The claim to the throne of the universe on the part of what Montaigne called “the most vulnerable and frail of all creatures,” he regarded as vainglorious impudence, man dressing himself up in the robe of divinity, separating himself from “the horde of other creatures,” distributing to them “such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit.” Amused by the presumption, Montaigne took the trouble to ask follow-up questions:
“How does he [man] know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret internal stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?… It is a matter of guesswork whose fault it is that we do not understand one another; for we do not understand them any more than they do us. By this same reasoning they may consider us beasts, as we consider them.”
“We need,” said (Henry) Beston, “another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err… They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves within the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
For 2,500 years it has been known to the students of nature that the more one learns about animals, the more wonderful they become.
The environmental casualty reports filed from the four corners of the earth over the last two hundred years don’t leave much ground for argument on Montaigne’s question as to who is the beast and who is the man? Whether attempted by men armed with test tubes or bulldozers, the conquest of nature is a fool’s errand. However it so happens that the beasts manage to live not only at ease within the great chain of being but also in concert with the tides and the season and the presence of death, it is the great lesson they teach to humanity. Either we learn it, or we go the way of the great auk.