First of all, all what we can say about animals is based on what they communicate through their behaviour. We don’t have to think that the animal wants to express something more and that it is lacking in communication skills. If that was the case (and it is not the case), we would be able to understand its message exactly like we are able to learn a foreign language or to communicate with sign language.

Animals communicate exactly what they have to communicate. This type of expression determines the ontological difference between animals and human beings.

Animals can be tamed and show a social behaviour but they will always reveal their nature, even if they are fond of and protect their master (there are many cases in which the dog attacked other people in order to defend its master or in which the dog started to bark to attract his attention on a danger). Very famous is Odysseus’ dog Argos which recognized its master after a long time. More famous are the sheep that recognized the shepherd’s voice calling them one by one (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 10, verses1-8).

In the Bible we can read about Adam who immediately recognized his wife Eve among all animals because he recognized his same nature.


When we describe the animal knowledge characteristics we make comparisons with our human nature, so we are only interpreting. Hegel expressed this, saying: “man weis nie diesen Bestien steckt” (we don’t know what’s in these animals mind) (quotation from Vanni Rovighi: “Elementi di filosofia”, ed. La Scuola, Brescia, 1963, Vol III, page 107).


It’s an ideological mistake to think that animals have a consciousness of themselves like human beings. And it’s not really correct to use the word “self-consciousness” for them. Our self-consciousness is very different from animals because animals consciousness is rational. Our consciousness is self-consciousness.


The word “self-consciousness” can only be used for human beings as it belongs to human nature. What about the way to express the animal self-perception? The answer must not create confusion with the human dimension.

If I touch my cat’s paw, I’m touching the cat: that’s why it reacts. The cat is a unit and it feels that I’m touching all its body: it’s not a mechanical robot but a living being who has an instinctive self-perception and this is so different that for the human being it is impossible the experience the same. So, which is the right word to use for the animal without creating confusion with our “self-consciousness”?

The philosopher Sofia Vanni Rovighi (“Elementi di filosofia”, Vol III, page 107), uses the word “cosciente” (aware) to indicate the sensory life, meaning the consciousness in general, so the awareness. Animals are conscious, human beings are self-conscious.

All this is right, but in order not to create confusion we could use other words: for example animals are “sentient” (capable of perceiving with a sense, in Italian “senziente”). Thanks to this nature, animals can know their “unit” (not their being) and organize their instinct.


The mirror tests on animals don’t reveal anything more than what animals have to communicate. To be in front of a water mirror is normal for animals and this does not create any problems. For example, an antelope who drinks in a pond can see its image since the first days of its life. It knows its image well but that image is something different from its nature, it’s just a figure in the water even if it knows that it comes from its unit because the image corresponds to its movements.

Anyway, there has been someone who tried to understand something more observing the animal behaviour in front of a mirror, or better, inside the intellectual context of the experimenter, but the animals continued to demonstrate that they are animals (Gordon G. Gallup, “Chimpanzees: self-recognition” (autoriconoscimento), Science 1970, 167, pages 86-87).


Gordon G. Gallup, who was working at the State University of New York at Albany, left some chimpanzees ten days long in front of a big mirror. The chimpanzees, who evidently had never seen their image in a water mirror, started to become nervous as they were in front of other chimpanzees. Then, they started to analyze their image and they understood that it was inoffensive: no threat, no voice, no smell. That was a new, neutral reality perceived by the animal because it is sentient.

Later, taking chimpanzees who had extensive prior familiarity with mirrors, Gallup anesthetized his subjects and marked their foreheads with a distinctive dye. The dye didn’t smell, so it could not attract the animal.

Upon waking, marked animals touched the dye they could see on other foreheads but not on their own forehead.

Then, they saw themselves in a mirror but their first image was different from the new one with the dye. They looked confused. The animal had to create a new relationship with the new image. As it could not see the dye because it was up on the forehead, the chimpanzee started to smell the dye on the mirror which, however, had no smell at all.

