Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.
Although this notion is seldom discussed in detail, readers of Stoic literature may notice frequent references to animals, often being employed as metaphors for different character types. For example, in A Man in Full (1998), the novel by Tom Wolfe, two of the leading characters become enthusiastic followers of Epictetus’ form of Stoicism. They are particularly inspired by his references to the image of a strong bull who naturally steps forward to protect the weaker members of the herd from attack by a lion. Indeed, one of the chapters entitled “The Bull and the Lion”, contains the following exchange:
“That’s fine,” said Charlie, “but how do you know what your character is? Let’s say there’s a crisis you’ve got to deal with. How do you know what you’re really made of?”
“Epictetus talks about that,” said Conrad, “He says, how does a bull, when a lion’s coming after him, and he has to protect the whole herd – how does he know what powers he’s got? He knows because it has taken him a long time to become powerful. Like the bull, a man doesn’t become heroic all of a sudden, either. Epictetus says, ‘He must train through the winter and make ready.'”
In part 2 of this article, I describe how the Stoics made a division between rational animals (humans and gods) and non-rational animals, further subdivided into wild animals, like wolves and lions, and domestic animals, like cattle and sheep.
Even among non-rational animals, though, some excel in terms of their nature and this is something Epictetus frequently refers to, particularly using the metaphor of the strong bull who protects the rest of the herd. Seneca briefly alludes to this in the play Phaedra, when he writes: “Goaded on by love, the bold bull undertakes battle for the whole herd.”
The Stoics worshipped Zeus and refer to him frequently throughout their writings. Epictetus does not explicitly state that the image of the bull is linked to Zeus and so we cannot assume he has that in mind. However, it’s likely that most of his students would have easily connected the two ideas as Zeus was often symbolised as a white bull, as in the image shown here in which Zeus is carrying Europa. Although cattle in general are sometimes looked down upon in Epictetus’ Discourses, the bull is several times praised as a metaphor for an exceptional or good man, i.e., the ideal Stoic Sage:
It was asked, How shall each of us perceive what belongs to his character? Whence, replied Epictetus, does a bull, when the lion approaches, alone recognize his own qualifications, and expose himself alone for the whole herd? It is evident that with the qualifications occurs, at the same time, the consciousness of being imbued with them. And in the same manner, whoever of us hath such qualifications will not be ignorant of them. But neither is a bull nor a gallant-spirited man formed all at once. We are to exercise, and qualify ourselves, and not to run rashly upon what doth not concern us. (Discourses, 1)
Here one ought nobly to say, “I am he who ought to take care of mankind.” For it is not every little paltry heifer that dares resist the lion; but if the bull should come up, and resist him, would you say to him, “Who are you? What business is it of yours?” In every species, man, there is some one quality which by nature excels, – in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not say to whatever excels, “Who are you?” If you do, it will, somehow or other, find a voice to tell you, “I am like the purple thread in a garment. Do not expect me to be like the rest; nor find fault with my nature, which has distinguished me from others.” (Discourses, 3)
You are a calf; when the lion appears, act accordingly, or you will suffer for it. You are a bull; come and fight; for that is incumbent on you and becomes you, and you can do it. (Discourses, 3)
The bull is clearly equated with the “good man” below, a synonym for the Sage, and the metaphor of a hunting dog is employed in a similar manner:
For who that is charged with such principles, but must perceive, too, his own powers, and strive to put them in practice. Not even a bull is ignorant of his own powers, when any wild beast approaches the herd, nor waits he for any one to encourage him; nor does a dog when he spies any game. And if I have the powers of a good man, shall I wait for you to qualify me for my own proper actions? (Discourses, 4)
In another passage he employs a similar metaphor, equating the role of the bull with that of the queen bee:
But what have you to do with the concerns of others? For what are you? Are you the bull in the herd, or the queen of the bees? Show me such ensigns of empire as she has from nature. But if you are a drone, and arrogate to yourself the kingdom of the bees, do you not think that your fellow-citizens will drive you out, just as the bees do the drones? (Discourses, 3)
Marcus Aurelius, who had almost certainly read the Discourses, perhaps even the four books lost today, mentions a similar metaphor, which he extends to the ram who guards the flock of sheep:
If any have offended against thee, consider first: What is my relation to men, and that we are made for one another; and in another respect, I was made to be set over them, as a ram over the flock or a bull over the herd. (Meditations)
Curiously, Seneca also says something quite similar, perhaps shedding some light on the original meaning of the metaphor in Stoicism:
But the earliest mortals and those of their descendants who pursued nature without being spoiled shared the same guide and law, being entrusted to the decisions of a superiors, since it is natural for inferior things to give way to more powerful ones. Take herds of dumb animals: either the biggest or the strongest creatures have command. It is not the bull inferior to his breeding but the one who surpasses the other males in size and muscle who goes before the herds; it is the tallest elephant who leads the troupe; among men, “the best” replaces “the biggest”. So the ruler used to be chosen for his intellect, and the greatest happiness among nations was enjoyed by those among whom only the superior man could be more powerful. A man can safely enjoy as much power as he wishes if he believes he only has power to act as he should. (Seneca, Letters, 90)
The presence of a similar metaphor in Seneca suggests that he and Epictetus, and perhaps Marcus, are alluding to a common Stoic source from an earlier period.
Likewise, Cicero portrays the Stoic Cato employing the same trope in his account of Stoic Ethics:
Nature has given bulls the instinct to defend their calves against lions with immense passion and force. In the same way, those with great talent and the capacity for achievement, as is said of Hercules and Liber, have a natural inclination to help the human race. (De Finibus, Book III)
However, intriguingly, there is some evidence that Zeno employed the metaphor of a herd of cattle to describe the ideal Stoic community in The Republic, which was quite possibly the founding text of Stoicism. For example, according to Plutarch:
It is true indeed that the so much admired Republic of Zeno, first author of the Stoic sect, aims singly at this, that neither in cities nor in towns we should live under laws distinct one from another, but that we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock [or herd of cattle] feeding together with equal right in one common pasture. This Zeno wrote, fancying to himself, as in a dream, a certain scheme of civil order, and the image of a philosophical commonwealth. (Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander, 329A-C)
This suggests that Zeno may have introduced the metaphor of the ideal Stoic Republic as consisting of a herd of cattle led by a bull. Indeed, the early Stoic school itself was a small community perhaps intended to be modelled on this ideal to some extent, so Zeno himself, or the subsequent scholarchs of the school, may have been seen as analogous to the bull in this imagery.
Free Email Course
Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.