In November 397, Lucius and his companions stopped at the port city of Ostia for several weeks to await the boat that would take them back to North Africa. While they were in Ostia, Lucius began to instruct them in the discipline of philosophy, so that they might be prepared for their own entry into the “great mysteries of the sacred truth” (2.7).
The following selection comes from the “Ostia Dialogues of Lucius Scatullus” (New York: Academica Press, 2012) and has been faithfully translated by the noted Latin scholar, Alcibiades J. Grunthaler.
Dialogue #7: On the Ontological Status of Beasts
When all were assembled in the lecture hall, I began the disputation.
“Is it preferable,” I asked, “to be a man or a beast?”
“A man,” they all responded in one voice.
“And why, pray, do you think that it is preferable to be a man?” I asked.
“Because man has been given the gift of reason by the Almighty, and therefore has dominion over all creation and over all the beasts of the land, sea, and sky,” said Confutatus, with great devotion.
I could not help but be impressed by the depth of wisdom in one so young and the confidence in which he assented to the lofty propositions contained in Sacred Scripture.
“And if man has dominion over creation, and over all the beasts contained therein,” I went on, “should he not be able to do as he wishes with these beasts provided that his actions do not violate the precepts of Sacred Scripture?”
“Without doubt,” they all assented.
“And so it follows that we may hunt the beast and eat the beast and use the beast to make our human lives more pleasant and comfortable, doesn’t it? And that nothing man does to the beast of the land, sea, or sky can be considered sin, because God has given the beast to us to lord over and to dominate according to the dictates of our own reason?”
“That is true,” said my mother who most assuredly was a mother to all of us in her maternal wisdom. “But man must behave towards the beast with propriety and decorum, as befits our status as the superior species, created by the Lord in his own image.”
All nodded their heads in approval at the perspicacity of one of her sex.
“But might man then also use parts of the beast to make jellied preserves and mocca lattes?” asked Maledictus. “For it would seem that this too would be in keeping with the dictates of Sacred Scripture.”
“That would seem self-evidently true,” I replied. “For there is nothing in Sacred Scripture to indicate that God has any objection to tasty sweet preserves and frothy caffeinated beverages … provided of course that they are consumed at the right times, in the right quantities, and with a spirit of mind that resists the sensuous pleasures that such delights can give rise to in the human mind.”
“One must not consume such delights during Lent either,” rejoined mother, “for that sort of lascivious behavior is clearly forbidden on days of the Lord.”
“Your words are like balm to our aching minds, my mother,” I said.
Then Licentius hesitatingly entered the discussion: “But what if one wished to invite some beast of the field to May Fesitival as one’s guest, because the girl that one has been dating—unfaithful slut!—has seen fit to leave him for another? Might one extend an offer of invitation to this beast of the field, so that he might have a dancing partner for such an event?”
The question posed was a truly perplexing one and would require all my skills as a teacher of rhetoric to resolve. “What sort of beast did you have in mind to invite as a dance partner, Licentius? For, as you are well aware, God has endowed certain beasts with greater potential for social intercourse than others. The serpent, for instance, would make a particularly poor dance partner, for his feet have been constrained by God as a punishment for the sins his ancestor committed in Paradise. The mongoose is a much better dancer, but God in his wisdom has seen fit to make him low to the ground, thus producing extreme lower back pains in anyone who would choose him for a dance partner.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a goat,” he replied.
“Yes, a goat,” he said. “For you see, I’ve always felt that God has created goats for more than just the occasional feast at Easter time or for yummy goat cheese to spread on crusty bread. They are quite handsome creatures, are they not? With that little tuft of hair under their chins and those wicked eyes…..Oh yes, how could one not find a goat appealing!”
“Even though the goat has the hoofs of Mephistopheles and the eyes of Beelzebub?” I asked. “In what way can that creature possibly be attractive to mortal man?”
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of any long-term commitments,” he replied. “Goats are just fun to be around that’s all, especially when they’ve had too much to drink.”
“I’m dating a raccoon named Daphne,” Maledictus blurted out, not wanting to seem uninformed about the topic under discussion. “She’s sweet, but at times she pressures me into doing things that I’m sure are not sanctioned in Sacred Scripture.”
“What sort of things,” I asked, knowing full well that I really didn’t want to hear the answer.
“She’s into biting and scratching.” He said. “I don’t know why she can’t just cuddle like every other raccoon I know! I’m beginning to dread going over to her hole, because I know how painful it is going to be.”
“Perhaps we are digressing somewhat from the topic of our disputation,” I said, the alarm in my voice evident for all to hear. “I believe that these sorts of subjects are best left for the confessional.”
But just when I thought I had gotten the conversation back on track, my mother felt compelled to reveal her own personal forays into the realm of bestial familiarity, much to my dismay.
“Before I married your father, Pompidorus,” she confessed with tears welling up in her aged eyes, “I was engaged to a spinney toed gecko named Morty. Oh the wonderful times we had together. Talk about a dancer! He could work me around the dance floor like no one else I’ve ever met.”
“Mother, please!” I pleaded, beginning to feel as though our philosophical discussion was once again getting far off track.
“And what a kisser!” she added. “With a tongue like that, you could only imagine the possibilities for romantic encounters. Oh, I loved him so dearly. Why he even offered me his paw in the bonds of holy matrimony, but I like a fool turned him down. Just imagine what I could be doing right now instead of listening to a bunch of philosophers prattle on endlessly about totally inconsequential topics! Oh those steamy nights we had in MIlan! Him in his new leathery skin and me in the exotic little negligee that he bought at some pagan shop in Rome. “
“Mother, I beg you!”
“Of course, then I wouldn’t have you for a son…but I might have had some daughters instead…little gecko girls to help me with the wash and catch flies for the dinner table. And after a long day of laboring in the kitchen, I’d have those wanton nights to look forward to with Morty and his sticky tongue. Oh, that amazing tongue…”
“I think that our discussion has progressed about as far as it can go for today,” I interjected, “for some topics are clearly beyond the rational abilities of man.”
I closed my bible hastily and gathered up my scattered lecture notes. “Tomorrow we’ll discuss the tripartite division of the soul according the teachings of the Platonists.”
And, as I walked as quickly as my legs could carry me towards the chapel, I heard my mother speaking in a whisper-like voice to my young colleagues. “Platonists,” she said. “I could tell you some things about the Platonists that would make your hair stand on end. They pretend that they’re only interested in the world of the forms, but I can assure you that those dirty little buggers have other sorts of forms on their minds…”