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Porphyry’s Partridge: Animal Speech in De Abstinentia Book Three

Richard Hutchins

Princeton University

The capacities of nonhuman animals were much debated in the philosophical schools of Late Antiquity (Sorabji 62, 82-5, 192-4). This paper explores Porphyry’s claim in De abstinentia, Book Three, that all animals, insofar as they have soul, perception, and memory, participate to some extent in logos (Abst. 3.1 and 3.26.1; cf. Haussleiter, 332-3; Preus, 153-7). This claim about animal logos culminates in a story Porphyry tells about how, when he lived in Carthage, a partridge flew to his window, whom he raised to speak with him. This partridge, Porphyry says, began to fawn on and care for him, and communicated with him, “in a way different than partridges customarily address each other (Abst.3.4.7).”

For Porphyry, animal logos is continuous with human logos, and, “in many [animals] it has the groundwork for being perfected (ὑποβολὰς ἔχων πρὸς τὸ τέλειον, Abst. 3.2.4).” As the partridge encounter is meant to show, animals can learn to improve their species-specific (εἴτε βαρβάρως εἰτε ἑλληνικῶς εἴτε κυνικῶς ἢ βοϊκῶς, Abst. 3.3.3.) innate logos. While less determinate than human logos—Porphyry uses phone and pthegma to describe animal speech—“animals capable of voice participate in logos (λόγου γε ὄντος μέτοχα τὰ ζῴα τὰ φωνητικά, Abst. 3.3.3).” Porphyry focuses on “expressive logos” in animals (prophorikos logos, Abst. 3.3.2), which he defines as voice meaningfully expressing things undergone in the animal’s soul (φωνὴ… σημαντικὴ τῶν ἔνδον καὶ κατὰ ψυχὴν παθῶν, Abst. 3.3.2).

“And if we don’t understand them, so what?”, Porphyry says. To bring home his species-relative view of animal speech, Porphyry reverses Homer’s simile of Trojan speech as like the shouting of cranes ( Il. 3.2-6), suggesting that, just as was once thought about the Trojans, crane speech might participate more in logos than we customarily think. After relating several interspecies encounters, Porphyry suggests that if we cannot understand the logos of other animals, we should wonder whether it is not rather our own failing (Cf. Haussleiter, 230-1).

Porphyry and the partridge discover new capacities for logos in each other. For instance, Porphyry describes his own speech as, not superior, but the mirror image of the partridge’s, which he mirrors in the Greek: the partridge was “speaking in response (ἀντιφθεγγομένου) to my speech (φθέγμα),” and it, “did not speak when I was silent; it only responded when I spoke (φθεγξαμένου ἀντεφθέγξατο). The knotted language shows Porphyry and the partridge bound in regard and respect and—to use Haraway’s term—in “becoming with.” But the partridge does not completely escape Roman stereotypes. It is framed as Porphyry’s pet, and Porphyry, to borrow from John Berger, “has become the-special-man-he-is-only-to-his-pet” (“Why Look at Animals?” 15). But both Porphyry and the partridge are also dependent rational animals: bound in dependence on the common Neoplatonic logos, each a part of it communicating with itself.

At stake for Porphyry in this encounter is the question of whether animals are moral patients, i.e. beings worthy of receiving moral treatment, or even moral agents, beings capable of being held accountable for their actions (cf. Dombrowski, 552-3). Contrary to the Peripatetics and Stoics (esp. Pol. I.2; cf. Osborne, 228; Bouffartigue et al., 127), Porphyry uses the encounter with the partridge to show that there are animals already living in the human community (here, Carthage) who should be included in the justice of the community because they too are rational beings, with whom we may even have a conversation.

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Animal Encounters in Classical Philosophy and Literature

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