The experimenter’s conclusion? The animal was able to recognize itself (self- recognition). In simpler words the animal had only established a new relation with the new image which depended on its nature and showed not to understand the physical phenomenon of the mirror and so its being in the mirror.

The experimenter anesthetized other chimpanzees not prior submitted to the mirror test and marked them with the same sign. This time, the chimpanzees didn’t mind about their dye, their attention was only for the image reflected by the mirror. This image was not different from a previous one: this means that the first chimpanzees were confused because of an image impact.

I remember that in 1978 in the Carmelite monastery in Forlì the friars (the community was made up of only two members) showed me a canary in a cage who was always looking fix sideways. The friars explained that they had put by chance a Carmelite puppet with a brown habit in front of the cage and since that day the canary had never moved its eyes from the puppet’s position even if this object was moved to another place. What’s happened? An image impact between the real Carmelite image and that of the puppet. If the canary had been free he would have had the possibility to distinguish the two entities.

Gordon G. Gallup concentrated his attention on primates, thinking with other scientists, that gorillas would have never been able to get through the mirror tests. Other experimenter noticed that gorillas had no difficulty to do the same things as chimpanzees. This test was made then on monkeys, elephants, magpies, pigs, dolphins, just not to exclude other animals than primates.

We can not forget the dog. Many people have already noticed how a dog behaves in front of a mirror: first, it thinks to be in front of an enemy or a partner but than perceives that image as something neutral. It is not nervous and can recognize its master image and that of familiar objects (a piece of furniture for example).

If the dog sees its master gesticulating in the mirror it turns itself immediately and runs towards him.

Also a cat establishes a relationship with its master when, for example, it tries to reach the comb used by him seen in the mirror

The learning ability of dogs has been tested and it’s excellent, like that of dolphins, elephants, and also horses if tamed.

The mirror test does not add anything to what animals already communicate.

There is no other truth to discover if a cat watches TV for a long time.

Moreover the animal learns signs or words by association: sign-object = food. It associates a word with its real object and concentrates on the real object in order to gain food. This happens not because that animal understands words, but because from that particular word the animal knows what has to be considered in order to get food. The sensory life base is always the instinct.


Many chimpanzees have been tamed by means of sign language so to learn many words and to do many actions with the food price. Videos showed that the chimpanzee gesticulation was confused and that its communication had only the aim to gain food. The animal procedure is the association under the instinct guide to have food, to go out. Even if the chimpanzee is tamed, it can not do more. Even with hi-tech devices, such as computers designed for specific purposes, animals continue to react as always, thinking by image association and following their instinct. The videos have been checked and they confirmed that.

What is clear is the fact that these animals have a strong visual memory, the base for their image association which allow them to survive in the environment where they live. This type of memory is also used by experimenters for tests.

When the animal is tamed, however, loses something of its nature: it follows what its masters wants (often experimenters want to prove their evolutionary ideas from the animal to the human being) and its perfection is compromised.


A free chimpanzee is able to use a branch after having removed all side branches in order to take out the ants in a heap and eat them, but it will never obtain a better tool from another one: for example it can throw a stone but it won’t never be able to use the stone for splintering another one in order to obtain a sharp object.

A gorilla can use a stick as a support to cross a river but it does not mean anything: I remember that monkeys can not swim and their standing position is unsure so it is normal that animals use their instinct and their experience to survive.


Anyone who does not know the animals ends up silly.

