit anthropocentrists, and the naturalistic thinkers, who take human nature to be an interesting, but not central, episode in nature—an episode that is naturally interesting particularly to human beings, who always find it difficult to keep this natural bias within reasonable bounds.

The thoroughgoing naturalists always have been, and have always expected to be, a minority of protesters. Their own philosophy of nature requires that the bias must be normal, and that they should usually be seen as subversive and disloyal to their kind. Splendid ancient thinkers, Cynics, Skeptics, and Epicureans, denied that men were the center of the universe or that mankind was a special concern of the gods. Later Porphyry remarked that it was absurd to think that pigs were created in order to be eaten by men; one might as well believe that human beings were specially made to be eaten by crocodiles.

This sympathetic and breezy tone is often found among naturalists, but there is also the grave and prophetic tone of Lucretius and Spinoza, who amply disclose the moral foundations of naturalism and of a stern and principled rejection of the anthropocentrists. They appeal to fortitude and to justice of mind with the claim that the idea of man as the center of the universe is a primitively consoling myth, prolonged by feebleness and by a childish fear of the dark, and by a fear of nullity. Belief in this consolation trivializes human intelligence and undermines respect in the face of the natural order; it is a vulgar thought that we are in nature as in our own garden made for our use and pleasure, and that the galaxies, millions of light years away, are arranged for the benefit of human beings.

This Epicurean moral tradition, which appears more than once in Mr. Thomas’s account, is, I believe, no less influential now than utilitarian philosophies. Just as we are to regard the race to which we belong as one among many races, and not as uniquely privileged, so we are to regard our own species as one among an indefinite number of natural kinds, and not as uniquely privileged, either in its origins or its destiny.

On almost every page of Mr. Thomas’s book quotable particulars carry general suggestions. I choose a page at random and learn that in the later eighteenth century honeysuckle and roses were noticed by travelers around many an English cottage door, while the gardens of the French peasantry contained apples and cabbages. Auriculas, tulips, and pinks were to be found in their highest perfection in the gardens of the manufacturing class: it was agreed that one did not see such flowers in the gardens of the nobility and the gentry. The best pinks and auriculas were produced by the weavers of Spitalfields, Manchester, and Paisley, while one of the first men to grow a magnolia from seed was a butcher at Barnes.


Man & the Natural World’ July 21, 1983

  1. *

    Religion and the Decline of Magic (Scribner, 1971).

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