In Defence of Frances Power Cobbe

On the web-site of Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency for animal research in the U.K.), an article has recently been posted under the heading ‘Why the anti-vivisection movement took an absolutist view’. It’s written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee, and his subject is Frances Power Cobbe, who was the person most responsible for bringing vivisection into the reach of a dedicated law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.

That Act, momentous as it was, in fact painfully disappointed Frances Cobbe, because the promising bill which had started out in the House of Lords a few weeks earlier had been “mutilated” (her word) during its passage, in order to make it acceptable to the medical profession.  One of Miss Cobbe’s fellow-campaigners, the social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, hoped to reassure her by describing the Act as “a foundation on which to build amendments hereafter as evidence and opportunity shall be offered to us”. But in fact it never was amended, and for 110 years it inadequately oversaw the expansion of animal research in the U.K., from the few hundreds of animals used annually at the time of its introduction, to peaks of five million and more in the 1970s.

Chris Magee brings Frances Cobbe’s legacy right up to date, and blames the “140 years of astonishingly little progress towards her aims” on her decision, as leader of the anti-vivisection movement and of its first collective, the Victoria Street Society, to campaign in future for nothing short of abolition. He declares that “there are two things which push progress on – messy compromises and technological innovation”. These, he says, have brought whatever relief to laboratory animals they’ve enjoyed since the days of Frances Cobbe, and she must have realised this would be so: “She knew that by her approach, more animals would suffer.”

So why did Frances Cobbe take, as the UAR title has it, “an absolutist view”? Magee quotes from Cobbe’s autobiography some of her “tenuous reasons”, and finds them unconvincing. His preferred explanation refers the matter more simply to her own psyche. She “didn’t get her way” and chose, for the sake of “her personal narrative” to characterize the half-success, which the Act in fact represented, as “a great betrayal”. She, at least, would remain untainted by compromise. In fact she wanted to be high-minded more than she wanted to help animals: choosing “her soul over their wellbeing”, Magee calls it. More generally – for his account is also a critique of the abolitionist ideal, whoever holds it – he uses the phrase “burnishing one’s halo”.

I don’t think that Frances Cobbe did use that word ‘betrayal’ in anything she wrote about the 1876 Act, and I’d be surprised to find it in the thinking of so disciplined and unself-pitying a personality. Still, that episode did very reasonably come as a hideous shock and disillusionment to her.

It’s not that she was unused to failures or to deferred results in such matters. She was already an experienced campaigner and lobbyist, notably on women’s legal rights and women’s suffrage. Her active strife against vivisection had begun in Florence in 1863, where she had organised a ‘memorial’ or petition against the ruthless vivisections being conducted by Professor Schiff. He, of course, was unmoved by the list of important names: ‘a pile of aristocrats’ the republican professor called it, or words to that effect. But Frances Cobbe only concedes that  “The memorial, as often happens, did no direct good.” [FPC’s italics here and throughout] The implication is clear enough, and when more than ten years later she put together a petition urging the R.S.P.C.A. to sponsor a bill restricting vivisection in the U.K., the failure of that proposal didn’t demoralize her either. Supported by the public attention which she had raised, she took up the management of the project herself. After some parliamentary false starts, the government was pushed by the controversy into setting up the 1875 Royal Commission. The Commission found that vivisection was indeed “from its very nature, liable to great abuse, and … ought to be subjected to due regulation and control.” Accordingly the government agreed to support a bill sketched out by Frances Cobbe and fellow-members of her Victoria Street Society, and it was introduced in the House of Lords by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon.

This bill didn’t propose to prohibit vivisection, but it was an abolitionist bill all the same, for it put dogs, cats, and horses out of bounds altogether. Other animals were to be used in experiments only if anaesthetized. Having government support, the bill seemed certain to pass successfully through Parliament. But there was a delay, during which the medical profession vigorously lobbied the Home Secretary, Richard Cross. The bill was revised accordingly, finished its passage through Parliament, and received royal assent in August of 1876 – surely with reluctance on the part of the Queen, who was as keenly opposed to vivisection as Frances Cobbe herself.

So dogs, cats, and horses were back in the laboratory. They could even be experimented on without anaesthetics, if the licensee applied for and received a special certificate. The Act did introduce inspections of laboratories, licensing of practitioners, and special protections for the dogs, cats, and horses (the certificates). Yet the alterations to Carnarvon’s bill seemed to Frances Cobbe so thorough as “even to make me fear that I had done harm instead of good.” Could the 1876 Act really have made things worse?

