Ulysses and Gryllus  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Ulysses and Gryllus is the informal title given to a dialogue found in Plutarch's Moralia. It is a humorous converstation between Odysseus (Ulysses) and Gryllus, one of Circe's enchanted pigs.

It tells how Circe allows Odysseus to interview a fellow Greek turned into a pig. There his interlocutor informs Odysseus that his present existence is preferable to the human.

They then engage in a philosophical dialogue in which every human value is questioned and beasts are proved to be of superior wisdom and virtue, but especially in valor and temperance.


Full text

Beasts are Rational (Περὶ τοῦ τὰ ἄλογα λόγῳ χρῆσθαι - Bruta animalia ratione uti); [1] from the Moralia

Loeb introduction

Loeb Edition Introduction

Many will find this little jeu d'esprit as pleasant reading as anything in Plutarch. In part, this may be due to its (perhaps accidental) brevity; but its originality and freshness are undeniable. These qualities have, to be sure, puzzled a number of scholars who are still disputing whether the sources are principally Epicurean or Peripatetic or Cynic. Nothing quite like it is known elsewhere, which sad lack baffles the Quellenforscher. So, rather than allow a touch of spontaneous imagination to Plutarch, it has been confidently asserted that the dialogue must come from the school of Menippus, or be an attempt to turn the tables on Polystratus, and so on.

Everything must have a source (if only the author's ingenuity) and the source here, so far as it can be predicated with any certainty, is the tenth book of the Odyssey seen through the humorous eyes of a young Boeotian. We have here, then, a Boeotian pig instructing the favourite of Athena. It was once fashionable to assert, or imply, that since Plutarch was once a young Boeotian himself, matters could not be so simple, nor could he be the author. But the climate of scholarship is, perhaps, changing. There are few of Plutarch's admirers who will not claim this lively work for one of his more admirable achievements, written, perhaps, when he was quite young.

Even if the authorship is accepted without hesitation, there is little else that is certain except that the Stoics are constantly under attack, though rather less directly than in the preceding dialogue. There is grave doubt about the title: is it no. 127 or no. 135 in the Lamprias Catalogue? Or, as it has become popular to call it, is it really the Gryllus? There are a number of troublesome lacunae; the work, as it stands, ends suddenly with a gay witticism instead of being continued to a more conventional termination. It is only too likely that the more mature Plutarch would have gone on and on; but what would the clever young man who concocted this conceit have done?

For once, there is a good translation, or paraphrase, the German one of Bruno Snell in his Plutarch p491(Zürich, 1948), though this version gives almost too exciting an impression of vivacity and wit by omitting the more tiresome sections.

Those interested in Gryllus' remarks on the indecent ways in which men pervert animals to their taste will find a sympathetic exposition in E. G. Boulenger's Animal Mysteries (London, 1927).

Excerpt on courage and valour

ODYSSEUS. And what sort of virtue, Gryllus, is ever found in beasts?

GRYLLUS. Ask rather what sort of virtue is not found in them more than in the wisest of men? Take first, if you please, courage, in which you take great pride, not even pretending to blush when you are called "valiant" and "sacker of cities." Yet you, you villain, are the man who by tricks and frauds have led astray men who knew only a straightforward, noble style of war and were unversed in deceit and lies; while on your freedom from scruple you confer the name of the virtue that is least compatible with such nefariousness. Wild beasts, however, you will observe, are guileless and artless in their struggles, whether against one another or against you, and conduct their battles with unmistakably naked courage under the impulse of genuine valour. No edict summons them, nor do they fear a writ of desertion. No, it is their nature to flee subjection; with a stout heart they maintain an indomitable spirit to the very end. Nor are they conquered even when physically overpowered; they never give up in their hearts, even while perishing in the fray. In many cases, when beasts are dying, their valour withdraws together with the fighting spirit to some point where it is concentrated in one member and resists the slayer with convulsive movements and fierce anger until, like a fire, it is completely extinguished and departs.

Beasts never beg or sue for pity or acknowledge defeat: lion is never slave to lion, or horse to horse through cowardice, as man is to man when he unprotestingly accepts the name whose root is cowardice. And when men have subdued beasts by snares and tricks, such of them as are full grown refuse food and endure the pangs of thirst until they induce and embrace death in place of slavery. But nestlings and cubs, which by reason of age are tender and docile, are offered many beguiling allurements and enticements that act as drugs. These give them a taste for unnatural pleasures and modes of life, and in time make them spiritless to the point where they accept and submit to their so‑called "taming," which is really an emasculation of their fighting spirit.

