The Monster You Know

Stirrup vase with image of an octopus, Rhodes, ca 1200-1100 BC (Currently in the Louvre).

If something is large, and from the darker corners of the deepest oceans, people tend to call it a sea monster, or, if it is vaguely tubular in shape, a sea serpent. It is a powerful and not entirely rational response to the strangeness, and yet also the familiar nature of marine life. In the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as in the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, there were three conceptual categories of sea creature, chimerical sea monsters, strange sea monsters, and familiar animals. Most interesting, however, is how strange, borderline sea monsters intersected with the familiar in a way that had definite consequences for how marine biology was explored and recorded. The ancient Greeks and Romans generally excluded marine invertebrates from their list of sea monsters because of their familiarity with them. However, the very category of sea monster could itself become something familiar. Historically, the feeling that sea monsters were prevalent off of their shores caused the people of many Scandinavian nations to see them less and less as something truly monstrous, and more as objects of national pride.

There were two kinds of sea monster in the ancient world. The first kind was described when strange creatures were discovered to have washed ashore. The earliest written records of these kinds of encounters come from the Greeks and Romans, most noticeably in the writings of Pliny the Elder (23 to 79), but also in the writings of Aristotle. Pliny attests that: “During the rule of Tiberius, in an island off the coast of the province of Lyons the receding ocean tide left more than 300 monsters at the same time, of marvelous variety and size, and an equal number on the coast of Saintes”. Furthermore, “Turranius has stated that a monster was cast ashore on the coast at Cadiz that had 24 feet of tail-end between its two fins, and also 120 teeth”. While Pliny is known to have accepted second and third hand accounts in his study of the natural world, there is some consistency in the manner in which most of the creatures he described were discovered. Those that bear some resemblance to the living but strange things we recognize today all washed ashore. The second kind, whose stories lack this costal caveat, tend to be of a composite nature (Mermaids, Tritons, Nereids, the hippocampus and their ilk).

Cephalopods, in particular octopi and squid generally transcended both of these distinctions though, since they were so familiar to those living around the Mediterranean. Though a partial exception to this is an anecdote that is generally seen as featuring a giant squid. One was found stealing salted fish out of the fish ponds in Carteia on the Atlantic coast of Spain. According to Pliny the guards that came to protect the fish stores were held at bay for some time, as the creature used its tentacles as clubs before being dispatched. While the behavior is hard to account for, the physical description as well as the creature being designated as a polyp, rather than merely as a monster, would seem to indicate that it possessed a cephalopodan nature of immense proportions. They were “astounded by its strangeness: in the first place its size was unheard of and so was its color as well […] who would have expected to find a polyp there, or who would recognize it in such circumstances? They felt they were pitted against something uncanny”. Thus even in this case, the story of the sea monster is almost of something familiar, strange only in virtue of its size and colour.

Unlike later interpreters, the ancient Greeks did not possess a strong aversion to cephalopods, and indeed even considered them a delicacy. As C. P. Idyll noted in Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It: “The ancients of the Mediterranean region considered cephalopods choice morsels. […] Pliny tells us that the gourmands of Rome ate every variety of octopus known in the Mediterranean”. Also, some of the earliest know depictions of cephalopods on pottery and other crafts emerge from this region. Thus, the appearance of a giant squid or other similar cephalopod would not have been as difficult for the ancients to comprehend, and such creatures fit easily into the taxonomic classifications of that time. This ancient familiarity with large aquatic invertebrates was what allowed Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC) to characterize the giant squid teuthos along with its smaller brethren teuthis without defaulting to assigning it a monstrous status, unlike other cultural groups. It was this same familiarity that allowed Pliny to characterize the creature in Carteia as a polyp, rather than a monster. As the lessons of the ancient world show, we are really always talking about a continuum of strange, but familiar creatures, oddities that wash ashore and fantastical chimeras when attempting to understand the nature of sea monsters. For this continuum to appear in such a definite form in western literature after this time, we must next look to the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, and the writings of the Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus (1490 to 1557).

The Malstrum, in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina

Magnus’s Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, Vandals and Other Northern Nations records the existence of sea monsters. In it he describes creatures which have “horrible [forms], their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes”. It is now generally considered that the creature Magnus is describing was a giant squid, and that the “horns” were a complete misunderstanding of where the creature’s head was supposed to be. Richard Ellis points out that this can be a problem even for modern day observers: “Architeuthis is assembled of a strange collection of parts that bespeak an alien creature rather than one we are used to”. There is no ready frame of reference for some of the creatures of the deep, no common ground telling us what is front to back, or what is head from tail.

Interestingly, the quality of familiarity that we saw in the ancient world takes on a different aspect in Scandinavia, appearing not largely in the form of the culinary arts, but as a defining aspect of national and regional identity. Magnus’ account appears in a history of the northern nations, and he would not be alone in paring this history with a rich collection of benthic monstrosities. Bishop Erik Pontoppidan of Bergen, Norway (1698 to 1764), Magnus’ intellectual descendent in matters relating to sea monsters, was also a part of this tradition.