The answer, for Cobbe, was premised on the fact that all the controlling – the licensing, certifying, and inspecting – would necessarily be in the hands of fellow-professionals (only unconditional prohibitions escape this fundamental defect). True, the Home Secretary would be in overall charge, but who could depend on the moral sympathies of every successive tenant of that office? Richard Cross had seemed fairly sympathetic, or at least willing to do something to pacify the public concern. His successor, William (‘Buffalo Bill’) Harcourt, was something more than unsympathetic. He was one of the members of Parliament who talked out (i.e. prevented a vote upon) a later anti-vivisection bill sponsored in 1881 by the Victoria Street Society. More drastically, he formally delegated the administration of the Act to the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, as the appropriate experts in the matter. This organisation had been set up in 1882, and had as one of its declared objects to ensure that the Act would be “harmlessly administered”. In this it largely succeeded until the subject of animal research came before another Royal Commission in 1906.

And if the Home Secretary was undependable, the inspectors might be supposed even more reluctant to intervene. After all, it was (so one eminent physiologist had said in 1875) “absurd” to ask an official, however keen he might be to serve the animal interest, “to inspect half a dozen others of at least equal status with himself”. And as to the keen-ness, Frances Cobbe quotes one inspector of the time calling the anti-vivisection campaign which had produced the 1876 Act “a senseless and mischievous agitation”. Meanwhile the licences and certificates would be in the bestowal of the profession, whose agents would of course have sympathy with the aims and practices of the applicants.

But perhaps that sympathy would not anyway be necessary to the success of the applications. Those aims and practices had been given an extraordinary public showing during the Royal Commission: one after another, the new breed of physiologist had justified itself under detailed questioning. Frances Cobbe had not herself given evidence, but “I heard constantly all that went on at the Commission.” When she was later explaining her rejection of half-way measures, she remembered all that. Writing in her pamphlet The Fallacy of Restriction Applied to Vivisection, she argued that once anti-vivisectionists conceded the utilitarian principle, it would mean entering into “inextricable difficulties to determine, next, the point where a little pain, or a greater pain, to one animal or to a thousand animals, ought to be sanctioned to obtain benefit for mankind; and how great or direct that benefit ought to be, and how far be likely of attainment. We fight the battle, in short, thenceforth on our enemy’s ground; and must infallibly be pushed back and back, till all the excesses of scientific cruelty be justified, just as they were by the different witnesses before the Royal Commission.” Among the experiments thus “justified” before the Commission had been the baking and starving of dogs to death, from which indeed something must certainly have been learned. Surely those who could speak confidently of such things in the lay setting of a commission would have little difficulty in convincing less shockable fellow-professionals of their good faith.

What in particular made Frances Cobbe fear that she had “done harm instead of good” was that all these supposed controls over what was done in research had a quid pro quo in the formal entitlement to do that research, which the Act now provided for the first time. Strictly speaking the 1876 Act was an amendment to a more general Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849. Among other things, this earlier law made it an offence to “cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, abuse, or torture … any animal”. Admittedly the only prosecution of a vivisector under that Act had failed, in 1874, but the Act itself had not been found unable in the matter. Now it was made so by the 1876 amendment, which established vivisection as a specially protected case. So, Frances Cobbe writes in her autobiography, “we found that the compromise that we proposed had failed, and that our bill providing the minimum of protection for animals at all acceptable by their friends was twisted into a bill protecting their tormentors”. And it’s at this point that, as she records, “we were driven to raise our demands to the total prohibition of the practice, and to determine to work upon that basis for any number of years till public opinion be ripe for our measure.”

Looking back in the early 1890s, as she wrote her autobiography, over “the heart-breaking delays and disappointments of this weary movement” (“this”, because she never ceased in her active commitment to it), Frances Cobbe came to believe that it was just as well that Carnarvon’s bill had failed. If it had become law, then it would have answered and allayed the concern and indignation aroused during the earlier 1870s. There it would then have endured, whether authoritative or, more probably, ineffectual, in either case steadily mis-educating generations as to the proper relations between humans and other animals. Now, instead, the Act and the practice would be constantly under challenge.

In fact the whole human/animal relation would thereby come under challenge. It’s true that vivisection was a special case, a portentous innovation in the misuse of animals, because it was the practice not of poor men, drunkards, vicious criminals and other such unexemplary types, but of “men who hope to found the Religion of the Future, and to leave the impress of their minds upon their age, and upon generations yet to be born”. Still it was related to all such cruelty, as the title of the 1876 Act made clear. To campaign against vivisection, then, was also to draw continual attention to “the whole department of ethics dealing with man’s relation to the lower animals”. And therefore Frances Cobbe concludes her account of the subject in her autobiography by expressing “my supreme hope that when, with God’s help, our Anti-vivisection controversy ends in years to come, long after I have passed away, mankind will have attained through it a recognition of our duties towards the lower animals far in advance of that which we now commonly hold.” That controversy hasn’t yet ended, but she was surely right in imagining that a much larger conception of animal rights would eventually arise out of the pioneering anti-vivisection movement, if it only kept its nerve and principles.