These facts make it perfectly obvious that bravery is an innate characteristic of beasts, while in human beings an independent spirit is actually contrary to nature. The point that best proves this, gentle Odysseus, is the fact that in beasts valour is naturally equal in both sexes and the female is in no way inferior to the male. She takes her part both in the struggle for existence and in the defence of her brood. You have heard, I suppose, of the sow of Crommyon which, though a female beast, caused so much trouble to Theseus. That famous Sphinx would have got no good of her wisdom as she sat on the heights of Mt. Phicium, weaving her riddles and puzzles, if she had not continued to surpass the Thebans greatly in power and courage. Somewhere thereabouts lived also the Teumesian vixen, a "thing atrocious"; and not far away, they say, was the Pythoness who fought with Apollo for the oracle at Delphi. Your king received Aethe from the Sicyusn as a recompense for excusing him from military service, making a very wise choice when he preferred a fine, spirited mare to a cowardly man. You yourself have often observed in panthers and lionesses that the female in no way yields to the male in spirit and valour. Yet, while you are off at the wars, your wife sits at home by the fire and troubles herself not so much as a swallow to ward off those who come against herself and her home — and this though she is a Spartan born and bred. So why should I go on to mention Carian or Maeonian women? Surely from what has been said it is perfectly obvious that men have no natural claim to courage; if they did, women would have just as great a portion of valour. It follows that your practice of courage is brought about by legal compulsion, which is neither voluntary nor intentional, but in subservience to custom and censure and moulded by extraneous beliefs and arguments. When you face toils and dangers, you do so not because you are courageous, but because you are more afraid of some alternative. For just as that one of your companions who is the first to board ship stands up to the light oar, not because he thinks nothing of it, but because he fears and shuns the heavier one; just so he who accepts the lash to escape the sword, or meets a foe in battle rather than be tortured or killed, does so not from courage to face the one situation, but from fear of the other. So it is clear that all your courage is merely the cowardice of prudence and all your valour merely fear that has the good sense to escape one course by taking another. And, to sum up, if you think that you are better in courage than beasts, why do your poets call the doughtiest fighters "wolf-minded" and "lion-hearted" and "like a boar in valour," though no poet ever called a lion "man-hearted" or a boar "like a man in valour"? But, I imagine, just as when those who are swift are called "wind-footed" and those who are handsome are called "godlike," there is exaggeration in the imagery; just so the poets bring in a higher ideal when they compare mighty warriors to something else. And the reason is that the spirit of anger is, as it were, the tempering or the cutting edge of courage. Now beasts use this undiluted in their contests, whereas you men have it mixed with calculation, as wine with water, so that it is displaced in the presence of danger and fails you when you need it most. Some of you even declare that anger should not enter at all into fighting, but be dismissed in order to make use of sober calculation; their contention is correct so far as self-preservation goes, but is disgracefully false as regards valorous defence. For surely it is absurd for you to find fault with Nature because she did not equip your bodies with natural stings, or place fighting tusks among your teeth, or give you nails like curved claws, while you yourselves remove or curb the emotional instrument that Nature has given.


ODYSSEUS. So now, Gryllus, you are transformed. Do you attribute reason even to the sheep and the ass?

GRYLLUS. From even these, dearest Odysseus, it is perfectly possible to gather that animals have a natural endowment of reason and intellect. For just as one tree is not more nor less inanimate than another, but they are all in the same state of insensibility, since none is endowed with soul, in the same way one animal would not be thought to be more sluggish or indocile mentally than another if they did not all possess reason and intellect to some degree — though some have a greater or less proportion than others. Please note that cases of dullness and stupidity in some animals are demonstrated by the cleverness and sharpness of others — as when you compare an ass and a sheep with a fox or a wolf or a bee. It is like comparing Polyphemus to you or that dunce Coroebus to your grandfather Autolycus. I scarcely believe that there is such a spread between one animal and another as there is between man and man in the matter of judgement and reasoning and memory.

ODYSSEUS. But consider, Gryllus: it is not a fearful piece of violence to grant reason to creatures that have no inherent knowledge of God?

GRYLLUS. Then shall we deny, Odysseus, that so wise and remarkable a man as you had Sisyphus for a father?

See also

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