Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Iegue and Hayy ibn Yaqzan, some notes

Marcy Norton‘s “The Chicken or the Iegue: Human-Animal relationships and the Columbian Exchange” (The American Historical Review 120.1 (2015): 28-60) begins with an anecdote about a sixteenth-century Taíno man who lived with three pigs that he had trained to hunt. From his perspective, some pigs, the wild ones, were for eating, and some pigs, his companion animals, were not. These pigs were iegue, a Carib word for outsiders taken into the community: captured children or certain animals. Sadly, the Spanish solders who captured and slaughtered the Taíno man’s pigs were either unaware of or indifferent to the three pigs’ status as iegue, and so left themselves with full bellies and this poor man without his livelihood and his animal familiars.

Norton finishes her fascinating, award-winning article with this claim:

the most important connection is historical: iegue likely contributed to the etiology of the “pet” as the concept and practice emerged in the late seventeenth century. Affective relationships between humans and non-humans were not novel in Europe, but the idea of a pet—an animal who is part of the familial system and whose main “purpose” is to provide the pleasure of affection (as opposed to the vassal horse or dog of aristocratic hunting, or the laboring oxen of animal husbandry, or even the lapdog of the royal or noble court)—was. Might not Europeans’ extensive exposure to iegue, as the importation of parrots and monkeys began in the fifteenth century and expanded throughout the early modern period, have contributed to its emergence alongside the other proposed catalysts (the rise of secular cosmology, the rise of domesticity) of pethood? (55-56)

In the baldest and honestly least generous sense, Norton’s history here is wrong, although far less dangerously wrong than the civilizational developmental models (from Jarod Diamond and others) Norton’s article so usefully challenges. As I show in the first chapter of my How Not to Make a Human, and as Kathleen Walker Meikle’s Medieval Pets showed before me, ample evidence survives from the Middle Ages of animals kept only or primarily for companionship. The evidence appears in elegies — like the eleventh-century abbot of St. Trond who wrote a poem of mourning (perhaps serious, perhaps not) for his little dog Pitulus, whose only “officium” (purpose) was “domino praeludere” (to play before its master) — in lawcodes, like the Saxon Mirror‘s legislating about damages caused by domestic monkeys, in narrative, like the cat that an envious hermit lovingly strokes as he looks on at the majesty of Pope Gregory the Great, or like the crushed dormouse restored to life by the solicitude of Saint Thomas of Cantilupe, and in art, like the many late medieval manuscript depictions of women holding or feeding small dogs or squirrels. In none of these instances were the animals for eating or for work: medieval people, which is to say, European people prior to the Columbian exchange, likewise could distinguish, analogously, between animals that were iegue and animals that were not.

Did these medieval people have a word for “pet”? The English word pet seems to have entered the language via Scots, which got it from Irish, which got it, perhaps, from the French petit. At this point of tracing the word’s origins, we are well into the Middle Ages.

Norton’s mistake is a symptom of not consulting a medievalist. Any claim about cultural transformations always rests on the shaky ground of the not-quite-studied period before. The hazard is general.

Nonetheless, I can still affirm that pet-keeping undergoes a quantitative transformation in the post-medieval era, and can affirm, with less confidence, that words for pets in European languages are generally post-medieval. The German Haustier, for example, emerges in the 18th century. Is it possible that European colonialists, soldiers, missionaries, ethnographers, adventurers, and so on learned new practices of pet-keeping from Carib peoples? Certainly. It’s also certain that the enormous wealth that poured into Europe during the Columbian exchange, as well as the accompanying profits of trans-Atlantic slavery, would have contributed to the luxury of keeping animals for companionship. Yet even the hermit with cat was, as all the sources tell us, a poor hermit.

The difference Norton posits may not be so much in the idea of pets themselves, but rather in the kinds of animals that could be considered pets: Europeans generally distinguished suitable animals for pets from suitable animals for food, whereas the Americans Norton studies might have some birds for iegue, and some birds, of the same species, as food.

Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan

Two points:

Works like ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan require that rethink the cliché “Western Thought.” Here we have a twelfth-century Arabic work, written by a scholar born in Guadix, near Granada, who worked for a dynasty whose immediate roots lay in Berber North Africa, and who died in Marrakech. Hayy ibn Yaqzan aims to reconcile Greek Philosophy with what ibn Tufayl called “Oriental” thinking, and, in a larger sense, to reconcile Aristotle with Islam. Hayy is spontaneously generated on an island off the coast of India. The island might be near Sri Lanka: ibn Tufayl might have modeled his work in part after Ja’far ibn Mansur al-Yaman’s ninth-century Sarāʾir wa-asrār al-nuṭaqā, which likewise features a boy stranded on an island and protected by animals — in this case a lion rather than doe — who attains spiritual enlightenment. As Srinivas Aravamudan argues, Hayy itself wrestles with what it portrays as “Western” rationalism and “Eastern,” Sufi mysticism;[1]“East-West Fiction as World Literature: The Hayy Problem Reconfigured.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 47.2 (2014): 195-231 more recently, Maribel Fierro reads Hayy ibn Yaqzan as a political allegory, in which Hayy is a Berber mystic modeled after Ibn Tumart, and his later companion Absal as a Arabic Andalusi from the metropole.[2]Maribel Fierro, “Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān: An Almohad Reading.” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations (2020): 1-21. And, in the last century, Arabic Muslim scholars have occasionally argued for Hayy ibn Yaqzan as a key text either for an independent philosophical tradition that reconciles faith and rationality — so challenging the self-satisfied secularism of the so-called West — or even as an acknowledged key text for Western modernity itself and its notions of the individual.[3]Murad Idris, “Producing Islamic Philosophy: The Life and Afterlives of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān in Global History, 1882–1947,” European Journal of Political Theory 15.4 … Continue reading

With such textual and cultural and imaginary interchange, spanning as they do Spain and North Africa, let alone Cairo, Baghdad, and the Indian Ocean, how we can speak about “Western” thought?

Reason, again:

ibn Tufayl follows a main line of philosophical thinking in portraying humans as the celestially oriented animal:

He was sure…that he himself was the ideally balanced animal, kindred spirit of the celestial bodies. Apparently, he was a species set apart from all other animal species, created for a different end than all the rest, dedicated to the great task which no animal could undertake. (141, Goodman trans.)

From nonhuman animals, Hayy learns to care for others and for bodies. He mourns the loss of his cervid foster mother; he learns to bury the dead from ravens (as Cain does in the Qur’an (Goodman 196n104); from his conclusion that the world must have been created, and that the creation is good, he develops what we might call an ecological practice, aiming, as much he can, to increase the thriving of all species. But then, also as much as he can, he moves beyond the needs of his body, aiming at something transcendent and immutable and singular.

Here we have another instance of the self disappearing into the great oneness of the divine. As with Boethius, we have to raise the question of where we might find the human as we commonly recognize it:

He duties…seemed to fall under three heads, those in which he would resemble an inarticulate animal, those in which he would resemble a celestial body, and those in which he would resemble the Necessarily Existent being. (142)

Notably, nowhere in that list of three can we see an injunction to act as a human. In this tradition, being human in its most authentic sense means being something other than what you seem to be. The rational subject is always reaching outside itself, always seeking its own disappearance.

The operations of “reason” that we might expect, therefore, are nowhere in this work. Hayy develops clothing, animal domestication, agriculture, cooking, and, eventually, religious ritual, practices of purity, and prayer; but he develops nothing that does not already exist in some form somewhere else. The furthest he can get through reason is somewhere where other people already are. Although “reason” makes decision and abstraction possible, it offers nothing to anyone who might imagine that things that exist, through our understanding of them, could be recombined into something new. And, finally, human reason seems to have as its own the elimination of anything in us that feels human.


1 “East-West Fiction as World Literature: The Hayy Problem Reconfigured.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 47.2 (2014): 195-231
2 Maribel Fierro, “Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān: An Almohad Reading.” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations (2020): 1-21.
3 Murad Idris, “Producing Islamic Philosophy: The Life and Afterlives of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān in Global History, 1882–1947,” European Journal of Political Theory 15.4 (2016): 382-403.