Animal Metaphors in Stoicism (Part 2): The Tripartite Division

This brief article (part 2) explores the tripartite distinction found in ancient Stoic literature, that divides animals into rational, wild, and domestic categories.

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

The Stoics believed that humans have both an animal and divine nature, a body and mind, passions and reason.  In essence, one of the fundamental goals in life is to fulfil our potential as rational animals, without degenerating back to the level of our brute animal nature.  Indeed, Epictetus goes so far as to say that when we behave like animals, in a sense, we temporarily “destroy” our own humanity.

Consider, then, from what you are distinguished by reason. You are distinguished from wild beasts; you are distinguished from cattle. Besides, you are a citizen of the universe, and a part of it; not a subordinate, but a principal part. (Discourses, 2)

Further, there is a general and a particular end. The first is, to act as a man. What is comprehended in this? To be gentle, yet not sheepish; not to be mischievous, like a wild beast. (Discourses, 3)

But having two things united in our composition, a body in common with the brutes, and reason in common with the gods, many incline to this unhappy and mortal kindred, and only some few to that which is happy and divine. (Discourses, 1)

Marcus Aurelius appears to make a similar observation about character, perhaps influenced by his reading of Epictetus:

About what am I now employing my own soul? On every occasion I must ask myself this question, and inquire, what have I now in this part of me which they call the ruling principle? And whose soul have I now? That of a child, or of a young man, or of a feeble woman, or of a tyrant, or of a domestic animal, or of a wild beast?  (Meditations, 5.11)

He elsewhere says:

Before ten days have passed, you shall rank as a god with those who hold you now as a wild beast or an ape, if you only turn back to your precepts and your reverence for reason. (Meditations, 4.16)

Seneca also wrote:

You are mistaken if you trust the expressions on the faces of those you meet; they have the features of men but the spirits of wild beasts, except that beasts are deadly at the first encounter but do not seek out those they have passed.  For only necessity incited them to do harm; they are compelled into battle either by hunger or fear, whereas a man delights in ruining another man. (Seneca, Letters, 103)

And elsewhere:

Why do you mention pleasure to me [as the chief good in life]?  I seek the good of a man, not of his belly, which has greater room in cattle and wild beasts. (On the Happy Life)

As we can see already, Epictetus, Marcus, and possibly also Seneca, distinguished between different types of animal nature.  Two broad categories are apparently employed, wild and domesticated animals, and these are sometimes further divided into different species.  However, humans constitute a third category (“rational animals”), and may probably be grouped with God (Zeus) whom the Stoics described as a perfect animal, his body being the whole of Nature.

  1. Rational animals, which are capable of wisdom and virtue, and include human beings and perhaps other rational beings, but also God (Zeus), the perfect rational animal, whose body is the whole of Nature, and whose “children” we are, having “sparks” or “fragments” of his rational nature within us.
  2. Wild beasts, which are described as savage and mischievous and seek to “kick or bite” (being contentious, injurious, passionate, and violent) and apparently include wolves (faithless, treacherous), lions (wild, savage, untamed), foxes (slanderous, ill-natured), vipers, and hornets
  3. Domestic animals, which are described as silly and overly-gentle (being gluttonous, lewd, rash, sordid, inconsiderate) and concerned mainly with their fodder, apparently including horses, cattle, sheep, and asses (irrational, stupid)

At any given time, though, we may progress to resemble Zeus, through reason and virtue, or degenerate, through irrationality or vice, into resembling either wild animals or cattle.  Tripartite divisions of character like this were also employed in Platonism and Pythagoreanism, although a direct comparison perhaps lies outside of our scope here.  However, notably, in The Phaedo, Plato’s Socrates, perhaps alluding to Pythagorean doctrines, suggests that men of different characters will be reincarnated as different types of animal:

Those, for example, who have carelessly practiced gluttony, violence and drunkenness are likely to join a company of donkeys or o similar animals. […]

Those who have esteemed injustice highly, and tyranny and plunder will join the tribes of wolves and hawks and kites, or where else shall we say that they go? […]

The happiest of these, who will also have the best destination are those who have practiced popular and social virtue, which they call moderation and justice and which was developed by habit and practice without philosophy or understanding?

