Aristotle and “Divinanimality”

I am working on a major project on animals in/and the (mostly canonical) gospels. I interact a bit with Derrida’s works, The Animal that Therefore I Am (Following) and the two-volume Beast & the Sovereign. In the latter he develops his ideas of “divinanimality” on the various ways in which humans categorize the divine and animals in similar ways. In the New Testament and the gospels in particular, Stephen Moore has been one of those on the forefront of bringing Derrida into dialogue with biblical materials in post-humanistic and non-humanistic readings. 

Yet, as I am preparing an ethics course, I am re-reading Aristotle’s Nicomachian Ethics and discovered that Derrida was not even close to the first to position the animal and the divine similarly vis-à-vis the human: Aristotle had already done so millennia beforehand.  He contrasts divine excellence with animal brutishness and the (rare) occurrence of a human to become either one (put with social stuff?):

So if, as they say, men become gods because of an excess of excellence, clearly the disposition opposed to brutishness will be one of this sort; for just as animals cannot possess badness, or excellence, so neither can a god, his state being something more honoured than excellence, while that of an animal is different in kind from badness.  And given that it is a rare thing for a man to be godlike (‘a godlike man’ is what, in their dialect, the Spartans like to call someone they particularly admire), so too the brutish type of human being is rare; it occurs most among non-Greeks, though some cases develop through disease or disablement too – and we do also use the word for those who exceed other humans in badness, as a term of opprobrium.

Aristotle, Nicomachian Ethics VII.1 (1145a24—33); trans. Rowe.

Just as an excellent human can be compared to – or even become – something that exceeds the category of excellence, a god, so can a particularly bad human be compared to or become something that exceeds the category of badness, an animal.  Animals and human stand outside of the human ethical order.  This idea that both brutes (wild animals) and gods stand outside the human sphere, separate from civilization – they are both, in a sense, vis-à-vis humans, “wild” or “undomesticated” – approaches but does not equal what we see in the religious traditions in which gods have animal attributes or vice versa.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: