Sunday 1 September 2013

The Philosophical Donkey (2013)

From The Philosopher, Volume 101 No. 2
Special Donkey Edition

(L’Âne Philosophe*)

By Jean-Michel Henny

What is it about donkeys?  For whether it is the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (better known under the title The Golden Ass); the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, such as the famous tale of the miller, his son and their donkey, or the misfortunes of the mischievous Cadichon, donkey of the countess of Ségur (Memoirs of a Donkey), let alone the adventures of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, the equus asinus has always enjoyed great popularity in literary culture.  His presence in philosophical texts is, though more discrete, not less significant.

An ambiguous character

In the Middle Ages, the name of the scholastic doctor Jean Buridan (Joannes Buridanus, 1292-1363) became forever famous through association with a thought experiment that depicts a donkey faced with a cruel dilemma: how to choose between two equally attractive options. Confronted with a pail of oats and a bucket of water, he doesn’t know with which to begin and so it seems must perish of hunger and thurst.  It is an example of an absurd dilemma, that posterity will call 'Buridan's Ass', a paradoxical injunction or a double constraint (double bind).  For the fulfillment of either one of the constraints indeed implies the neglect of the other.

Curiously, Buridan himself never used the example of the donkey. The original example of a man equally placed between food and water is from Aristotle (in On the Heavens, 295b32), and it is this that Buridan discusses, using at various points the example of a traveller who must choose between a choice of two routes and the case of a dog offered two equally tempting portions of food. It was rather critics of Buridan who intend to ridicule his position in the long-running debate over free will and determinism who created the famous donkey.

And so, over the period of the Renaissance, the donkey figures multiply and become evidence of an ambiguous symbolism.  Yet, as it happens, our donkey hasn't always had the reputation of narrow-mindedness and stupidity that certain idiomatic expressions lend him today: ( 'stubborn as a mule', 'stupid as an ass', 'donkey job' and 'to talk the hind legs off a donkey'.  Far from it, in Antiquity comparing a man to an ass was rather flattering.  That is why, Homer praises Ajax in battle in the following terms:

Just as when some donkey taken past a cornfield - a stubborn beast on whose sides many sticks are broken - bolts from boys tending it and goes on to munch deep corn, even as the boys beat it with sticks, so, although their strength is small, evenually they will drive it out once it's had its fill. That is how proud Trojans and allies from many lands pushed back great Ajax, son of Telamon,their spears always prodding at the centre of his shield.

In the story of The Golden Ass, said to be the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, the figure of our animal will take a decisive turn. The novel tells the story of a young man, Lucius, transformed into a donkey, who experiences many adventures before finally regaining his human form.  The text has given rise to many interpretations and speculations. One of the most faithful to the likely intentions of its author, Lucius Apuleius; (who lived around 125 –180 C.E.) seems to be the one by Jacques Annequin, an historian who assumes that one of the best-known passages of the story of Apuleius – the tale of Eros and Psyche – is in fact, a mise en abyme (a smaller version of the whole, the phrase means, in the terminology of heraldry, 'put in the center') of the entire novel, and as one of its main interpretation keys. Jacques Annequin compares the donkey condition of the hero Lucius to the slave condition imposed on Psyche. Psyche, the most beautiful woman in the world, is thus punished to atone for her curiosity.  Through the loss of a free form of humanity and through  the test of submission, both the beautiful Psyche as well as the donkey Lucius experience their dual nature, discover their dark side and learn the virtues of patience. Eventually, after all his tribulations, when the hero recovers his form (after eating sacred roses) he declares: 'I myself, I will always keep my donkey personality in grateful remembrance, hidden under this facade, tried and tested by mixed fortunes. I owe to him  if not more wisdom, at least more knowledge.'

