The Spectrum of Animal Rationality in Plutarch

Apeiron 50 (1):103-133 (2017)

Authors
Phillip Sidney Horky
Durham University
Abstract
Thanks to the work of Stephen Newmyer, Plutarch’s importance for modern philosophical debates concerning animal rationality and rights has been brought to the forefront. But Newmyer’s important scholarship overlooks Plutarch’s commitment to a range of rational functions that can be ascribed to animals of various sorts throughout the Moralia. Through an application of the ‘spectrum of animal rationality’ described in the treatise On Moral Virtue to the dialogues where his interlocutors explore the rational capacities of non-human animals (especially Whether Land or Sea Animals are Smarter and Gryllus), this article argues that Plutarch’s commitment to a broad and inclusive sense of ‘reason’ conditions any positive account of animal rationality. Rather, any suggestions of the rational capacities of non-human animals are deeply implicated in Plutarch’s universal system of reason, which differentiates grades of rationality to animals based on natural difference – not unlike his contemporary Stoics. While modern proponents of animal rationality might find some of Plutarch’s ideas unpalatable, the upshot of this study is a fuller sense of Plutarch’s articulate and inclusive sense of reason, which is able to accommodate not only Platonist and Peripatetic notions, but also those of the Stoics and Epicureans, who are especially singled out in the humorous dialogue Gryllus. Thus, Plutarch’s ‘eclecticism’ can be explained as a deep commitment to a universal notion of ‘reason’, marked by a range of functions accessible to all animals – including his philosophical enemies.
Keywords Plutarch  Middle Platonism  Animal Rationality  Epistemology  Ethics
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DOI 10.1515/apeiron-2016-0045
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