Chris Magee speaks approvingly of Frances Cobbe as a personality, though in a slightly patronizing way: “I like to think I’d have got on with Frances Power Cobbeher writing style makes it feel a bit like you’ve been hanging out with an educated, thoughtful, and caring and personable individual.” This, I suggest, understates her remarkable force of character. When Cobbe set up the Society offices in Victoria Street in 1876, she made sure that one of the rooms was homely and comfortable – not for her own sake, but to sustain the morale of other women faced with “the frightful character of our work”. Anyone who has looked through her own multitudinous campaigning publications, with their long extracts from reports of experiments, and their illustrations, will feel the force cobbe possible.JPGof that phrase, and admire her accordingly.

And we must remember that she led this campaign against a medical establishment hardly less absolutely masculine in fact and mind-set than the armed services. Magee calls her decision (subsequently incorporated in the rules of the British Union Against Vivisection, which she founded in 1898) not to co-operate in any measure short of prohibition, “a 140 year hissy fit” (= ‘fit of hysterics’?). His mock is not directly aimed at Frances Cobbe herself, but it surely implicates her, and it’s a reminder of some of the things said about her and such as her by contemporary opponents. In private letters, Charles Darwin jeeringly confused the genders of Cobbe and her colleague George Hoggan, and Thomas Huxley referred to her as “that foolish fat scullion”. More publicly, the physiologist and champion of vivisection Elie de Cyon wrote in the Contemporary Review about “hysterical old maids … whose tenderness, despised by man, has flung itself in despair at the feet of cats and parrots.” Portraits of Frances Cobbe, who was indeed unmarried, suggest both how vulnerable she was to such mockery, and also what strength of character she possessed to endure and to rightly estimate it.

Late in her life, Frances Cobbe was left money by a fellow campaigner, so that she who had had to make her own way in the world, and who had never been paid for her long years of campaigning work, was able finally to live in a rather grand house in rural Wales with the woman-friend she loved. I feel glad to picture them there.


Notes and references:

The article by Chris Magee can be read on the UAR web-site at

Wishing to be fair to both parties, I have used the same number of words in my response as Magee uses. I haven’t dealt with the subsequent remarkable achievements in medicine which, Magee rightly says, Cobbe could not have foreseen. He believes that they have subverted her case against vivisection, but her plainly stated view was that “the Elixir Vitae itself would be too dearly purchased” by such means. Nor have I dealt with that part of the anti-vivisection movement which was willing to go on pursuing a gradualist policy, notably the National Anti-Vivisection Society, but it needs saying that after 1898 Frances Cobbe wasn’t making decisions on behalf of the whole movement.

Quotations from Frances Power Cobbe come mainly from the chapter titled ‘The Claims of Brutes’ in Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, which in the American edition published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1894, is in vol.2 at pp.556-634. Other quotations are from the pamphlets Four Reasons for Total Prohibition of Vivisection and The Fallacy of Restriction applied to Vivisection, which are collected with many others written by Frances Cobbe in the volume The Modern Rack, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1889. Both of these books can be read online. Some other information comes from Emma Hopley, Campaigning Against Cruelty: the Hundred Year History of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, BUAV, 1998.

The quotation from the report of the Royal Commission is at p.xvii, in Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876.

Quotation and other information about the aims of the AAMR can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, Michael Joseph 1971, pp.70-77.

The absurdity of expecting a man to supervise his equals in status is argued in a letter written to Charles Darwin by John Scott Burdon Sanderson in April 1875, quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.77.

Huxley’s phrase is quoted in Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, 1997, p.76; de Cyon’s article on the “hysterical old maids” was published in the Contemporary Review, no.43, 1883, pp.498-511.

The photograph is of the portrait plaque of Frances Power Cobbe in Manchester College, Oxford.






The Antiviv: a Hospital without Cruelty

At a biomedical research establishment in Holland shown in the BBC documentary Monkey Lab (BBC3, April 17), a veterinary assistant speaks of her affection for the animals which are used in experiments there:  “Sometimes I really have to cry a little bit … So why do I have this job?” The answer she gives is that she herself uses medicines, and to shun the work which provides them would make her “a hypocrite”.