Despite Pontoppidan’s use of first hand accounts in his Natural History of Norway, he was largely recognized through most of the 20th century as an unreliable source for natural historians because of his seemingly fanciful descriptions of sea serpents and the notorious kraken. Most seemingly absurd was one of the accounts he collected from local fishermen, which stated that the kraken’s: “back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance an English mile and a half in circumference, (some say more, but I chuse the least for greater certainty) looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats […] like seaweed”. In 1941 W. Ley writing in the Natural History Magazine criticized this description, and chided the Bishop for his uncritical acceptance of unskilled witnesses, saying: “It was because of this story that the existence of giant squids was doubted and ridiculed for more than a century after the first printing of Bishop Pontoppidan’s book”. However, most of the Bishop’s methods for collecting his data were sound, even by today’s standards. He used first hand accounts and described cases in which the creatures had been well documented as having washed ashore. He discussed the existence of sea serpents and krakens with reputable captains who had claimed to have seen such creatures, including one Capitan von Ferry, who sent a description of his encounter to the Court of Justice in Bergen by Pontoppidan’s request. Here we begin to get a picture of how strange biology can become familiar through regional traditions, even when there is no daily contact as in the case of the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean. This same source of knowledge is also highly susceptible to criticism attacking its seemingly bucolic origins.

Yet while tradition can be undermined by those who denigrate the quality of witness testimony, in the study of sea monsters we can also see how strangeness, unified with this very same sense of familiarity, can nevertheless produce definite agendas for exploration. It did so in the Scandinavian nations from the middle ages to the present. Conversely, in the case of the world around the ancient Mediterranean, the message is different, showing how not only are we what we eat, but we also ingest a large portion of our view of nature and the world around us from the comfort of our dining tables.

For More Information:

Lord Monboddo and the Quest for Human Nature

With a medieval dedication to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, James Burnett (1714 – 1799), the Lord of Monboddo was considered a living anachronism in his own day and age, and his thoughts on human nature were often derided as ridiculous, if not outright insane. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as the acclaimed economist Adam Smith, Lord Monboddo did not believe in the innateness of language, bipedal motion, or even meat eating, but instead thought that they must have been formed as a product of historical development. In his own circuitous way he developed a system of philosophy and human nature in his two substantial works, Of the Origin and Progress of Language and Antient Metaphysics which laid down his thoughts on God, man, and history. The secondary literature on Monboddo is scarce, tending to be more descriptive than analytical, and of that, very little deals directly with his thoughts on human nature.

In the third volume of his Antient Metaphysics, Monboddo distinguishes between two meanings of the conceptual “state of nature” of humankind: its origin, and its final stage of development. He claims that his discussion focuses on the origin of humanity, yet it is evident that the teleological second meaning he attributes to the idea is never far from his thoughts on the matter. This is in part because of his largely Aristotelian notion of man as a potentially rational animal. The blurring of the distinction between origin, potential and highest stage is reflected in his staunch support for the reality of the state of nature, and reaches its most interesting form in his consideration of feral-children and the humanity of the orangutan. It begs the question: To what extent is the quest for human nature really a rephrasing of the quest for human purpose, and in this way an artifact of teleological reasoning that has been carried on to the present day?

There are familiar echoes of the modern distinction between nature and nurture in Monboddo’s reasoning behind favouring the study of man in the state of nature. For, as he says, “the state we are in at present is so mixed of Nature and Art, that it is exceedingly difficult to say what is Nature in us, and what is Art”. Having decided to ground his philosophy of man in this state, however, he then makes an important distinction.

And here it is proper to explain what I mean by a state of nature; for it is a term that may be used in two senses, very different. It may denote either his [mankind’s] most perfect state, to which his nature tends, and towards which he either is or ought to be always advancing, I mean the perfection of his Intellectual Faculties, by which, and which only, he is truly a Man: And this is the most proper meaning of the natural state of Man; for the natural state of everything is that state to which, by nature, it tends, as the natural state of an Animal is its full growth and strength; […] Or it is the state from which this progression begins. It is in this sense that I use the term, denoting by it the original state of Man, before societies were formed, or arts invented. This state, I think, may also be called a state of Nature, in contradistinction to the state in which we live at present, which, compared with it, is certainly an artificial state.

Interestingly, while intending to focus on the second meaning of the term, and stating that the two are very different, he considers the first, teleological view, to be its “most proper meaning”. There is also the normative imperative that man is or “ought” to be progressing along these lines. As we shall come to see, while not a stated axiom of his position, Monboddo does believe that morality is a criterion for humanity.

Monboddo’s Aristotelian definition of man rests at the heart of this ambiguous double definition of the state of nature. As he says, Aristotle has defined man to be: “‘A creature of Intellect and Science only in capacity,’ marking in this way the progress of man, as well as of every thing else on this earth, from capacity to actuality; for every thing here has first the capacity of becoming something, before it is actually that thing”. It is this emphasis on capacity and potential that leads Monboddo to draw from the example of children and feral children as a vindication of his theories about human nature. However, aside from shaping the kind of evidence he uses to make his case for the learned nature of things previously taken to be natural, he also blurs the double meaning of the state of nature through this definition. This is because a discussion of the original state of a creature whose essence rests in potential will invariably also involve a discussion of its end state, or purpose. Monboddo, despite his keen distinction between the two meanings of the term state of nature, nevertheless seems to support this reading in his praise of Aristotle’s understanding of humanity. As he comments in the fourth volume of his Antient Metaphysics:

Now this wonderful progress of man, so much more wonderful than that of any other animal, Aristotle knew: For he has told us, that in his natural state he has not the use of intellect, but only the capacity of acquiring it. […]. [H]e has not only properly defined man, but in his definition given a kind of history of the species, carrying it on from the first beginning of it, to its completion and perfection in intellect and science: And, in my opinion, there never was a better definition given of any thing.

