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Book Review: The Philosopher And The Wolf – Lessons in Love, Death, and Happiness by Mark Rowlands

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Philosopher Mark Rowlands is not what one would classically think of as a great writer, in that his prose is not supernally poetic like Loren Eiseley’s, he does not use easily understood but well-targeted metaphors like Stephen Jay Gould, nor does he have the raw power that Friedrich Nietszche did. But he manages to convey highly nuanced and deep concepts in remarkably simple sentences and constructs as he grounds each seemingly pedestrian sentence with its neighbor in ways that crescendo.

Such was my conclusion in reading his latest book, The Philosopher And The Wolf, put out by Granta books. I’d first encountered Rowlands whilst reading his delightful trip through pop culture, called The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe, a book that melded big budget sci fi film ideas with old time big questions. Later, I interviewed Rowlands, and first found out a bit about his relationship with wolves, or one wolf in particular. Now, I’ve read the book, and can report that it is a great book, indeed. And anyone who has read my reviews of books, poetry, films, and pop culturata, knows I do not toss about the G word lightly.

The book starts off well, but picks up a full head of steam about midway, and its final section (of nine), called "The Religion Of The Wolf," is among the finest distillations, in published prose, of a scholar’s beliefs since I first read the essays of the above mentioned Eiseley. Again, Rowlands’ tack and style (variegated ideas that form a synergy, rather than poetic wordcraft) is vastly different, but the end result, greatness, is the same, and the last chapter is so superb that it raises the whole text into the realm of greatness. It truly is one of the great texts in modern English; certainly of the last half century.

The Philosopher And The Wolf: Lessons in Love, Death, and Happiness chronicles the decade or more that Rowlands raised, lived with, and shared his life with a wolf he named Brenin. If this were another writer and another book, such a premise could easily slip into Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Oprah book level absurdity or narcissism. But, it does not, and I can guarantee that Oprah Winfrey would never be intelligent nor decent enough to endorse such a book on her show, because it does not indulge the ego of dim-witted readers. In the first section, Rowlands describes how and why he acquired a wolf pup, and how he eventually trained it (although ‘train’ is a word Rowlands avoids) to behave, even when he brought his wolf to lectures he gave and classes he taught. Rowlands digresses a bit on an Iroquois myth about wolves and their representation in that culture’s mythos, but, again, it is not with the simpletonian nature lover’s inane glee that one would expect, for Rowlands is never masturbatory, nor self-indulgent. Why?

Here is his explanation, from page nine:

All the events described here happened. They happened to me. But there are also so many ways in which it is not an autobiography; at least not a good one. If there is a star of the book, of course, then it’s not me. I’m just an insignificant extra bumbling around in the background. Good autobiographies are richly populated with other people. But in this book other people figure mainly by way of their absence – you may find the ghosts of the other people in my life, but that is all. … Good autobiographies are also detailed and comprehensive. Here, however, the details are sparse and the memory is selective.

Of course, Rowlands is being a bit modest, for he is far from a bumbling extra, but his point on what makes a good biography or memoir is correct. And, this book transcends that, even as it, to Rowlands’ surprise, also embodies much of what he claims it is not. As the book goes on, Rowlands talks of the differences between domesticated dogs and wolves owing to embedded vs. embodied environments, and offers some anecdotes about Brenin’s relationships with other dogs he grew up with, including a near fatal battle with an aggressive pitbull named Rugger. The book also follows Rowlands’ peregrinations from Alabama to Ireland to France, and his and Brenin’s respective growths as they changed cultures and matured. Brenin’s relationships with two other dogs (both female – one a pup of a bitch Brenin impregnated) also figure into the narrative.

Yet, part of what makes Rowlands’ book so interesting is that when he makes a claim that wolves are too pleasant for civilization, it is not what one might surmise he means. He also discourses a bit on the pros and cons of animal and human nature, especially that of the wolf and the ape, as it concerns living in bubbles of recurring circular moments (the wolf) and living in a forwarded directed arc of time (the ape). While I agree with Rowlands’ general thrust, I think he overextends his thesis a bit, from metaphor to the literal. For instance, he attributes human intelligence mostly to the negative aspect of duplicity and scheming, which led to a deceitful ‘arms race.’ The problem with this sort of claim is that it’s one dimensional, and it ignores biology, which, as the maxim goes, ‘is destiny.’

As example, Rowlands does not deal with simian dexterity, as advanced by the biological differences of more flexible wrists and fully opposable thumbs, or hominid bipedalism which freed the hands from the constant wear and tear of survival, and how such physical adaptations enabled our ancestors to manipulate the physical world to an extent equal to, or greater, than their minds could manipulate other apes. Yes, there was a feedback loop involved on both ends, to be sure, but intelligence is surely not based upon deception alone, or in the main. One need only look to other intelligent mammals — the whales or elephants — to see that Rowlands’ claim is an oversimplification, even if its thrust is an important factor.

