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Dogs and Souls
If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons. —James Thurber
Until recently, i’d never spent much time with aristotle, one of the world’s pioneer thinkers. When I finally sat down with him, I found his essays tough going but rewarding; his ideas came as something of a jolt.
Like many of the early philosophers and scholars, Aristotle took a hard, clear line when it came to animals and souls. He exalted the rational being that a human had the potential to become. There was nothing like it, he wrote. A human could develop morality and responsibility. Since animals aren’t widely believed to possess those traits (not even in our contemporary animal-worshipping culture, although that’s changing), he argued that humans had a higher status, that human values and attributes—including the soul—couldn’t and shouldn’t be attributed to animals.
What made humans distinct from other living things, Aristotle believed, was that very ability to reason about ethics, to be held morally accountable for their decisions. Our ability to perceive what was right, and to struggle to do right rather than wrong, was our most distinguishing characteristic.
Animals (and children) weren’t able to determine right from wrong, Aristotle believed, and thus existed on a different plane. One could no more attribute human consciousness to animals than to trees.
Religious scholars, sorting out questions of faith and the afterlife, carried these arguments further and codified them. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas established Aristotle’s ideas as part of Christian doctrine, which states clearly that animals, lacking reason, don’t have immortal souls. Animals couldn’t read the Bible, accept God, or worry about heaven and hell. Therefore, they bore no responsibility for their choices. They were beasts, under our control, subordinate.
Mainstream Christianity, writes contemporary theologian Andrew Linzey (who believes that animals do have souls) remains “firmly humanocentric.”
Maybe so, but in the United States at least, the faithful are creating their own animal theology. Society’s broader view of animals has shifted radically. Scientists’ investigations suggest more intelligence and consciousness among animals than Aristotle or Aquinas could have perceived. Animals, particularly dogs and cats, are moving toward the center of our emotional lives. It sometimes seems that our love, even adoration, of animals is approaching the dimensions of religion itself.
A number of studies in recent years have indicated that the occasional border collie, elephant, or chimpanzee shows signs of self-awareness, some ability to see itself as an indi?vidual apart from the others of its species, though most researchers are candid about this work being far from conclusive.
Meanwhile, liberal theologians like Linzey, animal-rights activists like philosopher Peter Singer, and many millions of pet owners and lovers profoundly attached to their animals are reshaping the way we view other species, and are developing their own theologies.
I’ve been asking dog and cat lovers for years if they believed their animals had souls. By now I’ve met few dog owners who would consider their companions thoughtless, subordinate beasts, incapable of reason or self-awareness. Quite the opposite—I meet people all the time who tell me in considerable detail what their dogs and cats are thinking, feeling, and planning, and who find the very idea that their companion animals might be barred from heaven heretical.
Anthropomorphizing isn’t merely a trend in our culture but an epidemic. Some animals who have not learned to live with and love humans (raccoons, for example) do not seem to be benefiting from this new consciousness. But dogs and cats, who’ve lived among us for thousands of years and have us figured out, are on a roll.
Though I know better, I attribute human emotions to dogs myself, all the time. It’s almost impossible not to anthropomorphize, if you love and live with animals.
Consider the way that Rose, who usually spends the night in distant corners of the farmhouse—I rarely know where—occasionally comes to wake me, hopping up onto my bed to look at me or, if necessary, lick my face or ear.
At first, I shooed her away, annoyed at having my sleep interrupted. But I came to realize that this behavior meant something was amiss. Rose moves around at night, looking out the windows, keeping an ear and eye on things. When something isn’t right, she knows it.
It might be a fox or coyote on the prowl, or a broken fence, or a sick animal crying out. Once, a goat had escaped from its enclosure and was wandering around the driveway. Once, a rabid raccoon was trying to get into the barn. Another time, the donkeys had nosed open the gate and were heading for the road.
What is Rose doing when she wakes me in the night? Does she intend to warn me of danger, or is she just reacting to her finely honed working instincts? And how would I know the difference?
Animals generally do react out of instinct, genetics, environment, and experience, if you accept what vets and behaviorists tell us. We want our dogs to love us madly because we’re wonderful, but most of us who spend a lot of time around dogs come to understand that they love us because we feed them—and that’s one of the reasons we do.
They certainly have strong spirits, emotions, perhaps imaginations—the truth is, we still really don’t know a lot about what’s going on inside those furry heads—but an ethical self seems a human trait. Humans possess the ability to use narrative, language, and self-consciousness to reason, to struggle with right and wrong and make good decisions, to ponder questions of a spiritual nature. These are not things dogs can do.
I’ve never seen a dog, cow, or chicken resolve to be a better dog, cow, or chicken and work on improving itself. Domesticated animals seem to live the opposite way, following instincts and training, accepting their roles.
Aristotle wasn’t calling animals inferior to us. He was saying they were different, not comparable, and that we ought not diminish people or animals by assuming they have the same qualities, capacities, and emotional constructs we do. The human conscience is unique in all biological life, and there is no evidence, beyond our tendency to romanticize other species, that such an extraordinary trait exists in the animal world. The fact that that’s become a somewhat controversial notion is remarkable.
Aristotle’s philosophical and theological heirs, Augustine and Aquinas, did believe, for different reasons, that humans were inherently superior to animals. If anybody in Aquinas’s time had claimed that dogs were just like children, he would have been shunned.
Our values have changed. Rationality was an almost sacred trait to thinkers like Aristotle, whose culture had emerged from darker, more primitive times when little was understood about the natural or scientific world.
Rationality was the groundwork for learning, morality, even democracy. To Aristotle, it formed the core of what it meant to be a human being, and the human soul was uniquely precious. Animals weren’t idealized or personified; they were valued as workers—or food.
Aquinas, also enormously influential in shaping notions about animals and souls, further theorized that since animals lacked all reason and self-consciousness, humans couldn’t be cruel to them. They existed, were created, for our benefit and had no awareness of their condition beyond instinct. The reason to treat animals well, Aquinas argued, was primarily to foster compassion toward other humans.
It’s important to remember the context of those much harsher times, marked by starvation, war, disease, suffering, and superstition. Pets existed, even then. Dogs were used for protection and companionship, and cats prized as rodent sentries, but other animals were on the periphery of our families and emotional lives, not so central. They were rarely seen as childlike or as possessing human-style emotion.
The number of domestic dogs in this country has exploded in the last generation, from roughly 15 million in 1960 to more than 75 million today, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Figures for cats, rodents, birds, reptiles, and fish are less reliable. In the past, owning a dog was simpler. They were rarely purchased, often ate human food, and were not generally walked, cleaned up after, or permitted to sleep in our beds. They didn’t have human names, and expensive health care for them was almost unheard of. Bites were common, leashes rare, gourmet snacks and play groups unimaginable.
There was little discussion of animals and souls, or much expectation of them joining us in the afterlife.
Certainly they weren’t as emotionally engaged with their human owners. Dogs sometimes provided companionship, but more often assisted with hunting, herding, and guarding.
Largely beasts of burden, animals were useful—vital—for pulling carts and plows, for hauling and transporting and fighting, for providing wool and meat and soap. Few people in Aquinas’s time had the resources to feed companion animals or spend money on their health care. The notion that they might have human-style thoughts, motives, or reasoning was centuries away.
Now and then, pushing a cart through the aisles at a pet superstore, I like to imagine Aristotle or Aquinas at the mall with me, gawking at the overwhelming variety of toys, beds, collars, scoopers, shampoos and deodorizers, exotic foods and snacks. I suspect both men would be horrified.
From the Hardcover edition.