Animal Reason; Human Compulsion

By Jeannie Miller
Submitted to Session P4862 (The Beast in Image, Text and Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
7th-13th Centuries;
This paper tracks the theme of inexplicable and unwanted inner compulsions in a sequence of Abbasid literary texts that claim to present a reasoned approach to life. In all three cases, irrational compulsions exceed the explanatory power of humoral ethics, and are intertwined with the distinction between humans and animals. This suggests an element to the Abbasid conception of human psychology that extended beyond the humoral and ethical categories that have been so far understood.
1) Kalila wa-Dimna uses animals to naturalize an ethics governed by self-interest and instrumental reason. This stands in contrast to the idiosyncratic, self-defeating, and irrational behavior of humans that needs to be corrected by taking animals as a model. The use of animal characters in animal scenarios serves to highlight the irrationality of the distinctively human behaviors they perform, positing what we might call “animal reason” as normative.
2) al-Jahiz’s animal dramas play out against this backdrop of ethical thought. He cites an anonymous party who argues that self-destructive animals are monstrous and terrifying - and linked to category exceptions. This view follows the logic outlined in Kalila wa-Dimna, that compulsions and idiosyncracies ought to be the exclusive domain of humans. But this question of self-destructive behavior seems to be less of an issue for al-Jahiz himself, who rejects these claims of monstrosity and doesn't engage in questions about deviations from “animal reason.” For him, the exceptional behaviors of individual animals are comparable to the exceptional behaviors and features of species, all of which contribute to Creation’s balance between pattern and exception. Instead, the frightening and uncontrolled element in human behavior lies, for al-Jahiz, in language. This analysis draws on and expands T?riq al-Nu?m?n’s comments on the introduction to al-Jahiz’s Kit?b al-Bay?n wal-Taby?n.
3) Al-Tanukhi recounts the story of the courtier who stole a yellow carpet from the caliph and got away with it because he suffered from a compulsive kleptomania for all things yellow. This is one of several stories of astonishing compulsions recounted by al-Tanukhi, making it a particular theme in his work. Al-Tanukhi, however, reverses the relation of compulsions to the human from the approach taken in Kal?la wa-Dimna, for al-Tanukhi’s compulsives become animal-like when pushed to the extreme. Yet this is not the animality of herd animals or wild beasts, but rather the monstrous animality of the too-human creatures described by al-Jahiz's anonymous party.