Yes, Cicero again! This time I thought I’d share his reasoning for why humans are different than other beast from De Officiis I.IV-V.. Read and tell me your thoughts:
…Nature has endowed every species of living creature with the instinct of self-preservation, of avoiding what seems likely to cause injury to life or limb, and of procuring and providing everything needful for life — food, shelter, and the like. A common property of all creatures is also the reproductive instinct (the purpose of which is the propagation of the species) and also a certain amount of concern for their offspring. But the most marked difference between man and beast is this: the beast, just as far as it is moved by the senses and with very little perception of past or future, adapts itself to that alone which is present at the moment; while man — because he is endowed with reason, by which he comprehends the chain of consequences, perceives the causes of things, understands the relation of cause to effect and of effect to cause, draws analogies, and connects and associates the present and the future — easily surveys the course of his whole life and makes the necessary preparations for its conduct strangely tender love for his offspring. She also prompts men to meet in companies, to form public assemblies and to take part in them themselves; and she further dictates, as a consequence of this, the effort on man’s part to provide a store of things that minister to his comforts and wants — and not for himself alone, but for his wife and children and the others whom he holds dear and for whom he ought to provide; and this responsibility also stimulates his courage and makes it stronger for the active duties of life. Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man. And so, when we have leisure from the demands of business cares, we are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem a desire to know the secrets or wonders of creation as indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a man’s nature. To this passion for discovering truth there is added a hungering, as it were, for independence, so that a mind well-moulded by Nature is unwilling to be subject to anybody save one who gives rules of conduct or is a teacher of truth or who, for the general good, rules according to justice and law. From this attitude come greatness-of-soul and a sense of superiority to worldly conditions.
And it is no mean manifestation of Nature and Reason that man is the only animal that has a feeling for order, for propriety, for moderation in word and deed. And so no other animal has a sense of beauty, loveliness, harmony in the visible world; and Nature and Reason, extending the analogy of this from the world of sense to the world of spirit, find that beauty, consistency, order are far more to be maintained in thought and deed, and the same Nature and Reason are careful to do nothing in an improper or unmanly fashion, and in every thought and deed to do or think nothing capriciously. It is from these elements that is forged and fashioned that moral goodness which is the subject of this inquiry — something that, even though it be not generally ennobled, is still worthy of all honour;and by its own nature, we correctly maintain, it merits praise even though it be praised by none.
According to Cicero these are the things that make humans superior to the animals: (1) humans are endowed by reason (not merely instinct); (2) we have foresight; (3) we understand causation; (4) we can think about life as a whole and connect various things through thought; (5) we gather/assemble; (6) we govern; (7) we store for the future; (8) we search for the truth and we want to know new things; (9) we can control and moderate ourselves.
What do you think of Cicero’s lists of differences? What do you think makes humans different from animals?
I love Cicero. Dearly.
I think you highlighted the best parts for comparison.
Your list – according to Cicero these are the things that make humans superior to the animals:
(1) humans are endowed by reason (not merely instinct)
True, but misleading. Evolutionarily – we’re rationalized infants. Our slender bands of human reason sit atop deep primordial seas of instincts – shared with animals – which ever contrive against our better reasons. Economist Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize winner) got reason right – the so-called coherence and rationality of our reason is itself incoherent until the purposes (goals) of our reasoning are first specified – and we often (not always: often) are irrational in our purposes. Studies of religious reasoning reveal immiscible masses of incoherence, incongruity, contradiction. Politics too (no little concern of Cicero). It’s profoundly amazing that our most universalized rational language – mathematics – works at all to describe the natural world.
(2) we have foresight
True, but misleading (see all above). See an economist like Dan Ariely on predictably irrationality. Our common sense (like our perception – biologically hard-wired) can be a bag of dirty tricks when it comes to predictive foresight. And when we do attain clear and cool foresight, then much of the hard data that we have to work with is like the data about our current economic meltdown – like trying to have foresight by finding correlations in a burning building. For a prose narrative study of religious foresight, see Martin Marty, “The Irony of It All,” and how religious foresight is not (what it’s cracked up to be)– or how unforseen future events turn our best forecasting into ironies that come back and bite us. We’re not really sure yet how fore-sightful other animals are. Cicero erred in what he denied.
(3) we understand causation
We understand correlation. Sorta. Causation, a little. But we don’t understand causation very well in turbulent systems. And turbulent systems can include our own emotions. Causation is reversed – effect comes before cause – at the quantum level. Fenyman said nobody really understands that. It’s true that ordinary people sitting on ordinary juries can understand stuff like proximate cause. With proper instruction. Many of our assumptions about causation are otherwise wrong. This is tricky.
(4) we can think about life as a whole and connect various things through thought
Nonsense. We think we can do this. We assume. We have emotional pictures of the big picture. So long as we admit that we’re playing around, we’re safe. Like scientists recently admitting that the universe is not holographic (“a whole”). If you look at Leon Festinger’s ancient book, “When Prophecy Fails,” you’ll see that people cling to their “whole” worldviews against every fact to the contrary. Thinking as – “a whole” – is not always a virtue. Connecting “things through thought” usually means mere correlated understandings. Randians, libertarians, Calvinists, Arminians – all use correlated understandings. Many (not all) of them will swear that their thought systems are true and logical and well connected.
(5) we gather/assemble
We’re social. We start with parents. Like other mammals. The biological equations for reciprocal altruism set us on common ground with other mammals. Not separate from them. After a very long period of maturation, we’re free to roam in our adult lives select extended families of like-mindeds. Cicero did not know what we know. He would amend his thinking accordingly. Cicero is still at his strongest in his social senses. Love him for that.
(6) we govern
“We”? How many of us? Again, alpha males and females in certain societies of animals govern too. In ways. We’re nowhere – nowhere – as sophisticated in our social governing as are ants. Or bees.
(7) we store for the future
Mixed bag. Sometimes. Other mammals do this too. Under what prompts and primes? – the current status of savings in banks accounts looks more depleted now than at any time in history. Looks to me like people are living for the present. And this isn’t all that new. What primes are necessary here? – what about God prompting/priming Joseph to store up against a future drought? – what prompts are necessary? – is this behavior really automatic for us? – is it a stable trait? Are we better or worse at this than squirrels burying acorns?
(8) we search for the truth and we want to know new things
Sorta. We spend as much time defending dogma against new facts as we spend embracing them. We’re often gathering new facts in the form of cherry picking facts to confirm our bias. Data mining. See all the above.
(9) we can control and moderate ourselves.
All animals with autonomic nervous systems do this. Control is always a matter of interacting with a given ecology. We go to war over ecological spaces. If war and killing others is control. Or moderate.
Good post, Brian.
I didn’t know Cicero had articulated these distinctions so well and so long ago. Makes me feel that the hours I’ve spent trying to compile similar lists were like re-inventing the wheel.
Jim: While it is apparent that you disagree with the black and white distinctions Cicero makes between humans and animals would you acknowledge that the degree in which these traits manifest themselves may be one way of discussing the distinct aspect of humanity?
John: As the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” 🙂
Brian, yes! And you did a great job. All the right questions. Thanks for not come-backing with, “biology does not trump theology/philosophy!” I regretted my post a little. After I posted it. For that tone. My biophiliac narcissism. Thanks for the kind come-back. Yes, I do agree with different degrees of manifestation. And I do suspect (cannot prove) that Cicero would amend. Slightly. He loved maternal love too much to refuse the new alliances of ethology and evolutionary psychology which would support and applaud him. The problem is that these sub-sciences of biology are still in their adolescence. It’s extremely fair and healthy to – in love – extrapolate from love – for love’s sake – to imagine and explore what human love (then to Christ) looks like in its extreme differences. Yes! But then back to earth again. And to current and everyday realities. Which aren’t always pretty. Our animal-like – failures of love. ~ Jim
Jim: I assume Cicero would adapt as well, though you may be right that certain commitments would have kept him in support of various ideals. He seems to have been one of the greater thinkers of his time and I presume he would be of ours. As far as the theology side of things is concerned, I don’t think Christian theology says that humans are vastly different than animals. One of the more interesting aspects of the Hebrew creation narrative is when Adam is shown all the animals and then God decides to make him a woman. It is as if God sees man as near the animals, yet just different enough not to be one with them. Humans seem to be the part of creation that bridges creation to God (Paul says this in Rom. 1. 18-25). We may call humans the “kingly animals”!
So if biology shows us similarities between humans and other species, I welcome it. No worries about your tone, I didn’t take it personal (Cicero may though!).
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