The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness

January 22, 2009

One way to figure out what makes humans human, which is the subject of this book, is to compare them with either gods or animals. In Homer and the Bible, humans get compared with gods. The difference is not always self-evident, and gods continually fear that humans are getting too close for comfort. Less frequent in sacred texts are comparisons with animals, although the Garden of Eden story nicely juxtaposes a god protective of divine turf with upwardly mobile humans and one very clever snake.

In folklore worldwide, humans and animals appear side by side, and the line between them is fluid. For example, trickster figures, who are celebrated for their ingenuity and cunning, are as often animals as they are humans or gods. The anthropomorphising of animals, from Aesop to Beatrix Potter to Shrek, does not count, for that is the sheer dressing-up of humans in animal guise. A century ago, the earliest stage of religion was assumed to be totemism, in which our forebears supposedly considered a chosen animal (or plant) species to be at once their brother and their god.

The most stirring attempt to differentiate us from animals comes from the tales of wild children. What children raised by animals are missing is considered the key to Homo sapiens. Often it is said to be language. In the famous 18th-century case of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron taken in by a kindly doctor, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, the acquisition of a sense of justice constitutes the child's entry into civilisation.

Mark Rowlands, a British philosopher now at the University of Miami, has written an exceptionally moving saga of his life, for 11 years, with Brenin, a wolf cub he bought at the age of six weeks and from whom he then almost never spent a day apart. The logistical complications of taking his huge, rambunctious pet everywhere in a peripatetic career often prove funny to read, but the humour is overshadowed by the onset of Brenin's fatal illness. Anyone who has nursed a pet through a long, ultimately futile struggle will be touched by Rowlands' refusal to give up.

But Rowlands, whose unconditional love for Brenin shines through this work almost blindingly, wants to draw "lessons" from his experience. Distinguishing wolves from apes, he argues that we humans typically see ourselves as ape-like but in fact are also wolf-like. "The 'ape' is the tendency to understand the world in instrumental terms: the value of everything is a function of what it can do for the ape." But "the wolf understands that happiness cannot be found in calculation ... First there is loyalty." Offering his own take on Nietzsche's notion of eternal recurrence, Rowlands proposes a cyclical rather than linear approach to life - an approach that could soapily be called living for the moment.

Rowlands is not here arguing for animal rights. Nor is he asserting that we are indistinguishable from wolves and apes, although he berates conventional views that animals cannot talk or that they, unlike us, have a fixed, nonmalleable nature. Even though he thanks Brenin for having taught him that "in some ancient part of my soul there still lived a wolf", Rowlands is not, a la Jung, taking wolves or apes to be symbols of sides of our personality. In seeing Brenin as a sibling, he is more Freudian, although he denies anything erotic. As common as it now is to wax philosophical about discovering our human nature from our pets, Rowlands' book is so heartfelt because for more than a decade his main companion was an animal, not to mention a wolf.

The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness

By Mark Rowlands. Granta, 256pp, £15.99. ISBN 9781847080592. Published 3 November 2008

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