The Philosopher and the Wolf

The Philosopher and the Wolf

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.

Why Look at Animals?

I’ve been reading Why Look at Animals, a slim collection of essays by John Berger, published in the Penguin Great Ideas series.  I think Berger is the only living thinker represented in the series.  The title essay explores how the ancient relationship between man and nature has been broken in the modern consumer age, with the animals that used to be at the centre of our existence now marginalized and reduced to spectacle in zoos.

Berger first discussed the relationship between humans and animals in Ways of Seeing, the 1972 book and TV series. There, he argued that animals – especially those depicted in oil paintings – were symbols of capital. Cows in an elegant 18th century landscape were ‘furniture with four legs’. Berger was asserting that the animal had become assimilated into the bourgeois culture of object desire and possession. In this essay, first published in 1977, Berger presents a cultural history in which there has been a denaturation of the world. Animals have lost their magical, ritual value; they have, like humans themselves, been reduced to economic units in capitalist society.

Chauvet cave horse paintings

The 19th century, in western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th-century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world. Such centrality was of course economic and productive. Whatever the changes in productive means and social organization, men depended upon animals for food, work, transport, clothing.

Yet to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and ‘invitation’ of  the animal in question. […]

During the  20th   century, the internal combustion engine displaced draught animals in streets and factories. Cities, growing at an ever increasing rate, transformed the surrounding , countryside to suburbs where field animals, wild or domesticated, became rare. The commercial exploitation of certain species (bison, tigers, reindeer) has rendered them almost extinct. Such wild life as remains is increasingly confined to national parks and game reserves.

In the first stages of  the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines.  As also were children. Later, in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities. […]

This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man. The mechanical view of the animal’s work capacity was later applied to that of workers. F.W. Taylor who developed the ‘Taylorism’ of time-motion studies and ‘scientific’ management of industry proposed that work must be so ‘stupid’ and so phlegmatic that he (the worker) ‘more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than other type’.

Berger’s theme is the marginalisation of animals. He explores the ancient relationship between animals and humankind: an ‘unspeaking companionship’. Today, by contrast, the caged creatures in zoos have become ‘the living monument to their own disappearance’ from culture.

Everywhere animals disappear.  In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance. […]

The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism. […]

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically.  They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.

Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.   Looking at each animal, the   unaccompanied zoo visitor  is   alone.  As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.

This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

A terrible sense of sadness runs through all the pieces in this volume.  Berger is concerned by the loss of a meaningful connection to nature, a connection that can now only be rediscovered, he asserts, through the experience of beauty: ‘the aesthetic moment offers hope’.  Animals are like us and not like us, he writes.  In the simple act of looking at animals, we are in a way looking at ourselves. And in the act of representing animals in art, we are representing, metaphorically and metaphysically, something about us.

One of the pieces in the book is a poem, ‘They Are The Last’, in which Berger writes:

Each year more animals depart.

Only pets and carcasses remain,
and the carcasses living or dead
are from birth
ineluctably and invisibly
turned into meat.


Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.
Unlike the tree
the river or the cloud
the animals had eyes
and in their glance
was permanence


The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain.