God Has Given Them Joy
Photo by Jim Brandenburg
The well-known farewell speech of Father Zossima in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov includes a passage in which the saint says "Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent."
Although most of Zossima's speech seemed to me full of deep spiritual wisdom, this passage always gave me pause. I certainly agreed that we should not abuse animals, but even in nature, there is endless violence and pain in the animal world. In addition, vast human crimes against them seem to make for an ocean of darkness and anguish in which our precious animal kin were drowning. How could the wise Zossima have said that God has given them the rudiments of joy untroubled?
One cannot deny or minimize the suffering that results from predation, parasitism, exposure, and unfulfilled need among animals (and in fact this suffering in nature presents an extremely grave problem for theodicy). But it is a serious error to see violence and suffering as virtually the whole picture. I was unaware of the extent to which my view of the situation was informed by the effects of the Darwinian focus on natural selection as the central principle of evolution (together with other influences such as the theology of the Fall). "Nature is red in tooth and claw," goes the saying, which seems only too obvious. "Life feeds on life." Together with this outlook usually goes the conviction that "one can't fight it."
It is the "one can't fight it" stance which feeds and justifies human violence against animals. Spokespersons for animal agribusiness, responding to activists' charges of cruelty against animals, point out that their charges are fed and housed against cold weather and predators, security that they cannot expect in nature; "They get their next meal, which is all they care about," is a typical defense. If the situation of animals in nature is nothing but deprivation, violence and misery, human treatment of them in factory farms is merely a carrying on of the inevitable, or even an improvement over nature, and one can hardly find fault.
There are at least two problems here. One is a disturbing parallel to some of the early defenses of human slavery offered in reply to the charges of abolitionists. The plight of these people in darkest Africa, it was said, is even worse than their situation here: oppression, witchcraft terrors, rampant wars, horrors unimaginable. While there may be unpleasantness in their lot here, they have assurance of food and housing (and the immeasurable privilege of being exposed to Christianity). As to the obvious pains of servitude, the lash, and family separations brought about by the slave trade, with some inconsistency it was claimed that "the negro" was an animal-like creature who would go amok without the control of his betters. Furthermore, he lacked the sensitive feelings of white people; with a plate of food, and a holiday bottle of liquor, he would soon forget his troubles. (See Marjorie Spiegel, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery) Obviously, the choices to see violence as the heart of animal life, and animals as having only the most primitive feelings, are equally suspect.
The central problem in the "one can't fight it" outlook is that the life of animals in the wild is no more an unrelieved nightmare than was that of Africans in their own countries. Animals do have joys. Wise observers such as Father Zossima and the narrator of "The Windhover" (see the poetry section) have long known this. In The Pleasurable Kingdom (reviewed below), ethologist Jonathan Balcombe presents and supports this truth, describing many pleasures that animals enjoy, including food, companionship, attachment, touch, and the gratification of doing something one is good at. It becomes abundantly clear that by enslaving, tormenting and killing our animal kin, factory farmers and their millions of beneficiaries have indeed, in Dostoevsky's terms, deprived animals of their happiness, and worked against God's intent. But those who treat animals with respect and kindness, and encourage others to do the same, are, to whatever small degree, furthering the realization of that intent in the Peaceable Kingdom.
Gracia Fay Ellwood
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