From this understanding of mankind, Monboddo received his impetus to study children of all kinds, and to emphasize their education. This is because it was exactly in those groups that were undoubtedly human in which things like language or bipedal motion did not inherently occur that best demonstrate them as potentials.

However, it is also apparent that Monboddo makes an addendum to Aristotle’s definition of mankind, for in his argument for the humanity of the orangutan, as well as for the naturalness of Peter the Wild Boy, he appeals to their moral qualities as definitively setting them apart from animals. Worth and goodness are “natural” to man. Furthermore, morality was common in earlier stages of human development, and thus more primeval that vice, as he says: “Many […] examples might be given of the good disposition of men in the first ages of civil life”. This only began to change when physical necessity, such as starvation, forced humanity to acquire habits against its nature. Chief among these depravities was the consumption of meat, “which changes the natural character of man, and makes him not only more cruel and ferocious, but also more cunning and deceitful than he would otherwise be”.

It is also apparent that he wished to establish this as a key facet of human nature by his disagreement with Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the characteristics of man in state of nature:

I would not have it understood, that I believe, as Mr. Hobbes does, that man is naturally the enemy of man; and that the state of nature is a state of war of every man against every man. This is such a state as neither does exist, nor ever did exist, in any species of animals […]. [Hobbes] did not know what man was by nature, divested of all the habits and opinions that he acquires in civil life; but supposed that, previous to the institution of society, he had all the desires and passions that he now has.

Having set the definition of mankind in terms of potential intellect and moral imperative, in his study of its origins Monboddo was compelled to ground his arguments in an actually existing state of nature. In order for potential to be able to express itself as part of human nature, it is vital that there be a time in which it had not yet been made manifest, for otherwise it would not be potential at all. It was this view of potential and progress that led him to his consideration of human nature in this state, for, as he said in the first book of his Origin and Progress of Language:

Wherever there is progress, there must be a beginning; and the beginning in this case can be no other than the mere animal: For in tracing back the progress, where else can we stop? If we have discovered so many links of the chain, we are at liberty to suppose the rest, and conclude, that the beginning of it must hold of that common nature which connects us with the rest of the animal creation.

Thus we see further evidence for the interconnectedness of Monboddo’s two states of nature, insofar as his consideration of progress (potential) led him to a consideration of origins, and we begin to see how this quest for an actually existing state of nature led him to his consideration of feral children.

Unlike Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 –1778), for whom it was a tool of reasoning, Monboddo needed to demonstrate that the state of nature was a historical fact. He did this by emphasizing the mutability of mankind, by analogy with “uncivilized peoples”, and through the development of children and feral children. From the evidence of the orangutan and Wild Peter, for instance, he concludes “that men are not, nor have not been always the same, in all ages, and all nations, such as we see at present in Europe”. Not only is man capable of change, but, as history and the uncivilized demonstrate, this change can be a dramatic one. However, the mutability of the human animal is brought out in greatest detail in Monboddo’s discussion of child development. He takes this process of development to be representative of the growth of the species as a whole, for there “is a progress in the species as well as in the individual. Drawing from the example of the development of an individual, Monboddo observes that:

“While in the womb he is no better than a Vegetable […]. By degrees he becomes an Animal, but is an imperfect Animal even when born. After the Animal Nature is perfected in him, comes the Intellectual part, by slow degrees even among us, but by degrees infinitely slower when he could not be formed […] by example and instruction. But even here there is not an end of his changes: For, after he is [sic] become both an Intellectual and Political Animal, and has invented arts and sciences, he is far from continuing the same; and a man in the first ages of society is exceedingly different from a man in the later and declining state of it.”

Thus humanity itself has gone through much the same process as an individual child, and by analogy an understanding of the process will allow an understanding of the nature, origin and purpose of humanity as such.

The belief that the growth of an individual reflects the growth of a species deserves some further attention, for some modern commentators wish to use it to demonstrate Monboddo’s role as a proto-evolutionist, having in some ways prefigured the recapitulation theory of Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919); however, a consideration of Monboddo’s own reasoning shows that this idea had much more in common with ancient and medieval notions of the microcosm and the chain of being than with modern evolution, and further highlights the importance of feral children to his project. In the first book of The Origin and Progress of Language, Monboddo presents a similar account of the development of a child from vegetable to intellectual as we have already seen. However, here, unlike in some later references, he justifies his notion by appealing to ancient authority, for, as he says: “man being a little world, as the antients [sic] called him, has in his frame a portion of every thing to be found in nature”. This little world is a translation of the Greek microcosm, a doctrine in which everything in nature has a representative in human beings. If the microcosmic origin of Monboddo’s thought is fully understood, it stands in stark contrast to what we now hold to be the evolutionary view of nature. For man, seen as a mirror of the entire universe, is nevertheless removed from the natural order of things, even as it is present within him.

