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From the Earthworm to the Superman

Translated by Rudolf Ehrlich (Czech original here [1])

“Cruelty to animals is one of the most significant vices of a low and ignoble nation,” wrote Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). His statement predated much more renowned words of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), that the magnitude of a nation’s moral advancement can be judged by its treatment of animals. Von Humboldt expressed German Romanticism’s spiritual inclination towards nature, whereas Gandhi — despite his ecumenical orientation — spoke as a representative of one of the Eastern religions of mercy. Savitri Devi’s view could be placed somewhere between German Romanticism and Indian ethics, both of which arrived at the same conclusion.

The terms “anthropocentrism” and “biocentrism,” which were elaborated upon in The Impeachment of Man, belong among the key terms of her philosophy. Savitri observes that the West (understood as white countries and the Semitic world) is — with a few exceptions, such as Pythagoras’ vegetarian teachings and National Socialism’s zooethics — characterized by anthropocentric attitudes. These include Judeo-Christianity and Islam’s offshoots, but also freethinking humanism and Communism. She notes of the latter, “It is just the Christian doctrine of happiness of working for one’s neighbour, free from the heavy burden of Christian theology.”

Anthropocentrism, Savitri believes, was cemented into European civilization’s foundation when the Christian god moved from a chosen “nation” to a chosen species, but not further to embrace all life. The Occident thus created an “insurmountable chasm” separating man from the rest of creation. It stripped animals and plants of their souls and became, at least generally and theoretically, deaf to their well-being or pain. Savitri’s idea could be illustrated by the statement of Pius XII, who in the twentieth century urged his sheep to pity the animals groaning in the slaughterhouse no more than they would pity the metal resonating beneath the anvil. As a variation on the same theme, the seventeenth-century Cartesian vivisectionists said that the abused animal screams without pain, just as a broken watch rattles without feeling.

Without resorting to simplification or idealization, Savitri emphasizes that the East has taken a different path: It has become biocentric. The “Asian religions of mercy” — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, but not anthropocentric Confucianism — saw a gradual transition between man and other creatures instead of an abyss. The reincarnation of the soul from simpler creatures to more developed ones (or vice versa, depending on one’s deeds) theoretically entails the realization that all living beings are brothers. In practice, however, Savitri adds that Asian biocentrisms often lead to indifference toward individual “incarnations” and to the belief that suffering is a just consequence of karmic transgressions. Moreover, based on the experiences of both European and Indian everyday life, she notes that our individual zooethics are determined by an innate love or dislike of animals and not by an instilled worldview. According to her, the Egyptian cult of Aten, the solar energy and light which falls without distinction “on the earthworm and the superman,” is also biocentric.

The following essay is not intended to be a critique of Savitri’s views — the essence of which can hardly be criticized — but rather a supplement to them. The author of Impeachment argues philosophically and without special regard for historical details. Without questioning her views’ fundamentals, namely the idea of the anthropocentric West and the biocentric East, we will try to present three theses which make the concept of Occidental anthropocentrism a bit more problematic.

First thesis: Vegetative people

The claim that Judeo-Christianity (apart from the unique approach of St. Basil, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas of Tolentino, and others) substantially separated man from the rest of creation is indisputable and widespread. If animals and plants do not have an immortal soul and are not marked by original sin, they become something essentially different. And yet this difference is not as insurmountable as it might seem. Beginning in antiquity and culminating in the Renaissance, a tradition which is in a sense the counterpart of the Asian belief in reincarnation as a result of moral conduct winds through Western thought. This is the belief of some philosophers that man can become an animal, a plant, or an angel based on his actions and thinking. This certainly means that he becomes these beings morally which, in the context of salvation, also means ontologically, however. He who has fallen to the vegetative level and is not aware of divinity has no higher ontological status and possibilities than an actual plant.

Examples of those who preached the view that an immoral man becomes an animal were Boethius, Gregory of Nyssa, the scholastics, and the medieval Arabs. It was also expressed by the Prophet Muhammad. We must add, however, that this belief did not imply an imperative to treat animals and plants — which are therefore closer to us in light of creation than the idea that man as an “image of God” would suggest — any kindlier. Boethius’ teachings on man and animals does not prevent him from stating that people hold their heads above the earth as a sign that they are generally unique beings on the border between the two worlds, the material and the spiritual. The sons of Adam are thus said to be able to raise their foreheads to the heavens, while animals’ dull heads remain heavy and bent to the ground.

