G. E. Lessing, the great critic and philosopher of the German Enlightenment, noted in his 1759 essay ‘On the Use of Animals in Fables’ that “the great majority of fables feature animals, and still lesser creatures, as acting persons.” Lessing wanted to know what we could learn from this. My own view is that his conclusions are dead wrong, but that the question itself is one that it took a certain kind of genius to ask in the first place, and one that remains as urgent as ever to answer, not just for the sake of literary theory, but above all for the sake of our understanding of what animals are, and of the way our moral commitments to them flow from this understanding.
Lessing gives two primary reasons for the replacement of human beings by animals in fables. The first is that we all tend to recognize more readily the sort of character represented by an animal species than by a particular human being. If one were to relate the historical tale of Nero and Britannicus, for example, it was already quite likely in the 18th century --and is all the more so today-- that most listeners will have no idea what these characters are meant to represent. But if a fable has as its primary function the imparting of some moral principle or other, as Lessing supposes, it is far better to replace Nero with a wolf, and Britannicus with a lamb. Everyone, we might suppose, down to the most ignorant yokel, knows what these creatures represent, and how they stand in relation to one another. If the purpose is to communicate a moral principle rather than a history lesson, why let background knowledge of individual human actors stand as a prerequisite? It is the wolf and the lamb that require the least in the way of shared background knowledge, and thus that serve most directly the fable’s function of universal moral edification.
Lessing adds another reason for the casting of animals in fables, one that he claims derives from his ‘sensibility’ --a common trope of the distinctly German reception of Enlightenment values-- rather than from logical conclusions. He maintains that nothing gets in the way of the teaching of a moral lesson moreso than the passions. He brings up the example of the avaricious priest in 2 Samuel 12, who wishes to take away a poor man’s only lamb. Lessing maintains that in this tale our passion of sympathy for the poor man is great, as is our passion of hatred for the priest. But if we substitute animals for the relevant actors, then, in so far as these creatures are ‘lesser’ than we are, the arousal of the passions in reading about them is thereby reduced, and we are better able to focus on the moral lesson at hand. “We sympathize with the lamb,” Lessing writes, “but this sympathy is so weak that it has no noticeable impact upon our intuitive knowledge of the moral principle.”
I find the first argument interesting, and the second one deplorable. I also find that Lessing’s engagement with the topic leaves a great many considerations completely unexplored.
The second argument seems to me patently false: even though we have strong species-based loyalties in our reasoned moral commitments, these loyalties are most likely to be suspended when, as in a fable, an anthropomorphized animal occupies a role that in another genre of story-telling would be held by a human being. The substitutability of an animal for a human in a fable brings with it, I think, the transferability of sympathy, as well as the other passions that some people, including Lessing, might ordinarily reserve, at least in their strongest form, for members of their own species.