In one form or another it’s an argument which is frequently used against those who object to vivisection. Someone prepared to benefit from the therapies which medical science produces cannot honourably object to the means used to produce them; or to put it the other way round, anyone who does object to vivisection should refuse its products. And just so that we should know what that implies, the champions of vivisection would like these products to advertise their origins in animal research: “there is a case”, said Lord Winston in a House of Lords debate, “for having legislation to make it clear that a particular drug has only been possible for human consumption because of animal testing. This could be stamped on the packet, rather like a cigarette packet.” This drug, in short, will defeat your ethics. Lord Taverne developed the idea: “it would be beneficial if every general practice surgery displayed a notice stating ‘All the drugs used or recommended in this surgery have been tested on animals.’ ” Merely by consulting a doctor, then, someone opposed to vivisection is discrediting their principles. The aim is to freeze such people out of the health service, or rather, since they have to be a part of it, if only by paying taxes, to freeze out their ethics.

As a matter of fact, living up to their ideals is something that few humans do manage, and I can’t see that the merit of the ideals is compromised by that. As Robert Browning’s artist Andrea del Sarto says, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s Heaven for?” If we don’t aim higher than we can presently get, ethics would become merely a matter of describing how we do behave, not how we ought to. Of course, a campaigner against animal abuse who isn’t vegan is plainly contradicting themselves. But then there’s a real alternative choice there – not to eat animal products – and it’s a choice which anyone can easily make. There is no such choice in modern medicine, here in Britain at least and probably anywhere. The nation has only one health service, it’s supported involuntarily by all who pay taxes, and it’s premised on animal research.

In that sense, medicine is a service like policing, fire-fighting, or defence: you pay for it, and you get it in the one available form, whether you like that or not. If you don’t like it, you must hope and try to have it changed. Meanwhile, you may heroically shun it altogether, or at least use it as little and as judiciously as possible. But it’s as unreasonable to argue that someone who objects to animal research ought to do without the state’s medical assistance as to say that someone who campaigns for changes in the police or fire services should do without police protection or should make their own arrangements about putting their house out if it catches fire.

In fact even before the National Health Service was established in 1948, the medical profession had made animal research an inseparable part of its institutions. This is what made the controversy in Oxford in the mid-1880s so crucial. By building and endowing an animal research laboratory, to the specifications and for the use of one of the nation’s leading practitioners of vivisection (Professor Burdon Sanderson), the University was endorsing and confirming the practice as the way into the profession for its students. Prophetically, then, the man who led the opposition to this development in the University, Bodley’s Librarian E.W.B.Nicholson, warned his colleagues, as the date for the final vote on the subject approached, “If we are beaten then, we are beaten for ever.” To teach medicine as an animal-using discipline was to fix it as such for all subsequent generations of practitioners.

Here’s an illustration of how that works, from ten years previously:

Lord Cardwell (taking evidence during the 1876 Royal Commission on animals in science): Therefore any students who come there, so far as your teaching and influence are concerned, adopt, I presume, the principle that you have adopted?

Dr Klein (professor of pathology at the Brown Institute, London): Yes.

Lord Cardwell: And consider that a physiological inquirer has too much to do to think about the sufferings of the animals.

Dr Klein: Yes.

Even so, attempts have been made to break this monopoly of the vivisectors in medicine, and to provide a cruelty-free alternative. One such was the National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, established at Battersea Park, London, not far from the scene of the 1907 Brown Dog riots (see the post for 7 August 2015). In fact the hospital was itself briefly caught up in those riots when a band of medical students, driven away from the Brown Dog statue itself, made the nearby building its target. Their indignation and violence (more deliberate and destructive, incidentally, than anything that animal rights “extremists” have ever done) reflected a medical training which now committed them in practice and professional allegiance to experimentation on animals. That is, they saw anti-vivisection as a threat, or at least an insult, to their craft, prestige, and livelihood. Fortunately the hospital, like the statue, was adequately defended on that occasion, mainly by the local population.

Here are a few facts about Battersea’s National Antivivisection Hospital, also known as ‘the Antiviv’. It opened in 1903 at Lock’s Folly, 33 Prince of Wales Drive. The money for it had been raised by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, and it was subsequently kept going and expanding largely by donations and bequests from well-off sympathizers. It was located in a poor district of London, to whose people it provided a precious service (doing “great and useful work”, according to Battersea’s mayor in 1907), and these people too supported it, not only by strength of arm as mentioned, but also by fund-raising: carnivals, concerts, boxing tournaments, more poignantly by direct gifts, including free work. By the end of the 1920s, the hospital was treating 400 in-patients and 40,000 out-patients each year.

