I recently finished reading The Philosopher And The Wolf: Lessons in Love, Death, and Happiness in which Mark Rowlands chronicles a decade in which he shared his life with a wolf he named Brenin, telling how he raised, lived with, and learned from the animal. If that sounds like a sappy Jonathan Livingston Seagull, it’s not: Rowlands is a a reputed professor of philosopher and a writer who thinks too deeply and probes accepted ideas too questioningly to produce something sloppy and sentimental.

What Rowlands sets about here is to explore ideas about the relationship between humans and other animals. A central strand in his academic work has been to probe the moral status of non-human animals, and he uses this autobiographical account of his relationship with the wolf to reassess the way most people think about the difference between humans and other creatures, reflecting on questions such as the nature of happiness and evil, the differences between ape intelligence and lupine intelligence, and perceptions of time, death and the meaning of life.

Rowlands is very good at weaving together everyday details with philosophical enquiry, writing in an easy, relaxed style that keeps you engrossed, whether he is describing some nightmarish transgression by the wolf or discussing Kant’s take on evil.  There is certainly no doubt that his account of his life with Brenin is, at times, jaw-dropping.  You think: how can someone have been allowed to raise a wolf in a domestic environment, train it into a sort of obedience, take it into his workplace every day, and travel with the beast around the southern United States on drunken rugby weekends, to Ireland and London, before the story ended in the South of France?

A few pages in, Rowlands explains how high the stakes could be: when he first brought the six week old Brenin into his house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, within two minutes he had torn down both sets of curtains in the living room, then found his way into the garden and under the house, where he proceeded ‘methodically, meticulously, but above all quickly’, to rip down every single one of the soft, lagged pipes leading to the air-conditioning unit.  Rowlands observes that he had owned Brenin for one hour and the wolf had already cost him $1000 – $500 to buy him, and $500 to repair the air conditioning.  So you can see why he had to take him with him into university:

Dire consequences would ensue for my house and possessions should I leave him unattended. So, I had to bring him into work with me – and as I was a philosophy professor, this meant bringing him to my lectures. He would lie in the corner of the lecture room and doze – much like my students really – while I droned on about some or other philosopher or philosophy. Occasionally, when the lectures became particularly tedious, he would sit up and howl – a habit that endeared him to the students, who had probably been wishing they could do the same thing.

There are more stories like this, but what is remarkable in the telling is the methodical determination with which Rowlands sets about training the animal, probably with more success than many dog owners.  Let me just mention one more story.   On the ferry crossing from Pembroke to Rosslare, Rowlands locked Brenin in his car, leaving just a single window partly open. The wolf reacted to this confinement by destroying the inside of the vehicle — upholstery, seatbelts, everything. When he returned to the car deck to survey the damage, Rowlands asked an attendant if he could borrow a knife to cut down what remained of the car’s ceiling panels. The man hesitated, fearing that Rowlands intended to kill the animal. Rowlands assured him that he didn’t, and that in any case he couldn’t hold Brenin responsible for what he’d done.

And there is where the philosophical questioning begins.  Reflecting on his off-the-cuff response to the man on the ferry, Rowlands thinks more deeply about why he couldn’t blame Brenin for wrecking the car: the wolf was not a ‘moral agent’ – it was not capable, in other words, of evaluating its actions in terms of abstract moral principles. And you can’t hold a person or a creature morally responsible for something over which he or it has no control.  This leads Rowlands on to a discussion of codes of morality grounded in a social contract – and how animals might figure in such a contract.  The result, for Rowlands, was that he wrote a book, Animal Rights: A Philosophical Defence, and became a vegetarian.

Rowlands begins this book by considering the cultural reputation of wolves: they are the stuff of legends and stories told through the centuries: villainous, threatening, metaphors for violence.  He carefully deconstructs this image, comparing lupine with ape behaviour.  In a key passage he writes:

Some people say that wolves, even wolf-dog hybrids, have no place in a civilized society. After many years of reflection on this claim, I have come to the conclusion that it’s true. But it’s not true for the reasons those people think. Brenin was a dangerous animal; there is no disguising the fact. He was utterly indifferent to other human beings – something that secretly and selfishly delighted me. If another person tried to talk to Brenin, or stroke him in the way you might someone else’s dog, then he would look at them inscrutably for a few seconds, then just walk away. But, in the right circumstances, he might quickly and efficiently kill your dog. However, it is not because he was so dangerous that there was no place for him in a civilized society. The real reason is that he was nowhere near dangerous, and   nowhere near unpleasant, enough. Civilization, I think, is only possible for deeply unpleasant animals. It is only an ape that can be truly civilized.

Rowlands examines what it is that differentiates wolves from primates: it is central to the thrust of his argument that there is such a distinction.  He locates the superior intelligence of apes and humans in the ability to scheme and deceive. He backs up his assertions with evidence drawn from studies of the behaviour of chimpanzees and other apes.  One telling example: a subordinate male chimp or baboon will often hide its erect penis from a superior male at the same time as it is deliberately displaying it to a female.  This is sly, but also displays great intelligence, most crucially the ability to empathise (understand the point of view of both the superior male and the targetted female) and to use that perception to deceive. Rowlands has explained his purpose on an internet philosophy discussion forum:

One of the things I wanted to do in the book was look at the notion of intelligence and see what it involved. And there’s a generally accepted thesis now, that the intelligence of apes arose from more primitive abilities to manipulate and deceive other apes. So since as an ape it’s not good to be manipulated and deceived by other apes, you become more intelligent to resist this manipulation and deception. It’s called the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. So the hypothesis is that our human intelligence, which is a branch of simian intelligence, was the result of an arms race which had at its core, manipulation and deception of each other. So I think while it’s obviously false that whenever we’re being intelligent it’s because we’re manipulating or deceiving someone or something, that’s obviously not true, I think it’s true that at the core of that intelligence, lies abilities to manipulate and deceive creatures, and each other, primarily.

