On an eccentric animal

We are publishing in two installments the introduction of an essay by Rahmane Idrissa — at least, from what I hear, 90% of that introduction. But this all makes for a rather substantial teaser, if that’s the word. One insight which I got out of it and won’t forget: what distinguishes us from other animals isn’t reason, it is folly.

Philosophers in the Western tradition long believed that the secret of our difference, as special animals, lay in something they called “reason,” an amazing gift bequeathed by God or Nature to us only. They were also fairly sure that, like spoiled brats, we fail to make good use of it: after all, their whole vocation was to study the thing so that we better live up to it. Descartes – the most unflinching of the prophets of the credo – called it “la chose du monde la mieux partagée”, “the most widely shared thing in the world,” and when once I read that the sentence carried on to say, “et dont on fait le moins usage”, “and the one which we least use”, I did not realize immediately that someone had modified the pronouncement into a quip.  It seemed shrewd, but was obviously not meant for the most wholesome philosophical effect. Descartes in fact had put the orthodox philosopher view as neatly and plainly as possible: “As far as reason, or sense, is concerned, given that it is the only thing which makes us human and distinguishes us from animals, I like to believe that it is entirely complete in each person, following in this the common opinion of philosophers, who say that differences of more and less should occur only between accidental characteristics and not at all between the forms or natures of individuals of the same species.”

The first time I read this, I found it confusing (even though I also accepted it as a common truth for a while). The problem I saw was in the word “animals.” This was in a Philosophy class, in high school – they teach Philosophy in high school in most French-speaking countries – and the course of the day was circling around the question, “what is reason?” But the question that nagged me was rather, “what is an animal?” It seemed to me that Descartes – and many others in his league – had put humans on one side, high on a pedestal called reason, and everyone or everything else on the other side, crawling and squirming in the dirt of unreason. The procedure left me un-persuaded. It was like an optical illusion. It reminded me of those ancient effigies of monarchy in Egypt or Assyria, where the king appears as a mindboggling giant at the feet of whom the people stream past in tiny humanoid shapes, all of them confounded in one single form and size, grandees and their cooks, the scholar and the fool, merchants, peasants, housewives – all just being the people. From the philosophic vantage point, it would seem that the monarchy of reason had set us apart in an equal measure from dogs and from ants, we, towering in the light, them, forming a confused mass of “dumb beasts” in the murk. But in my untutored view of things, while we were tangibly different from bugs and fish, we were not so far removed from dogs, cats or sheep. I would reason to myself, “who knows what goes on in the mind of a beetle (or if it even has a mind to begin with),” but one certainly would know what goes on in the mind of a horse. If we were in the light, then at least a flicker of understanding linked us to these other beings, drawing us close. The eyes of a grasshopper looked to me just like two drops of amber; the eyes of a fish, pure sensors picking up information, otherwise, two cold bright buttons. But even from up there, high in the tender elevations of a tree, we feel the stare of a giraffe, and its eyes tell us something that we barely make out, but that we cannot make up. The astonishing faculties that grew in us out of the possibility of talking, drawing, writing and such other feats, eluded these beings for good (unless evolution changes tack in the future), but their way of dealing with life and tackling problems belongs in a world where a baseline “reason” is markedly present and active. Hobbes, a contemporary of Descartes who had much of the same philosophical beliefs, did quip that it is precisely because we are rational that we can also be foolish. Folly, as the absence of reason, is a proof of reason. If we go by that standard, we can easily come up with many instances of certain animals who visibly acted foolishly, and against all the reason that we did expect them to have. And this point is interesting: exactly why do we expect certain animals to behave in a recognizably rational way – to gauge, foresee, make cause and effect deductions based on their gut feeling (their instincts) and their store of knowledge (their experience). Even with little familiarity with the way of life of a given mammal for instance, we suppose that they know what is useful for that specific way of life, and what is harmful or useless. From their actions, we can deduct that which is useful, harmful or useless for them, and that is so because we were able to observe that they make plans, given a certain environment, to reach certain things, and avoid or neglect others. Unlike with us, these plans are in most cases entirely contingent on their body’s abilities, although some mammals are known to use natural objects as tools – but the main thing of course is that they calculate their way toward the useful and away from the harmful.