Furthermore, this microcosmic understanding of human development is supplemented by the medieval notion of the chain of being. In this conception there is a place in nature for every intermediary being from the lowest of inanimate substances, to metals, plants, animals, people, angels, and God. This notion, as well as the variability of man’s place in the chain of being, was particularly developed among the philosophers of the Italian renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). As we have already seen in Monboddo’s desire to track down “so many links of the chain” towards the “animal” origin of man, and as I hope has been made apparent from his microcosmic understanding of the move from the definitive “links” of vegetable and animal nature to the intellectual nature of human beings, the stratified, yet anthropocentric background of his thought should not be mistaken for a kind of proto-evolutionism. It does, however, help to explain other elements of Monboddo’s writings. This understanding of the chain of nature and the microcosm further contributes to the importance of feral children and orangutans to his system. Not only must the chain of human progress be filled with representative examples of all of its various stages, but these stages must likewise contain within themselves varying degrees of animal nature. The feral child is then, quite literally, a missing link in the development of human potential.

Adriana S. Bezaquén observes in her excellent study of the history of feral children that:  “Although, as we have seen, wild children inspired, assisted, and resisted the thinking of many Enlightenment philosophers and naturalists, in no other case were they so crucial to the very foundation of a philosophico-scientific universe as in Monboddo’s”. Feral children are the most definitive modern evidence of his views, and serve as proof of his theories on the learned condition of society, language, diet and bipedal motion. Two feral children in particular stand out as his primary examples, Peter the Wild Boy and Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc; however, to complete his system’s chain of progression, between the developmental stages of Peter and of Marie-Angélique he places the orangutan, and it is not possible to explore the case of these two children without also considering their simian intermediary.

Peter the Wild Boy (?-1785) was discovered in the woods of Hannover in 1725, and after his capture was taken to England where Monboddo visited him twice, and subsequently had a college of his visit him again at his behest. Peter represents the first stage of human development, ranking even lower than the orangutan. However, this only increased his importance to Monboddo, for when found Peter did not possess any of the faculties that he believed to be learned, rather than innate. He was a herbivore, a quadruped, not sociable, had no idea of God, and, although he appeared to have all of the “organs of pronunciation”, was unable to speak. Yet when introduced to society he took to eating meat, he learned to walk upright and interacted with other people. His language skills, however, did not fully develop, and he learned only a few words in his lifetime. Since Monboddo rejected the idea that Peter was an idiot, this emphasized the difficulty and art of language. For, if Peter the Wild Boy […], who certainly is of parents that had the use of speech, has learned, in so many years, to articulate so few words, what must be the case of a perfect savage, who is come of savage parents, through a descent of I don’t know how many thousand years?” It also demonstrated the importance of human community to the development of the intellect, and served as a humbling reminder of how close to the animal state mankind was in the state of nature, stressing its potential, and the need to develop that potential further.

The key faculty of sociability separates the orangutans from Peter. Orangutans represent “[t]he next step of this progression” from animal-man to intellectual-man, since having through necessity formed into groups they have laid the groundwork for the development of language, even though they do not yet possess it themselves. As Monboddo says: “they are so far advanced towards the political life, as to herd together, and to communicate together, by a chattering guttural noise, which […] led the way among all people to articulation and the use of speech”. Again, as we have already seen with Peter, it is the effects of learning that realizes the potential at the heart of human nature, for with time and training Monboddo believed that orangutans could be taught to speak, and that some had already been taught, such as the one that worked as a servant for the collector Sir Ashton Lever. This manifest potential guaranteed their membership among humankind.

The potential for language was not everything, however, for it is also interesting to note that in almost every argument Monboddo makes for the humanity of the orangutan he points to its moral qualities. They are “mild and gentle”, and possess a sense of honour that is so pronounced that they can die when it has been shamed. This view is in keeping with Monboddo’s unstated definition of man as a potentially rational and inherently moral creature. At least this much seems certain from his assertion that: “If, I say, such an Animal is not a Man, I should desire to know in what the essence of a man consists, and what it is that distinguishes a Natural Man from the Man of Art?” Potential, manifest or otherwise, leads to a man of art and of intellect, but morality is the common bedrock upon which this quality rests.

One of the final stages before “civilization” was represented by the French feral child Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc (1712–1775), who, like Peter, Monboddo interviewed in the course of his studies. Also, like Peter and the orangutans, Marie-Angélique served as an important example of the validity of his claims about learning. As he says:

The last step of this progression I likewise saw, and it was a great one. It was the wild girl, or Fille Sauvage, […] who came from a country where the people had learned to articulate very imperfectly indeed, but sufficiently to communicate their wants and desires.

Her original people were Native Americans, and unlike Peter or orangutans, she learned how to speak fluently in her lifetime. Rather than focusing on her feral nature, however, Monboddo was more interested in the customs of her people. He took her claim that they could only sing like birds as evidence of the fact that learning is a form of imitation, and that the rudeness of her people’s way of speaking suggests the difficult, but gradual progression to modern, European, languages.