This is where Rowlands brings in the idea of the social contract, which he argues is an expression of the calculating, self-interested ape in all of us. Each of the parties to the bargain in the original position is after the best possible deal for himself.What he learned from Brenin, however, was that lupine intelligence is of a different order, and not contractual at all. He reinforces this point in his moving account of the last month of Brenin’s life, as he rapidly lost the battle with cancer.  It was a time in which Rowlands was pretty much out of his mind with lack of sleep and worry as he tended the ailing wolf’s infected anal glands.  It was then that Rowlands understood what he had learnt from Brenin: that ‘no truly significant relationship can ever be based on a contract’, but that the fundamental bedrock is loyalty.

When Brenin dies, , leaving the philosopher literally howling at the moon, he seeks an answer to the question – what did the wolf lose, what do we lose when we die?  Rowlands traces philosophical responses to the question, from Epicurus to Wittgenstein, such as the proposition that death deprives us of a future.  In the sense that we humans tend to have a vision of how we would like our lives to be in the future whereas non-human animals don’t, it would seem that we humans lose lose more when we die, that death is a greater tragedy when it happens to a human than when it happens to a wolf.

Candidly, Rowlands admits that he used to believe this – in fact developing the thought in two of his earlier books.  Now, he says, he realises that embodied in this account of death is a conception of time as linear, suggesting that life’s meaning is derived from the direction of travel, the goal to which (we hope) we are progressing.  The trouble is, we know at the end of the line there isn’t meaning – just death and decay.

By nudging his thoughts in this direction, the wolf taught the philosopher something about the meaning of happiness: because we humans tend to think of our lives as progressing towards some kind of eventual fulfilment, a pursuit of happiness that is ‘regressive and futile’, for each valuable moment slips away in the pursuit of others and they are all swallowed up by death. But animals don’t live like that: for them, time is a circle, endlessly repeating.  A human might say, ‘Not the same old walk again – can’t we go somewhere different for a change?’ But, living without the sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point, wolves (or dogs) find happiness in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained.’The human search for happiness’, concludes Rowlands, ‘is, accordingly, regressive and futile.
And at the end of every line is only nevermore.  Nevermore to feel the sun on your face.  Nevermore to see the smile on the lips of the one you love, or the twinkling of their eyes.
But for animals, as Rowlands shows in a moving account of his last year with Brenin, fulfilling moments can recur in the face of painful illness and encroaching death.
We see through moments and for that reason the moment escapes us.  A wolf sees the moment but cannot see through it.  Time’s arrow escapes him.  That is the difference between us and wolves. We relate to time in a different way.  We are temporal creatures in a way that wolves and dogs are not.

This leads Rowlands to define the most important lesson that he learned from the wolf: that the meaning of life is to be found in moments.  He is at pains to make it clear that he is not repeating one of those facile homilies ‘to live in the moment’:

Rather, the idea is that there are some moments, not all of them by any means, but there are some moments; and in the shadows of these moments we will find out what is most important in our lives.

He concludes that ‘what time can never take from us is who we are in our best moments’. By ‘best moments’ he means the times when our back is to the wall, there is no hope, there is pain, when death is leaning over our shoulder.  He remembers such a moment in Brenin’s life, when the wolf was young:

When Brenin was around two months old…Rugger [a pit bull] lost his temper, grabbed Brenin by the neck and pinned him to the ground. Most puppies would have screeched out in shock and fear. Brenin growled. This was not the growl of a puppy, but a deep and calmn and sonorous growl that belied his tender age. That is strength. And that is what I have always tried to carry around with me, and I hope I always will.  Watching Brenin, I realised that we are at our best when death is leaning over our shoulder but we can say ‘in this moment, I feel good and strong’. In the end, time will take our strength. But it can never take from us who we were in our best moments.

So it’s not to do with not having a hope, it’s how to behave when there is no hope.

It took a long time, but I think I now understand why I loved Brenin so much, and miss him so painfully now he has gone. He taught me something that my extended formal education could not: that in some ancient part of my soul there still lived a wolf. Sometimes it is necessary to let the wolf in us speak; to silence the incessant chattering of the ape.

Mark Rowlands – The Philosopher and the Wolf from College of Arts & Sciences / UM on Vimeo.

4 thoughts on “The Philosopher and the Wolf

  1. Thank you for this post…Those people are remarkable who can understand and gain wisdom and love other species on the earth.. that bond i think makes us more at home and complete…..

  2. Gerry, I am deeply grateful to you for recommending to my wife, Tess, this book for me to read. Philosophy was one of my majors in college 40 years ago, along with zoology. For 14 years I had a wolf hybrid, Kaila (80+% 3 kinds of wolf, and the rest husky/malamute) who I euthanised Spring of last year. I’m still grieving, with mixed success. Rowlands’ book brought me a very long way down that road.

    He’s right, wolves or hybrids do not belong in ‘civilized’ society and I do not recommend them. I swore that I would never have another often explaining the situation like a friend’s description of his teenage daughter, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the one I’ve got but I wouldn’t give you a nickel for another one”. I’m not so sure now. Kaila was a horrible PET but the best PARTNER imaginable. Living in the Sierra Mountains, as I do a partner was what I was looking for. She was very wise, very strong and very fast, I miss her.

    Thanks again,
    Rolf Knutson

    1. Rolf, it sounds like you and the book were made for each other. Written by a philosophy teacher who describes the joys and tribulations of having a wolf-hybrid as a partner, for you Rowland’s book must have gone right to the heart of things. Your Kaila romaed the mountains; can you imagine taking her into the university lecture theatre while you give your class, though? Thanks for reading and commenting.

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