This idea finds its specific definition in the work of a Renaissance philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. His short text Oration on the Dignity of Man was originally a preface to the theses of various schools that Pico had collected to prove their agreement on man’s basic aspiration: reaching towards God. This is the work’s foundation, but it is the author’s idea that man has no fixed place among creation, which is still influential today. Because God breathed life into him only when the world was finished, he gave him the freedom to become everything: From a plant to an angel (the Middle Ages spoke only of an animal in this context).

It could be argued, however, that man remains substantially different from the rest of creation. A “vegetative” person still differs from a plant in that he has fallen to its level as a result of his own choice. But does this necessarily mean that his dignity is greater than the dignity of a plant that could not decide on the “lowness” of its existence? Moreover, the philosopher does not elaborate on whether the freedom of choice is enjoyed by every individual or by man as a species. Individuals born obtuse and lustful hardly have the opportunity to look for God or to strive for union with him. Be that as it may (Pico remains brief), it is worth noting that this thinker recognizes human inequality. He observes that there are higher beings who have transcended their humanity, and lower beings whom he puts on an equal footing: not with animals, but with “mere” plants. His hierarchical division of the universe according to the individual’s personal value brings him close to Savitri.

Second thesis: Anthropocentrism as an intermediate stage of biocentrism

It’s interesting that some Abrahamic believers use the term “anthropocentrism” with the same displeasure as Savitri. Naturally, they do this for different reasons. For them, the anthropocentrism with which the Renaissance emerged does not represent the opposite of biocentrism, but of medieval theocentrism. Savitri would probably not see a difference between these views; for her, the personal god is just a continuation of man by other means. However, it is obvious that as soon as European humanity stopped concentrating primarily on God, science was born.

The first wave of interest in “soulless” creatures — which the Middle Ages did not take note of in matters other than the purely symbolic and utilitarian, especially in the medical field — appeared.[1] [2] Anthropology developed alongside zoology and botany.  While in the Middle Ages, for example, it was believed that wolves did not have cervical vertebrae, a fiction that could easily have been refuted by experience. The Renaissance, for its part, created comparative anatomical atlases, discovered thousands of new plant species, and performed autopsies on and hybridizations of animals. However, Leonardo da Vinci’s tender attention to animals (Savitri recognizes him in passing in The Impeachment of Man) or Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare (which can serve as proof of the Renaissance’s interest in material reality) have their counterparts in vivisections. Although the “researched objects” would have been better off if the grandfathers of the age had left them alone, it is nevertheless true that the Renaissance valorized everyday life, the material world, the body, the organism, and nature.

From Savitri’s point of view, which emphasizes action, it is undoubtedly important that no Renaissance thinker created an ethic of practical kindness to animals. Moreover, the most important philosophers of the age — Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Pomponazzi, and in a sense also Giovanni Pico della Mirandola — explicitly place man at the center of creation. Francesco Petrarca rhetorically asks why he should be interested in quadrupeds, fish, and birds when there is the human soul.[2] [3] However, these philosophers were not real anthropocentrists. Petrarca, Ficino, and Pico were all theologians — the first two even priests — and even their emphasis on man has a theocentric dimension. Real anthropocentrism — an interest in man as such, and not only in relation to the “creator” — can be found in some naturalists of the time rather than in humanitarian thinkers. By itself this means nothing; however, we are convinced that the expert knowledge of nature, and thus of the gradual transition from man to other creatures, eventually brought with it a more ethical approach culminating in the Darwin-Haeckel-Hitler line.

Third thesis: “Bridge” from man

We do not intend to deny that animals would become the subject of morality regardless of the progress of the natural sciences, however. The fact that they feel pain can naturally be determined by lay observation. In the eighteenth century, two philosophical systems included the “silent faces” in their ethics: In the Anglosphere, it was utilitarianism, and in the German-speaking world, Bolzanism (which originated in Prague). The founders and supporters of both systems believed that the natural object of charity is anyone who can feel well-being and pain. Today, the most militant and vocal wing of utilitarianism is represented by the Jewish-Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who is also an animal rights activist (his views are often rejected in Germany as “quasi-Nazi” or “Nazifying”). Romanticism also brought with it an empathy for animals, based on an emotional rather than intellectual incentive. Mary Shelley’s vegetarianism and Schopenhauer’s ethics of compassion are examples of this; let us recall how deeply this philosopher was affected by an imprisoned orangutan’s suffering.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that scientific knowledge of animals (and, more recently, plants) contributed significantly to the recognition of their rights. At the same time, it represents a Western particularity in relation to nature, because no other race or civilization has created a discipline of biology. The Enlightenment physician and materialist Julien Offray de la Mettrie already believed that the animal did not have a soul, but neither did man, and therefore he considered that there is no ontological gap between them. He correctly guessed that apes are intelligent enough to learn sign language.[3] [4]