Interestingly, Rowlands focuses on the simian obsession with sex for pleasure, and how wolves, and other animals, do not have such an addiction, for he had no clue as to ‘what he was missing.’ Yet, sex’s detachment from mere reproductive activity is not a path charted only by apes. Whales copulate as furiously as apes, as detailed in many a study, but, despite such an elision, Rowlands sums up his third chapter in this manner:

The more unpleasant the animal, the more vicious it is, and the more insensitive to the possibility of conciliation, the more it has need of a sense of justice. Standing on its own, alone in all of nature, we find the ape: the only animal unpleasant enough to become a moral animal.

What is best about us comes from what is worst. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it is something we might want to bear in mind.

As The Philosopher And The Wolf goes on, Rowlands explores testing on animals, and how much of it is little more (if at all) than torture or sadism. He discourses on differences he has with his friend, philosopher Colin McGinn, on the nature of evil, and why he feels McGinn’s linking of it to schadenfreude is wrong. On the other hand, I feel Rowlands too liberally uses a term like ‘morals’ when the secular word ‘ethics’ would do. This trope leads into one of my two biggest disagreements with Rowlands; the other being the foundation of his anti-carnivorism, even as he champions piscetarianism, the eating of fish, for himself and his pooches. I guess fish, like fungi or plants, simply cannot feel. Still, until we develop Star Trek-like machines that can assemble atoms into any substance we like, something will surely have to die so we can live. And trying to claim an ethical higher ground over which thing bites the bullet, to me, sounds hypocritical, at worst, and silly, at best.

The other disagreement I have is with his defense of Hannah Arendt’s monumentally dense (and wrong) proclamation about… you know it, the ‘banality of evil.’ Rowlands cites animal experimentation in the halls of Academia as an example of evil’s banality, yet, and perhaps it is because of too many years in Academia’s detached and rarified air, he does not seem to see how ‘exceptional’ such behavior is. After all, these are not people who run canidromes (places where illegal dog fights take place), but educated men who are generally left wing to a fault, who are utterly detached from the cruelty of their actions. It may be arguably banal to declare the owners of most pets banally evil (at least those who abuse their pets), or most abusive parents, but certainly not degreed sadists. In short, what often occurs in the endless examples of evil that Arendt’s supporters trot out is a conflation of the banality of an evil actor’s motives, demeanor, or reactions with the exceptional motives they ascribe to.

Think of a serial killer like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. One man raped and sexually mutilated dozens (if not hundreds) of women, and left their bodies to rot all across the U.S. – from the Pacific Northwest to Florida. Yet, he was a good looking, well educated member of his community’s local Republican establishment. His exterior façade was certainly banal, but his very actions were the antithesis of that; and even the most rabid Andrea Dworkinite Feminazi could not seriously claim that Bundy was typical of men in his sexual proclivities. Or, take Dahmer. Does one really want to argue that a cannibalistic sex fetishist who stored parts of his victims in his refrigerator was banal, run of the mill, ordinary? Or, better yet, take any well known member of Arendt’s personal evil bete noir. The Third Reich. Again, men like Mengele, Eichmann, Himmler, and on and on, were banal only in their façades, not in their reality. As misanthropic as I may want to sometimes get in my frustrations with the stupidity of the human race, I always take a step back and review Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The corollary to that, though, is that when stupidity is inadequate as an explanation, then evil may suffice. And, mere stupidity cannot explain the evils I described above. Only unmitigated evil, and — sorry, Hannah! — evil as that is certainly not banal; at least not in any known definition of the word, for such actions do not go on all the time, and in large numbers. Yes, there may, indeed, be thousands, even millions, of evil acts (large and small) committed by humans, in a given day, but surely a large number of good ones comes close to balancing that, and most certainly (statistically speaking), there are billions, if not trillions of utterly indifferent (i.e., extramoral, or extra-ethical) acts that dwarf the good and bad. In short, that maxim is just one of many that has been repeated so often that its manifest fallacy has been lost in the unthinking weight of its ceaseless repetition.

But Rowlands does dispense with the idea that evil is merely an Academic exercise:

The idea that evil is a medical condition, or the result of social malaise, is ultimately because we have now engineered in ourselves the helplessness we have carefully constructed in others. We are no longer, we think, even worthy subjects of moral evaluation. If we are bad, or we are good, then this is really something else – something that must be explained in other, non-moral, terms; something beyond our control. To explain away our moral status, to excuse our own culpability in the manufacture of evil, this is the ultimate manifestation of that manufacture of evil – the clearest expression imaginable of the weakness that we have assiduously assembled in our own souls. To think of morality as really something else – the weakness is so palpable that only a human could miss it. We are no longer strong enough to live without excuses. We are no longer even strong enough to have the courage of our convictions.

Now, while Rowlands applies this directly to concepts of evil, the fact is that such a need for excuse-making can be found in almost every human endeavor and facet of society. We are a culture of irresponsible losers, and ones that, heaven forfend, should encounter a real champion of excellence and personal responsibility, then — and only then — will the lazy masses even work up enough indignation to smite the apostate down!

