HUMAN AND ANIMAL IN ANCIENT GREECE: Empathy and Encounter in Classical Literature

Tua Korhonen and Erika Ruonakoski

I.B. Tauris (2017) h/b 262pp £62 (ISBN 9781784537616)

This is a collaboration between a classicist (K.) and a philosopher (R.), exploring how animals are presented in Greek literature. They are interested in the differences, if any, between ‘them and us’, and in particular whether the Greeks revealed themselves as capable of empathy with animals, as we might understand it.

At first sight, the answer may seem to be ‘probably not’. Animal appearances in Greek literature are relatively few, and almost always shown in relation to humans (as helpers, servants, enemies or comparisons). This has led to a common belief that the Greek view of animals was purely anthropocentric. Moreover, as the authors point out early on, the (late) Greek word empatheia means simply ‘affection’ or ‘emotion’, without the connotation we have added of ‘ability to get inside the other’s skin’. It is hard to imagine a Greek writing ‘Tarka the Otter’ or ‘Watership Down’.

However, the authors argue that the full picture is subtler than that, and that there is a range of animal portrayals including some which are plainly empathetic in our terms, even in the few examples we have. Their presentation is in four parts. Part 1, written by R., explores the phenomenological approach to the problem: how do we, as embodied observers, recognise animal behaviour and interpret it in terms of the animal’s emotions (with limitations, because we can never stop being human), and how such interpretation may be affected if, instead of real-life observation, we are reading about it or hearing it read.

Parts 2 and 3 (by K.) survey the various ways animals are presented in classical Greek literature (Part 2) and what we know from all the sources about how Greeks experienced and thought about animals (Part 3). Finally, in Part 4 (both authors) there is a detailed analysis of four case studies: the animal similes in the Iliad, Philoctetes’ apostrophising of the wild animals in Lemnos (when he thinks he has been abandoned and at their mercy), Aristophanes’ Birds (using the ‘birds’ to mock the humans), and the animal epigraphs of the c. 300 BC poetess Anyte.

This last may be least familiar to many readers, and perhaps the most interesting. She apparently wrote in several styles and was well regarded, and from the few bits that survive one wishes we had more of her, for she appears to be a poet of some depth. Especially striking is the little poem about the beached and dying dolphin, remembering how happy he was playing around a boat in the sea; this appears to be the only example (apart from Achilles’ divine horse) where an animal is the speaker, with no human intervention. R. uses another Anyte poem (about children with a goat) to illustrate her discussion of phenomenological perception in part 1.

Do the authors make their case? Yes, I think they do. Though Greeks were practical about animals, which were largely there to be used, they were seldom negative about them and were capable of describing their existence as ‘parallel to human existence, equally vulnerable to violence and twists of fate.’ In short, they don not seem to have been very different from us in their attitudes to animals, and no less complex, as far as we can tell.

The authors, as they say in their introduction, have aimed their book at a wide audience; not merely classicists, but also philosophers and anyone interested in empathy or human-animal relationships. It is quite a difficult read at times. This is not, I think, the authors’ fault: the range is so wide, and the subject matter (especially the philosophical explanations) so slippery that presenting a clear line becomes impossible in places, and they are driven down all sorts of diversions. And they are thorough: the notes and references are voluminous. The pleasure of the book is in the examples discussed, not merely the four case histories but the others glanced at, including old favourites (Aesop, Argus the old dog, Polyphemus and his ram) and others less well known. It is a book which repays a second read, when one can skip more quickly through the denser arguments and let the examples lead one gently to the (necessarily somewhat vague) conclusion.

 Colin McDonald

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