Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “Instinct versus Reason,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 477-480 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 477:]


There is no doubt of Poe’s authorship of this sketch, first published in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Philadelphia, January 29, 1840. It was discovered by Clarence Saunders Brigham, who reprinted it in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for April 1942. It is included in Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, by Clarence S. Brigham, published by the Society in 1943. Poe did not publish the piece again, but used the material in a different and far more dramatic story, “The Black Cat” — where the emphasis is laid on the superstition that black cats are witches.

In the present story the heroine — for we may call so clever an animal by that name — is not Poe’s beloved Caterina, who lived with his family from at least 1844 until 1849, but her predecessor. Caterina is said to have been very large and a tortoise shell (Mary Gove Nichols, in the London Sixpenny Magazine, February 1863, quoted by Woodberry, Life, 1909, II, 218). Compare Poe’s references to the self-satisfied nature of feline pets in “Bon-Bon”; and the unsigned “Desultory Notes on Cats” (Philadelphia Public Ledger, July 19, 1844), assigned (by implication) by Eli Bowen to Poe’s pen.


The only authorized text, that of Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, January 29, 1840, is followed.


The line which demarcates the instinct of the brute creation from the boasted reason of man, is, beyond doubt, of the most shadowy and unsatisfactory character — a boundary line far more [page 478:] difficult to settle than even the North-Eastern or the Oregon.(1) The question whether the lower animals do or do not reason, will possibly never be decided — certainly never in our present condition of knowledge. While the self-love and arrogance of man will persist in denying the reflective power to beasts, because the granting it seems to derogate from his own vaunted supremacy, he yet perpetually finds himself involved in the paradox of decrying instinct as an inferior faculty, while he is forced to admit its infinite superiority, in a thousand cases, over the very reason which he claims exclusively as his own. Instinct, so far from being an inferior reason, is perhaps the most exacted(2) intellect of all. It will appear to the true philosopher as the divine mind itself acting immediately upon its creatures.

The habits of the lion-ant, of many kinds of spiders, and of the beaver, have in them a wonderful analogy, or rather similarity, to the usual operations of the reason of man — but the instinct of some other creatures has no such analogy — and is referable only to the spirit of the Deity itself, acting directly, and through no corporal organ, upon the volition of the animal. Of this lofty species of instinct the coral-worm affords a remarkable instance. This little creature, the architect of continents, is not only capable of building ramparts against the sea, with a precision of purpose, and scientific adaptation and arrangement, from which the most skillful engineer might imbibe his best knowledge — but is gifted with what humanity does not possess — with the absolute spirit of prophecy. It will foresee, for months in advance, the pure accidents which are to happen to its dwelling, and aided by myriads of its brethren, all acting as if with one mind (and indeed acting with only one — with the mind of the Creator) will work diligently to counteract influences which exist alone in the future. There is also an immensely wonderful consideration connected with the cell of the bee. Let a mathematician be required to solve the problem of the shape best calculated in such a cell as the bee wants, for the two requisites of strength and space — and he will find himself involved in the very highest and most abstruse questions of analytical research. Let him be required to tell the number of sides which will give to the cell the greatest space, with the greatest solidity, [page 479:] and to define the exact angle at which, with the same object in view, the roof must incline — and to answer the query, he must be a Newton or a Laplace. Yet since bees were, they have been continually solving the problem.(3) The leading distinction between instinct and reason seems to be, that, while the one is infinitely the more exact, the more certain, and the more far-seeing in its sphere of action — the sphere of action in the other is of the far wider extent. But we are preaching a homily, when we merely intended to tell a short story about a cat.

The writer of this article is the owner of one of the most remarkable black cats in the world — and this is saying much; for it will be remembered that black cats are all of them witches. The one in question has not a white hair about her, and is of a demure and sanctified demeanor. That portion of the kitchen which she most frequents is accessible only by a door, which closes with what is termed a thumb-latch; these latches are rude in construction, and some force and dexterity are always requisite to force them down. But puss is in the daily habit of opening the door, which she accomplishes in the following way. She first springs from the ground to the guard of the latch (which resembles the guard over a gun-trigger,) and through this she thrusts her left arm to hold on with. She now, with her right hand, presses the thumb-latch until it yields, and here several attempts are frequently requisite. Having forced it down, however, she seems to be aware that her task is but half accomplished, since, if the door is not pushed open before she lets go, the latch will again fall into its socket. She, therefore, screws her body round so as to bring her hind feet immediately beneath the latch, while she leaps with all her strength from the door — the impetus of the spring forcing it open, and her hind feet sustaining the latch until this impetus is fairly given.

We have witnessed this singular feat a hundred times at least, and never without being impressed with the truth of the remark with which we commenced this article — that the boundary between instinct and reason is of a very shadowy nature. The black cat, in doing what she did, must have made use of all the perceptive and reflective faculties which we are in the habit of supposing the prescriptive qualities of reason alone.


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1.  The Maine-New Brunswick boundary dispute was settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842; the Oregon boundary was established at the 49th parallel in 1846.

2.  This word is probably a misprint for “exalted.”

3.  Speculations about the allegedly unreasoned actions of members of the animal kingdom are found in Poe’s poem, “Romance” of 1829, and culminate in “The Raven” fifteen years later. Poe again referred to the coralites, the ant-lion, and the bees in the third chapter of “The Journal of Julius Rodman” and in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.” The great scientists Isaac Newton and the Marquis de Laplace hardly need comment.






[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Instinct versus Reason)