Mark Rowlands was a young philosophy professor, rootless and searching for life's greater meaning. Shortly after arriving at the University of Alabama, he noticed a classified ad in the local paper advertising wolf cubs for sale, and decided he had to investigate, if only out of curiosity. It was love at first sight, and the bond that grew between philosopher and wolf reaffirms for us the incredible relationships that exist between man and animal.
When Mark welcomed his new companion, Brenin, into his home, but more than just an exotic pet, Brenin exerted an immense influence on Rowlands both as a person, and, strangely enough, as a philosopher, leading him to reevaluate his attitude toward love, happiness, nature, death, and the true meaning of companionship.
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About the Author
Mark Rowlands is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami and the author of The Philosopher and the Wolf.
His books have been translated into fifteen languages.
Read an Excerpt
The Philosopher and the Wolf
Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness
By Mark Rowlands
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Mark Rowlands
All rights reserved.
This is a book about a wolf called Brenin. For more than a decade—during most of the 1990s and some of the 2000s—he lived with me. As a consequence of sharing the life of a rootless and restless intellectual, he became an extraordinarily well-travelled wolf, living in the US, Ireland, England and, finally, France. He was also the, largely unwilling, beneficiary of more free university education than any wolf that ever lived. As you will see, dire consequences would ensue for my house and possessions should I leave him unattended. So I had to bring him into work with me—and as I was a philosophy professor, this meant bringing him to my lectures. He would lie in the corner of the room and doze—much like my students really—while I droned on about some or other philosopher or philosophy. Occasionally, when the lectures became particularly tedious, he would sit up and howl—a habit that endeared him to the students, who had probably been wishing they could do the same thing.
This is also a book about what it means to be human—not as a biological entity but as a creature that can do things no other creatures can. In the stories we tell about ourselves, our uniqueness is a common refrain. According to some, this lies in our ability to create civilization, and so protect ourselves from nature, red in tooth and claw. Others point to the fact that we are the only creatures that can understand the difference between good and evil, and therefore are the only creatures truly capable of being good or evil. Some say we are unique because we have reason; we are rational animals alone in a world of irrational brutes. Others think it is our use of language that decisively separates us from dumb animals. Some say we are unique because we alone are capable of free will and action. Others think our uniqueness lies in the fact that we alone are capable of love. Some say that we alone are capable of understanding the nature and basis of true happiness. Others think we are unique because we alone can understand that we are going to die.
I don't believe any of these stories as accounts of a critical gulf between us and other creatures. Some of the things we think they can't do, they can. And some of the things we think we can do, we can't. As for the rest, well, it's mostly a matter of degree rather than kind. Instead, our uniqueness lies simply in the fact that we tell these stories—and, what's more, we can actually get ourselves to believe them. If I wanted a one-sentence definition of human beings, this would do: humans are the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves. Humans are credulous animals.
In these dark times, it does not need emphasizing that the stories we tell about ourselves can be the biggest source of division between one human and another. From credulity, there is often but a short step to hostility. However, I am concerned with the stories we tell to distinguish ourselves not from each other but from other animals: the stories we tell about what makes us human. Each story has what we might call a dark side; it casts a shadow. That shadow is to be found behind what the story says; here you will find what the story shows. And this is likely to be dark in at least two ways. First of all, what the story shows is often a deeply unflattering, even disturbing, facet of human nature. Second, what the story shows is often difficult to see. The two senses are not unconnected. We humans have a pronounced facility for passing over the aspects of ourselves we find distasteful. And this extends to the stories we tell to explain ourselves to ourselves.
The wolf is, of course, the traditional, if unfairly selected, representative of the dark side of humanity. This is in many ways ironic—not least etymologically. The Greek word for wolf is lukos, which is so close to the word for light, leukos, that the two were often associated. It may be that this association was simply the result of mistakes in translation, or it may be that there was a deeper etymological connection between the two words. But for whatever reason Apollo was regarded as both the god of the sun and the god of wolves. And in this book it is the connection between the wolf and the light that is important. Think of the wolf as the clearing in the forest. In the bowels of the forest, it may be too dark to see the trees. The clearing is the place that allows what was hidden to be uncovered. The wolf, I shall try to show, is the clearing in the human soul. The wolf uncovers what is hidden in the stories we tell about ourselves—what those stories show but do not say.
We stand in the shadow of the wolf. Something can cast a shadow in two ways: by occluding light or by being the source of light that other things occlude. We talk of the shadows cast by a man and those cast by a fire. By the shadow of the wolf, I mean not the shadow cast by the wolf itself, but the shadows we cast from the light of the wolf. And staring back at us from these shadows is precisely what we don't want to know about ourselves.
Brenin died a few years ago. I still find myself thinking about him every day. This may strike many as overly indulgent: he was, after all, just an animal. Nonetheless, despite my life now being, in all important respects, the best it's ever been, I have become, I think, a diminished thing. It's really hard to explain why, and for a long time I didn't understand. Now I think I do—Brenin taught me something that my protracted formal education did not and could not teach me. And it's a lesson that is difficult to retain, with the necessary level of clarity and vibrancy, now that he has gone. Time heals, but it does so through erasure. This book is an attempt to record the lesson before it is gone.
