Renaissance Animal: Thinking Beyond the Species, Embracing the Individual

I read a fascinating article over the weekend about portraiture in the Italian Renaissance.  A distinguishing feature of this seminal artistic moment was the intensified focus on the individual. Before the emergence of Renaissance values, western society was conceptualized as a hierarchical stack of broad categories. Individuals were subsumed under the rigid rubrics of serf, peasant, slave, noble, gentleman, nobility, royalty, whatever.  Women were virtually invisible. It is in the portraiture of the Italian Renaissance, however, that we see a movement away from this solidified ethos. It was during this period that everyday people began to peek under the cloak of the collective and, however tentatively, demand recognition as individuals.  

What happened in the Renaissance was the start of trend that’s only intensified with time. Today western culture veritably fetishizes the individual.  The individual is the gold standard of identity.  In so many ways the social history of the United States is about the expansion of individualism to groups previously identified exclusively in collective terms: slaves, laborers, women, and gays, to name a few.  Consciously or not, the strategy employed by crusaders to break the oppressive barrier of the “generalized other” has been to tell stories. Stories of individuals. From Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, from the dark closet to the open activism of Harvey Milk, and from the suffragists to Betty Friedan, oppressed groups in the twentieth century clamored to define group identity through heroic individuality. Only then did rights ensue.

So it will go with animals. We speak casually of pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep. Much of our collectivist language derives from necessity—we simply must, most of the time, speak in these terms.  That said, the more we are able to individualize animals the better. In many contexts—as the above image suggests—we instinctively individualize animals. The man in the above picture–taken in the aftermath of a recent tornado that blew through Alabama– is assuredly holding a animal whom he considers to be an individual. The poignant expression on his face–he was stunned to find his dog standing proud inside the shell of his destroyed home– tells it all.

Animal ethologists are routinely discovering how adept farm animals are at distinguishing the identities of many different handlers. They see us as persons. Shouldn’t we do the same for them? Shouldn’t we grant animals their Renaissance? Shouldn’t we embrace them, literally, as unique and beautiful individuals?


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

7 Responses to Renaissance Animal: Thinking Beyond the Species, Embracing the Individual

  1. Kelly says:

    That made me cry. So beautifully said.

  2. Thanks for this James. Here is more of exactly what you are talking about….enjoy! -Fireweed

  3. Exactly! Thank you.

  4. This might be the idea that resonates with the meat-eating daughter of The Beet-Eating Heeb.

  5. Keith Akers says:

    This is a good blog on how to apply the idea of individualism towards animals. One thing to keep in mind, though, this is not a 500 year trend towards individualism; it goes in cycles. My perception is that right now there is a growing sense that individualism has gone too far and that we need to pull back, so the cycle is trending away from individualism. Just something to keep in mind.

    For example, during the Great Depression and Second World War there was a tremendous emphasis on teamwork and the perception of many in the post-World War II era was that society in the 1950’s was too conformist. Little boxes made of ticky tacky and they all look the same, etc. But during 1929 – 1945 itself, people felt there was an existential threat or threats to the nation. During periods of crisis, people tend to pull away from individualism, and that’s more where we are right now (compare “The Fourth Turning” thesis by Strauss and Howe).

  6. magpie says:

    I so much agree with you!

  7. Provoked says:

    Eloquent and inspiring! I love this post!

    And thank you too Dianne Radmore for the poignant story of sweet Alice.

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