The Salted Meats of the Earth

Among those in antiquity who argued that animals exist for the sake of human beings, it was a commonplace to say that animals (usually pigs, though Philo mentions fish) do indeed possess souls—what we would call vitality, or the spark of life. For these philosophers and theologians, though, ensouled-ness does not really count in the animals’ favor. The purpose of animal-souls, they say, is  that a soul is so much more effective than salt at preserving meat for human consumption.

It seems to me that this trope is generally written with a wink, as a bit of a joke. It is however, a theory for which our society has perfected the practice. In our intensive agricultural operations, life is simply the best way of producing, reproducing, and preserving meat for human consumption. Our regard for the creatures who live among us is flattened such that they are no more than walking meat.

I’m more interested in the conceptual tricks by which we are able to think this way, and feed our society on these premises, than I am in moralizing or in pushing a vegetarian agenda. I imagine that very few people who look a fellow-creature in the eye actually “see” animated meat looking back at them—even (and perhaps especially) if they intend to kill and eat the creature whose gaze they are returning. And yet, our agricultural system is organized as if the “salty-soul” theory were a common-sense reality, a simple fact of nature.