There is an Iroquois myth that describes a choice the nation was once forced to make. The myth has various forms. This is the simplest version. A council of the tribes was called to decide where to move on for the next hunting season. What the council had not known, however, was that the place they eventually chose was a place inhabited by wolves. Accordingly, the Iroquois became subject to repeated attacks, during which the wolves gradually whittled down their numbers. They were faced with a choice: to move somewhere else or to kill the wolves. The latter option, they realized, would diminish them. It would make them the sort of people they did not want to be. And so they moved on. To avoid repetition of their earlier mistake, they decided that in all future council meetings someone should be appointed to represent the wolf. Their contribution would be invited with the question, 'Who speaks for wolf?'
This is the Iroquois version of the myth, of course. If there were a wolf version, I am sure it would be quite different. Nonetheless, there is truth here. I am going to try and show you that, for the most part, each one of us has the soul of an ape. I'm not investing too much in the word 'soul'. By 'soul' I don't necessarily mean some immortal and incorruptible part of us that survives the death of our bodies. The soul may be like this, but I doubt it. Or it may be that the soul is simply the mind, and the mind is simply the brain. But, again, I doubt it. As I am using the word, the soul of human beings is revealed in the stories they tell about themselves: stories about why they are unique; stories we humans can actually get ourselves to believe, in spite of all the evidence against them. These, I am going to argue, are stories told by apes: they have a structure, theme and content that is recognizably simian.
I am, here, using the ape as a metaphor for a tendency that exists, to a greater or lesser extent, in all of us. In this sense, some humans are more apes than others. Indeed, some apes are more apes than others. The 'ape' is the tendency to understand the world in instrumental terms: the value of everything is a function of what it can do for the ape. The ape is the tendency to see life as a process of gauging probabilities and computing possibilities, and using the results of these computations in its favour. It is the tendency to see the world as a collection of resources; things to be used for its purposes. The ape applies this principle to other apes as much as, or even more than, to the rest of the natural world. The ape is the tendency to have not friends, but allies. The ape does not see its fellow apes; it watches them. And all the while it waits for the opportunity to take advantage. To be alive, for the ape, is to be waiting to strike. The ape is the tendency to base relationships with others on a single principle, invariant and unyielding: what can you do for me, and how much will it cost me to get you to do it? Inevitably, this understanding of other apes will turn back on itself, infecting and informing the ape's view of itself. And so it thinks of its happiness as something that can be measured, weighed, quantified and calculated. It thinks of love in the same way. The ape is the tendency to think that the most important things in life are a matter of cost-benefit analysis.
This, I should reiterate, is a metaphor that I use to describe a human tendency. We all know people like this. We meet them at work and at play; we have sat across conference tables and restaurant tables from them. But these people are just exaggerations of the basic human type. Most of us, I suspect, are more like it than we realize or would care to admit. But why do I describe this tendency as simian? Humans are not the only sorts of apes that can suffer and enjoy the gamut of human emotions. As we shall see, other apes can feel love; they can feel grief so intense that they die from it. They can have friends, and not just allies. Nevertheless, this tendency is simian in the sense that it is made possible by apes; more precisely, by a certain sort of cognitive development that took place in the apes and, as far as we know, no other animal. The tendency to see the world and those in it in cost-benefit terms; to think of one's life, and the important things that happen in it, as things that can be quantified and calculated: this tendency is possible only because there are apes. And of all the apes, this tendency receives its most complete expression in us. But there is also a part of our soul that existed long before we became apes—before this tendency could catch us in its grip—and this is hidden in the stories we tell about ourselves. It is hidden, but it can be uncovered.
Evolution works by gradual accretion. In evolution, there is no tabula rasa, no clean slate: it can work only with what it is given and never go back to the drawing board. Thus, to use the stock example, the grotesquely twisted features of the flat fish—one of whose eyes has in essence been pulled around the other side—are evidence that the evolutionary pressures that led a fish to specialize in lying on the sea bed were pressures acting on a fish that had originally developed for other purposes and, therefore, had eyes located on its lateral, rather than dorsal, surfaces. Similarly, in the development of human beings, evolution was forced to work with what it was given. Our brains are essentially historical structures: it is on the foundations of a primitive limbic system—one that we share with our reptilian ancestors—that the mammalian cortex—the particularly brawny version of which is characteristic of human beings—has been built.
I don't mean to suggest that the stories we tell, and believe, about ourselves are evolutionary products like the flat fish's eyes or the mammalian brain. However, I do think that they are built in a similar way: through gradual accretion, where new layers of narrative are superimposed on older structures and themes. There is no clean slate for the stories we tell about ourselves. I shall try to show that if we look hard enough, and if we know where and how to look, then in every story told by apes we shall also find a wolf. And the wolf tells us—this is its function in the story—that the values of the ape are crass and worthless. It tells us that what is most important in life is never a matter of calculation. It reminds us that what is of real value cannot be quantified or traded. It reminds us that sometimes we must do what is right though the heavens fall.