On June 17 2011 the eight o’clock news on Channel 1 of RAI, the Italian state television, broadcast a news item about a zoo in England. Jorong, a 16-year-old Orang-Utan from Borneo, apparently tried to use a leaf to save from drowning a moorhen chick. When this was not successful, the ape picked up the chick and placed it safely on dry land. But if you watch the video on You Tube, you can see that there is a different interpretation. The ape saw the chick, which was not in the least danger of drowning - the video shows that the chick was perfectly able to swim - and picked up a leaf, which he placed a number of times on the moorhen’s beak. He then picked up the chick, placed it on dry land, then crouched down and began to examine it closely. Twice he picked up the little animal and brought it close to his mouth as if intending to eat it. He then put the little bird down and took no further interest in it. It is obvious that the Orang-Utan was merely checking whether the little bird was, or was not, dangerous. First, the ape was attracted by a little animal swimming (apes cannot swim), then he touched the moorhen chick’s beak with a leaf to see if the creature would fight. Then, no longer afraid, he picked up the little creature and put it down on dry land where he could examine it properly. Finally, he brought the chick close to his mouth, as if to eat it, but then concluded that the chick was neither useful nor harmful, and took no further interest in it. The objective of the entire sequence was to decide whether the moorhen chick was useful, or harmful, or neither; it was this which prompted the action of the Orang-Utan, living in a zoo close to a stretch of water. Anyone who has ever seen a dog react to a new person, some friend of the dog’s owner, will recognise the ape’s behaviour as similar. First, the dog circles round the new arrival, sniffing thoroughly (never stiffen when a dog does this, as to do so would be interpreted as a fighting action) and then, reassured partly by the presence of his or her owner, the dog remains calm.


We always have to remember there is an ontological difference between animals and human beings.


The animal can separate concrete objects during the training. It can make a difference between the shape of a counter from its colour or only use one type of counter. It can also choose similar solutions.

This behaviour is common to all animals and it is better in some of them. It is a psychic faculty, radically connected with the sense perception. It is a practical-instinctive intelligence (estimative faculty, according to Scholastic philosophers) or in other ways to explain its connection with the sense perception. This type of intelligence is however different from the human one which is an abstract-intellective intelligence.

Does animal have feelings? Here we should understand, indeed the word feeling appears from the observation of the mankind on himself and has got a value that includes reason, which motivates, examines, the birth of a fondness which becomes a feeling for someone, and this happens based on the qualities of a person, not only phisycals, which should be not enough, but spirituals. For this reason the word sentiment is to be left to the mankind whereas for the animal we should for accuracy use a word of a minor range, which is affection. Obviously the animal grows fond of, remembers with affection his lord, his herd. He is failthfull to his lord (domesticated dog) protecting and recognizing him. If we consider another animal as the lion, we can see that it could be domesticated. A lion tamer takes the puppy at its earliest days of its life, gives it food, and little by little he domesticates it by giving food at the end of each exercise. Infact the animal moves itself only between convenience and harmful and if the tamer is useful for food, it ties tighly to its tamer. The animal has got its own life and its relationships with the herd and the tamer, or better its trainer, he has the role of the pack leader. However we know that in the circus sometimes it happens that lions attack the tamer, as it happens with the killer whales, and this is why it is not right to bend the instinct of an animal by row ways (see the killer whales) to realize a stunning show. We can say that the animal has got emotions (fear, pain, rarge, happiness), but on its natural instinct way. Although mankind has got emotions, these are always those of a rational subject, who can dominate the fear even feeling it, who can bear the pain even feeling repulsion, who knows how to prevail the rage even feeling it emerge, who is happy for elevated reasons, for example, eating the bread which is the fruit of his work.