How are they the happiest?

Because it is likely that they will again join a social and gentle group either of bees or wasps or ant, and then again the same kind of human group, and so be moderate men. […]

No one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life, no one but the lover of learning. (Phaedo, 81e-c)

The Stoics appear to apply a similar distinction to the characters of men while they are still living.  Dio Chrysostom, a late 1st Century AD author influenced by Stoicism, in an essay on Diogenes the Cynic, suggests this may be related metaphorically to the famous transformation of Odysseus’ crewmates into animals by the witch Circe, in Homer’s Odyssey.

When she [Pleasure] once prevails, and has established an influence over the soul by her magic potions, then succeeds the metamorphosis of Circe, who strikes the victims with her wand, and afterwards finds no difficulty in compelling them to the close confinement of a sty: from which period they unchangeably continue to the latest period under the semblance of a swine, or wolf. Some also are transformed by Pleasure into Serpents; creatures, of a subtle and pernicious nature; and into reptiles of all descriptions. These attend upon her, and pay her homage; desirous of her enjoyments, and content in her service, but embarrassed at the same time by infinite vexations […] (Dio Chrysostom, On Diogenes, or Virtue)

The Stoics and Cynics wrote books on Homer and were keen on metaphorical interpretation of myths so it’s possible this analogy may have been derived from early Stoic or Cynic sources.  Indeed, we know that the precursor of the whole tradition, Antisthenes, wrote a book entitled On Circe.

The Stoics also explicitly refer to the metaphor of a mighty bull guarding the rest of a herd of cattle against attack from the lion.  They may also have in mind the image of a brave sheepdog (or a mighty ram) protecting the rest of a flock of sheep against attack from wolves.

Hence, different people appear to be classified by Stoics according to a kind of rough typology based on different animals:

It were no slight attainment, could we merely fulfil what the nature of man implies. For what is man? A rational and mortal being. Well; from what are we distinguished by reason? From wild beasts. From what else? From sheep, and the like. Take care, then, to do nothing like a wild beast; otherwise you have destroyed the man; you have not fulfilled what your nature promises. Take care too, to do nothing like cattle; for thus likewise the man is destroyed. In what do we act like cattle? When we act gluttonously, lewdly, rashly, sordidly, inconsiderately, into what are we sunk? Into cattle. What have we destroyed? The rational being. When we behave contentiously, injuriously, passionately, and violently, into what have we sunk? Into wild beasts. And further, some of us are wild beasts of a larger size; others little mischievous vermin, such as suggest the proverb. Let me rather be eaten by a lion. By all these means, that is destroyed which the nature of man implies. (Discourses, 2)

By means of this kinship with the flesh some of us, deviating towards it, become like: wolves, faithless, and treacherous, and mischievous; others, like lions, wild and savage and untamed; but most of us foxes, and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderous and ill-natured man but a fox, or something yet more wretched and mean? Watch and take heed, then, that you do not sink thus low. (Discourses, 1)

It’s our character that determines whether we are animals or rational beings, not just our outward appearance:

For is everything determined by a mere outward form? Then say, just as well, that a piece of wax is an apple, or that it has the smell and taste too. The external figure is not enough; nor, consequently, is it sufficient to constitute a man that he has a nose and eyes, if he have not the proper principles of a man. Such a one does not understand reason, or apprehend when he is confuted. He is like an ass. Another is dead to the sense of shame. He is a worthless creature; anything rather than a man. Another seeks whom he may kick or bite; so that he is neither sheep nor ass. But what then? He is a wild beast. (Discourses, 4)

