19 December 2008

the nature of the beast

…from http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/gray_12_08.html:

John Gray
The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness
By Mark Rowlands (Granta Books 246pp £15.99)

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 behaviour 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 scepticism, 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 fulfilment; 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 wolf accompanied Rowlands to lectures, restaurants and sports complexes, joined him on his walks, runs and road trips, woke him up in the morning (sometimes by presenting him with a dead bird) and lay under his desk while he worked. After an initial period in which Rowlands applied a softer version of the methods of a famous animal trainer, William Koehler, the wolf was rarely on a leash. Having learnt to follow Rowlands's lead, and knowing what it could and could not do, Brenin needed no restraint.

There will be some who will say Rowlands imposed an unnatural existence on the wolf, and in one sense this is obviously true. Brenin lived in an environment quite different from that in which wolves evolved and spent most of their history as a species. It does not follow that the wolf's life was denatured or impoverished. In one of the arresting passages of lucid reflection that punctuate the book's narrative, Rowlands attacks the idea that animals are 'biological marionettes', programmed to live out a single biological destiny. The fox that showed up looking for food in the garden of a Gatwick hotel, where Rowlands was having a beer before catching a flight, was engaged in a pursuit that came naturally to it. Equally, Brenin's life was different from that which any wolf could have lived in the wild, but that life was no less natural, or - on the account that Rowlands gives of it - any less happy. Like humans, animals can thrive in many different ways.

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 behaviour 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 civilised 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. Civilisation, I think, is possible only for deeply unpleasant animals.' I would put the point rather differently. Civilisation 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, civilisation is a defence erected by humanity not against bestiality, but against itself.

John Gray's most recent book is 'Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia' (Penguin).

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