This read was inspired by hearing the podcast ‘Mark Rowlands on Philosophy and Running’, from Philosophy Bites, quite possibly my all-time favourite podcast.
A young philosophy professor, Rowlands buys a wolf pup while on Spring break, and his life changes forever. It is, self-admittedly, a kind of selective autobiography of life with a wolf, seen through the lenses of philosophy.
A self-proclaimed misanthropist and then-alcoholic, Rowlands delves into evolutionary psychology to philosophize on the development of human intelligence from a sort of arms’ race of deceitfulness. Vegetarianism and the ethics of animal treatment is examined, à la Singer; as a result, the wolf Brennin, and his eventual companions Nina and Tess are converted to piscatarianism. Rowlands addresses the issues of potential cruelty in keeping a wolf as a pet, and explores our prima facie concepts of nature, red in tooth and claw, and the nature of humanity today, stuck with a brain the architecture of which is a sometimes-archaic product of evolution. In the Autumn years of Brennin’s life, he examines his own understanding of happiness; humans being “animals that worship feelings.” The legend Sisyphus, cursed by the gods to forever push a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down, is depicted as an existential allegory for human futility both within an individual’s life (getting up each day, going to work, going home) and throughout the history of humanity. We each give our children the same boulders to push up the hill as we were handed by our parents, which opens an invitation to question the validity of a goal-oriented existence.
It is primarily a book about philosophy. The vignettes of life with Brennin serve to give the philosophical discussions shape and direction, but are not the focus. Those sections which do recount life with Brennin reminded me a little of the Lyn Hancock autobiography There’s a Seal in My Sleeping Bag, and were at times surprising, but largely enjoyable.
All very well, and very interesting – but does the book gradually gather its arguments and twist them together to form a point? Yes. And yes again. The discussion of humans as Sisyphean happiness junkies leads onto that timeless question: what is the meaning of life?
Rowlands argues that it is a question which we are far too fixated upon finding and achieving an answer to, because there is no inherent meaning to existence. There is nothing we can possess, achieve or become for any significant length of time, that will fill the hole inside of us. Unlike the wolf of his narrative, we are temporal creatures, and often more concerned with possessing and achieving.
Rowlands interprets the real meaning of existence as being, rather than possessing. To be a certain type of intelligent ape, because “[t]he meaning of life is to be found precisely in those things that temporal creatures cannot possess: moments.” Important moments. Our best moments. These are not the most enjoyable or pleasurable moments; they can be the most unpleasant times, the darkest hours of our lives.
“Our highest moments are when we are at our best. And often it takes something truly horrible for us to be so…We are at our best when there is no point in going on; when there is no hope for which to go on.”
Rowlands’ stressing the moments of experience – good and bad – over achievements or possessions, is one of the most sensible I have encountered for a while, if potentially discomforting. Personally, I have no belief in a higher meaning to life.
You may wrap it up in blessed yellow scarves, or support it with mitres, or wreath it in cigarette smoke and burns, but life – and its defining moments – are reducible down to what you experienced, and what you did when it was hardest to go on. Moments in time – memories – are the most important thing I possess. And I agree with Rowlands – they aren’t always good ones.
They are memories of three days hiking in the rain as a kid, the weather so cold that my little sister went hypothermic, mist wreathing the trees, and a desiccated dead thing hanging from a tree like a horror movie prop. The decaying hut we found was full of rat droppings, and we couldn’t get dry. We were tired and cold. It was a fantastic hike; we all still remember it.
It’s breaking my elbow falling off a near-stationary skateboard, the parents making a six-hour round trip to drive me back to me home. Being too ashamed to meet their eyes when they arrived, and heartbroken that I wouldn’t be able to climb for six weeks, mere days after my first multi-pitch. Knowing how much fitness I would lose while recovering. A week later I was climbing and bouldering one-handed anyway, because: fuck it, the worst had already happened. I think climbing one-handed actually improved my balance, eventually; it definitely maintained my sanity.
I value the points at which I get up and keep trudging. It doesn’t matter that I’m not happy in that moment. It’s not about being happy. It’s doing what I’ve decided to do, come hell or high water, tears or tantrums. Once I’ve pulled through that moment, hour, or day, I may be exhausted, sad, happy, or exhilarated… But I will have done it, or failed trying my damnedest to achieve it.
“I am going to die, but in this moment I feel good and I feel strong. And I am going to do what I will.”
It is a ‘fuck you’ approach to the threats and judgments of mortality, morality, consumerism, conservatism, nihilism, hedonism and Stoicism, by experiencing a moment that is important and complete in and of itself. No more dithering, dodging or doubting: batter up. Time to jump out of that plane, and accept the consequences of failing.
Rowlands’ idea is the opposite of those peddled by religions: there is no reliance on hope to get you through. “What is most important in your life is the you that remains when hope runs out. Time will take everything from us in the end. Everything we have acquired…But what time can never take from us is who we were in our best moments.”
These moments of memory may sound narcissistic in the self-centredness that it appears to promote, but I would argue that it is not. We don’t remember ourselves alone; we remember ourselves through our memories of others, whether they are good or bad. Each moment is peopled with creatures, whose existence and actions define the moment for us in a way that experiencing it alone might never do.
The Philosopher and the Wolf made me long for both a pet dog, and a job which allows me to enjoy its company all day, regardless of where I’m headed. Though in my case, unlike Rowlands, I could not be convinced to become an incredibly fit runner; cycling is of much lower impact on this evolved ape’s joints. And I might not get a wolf; The Philosopher and the Wolf has renewed my respect for the requirements of caring for large dogs.
K.L gives The Philosopher and the Wolf 5 out of 5 lone wolves. I will read this again.