The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands
Nina Power takes philosophy lessons from a wolf
This is not a book a rationalist wants to like. As a rule we tend to sneer at anything that involves biography (self-indulgent!), avoid suggestions that we learn from the animals (anthropomorphism!) and shun any book with the word “happiness” in the title (icky!). Thus, The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness, a self-confessedly whimsical memoir about a wayward philosopher and his pet wolf in which a man learns how to accept the universe by becoming a little bit like his giant animal, was always going to be a hard sell, and that’s before we even meet its protagonist.
In many ways, Rowlands is a curiously unlikeable human being, admitting to caring more about his animals than about his girlfriends (with one rather moving exception), preferring partying and sport to his classes and alcohol to almost anything apart from Brenin, his beloved wolf. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, he manages, during the course of the book, to become a remarkably successful (in academic terms at least) writer, publishing on theories of extended mind, animal rights and, more light-heartedly, the importance of television. But for all of this uplifting tale of personal development, Rowlands is noble enough to realise that the true hero of the story is not the slightly irresponsible “ape” (Rowlands’ term for us non-wolves) who wrote the book, who buys an illegal wolf puppy after seeing an advert in the newspaper, but Brenin himself: “If there is a star of the book, of course, then it’s not me.”
Brenin the wolf is, for the most part, a vortex of destruction and barely contained rage, tearing up houses, cars and the occasional other animal in a bid to bring the wilderness back to the very heart of civilisation. For all this untrammelled red-in-tooth-and-claw type nature, though, there is a curiously enigmatic tenderness to Brenin that does indeed teach Rowlands (and the reluctantly, ever so slightly moved reader too) that not only is there more to life than the human pettiness that fills our days, but philosophy too could do with paying attention to the critical howls of our lupine pals.
Rowlands is particularly good on how Brenin refutes contract theories of the state, and how we need to rethink our conceptions of evil in the light of animal emotions. Rowlands’ commitment to his wolf “brother” is truly remarkable, and the level of dedication he devotes to Brenin in his final days, in which Rowlands undergoes a kind of personal trial by sleeplessness, filled with the idea that he is already dead and in hell, is a heartbreaking insight into the kinds of terrible things we do out of duty to others (be they animal or human), and how we hurt them in an attempt to do anything we can to try and save them.
But there are moments of real humour here too. Particularly amusing is the warning Rowlands felt compelled to add to his philosophy syllabus: “Caution: Please do not pay any attention to the wolf. He will not hurt you. However, if you do have any food in your bag, please make sure that those bags are securely fastened shut.”
The Philosopher and the Wolf is, for all its potential mawkishness, a remarkably touching tale of nature, humanity and the potential for each to transform the other, hopefully into something other than mincemeat.
The Philosopher and the Wolf is published by Granta