The Stoics took the Delphic prescription to “know thyself” very seriously indeed, and for them this meant knowing that man’s essence is reason, and that it is his duty to protect his true nature.  Marcus Aurelius describes continually questioning his own character in this way, examining himself to see if he has abandoned reason and turned himself into something more akin to an animal:

Why, then, art thou disturbed? Say to the ruling faculty, Art thou dead, art thou corrupted, art thou playing the hypocrite, art thou become a beast, dost thou herd and feed with the rest? (Meditations)

Seneca wrote that although “farm animals” are free from desire and fear, this is not due to  the gift of reason, like the wise man.  He added:

Assign to the same category those people whose dull nature and lack of self-awareness have brought them down to the level of beasts of the field and animals.  There is no difference between these people and those creatures, since the latter have no reason, while the former have reason that is warped, and, because it expends its energy in the wrong direction, detrimental to themselves… (On the Happy Life)

The complex metaphor below, which appears to be loosely based on one attributed to Pythagoras, says a little more about the metaphor of domesticated animals such as horses and cattle:

As, in a crowded fair, the horses and cattle are brought to be sold, and most men come either to buy or sell; but there are a few who come only to look at the fair, and inquire how it is carried on, and why in that manner, and who appointed it, and for what purpose, thus, in this fair [of the world] some, like cattle, trouble themselves about nothing but fodder. To all of you who busy yourselves about possessions and farms and domestics and public posts, these things are nothing else but mere fodder. But there are some few men among the crowd who are fond of looking on, and considering: “What then, after all, is the world? Who governs it? Has it no governor? How is it possible, when neither a city nor a house can remain, ever so short a time, without some one to govern and take care of it, that this vast and beautiful system should be administered in a fortuitous and disorderly manner? Is there then a governor? Of what sort is he, and how does he govern? And what are we who are under him, and for what designed? Have we some connection and relation to him, or none?” In this manner are the few affected, and apply themselves only to view the fair, and then depart. Well; and they are laughed at by the multitude? Why, are the lookers-on, by the buyers and sellers; and if the cattle had any apprehension, they too would laugh at such as admired anything but fodder. (Discourses, 2)

This also recalls a saying of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher:

Nature has made us spectators of the world and the things in it by endowing us (but not animals) with reason.  She expects us to emulate the gods who are our ultimate leaders, benefactors, and parents. (Letter to Pankratides)

Musonius also says something about gluttons that may be related:

In their inability to keep their hands and eyes off food, they resemble pigs or dogs more than humans.  […] Their behaviour towards food is very shameful; this is proved by the fact that we compare them to brute animals rather than to intelligent human beings. (Lecture About Food)

Marcus also mentions perhaps a different analogy, relating to the pig, which is apparently viewed as a sacrificial animal, struggling futilely against its fate:

Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams.  Like this pig also is he who on his bed in silence laments the bonds in which we are held. And consider that only to the rational animal is it given to follow voluntarily what happens; but simply to follow is a necessity imposed on all. (Meditations)

In addition to various domestic animals, a variety of other wild beasts are mentioned.  In discussing the example of Medea, Epictetus refers to her as degenerating also to the level of a viper (Discourses, 1) and elsewhere to those who do harm to others and consequently suffer by damaging their own character, becoming like a “wolf, a viper, or a hornet” (Discourses, 4).  This analogy between the irrational man and the wild animal can perhaps be traced to the early Stoics:

And [the Stoics say every base man] is also wild since he is a man hostile to the lawful way of life, beastlike, and harmful.  This same fellow is untamed and tyrannical, having a disposition to perform despotic actions as well as ferocious and violent and illegal actions when he gets the chance.  He is also ungrateful, not having an affinity either with returning or with offering gratitude since he does nothing for the common good or for friendship or without calculation.  (Stobaeus in The Stoic Reader, p. 145)