This is something that, as human beings, we immediately recognize as something that we do too, and while that may or may not be in vastly more complicated and complex ways, the basic pattern is identical. Because not all animals act individually in this way, there is really no reason why we should claim that our way of reasoning, planning and calculating is unique and intrinsically different from that of those animals who do engage in the same activity. What makes us think so, I suspect, is a kind of conflation of cause and outcome to which we are remarkably prone. The cause of reasoning is utility. We reason to solve problems, mostly practical problems, and that cause is identical with us and with a panther. The Latin genus for the word itself, it has been pointed out, simply means “calculation” (ratio). However, the outcome of our problem-solving calculations is very different from that of a similar effort from a panther. It looks like with the panther, the thing stops at safely eating the most considerable edible mammal available. With us, the effort has led to the establishment of Mohenjo Daro, Babylon, Isfahan, Paris and New York.

We may imagine how the initial impulse for solving a set of problems among the first representatives of our species gradually led to such disproportionate outcomes, but the disproportion is so great that it is hard to refer it to the same impulse that exists among panthers and their ilk. In New York, there are few edibles that cannot be consumed or even wasted, apparently making a mockery of the principle of utility. Moreover, there are striking variations in human outcomes, since, while in some areas this kind of extravagant development is maintained by successive generations of humans for many centuries, other places are totally devoid of it and humans there live in a sort of quiet and simplicity that is labeled “primitive” and is seen as animal-like by their “civilized” congeners. Unsurprisingly, when modern, post-Cartesian Europeans left their metropolis-studded countries to meet with other humans in remote, untamed places – and especially given the superficial differences in physical appearance – they often refused to recognize in them fellow humans, or surmised that their “reason” was blunted by the climate or some congenital defect.

In this view (which is by no means uniquely European), “civilization” is the fulfillment of human reason at its level best – the end point of human problem-solving capabilities. But this is only one view. Even in Western Europe and its extensions, where the idea of civilization has become overtime something of a cultural totem, there is a tradition of seeing things otherwise. Influential thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that civilization itself was a problem that needed to be solved. Rousseau was struck by the fact that a major difference between humans and animals in the usage of reason rests in the fact that humans do not weigh up only ends that derive from their natural history, they may also deliberate on ends that they simply cook up. They often try to solve problems that they set to themselves, in search for things that – with respect to the necessities of “live and thrive” – are arbitrary and superfluous. In this regard, it is remarkable to note that the chief defense of civilization offered by Rousseau’s great opponent, Voltaire, insists on something else than utility – luxury.

Voltaire’s argument is best developed in The Worldling, a poem written in 1736 in response to a debate about the raison d’être of civilization (other words were used at that point) that raged throughout the eighteenth century, in Western Europe. The main plank of the poem was to oppose the rough simplicity of the early ages of humankind to the sybaritic lifestyle that can be enjoyed in the large cities of the “polished world”. The problem with Adam and Eve was that they could not pare their nails or comb their hair. Without cleanliness, Voltaire said, the happiest love is unhappy, being reduced to satisfying a “discreditable need”. That is how Voltaire’s French put it (“Sans propreté l’amour le plus heureux/N’est plus heureux, c’est un besoin honteux”): the English translation that was offered at the time by Tobias Smollett – these were times when people had a very different conception of what translating implies – added something here, while also removing something there: “And that your amorous affection/Had very little better in’t/Than downright animal instinct.” The “cleanliness” necessary to making love happy is gone, but what it meant to convey is a good deal still conveyed by Smollett’s reference to “animal instinct.” Cleanliness – hygiene, pomades, perfumes – raises love above mere sex, which, in itself is only an “animal” need that must be satisfied, not a pleasure that may be enjoyed. Cleanliness transforms a “downright animal instinct” into something that is distinctively human: pleasure, fantasy, abundance, variety. After this gibe, Voltaire left Adam and Eve under an oak tree where they “dorment à la dure”, or where, in the decidedly more narrated rendition of Smollett, they “were forced to lie” on the ground, “exposed to the inclement sky.” He jumped into Paris, London and Rome, driving a “gilded coach, a house in motion” which “flies” on “pliant and elastic springs” off to the bath where “his polished skin inhales perfumes sweet as the Arabian gales”, in preparation for a night of revelries at the opera house and at a late supper fixed up by this “divine mortal”, the cook.