Carl von Linné, the father of modern natural taxonomy, was a theocentrically-minded Lutheran, but after publishing his System of Nature he wondered if he should have included man among the other animals after all. The Pre-Romanticist and, let us emphasize, the proto-evolutionist Johann Gottfried Herder, who fervently loved nature and called for kindness to all its forms, declared animals to be man’s “older brothers.” However, the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace (On the Origin of Species, 1859) became the formative stimulus for Western — and not only Western — consciousness. Darwin outlined the gradual transition between humans and other animals particularly in The Origin of Man. Even more important seems to be his work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which resolutely broke the Cartesian notion that animals (especially vertebrates) are diametrically different from us in terms of inner experience, and also that they have no emotions.[4] [5]

Darwin himself, although not a vegetarian, clearly sympathized with animals. “A truly admirable phenomenon, the miracle of which we often overlook for its being so utterly self-evident, is that all animals and all plants at all times and in all places have been related to each other,” he wrote in The Origin of Species, expressing the brotherhood of all beings for which Savitri calls. We ultimately owe the fact that the Spaniards and New Zealanders have recently extended human rights to apes to Darwin. The British naturalist is also close to Savitri in regard to a fascination with the struggle for life, which forces us to destroy certain forms of existence: “It may be difficult, but we should admire the savage instinctive hatred that drives the queen bee to destroy young queens — her daughters — right after they are born, or she dies herself.”[5] [6] But then why does Savitri pass over Darwin without mentioning him?

Her silence about Ernst Haeckel is just as strange. This zoologist and philosopher is generally known as the coiner of many scientific terms, including “ecology,” and as the creator of the so-called biogenetic rule: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” He was an extremely passionate evolutionist. He was as aware of the brotherhood of all living things as Darwin was. After all, he had introduced the scheme of the evolutionary dendrogram to biology. Haeckel’s attention to animals is evidenced by a passage in his travelogue where he laments an abused horse he saw in Sri Lanka. He says rhetorically to Buddha that he should have banned the torture of living creatures instead of the “nonsensical” prohibition to kill them.[6] [7]

Haeckel also created monism, an atheistic religion invoking nature and matter that was fully aware of its “spirituality,” beauty, and value in itself. His Monist League enjoyed considerable popularity in the first half of the twentieth century. Besides vegetarianism and racial hygiene, for example, the historian Roger Griffin calls it an expression of social modernism. The extent to which this thinker inspired the National Socialists is debatable, and historians certainly do argue about it. However, the fact that his biocentrism was in tune with Nazi cosmology’s biocentrism cannot be questioned.

Nevertheless, Savitri does mention at least one convinced evolutionist: George Bernard Shaw. She does so only in connection with his struggle for animal rights, however, without making it clear whether she was aware of Shaw’s evolutionist basis. Shaw is also known to have shared her belief in the superman. As surhumanists, they both understood that man is an integral part of the universe (allness) and that life has its own development, and the ability to transcend innate categories. That bridge — the Nietzschean die Brücke — is thus built not only from man to superman, but also from man to other creatures. That is their fundamental legacy.


[1] [8] Of course, this rule also has its exceptions. In the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus conducted empirical scientific experiments, for example.

[2] [9] Petrarca’s question (quoted in Oskar Kristeller, Osm filosofů italské renesance [Prague: Vyšehrad, 2007]) is moreover directed primarily against Aristotelianism, I believe. Petrarca’s disputes with it were rather personal.

[3] [10] Stanislav Komárek mentions the “egalitarianism” of Enlightenment mechanicists in Stručné dějiny biologie (Prague: Academia, 2017).

[4] [11] René Descartes acknowledged higher intelligence (but not emotions) in monkeys, parrots, and dogs.

[5] [12] Darwin, however, has at least mixed feelings about this fight. In The Origin of Species, he tries to find solace amidst his sadness over the fact that he had replaced the religious idyll of harmonious “creation” with a struggle for life and death (Charles Darwin, O původu druhů [Brno: Dědictví Havlíčkovo, 1923]). As for Savitri, she considers it necessary to consume plants (“one must eat something after all”) and to kill actual or potential enemies.

[6] [13] Bohumil Bauše, Člověk a živočistvo (Prague: Matice lidu, 1907).