During all this time the hospital was, in the words of its own board of directors, “a standing protest against cruel experiments on animals, and a concrete demonstration that these are not necessary for the succour of the maimed or the healing of the sick.” Nor was this “protest” merely implicit: there was a notice-board outside which declared the hospital’s principles. The principles were that no experimentation on animals or humans (this last a common and not unfounded fear among working people at the time) would occur on its premises, by way of training or research; there would be no treatments derived from live animals; and its staff would all have signed a declaration against vivisection. It was the opposite, then, of the doctor’s surgery as proposed by Lord Taverne.

Of course the Antiviv had difficulty paying its way. This was a difficulty for all the ‘voluntary’ hospitals (meaning those not owned and funded by local authorities or the state, i.e. most of them). It was exactly in acknowledgement of this general problem that the Prince of Wales ‘s (later King Edward’s) Hospital Fund for London had been set up in 1897. Through this agency, funds were to be raised in a systematic way and distributed to the voluntary hospitals – those of them, at least, which were assessed as efficiently run. Naturally the Battersea Hospital frequently applied for funds from this source, but although the Fund never seems to have found fault with the running of the hospital, it consistently withheld its support. The Fund’s reasoning was variously expressed at different times and by different individuals, but the essential reason was clear: its General Council did not wish to encourage a venture which, as one hospital fund-raiser put it, “casts a great slur upon the profession generally”. Sir Henry Burdett, a leading member of the Council, argued that an anti-vivisection hospital was impossible anyway, because there was no modern medicine or medical treatment which had not at some point involved animal research. To take a stand against it was therefore “humbug”.  Already in 1909, then, the hypocrisy charge was being used to discredit and subvert any effort to make medicine cruelty-free.

The Antiviv closed down in 1935. Its last chair of the board of governors, Lord Ernest Hamilton, blamed the failure on “this ceaseless hostility of King Edward’s Hospital Fund administrators who refused to help us. If they had helped us, we should now be financially solvent, but they have refused to give us a penny.” (It’s an unhappy irony that the Fund had been set up in the first place “to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign” – in tribute, that is, to a monarch who was passionately opposed to what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection … a disgrace to a civilized country”.) That the Antiviv had been working well as a hospital is sufficiently indicated by the fact that, having simply changed its name to the Battersea General Hospital and dropped its anti-vivisection rules, it continued to function as before, in fact went on serving South London until 1972. The building was demolished in 1974, and its address no longer exists: a huge block of modernistic flats now squats on the historied site.

The Antiviv was not the only attempt to set up a cruelty-free health service, but it was the latest to survive. What Burdett said about it, that it couldn’t actually free itself of the products of animal research, was probably true. In fact, that was always a controversial question among its own people, how strict to try to be. In this matter, there can be no innocence any more, and already there could not be then: the medical profession itself had made sure of it. But the “reach” was absolutely right, towards a health service in which the great talents, skills, and practical compassion of the professionals would not be dishonoured by a background in animal exploitation. That the “grasp” failed, for that time, was a tragedy – one that, as we’ve seen, need not have happened. It says nothing about the validity of the ambition, only about the wretched history of its deliberate defeat, that those who champion it are still obliged, if they’re to accept scientific help in time of need, to participate in that dishonour.



Notes and references:

The Lords Winston and Taverne were speaking in the House of Lords debate on the transposition of EU Directive 2010/63 on 31 October, 2011. The subject was debated again in similar terms in that House on 25 October, 2013, with reference to the Medicinal Labelling Bill.

E.W.B.Nicholson’s words come from a letter which he sent to all signatories to the Oxford campaign on 6 March, 1885 (Bodleian Library 1516d.4).

The Cardwell/Klein exchange is from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, p.185.

Information and quotations about the Battersea Hospital come mainly from ‘Boycotted Hospital: The National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, London, 1903-1935’, A.W.H.Bates, Journal of Animal Ethics, vol.6, no.2 (Fall 2016), pp.177-87; also from Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, especially chapter 1 (the “great slur” quotation is from p.19); and from reports in the Times newspaper for 1 October, 1907, and 31 May, 1935 (on the maintenance and then closure of the hospital), and 6 February, 1897 (on the founding of the Prince of Wales’s Hospital Fund).

The words of Queen Victoria are taken from letters written to the Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Home Secretary William Harcourt in the early 1880s (see The Extended Circle, ed. Jon Wynne-Tyson, 1985, p.386).

Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog

There’s a good web-site at which presents the whole case against keeping dogs tied up, with many wretched photographs, plus statistics and instances of the neurotic aggression which the practice trains into the unhappy dog. Seeing it reminds me of one such instance noted by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, in his essay ‘On the Suffering of the World’:     dog03

Never do I see such a dog without feelings of the deepest sympathy for him and of profound indignation against his master. I think with satisfaction of a case, reported some years ago in the Times, where a lord kept a large dog on a chain. One day as he was walking through the yard, he took it into his head to go and pat the dog, whereupon the animal tore his arm open from top to bottom, and quite right too! What he meant was this: ‘You are not my master, but my devil, who makes a hell of my brief existence!’ May this happen to all who chain up dogs.