Only the human being has a rational, spiritual soul, not animals, as they show through their behavior. The world wants to deny the human soul reducing men and woman to animals but it is not possible. The difference between the rational animal, the human who has a soul, and all other animals is clear in philosophy. The Bible clearly and unequivocally shows how the animal has not the soul. God didn’t give animals the life directly (Gen 2:7). Animals come from the earth: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field” (Gen 2:19). Animals are food for the human being and God allows to kill them: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things” (Gen 9:3). In the Psalm (48/49,12.20) we read: “But man, despite his riches, doesn’t endure. He is like the animals that perish (…) A man who has riches without understanding, is like the animals that perish". In the Psalm (73/74:22) we read: “So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee”. The animals were used for sacrifices (Gen 4:4; 8:20; 22:13; Ex 12:21; Lev 1:2s; Num 15:3). In that days the Temple was like an abattoir and blood was everywhere (see 1 Kings 8:63). Peter saw something like a big sheet coming from the sky containing all kind of animals, clean and unclean according to Judaic prescriptions and he heard a voice inviting him to kill and eat in order not to think to be contaminated by the food considered unclean (Acts, 10:13): “Get up, Peter, kill and eat”. Animals sacrifice can’t pay for human sins (Heb. 10:4-7): “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come - in the volume of the book it is written of me - to do thy will, O God”. (Bible: King James Version).


Sofia Vanni Rovighi (1908-1990) was professor of theoretical philosophy, moral philosophy, history of philosophy at the Catholic University Sacro Cuore, in Milan. She wrote many books and in 1980 she won the “Antonio Feltrinelli” award dedicated to philosophical sciences, organized by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. I will quote (free translation) some texts taken from the third volume of “Elementi di filosofia”, ed. La Scuola, Brescia, 1963, pag 171s because of their excellent clarity.


(page 171-177):

“And we will reason like this: if in the human being there is an activity which is independent from the body; if there is a human activity that can not proceed from the body, that can not have the body as subject, in the human there is a reality, something which is independent from the body. If in the human being there is an activity that, even if it belongs to the human (and so it proceeds from its substantial form), can not proceed from a corporeal subject, we should say that the soul, the substantial form of the human being, exists on its own because the activity is anything else than an expression of being. Our query is about an human activity which is independent from the body and that can not proceed from the body.

According to St Thomas there are three activities like this: the knowledge of the Universal, the thinking or self-awareness, the intellectual capacity to know all the objects


The knowledge of the Universal and the contemplation


Let’s start with the first one. The Universal is something which is independent from here and now: it is an aspect not connected with the conditions between the object’s being and its materiality, space and time; the knowledge of the Universal implies that the subject who has the knowledge ability is superior and that these conditions have no meaning.

Now, we will consider some elements about this topic. The knowledge of the Universal gives an answer to the quest for essence, for what is really something, regardless of what is for me hic et nunc: it is the contemplative action. The contemplation means also a detachment from the vital and animal interest. When these prevail and are urgent, there is no contemplation primum vivere, deinde philosophari. We are not talking about complicated contemplative actions, but also about those during the every day life that need otium, freedom, release, something independent from the urgent needs of the animal life.

If I am walking on the street and I realize that a vehicle is going to knock me down, I will try to save my life like an animal because this animal need prevails. But if I ask myself: what did I know when I stepped aside? I will answer: I recognized that vehicle as something dangerous for me illic et tunc, regardless of what that vehicle was, a truck, a van, a car. I will think about these things after, when I have the otium to contemplate and I do not need to save my animal life anymore.

M. Scheler says that as a contemplator, the human being is a life ascetic: in order to go beyond the animal life, we have to be more than an animal.

And we said that this contemplative ability of the human being is evident also in the most ridiculous knowledge: during every day life, where we define this like a van and that like a car. Our spirituality is always there and is our nature characteristic: we have to find it in every human thing.


Contemplation and technique

If we think for a moment about the technique, we will notice something which is independent from the animal life. The technique is useful to the human being: if we consider the homo faber, we will find it more similar to the beaver than to the angel.

However, we can find the human spirituality also in technique. The beaver’s technique does not improve […], the human one of course. You will say: the needs let things improve. No, it is exactly the opposite: the technique creates new needs. The animal needs of the human are always the same: eat, drink, sleep, a sure place, etc. Today, we need an electric fridge not because there are new animal needs but because it makes our life easier.