There is a slight proofreading error that occurs on page 106, where Rowlands claims that four billion years after the birth of the cosmos, humans arrived. What he likely meant was four billion or so years after the formation of the earth, humans arrived. Nonetheless, Rowlands weaves back and forth between philosophic excursions and Brenin’s life with an alacrity, joy, and ease that makes one want to slow down and savor the ideas that are broached; such as Rowlands’ semi-disdain for the fact that human beings have made feelings the sine qua non of what it is ‘to be human,’ when clearly this is false. Animals, as Rowlands demonstrates, are just as emotional as we are. Intellect is the great divider that defines us as human. Yet, Rowlands certainly does not want for emotion, as his chapters on Brenin’s illness, recovery, and subsequent death illustrates. The penultimate chapter sees Rowlands tackle the circular and linear concepts of time, and, in its evocation of Rowlands love for his wolf, put me in mind of the great poem by Robinson Jeffers, The House Dog’s Grave. It ends:

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

In its evocation, Rowlands realizes that the two concepts are not mutually opposing things, and the end of that chapter, on one of his female dog’s reactions to Brenin’s death, is perfect.

As is the aforementioned culmination and climax of the book; its last chapter. In it, Rowlands dismisses mere happiness as an end unto itself, that purpose — especially self-purpose — has a greater place, and uses the example of Sisyphus to demonstrate, for even were the gods to avail Sisyphus of the balm of enjoying his futile task of rolling his stone up his hill, that joy would still not be a thing worthy, in and of itself. It would be an absurdity, and even a cruelty inflicted by the gods. Rowlands argues for measurable objective success, not subjective joy derived, as what determines if something is good or not. Then he gets to his rub, that once a purpose is chosen and completed, there is no further meaning, and this point is one that Rowlands has addressed in other venues, but never seems to have tackled fully.

To me, the answer is clear: one must choose a purpose that perpetuates itself beyond yourself, and the only things that do this are things that serve not the self, but others: art, science, medicine, public service. Purpose, therefore, can only avoid Rowlands’ logical meaningless dead end if it is directed away from the self. In this way, only in altruism can one selfishly gain a deeper sense of satisfaction. And this can only be achieved, as most things are, via personal volition, willing meaning from the ether, so to speak. Rowlands wraps up his book with the conclusion that one’s own personal meaning thus comes from those few moments that one is at one’s best. These are not those things that are ‘essentially’ you, for stubbornness, stupidity, greed, duplicity or worse, can all be equally essential to a person, but the moments that are the de facto ‘reason’ for one’s existence, as determined via the formulations above, are those in which we are at our peak, in whatever sense of the term best suits one’s fancy – when we are at our most generous, fittest, smartest, fastest, kindest, funniest, etc. As Rowlands puts it, in a pitch perfect diss of religion and blind faith:

Hope is the used-car salesman of human existence: so friendly, so plausible. But you cannot rely on him. What is most important in your life is the you that remains when your hope runs out. Time will take everything from us in the end. Everything we have acquired through talent, industry, and luck will be taken from us. Time takes our strength, our desires, our goals, our projects, our future, our happiness, and even our hope. Anything we can have, anything we can possess, time will take from us. But what time can never take from us is who we were in our best moments.

At the risk of sounding arrogant (but who cares?), I couldn’t have said it better myself, and bravo! Mark Rowlands’ book, The Philosopher And The Wolf, is not just a great read, a great memoir, nor even a great book. It is all of those things, but, if it can just get enough readers, I think it can take on a life of its own, and become a book of sustained and continued philosophic and personal influence. And I mean that of the positive sort, not the way The Prophet nor Jonathan Livingston Seagull are considered such. Rowlands’ book is a masterful work that deserves to be seen as a classic that combines the highest and broadest of human achievement and art. It is didactic without being ponderous, self-deprecating without being precious, and far superior to all the bad self help books on life’s meaning that clutter shelves because the latest Oprah-endorsed guru wants to scam unthinking zombies. I only hope an Oprah, or some other person of influence in the mass media, will stumble upon this book, and give it the larger audience that it deserves. In service to that directed away from the self goal, I urge readers of this review to buy the book, read the book, and thank me later. I can wait. Most others cannot.

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About Dan Schneider

  • Sebastian

    “smite the apostate down”

    That’s the language of the Taliban. It has no place in educated society… not even as a metaphor.

    This article was a muddle-headed meander of pseudo-science, and superstitious moralising. The errors of logic and fact are so numerous the article is not worth correcting.

    Incidentally, fish have a highly developed sense of touch (including an organ designed specifically for it which we do not share: try to guess what it is) and are perfectly capable of feeling pain. What little research there has been into their intelligence also demonstrates a capacity for learning and memory.

    It is an error of Victorian proportions to assume that lack of personal knowledge is equivalent to knowledge of lack.