When considered cumulatively, the effect of these three cases serves to demonstrate Monboddo’s methodology, and his underlying assumptions about the unity of his two definitions of the state of nature. Wild Peter, orangutans and Marie-Angélique are simultaneously demonstrative of individual human development, and the development of their species, trapped in amber on the chain of being, they represent successive stages of the unfolding of human potential. In this way the focus on the move from some original nature (in this case Peter) is constantly underpinned by the second meaning of the state of nature. For if the core of human nature is potential, and the moral imperative which Monboddo tacitly attaches to this core, its historical manifestation must and should lead to the gradual unfolding of that potential to some ultimate end. By tracing this unfolding through the first three stages of man-the-animal, Monboddo draws a dotted line leading towards his perceived goal of humanity, and thus reveals how he believes that humanity’s origin contained within itself the eventual manifestation of everything that was to come after it. Feral children, and their ability to learn, were crucial tools in his teleological reading of human history. Their importance was further supplemented by Monboddo’s microcosmic understanding of individual development and the linear chain of being that made it possible to use them as a way back to some original state, suggestive of some final end.

Yet what is the end of Monboddo’s teleological line of reasoning about human nature? This is a difficult question, for in some ways it was the adult European, in others it was the Ancient Greeks, and in others still it was not to be found on earth at all, but in heaven after the extinction of the species. Hinting at possibilities he says in the beginning of the Origin and Progress of Language that: “there is no doubt but that human nature may, by such culture, be so exalted, as to come near to what we conceive of superior natures, and perhaps even to possess the rank of such as are immediately above us in the chain of being”. E.L. Cloyd observed that Monboddo had little hope for humanity’s continued survival: “Among the arts and sciences discovered [as mankind develops its potential] are those which degrade man as well as those which uplift him, and thus, man will ultimately bring about his own destruction”. Yet, strangely, there are some hints in his writing, which indicate that this too would represent a manifestation of human potential. For instance, in the third volume of his Antient Metaphysics, emphasizing both the mutability and potential of the human, he comments that: “Man appears to me to undergo as many changes as any Animal we know, even as many, and as different from one another, at least with respect to the Mind, as caterpillars and butterflies; and, if we believe in a future state, we must suppose that the changes will not cease with this life”. Furthermore, Cloyd summarizes the argument of the fifth volume of Antient Metaphysics with the observation that: “As man has achieved in this middle, civilized state the intellectuality which was God’s purpose for him, it is time that he moved on to the next stage”. If anything can be concluded from this puzzling array of statements it is this: that Monboddo seems to have so believed in progress and the manifestation of latent human potential that the final purpose of its development reached a kind of event-horizon, or singularity in heaven, beyond which the philosopher could speculate no further.

The quest for human nature is more befitting of a Quixote than a Galahad, of a Don Juan than a Dante, for normative and teleological interests are inscribed into the question itself. It is my hope that like the antiquity of Monboddo’s apparently modern insights, the reader will see that his case, despite its age, also has some bearing on the present day. Monboddo’s distinction between the two states of nature is a canny one, and does much to reveal the ambiguity of the concept, yet nowhere does it do this more compellingly than in his subsequent abandonment of that very distinction. From his understanding of the Aristotelian potential and moralistic imperative to manifest that potential, Monboddo presented a definition of human nature that could never be free of teleological considerations, whose sense of origin and purpose were one and the same. All of his subsequent arguments are directed towards this point, in his defense of an actually existing state of nature and the malleability of the human through culture, in his use of the chain of being and the microcosm, and especially in his view on the parallel between individual development and the development of the human species. Wild Peter, orangutans, and Marie-Angélique were the paragons of this position, for from their initial inability to perform many of the basic functions thought natural, and their subsequent education, they served as living arrows pointing to the future of mankind. However, once civilization had reached its peak, be it in the adult European or Ancient Greek state, Monboddo could not accept that as the end of human progress. One of the most damning problems of teleological reasoning is that despite the structuring guidance lent to it by a definitive purpose and end, if rigorously followed to that end it invariably leads to a singularity, a point at which all things are leading, but whose qualities cannot be defined with any certainty. For Monboddo that end was heaven.

Like Monboddo, many modern commentators on human nature confound questions of origins with questions of purpose and of progress, whether through the emotion pull of pointing to a better world to come, or through the need for a guiding structure from which to make sense of the present. Yet my own contention is that this question has no end, or no end that can be distinguished from the faith of the individual investigator. It is thus informative that in the case of one man, the Lord Monboddo, what began as a creature resembling Peter the Wild Boy ends in the mysteries of God. For all of its quaint antiquity, I have come to doubt that any of us can hope to arrive at a better solution, given the nature of the question asked.

For More Information:

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the

Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Burnett, James. Of the Origin and Progress of Language: Vol. 1. 1st Edition. (The Scolar Press

Limited; Menston, 1967.

—. Of the Origin and Progress of Language: Vol. 1. 2nd Edition. A. Kincaid & W. Creech;

Edinburgh, 1792.

—. Antient Metaphysics: Vol. 3. 1st Edition. Garland Publishing; New York, 1977.

