THR Web Features   /   October 26, 2021

The Silencing of the Lambs

The sheep metaphor from Homer to Heidegger and beyond.

Bruce J. Krajewski

( The Sheep and the Hunted Wolf by William Samuel Howitt [1811]. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

“And what did it feel like to have this sheep inside your body?”

“Nothing special, really. It just felt like there was this sheep inside me. I felt it in the morning. I woke up and there was this sheep inside. A perfectly natural feeling.”

– Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

We are here to ponder the longue durée of mutton in an age of capitalist wolves. In 2021, the year disinformants said a COVID-19 vaccine transforms people into chimpanzees, the year a man killed his children because he believed they were going to become “lizard people,” “sheeple” come alive in the Icelandic film, The Lamb. The unsettling humanoid-ovine kid (pun intended) does not seem to be the result of CRISPR technology. The pastoral setting counters such an impulse, but leaves open a possibility explored in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? The film’s images ready us for the question: What counts as human?

Some philosophers know the woolly problems with sheep from their study of Descartes, who jousted with Antoine Arnauld over Arnauld’s claim, rooted in Avicenna’s writings, that sheep have a sensory soul, in part, because they run from wolves. A few philosophers might know Hans Blumenberg’s dive into the perennial political fable involving sheep and wolves in “The Dreamt-out Dream of the Lion’s Absence.” Blumenberg’s point, borrowed from Alfred Polgar, is that sheep, at least on the stage, don’t appear theatrically at random but, in the case of Germany, during times of peace—when the lion is absent. Translation: Nation-as-lion rendered impotent by the Treaty of Versailles. In that context Blumenberg can attach significance to the 1932 German play The New Paradise, which “advocates for the armament of the lamb.” The date gives away the political interpretation, though centuries before Germany the nation-state existed, someone anticipated that a lamb would win the final war (Revelation 17:14). In fact, the loaded symbols of the Christian Bible, which Bach employed to great effect in his St. Matthew Passion, allow Jesus to toggle between lamb and shepherd. It’s Matthew who alerts readers to these transfigurations (7:15), since bogus prophets who are wolves will disguise themselves as sheep. Is all Christian cosplay consecrated?

More philosophers are likely aware that the title of Christine Korsgaard’s Fellow Creatures can be located in her 2004 Tanner Lecture which opens with an epigraph from Kant in which Kant reports on someone talking to a sheep: “When [man] first said to the sheep, ‘the pelt which you wear was given to you by nature not for your own use, but for mine’ and took it from the sheep to wear it himself, he became aware of a prerogative which … he enjoyed over all the animals; and he now no longer regarded them as fellow creatures, but as means and instruments to be used at will for the attainment of whatever ends he pleased.” The mini-monologue asserts human rule over sheep. J.L. Austin would call this mini-monologue a perlocutionary act. Wittgenstein would call it an elevation of the sheep’s status in light of his own famous remark: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” Humans are deficient when it comes to understanding animals talking, but Kant’s sheep apparently has no trouble comprehending Hebrew. According to Kant, who cites Genesis 3:21, the one talking to the sheep is Adam. Eventually, sheep talk back. See Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner.

The purloined pelt of Genesis 3:21 is nothing compared to what happens to sheep in Genesis 22, where a sheep becomes a substitute for a human sacrifice. You’ll remember it. It’s the high holy barbecue, the stuff of a Shalom Auslander bit on NPR.

We also have this comic vignette from “The Incoherence of Empiricism” by P.F. Strawson and George Bealer: “Suppose someone has been driving for miles past what look like herds of sheep. At various points along the journey, our person believes that a sheep is in the pasture.” For some reason, it’s coherent to drop a sheep example into a paper on empiricism. Imagine the range of fauna and flora that could have been parachuted into the vignette, but the world of wool won out. We could have had: “Suppose someone has been driving for miles past what look like eclipses of Venezuelan poodle moths. At various points along the journey, our person believes that a poodle moth is in the field.”

While philosophers go driving to find sheep, psychoanalysts wait for wolves to come to them, as in the most famous dream of psychoanalysis, the one reported by the Wolf Man. The patient saw white wolves sitting on the tree in front of the family house. The wolves stared at the patient, the terrified sheep, through the bedroom window.

