Beasts are Rational, part 1: Circe, Odysseus and the Pig

You may be familiar with the story of the Hero Odysseus and the Sorceress Circe; how she turned his men into swine, how he was saved by Athena’s intervention, how he spent a year with Circe, and how she ultimately showed him the way to the Underworld, while restoring his men to human form.

However, many centuries later, one of the most persuasive champions of animal rights found himself asking a question: would life really be better being turned back to a human?

Plutarch (c 46- 120 C.E.) was a writer, historian, priest and politician. His most famous work, Parallel Lives, compared and contrasted the ethical lives of both Greeks and Romans, and was a bona-fide hit across the Empire.

However, his views on animals were not exactly in step with Roman values. Not only did he champion their ability to reason, he also made impassioned pleas for vegetarianism.

These can be found in Volume XII of his Moralia, which is a collection of his writings outside of Parallel Lives.

Sandwiched between these two tracts (The Cleverness of Animals and On the Eating of Flesh) is a dialogue called Beasts are Rational.

The premise is straightforward: Odysseus asks Circe to undo her metamorphosis of his men. Circe, however, counters by asking him how he can be sure they would want that; to this, she allows him to have a conversation with one of her earlier ‘victims’, named Gryllus (literally ‘swine’). The dialogue is relatively long; the following is a series of excerpts:

*

[Odysseus to Circe] …it would bring me noble glory among the Greeks if by your favour I should restore comrades of mine to their original humanity and not allow them to grow old in the unnatural guise of beasts, leading an existence that is so piteous and shameful

[Circe] Here’s a lad who finds it appropriate that not only himself and his companions, but even total strangers should, through his stupidity, find his ambition their ruin.

[Odysseus] This is a new potion of words that you are stirring and drugging for me, Circe. It will certainly transform me literally into a beast if I am to take your word for it that changing from beast to man spells ruin.

[Circe] Haven’t you already worked a stranger magic than this on yourself? You who refused an ageless, immortal life at my side and would struggle through a thousand new dangers to a woman who is mortal and, I can assure you, no longer so very young — and this for no other object than to make yourself more gaped at and renowned than you already are, pursuing an empty phantom instead of what is truly good.

*

Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus
Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, John William Waterhouse, 1891. Gallery Oldham, Oldham.

Circe’s taunt is incisive:

You who refused an ageless, immortal life at my side and would struggle through a thousand new dangers to a woman who is mortal and, I can assure you, no longer so very young — and this for no other object than to make yourself more gaped at and renowned than you already are, pursuing an empty phantom instead of what is truly good.

These as are charges that neither Odysseus, nor his blind poet, Homer, can easily dismiss.

*

[Odysseus] All right, let it be as you say, Circe. Why must we quarrel again and again about the same matters? Now please just grant me the favour of letting the men go free.

[Circe] By the Black Goddess, it’s not so simple as that. These creatures are no run of the mill. You must ask them first if they are willing. If they say no, my hero, you’ll have to argue with them and convince them. And if you don’t, and they win the argument, then you must be content with having exercised poor judgement about yourself and your friends.

[Odysseus] Dear lady, why are you making fun of me? How can they argue with me or I with them so long as they are asses and hogs and lions?

[Circe] Courage, courage, my ambitious friend. I’ll see to it that you shall find them both receptive and responsive. Or rather, one of the number will be enough to thrust and parry for them all. Presto! You may talk with this one.

[Odysseus] And how am I to address him, Circe? Who in the world was he?

[Circe] What’s that to do with the issue? Call him Gryllus, if you like. I’ll retire now to avoid any suggestion that he is arguing against his own convictions to curry favour with me.

*

And so we have the setup: Odysseus wants Circe to disenchant his men from their animal forms, and Circe argues that they are happier as animals than they were as men.

And so she allows the hero to take to an animal, a pig named Gryllus (which is Latin for swine).

And so begins one of the oldest Mediterranean dialogues regarding animal rights, the supposed primacy of human beings, and the virtues of being a vegetarian…

All from the mouth of a pig…

Coming in Beasts are Rational, part 2: On Eating Flesh.

*

Note: The work appears in pp487‑533 of Vol. XII of the Loeb Classical Library’s edition of the Moralia, first published in 1957. The Greek text and the English translation (by William Helmbold) are now in the public domain. Full text here.

G.B.Trotti_Circe
Circe restituisce la forma umana ai compagni di Ulisse, Giovanni Battista Trotti c. 1610, Palazzo ducale del Giardino (Parma)

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