During moments of awareness, in which translation of raw experience into language has not yet happened, I recognize perhaps a truer, more immediate sense of my animal nature. In relationships to animals, I find these nonverbal states not only more readily happen, but are necessary for any exchange to take place. You may talk to animals, but in silent presence one practices listening, sharing and exchanging, not only with the other, but as one among many in an enlivened, inhabited world that births, sustains and contains us all.
There’s a lot of human chatter now days about the state and fate of our world, and specifically, the influence of humans on the environment – conflicts between cultures, religions, etc. We are, it seems, beginning to see and fear the harm whose cause is doubtless our own. As it is recognizably a human cause, we look to ourselves to correct course. Whether the correction needed is seen as psychological, political, internal or external, if we are the problem, and we are superior, we must be the ones to find the solution.
But, even as far as this is true, in what ways can the source of a problem become the solution? What needs to happen? It’s not like we haven’t been aware of our dilemma for thousands of years. It seems we can’t self-correct!
James Hillman tracks the situation thus:
The mechanistic (indirect) theory of perception so essential to modern epistemology and cosmology of course guarantees an anthropocentric universe. Only humans are conscious. Animals have less memory, less stored knowledge, less mediating reason, less subjective interiority. Have they interiority at all? And unless they have this interior subjectivity, they cannot claim consciousness. The mediating subjective factors necessary to our human definition are the very same factors required by the indirect theory of perception. Dismantle the radio signals and the code system — all the intervening variables — and we shall find we have junked as well our notion of consciousness as an interior mediating process. For it is this definition of consciousness that has maintained through centuries from Stoic philosophy and Roman law through Christian dogma and European rationalism that animals are nonsentient, irrational, unconscious, and inferior. This condemnation of their consciousness assures our human superiority, allowing us to ignore “their inarticulate wisdom, their certainty, their unhesitating achievement”
We might also ask, if we go back far enough, who were we prior to this current state of affairs of assumed human superiority? What brought us from being one among many within a world we inhabit, to being and feeling separate and distinctly apart? Is it that very distinction, and the ability to make distinctions that becomes too much of a good thing, and so, culminating into a fatal flaw? Is the fate of humanity tied to a consensual perception which now grossly distinguishes itself from non-human animals to the point of possibly extinguishing it all? Does our power over the animals along with our self-appointed management over nature truly protect, or does it make us even more vulnerable?
I venture the idea that a cosmology with soul gives special attention to animals. I propose that any acceptable new cosmology will have to receive approval from the animal kingdom.
Hillman points out that our relationship to animals can be seen in all cultures, times and places, and very much carries with it a sense or experience of the divine. Divine in this sense being both an immanent and super natural presence of invisible powers. Besides the more familiar biblical story of Noah, the ark, and God’s directive to save the animals, Hillman mentions the correlation between Plato’s dodecahedron, ‘…used by the creative maker for the “whole.” ‘
Following upon the geometric shapes for fire, water, air, and earth, there is a fifth, the most comprehensive figure which has, says Plato, “a pattern of animal figures thereon.” [ 7] It reminds of another passage in Plato (Republic 589c) where he presents “the symbolic image of the soul” as a multitudinous, many-headed beast with a ring of heads tame and wild.
And here, Hillman notes Plato giving the animals their share of the cosmic power:
Let us consider this twelve-sided animal-headed image seriously indeed, although seriously does not mean literally. Rather, we may imagine this final and essential image of Plato’s cosmology — strange, unexpected, obscure as it may be — to be awarding animal-being cosmic superiority.
It’s likely that with limited technology, the vulnerability of prehistoric humans drew them to both fear, envy, need, but also to eventually gather greater insight and reflection from the animals that share existence with us. It’s as if though, we humans, by separating ourselves from them, traded off our animal tendencies for an ever increasing capacity for reflection. And so began the long journey: negotiating territory and relationships not only with the other animals, but with the natural state of the environment – and less and less as we sought out and incorporated more ways to separate ourselves through language, tools and technology. Each so-called advancement, while giving us an edge over other creatures, left us without the necessity of getting along.
Hillman makes a crucial point that through relationship and a cosmology which includes the animals both instructs and mediates between the earthly and the divine:
The return of cosmology to the animal is not merely to invite “brute” palpable sensuousness into our thinking. The animal opens not only into the flesh of life but also toward the gods. According to fables, legends, myths, and rituals worldwide, animals impart to humans the secrets of the cosmos. They are our instructors in cosmology, that is, they mediate between the gods and humans; they have divine knowledge.
Divine knowledge, which I take to mean that through ongoing relationship with other animals, we define intelligence as not only intellect and the power to rationalize, but the intelligence of seeing beauty, grace and the physical wonder of the other.
Although I am not proposing solutions here, it fascinates me to enlarge the view of the long trail of human history, and especially to see how language, a technology itself, and one that is too often taken for granted, influences our experience, and continually brings us into an exaggerated sense of separation, from the animals, each other and even the idea, let alone the experience, of anything outside of the human realm . It is not a matter of belief, but of finding and allowing an opening in which relationship itself becomes a vehicle for dissolving the boundaries, walls, ideologies and fears that perpetuate a felt experience of separation that has plagued humanity for a very long time.
All quotes from: Hillman, James. Philosophical Intimations (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Book 8). Spring Publications. Kindle Edition.