The strength of feeling in this passage of writing is perhaps not adequately explained by saying that Schopenhauer was fond of dogs, but certainly he was fond of them. He especially liked poodles, and he seems to have kept a sequence of them as companions during his later years – walking them every day, of course (he was a man of strict routines). But in fact he had this same sympathy for all suffering animals. Caged birds, work-horses, farm-animals, the victims of vivisection: for all these, the chained dog was really a type or representative, and accordingly Schopenhauer uses, in another of his essays, that same image for their relation to humanity as a whole, which he uses for the dog’s to its one master: “It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.”

The editor of the otherwise excellent Penguin Classics selection from Schopenhauer’s essays speaks of vivisection as one of his author’s “hobby horses” which, as editor, he has “not hesitated to curb”, i.e. to cut. He at least acknowledges that the theme was a preoccupation of Schopenhauer’s, but he implies that it was an eccentricity or whim separate from Schopenhauer’s main philosophical concerns, which is quite wrong. True, it did have some special biographical, and to that extent non-philosophical, import for him. His first choice of subject at university (in 1809) had been medicine, and in later years he was shocked to see how vivisection, which had been spoken of in his student days as something “cruel and terrible”, resorted to only with reluctance, had become so routine at the time of writing (1850s) that “every little medicine-man thinks he has the right to torment animals in the cruellest fashion in his torture chamber”. In this vehemence Schopenhauer may have been unusual, at least in Germany at that time, but it was no stray caprice. He saw vivisection as part of a systematic abuse of animals in general, and he plainly recognised this abuse as founded on the ethical nonsense that we now (thanks to Richard Ryder’s 1970s coinage) term ‘speciesism’: “This is a morality which knows and values only the precious species that gave it birth; whose special characteristic – reason – it makes the condition under which a being may be an object of moral regard.”

The blame for this species-chauvinism Schopenhauer puts, with a candid atheism most unusual (again) for his time, upon Christianity. In particular he deplores what he calls “that installation scene in the Garden of Eden”, when God “takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation to kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes.” So when Schopenhauer angrily dismisses the “odious and revolting” ethic put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, namely that we ought to treat non-human animals well, not for their own good, but because we thereby cultivate the like habit towards our fellow-humans, it isn’t Kant himself that he rebukes. The notion is after all in no way essential to Kant’s own philosophy, as Schopenhauer’s thinking about animals is to his. Rather, he puts the blame on “European priestcraft, which, in its profanity, knows no limit to its disavowal of, and blasphemy against, the Eternal Reality that lives in every animal.” Kant, he felt, had lazily allowed the Bible and the Church’s traditions to impose on him in this matter.

So how is Schopenhauer’s valuation of animals essential to his larger philosophy? And what, in particular, is that “Eternal Reality” against which – an astonishing charge – Christianity blasphemes? I shall now have to insult Schopenhauer’s philosophy by attempting a summary of it in three paragraphs. Skip them if you can’t face the mayhem; the remainder should still make reasonably good sense.

In his own main philosophy, Kant had made a crucial distinction, which Schopenhauer willingly inherits, between reality as it appears to us through our limited capacities of perception (i.e. the phenomenal world), and reality as it is in itself (which he called the noumenal), independent of our mind-conditioned categories of time and space, and therefore invisible to us. This second and fundamental reality, of which ours must be some sort of local manifestation, Kant did not attempt to explore. Among other reasons, it would have been impossible to do so without straying into theology or subverting it. Schopenhauer, however, was quite willing to do that, the second part of it anyway, and he expressly set out to complete Kant’s picture.

Although he agreed with Kant that the noumenal world couldn’t be directly known, he believed that we could trace, with a certainty amounting to fact, its essential nature through its manifestations in our world, and mainly through our experience of its animating presence in our own bodies. And what he found that essential nature to be, or at least to be best understood as, was ‘will’: not divine or purposeful or even rational will, but a mere blind striving. Hence the title of his great work of philosophy, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), usually translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’. All “representations” – that is, all the phenomena of the world which we can perceive around and within ourselves, including plants, natural objects and forces, and of course all the other animals – share this noumenal inner nature, the will. It urges itself through them – dresses itself in them, one might say – but also recklessly breeds from and then discards them. Sometimes Schopenhauer speaks of it as the “will-to-live”, and in that character it readily accommodates, in its restless and purposeless push, the Darwinian machinery of evolution, which indeed Schopenhauer partly anticipates, as he does also, for obvious reasons, the Freudian notion of the unconscious. He was a most prescient thinker.