This positive attitude of the donkey, constructed out of humility and endurance, is also to be found in the context of the Holy Scriptures. To grasp the full significance of this though, we must recall the importance of animals in rural societies around the Mediterranean. Valued for their patient toil in the fields, as a means of transport, and - even before the horse -  as a war horse! This is why, in the Bible, the donkey is associated with royalty, as recalled this verse of the prophet Zechariah: 'Behold, your king is coming, humble and riding on a donkey.'

When, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, shortly before suffering his Passion (that is, his arrest and public execution by crucifixion) he rides a donkey too. This is how Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah as well as how he demonstrates to the crowd that comes to cheer him the peaceful nature of his reign.

Thus nourished by these references from Antiquity and the Bible, numerous authors of the Renaissance sought regular resort to the figure of the donkey. In a beautiful essay entitled Giordano Bruno and the Philosophy of the Ass, Nuccio Ordine makes of them an erudite inventory that I will try here to evoke briefly.

It is the man of letters and politician, Giovanni Pontano (1429-1503), who first takes up the theme of the donkey again, in a bitter dialogue simply entitled Asinus (1486-1490). This text recounts the misadventures of the author, who, after having quit active life, has retired to the countryside with a donkey and then tries to establish with him a form of 'friendly' relationship.  It goes badly, and he quickly becomes the victim of kicks and bites by his companion. Giovanni Pontano then concludes that any attempt to have a friendly relationship with a wild animal is bound to be unsuccessful:

This is what most often happens to those who want to wash the head of a donkey: in addition to wasting their trouble, they lose the soap!

He who admires a donkey will end up as a donkey. In contrast to this negative view, Nicolas Machiavelli (1469-1527) deals with the donkey in a little poem in triplets, probably written around 1517 and left unfinished, called dell'Asino d'oro (The Golden Ass). Renewing the theme of Apuleius, he gives this time a positive meaning to asinity (seen as an essential part of  the animal nature, with all its wildness, savagery, and brutality feritas), providing the opportunity to distance oneself from humanist values seen as too rigid. The richness of man actually lies in his ability to move, in accordance with the opportunities and setbacks of Fortune, between the top and bottom, the serious style and the comic style. The poet and philosopher will therefore praise the variety of modes of existence and this human ability to change, in the face of  the instability of the world and its forms of government.

Giovan Battista Pino, diplomat and man of letters of the mid-sixteenth century, ambassador of the people of Naples to Charles V, publishes in his turn, in 1550, a Ragionamento sovra de l'asino (A Discourse on the Donkey). Very au fait with the asinine literature, Pino features a truculent character, Padre Arculano, who delights his audience - guests at a banquet - develops a donkey panegyric, demonstrating its universal character and superiority over all other animals. Pino's Discours is not homogeneous at all but rather resembles a sort of compilation of all the good stories and proverbs known to the author about his favourite animal. Inventing the most unbridled puns and etymologies, he closely links the word asino to the one for man, omo, in old Italian, seeking, in the tradition of Machiavelli, to show that there cannot be a donkey without a man nor a man without a donkey, and that these two 'somehow correspond to each other'. It is in the assumption of this dual nature - half-man, half-beast - that Pino believes that we can 'achieve a temperament of life such that we can be thankful for.'

However, paradoxically, it is through the theme of ignorance that many authors will come to honour the donkey. Giulio Landi in his Orazione della ignoranza (1551) (literally 'Prayer of ignorance') finds in the lack of knowledge a dynamic principle, 'a very vigorous and very powerful spur to the will to understand and know'. He vituperates, on the contrary, against the arrogance of the pedants and false scholars, too quickly inclined to denounce the ignorance of others and ignore their own shortcomings. In another text of this period Meglio che è esser ignorante che dotto (Better to be ignorant than learned) Ortensio Lando defends similar views but this time grants knowledge a negative value. He even encourages readers to abandon their studies, declaring, 'whoever adds to science, adds to pain.'