Which is the reason of technical progress? The answer is: the theoretical, speculative interest, the problem itself. This statement will maybe let businessman and those who read about technique praise in books smile, but if a person has had the chance to know a good technician (who let technique improve) knows that his interest is the theoretical one. The technician works for a businessman which aim is the profit or a totalitarian state that wants the power: anyway, without the research results of these efficient technicians (more similar to the poets than to their managers and financial backers), businessman would never have money or totalitarian state would never get the power. It is also true that these researchers are often worried about the possible use of their discoveries.

I talked about technique because it probably better satisfy our needs, but what about art, philosophy and religion, activities in which the interest for what is not animal is more evident?


Freedom and spirituality

Let’s think about the practical behaviours that proceed from the intellectual knowledge. For example we can consider a man who does not preserve his own animal life. Is it possible that something destroys his nature? If he accepts the death, it means that there is something more. We are not talking about a dog who wants to die on its master’s grave or about a young women who has lost her beloved and kills herself: this is an emotional deprivation, an inability to react, to find a new balance after a shock. The voluntary acceptation of the death to affirm something more, the human personality, is very different.

Also the materialistic theories, when they ask one human’s life sacrifice, have to find a fusion of spirituality and immortality, they have to consider the glory and the good of the people letting people think to be the human spiritual essence.

If the humanity was a herd of brute animals, we would understand if the master would sacrifice one or ten of them, but we would not understand why one animal should sacrifice itself voluntary for the others: there is no difference between them.


Thinking and spirituality

If the intellectual principle was corporeal, we should say that either it is a body on its own, along with the body full of sense life, or that it is the same animated body. The first hypothesis can not be true, because the intellectual principle (e.n. The rational soul) is the substantial form of the body. So we have to consider the second one, the idea of the materialistic philosophies, according to which the intellectual knowledge is expressed trough an organ, the brain. Now the question is: in that case, would it be possible for the self-awareness? The subject would need an organ to know and this subject would need this organ also to know its knowledge. But if this organ is already involved in the direct knowledge, how can it be available for the reflected knowledge? We would need a second organ for the reflection. So, I would not have the awareness to know my knowledge; the first cognitive act would not be self-conscious. The eye does not see itself while it is seeing: it can see itself only in the mirror and it sees itself as another object.


In the Summa Contra Gentiles, St Thomas considers this topic in a deeper way and he observes that the reflection implies a presence on its own and it is not compatible with the extension. In fact, this extension would disperse the subject in a biased variety and it would prevent an “itself”, as a subject having its possession during reflection.

The fact to be able to reflect, to be self-conscious, means in a certain way, to find the way to be in contact with oneself.

Moreover we can think that the reflection is the root of the instinct control. If we want to control a feeling, we have to think and reflect about it because as long as we live it and we don’t think about it we have no way to dominate on it.

You will say that sometime through the reflection we notice that our animal life dominates our actions. For example sometimes we have an inappropriate reaction because we are hungry or because we are tired.

The fact that we are aware of being dependent on our body isn’t already a proof that we are more than what was dominated?

We do not know to be closed in a room if we do not know what is out of that room.

I think that the third Thomas theme, that based on our ability to know all bodies, has to be related to the knowledge of the Universal (Summa theol., q. 75, aa. 2).



These considerations lead us to think that in the human being there are activities that are independent from the body and that the subject of these activities is independent from the body.

Please notice that we did not search for soul proofs based on intuition but on the way we knows bodies.

Also the intellectual knowledge depends, for some aspects, on the body (for example, when there is a damage in the brain, also the intellectual knowledge is involved).

But this can be explained without denying the soul spirituality when we affirm that if for the sense knowledge the body is co-subject of activity (not only the soul operates but also the animated body), the body provides the object (image) to the intellectual knowledge from which, by means of our intelligence, we create the concept and the intelligible species.


Human beings have to respect animals and their nature. They do not have to destroy what animals are in order to know what is impossible. St. Francis loved animals: through their instinct, they knew he was a good man.