Friday, December 30, 2011

A Gem of a Book 1

A Gem of a Book
Picture of a Wolf - in public domain

I have always liked making discoveries, whether that is of a personal sort or of a simple fact like some interesting piece of scientific knowledge. However, few discoveries are as pleasant and pleasurable as that of a good book. The book in question, which I have just finished reading, is called The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (Granta, London, 2008)

Good books are well written, and then as well as that they leave us richer for having read them. Mark Rowlands (professor of philosophy at Miami University) writes clearly and with an almost incredible lightness of style for a philosopher. There is nothing heavy, whatsoever, in this memoir of ten years he spent with a huge wolf in tow as a pet. Indeed, most memoirs are quite light, because they claim to be nothing less than that, that is, reflections from a certain angle, or from some point of view or other, or to be dealing with a particular theme in the life of the author. Rowland’s theme here is just that: life lived with a wolf as a pet and what he learned from that relationship on the meaning of life and death; love and hate; happiness and pain – all topics which have graced the works of literati, artists, theologians and philosophers over hundreds of years.

However, what struck this reader was the author’s conversational style which literally brought one into Rowland’s confidence immediately. One felt, when reading this short memoir that one was being regaled by a good storyteller. What better praise could one give any memoir worth its salt? Also, what struck this reader was the author’s honesty of intention and style and his often strong self-questioning. Indeed, one would not have expected anything less from any philosopher indeed, or from anyone who would wish to call themselves such, as surely self-questioning and scepticism, especially with respect to one’s own motivations, are the sine qua non of philosophy qua philosophy.

I do not keep a dog or a cat and so I cannot be accused of coming to this book with an animal lover’s bias, nor am I vegetarian like Mark Rowlands. While I have no overtly strong biases towards animals, I do consider myself a dog lover insofar as I had a dog for a number of years as a boy and adolescent. I have refused to keep one since as I am not at home long enough in Ireland each year to keep one and kennel expenses and loneliness would be other factors I’d rather not endure. However, when I retire, I have promised myself the benefits of keeping one because then I would have more than enough time to care for the poor animal in question. I abhor, consequently, the idea of animals as presents at Christmas time (or any time) if the receiver isn’t fully committed to the implications of ownership. Thoughts of abandoned puppies distress me as no doubt they do you!

Over the years, I have always noticed the difference in children raised with animals from those who are not so raised. I believe such children appreciate life more and begin to learn about life and death all the more quickly through having pets. I have also noticed how different dogs have different personalities and that they can be sad and lonely as well as happy and convivial. I have always believed that we have much to learn from our animal friends.

I have mentioned in these pages before my respect for and admiration of the writings of the philosopher Dr. John Gray who wrote the wonderful little classic, Straw Dogs, a book I also reviewed in these pages. I have long thought that we human beings have suffered for generations immemorial from a huge ego problem, both at personal and group or nation level, and that central to most, if not all, the crises to hit this planet has been that same ego. Professor Gray was the first modern philosopher I read to have put words and indeed serious thought and reflection into these gut feelings and sporadic thoughts I have had with respect to humankind’s flaws over the years.

Gray’s argument is that humankind has indeed over-rated itself. I don’t remember this author mentioning anything about the gender balance in his arguments about this egotistical over-rating, but it appears to this writer here that men are the greater culprits with respect to ego-inflation. After all, practically all the builders of human society have been men - in the structural sense solely, I mean. Perhaps women have been the real builders in terms of the rearing of the young? However, let me leave the feminist reading of this phenomenon of over-inflating and exaggerating the importance of the place of humankind in the scheme of things one side for the moment. It is a topic I could possibly revisit at some future time in these pages.

It appears to me that Rowlands has a lot in common with Gray on this issue of humankind’s gross self-inflation. I really appreciated the latter’s disabusing my mind of the careless use of the term “human being,” which over-ontologises, if I may coin a word or indulge in a neologism here, the very nature of his existence as such. “Being” (qua ontology) is a loaded word in that sense. We never speak of canine beings (dogs) or feline beings (cats) because we reserve “being” in that sense to the higher species alone, that of Homo Sapiens, God or whoever or whatever help us! In this regard, I have always, consequently, loved the Dalai Lama’s, and others from the East indeed, use of the wonderful phrase “all sentient beings.” And so Professor Gray humbled me with his term “human animal” which I fully endorse and am beginning to like much.

Now, let’s not forget here that wonderful lover of animals himself, the great St Francis of Assisi. He called all the animals his brothers and sisters and composed prayers with these endearing terms in them. No animal lover could possibly forget the example of this great little saint. Indeed St Francis also called his own animal body his brother. This showed, I believe, a wonderful understanding of the centrality of the body to the human condition. Unfortunately, Western Christianity and indeed Western Philosophy, strengthened by Cartesian dualism of the ghost (soul) in the machine (body) sundered body and soul in so radical a way as to lead to the complete despising of the latter and the exaggeration of the importance of the former.

As I grow older and my body is beginning to fail me in little, but unfortunately accumulative, ways I am learning that I am a human animal as well as a human being. Human animal as a term brings with it an appreciation of all the sufferings that go with the animal body, as well as the good points too, of course, like its achievements in sport and so on. That the body grows old and dies is a central lesson that pets can teach us, and, goodness, if we are willing learners, they teach us much. Mark Rowlands is a dog-lover, vegetarian and philosopher. But, more than that, he is a humble and willing learner. I will write some more reflections on this book over the next several days, but I will finish this post with this short quotation from the book in question:
If I wanted a one-sentence definition of human beings, this would do: humans are the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves. Humans are credulous animals.” (Op. cit. supra, p. 2)

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