People Are Special, Animals Are Not: An Early Medieval Confucian’s Views on the Difference between Humans and Beasts

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 41:149-175 (2024)
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Early Confucians viewed their world in an anthropocentric way – man was an embodiment of the cosmos and embodied the virtues of benevolence and righteousness. By the early medieval period (220–589), though, Confucian tales of virtuous animals flourished, betraying that Confucian attitudes towards animals had changed: the moral boundaries between animals and humans were fluid and beasts could serve as exemplars for humans. One of the few early medieval Confucian thinkers who spoke at length about animals was He Chengtian 何承天 (370–447), a famed historian, astronomer, classical scholar, musicologist, and numerologist. His view of what separates humans from animals emerges from letters and essays he wrote attacking Buddhism. To refute the idea that humans and animals are both sentient beings, he espoused the old belief that people had a privileged place in the universe because of their moral excellence. Moreover, even though there was a gap between sages and ordinary humans, the latter were still ethically superior to beasts. In addition, for him, meateating was both a natural and sacred activity. Ironically, man’s benevolence and righteousness are most visible in the humane ways that Confucians wanted people to hunt and fish. He Chengtian’s opposition to Buddhism thus seems to have pushed him to a more extreme view of animals than his contemporaries. Nevertheless, his attempt to refute the idea of karmic retribution through an example taken from the animal kingdom betrays that he saw humans and non-human animals on a more equal footing than he cared to admit.

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