Philosophers seemingly fancy sheep, but they’re not alone. For example, The Lamb crosses territory familiar to the literary set who read “The Wolf and the Seven Kids” in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Ethan Coen’s “We Sheep,” Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, or J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, whose main character acknowledges “no bounds to our sympathetic imagination’: just as we can turn ourselves into a character in a novel and experience that character’s experiences, so we can turn ourselves into any living thing, whether ‘a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster’” or a sheep.

Such turning (human into animal or animal-human hybridmermaids, werewolves, minotaurs, harpies, centaurs) can be startling. Even Christians aren’t prepared for that kind of transubstantiation. Reactions can be violent. As The Lamb’s director, Valdimar Jóhannsson, says, “I have spent a lot of time with sheep farmers. When a lamb, or some other animal, is born and something is wrong, they euthanize it.” We want to see what we have always seen. What’s “natural” relies on recursion. Killing something that doesn’t look right counts as normal, the result of “ancestral practices,” says Jóhannsson. This helps to explain The Lamb’s horror film label. A sympathetic imagination can appear to others to be frighteningly “unnatural.” In most circumstances, for some, even the everyday imaginary cannot tolerate a routine sheep or a sheep’s routine. Think of the vitriolic use of “sheeple” or Tipu Sahab’s famous saying, “One day of life as a tiger is far better than a thousand years of living as a sheep.”

Historically, at least one occasion has arisen in which a transposition of Tipu Sahab’s claim looked desirable. “My poor dear, the wolves have always eaten the sheep; are the sheep going to eat the wolves this time?” This quotation cited by Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power comes from a 1791 letter to her son by Rosalie Ducrolay, also known as Madame Jullien, who hoped that the French Revolution would spawn a “reversal of nature,” bringing about, for example, equal rights for people of all races, as proposed by a philosopher she met, Nicolas de Condorcet, who became a “friend of the family.”

The sheep trope in politics runs deep in human history, at least as far back as Homer’s Iliad. “The model of the king [basileus] as shepherd was ingrained in Greek culture by the Iliad,” according to Melissa Lane. You might recall Odysseus’s strategy of hiding men under sheep to escape from a cave guarded by Polyphemus (Odyssey, IX.425-445). It’s not clear whether the sheep volunteered for the subterfuge. It’s not as if Odysseus is grateful to the life-saving sheep from Book 9, because by Book 11 he is playing necromancer, filling a pit with the blood of freshly slaughtered sheep in order to communicate with the dead, who, according to François Hartog, behave like avant la lettre vampires; the dead are “attracted by the blood.” Lamb’s blood attracts and repels death. For lamb’s blood as home death repellent, see Exodus 12.

Like Homer, Plato draws on the sheep/shepherd model in the Statesman. What Fulvia de Luise calls the “shepherd-god” in the Statesman morphs into a version of the philosopher-king. In a political myth told by the Eleatic Stranger sheep-like people ruled by a caring herdsman is a harmonious pastoral image from Cronus’s time, contrasted to Plato’s own era in which people have stopped behaving like sheep.

Despite the change, Plato preserves the sheep trope and portions of the Stranger’s myth, such as associating a caring herdsman to a benevolent statesman. That there need be rulers and those ruled persists in Plato’s political picture, even for those who disagree about how readers should take the Eleatic Stranger’s myth.

Building on the Homeric and Platonic ovine paradigm, Martin Heidegger pondered sheep at least as early as 1939 in a series of lectures, one portion of which is labeled “The Sheep Bleats.” It’s a response to Herder (these puns occur on their own), who apparently needed to be Abel (shepherd) to Heidegger’s Cain (farmer) in this instance. In a text Heidegger traces back to 1936, Heidegger prints in his “Letter on Humanism” (1946/7) the notorious phrase “Man [der Mensch] is the shepherd of Being.” Philosophers side with the shepherds. The sheep are animals, and “animals in Heidegger are always figured as lacking – poor in world, without language, without history, without hands, without dwelling, without space.” It's easy to forget a lesson Vicki Hearne offers on the real silencing of the lambs: "To the extent that [the philosopher] manages to deny any belief in the [sheep's] potential for believing, intending, meaning, etc., there will be no flow of intention, meaning, believing, hoping going on."

