Dec 27 2011
Animals or Brutes?
As I have been reading a number of anatomy texts from the seventeenth century, I have been struck by the ambiguity of the term “animal.” Now, these texts are all in Latin (a few were translated into the vernacular, in this case French, but not many). There is a clear distinction drawn between “animal” (the same in French), “homo” (or “homme”) and “brutus” (or “brute”). The Swiss anatomist and naturalist Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624) asserted in the dedication to his Theatrum anatomicum (1605) that man was “animal admirandum” and the proper subject for natural philosophy, much as Shakespeare at about the same time referred in Hamlet to man as “the paragon of Animals.” The language of the Theatrum anatomicum displays frequent slippage from “human” to “animal,” repeating the phrase “as it is in other animals” (quam fit in aliis animalibus), where “animal” encompasses both animal and human. Like other anatomists, he referred to animals alone as “brutes.” His contemporary, the French anatomist André du Laurens (1558-1609), waxed eloquent in his Historia anatomica humani corporis (1593) about the wonderfulness of humans: “Quam mirabilis sit humani corporis dignitas & structura,” “what a miracle is the dignity and structure of the human body,” he said. Only humans have hands, that most important of organs; and they have intelligence and souls. Among the major structural differences he noted, though, apart from walking upright, were the number and position of the breasts and the existence of pubic hair. I have to say I never thought of these as our major distinction from the beasts. Although du Laurens is more careful than most to demarcate clearly the human from the animal, he too cannot help but refer to humans as “first among animals,” not as totally distinct from them. This lack of demarcation continued throughout the seventeenth century. Seventy years after Bauhin, the anatomist Guillaume Lamy (1644-1683) likewise referred to “l’homme ou les autres animaux” as interchangeable, and this assumption provided the basis of much of the interrogation into the nature of life in the seventeenth century.
The Latin word “animal” derived from the word “anima” which originally meant simply air or breath – and thus signified life – but later took on additional meaning. “Anima” could refer to the principle of life, or what distinguished life from death. As well as the physical breath it came also to mean the ineffable soul. It seems peculiar to our Cartesian-attuned ears that the word for “animal” should have “soul” at its base since the basis of Cartesian dualism was that animals did not have souls, in the sense that they could not know God.
The term “animal” in antiquity referred to all living things, including plants, since they too were thought to somehow possess the breath of life. But it also referred specifically to what we would now call non-human animals. Indeed Cicero used “animal” as an insult much as we might today. “Brutus,” on the other hand, was an adjective in antiquity, not a noun as it later became. Animals could be “bruti” – heavy, thick, dull – but so could humans. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “animal” in Old English and in Old French specifically excluded humans. The 1694 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, however, gave every possible meaning to the term. As an adjective, it denoted the “sensitive soul.” As a noun in Holy Scripture, it implied the sensual over the spiritual body. But it also could simply mean a living body “which has sense and motion” (“du sentiment et du mouvement”). Ordinarily, the dictionary entry went on, “animal” referred to a four-footed terrestrial animal, but it could refer to others kinds as well. This would presumably include humans, who were also animated bodies with sense and motion. But the final definition returned to Cicero’s insult. An animal was “une personne stupide & sans esprit.” Only at the end of the eighteenth century, however, do we find “animal” equated with “bête” or “brute.”
Because anatomists continued to use animals as human surrogates, this ambiguity of definition was certainly in their interests. But I am fascinated by the ways in which language and practice in this case coincide.