—. Antient Metaphysics: Vol. 4. 1st Edition. Garland Publishing; New York, 1977.

Cloyd, E.L. James Burnett: Lord Monboddo. Clarendon Press; Oxford, 1972.,_Lord_Monboddo

Active Life in an Uncertain World: The Epicureans and the Stoics

Of the Socratic branches of thought, the Epicureans and the Stoics stood apart from their Platonic and Aristotelian brethren in that they sought to provide philosophies of an active life, and criticised the other two schools for what they saw as their bookish tendencies. In the Epicurean and Stoic traditions, then, questions had to be asked about the ways to personally address the unknown, particularly as it pertained to the future and the perishable world around us. As such, both branches of thought developed natural philosophies that emerged from their efforts to offer followers a method of addressing the unknown in their daily lives. Whether it is the Epicurean goal of freeing the self from fear or the Stoic one of aligning oneself with the natural order, both philosophies seek these goals in response to the unknown, and ultimately, its avoidance or its removal from the cosmos. Both schools related this to their primary objectives, their relationship to the gods, and to the conflagration or infinity of the universe.

As the Epicurean Lucretius states in his On the Nature of Things: “nature craves for herself no more than this, that pain hold aloof from the body, and she in mind enjoy a feeling of pleasure exempt from care and fear”. To do so requires an understanding pleasure and pain, death, and the nature of the gods. The purpose of obtaining an understanding of these concepts, however, has its roots in the removal of fear. Thus, it could also be said that if this fear can be removed with a proper understanding of certain concepts, then it is first and foremost, a fear based on unknowns. A study of natural philosophy is necessary so that people can understand how to properly avoid suffering and seek pleasure, come to terms with death, and realize how arbitrary, omnipresent forces cannot influence them. As Rist states in Epicurus: An Introduction: “Epicurus regards the study of nature as a necessary evil; without it we are subject to delusions about the role of the gods in the ordering of the world and about an afterlife”. Understood this way, eliminating the fear of the unknown through understanding certain key elements of the world around us is the Epicurean ideal. As Lucretius states more eloquently: “This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature”.

It is important, however, to point out that this method calls for knowledge of the natural world only insofar as it removes fear. There are a few very specific areas that are seen as vital to removing fear (i.e. pleasure and pain, fear of the gods, and fear of death). As Asmis says in her work Epicurus’ Scientific Method: “It is, I think, fair to say that Epicurus was not interested in exploiting his method of inquiry to its full potential”. A substantial portion of nature can be left to its own devices insofar as people do not fear those particular events. One primary example of this is Epicurean astronomy, which lagged far behind its Stoic counterpart. Yet, as will be shown in his view of infinity, even these modest goals resulted in the need for a complex account of the universe.

The Stoic account of the good life differs drastically from that of the Epicureans. It appears to demonstrate an acceptance of the unknown nature of the outside world, particularly as it pertains to the future, since the future is merely the playing out of the divine will. For the Stoics then, the place in which they demand certainty is not in knowledge of the world around them, nor even in what will happen to them, but rather how they will respond to what will happen to them. As Epictetus states: “the gods then, as was but right, put in our hands the one blessing that is best of all and master of all, that and nothing else, the power to deal rightly with our impressions, but everything else they did not put in our hands”. This “blessing” is our own reason that grants us the ability to influence how we respond to the events in the world around us. As Epictetus artfully puts it: “Philosophy does not promise to secure to man anything outside him”, rather it allows him to secure within himself a certainty of how he will react to unforeseen events. The rationality of the world outside of man is what permits the Stoics to have such trust in it. Even though they do not know where that same rationality will lead their individual lives, it both must be and is good that it will be. As such it is both impious and foolish to lament what must in the end come to pass. For the Stoics: “The beginning of philosophy […] is a consciousness of one’s own weakness and want of power in regard to necessary things”.

Epictetus argues from the interdependence that he sees all around him in the natural world that there must be an overarching reason dictating all things. Just as the perfect fit of sword to scabbard indicates reason was used in its construction, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that the fact that colour and light would be meaningless without creatures possessing the power of sight indicates that reason was likewise used in their construction. As such, reason and purpose in nature underlie all things. As opposed to the Epicurean concept of nature as something fundamentally separate from theology, there is no separating the natural from the divine for the Stoics. As Keimpe Algra points out in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics: “theology, according to the Stoics, is just a part of physics”. Indeed, it is this very view that compels the stoics to seek their center of certainty in themselves, for: “[w]e must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it. What do you mean by ‘nature’? I mean, God’s will”.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans agree that we can determine what there is to know about the gods based on our primary conceptions, the natural impressions or definitions with which we defined gods qua gods. For the Stoics the definition of a god is that it is an overwhelmingly rational, blessed, eternal, and providential being. Since the world displays this reason and providence, and we have a conception of the gods to begin with, they must, therefore, exist. As such, Stoic good and Stoic God in this case cannot be separated. Epictetus makes this clear in his segment entitled “How One May Act in All Things So As To Please the Gods”. Reason is God, it is nature, it is the whole progression of human life; thus following nature is no more than accepting what is necessary.