We are, all of us I think, more ape than wolf. In many of us, the wolf has been almost completely expunged from the narrative of our lives. But it is at our peril that we allow the wolf to die. 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 what is most important in life. And this is not what your schemes and cleverness and luck have bought you; it is what remains when they have deserted you. You are many things. But the most important you is not the one who schemes; it is the one who remains when the scheming fails. The most important you is not the one who delights in your cunning; it is what is left behind when this cunning leaves you for dead. The most important you is not the one who rides your luck; it is the you who remains when that luck has run out. 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?
It took a long time, but at last I think I understand why I loved Brenin so much, and miss him so painfully now he has gone. He taught me something that my extended formal education could not: that in some ancient part of my soul there still lived a wolf.
Sometimes it is necessary to let the wolf in us speak; to silence the incessant chattering of the ape. This book is an attempt to speak for wolf in the only way that I can.
'The only way that I can' turned out quite differently from what I had planned. This book took me a long time to write. In one way or another, I've been working on it for the best part of fifteen years. This is because the thoughts that it contains took me a long time to think. Sometimes, wheels turn slowly. The book grew out of my life with a wolf, but there is, I think, still a very real sense in which I don't understand what this book is.
It is, in one sense, autobiographical. 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. To protect the privacy of these ghosts, since I have no idea whether they would be enthusiastic about appearing, I have changed their names. And when there are other things I wish to protect, I find myself being coy with details of location or timeline. Good autobiographies are also detailed and comprehensive. Here, however, the details are sparse and the memory is selective. The book is driven by what I learned from my life with Brenin, and I have organized it around these lessons. To this end, I have focused largely on those events in the life of Brenin and myself that are pertinent to the thoughts that I wanted to develop. Other episodes, some of them significant, have been ignored and will soon be lost in time. When specific details of events, persons or chronology threatened to overwhelm the thoughts I wanted to develop, I ruthlessly excised them.
If this did not turn out to be the story of me, then neither did it really end up being the story of Brenin. Of course, the book is built around various events that occurred during our life together. But it is only rarely that I try to understand what is going on in his mind during those events. Despite living with him for more than a decade, I'm not sure I'm competent to make such judgements in anything but the most simple of cases. And many of the events I describe and the issues I discuss through them are not simple. Brenin figures—I believe strongly—in this book as a concrete, brooding presence. But he also appears in a quite different way: as a symbol or metaphor for an aspect of me, an aspect that, perhaps, is no more. Thus I find myself sometimes lapsing into metaphorical talk of what the wolf 'knows'. If this were taken as an empirical speculation about the actual content of Brenin's mind, these claims would be risibly anthropomorphic. But, I assure you, they are not intended to function in this way. Similarly, when I talk of the lessons I learned from Brenin, these were visceral and fundamentally non-cognitive. They were learned not from studying Brenin, but from the fact that the paths of our lives were walked together. And many of the lessons I did not understand until after he was gone.
Excerpted from The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands. Copyright © 2009 Mark Rowlands. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Table of Contents
1 The Clearing 1
2 Brotherwolf 12
3 Distinctly Uncivilized 47
4 Beauty and the Beast 81
5 The Deceiver 111
6 The Pursuit of Happiness and Rabbits 136
7 A Season in Hell 163
8 Time's Arrow 184
9 The Religion of the Wolf 216
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book!!!! It helped me bring some peace to my life with the death of my grandma, whom I was very close to. We did everything together. This boook was the healing piece I needed to start to put my life back together again.
The author, a philosophy professor and quite successful at the time he writes this, has given a retrospective story of his life with a wolf, Brenin. The story begins when he is still a young beginning assistant professor and goes forward during the life of Brenin as the author becomes more successful. The focus is on the difference between the wolf and the man and reflection on how various philosophers' thought applies to these differences. I was charmed by the author's willingness to look frankly at his own foibles and to write humorously about himself as well as Brenin. This short book manages to cover Brenin's entire 10 year lifespan without unnecessary detail. The authors does a wonderful job of picking out what is important to convey meaning.
A thought-provoking book that is part memoir, part science writing, and part philosophical discussion. Mark writes about his life spent with a wolf named Brenin and the amazing things he learns from his wolf brother. A very interesting consideration of moral and epistemic duty, and where evil is located in not only the human world, but the non-human animal world. The anecdotes about Brenin and Mark's other canine companions are delightful, and his discussions of philosophy are accessible to the layman.
Very inspiring and informative! Definately puts you into the mindset of the bond between wolf and man. Can't wait to finish the book!!
I have to admit that I had expected more from the book, having read many nonfiction stories about owners and their animals. Throughout the novel, or the half that I was able to complete, the author, being the philosopher, merely stated all of his ideas in his majoring in philosophy, which I did expect, but, rather than bring in new ideas into the picture, stated the same ideas continuously, without changing the subject at all, really. There were only tiny paragraphs at the beginning of the chapters about the wolf and him, of their companionship as man and wolf, and these facts and stories of Brendon's life were out of order. I could not finish this novel, and I do not recommend it, though every person has their own personal taste, I do not recommend it to animal lovers.