Monday, December 22, 2008

Art Of The Highest Form: What It Is To Be Human, I Learned From A Wolf...

"The idea that when humans are at their worst they behave like wolves has been around a long time. Hobbes used the Latin tag homo homini lupus - man is a wolf to man - to illustrate his belief that unless they are restrained by government, people prey upon one another ruthlessly, while descriptions of rapacious or amoral behavior as wolfish can be found throughout literature.

The notion that evil is the expression of bestial instincts is deeply ingrained, and for the average philosopher as for the average person there is nothing more bestial than the wolf. More generally, a belief in the innate superiority of humans over other animals is part of the Western tradition. Christians tell us that only humans have souls, and though they speak in a different language secular thinkers mostly believe much the same. There are innumerable secular rationalists who, while congratulating themselves on their skepticism, never doubt that the universe is improved by the presence in it of humans like themselves.

The Philosopher and the Wolf is a powerfully subversive critique of the unexamined assumptions that shape the way most philosophers - along with most people - think about animals and themselves. When Rowlands bought a wolf cub for $500, and lived with it for eleven years, he ended up writing: 'Much of what I learned, about how to live and how to conduct myself, I learned during those eleven years. Much of what I know about life and its meaning I learned from him. What it is to be human: I learned this from a wolf.'

A part of Rowlands's life with Brenin was sheer delight: 'The wolf is art of the highest form and you cannot be in its presence without this lifting your spirits.' Beyond its beauty, though, the wolf taught the philosopher something about the meaning of happiness. Humans tend to think of their lives as progressing towards some kind of eventual fulfillment; when this is not forthcoming they seek satisfaction or distraction in anything that is new or different. This human search for happiness is 'regressive and futile', for each valuable moment slips away in the pursuit of others and they are all swallowed up by death. In contrast, living without the sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point, wolves find happiness in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained. As a result, as Rowlands shows in a moving account of his last year with Brenin, they can flourish in the face of painful illness and encroaching death.

The bond that Rowlands formed with Brenin was based on the fact that the wolf had emotions in common with the philosopher, such as courage, affection and delight in play. At the same time, Rowlands seems clearly to have been drawn to the wolf because of its profound differences from humans. In evolutionary terms humans belong in the ape family, and if apes are intellectually superior to other animals it is because of their highly developed social intelligence. Some of the most valuable features of human life - science and the arts, for example - are only possible because of this intelligence. But it is also this type of intelligence that enables apes - some kinds of ape, at any rate - to engage in forms of behavior that, when more fully developed, embody types of malignancy that are pre-eminently human. As Rowlands puts it:

"When we talk about the superior intelligence of apes, we should bear in mind the terms of this comparison: apes are more intelligent than wolves because, ultimately, they are better schemers and deceivers than wolves.' The ability to scheme and deceive requires a capacity to enter the minds of others, which other animals seem not to possess in anything like the same degree. But the human capacity for empathy brings something new into the world - a kind of malice aforethought, a delight in the pain of others that aims to reduce them to the condition of powerless victims. If the philosopher loved the wolf, it was because while it could kill without emotion it lacked this distinctively human trait.

Among other things The Philosopher and the Wolf is a series of unsentimental reflections on human evil. Rowlands does not think of evil in simple terms, as mere Schadenfreude - it is far more complicated than that. But neither does he share the rationalist delusion that evil is a kind of error, which can be removed from human life by better knowledge and improved understanding. On the contrary, unfashionably but to my mind rightly, Rowlands accepts that evil is part of human nature, which can be moderated but never eradicated.

Mark Rowlands tells us he has long pondered the claim, often advanced as an objection to his life with Brenin, that wolves have no place in civilized society, and has finally concluded that it's true. The reason is not that Brenin was too dangerous to be allowed in civilised company. Rather, it is that 'he was nowhere near dangerous, and nowhere near unpleasant, enough. Civilization, I think, is possible only for deeply unpleasant animals.' I would put the point rather differently. Civilization is a way of coping with what that supremely great twentieth-century poet Wallace Stevens called 'the unalterable necessity of being this unalterable animal'. The dark side of the human animal is not wolf-like; it is ape-like, and at its worst peculiarly human. In other words, civilization is a defense erected by humanity not against bestiality, but against itself."

-John Gray (Excerpt: "The Nature Of The Beast," Book Review: The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness by Mark Rowlands", Literary Review, 12.2008. Image: -Gage,"The Founders Of Rome, Romulus and Remus, Nursed By The Wolf-Goddess Lupa," Picasa Web, 1.31.2008).


Mark Earhart said...

I love this post! So full of valuable symbolism.

Where to begin? I find wolves to be beautiful and fascinating creatures, so much so that I have said that if I ever do get to move to Alaska as I desire to that I would love to have a wolf cub to raise or a wolf hybrid. (My poor Pit bulls would freeze to death before they got their business done in the winter)!!!

Wolves are pack animals, depending upon and ensuring that the pack is fed, knowing that they need each other for survival. Humans turn a blind eye to the suffering and demise of others frequently until they themselves need help.

Happiness cannot depend on one's surroundings and life events they cannot control. That line of thought, that the objective material world makes one happy is a harmful deception.

Happiness must come from within on any level. We can appreciate the objective and respond joyfully to it, but lasting contentment must be subjective. For me that has only happened through the grace of God. When I am unhappy it is always because I have wandered too far from my Creator and my relationship with Him. A close relationship with the Holy One brings joy the world can never give, and I have experienced bliss no words can begin to convey. Foolishly, I stray, demanding my own way, which always lands me in trouble. I am led back to safety and contentment by the Lord my Shepard each time. Rejection of the Shepard once one has tasted his glory is the most miserable feeling imaginable.

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