Man and the Natural World by Keith Thomas

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Man and the Natural World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Can human moral progress be documented with respect to man’s treatment of the natural world? Many reviewers claim to have found the basis for an affirmative answer in Professor Keith ThomasMan and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility. In earlier times, wrote The New Yorker, “human thoughtlessness—not to say cruelty—toward animals was the norm.” Moreover, “land was exploited.” Fortunately, all of this is past tense because “over the next centuries, science offered a cosmology that reduced human pretensions.” The reviewer in The Spectator arrived at a similar conclusion. Once, animals “could be used or abused without compunction,” but, as time went on, “science eroded this notion” and “the position became less tenable.” Booklist said Thomas attempts “to show that humankind’s arrogant assumption of its supremacy in nature has been fading gradually.” It is tempting to find comfort in the words of these reviewers, yet a more careful reading of Man and the Natural World makes any claim of great human moral advance in the last four hundred years seem dubious indeed.

It is not difficult to see how these reviewers reached their reassuring conclusions. Thomas’ book abounds with examples which at first blush do suggest that man has become much less arrogant in his treatment of other animals. Seventeenth century Englishmen, for example, would routinely tether a bull or bear to a stake and then watch with “much delight” as dogs would rip, tear, and gouge the bull’s face. If an occasional dog was skewered or thrown to the spectators by the bull, so much the better. Moreover, this was not entertainment suitable only for the baser sort; it was deemed appropriate for royalty, foreign ambassadors, and the “greatest ladies.” Then, as now, children imitated their parents. Schoolboys celebrated Shrove Tuesday by tying a bird to a stake. Without dogs of their own, the boys used sticks to torment the defenseless creature. For sheer sadistic brutality it is difficult to top the seventeenth century practice of stuffing burning effigies with live cats so that their screams might heighten the dramatic effect.

Such examples strain the credulity of the modern reader, but as Professor Thomas piles example on example, one’s disbelief soon turns to horror and disgust, and—if one is not careful—self-righteousness. The Oxford don, however, is careful to remind the reader that it is “surely wrong to think of people as being more or less humane at one period in history than at another.” Thomas points out that many ancient Athenians, medieval scholastics, and even some premodern Englishmen argued that cruelty to animals might well lead to cruelty to men and therefore ought to be avoided. This line of thought, however, may still exhibit “humankind’s arrogant assumption of its supremacy” by concerning itself ultimately with man’s own well-being. What of the animals themselves?

Even the animals had their premodern advocates. King Henry VI was squeamish when it came to killing animals, and there was no shortage of medieval holy men who went out of their way to alleviate animal suffering for its own sake. Were these people simply “eccentrically tender-minded”? Thomas thinks not. The important fifteenth century moral treatise, Dives and Pauper, was unequivocal: Men who “for cruelty and vanity . . . torment beasts or fowl more than . . . is speedful [necessary] to man’s living . . . sin . . . full grievously.”

Then how can one explain the earlier examples of obvious cruelty to animals? One account, though seemingly obvious, often goes unmentioned, and perhaps even unthought of by the optimist; namely, that people in earlier periods sometimes sinned grievously. Lest the modern reader be guilty of isolating himself from his sinful forebears, let him remember that the twentieth century is the age of the Holocaust and the Gulag, the Battle of the Somme and the saturation bombing of Dresden and...

(The entire section is 2,697 words.)