A Matter of Opinion
How would Plato and Aristotle have explained the possibility of animal souls?
For the past six months, I’ve been working on a book about whether animals have souls or not. Though I wasn’t exactly sure what the book’s specific argument was going to be (and in fact I’m still working the details of it out) the conclusion I intended to arrive at (YES, they do) was set before I typed a single word.
Starting a book with an attitude like this does not, I know, make me a terribly good investigative journalist. After all, when you’re writing a non-fiction book, you’re supposed to start out with a totally open mind and let the facts lead you where they will. If, after thoroughly exploring a question, a reporter finds that the facts lead him to a different conclusion than expected, then the book he produces should reflect this.
But I knew from the minute I got started that, poor investigative journalism marks or not, nothing like that was going to happen with me. I wasn’t about to let my researches convince me that animals don’t have souls.
Of course, there were aspects of the subject that I was open to learning about. Animal souls might, for example, turn out to be different from the souls that people have (I was actually pretty sure they were before I got started). But when it came to the question of whether or not those souls existed, there wasn’t the slightest question in my mind of what the answer was going to be.
Though it hasn’t rocked my basic views about animals and souls, or magically transformed me from a spiritually opinionated to a spiritually un-opinionated person, one thing writing this book has taught me is how far from unusual this basic stubbornness of mine is. Ask a person whether animals have souls or not, and I can virtually guarantee that you’ll hear one of the following two responses.
1) “Of course they do! How could you ask such a ridiculous question?”
2) “Of course not. How could you ask such a ridiculous question?”
And one answer I can virtually guarantee you won’t hear is:
“Hmm…What an interesting question. I don’t really know. Perhaps the do, but then again perhaps they don’t.”
That’s when I remembered something the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said. All people, Coleridge remarked, are born either Aristotelians or Platonists.
What did he mean by this? Several things, but most importantly he meant that people are naturally either this worldly or otherworldly in temperament. Plato, espouser of the theory of forms that everyone remembers from high school (all earthly horses are dim approximations of the ideal Horse, that exists in a purely spiritual dimension) was philosophy’s great idealist. For him the earthly was always secondary to the heavenly, the below always secondary to the above. For Aristotle, on the other hand, it was the earthly rather than the heavenly that mattered most – the nuts-and-bolts particulars of the things that were right before his eyes.
So, said Coleridge, things have divided up ever since. For the this-worldly people (the Aristotelians), talk of souls, of heavens and hells, of anything that departs from what’s right in front of one’s eyes, is instantly and thoroughly suspect. For the Platonists, on the other hand, the idea that all there is to the world is the stuff that’s right in front of us is nothing short of ridiculous. Of course there’s another, infinitely larger world hiding behind it.
So who’s right?
Okay, that’s not a fair question at this point. After all, as a Platonist from birth, I obviously know – or think I know – the answer. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge all those Aristotelians out there – just as my many Aristotelian friends don’t seem to begrudge my (to them) preposterously naïve notions about souls and spirits and worlds beyond this one.
After all, if the world is big enough to accommodate animal souls, it’s certainly big enough to accommodate a few conflicting opinions.
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