Nietzsche’s horse

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It’s a famous anecdote. On February 3, 1889, in Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche saw a coach. The coachman was whipping the horse violently. Nietzsche went up to the animal, wrapped his arms around it, burst into tears and instructed everyone to stay away. He collapsed and after a delirious phase, he became catatonic and died.

This event might be nothing more than one man’s madness. But I see it as one of greatest philosophers in history having been so moved by an animal’s suffering that it literally floored him.

This anecdote is also a way of once again discussing the suffering of animals. There is of course the issue of often unacceptable breeding and slaughtering practices which justifies vegetarianism, something I have already talked about in these columns.But it is almost a rhetorical point of view, because the modern food system is built to hide the suffering in abattoirs from us. What happens when one is directly faced with the suffering?

The suffering of a maltreated horse, like Nietzsche, or the suffering of a dog being beaten, of a pig having its throat slit or of a shark being cut into pieces and thrown back into the sea? Is it really any different from how we feel when we are confronted with a loved one’s suffering, or with a stranger’s?

There have been lengthy philosophical debates about what sets man apart from other animals, and what can or should justify our attitudes towards them. But isn’t there also an emotional response? Because there are only two possible reactions one can have when one is faced with human or animal suffering: putting on a front and remaining indifferent, or on the contrary, leaving oneself open to it and allowing oneself to be affected. Even though it is sometimes necessary for self-preservation, shutting things out is a dangerous habit that will dull our senses and cause us to retreat within ourselves. To close one’s heart to a suffering animal is to diminish a little as a human being.

Thus, one of the many reasons why we should protest against animal suffering is to protecting human beings. Because those who are violent to animals, or who are in close contact with this violence pay an emotional price. People who work in slaughterhouses, for example, suffer from psychological disorders and are inclined to violence etc. On the other hand, empathy is a difficult solution which hurts. But it is what makes us better human beings.

Sometimes, one can wonder whether this debate on suffering has been considered the right way round. Because opening our hearts to animals seems perfectly natural when they are well.

We know to what extent animals help children’s emotional development and help them to learn many things. We also know how domestic animals can bring a lot of joy to those who look after them and how much comfort they can bring in our difficult, lonely world. Recent studies have even shown that animals are good for your health: people with domestic animals consult their doctor about 15% less than those without. They feel less stressed and anxious….

Everyone’s heart has been melted, at least once, by baby animals: puppies, kittens, bear cubs, chicks, etc. The innocence of these little beings overrides the barriers we have sometimes put up over the years and instantly shakes our resolve so emotions can flow. If we can love animals in joyful circumstances why shouldn’t we love them when they suffer? What kind of love would this be if it only applies when it suits us?

Animals can help us be more human. They can help us open our hearts, and not shut them again afterwards. They can help us fight against ourselves and our society which is so cold and effective. They can help us regain our humanity. As Gandhi tellingly declared: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

Nietzsche’s horse

by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, GoodPlanet president , with Olivier Blond

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