Milan Kundera on Animal Rights and What True Human Goodness Really Means – The Marginalian


“Man, do not exalt yourself above the animals,” Dostoyevsky admonished in his largehearted case for animal rights.

A quarter century before him, on the other side of the world, Whitman instructed in his radiant advice on life to “love the earth and sun and the animals,” then went on to celebrate the dignity of nonhuman animals as creatures “so placid and self-contain’d” that they put our human follies to shame:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

These were radical ideas in an age of religious revival, flaming with the dogma that an omnipotent God placed atop his creation the human animal, entitled to owning and using and murdering other creatures — dogma Descartes had lodged into the body of secular culture two centuries earlier with his coronation of “Man” as the “master and proprietor of nature,” anchored in his belief that other animals are non-conscious automatons, which he set out to prove by vivisecting his wife’s beloved dog.

A century after Dostoyevsky and Whitman, just before the dawn of a new science illuminating the wonders of non-human minds, Milan Kundera (April 1, 1929–July 11, 2023) challenged these dogmas in a poignant aside from his classic 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (public library).

In the final pages of the novel, reckoning with the meaning of power and of tenderness, Kundera aims his mischievous humor at humanity’s hubris:

The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse.

Art by Ralph Steadman from the special 50th anniversary edition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

An epoch after Kepler invented science fiction as he challenged humanity’s cosmically egocentric view with the simple perspective-shift of imagining how denizens of the Moon would assume the Earth revolves around them, Kundera uses a kindred cosmic analogy to dethrone the human animal from the center of creation:

The right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars. The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game — a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, “Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars” — and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice on his dinner plate and apologize (belatedly) to the cow.

At the heart of this murderous self-importance is our troubled relationship to power — the power within and between selves, its confused uses and abuses, its role as a mirror for our emotional incompleteness. Out of it arises the entire dynamic system we call society and all the inner turmoil of discerning where we end and the world begins. Kundera writes:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotion — love, antipathy, charity, or malice — and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage edition of Aesop’s fables

Complement with the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler’s prescient case for animal rights, the great nature writer Henry Beston on the dignity of our fellow creatures, and naturalist Sy Montgomery on what thirteen animals taught her about how to be a good creature, then revisit Kundera on the power of coincidences, the central ambivalences of life and love, and the key to great storytelling


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