BOOKS: The Divine Life of Animals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2010:

The Divine Life of Animals:
One Man’s Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On
by Ptolemy Tompkins
Crown, c/o Random House (1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2010.
256 pages. $22.99/e-book or hardcover.

Despite the subtitle “One man’s quest to discover whether the
souls of animals live on,” the primary objective of The Divine Life
of Animals is not to prove that animals have souls (because
scientifically, such a claim cannot be truly “proven” by any known
means), but rather to demonstrate the absurdity of claiming
otherwise. If humans have souls, Tompkins argues, then of course
other animals do as well–a statement most animal lovers will
intuitively agree with, but which he supports with a formidable body
of research gathered from a wide variety of religious and spiritual

Tompkins outlines the history of human religion, and the
place animals have occupied in each stage of religious evolution. In
summarizing the belief systems of prehistoric humans–as best as can
be deduced from cave paintings and gravesites–and of modern
hunter-gatherers, Tompkins shows that primitive religions not only
revere animals, but actually center upon the human/animal
relationship. With some variance, most primitive cultures view
animals as incarnations of powerful animal spirits, dwelling in the
celestial world and ruled by an archetypal figure whom Tompkins calls
the “Master of Animals.”
The Master of Animals represents the earliest known
conception of a supreme deity, and as a hybrid being with both human
and animal qualities, represents the primeval ideal of harmony with,
and reverence for, nature.
By contrast, the religions of more complex agricultural
societies center not upon animals, but crops. The supreme deity of
civilizations is not a Master of Animals, but rather an
anthropomorphic agricultural god. Agricultural societies may begin
by living in harmony with nature, planting and harvesting in cycles
dictated by spring floods and late summer monsoons, with gods who
govern the seasons. As such societies grow and thrive by developing
means of subduing and controlling nature–for instance by building
dams, terraced fields, and irrigation canals–the concern of a
deity imagined by an advanced agricultural society is not with the
natural world as a whole, but with humans specifically. Although
animals may still be accorded some level of sanctity, as sacrificial
offerings or symbols of godly power, their spiritual significance is
secondary to that of humans.
Myths such as the 3,000-year-old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh,
in which the Master of Animals-type figure Enkidu is subdued and
tamed by the civilized king Gilgamesh, represent the spiritual
subjugation of animals to humans that first began with the rise of
civilization. This subjugation eventually became outright exclusion,
starting with Aristotle’s teaching that the rational mind alone could
survive death. This doctrine was expanded by Church theologians such
as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who held that because animals lack
the capacity for reason, they can have no place in the afterlife.
By placing in historical context the modern conception of
humans as the only beings with souls, Tompkins makes a compelling
case against it. Among the vast majority of spiritual traditions
through history, a belief in animals having souls has been the rule
rather than the exception, even among agricultural societies that
otherwise view animals as inferiors.
Unfortunately, rather than dispensing with the
anthropocentric Aristotelian/medieval worldview altogether, Tompkins
attempts to re-work it. The results are not very convincing:
Tompkins interprets the Great Chain of Being (the medieval doctrine
by which all life is ranked in a vertical hierarchy) as egalitarian,
insofar as all species have a divinely sanctioned place within it.
White supremacists use similarly flawed logic to claim they are not
Tompkins’ intentions are benevolent. He tries to accommodate
as many diverse perspectives as possible, but comes across as
struggling to have his cake and eat it too.
Moreover, as Tompkins strives to incorporate Aristotelian
and medieval Christian ideas into his argument, he almost completely
neglects the much more animal-friendly perspectives of Eastern
religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Tompkins does
explain why. While he recognizes that Eastern faiths uphold the
sanctity of all life, their common belief that animals can
reincarnate as humans (and vice-versa) and these religions’ emphasis
on oneness with all creation as the highest spiritual goal seem to
him to contradict belief in any sort of personal immortality. As
Tompkins understands it, the soul that reincarnates in Eastern
religions is not a unique being with a distinct personality (or
“particularity”), but merely a “generic, endlessly reincarnating
aggregate of fears and desires,” a concept he finds too unsettling
and problematic to pursue further.
Yet Tompkins’s assessment of Eastern spirituality is somewhat
misinformed. His definition of the soul in Eastern religions does
apply to some forms of Buddhism, particularly Zen, but not to