Whatever we think reason is – and especially if we think that it is intimately connected with final utility – it is certainly present in this repudiation of life in the woods. But it is also present in life in the woods, and pointedly, it is not on utility that Voltaire bases his eulogy of “the world”, of what we call these days “the good life”. Rather, it is on uselessness, on le superflu, the superfluous. The most well known verse – or one of the two most well known verses – of The Worldling, reads: “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“needful superfluous things appear”, translates Smollett). The superfluous – the abundant, ornamental, varied, fantastic, beautiful, entertaining, overwrought – is not useful, it is necessary, it is of the order of the need, just as sex or food. But it is a human need, not an animal one.

Capture d’écran 2020-10-24 à 18.37.52

It seems to me that nothing separates us so radically from other animals, all other animals, from chimps right through to the amoeba, as this need for the superfluous, in which reason, by whatever definition we approach it, has pretty little to do. (Much of the controversy about how close the Neanderthals were to us revolves around the issue of whether the heavy-browed humans painted caves or not). And in this case, it is obvious that the superfluous was “needful” even in the “state of nature” where Voltaire imagined that there were no cooks and no fine arts. If we (inaccurately, but for the sake of the argument) suppose that the “state of nature” as it was conceived by eighteenth century European intellectuals was akin to what we know about the dawn of hominization, the hour at which the simian becomes the human, then perhaps we must not think so much of reason and property (as they did), or at least not exclusively. It is perhaps more important to look at the first signs of a taste for the superfluous. If we travel back to that very remote past and observe the simian that stands at the origin of our kind, we may not at first distinguish him from other simians, with which he seems to share the same amounts of cleverness and stupidity. We will certainly be quite startled if we notice that, while one of the beasts picks up a mango with a bare stick, the other does the same action using a stick garlanded with strips of leaves, green barks and buds, something which our ancestors must have done even before being able to fashion specialized tools.

Humans made specialized tools, which no other animal did at the time when they discovered that option. They quite possibly started by doing beautiful tools, which we wouldn’t know, given the perishable nature of most frills and fineries. Our queer decorative tendency is in any case certainly as old as our manufacturing abilities, and, in its arbitrariness, it is most defining of humanity. Great apes, monkeys, even some birds, like tools – we like nice tools. Monkeys are true Aristotelians: the virtue of the knife is that it cuts, and that’s all. For us, the knife must cut and have a nice hand too, bright or dark or many-colored, and it must also feel nice in the palm of the hand. We were always homo aestheticus, and hence our hunger for a reality that is more complicated and teeming of all kinds of things than what calculative reason and primary biological needs require. It is not just comfort that we want, but fine-looking comfort. This, of course, goes in all sorts of directions. Food must be eaten in clean dish, arranged to look appetizing (which really is to say beautiful); sex must be attended by eroticism and sentimental love. And variety is necessary since taste is the most particular of universals.

Recently – 2004 – University of Cambridge researchers ascertained that some monkeys (the capuchins in the instance) make clever regular use of tools to crack seeds open, hollow branches, dig for tubers, probe holes. But they do not seem to be able to make specialized stone tools by usefully cutting flakes, striking the core of a stone at the right angle and with the right force. We may conclude, with the usual human spirit of superiority, that they are too dumb for that. Now, it was long assumed that monkeys, living in the wild, had no constant use for tools, given the abundance or general availability of food. We realize today that they in fact do plan against scarcity of food by using tools to gather edibles. From this, it is certainly wiser to infer that they may have much less pressing need for specialized tools than us. Gathering and hoarding food in the wild indeed does not require resort to chiseled or polished stones. Making other objects, and especially making them neatly and beautifully, does require this kind of technology. It makes sense to suppose then that our need for specialized tools corresponded, at least in part, to our aesthetic sense, since a dexterous use of the technology allowed us to produce different versions of a given item which, beyond its use value, had a “taste value” so to say. The aesthetic appeal of a useful object may appear as a simple bonus of skill and knack, but without the random lust that we individually feel for a certain color, a certain shape, a certain smell, much of what we know as the human world wouldn’t have been built. It is at least apparent that the aesthetic worth of things is the primal root of the development of markets, these bewildering exhibitions of all kinds of useful and superfluous things generally arranged to look, at any rate, tasteful. And through the organization and requirements of markets arose the machineries and machinations of civilization – where we have ended perhaps because, at the beginning of it all, we had wanted a pretty stick.