However, he viewed this reality, which he had thus glimpsed, with horror. He calls it “the worst of all possible worlds.” For, as active in our phenomenal world, the will is patently and destructively at odds with itself. All its various avatars (all the contents  DSC04795.JPGof the world which represent the will here) both directly and indirectly struggle against each other for the space and the means to live. And in the case of its most recent ones (recent, that is, in our time-bound understanding), the conscious beings like ourselves, there is a special doom of unhappiness, so he believed. For the urgings of the will within us can only be satisfied momentarily, if at all, and such brief escapes from its pressure prove, for humans at least, to be escapes only into vacancy and ennui. Non-human animals, Schopenhauer believed, have the better chance of happiness, living as they do in the moment, without the stored pains of past and future to distress them: in fact he says that their “obvious composure often puts to shame our own frequently restless and discontented condition.”

Or rather they would have the better chance of happiness, if humans only allowed it: but it’s just at this point that he comes to the story of the chained dog, and I hope it’s now easier to see why that story has such emblematic power for Schopenhauer. He knew something of Eastern spirituality (again, most unusually for a philosopher of his time and place), and was fond of quoting, from the Upanishads, what he called “the mystical formula tat twam asi (This art Thou), by which is meant every living thing, whether man or animal”. That “deepest sympathy” which he feels for chained dogs is therefore intended literally: “This art Thou”, and therefore this suffering also is yours. (Schopenhauer’s own word, Mitleid, is much more direct and expressive than the rather abstract terms ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, which seem to be the best that English can do by way of translation.) Schopenhauer suffers with such dogs, then, not because he is a dog-lover (though he was) or an unusually sympathetic character, still less because animal suffering is a ‘hobby horse’ of his, but because he and the dogs are of the same life, driven through the world by the same indifferent will, ephemeral vessels for the Eternal Reality which animates them all. And this Mitleid, he argues, is indeed the only authentic basis for morality, because Mitleid itself is founded, not on ethical speculation or arguable principles like Kant’s, but on fact – the fact of our existential oneness with all sentient life.

In one of his essays, Schopenhauer characteristically suggests that instead of addressing each other as ‘Sir’, ‘mein Herr’, and so on, we should say “Leidensgefährte … my fellow sufferer.” I dare say that he sometimes addressed his poodles in that way, though no doubt he did his best to protect them from suffering. At any rate, his feeling about the world and its denizens, and his cast of mind in general, are very well summarised in something he says in his essay On the Basis of Morality:

The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living things be delivered from pain.’ Tastes may differ, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.


[Quotations are taken from The Essential Schopenhauer, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher, HarperCollins 2010 (pp.7-8, 35, 14); Essays and Aphorisms, ed. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 2014 (pp.218, 219, 149); and The Basis of Morality (1840), transl. A.B.Bullock, Swan Sonnenschein and Co. 1903, available online (pp.95, 220, 214).]

Corno di Bassetto Unmasked

Here are some answers to the questions arising, in the previous post, from a quoted paragraph which started with pugilism and ended with vivisection, and which was written by the music critic calling himself Corno di Bassetto.

Firstly, the person: Corno di Bassetto was the pen-name used by George Bernard Shaw when he wrote music criticism for the Star newspaper from 1888 to 1890. Although Shaw was then a relatively young man, and had not yet written any of the plays for which he is now mainly known, his personality as a writer and thinker is already recognisable even in that short extract (reproduced below) – notably in its contempt for merely conventional and unthinking social attitudes, and its unapologetic egotism. Corno di BThis last trait often appears in Shaw’s dramatic heroes and heroines as a mark of the mature and independent character – the sort of character that decides for itself what is right or wrong, rather than inheriting the decision from its surroundings.

