Article: Animal Metaphors in Stoicism - The Bull and the Lion
I'm still working on this so any feedback is welcome. I'll try to incorporate changes and make improvements.
I noticed that there are quite a few interesting references to animals in the ancient Stoic literature and decided to pool them together and see if there was a consistent theme. I found it quite enjoyable to bring these metaphors together because it seemed to make the Stoic literature seem a bit more "colourful", for want of a better way of putting it!
I'd say it looks like Epictetus is influenced by some earlier (presumably Stoic, although possibly Pythagorean or Platonic) tradition that classifies people's characters by analogy with different types of animal. He, and to some extent Marcus Aurelius, use these analogies to illustriate different aspects of Stoicism. What also seems to emerge is the repeated use of one particular metaphor: the bull who defends the herd against the lion. Epictetus at one point explicitly states that this is like the "good man" in Stoic philosophy. It's probably worth noting that he could (possibly) have in mind the well-known association between Zeus and the image of a bull.
- Hi Donald,
I don't have time to read your paper, but I do think you are right that the ancient philosophers made use of metaphors, including animal metaphors. Some metaphors they used are not only colorful ornaments of philosophical discourse but absolutely essential to make philosophical points. Already, early in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, the soul is assumed to be the sort of thing that can be improved by training, which presupposes the metaphor "The soul is an animal." (To be precise, the sort of animal that can be trained.) Socrates' uses this in the Apology when he refutes Meletus by arguing that nobody intentionally corrupts their companions because to make one's companions worse is to expose oneself to injury by those companies. Training, which "improves" what is trained, is just the contrary process to corrupting, which makes that which is corrupted worse.)
The idea of moral improvement as a sort of training is essential to Aristotle's conception of moral virtue as something like a habit, a firm disposition, of the soul. To be sure, the logic has been refined by this point, with Plato's and then Aristotle's distinction between the rational and the not-necessarily-rational parts of the soul. For Aristotle, the moral virtues are primarily the result of training of the not-necessarily-rational parts of the soul, the passions, to follow (right) reason. The Stoics, of course, modify this analysis making all the virtues more or less intellectual virtues, i.e., firm dispositions (habits) to judge correctly.
If you are interested in more fully understanding the essential role of metaphor in philosophical thinking, I highly recommend George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999).
--- In email@example.com, "Donald Robertson" <don.robertson@...> wrote:
> I'm still working on this so any feedback is welcome. I'll try to
> incorporate changes and make improvements.
> I noticed that there are quite a few interesting references to animals
> in the ancient Stoic literature and decided to pool them together and
> see if there was a consistent theme. I found it quite enjoyable to
> bring these metaphors together because it seemed to make the Stoic
> literature seem a bit more "colourful", for want of a better way of
> putting it!
> I'd say it looks like Epictetus is influenced by some earlier
> (presumably Stoic, although possibly Pythagorean or Platonic) tradition
> that classifies people's characters by analogy with different types of
> animal. He, and to some extent Marcus Aurelius, use these analogies to
> illustriate different aspects of Stoicism. What also seems to emerge is
> the repeated use of one particular metaphor: the bull who defends the
> herd against the lion. Epictetus at one point explicitly states that
> this is like the "good man" in Stoic philosophy. It's probably worth
> noting that he could (possibly) have in mind the well-known association
> between Zeus and the image of a bull.
> Donald Robertson
Here’s an excerpt from the article for discussion. You can read the whole thing via the link to my blog below:
The Bull and the Lion
Even among animals, though, some excel in terms of their animal nature and this is something Epictetus frequently refers to, particularly using the metaphor of the strong bull who protects the rest of the herd. The Stoics worshipped Zeus and refer to him frequently throughout their writings. Epictetus does not explicitly state that the image of the bull is linked to Zeus and so we cannot assume he has that in mind. However, it’s likely that most of his students would have easily connected the two ideas as Zeus was often symbolised as a white bull, (as in the image shown here in which Zeus is carrying Europa). Although cattle in general are sometimes looked down upon in his Discourses, the bull is several times praised as a metaphor for an exceptional or good man, i.e., the ideal Stoic Sage:
It was asked, How shall each of us perceive what belongs to his character? Whence, replied Epictetus, does a bull, when the lion approaches, alone recognize his own qualifications, and expose himself alone for the whole herd? It is evident that with the qualifications occurs, at the same time, the consciousness of being imbued with them. And in the same manner, whoever of us hath such qualifications will not be ignorant of them. But neither is a bull nor a gallant-spirited man formed all at once. We are to exercise, and qualify ourselves, and not to run rashly upon what doth not concern us. (Discourses, 1)
Here one ought nobly to say, “I am he who ought to take care of mankind.” For it is not every little paltry heifer that dares resist the lion; but if the bull should come up, and resist him, would you say to him, “Who are you? What business is it of yours?” In every species, man, there is some one quality which by nature excels, – in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not say to whatever excels, “Who are you?” If you do, it will, somehow or other, find a voice to tell you, ” I am like the purple thread in a garment. Do not expect me to be like the rest; nor find fault with my nature, which has distinguished me from others.” (Discourses, 3)
You are a calf; when the lion appears, act accordingly, or you will suffer for it. You are a bull; come and fight; for that is incumbent on you and becomes you, and you can do it. (Discourses, 3)
The bull is clearly equated with the “good man” below, a synonym for the Sage, and the metaphor of a hunting dog is employed in a similar manner:
For who that is charged with such principles, but must perceive, too, his own powers, and strive to put them in practice. Not even a bull is ignorant of his own powers, when any wild beast approaches the herd, nor waits he for any one to encourage him; nor does a dog when he spies any game. And if I have the powers of a good man, shall I wait for you to qualify me for my own proper actions? (Discourses, 4)
In another passage he employs another similar metaphor, equating the role of the bull with that of the queen bee:
But what have you to do with the concerns of others? For what are you? Are you the bull in the herd, or the queen of the bees? Show me such ensigns of empire as she has from nature. But if you are a drone, and arrogate to yourself the kingdom of the bees, do you not think that your fellow-citizens will drive you out, just as the bees do the drones? (Discourses, 3)
Marcus Aurelius mentions a similar metaphor, which he extends to the ram who guards the flock of sheep:
If any have offended against thee, consider first: What is my relation to men, and that we are made for one another; and in another respect, I was made to be set over them, as a ram over the flock or a bull over the herd. (Meditations)