Setting reason aside is not something we welcome gladly, is it? After all, acting according to feelings is acting irrationally, and if we open that door we are going to let in the possibility of regrets and sorrow as well. Since we do not always feel ready to face regrets and sorrow, we prefer applying our mind on every worthwhile occasion. Or so we believe. Why do we act like we must reduce everything to reason, anyway?

John M. Coetzee taught me that it is impossible to subject the richness of our everyday experience to the rules of reason alone. He did so through one of his most beautiful and complex characters, one whose presence by now is almost tangible to me: Elizabeth Costello. And as it often happens with the best things in one’s life, Coetzee and Costello entered mine by chance, that is by way of a casual mention during a course at my university which set off the same irrational drive that led me to Ingeborg Bachmann.1

Elizabeth Costello is an elderly Australian woman, a renown writer whose fame, contrary to her will, is an outcome of the success of one of her early novels. Over the course of Coetzee’s book, she is invited to give speeches on a wide range of topics around the world. She complies, even though her distress is something she will not overcome easily. Eventually, she will have to deal with the consequences of her words, standing by her opinions, and questioning her own beliefs.

As in other Coetzee’s works, taking into account the existence of non-human animals and how we live with and next to them is unavoidable. Coetzee’s ethics are much too complex for me to deal with right now,2 so I will just single out a passage from Elizabeth Costello which I would like to expand upon.

Both reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking. And if this is so, if that is what I believe, then why should I bow to reason this afternoon and content myself with embroidering on the discourse of the old philosophers.3

I do not think that I could find better words to explain why, as I am close to get my BA in Philosophy, I am struggling to cope with some of what I have learnt so far.

Do not get me wrong, I value my time at Ca’ Foscari and there is no end to what opening my mind to philosophy has done to me.4 And yet I wish I had known Coetzee and Costello back when I was following a course on moral philosophy. It has been more than two years since that exam, but I have never been able to shake off the feeling of contempt it has left on me, its questionable attempt at winning students over to a specific worldview. It became even clearer a couple of months after the exam,5 but obvious hints triggered me way before that.

More specifically, while discussing the role of the human soul in Aquinas, the professor decided to share his opinion on animal rights. He did so by oversimplifying his arguments against the likes of Tom Regan and Peter Singer, while talking about animal rights movements without acknowledging how they have evolved since they were first born. It was baffling to notice how conveniently he avoided any practical matter. Why should we care about intensive farming and moral justifications for hunting when we can sit down and discuss about the human soul from the comfort of our classroom?

This whole approach served his purpose rather well. Eventually, he singled out the possibility of reasoning about infinity as humans’ defining trait. Human life, he added, follows an arc trajectory, open to the transcendental, whereas animals’ is a cycle. And so what? How is that even relevant when one looks a bit more closely at how humans have been treating animals over the course of history? More importantly, how is his discourse of any relevance to the lives of non-human animals?

I put forward my opinion to the teacher’s assistant during a seminar, but the conversation was cut short because, I can only assume, he sensed no way out from the circularity of his arguments. Are we not to be held accountable when we decide of the lives of other living beings? Is human reason so peculiar that it can be excused from thinking about the implications of all our actions and not just the ones we deem worth of moral judgements? Who are we to decide what is morally justifiable to do to living beings we share our lives with?

I believe philosophy must teach us how to live in a world greater than us. We exist only because the world exists, not the other way around. We are born humans, we argue with humans, but we find more than humans out there. If we are still discussing the human soul and otherness in human terms, then we still have to move past the old philosophers Elizabeth Costello refers to.

  1. See: The irresistible tension of language↩︎

  2. I suggest starting with J.M. Coetzee and Ethics to get a general idea. ↩︎

  3. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, p. 67. ↩︎

  4. As I wrote other times, I will return to my experience at Ca’ Foscari later this year. ↩︎

  5. See: The Red Horse↩︎