Saturday 28 March 2015

Toby, the Classically Educated Pig

Can Swine Really Digest Pearls, Ma''am?
Researching the Horrid History of intellectual snobbery, I have this week collected many instances of rich morons who have claimed that offering the Greeks and Romans to working-class people is equivalent to ‘casting pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6).  This research has introduced me to Toby, the SAPIENT PIG, OR PHILOSOPHER OF THE SWINISH RACE, who toured pubs in late Georgian England exhibiting his prodigious intellect. The frontispiece to his autobiography The Life and Adventures of Toby the Sapient Pig implies that the learned swine’s preferred reading was Plutarch.

Note the name PLUTARCH on the spine (lower left)
Toby’s excellent literary taste suggests that he or his entrepreneurial owner had read my favourite essay by Plutarch (best known for his Lives of famous Greeks and Romans), the Gryllus. This stars a brainy ancient hog whose name means ‘Grunter’. Gryllus conducts a delightful mock-Platonic dialogue with Odysseus and Circe. He has been transformed into a philosophical pig and does not want to be changed back into a human.

The British showed their intellectual superiority over the French in 1751 with another classically educated animal. When Le Chien Savant (or Learned French dog, a small poodle-ish she-dog who could spell words in French and English), arrived in London, she was trumped by the New Chien Savant, or learned English Dog, a Border Collie. The triumphant English Dog toured Staffordshire, Shrewsbury, Northamptonshire, Hereford, Monmouth and Gloucester as well as the taverns of London. She had clearly been to canine Eton, since she knew the Greek alphabet, could spell PYTHAGORAS, answer questions about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and was an expert in ancient history.  She could mind-read. She was advertised as possibly being a latterday reincarnation of Pythagoras the ancient Greek philosopher himself.
The Learned English Collie puts the Sigma in PYTHAGORAS

I'm sad that I was born too late to witness either the Learned English Dog or Toby the Sapient Pig in performance. But I have learned from researching them. Knowledge of ancient Greek and classical authors, including the (by no means lightweight) Ovid and Plutarch, was absolute proof of the prodigious intelligence of an animal. This Is in turn  telling evidence of the degree of difficulty—and therefore cultural prestige in financial and class terms—associated by the provincial inn-going public with such an educational curriculum.

Toby at Oxford before Betrayal to the Abattoir
The poet Thomas Hood saw that no amount of learning could ultimately save a pig—or a lower-class human—from being sacrificed in the interests of the voracious ruling class. His Lament of Toby, the Learned Pig, woefully concludes with the poor porcine, despite being crammed with Classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, being fed and readied for slaughter:
        My Hebrew will all retrograde
        Now I’m put up to fatten,
        My Greek, it will all go to grease,
        The dogs will have my Latin!

Food for thought, especially for a born-again vegetarian.


  1. Just stumbled upon your excellent blog post! I don't know whether you may have come upon it, but I'm the author of a fictionalized memoir of the original Sapient Pig, Toby. In my novel, he does indeed learn Latin (although not Greek, alas); he also meets Dr. Johnson, William Blake, and Robert Burns! There's on him, and on other Learned Pigs I discovered during my own researches, on my blog.

  2. What was the name of this learned English dog and how would the ancient Boeotians refer to it?