In 1587, in a novella, Orazione in lode dell'ignoranza (Oration in praise of ignorance), the man of letters, Cesare Rao, returns to the paradox by defining two types of scholars: the ignorant scholar and the scholarly ignoramus. The first represents a certain type of arrogant humanist, uptight about their knowledge, while the second, aware of their shortcomings, is willing to recognise the infinite and unfinished quest for knowledge. In his introduction, Rao explains to his readers that he does not, of course, intend to disparage all the scholars, but only to condemn those who 'abuse their art', likewise, he does not wish to encourage ignorance but to introduce us to a 'new concept'.It is up to an author of genius to draw the full potential of this 'new concept' - Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). From the ambiguous virtues of the donkey, he will ferment a system of thought considered so subversive by his contemporaries that it will cost him his life.

Asinus ad lyram

Born and brought up in the Italian countryside near the village of Nola, not far of Naples, Giordano Bruno is one of history's great, original thinkers, a slayer of the Aristotelian tradition and forerunner of modern science, especially with his theories on the infinity of worlds. These views, very audacious for his time, brought him, however, after eight years of trial, condemnation by the Inquisition and the fate of being burned in public. A master of the arts of memory, he nourishes his works with multiple references and allusions that make them difficult to understand.  According to the stimulating interpretation of Nuccio Ordine, that which many consider the 'obscurity' of writings such as The Ash Wednesday Supper actually derives from a form of thinking in which movement and the union of opposites occupy an essential place. And so, the question of the donkey and its features (the 'asinity') are, to Nuccio Ordine, privileged keys to enter the Brunean universe. Together, they help to understand two of Bruno's major works: The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584) and Cabal of the Cheval Pegasus  1585).

In these two treatises, published a year apart, Bruno attempts an extensive reform of human understanding and fights superstition of all kinds.  He also attacks certain categories of scholars who, in his eyes, embody the negative side of the asinine figure.  Such pedants, imbued with their knowledge, are asses in the most common and negative sense of the word.  First of all they sin by laziness. The discovery of the New World and the simple manners of indigenous peoples, on the one hand, the cruelty of wars of religion, on the other, shake their faith in civilization.  The first fault of such people is that they have come to believe in the myth of the golden age and to rent a 'natural' lifestyle, contemplative and empty, while their second flaw is arrogance.

Sceptics or Aristotelians, their attitude is the same. They are too convinced of their own cleverness. Convinced either that they know everything (in the case of the disciples of Aristotle) or nothing (in the case of the sceptics). But their most serious sin, in the eyes of Giordano Bruno, consists in their immobility, in their one-dimensional conception of science and the world. Eternal, immutable, simple, consistent, always identical, and identical everywhere, this is the ideal of knowledge that our philosopher denounces as a 'tautology of knowledge'. In contrast to this vision of science, the design of Bruno is pluralistic and dynamic. All his cosmology and metaphysics presuppose the existence of an infinite universe, decentralised, eminently varied and variable, constantly changing and in perpetual transformation. In this context, the figure of the donkey takes on a positive significance because it embodies several useful virtues in the adventure of the pursuit of knowledge.  The meaning of work and endurance is precious to him as he faces the setbacks of existence as well as allowing him to persevere in his conquest of civilization.

'Whoever wants to unlock the secrets and penetrate into the hidden refuges of wisdom must necessarily … be sober and patient, and have the muzzle, the head and the back of a donkey: he must have a humble, reserved and modest disposition, and senses that do not make a difference between thistles and lettuce.'

The donkey, instead, 'presents himself as an example of humility and tolerance, essential virtues in science and wisdom'.

