Thursday, October 10, 2013

In Defense of Insects

Cloudless Sulphur in my asters.
I'm reviewing David Clough's On Animals and I just came across a gem in its pages.  The "gem" is from Edward Payson Evans’ book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.  I had no idea Evans' book existed, so part of the fun was simply learning that there have been hundreds of criminal cases in human history where animals have been placed on trial and given court-appointed lawyers.  Another part of the fun was learning that someone took the time to compile them in a book.

The first paragraph below is from Clough, the second from Evans.  This is one for the office door, I think, since it details a court case in 1545 in which weevils were put on trial, and had a court-appointed lawyer.  I like the way the judge decides that the earth is not for us only, but also for the weevils:
“One example will serve to indicate the seriousness with which the court proceedings against animals were taken.  Evans records the case of the wine-growers of St Julien in 1545, who complained that weevils were ravaging their vineyards.  The official, François Bonnivard, heard the arguments of Pierre Falcon for the plaintiffs and Claude Morel in defence of the weevils, before deciding to issue a proclamation rather than passing sentence.  The proclamation was as follows:
“Inasmuch as God, the supreme author of all that exists, hath ordained that the earth should bring forth fruits and herbs not solely for the sustenance of rational human beings, but likewise for the preservation and support of insects, which fly about on the surface of the soil, therefore it would be unbecoming to proceed with rashness and precipitance against the animals now actually accused and indicted; on the contrary, it would be more fitting for us to have recourse to the mercy of heaven and to implore pardon for our sins.”  (Clough, p. 110; citation from Evans, 38-39; boldface emphasis is mine.)
This is a reminder that while theology can have terrible consequences, theologies and other stories we tell about ourselves can have fascinating, helpful, and thought-broadening consequences as well.  Here the story of creation is deployed to remind us that we are not sole masters of the world.  God is invoked as creator of everything to insist that the world is there for God - and so for everything God made - and not just for us.  The world is, apparently, even there for the insects.  Haldane's famous quip about God's "inordinate fondness for beetles" finds serious support here.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Demosthenes' "Against Meidias"

Tonight I am reading Demosthenes' Against Meidias.  Why? Because nothing prevents me from doing so, and books like this repay the reader many times over for the little effort it takes to read them.

The text is full of citations of Athenian law, and both its structure and content tell us a great deal about ancient jurisprudence.

Demosthenes also gives us some gems of ancient legal reasoning, reminding us that there is very little new under the sun.  For instance: Meidias, a wealthy and brutish man, assaulted Demosthenes while Demosthenes was performing a sacred state function.  Meidias then claimed that such assaults happen all the time, and therefore his was unimportant.  Demosthenes replied that the decision of the court will affect not only this single case but that it will have the effect of deterring future assaults as well.

But on this reading I am especially enjoying Demosthenes as a handbook of erudite Attic insults.  His repeated epithet against Euctemon, Ευκτημων ο κονιορτος, "dust-raising Euctemon" or "Dirty old Euctemon" is a minor example.

A far better one is this one, aimed at Meidias:
“If, men of Athens, public service consists in saying to you at all the meetings of the Assembly and on every possible occasion, ‘We are the men who perform the public services; we are those who advance your tax-money; we are the capitalists” – if that is all it means, then I confess that Meidias has shown himself the most distinguished citizen of Athens.” (Section 153; Taken from the Loeb edition. J.H. Vince, Trans. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1956) p.107)
He hardly needs to say what follows: of course, public service consists in much more than that, and by offering these public rebukes against a man like this I am fulfilling one of my highest duties.  Powerful people who use their power to abuse their fellow citizens deserve no less.