There is a wonderful story about St. Thomas, teleology and a bunch of birds. It goes like this. A grand duke was visiting St. Thomas in the convent of St. Jacques in Paris and wanted to express his appreciation for St. Thomas and the Dominican Order by offering some sort of gift. The two went for a walk along the Left Bank of the Seine River and came upon a number of birds in cages being sold to passers-by. (I am told you can still buy birds at the spot today!) At this point, Thomas has an idea: will the duke buy him all these birds? The duke is more than happy to purchase the whole lot, and after the transaction is complete he asks what St. Thomas would like to do with his feathered friends. Thomas responds: “Open the cages.”
Why? Well, St. Thomas wanted to make a point about the bird’s natures. They have wings, and therefore their perfection is served, not by being cooped up in a cage, but by exercising the natural abilities God gave them.
This is a charming story illustrating Thomas’ teleological philosophy. A creature finds its perfection in its end. As Aristotle said, nothing in nature is without purpose; the wings of a bird are to be used in flight, not looked at through bars. Unfortunately, for me, and, I imagine, for a number of others, this story is Janus-faced. I appreciate the philosophical point, but it also makes me uncomfortable. Was St. Thomas against pets?
This might seem absurd, but for someone who grew up with over 120 animals in the house, ranging from fish written about in the New York Times to trained lizards, this is a real concern. Was I wrong to have all these animals? Are pet-lovers really animal-haters? Is having friendly fauna in the house a “performative contradiction” of Thomistic principles?
Before we address this question directly, let me quote from another’s lifetime experience with animals, which serves as a sed contra of sorts. Chilton Williamson, a zoo docent, writes about a famous lion, Elsa, who manifested what seemed to be remarkably personal characteristics:
Like everyone working with zoos, I’m frequently asked by the public if I feel sorry for the ‘captive’ animals. My answer is no. (Are you sorry for your housecat within the confines of his comfortable home?) But I do feel for those animals who are capable of Elsa’s achievement, yet lack the opportunity to realize their animal potential as she was able to do.
Do certain animals need people to attain their true potential? This may sound sentimental in the extreme—something that Thomists are not generally known for—but I think it is something St. Thomas would endorse, in a way. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas discusses the possibility of one thing’s perfection coming from another. He says: “The nature that can attain perfect good, although it needs help from without in order to attain it, is of more noble condition than a nature which cannot attain perfect good, but attains some imperfect good, although it need no help from without in order to attain it.” Citing Aristotle as the source of this principle, Thomas goes on to appeal to the example of health: “He is better disposed to health who can attain perfect health, albeit by means of medicine, than he who can attain but imperfect health, without the help of medicine.”
Now Thomas’s main concern in this article is the perfect happiness of the rational soul as assisted by God’s grace, a perfection that is unattainable for irrational animals. And, of course, I am not disputing this; we all know, or should know, that dogs don’t “go to heaven.” What I do think this analysis allows, as a possibility, is that through engagement with and in the compassionate company of human beings, some animals (certainly not all—I leave the question of snake-temperament to those with more experience) may attain a greater perfection of their own natural potential; they may become, with a little help from us, more fully what they can be.
Just as we are raised to perfection through participation in the divine life of the Trinity, could we not say that, in a roughly analogous way, some animals may be “raised,” not to a genuinely rational form of life, but to a more perfect exercise of their sensitive and estimative powers, through participation in human fellowship and community? This has been my experience, and I don’t think it is entirely sentimental projection.
So what about the story of St. Thomas and the birds? I like to think that Thomas was right to free all those birds cooped up in cramped cages. But I also like to think that, while most of the birds flew away to places unknown, if one did happen to alight on St. Thomas’s shoulder and greet him with a chirp or a tweet, St. Thomas would have welcomed a new friend. And what heights a bird-friend of St. Thomas could have reached—well, that is something for any animal-lover to ponder.
Image: Mantis Wildlife Films, Monica and Her Pet Toad, Dairy Queen