That leads on to the second question I asked (and now wish I hadn’t, because it’s very difficult to provide a lucid and concise answer): what is the moral logic that takes him in that fine impassioned paragraph from half-defending pugilism to denouncing vivisection? That there is such a logic in Shaw’s mind, the last sentence clearly implies. Here is the paragraph again (for its Christmas-related context, see the previous blog):

I have no illusions about pugilism or its professors. I advocate the placing of the laborer in such a position that a position in the ring will not be worth his acceptance, instead of, as it now is, a glorious and lucrative alternative (for a while) to drudgery and contempt. I have not the smallest respect for the people who call the prizefighter a brute, without daring to treat him like one, but who will treat him much worse than one (than their hunter, for instance) if he remains a laborer for wages. I object to gamblers of all sorts, whether they gamble with horses, fighters, greyhounds, stocks and shares, or anything else. I hate foxhunting, shooting, fishing, coursing (a most dastardly pursuit); and I would, if I had the power, make horse traction in the streets, with all its horrors, as illegal as dog traction is. Furthermore, I do not eat slaughtered animals; and I regard a man who is imposed on by the vulgar utilitarian arguments in favor of vivisection as a subject for police surveillance. No doubt, all the other journalists who disapprove of prizefighting are equally consistent.   [The Star, 27 December 1889]

At the time of writing, prize-fighting seems to have been one of those discretionary illegalities which might be prosecuted or not according to the zeal of local magistrates. The objection was mainly to the professional element (i.e. literally to prize-fighting), and to the gambling which was associated with that. Shaw reminds his readers that there are many other sorts of gambling which are quite acceptable to the law, including that which goes on daily in the Stock Exchange. Two of his earliest plays (Widowers’ Houses and Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in the next decade) expose exactly that sort of anomaly: the polite classes living ignorantly or at least negligently on the proceeds of practices which they condemn as vicious in their inferiors. Pugilism itself was certainly associated with lawlessness of various kinds. But, just as the stocks and shares, however conventionally respectable, are still a variety of gambling, so Shaw regarded vivisection as a polite variety of lawlessness: as he was later to write (in his preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma), “the exemption of the pursuit of knowledge from the laws of honor is the most hideous conceivable enlargement of anarchy.” The vivisector and his apologists, then, are as proper a “subject for police surveillance” as the pugilist and his low-life entourage.

But what about the other varieties of animal abuse which he denounces in between: the hare coursing and the rest; how do they fit in?

We have to return for a moment to prize-fighting. Shaw knew quite a lot about the sport, having been friends with an enthusiast (a poet, so he says), who showed him round. He had even written a novel about a prize-fighter, Cashel Byron’s Profession, published in 1886; later on he turned it into a short play, in blank verse, titled The Admirable Bashville. So he was well aware of the new ‘Queensbury Rules’, and the changes which they had introduced, including the rule that gloves should be worn. This rule in particular was aimed at making the sport less luridly violent and therefore more acceptable to the law. But Shaw argued (I won’t explain how) that it had in fact put a premium upon the knockout blow, and thereby made fighting less scientific and more sensational – just as appealing to the taste for cruelty, therefore, as the former bare-knuckle style had been.

Now, Shaw was always convinced that the practice of vivisection could only be explained at source by that same human taste for cruelty. Once established, of course, the practice would be followed merely as professional orthodoxy by the unthinking “routineers”, as he called them. It would be accepted likewise by the biddable lay public who would wish to know as little as possible about what was implied in it. But cruelty was its primary inducement. So when The Admirable Bashville was published in 1901, and Shaw appended to it a ‘Note on Modern Prizefighting’, he made a rather sensational comparison between the two professions, much as Corno di Bassetto had put stocks and shares provocatively alongside gambling on prize-fights:

The legalization of cruelty to domestic animals under cover of the anaesthetic is only the extreme instance of the same social phenomenon as the legalization of prizefighting under cover of the boxing glove. The same passion explains the fascination of both practices; and in both, the professors – pugilists and physiologists alike – have to persuade the Home Office that their pursuits are painless and beneficial.

However, the boxer wants his profession to seem “thrillingly dangerous and destructive”, but to be in fact as harmless as possible, whereas the physiologist wants the opposite: a free hand to cause injury, but the appearance or reputation of harmlessness. “Consequently,” says Shaw, “the vivisector is not only crueller than the prizefighter, but, through the pressure of public opinion, a much more resolute and uncompromising liar.”

When Cashel Byron, in this stage version of the story, is chided by the romantic Lydia Carew for practising a cruel profession, he defends himself by saying he has at least “slain no creature for my sport”. And if fighting is ungentlemanly (Lydia is distinctly a ‘lady’), it at least compares favourably with “Groping for cures in the tormented entrails of friendly dogs”. In short, the moral logic that carries Corno di Bassetto from prize-fighting to vivisection, via hunting, coursing, meat-eating, etc., is this: cruelty and violence may be easier to notice and dislike in the forms which we ourselves don’t get anything out of, but they’re sordid and shameful wherever they occur, and whoever it is that’s practising them. Or as Shaw says in that preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma, where he attacks vivisection over many pages, “We are, as a matter of fact, a cruel nation; and our habit of disguising our vices by giving polite names to the offences we are determined to commit does not, unfortunately for my own comfort, impose on me.”