Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Father Bougeant's Philosophical Amusement

Here is another literary confection penned by a Jesuit, this time the gloriously named Guillaume Hyacinthe Bougeant, whose  Amusement Philosophique sur le Langage des Bêtes was an instant best seller, translated  into both English and German.

The ostensible aim of Bougeant's ironic little essay was to demonstrate that "Beasts do speak and understand each other every whit as well and sometimes better than we do".  But the real issue was not so much the linguistic abilities of animals as whether or not they have souls. Ever since Descartes had famously claimed that animals are machines, this question had been a solemn theological debating point, replete with threats to Christian orthodoxy - but by the 1730s there was ever sign that controversy was running out of steam ...and dog-lovers were starting to prevail....

Philosophical Amusement upon the Language of Beasts (1739) 

Bougeant begins his philosophical confection with a rapid dismissal of prevailing theories of the animal soul. 

Descartes’s “animal-machine” is an easy target - could you ever love your watch as much as you love your dog? (Personally, I could: I hate dogs)

Boy with a black spaniel by
Francois Hubert Drouais, Met.Mus.

"I see a Dog hastening to me when I call him, caress me when I stroke him, tremble and run away when I rate him, obey me when I command him, and give all the outward Signs of many different Sentiments; of Joy and Sadness, of Grief and Pain, of Fear and Desire, of Passions of Love and Hatred. I immediately conclude from thence, that a Dog has in him a Principle of Knowledge and Sentiment, be it what it will. Though I should Use my utmost Endeavour, to beat it into my Head that he is meer Machine, and though all the Philosophers in the World should attempt to convince me of it, I feel myself hurried away by an inward Conviction, and by I know not what prevailing Force which persuades me to the contrary:……
Imagine to yourself a man who should love his Watch as we love a Dog, and caress it so as to think himself dearly beloved by it, and that when it points Twelve or One o'clock, it does it knowingly and out of Tenderness to him. Were Descartes's Opinion true, such would indeed be the Folly of all who believe that their Dogs have and Affection for them, and love them with Knowledge and what we call Sentiment". 

Now  for the Aristotelians – “the dark Principles of their unintelligible Philosophy” says our Jesuit, even though Aristotelianism was still standard philosophical fare in the Jesuit Colleges.   By conceding animals a “substantial and material form, distinct from matter”, the Peripatetics are really allowing them a spiritual soul and paving the way for doggy heaven –  ”They should have a paradise and a Hell appointed for them; Beasts should be a Kind of Men, or Men a Kind of Beasts; all which Consequences are unwarrantable by the Principles of Religion."

In good Christian mode, Bougeant is also dismissive of all those Eastern sages, so lovingly anatomised by Jesuit missionaries but even more rated by dodgy freethinkers

Mounted Ceramic Figures, Chinese porcelain,
French flowers and mounts, 1740-45, Getty Museum
"Let me pray you do one Thing. Go to the Indies, to China, orJapan, and there you will find Philosophers of the Heathen, Deist, or Atheist Kind, who will argue, if not with greater Capacity, at least with greater Freedom. One will tell you that God has created several Species of Spirits; some more perfect, such as the good and bad Genii ; some less perfect, which are Men; and others much more imperfect still, which are the Beasts. Another will tell you, that the Distinction of Spirit and Matter is chimerical and impossible to be demonstrated; that he sees no manner of Inconveniency in thinking that there is but one Substance, which you mall call by what name you please; that this Substance has in Beasts as well as Men an Organization, a Modification, a Motion, something, in short, what makes it think more or less perfectly. And these Philosophers acknowledging neither the Principles of the Christian Religion nor the Authority of the Church; you will be under the Necessity (in order to attack them in their Retrenchments) either to begin by making them Christians, or to go back to metaphysical Principles very difficult to be unravelled. But I hope you will spare yourself the Trouble of the Voyage, and chuse, as I myself do, to stick close to this greatest of Principles, viz. All these Systems are contrary to the Christian Religion; of course they are absolutely false".

Animals in the Garden of Eden -
 illustration from a  English refutation of Bougeant

How then to accord animals sensitivity and understanding without falling foul of Christian orthodoxy?  The Church, says Bougeant, teaches us that men are saved or condemned at the point of death, but tells us nothing about the fate of Fallen angels waiting Judgment Day. These, then, must be your animal souls, sentient but conveniently already lined up to fry!  ( Bougeant could be right - I always knew dogs were  diabolical...) It does not seem  to  worry the good Jesuit too much that his lady friend might be sharing her bed with a devil incarnate.

Dog on a cushion by Jean Rance

"How ! shall my little Bitch be a Devil that lies with me all Night and caresses me all Day ? I will never grant you that. And I say the same of my Parrot, added a young Lady; it is a charming Creature; but if I were persuaded it was a little Devil, I should no longer indure it. I conceive, said the Author, how great your Aversion to this System must be, and I excuse it: But, give yourself the trouble to reflect upon it, and you shall see that it is only the Result of a Prejudice which must be conquered by Reason. Do we love Beasts for their own Sakes ? No. As they are altogether Strangers to human Society, they can have no other Appointment but that of being useful or amusing. And what care we whether it be a Devil, or some other Being that serves and amuses us ? The Thought of it , far from shocking pleases me mightily. I with Gratitude admire the Goodness of the Creator, who gave me so many little Devils to serve and amuse me. If I am told that these poor Devils are doomed to suffer eternal Torments, I admire God's Decrees; but I have no manner of share in this dreadful Sentence. I leave the Execution of it to the Sovereign Judge, and notwithstanding this I live with my little Devils as I do with a Multitude of People of whom Religion informs me that a great Number shall be damned."

Bougeant says that he wanted merely to amuse and we should take him at his word.  At most he intended  to deflect ridicule from more po-faced ecclesastical debaters. 
Nonetheless,  it is easy to see how the "Amusement" rebounded on its author and failed to amuse either Cartesians (who were notoriously lacking in humour), theJesuit guardians of orthodoxy or even serious defenders of God's Master Plan for the World....but why  it was later to be promulgated approvingly by the Encyclopédistes.

(This site also includes the article "Beasts" from Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary -  Dr Johnson had cats, Rousseau had a dog, but I think Voltaire just liked to tease theologians.)

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