Yet this interpretation of nature also has other connotations, particularly in regards to the unknown. If God’s will is God’s reason, and it expresses itself in the knowable world, then what is to separate human knowing from divine knowing, except in quantity? As Algra states: “Behind all this lies the firm conviction that God’s rationality – or, for that matter, the rationality of the cosmos- does not differ in kind from human rationality”. In the larger scheme of things, then, there is nothing that is truly unknown, for all knowledge is encapsulated in the reason of God, and that reason is no different in kind from human reason. Stoic theology in some respects could be said to have removed the fears that Epicurus sought to conquer, for nothing is truly unknown in the Stoic world view. Contrary to Epicurus this victory over fear finds its removal exactly in an affirmation of the power of the gods. As Epictetus has shown, the Stoic’s primary good is the removal of uncertainty of the self and an acceptance of the world around us. However, this acceptance does not show a trust in the unknown, but rather a belief in its ultimate non-existence. The gods know everything, for things existences cannot be removed from the god’s knowing of them. What Epictetus says of men’s relation to the gods is the same as the god’s relation to all things, as universal reason: “what need have they of light to see what you are doing”, for they have willed what all things are doing.

For an Epicurean, however, this view could not be tenable, for the distinction between God and nature is clearly made. Nature and its laws are the result of atoms playing out their individual natures qua matter. This process is knowable, lacking a set teleology, and constant. The gods on the other hand, by definition, have no part to play in the lives of men. Epicurus’ explanation for why people fall into the error when thinking about the gods is that “many people assign to the gods attributes, such as harming or helping men, that are incompatible with the primary concept, or presupposition, of God as an indestructible and blessed living being”. By their very definition, gods for Epicurus can have no part in the world, for they are blessed, thus not wanting anything outside of themselves, and indestructible, thus playing no role in the generation or corruption of atomic congregations such as people. It is reasonable to see that Epicurus’ doctrine against the gods could be viewed as a natural result of his primary goal of removing fear of the unknown, for if the gods did influence the affairs of men then we would be subject to the seemingly arbitrary and unknowable will of some divine personality. If they did influence the affairs of humans, the gods would cordon off a segment of a very personal and immediate part of human life, namely the knowability of natural causes. There is a great difference between explaining a thunderstorm as an impersonal build up of fire in the air that eventually releases itself, and explaining the same storm as Zeus’ will. The first explanation can be known to work given certain understandable conditions, while the other is up to the seemingly arbitrary will of an omnipresent, alien, mind.

Lucretius seems to be addressing the Stoic position on the gods when he says: “But some […] ignorant of matter, believe that nature cannot without the providence of the gods in such nice conformity to the ways of men vary the seasons of the year”. For Lucretius, the fact that there are orderly elements to the world does not rule out the fact that there are also disorderly elements, given the traditional definition of the heavens this should not be so, and yet it appears to be just that. For, as he continues: “judging by the very arrangement of heavens, I would venture to affirm […] that the nature of the world has by no means been made for us by divine power: so great are the defects with which it stands encumbered”. If reason is to rule everything and nature made for the good of man, then from where do their opposites emerge, disorder and misfortune to man?

Both of these positions reach their logical conclusions, however, in their two most expansive cosmological doctrines, that of infinity and the conflagration. When looking at the cosmos as a whole, Epicurus couldn’t argue that there was nothing like reason in the world, for it presented itself all around him. Yet if matter is ruled by a divine reason, then there is something existent outside of the scope of matter and the senses. This determinism could spell the end for the Epicurean good; for if the will is determined, all hope for a doctrine based on acquiring certainty on specific key themes is lost. In order for matter not to need such divine reason, it must be infinite in extent, for only then would probability ensure that everything that could be must be. It would then provide us with something in the natural world that appears to be reason, but is more like a Darwinian process of selection. Furthermore, the doctrine of infinity strengthens the Epicurean belief that nothing is lost, and nothing fundamentally changes, even though our atoms disassociate. As Lucretius states: “one can easily believe’ that ‘these very atoms out of which we are now composed were often previously placed in the same order that they are now’”. Not only are they placed in the same order, but in every possible order, for “if something can be produced by atoms, it necessarily is produced by them. Accordingly the ever unchanging atoms keep producing ever the same combinations as they have been producing in the past”.

This doctrine allows the unknown to be explained away as a function of probability on the universal level, for everything that can be is, yet still permits of the Epicurean view that there is no afterlife or need for divine reason. Lucretius treats upon this in his On the Nature of Things, as Asmis summarizes: “In an attempt to remove all fear of an afterlife, he argues that if there are future individuals just like ourselves, this matters not at all to our present selves, since our memory will have been severed”. Infinity, unlike the conflagration, is also an expansive cosmological view that still permits of the possibility of a free will. Even though everything has to be somewhere, there is nothing to say that any one thing has to be here. Given Epicurus’ goals and methods, the doctrine of the infinity of worlds seems like a natural conclusion. Thus, from one of Epicurus’ first natural principles, that: “the primary bodies have previously moved with the same motion with which they now move, and will afterward always move in the same way” and his desire for a free will also free from fear of uncertainty, the afterlife, and the gods, we arrive at the eventuality of this doctrine of the infinite.