When we become like animals we engage in a kind of implicit transaction, through which we make a loss rather than a profit, “selling” our humanity and rationality in exchange for some external thing we’re desperate to obtain, such as the iron lamp Epictetus lost one night to a thief:

Thus I, for instance, lost my lamp, because the thief was better at keeping awake than I. But for that lamp he paid the price of becoming a thief; for that lamp he lost his virtue and became like a wild beast. This seemed to him a good bargain; and so let it be! (Discourses, 1)

If, instead of a man – a gentle, social creature – you have become a wild beast, mischievous, insidious, biting, have you lost nothing? Is it only the loss of money which is reckoned damage; and is there no other thing, the loss of which damages a man? (Discourses, 2)

Musonius Rufus explains:

Indeed, plotting how to bite back someone who bites and to return evil against the one who first did evil is characteristic of a beast, not a man.  A beast is not able to comprehend that many of the wrongs done to people are done out of ignorance and a lack of understanding.  A person who gains this comprehension immediately stops doing wrong.

It is characteristic of a civilized and humane temperament not to respond to wrongs as a beast would and not to be implacable towards those who offend, but to provide them with a  model of decent behaviour. (Lecture on whether a philosopher will file a suit against someone for assault)

However, there are some positive qualities that even wild beasts and sheep have, which some humans appear to lack:

Not even a sheep, or a wolf, deserts its offspring; and shall man? What would you have, that we should be as silly as sheep? Yet even these do not desert their offspring. Or as savage as wolves? Neither do these desert them. (Discourses, 1)

At one point Epictetus complains that his students are like lions in the school but foxes outside of it, forgetting their philosophical principles and reverting to their crude animal nature.  Foxes are generally disparaged as “slanderous and ill-natured” but lions are not always held in much esteem by Epictetus and, as we shall see, they are more often wild beasts who threaten the weak.  Some ancient philosophers appear to have employed the lion as a metaphor for the tyrant, which could possibly be Epictetus’ meaning, although he perhaps has something more general in mind.

Writing much later, toward the end of the classical period, Boethius (c. 480-534AD) employs a similar metaphor in his Consolation of Philosophy.  Boethius was influenced primarily by the Christian and Neoplatonic traditions that dominated during this period.  However, he was also clearly influenced by Stoicism, and describes himself in the opening passages as being “nourished on the philosophies of Zeno and Plato” (Consolation, 1.1).

You could say that someone who robs with violence and burns with greed is like a wolf.  A wild and restless man who is for ever exercising his tongue in lawsuits could be compared to a dog yapping.  A man whose habit is to lie hidden in an ambush and steal by trapping people would be likened to a fox.  A man of quick temper has only to roar to gain the reputation of a lion-heart.  The timid coward who is terrified when there is nothing to fear is thought to be like the hind.  The man who is lazy, dull and stupid, lives an ass’s life.  A man of whimsy and fickleness who is for ever changing his interest is just like a bird.  And a man wallowing in foul and impure lusts is occupied by the filthy pleasures of a sow.  So what happens is that when a man abandons goodness and ceases to be human, being unable to rise to a divine condition, he sinks to the level of being an animal. (Consolation, 4.2)

Boethius says that through vice the wicked actually cease to be what they once were by losing their human nature.  Whereas only goodness can raise us toward the level of God, wickedness reduces us to the level of animals by destroying our humanity.  He puts it succinctly as follows: “though they retain the outward appearance of the human body, wicked people change into animals with regard to their state of mind”.  He relates the notion of humans reverting to various animal natures to the well-known story of Odysseus and Circe in Homer’s Odyssey.  However, Circe’s magic only changed the outward appearance of Odysseus’ crew into animals, whereas the poison of vice penetrates and transforms our innermost character, our very souls:

Those poisons, though, are stronger,
Which creeping deep within,
Dethrone a man’s true self:
They do not harm the body,
But cruelly wound the mind. (Consolation, 4.2)

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