“If I say there are other creatures of God, [what I mean is that] some are less wonderful than the soul, and others are like the soul. An animal’s soul, for example, is less wonderful than a man’s soul, and that of an angel is just as wonderful: yet nothing is better than the soul itself. And if at a certain instance, none of these is better, that is the consequence of the sin that that soul has committed and has nothing to do with its nature. However, sin will not pull man down to the point where an animal’s soul would be preferred over the former’s one or even compared with it.”
These surprising words by St. Augustin point out the greatness of human soul compared to that of the non-speaking beings. Yet, what kind of soul do animals have? A nuanced answer by the Holy Fathers in what follows herein…
In his famous “Hexaymeron”, the Great Basil of Caesarea noted that it was not the earth that brought out the souls of the animals that were hidden in it, but that they had been called to life upon God’s command – upon the command of Him “In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.” (Job, 12:10).
We find interesting nuances in works written by the Philokalic Fathers. St. Anthony the Great confirms the existence of soul in animals: “Since some unpious men dare to say that plants and vegetables have souls, I will write briefly upon that matter, for the guidance of the simple. Plants have a natural life but they do not have a soul. Man is called a rational animal because he has reason and can acquire knowledge. The other animals – and birds – can make sounds, because they have breath and soul. All things subject to growing and decreasing are alive; but the fact that they live and grow does not necessarily mean they all have souls” (Philokaly, Vol. I, page 61). In the view of the “Patriarch of the solitary monks”, there are four categories of living creatures:
– first, the angelic beings, endowed with soul and immortal;
– the second, those endowed with reason, soul, and breathing: humans;
– the third one includes animals, who have breathing and soul;
– the fourth one includes animals that have only life and do not have a soul, breathing, reason, or immortality.
On the other hand, all the four attributes imply the idea of possessing life.
In the second volume of the Philokaly, the topmost Witness-bearer of the 7th century, Sf. Maximus, differentiated among the powers that plants, animals, and human beings have. “The soul has three powers: the first is the power through which it feeds itself and grows; the second one is that of imagination and instincts; and the third one is that of intelligence and reason. Plants have only the first power, animals have the first two, and people have all three of them.” (Philokaly, volume II, page 88).
The seven levels of the soul are placed in a psycho-theological perspective, as paraphrased in the Augustinian work titled “The Greatness of Your Soul”. At the first level (common in man, animals, and plants) is the soul – the life-giving power of the body, which keeps it together and in harmony and supports its feeding, growing, and reproduction. At the second level (found in man and animals), the soul will search for anything that will fit the nature of its body;and it has memory, remembering all that it has lived through its senses and what it has acquired through habit. At the higher level, the soul learns and remembers through observation (language, reading, writing, etc), not only through habit. It is the level of reason and logical thinking, of music, poetry, and eloquence, which is characteristic of people. Levels 4-7 correspond to the steps of spiritual ascension, which is typically human: purification, illumination, theosis.
Whereas reason is man’s logical faculty, which through data observation and analysis leads to rational conclusions, animals have not been given that ability, because they do not have free will. Yet they have high instinctual reactions. The Creator has taught animals certain things, which men can barely appropriate in a lifetime. He has compensated the lack of reason in animals by endowing them with superior senses. In the same vein, the Saint which is celebrated on March 30th, St. John of the Ladder, says: “Nothing is without order and purpose in the animal kingdom, as each carries the Creator’s wisdom and bears witness to Him. God gave both man and beasts many natural traits, such as mercy, love, and sensitivity, as even non-speaking creatures will wail when they lose one of their own.” Without falling into any animal idolatry insinuations, can we compare the love and gratitude of a dog to his master, to the ungratefulness that some people show to their Creator? To those of us leading their lives instinctively, according to Plant’s “homo homini lupus” law, we would like to suggest as a meditation topic the comment of the tireless analyst who was St. Basil:
“Do not fear wild animals more than you should fear your own lack of faith.”