The conflagration, likewise, is the natural and pan-ultimate expression of the Stoic world view. As Michael White puts it: “With respect to the relation between eternal recurrence [the conflagration] and determinism, it is worth reemphasizing the point that both doctrines were considered by the Stoics manifestations of the all-encompassing divine reason controlling the cosmos”. Indeed, in the accounts given by Marcus Aurelius this seems to be the case, since everything will happen again, man cannot and should not bemoan the length of his life. As he says: “all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, […] it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years […] or an infinite time”. The doctrine served well to demonstrate the reasoning and necessity behind the Stoic virtues to adherents and non-adherents alike. As Long and Sedly note in The Hellenistic Philosophers: “in Stoicism the doctrine [of the conflagration] may have served to underline the necessity of accepting one’s present situation. For that will be one’s situation time and again in the everlasting nature of things”.

Yet the conflagration is more than merely a doctrine justifying the Stoic way of life, it also shows how the Stoics ultimately sought to eliminate all unknowns in the ordered cosmos. The conflagration, then, is somewhat like the fulfilment of the promise of causality and reason. As such it represents the absolute removal of the unknown in an eternal cosmic year that itself is the playing out of reason in the world to its ultimate conclusion. This playing out of the cosmos is finally reabsorbed into reason as it progresses and “returns to the so-called primary reason and to that resurrection which creates the greatest year, in which the reconstitution from itself alone [i.e. universal reason] into itself recurs”. All of universal reason, then, must necessarily be a closed circuit. Its reason being no different in kind from that of human reason it thus sees itself completed in a beginning and an end. Most importantly however, is the point raised by Long and Sedly, they write:

It would be a mistake, however, to think of everlasting recurrence as a purely mechanical consequence of Stoic determinism. God is a supremely rational agent, and the most interesting fact about the conflagration is its omnipresent instantiation of his providence […]. In his own identity god is the causal nexus […]; hence the sequence of cause and effect is an enactment of divine rationality and providence. Since every previous world has been excellent […], god can have no reason to modify any succeeding world.

The repetition of the cosmos is required for cause and effect to substantiate the rationality of God. Since God is the supreme cause, with a hyper-humanlike rationality responsible for the universe, he must necessarily circle back on himself to eternally enact the chain of causality. This chain, built upon a hyper-humanlike rationality will necessarily squeeze out any unknowns from the universe, and establish itself as the ultimate good. This allows the Stoics to trust in that which they do not know, but which nevertheless is the enactment of a human-like reason. Thus, insofar as they are willing what happens to them, and aligning themselves to what is, they are in a real way participating in this great whole of divine reason, and thus amputating the unknown from their lives. This is why Epictetus can state “I am a citizen of the universe”, for: “When a man […] has learnt to understand the government of the universe and has realized that there is nothing so great […] as this frame of things wherein men and God are united” he is a part of a universal all-knowing reason, and has no reason to fear anything as unknown, for he wills it as God wills it and sees that it is good.

As has been shown then, at first glance the Stoic goal of asking certainty within the self and how that self approaches necessity seems to be an acceptance of the unknowns in the world around us; however, with a closer look into Stoic cosmology and theology it can be seen that this is not the case. The Stoics eliminated the unknown by endowing all the cosmos with a human-like rationality that is shared by those who align themselves to it. Since the Stoic in some ways could be said to will the future, it would not be unknown to him. There is the trust that all things are known by God because they exist, for God’s knowing and things being cannot be separated, thus there is a purpose to the Stoic world order that does not permit the unknown. This purpose finds its end in the Conflagration which completes the cosmic year and reinstates the divine will of providence as the perfect replaying of reason.

In comparison, the Epicurean goal of removing fear from the individual’s life through the understanding of a few key principles must necessarily be at odds with the Stoic conception of determinism, for they see it as the mistaken idea of gods who result in a principle of personality beyond matter that arbitrarily influences the lives of men. For the Epicureans, rather, the unknown is defeated on the cosmic scale by probability in an infinite nature that lacks any sort of humanlike reason, but which is still subject to its own primary laws. On the individual level it accomplishes this task by focusing on several key areas of knowledge, the nature of pleasure and pain, death, the gods and showing how all fear can be removed by a proper understanding of these key principles. Everything outside of these principles need not be considered, as they do not inhibit the human from living the good life. Thus the question of the unknown in the individual sphere is in part avoided.

In these two philosophies, as philosophies of active life, the unknown has then been conquered by a myriad of principles and methods. It remains however, for the individual reader to see if these methods are appropriate or accurate, and if there can be any philosophy of an active life that permits of the unknown. Barring that, it would appear that any philosophy of an active life must necessarily find some way to banish the unknown to irrelevance or oblivion if it wishes to allow its practitioners the certainty to act in the world.

For More Information:

Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus’ Scientific Method. London: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Greek thought: A Guide to Classical knowledge. Ed. Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. New York: Russell & Russel Inc, 1962.

The Hellenistic Philosophers, Long and Sedley, Cambridge U.P., 1987. Vol 1.

Rist, J. M. Epicurus: An Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Rist, J. M. Stoic Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Ed. Brad Inwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers: The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. Ed. Jennings Oates. New York: Random House, 1940.