Eastern religion as a whole. According to most schools of Hinduism,
the soul is very much an individual with its own personality, albeit
a personality that changes drastically over the course of multiple
lifetimes. Considering how much our personalities may develop in
just one lifetime, Tompkins’s insistence on particularity seems
ill-founded. An extreme example of personality change would be
Emperor Ashoka, who went from a warlike, mass-murdering tyrant to a
humanitarian philosopher-king during the 3rd Century BCE.
The spiritual goal of attaining oneness with all things that
Tompkins finds problematic varies among the Eastern religions. In
Zen, oneness is essentially extinction, with the individual
dissolving back into the non-existence from which everything emerges.
For most Hindus, however, oneness means something nearly opposite:
the expansion from a limited individual to the infinite consciousness
of Brahman, the ultimate reality of the universe. In a few unusual
schools, such as Pure Land Buddhism and the Hare Krishna sect of
Hinduism, the enlightened individual neither disappears nor expands,
but is reborn in an eternal Heaven.
By dismissing the Eastern faiths without having fully
explored them, Tompkins shoots himself in the foot. Whether or not
he agrees with their ideas regarding the soul and its purpose, by
neglecting them he undermines his apparent goal of making a case for
animal souls that transcends cultural and religious boundaries.
Worse, he deprives himself of a vast body of tradition affirming
animals’ status as spiritual beings. Consider, for instance, the
Hindu myth of Yudisthira, the righteous king who refused to enter
heaven unless his dog could come as well. This story is echoed in
the use of the same word for “dog” and “karma” in the Balinese
dialect, reflecting a folk belief that a person’s karma is literally
determined by how the person treats his or her dog.
Some examples from Eastern philosophy might also help to
support Tompkins’ most tenuous claim: that humans are somehow
necessary to the spiritual fulfillment of other animals. He posits
that the world in which we live is fallen and imperfect, and capable
of redemption only by humans, citing as evidence the aforementioned
Great Chain of Being, the archetypal myth of the Fall from Grace
found in many religions, and several anecdotes of extraordinary
encounters between people and wild animals.
However, to suggest that animals “need” people in any
literal sense comes across as absurd, considering that the first
animals lived and thrived more than half a billion years before
humans, and that on the whole humans have done far, far more to
harm animals than to benefit them. And to suggest that humans
possess any one unique quality that distinguishes us from all other
species comes across as obsolete and unscientific, since virtually
all “human” abilities (including rational thought, self-reflection,
and rudimentary language) have been found to exist in other species.
However, if one considers the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the
bodhisattva–an enlightened being who actually rejects the state of
enlightenment so as to remain in this world helping others–Tompkins’
basic idea of humankind redeeming the rest of creation might be
salvageable. From this perspective, even if humans as they exist
now are in no way inherently superior to other animals, we may be
capable of transforming ourselves, both as individuals and as a
species, into something far greater in the future, so as to redeem
all the cruelty we have inflicted upon the world and become the
stewards of the Earth that so many religions like to imagine we
already are.
The premise of The Divine Life of Animals could also be
bolstered by including more of the Jewish and Islamic perspectives
regarding animals. Tompkins does briefly mention Islamic mysticism
and its great reverence for nature, and the Qur’an’s many
commandments regarding humane treatment of animals, but I was
surprised to find my favorite animal-related Islamic quote absent:
“Seest thou not that it is Allah whose praises are celebrated by all
beings in the heavens and on earth, and by the birds with extended
wings? Each one knows its prayer and psalm, and Allah is aware of
what they do.” (Qur’an 24:41) In stating that animals are capable
of prayer, this passage very strongly implies that they must also
possess souls, making Islam the only Abrahamic religion to proclaim
the sanctity of animals explicitly in primary scripture.
Also noteworthy is the Hasidic Jewish concept of gilgul, or
transmigration of souls, which allows for humans to be reborn in
animal form as punishment for misdeeds. What makes this idea peculiar
is that rather than leading to less killing and consumption of
animals, gilgul is actually used to justify the opposite, by
upholding ritual slaughter and consumption of animals as a means of
redeeming their souls. It is for this reason that Hasidim are
actually required to eat fish on the Sabbath.
The Divine Life of Animals does at least touch on most of the
major spiritual traditions, and makes an impressive case for
Tompkins’ central argument, even if many of his more specific claims
fall short. –Wolf Clifton

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