As usual I’m a year behind the publicity machine, so I missed the original reviews of this book, as well as the fanfare during the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which the author Mark Rowlands attended.
This post is for any reader who might have encountered The Philosopher and the Wolf stacked up in piles in the bookshop, and who, while intrigued by the theme of the book, suspects that it will turn out to be a cute idea without much substance once you get into it.
In fact it’s surprisingly good. Even had I been unaware that Rowlands has published numerous well received books, he would have convinced me pretty quickly that he’s a philosopher of some substance.
The book is a combination of a memoir about life with an unusual pet, and an exercise in popular philosophy. But the adventures of Brenin the wolf are more than just an engaging way of launching his ruminations: Rowlands is convinced that being friends with a wolf gave him insights into human nature, morality, and the meaning of life.
He gives an unflattering account of human beings, or apes as he mostly calls us. His starting point is the view promoted by some ethologists (whether this is now standard doctrine, I have no idea) that our brains grew so big because of the survival advantage of social intelligence, which is the ability to achieve one’s ends through deceit and manipulation. The capacity for evil, the sense of justice, and the need for social contracts are among the consequences of straying down this particular evolutionary path.
Another important by-product is our unique sense of time, which gives clues to our concept of happiness and our futile attempts to find meaning in life. Rowlands draws on Kant, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and others to develop his themes here, and takes the opportunity to give a very helpful exposition of Nietzsche’s eternal return, which he ties in quite ingeniously with his own argument — at least as far as this amateur could tell.
The wolf comes out looking pretty good by contrast — straightforward, fun-loving and above all loyal. But he is more than just a counterpoint to the ape: Rowlands sees him as a shadow of a nobler self, the residue of a pre-simian psyche, that he was somehow able to tap during their decade of companionship.
As Richard Fidler paraphrases it:
When all of our ape-like intelligence leaves us, when our plans and schemes and cunning come to nothing and we face our doom, that’s when we can be at our best.
Ultimately what the wolf teaches Rowlands is not something about independence or freedom from servitude, as one might have expected, but about freedom from self-delusion, and a capacity for dignified acceptance of the world as he finds it. This echoes the lesson that David Lurie learns from the condemned dogs in Disgrace, dogs which, unlike Rowlands’ wolf, are not glamorous in the least.
This is not to say that Rowlands, any more than Coetzee, is claiming that wolves are privileged with insights unique in the animal kingdom. It’s certainly part of his plan to challenge humans’ belief in their superiority as guardians of life’s secrets, and their claims to ethical priority — indeed he has also published books on animal rights. But neither does he by any means deify his wolf: in fact he feeds him tuna.
It’s the sustained sceptical attitude and refusal to settle for neat resolutions that makes this serious philosophy. A different book based on the same gimmick would have settled for trite answers and flattered the reader’s sense of his own philosophical sophistication. But every time I began to congratulate myself that Rowlands’ conclusions converged on my own independent revelations, he would say something like, ‘I am not referring here to the popular wisdom that…’, followed by a neat dispatch of my treasured insight.
If, shrewdly, you doubt that I’m any judge of these matters, you might consult these reviews by Jonathan Derbyshire, Mark Vernon and Julian Baggini (someone worth taking seriously). And Rowlands has his own sporadic but serious blog.
But even if you’re not captivated by the philosophy, the book is worth reading for an insight on wolves, especially wolves versus dogs. It turns out that wolves can be trained, but they have what Rowlands characterises as a mechanistic intelligence, one that’s good for figuring things out, as opposed to dogs’ ‘magic’ intelligence, which is good for learning tricks and which derives from dogs’ ability to grasp arbitrary connections between their actions and the rewards humans bestow on them. Wolves neither bark nor chase sticks — these are puppy behaviours that dogs display because they have been infantilised by bred-in dependency.
My only misgiving, and I wonder if Rowlands worries about this too, is that the book might make wolf ownership fashionable in certain circles, leading to more commercial breeding and a proliferation of neglected and abandoned wolf pets.