Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Of the Beasts and Man

This is a mourning dove sitting on a nest, right over my parent's patio. This normally shy little bird guards its nest against predators, and would not budge, even though I (imprudently) came very close to it. This bird shows great courage in defending its eggs, even though it was obviously fearful.

Some may object that this is an anthropomorphism, falsely ascribing human characteristics to an animal, but I think that is overly critical. I can see fear in the bird's eyes; perhaps only a professor of semiotics cannot.

The western religious tradition—including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—recognizes a tightly-packed hierarchy of creatures, with each creature sharing characteristics with those adjacent to it, except for what is most noble: for example, apes share much with humans except for higher intellect. Birds are further from humans than are apes, but they also share attributes with us, including fear and courage.

Some may say this is only instinct, but isn't instinct a part of what we call natural law? So much of modern education, which first denied the divine law, now attempts to divorce us from this natural law.

The western tradition often uses the examples of animals to teach moral and religious lessons. This goes back to the remotest of antiquity, of which Aesop's Fables are a late example, but it was also popular in the Medieval Bestiaries. These books did contain some scientific information, but were more important for their allegory and symbolism. It must be said that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux objected to the fantastic beasts that appeared in these stories, and he has a point; the common animals are perhaps better subjects for teaching wisdom.

This use of animal allegory has scriptural support:
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee.
Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee: and the fishes of the sea shall tell.
Who is ignorant that the hand of the Lord hath made all these things?
In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the spirit of all flesh of man.
—Job 12:7-10

If the ancients tended to ascribe too-human of attributes to the beasts, the moderns tend to reduce humans to a "mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water," according to C. S. Lewis. There is now a modern bestiary, which reduces man to the level of the animals: we are told that we should emulate the predatory wolves, or the promiscuous bonobos.

But consider the little bird, defending its nest.

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