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emphaty

OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

sn-ratpaws

To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

P0

uhhhh….

 

 

This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.  It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.

Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden (oil on canvas by John William Waterhouse, c.1904.)

I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting.  Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry.  Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros.  Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words.  She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid.  Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love.  Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal.  As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.

A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome.  The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests.  The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).

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