But the feature that above all makes our donkey the symbol of the wise man is his ability to adapt to unexpected movements of reality. As Machiavelli well understood, Fortune is a fickle goddess.  Under its action the wheel turns, and he who finds himself at the top, may soon find himself at the bottom.  Giordano Bruno is well placed to know this, he who, after having been the King of France's protégé for five years, must wander throughout Europe until his arrest by the Inquisition.  To follow the 'swings and roundabouts of the world' (le branle du monde, according to the famous expression of Bruno's contemporary, Michel de Montaigne), to cope with the vicissitudes and the many faces of existence, or to accept, finally, the changes in ones own personality, nothing beats the perseverance of the donkey and his intelligence to deal with reality.  This virtue, so musical, capable of discerning the dissonant from the consonant of life, can be subsumed under the Latin phrase Asinus ad lyram ('an ass at the lyre', a donkey trying to play a harp).  The phrase, so pejorative in the writings of Erasmus, aquires a positive meaning with Bruno, through the reconciliation he brings about between the animal with the long ears and the god Mercury, master of the metamorphosis and supposed inventor of the musical instrument.

Ears' stories

Nearly three hundred years later, the figure of the donkey reappears with an author who, by the vivacity of his intellect and his polemic nature, is reminiscent of Giordano Bruno: Friedrich Nietzsche.  This time again we are dealing with an asinity that is essentially negative and satirical.  As explained by François Brémondy in his Bestiary of Friedrich Nietzsche, Zarathustra describes the donkeys as 'illustrious sages' who, unlike the free spirits, support and flatter people. Nietzsche is probably here taking aim at the great intellectual figures of his time, such as the philosopher and economist Karl Eugen Dühring (1833-1921) or, also, the novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) who the poet Charles Baudelaire himself had qualified as the  âne de génie , the 'donkey genius'.  Nietzsche will take over this expression to comment as follows:

He, the plebeian, is at the command of his excessive sensuality.  I mean, at the orders of his ears and eyes and his mind also is made submissive - this in effect forms the basis of French romanticism, this plebeian reaction of taste ...

It is only very exceptionally that the figure of the donkey takes a positive turn with the German philosopher, as in this passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

You say to me: Life is hard to bear...  But do not act so tenderly!  We are all of us fair beasts of burden, male and female asses.  What do we have in common with the rosebud, which trembles because a drop of dew lies on it?

However, unlike Bruno's ass, the ability of the Nietzschean animal to endure not only the weight of life, but more importantly, the negative side of reality, quickly made him despicable.  Because, just like the camel in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Nietzschean donkey represents the stadium of the mind that bears and supports the values of nihilism.  When the donkey says 'no', it's under the influence of resentment, and his 'yes' (ja, ja, I-aaa) is not a 'yes' to life but merely acceptance of the reality, 'what he is', without other form of criticism or imagination.  As Gilles Deleuze notes, with reference to a Nietzschean interpretation in which Dionysius represent excess and love for life:

... the donkey is the caricature and the betrayal of the Dionysian Yes : it asserts but only asserts the products of nihilism.  In this way too, his long ears oppose to the small, round and labyrinthine ears of Dionysus and Ariane.

In the Twentieth century, the donkey-philosopher is curiously absent.  His literary, moral, and satirical dimension seem strange to the principal currents of thought of this century. Nevertheless, the genre of this philosophical tale and fable is not yet finished.

Quite recently the Flemish author, Frank Adam, has brought into being a new Donkey-avatar with his Confessions into a Donkey's Ear, a collection of short stories in which he delivers us a delightful character half way between philosopher and therapist.  For, after having escaped the stable of Bethlehem, the donkey has installed himself at the borders of the desert.  There he receives the visit of strange characters: a woman therapist in need of therapy herself, a foundling, a funeral director, an ox, an old friend, a clown-philosopher who kills hyperintelligent children, a clumsy woman-suicide bomber… even God in person!  These encounters provide an opportunity to show the fickleness of the human soul. 

In the manner of a somewhat wacky, but likable, Socrates, the donkey lends one ear to his confessors while asking questions which allow them to explore to the end of their obsessions (and maybe also of ours).

* A version of this article in French  is available here.

Read two of Frank Adam's intriguing 'Belgian Fables - from the Age of Absurdity', as well as Frank Hellemans on on the fable as subversive genre throughout literature and philosophy here

Contact details: Jean-Michel Henny
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