Common Wisdom: All Creatures Great and Small

Last week our dog died, the second one to die this year. Peter, my almost-three-year-old, doesn’t understand very well what is going on, though he is certainly picking up the mechanics of burying dead things now. But he keeps anticipating an early resurrection, while I am uncertain of even a belated resurrection for our Jenny and Katie.

Peter’s “why’s,” as usual, persist until we reach the Prime Mover. My recent experience suggests that Aristotle had roughed out his philosophy by age three (although I’m sure he was what we call a “gifted” child). So I was driven to C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, which I had not read in many years, to read again the tentative but enormously appealing chapter on animals.

Lewis first makes it very plain that none of us can know for sure what God has planned for his nonhuman creatures. But he suggests that domesticated animals, at least, may be capable of a kind of immortality by virtue of their relationship with man. Man may, so to speak, raise a dog or cat up into a kind of higher nature that finds its meaning and expression in service and loyalty to his master. The distinction Lewis makes between tame and wild animals is crucial, and a bit uncongenial to our freedom-loving age: “The ‘real’ or ‘natural’ animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal.”

Lewis next reasons that “certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters . . . In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself.”

This is an eye-opening way of looking at the relations between human beings and animals. People in modern times (and “modernity” can in this sense probably be traced back to nature-loving Rousseau, though his views have reached an exotic growth in our time) are apologetic about words like “tame” and “civilize.” The 1960s were a paean to the natural man, and we have still not completely recovered from them. Partly because of a proper desire to limit our destructive effects on the environment, we are now defensive towards the rest of creation. We are unsure, self-doubting — the very reverse of the responsible stewards God calls us to be.

To an animal rights activist, C.S. Lewis’s essay on animals must seem revolting, with its talk of “masters,” “taming,” and “raising” from the fallen state of nature. The animal rights advocate would insist, rightly, that man doesn’t deserve such dominion, and then argue, wrongly, that it isn’t his to exercise.

Of course human beings don’t deserve to order animals to fetch or sit, or to ride upon their backs, or to butcher them for meat. But then we don’t deserve anything at all, ultimately, and neither do animals. God chose to create a world of “higher” and “lower” animals. This doesn’t mean that beasts are morally beastlier in their behavior. But in biological terms, we human beings are more complex; in moral terms, we are capable of using our reason to distinguish right from wrong; and in spiritual terms, we are made in God’s image and have been redeemed by His Son. All this gives us something more compelling than a right: it gives us a duty to preside over the animal kingdom.

Mankind has interpreted this duty differently at different times, and always he has performed it poorly. But nowadays a laudable modesty has turned into a counter-productive self-loathing. “Stewardship” has degenerated into a pathological fear of affecting any of Mother Nature’s creatures: don’t touch the ecosystem.

I don’t know much about animal or plant biology, zoology, or the like. I have the ordinary American’s primitive Arbor Day conceptions of conservation, and the ordinary newspaper reader’s fear of depleting the ozone layer or melting the polar ice cap. Though I am usually unacquainted with members of endangered species, I am reasonably in favor of giving them another chance, especially when our irresponsible actions have led them into trouble in the first place. On the other hand, I note that animal species appeared and disappeared long before human intervention. We can only guess at what such “disappearance” means, as seen in God’s eternal present.

Primum non nocere (“First, do no harm”) is the beginning of the practice of medicine, but there would be no medical schools or hospitals if that were the end of it. Doctors are supposed to be able to do something, at least some of the time.

So too with our stewardship of creation. The more doctrinaire environmentalists and animal rights people work feverishly at doing nothing. They assume that anything man could do to the natural world would be harmful or disfiguring or corrupting; and so it would if you defined as “harmful” any alteration we might make. This view limits the doctrine of the Fall to mankind, leaving the animal kingdom abiding in Eden. It is cruel and disgusting for human beings to hunt, but lovely for them to watch PBS specials showing lions ripping apart elk, or black widow spiders devouring insects. Oh, there is a difference between human and animal acts of aggression, but it isn’t the difference the wildlife protectionists describe. It isn’t a simple difference between innocence and evil.

I love dogs, but I steer clear of people who say things like “animals make you ashamed of your kind.” Of course human beings can be morally worse than animals, but only because they can be morally better. C.S. Lewis reminds us of a once obvious but now neglected truth: The qualities we most love in our pets owe as much to man as to the animal. Dogs have been made more doglike, cow more cowlike, horses more horselike, pigs more piglike by domestication. There are plenty of animals that can’t and shouldn’t be domesticated. There are wild animals that suggest or embody noble and independent qualities that are lovely to think about and to know from a distance. But even these qualities are “improved” by being known by man. Lions are more lionlike because human beings can think about their kingliness, can describe them on heraldic crests, can use them to describe the character of Richard Coeur de Lion.

Man is an animal, whatever else he may be. But Christians know that he is the highest animal, and that all others are not only subject to him, but somehow dependent upon him. The Wild, as it exists since the Fall, is not an unambiguously fine place. We call our children from it; we teach them manners and self-restraint and (a big one in our household just now) sharing. We have the great gift and the great task of calling many less mischievous animals from the Wild as well. And like Adam, who named animals, we make all of creation a little less wild by knowing it for what it is.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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