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Animal Difference: Re-conceptualizing physis in Aelian

Contemporary trends in Critical Animal Studies have moved beyond the anthropocentric “the animal is useful to think with” to an animal-centered approach, respect for animal difference, and a search for animal perspectives (e.g. Harel 2009; Calarco 2015, Griffin 2001). Did Imperial animal-centered texts recognize and appreciate animal difference?

Any championing of animals in the ancient world must contend with the Stoic logos/physis binary: humans have speech and rationality; animals do not, a distinction debasing animals. Of the Imperial authors of animal-focused texts, some (Porphyry, Plutarch) rest their defense of animals on the contention that they do possess logos. Another approach is to complicate the concept of logos by demonstrating the efficacy of non-verbal communication, and a third is to complicate the concept of physis.

My focus will be on Aelian’s reconceptualization of physis in the De Natura Animalium.

Through a tightly controlled narrative technique that describes minutely how animals accomplish their daily tasks, Aelian demonstrates how animals function differently (and better) without logos, a challenge to the status quo.

Steven Smith grapples with the apparent contradiction that Aelian constantly refers to animals as aloga and yet “imputes to animals numerous human virtues” (102); Aelian departs from doctrinaire Stoicism in seemingly attributing rational thought to animals (118). But what if we accept Aelian’s relentless revisionist claims that animals operate differently, that they are the more amazing because they accomplish this all without logos (e.g. NA 1.37, 1.37, 6.59; 11.31)?

Aelian insists from the start that animals are aloga and that their accomplishments are all the more amazing because they lack the unfair advantage that humans possess (advantages intriguingly called δῶρα φύσεως):

τὸ δὲ καὶ τοῖς ἀλόγοις μετεῖναί τινος ἀρετῆς κατὰ φύσιν. . . τοῦτο ἤδη μέγα. (Prologue)

Actions traditionally viewed as logos-driven are in fact a product of physis (e.g. math, 4.53).

But, apart from such direct statements, Aelian’s technique of close narration is itself a demonstration that the alogon animal has varieties of intelligence and modes of survival all its own, separate from humans, attributable to physis (cf. Finkelpearl 2015, with Nussbaum 2001). At NA 2.25 the ants’ technique of boring a small hole in the grains carried off from the threshing floor to preserve them demonstrates a kind of intent, without attributing the device to intelligence; rather it is a δῶρα φύσεως. The rich description uses slight anthropomorphism to give agency to the ants while demonstrating what the operation of physis would look like.

Similarly, at 6.23, physis has given scorpions a trick or device, a sophisma, but what Aelian describes is not a mental process, but a set of actions, specific to the scorpion τοῖσδε ἴδια.

In the Epilogue, Aelian explicitly and proudly separates himself from ambitious elites striving after influence and wealth. Smith invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “becoming minor” to describe Aelian’s rejection of the path to ambition, and their “becoming animal” to describe his identification with the beasts (7). Challenging the primacy of logos to the disadvantage of humans is integral to this counter-cultural project.