Philosophers like Plato and HeideggerNietzsche too in The Genealogy of Moralsemploy the perennial sheep and shepherd trope to justify strong-man politics, autocratic rule. Remember the shepherd-king. Some Plato and Heidegger scholars are defensive about the matter, and some who acknowledge portions of the autocratic evidence offer excuses. Some of Plato’s sentinels paint him as a democrat who offers “idealistic citizenship” as a tool that could be used by anyone, as if the Plato of the “noble lie” considers all citizens of equal capacity and value. You know the alibis for Heidegger. One concerns the other N-word. Some will say, including the author of Heidegger, Morality and Politics: Questioning the Shepherd of Being, that Heidegger exhibits “many flaws and blind spots,” while insisting his work is still valuable and deserves attention. The “flaws and blind spots,” like his ongoing public defense of National Socialism until at least 1966, become badges of honor, signs of complexity and worth, never revulsion. The scholars who offer the excuses almost never see themselves complicit in those “flaws and blind spots.” They are unlikely to agree with Steven Ungar that “we are always contaminated in advance through Heidegger.”

Heidegger’s allegiance with the shepherd in a rank ordering of beings irked Bruno Latour, enough for Latour to write: “Who told you that man was the shepherd of being? Many forces would like to be shepherd. In any case, there is no shepherd. Since you silence the things that you speak of, why don’t you let them talk by themselves?” Latour knows that Heidegger wants to obliterate bleating, to reduce the sheep's “baah” to an instinctual cry of sensation, or as Kelly Oliver characterizes Heidegger’s commentary, “the sheep becomes ‘merely’ an exemplar of being.”

Latour’s rejection of Heidegger’s statement failed. Almost all confrontations with Heideggerians fizzle. You’d have a better chance to persuade Boris Johnson that Brexit wasn’t the cherry on his nationalist banana split. “Have you read every word of Heidegger?” “Do you know the German?” “Did Heidegger kill anyone?” “Don’t you realize Heidegger had Jewish friends?” “Heidegger is the most important German philosopher, so you must read and respect him regardless of his ‘flaws and blind spots.’” “The ideas are more important than the person.” “As Gadamer said, Heidegger wasn’t a real Nazi.” “You don’t know how things were in those days, the ideological pressure, the potential sanctions.”

These days, Heideggerians spin their hero into an “eco-phenomenologist,” as someone who can teach us an “ethics of the earth.” The eco-friendly Heideggerian Tara Kennedy doesn’t blink when she writes, “It may be the case that we need not eat sheep, but we need to eat something. We need to wear something. Seeing to some basic needs such as shelter, clothing, food, and drink is necessary for survival and always comes at some expense to other entities.” Who’s the vampire now? In a recursion to what almost happened to Isaac, Heideggerian “Man” is the higher being to whom sacrifice is due. Kennedy proposes a world in which the eco-minded would use “sustainability” as the synonym for self-preservation. The death of other entities falls under “some expense” without so much as an apology. Kennedy is simply being one of those capitalists “raised by wolves,” according to Joseph Vogl, who identifies capitalism as the system in which “our sole responsibility is to be responsible for nothing and nobody but ourselves.”

The writer Thomas Bernhard takes a different path regarding Heidegger and sheep. Bernhard emphasizes the centrality of sheep to a scene he remembers, focusing not so much on Heidegger as on the woman Hannah Arendt judged “absolutely horrendous,” Heidegger’s wife, Elfride. Given the portrayal below, Bernhard might as well have switched Elfride’s name to Madame Defarge. The last sheep metaphor is Bernhard’s: “I always visualize him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest hut [built by Elfride with money from an inheritance], alongside his wife, who in her perverse enthusiasm for knitting is constantly knitting winter stockings with her own wool shorn off their own Heidegger sheep [Heideggershafen]. I can't see Heidegger any other way than on the bank of his Black Forest hut, next to him his wife, who has totally dominated him all his life and who has knitted all his stockings and crocheted all his caps.” Bernhard’s description of Elfride as a Madame Defarge suggests that sheep were not the only beings dehumanized within Heidegger’s horizon.