Nietszche Among the Cows

“Consider the cows, grazing as you pass by; they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they move about, they eat, rest, digest, move about again, and so from morning until night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored.

This is a hard sight for man to see; for he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal.

A human being may well ask the animal: “Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?” The animal would like to answer, and say, “The reason is I always forget what I was going to say” – but then he forgets that answer too, and stays silent, so that the human being is left wondering.”

The lines above are extracted from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations Part 2: “On the Use and Abuse of History for life”. I read this and the extract below at the Analytical Animals research colloquium at the Royal College of Art last month, where it was part of Paul Davies’ paper “Nietzsche Among the Cows”.

The silence of the cow strikes the human ear as the absence of speech rather than the presence of silence. The absence is glaring because it seems to hold something back: in its forgetful, contented gaze the cow holds from us the secret of its “happiness on earth”. The cow does not talk: it ruminates, watches, takes in. And what it takes in, we imagine, lingers within its peaceful mind rather than rebounding through its brain into speech that might invite us inside.

In Nietzsche the cow has a pure watch: an inward watch that is not depleted by outward reflection. But for the human onlooker this wordless rumination is not enough. We demand from the cow an outward “reply” to its inward gaze. From Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, “The Voluntary Beggar”:

“But he climbed on, up hill, down dale, past green pastures, but also over wild stony courses where formerly perhaps an impatient brook had made its bed; then all at once he found himself growing warmer and more cheerful. “What has happened to me?” he asked himself, “something warm and living refreshes me, it must be nearby. Already I am less alone, unknown companions and brothers circle about me, their warm breath touches my soul.”

When, however, he peered about him and sought the comforters of his loneliness, behold, there were cows standing together on a hillock; it was their proximity and odour that had warmed his heart. These cows, however, seemed to be listening eagerly to a speaker, and took no heed of his approach. And when Zarathustra was quite near them, he clearly heard a human voice speaking from among the cows, and apparently all of them had turned their heads towards the speaker.

Then Zarathustra eagerly ran up the hillock and pulled the animals away for he feared that someonw had met with harm, which the sympathy of the cows would hardly be able to remedy. But in this he was deceived; for behold, there sat a man on the ground who seemed to be persuading the animals to have no fear of him, a peaceable mann and a sermoniser-on-the-mount, out of whose eyes kindness itself preached.

“What do you seek here?” cried Zarathustra in astonishment. “What do I seek here?” he answered: “the same as you seek, you peace-breaker! That is, happiness upon earth. To that end, however, I would learn from these cows. For I tell you I have already been talking to them for half a morning, and they were just about to reply to me. Why do you disturb them? Unless we change (or be converted) and become as cows, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. For there is one thing we should learn from them: rumination.”

If the cow could talk, of course, it would lack the contentment of its wordless rumination and would have nothing new to teach us. It would observe and reflect, inward and outward, just like us. Imagining the cow just at the brink of speech but too forgetful or distracted to manage a reply misses the point altogether: the particular peace of the cow depends on the containment of its inward gaze. Speech, here, is in opposition to looking.


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