Market stall at Marrakech

Like animals of certain orders therefore, we value utility and more than any of them, we can apply our mind to refine on this principle and understand the causes of things, either to become “masters and owners of nature”, as Descartes asserted, or to make our mind one with the world, as contemplative wisdom wished. But unlike any animal, we value also beauty, and with us, the principle of beauty is indefectibly tied to that of utility.

This used to be common thinking, and really something that required no lengthy demonstration. It is for instance quite telling to find, in a very old discussion of words and language that has no philosophical pretensions whatever, this banal-sounding reflection:  “…the sum of those natural goals to which we ought to attain in actual use consists of two items, that of utility and that of refinement, because we wish to be clothed not only to avoid cold but also to appear to be honorably clothed; and we wish to have a house not merely that we may be under a roof and in a safe place into which necessity has crowded us together, but also that we may be where we may continue to experience the pleasures of life; and we wish to have table-vessels that are not merely suitable to hold our food, but also beautiful in form and shaped by an artist – for one thing is enough for the human animal, and quite another thing satisfies human refinement: any cup at all is satisfactory to a man parched with thirst, but any cup is inferior to the demands of refinement unless it is artistically beautiful.” (Varro, De Lingua Latina, VIII, 31).

Kuba Cup, DRC

Here too there is an interesting translation issue: the florid Victorian rendition of 1888 by one Roland G. Kent stresses the contrast between the “human animal” and his simple – animal – needs to “human refinement” which, if we follow more closely Varro’s Latin, requires consideration for our humanity. Varro indeed had written: “quod aliud homini, aliud humanitati satis est; quodvis sitienti homini poculum idoneum, humanitati nisi bellum parum”, “one thing satisfies the individual human, and quite another humanity; a thirsty person uses whatever convenient mug, while humanity would not, if it wasn’t sufficiently beautiful.” This states it rather more straightforwardly, although we should add that by “humanity”, the Latin generally means “cultivated humanity” (hence Kent’s “human refinement”), or what we would call “civilization” – on which more in the next section.

And on this score, there is a certain similarity between the work of a contemporary of Varro, Lucretius, and the nature/civilization controversy in eighteenth century Europe. The interesting point in that respect is that, in the Book V of De Natura Rerum, Lucretius tells a story that would concur equally well with nature advocates and with the flag-bearers of civilization. This latitudinarism, of course, derives from the fact that Augustan Rome did not know a debate pitching the “noble savage” against “polished society,” but more importantly for the purposes of this study, it also derives from the fact that for Lucretius, just as for Varro, utility and beauty were inseparable principles in the shaping of humanity. Eighteenth century Western European debaters polemically underemphasized the possibility, and since their views greatly shaped how we currently understand the ways in which civilization emerged from rougher times, it is important to revisit this alternative perspective.

Lucretius’ description of the early ages of humankind has a ring of modern prehistory science to it. His first men were almost a different species from us (he calls them “another race (genus) of men”), harder than us, with bigger bones (which was indeed the case of the Neanderthals, whose skeletons might have been observed at the time), stronger stomach, greater resilience to climate and disease – and a complete lack of control over fire (control of fire was, in the opinion of Lucretius, the beginning of all material progress, and animals also lacked it). Like Voltaire and Smolett’s Adam and Eve, they were dirty and “exposed to the inclement sky” (“Et frutices inter condebant squalida membra”, “they hid their filthy bodies into coppices”) as well as to constant war with wild beasts, and so their lifestyle was not “happy” as Voltaire would say (“miseris mortalibus” said Lucretius, “the wretched mortals”).

