The Philosopher and the Wolf

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Mark RowlandsThe Philosopher and the Wolf promises “Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness”, which was almost enough to make me put the book down before I started: was this going to be some tree-hugging, crystal-sucking sentimental self-help manual?

Fortunately not. Indeed, if it’s consolation you’re after, I suggest that you look away now:

That is how it is with us humans. We think of the time of our lives as a line; and we have a very ambivalent attitude towards that line. The arrows of our desires, and our goals and our projects, bind us to this line, and therein do we find the possibility of our lives having meaning. But the line also points to the death that will take this meaning away. And so we are simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by this line, both drawn to it and terrified by it. It is our fear of the line that makes us always want what is different … For us, no moment is ever complete in itself. Every moment is adulterated, tainted by what we remember has been and what we anticipate will be. In each moment of our lives, the arrow of time holds us green and dying. And that is why we think we are superior to all other animals.

Ouch.  This is White Fang as directed by Ingmar Bergman: the story of Rowlands’ eleven-year life with Brenin, a wolf who lived and travelled with him through Britain, Ireland, France and the US, interspersed with his philosophical analysis of the difference between wolf and man. And it doesn’t make for comfortable reading. While there’s enormous warmth and humour in his loving portrayal of Brenin, his analysis of humans is pitiless. In Rowlands’ eyes, the difference between the wolf and the ape — the original, evolutionary split between larger-brained apes and all other animals — is calculation: the endless, unstoppable force of “what’s in it for me?” This sense of choice, of planning, of ambition leads us to feel superior over every other living thing — indeed, it’s enshrined in many creation myths. But in what ways are we superior? How far does it make us happy? And how has it polluted our relationship with our surroundings? Rowlands cautions us to look again, to think again, and to see our fellow animals through different, more respectful eyes. What have we lost for all our achievements? And at what cost to ourselves? Rowlands argues this particularly powerfully in his analysis of evil:

The malice of apes — and human apes in particular — is to be found in their manufacture of helplessness. In this, human apes engineer the potential of their own evil … Just as true human goodness can manifest itself only in relation to those who have no power, so too is weakness — at least relative weakness — a necessary condition of human evil … Humans are the animals that manufacture weakness. We take wolves and we make them into dogs. We take buffalo and we make them into cows. We take stallions and we make them into geldings. We make things weak so that we may use them.

This is fierce stuff. Humans, as we know, cannot bear too much reality. We prefer reality TV. We like clear morals, goodies and baddies and satisfying happy endings. We like things that make us feel good (“Unlike humans, wolves don’t chase feelings. They chase rabbits.”). But like Bergman’s films, Rowlands’ book isn’t depressing: it’s exhilarating, a cold walk on a winter beach. In its willingness to confront the uncomfortable — a staring match with cold hard truth — this is one of the most exciting books of the year. Just not, perhaps, one for the beach. That cold dark sea might seem just a little bit tempting.

In the end the ape’s schemes will come to nothing: its cleverness will betray you and its simian luck will run out. Then you will find out what is most important in life. And this is not what your schemes and cleverness and luck have brought you; it is what remains when they have deserted you … In the end the ape will always fail you. The most important question you can ask yourself is: when this happens, who is it that will be left behind.

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