When things start to change however, ingeniousness (utility) and beauty emerge as driving values, and soon, both are subordinated to wealth: “men who stood out for their keen intellect and had strong minds” taught others “how to exchange their previous livelihood, their former life, for something new.” These ingenious problem-solvers were therefore acting on the principle of utility, and Lucretius supposed them to be kindhearted and to want to communicate their useful discoveries to others, a not exceedingly implausible theory given what we know about the enthusiastic generosity of discoverers and inventors even today. But then: “Then kings began to build towns and found fortresses as a defense and refuge for themselves, and also to divide up and hand out herds and fields to each man”, basing their distribution on good looks, intelligence and strength. “For how someone looked was highly valued, and strength was thought an honor.” In this evolution, beauty and utility are in fact rather one and the same thing. There is nothing odd about thinking that herds and land should be given to a man because of his beauty. In an agricultural and pastoral world, good looks is a sign of good health, and therefore indicates a particular ability to hold and make the most of a grant which is as valuable, in its own way, as strength.

On Lucretius’ account, the values upon which livelihood is based change again however with the advent of wealth: “After that, wealth is introduced, and gold discovered, which quickly robbed the strong and beautiful of their esteem. For people, no matter how strong they grow or how fine their bodies are to look at, mostly follow the lead of those who have more wealth.” Strength and beauty are values onto themselves, in the sense that we immediately recognize what they are good for – while wealth is the value of values, since its sole worth is to enable its possessor to collect valuables, to use and taste them freely. Wealth became possible when humans found a mean to assign a standard value to all values, thanks to the properties of gold. This is a textbook explanation of the success of currency, but it gains a new shine, so to speak, in this exposition from a Roman poet.  

In Lucretius’ story, humans found gold, together with other metals, when they noticed the effect of great fires searing the earth and revealing the terrific spectacle of gold and silver, copper and lead, gathered in hollow places in the ground, “solidified, shining in the ground with marvelous lustre” and a “smooth, brilliant color.” Attracted by the shine – again, as no other animal would have been (pace the magpie) – they gathered the things up and ended up assessing their practical properties. They made nice and efficient tools out of the more convenient metals. But then of course, it is the least useful, the most superfluous, which came off on top when everything fell into place for civilized life: gold became the basis of wealth. “At that time”, ponders Lucretius, “they valued copper more and neglected gold – its dull blunt edges made it useless. Now copper is ignored, and gold has climbed the pinnacle of honor.” Gold may have been less useful for making tools and humble objects, but its metallurgic properties – great resistance to corrosive agents, malleability of those “dull blunt edges”, non imitability – made it ideal as a widespread transmitter of material value in some systems of exchange that started to develop between humans in early history (Lucretius’ conceptions on the beginnings of human history were of course not scientific in the modern sense of the word, and current evidence suggests the use of gold as currency was only a few centuries old at the time he was writing – which, however, does no damage to the perspicacity of his considerations).    

A fiery defender of the gold standard

    Strength and beauty, it seems, are forces that are relevant beyond the world assembled by humans. In many animal orders, they are decisive in giving temporary power to dominant males – although, while strength is an obvious factor, beauty is probably not here the adequate concept. The gaudy ways current among certain animal species are not about fun and aesthetic sense, but about useful tricks to lure mates or distract predators. There are troubling exceptions. Male bowerbirds carefully build beautiful nest-like structures, choosing with clear aesthetic intention natural trinkets (shells, stones, feathers, even discarded manufactured items such as coins, etc.) to create a certain specific, unique, visual effect. For instance, one bowerbird built a bower with a certain material that was favorable to the growth of mushrooms. Mushrooms sprouted and ruined the effect the bird wanted, and so it one by one plucked them out of the scenery, before standing proudly in front of its oeuvre, waiting for the female bird to come, watch, enjoy. The female bird came and visited the place as it did other, very different, bowers. It preferred the artwork of a rival.

Hard at work

The aesthetic aptitudes of bowerbirds are, however, limited to their mating strategy, and the amount of individual penchant in the conception of their constructions – as opposed to color and material choices dictated by the general urges of the subspecies – is very thin. A sense of the beautiful strikes me as necessarily tied to a sense of the arbitrary – as the Latin says when it tells us not to dispute on taste and colors – which is absent or quite limited here. The bowers are displays rather than art, in a way similar to the impressive looks of some animals – generally male. The male peacock has a natural display attached to its body, a display emphatically of sexual potency, on par with the koteka penis sheath worn in Papua’s Baliem Valley for instance, or with the bulging codpiece worn by European gentlemen in the fifteen hundreds (but of course, with the humans, the display itself is quite arbitrary, and very often shaped and decorated in many different ways, with faddish variations unknown to a peacock’s feathers). A display catches the eye, so there is that, at least, in the animal world – and that counts, in the same way perhaps as strength does. With wealth, however, we enter in a purely human world, with no possible analogy with what other animals do, despite folk wisdom about the bee and its golden accumulations.

Not more eccentric than this

Sciences special to the human world have thus been devised to understand the creation of wealth, and great thinkers have striven to explain its origins, or the origins of the conditions which give rise to it. Here, however, what interest me are the relations of wealth with the development and some of the results of our eccentricity – relative to the rest of the animal world. Not so much therefore the mechanisms of wealth, its utilities and unfairness, and other such very important matters, but the fact that it is a symptom of why we necessarily build, away from the offerings of nature, our own intricate world – why we stop orbiting around the warmth and dull cruelties of nature to speed off on a trajectory of our own, in the gloom and wonders crafted by our humanity.

Wealth is in essence artificial plenty: not just plenty artificially produced, but also plenty of artificial productions. It powerfully signals the distance we put between nature’s original conditions and ourselves. For much of human history, and in fact today in much of the world, it is concentrated in small spots on the surface of society – and in that sense, wealth is not an important fact for humanity as a whole. Most of us are born poor, and will die poor, wealth being only an object of envy and dream, the threat of a variety of oppressions (including those needed to generate artificial plenty), sometimes the source of assistance and succor. But it is also a cap over an edifice, the bright sign that a large portion of earth has been transformed, turned into something humans want, or in any case, something which, however undesirable in many of its aspects, resulted from the desires of humans. Their labor, obviously, but more deeply still, the unanimous reasons – longing for utility and beauty – for which they embrace labor.

So to sum up: philosophers – at any rate those who inherited the logocentric tradition we owe to ancient Greece – are right, in the end, that our rationality separates us from other animals. If not the nature of it – as Descartes thought, who took the extremist view of considering other animals as machines in the flesh – at least the degree and complexity of it. But what we do have that no other animals could be suspected of having is not of the order of reason, and is rather more of the order of folly. That is: taste, arbitrary feeling, the need for beauty. This was recognized as the basis and end of society not only in Voltaire’s provocative rhymes, but also – in their different ways – by most of the European thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who thought through the birth of modern culture: Bernard de Mandeville, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, and many others. In that constellation, positions may diverge in some essential ways. The extremes were perhaps Mandeville and Marx. Mandeville divided our human eccentricity into “vices” and “virtues” (in accordance with the mixed Christian and Greco-Roman traditions that educated European literati in his times) and claimed that the former – self-indulgent to the point of self-destruction, indifferent of others – are the stuff that wise rulers should use to improve the wealth and prosperity of a country; while Marx saw in the free activity of that selfsame human eccentricity the triumph of communism at the end of History, after all the revolutions have spread wealth over the entire surface of society (Mandeville had asserted – and this was quoted by Marx – that “the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor”). The common basis though remains that both Mandeville and Marx recognized that the human being is a queer animal – either viciously so, or in a radically good way, but queer. Taking this point with us, how do we relate it to the ways in which we organize our common lives, in human societies? Or to put it more tersely: what is the organizing political value of the eccentricity of humans? The following section essentially will grapple with that question, but starts first with a sorting out of the language. Given the importance of the question for the large historical essay that makes up the substance of this work, a philological effort of some kind – at least of a kind to dispel confusions here, more so than to establish linguistic truths – is needed.

Rahmane Idrissa

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