The Dominican friar Henry Suso was once carving Jesus’s name in his chest with a knife when he noticed a puppy playing nearby. Seeing the little dog amusing itself with a dirty cloth gave the friar an epiphany. Suso realised that redemption is granted not to those who mortify their flesh — for to do so is merely to glorify oneself. Rather, one shows love for God by living in grace, simplicity and sportive celebration of the world. Like dogs.
Those who have seen dogs in action might well demur. Once, in a pub, I was giggling with a friend as the publican’s Welsh spaniel humped the leg of a man at the bar. ‘More drinks?’, my friend asked. As she placed the order, the spaniel transferred his allegiance to her leg. This is what dogs are like: they roll in poo, shed, dribble, fart and perform disgusting sex acts even if you shout at them to stop. We have nothing to learn from them, unless importuning strangers in the most offensive manner possible is admirable. Which it isn’t.
The philosopher Mark Alizart’s delightful little book, though, argues that dogs teach us what we should have taken, but most likely didn’t, from the Stoics, Spinoza and Buddhism — namely that wisdom consists in accommodating ourselves to what life has to offer. It’s a book you might start and finish while your pet is engaged in the equally pleasurable business of sniffing his chums’ bottoms, before the pair of you trot home basking in twin glows of enlightenment.
Dogs get a bad press from philosophers, priests and poets. Montaigne played with his cat and wondered if it was playing with him; it never occurred to him that dogs were similarly superior beings. The Bible scarcely mentions them, typifying monotheistic religions’ erasure of the canine. That said, there is a superb sura in the Koran in which seven devout young men are on the run from the local militia. They fear that a dog called Kitmir that has been following them will bark and give them away. Instead, Kitmir speaks and pledges his loyalty. They fall asleep in a cave and 300 years later awake with the dog still standing sentinel. No cat would do that: fidelity is not for felines.
Alizart invites us to appreciate dogs’ ‘dialectical nature’, by which he means they are half civilised, half wild, ‘with a foot in each world’. I’m no philosopher, but that surely leaves two feet stationed elsewhere, but still. Think of Siddhartha’s shih tzu, which could transform itself into a snow lion at the scent of danger; or that bloke in the park who trains his murder dog to clamp its jaws to trees before it returns home to sleep peaceably with toddlers.
La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Wolf and the Dog’ depicts the former as wild and free, the latter as stupid and servile. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin proposed that dogs should be freed from their masters even against their will. What nonsense, counters Alizart: dogs have developed a successful evolutionary survival strategy, soft-pedaling their savagery (no rolling back of whisker pads to show teeth, for instance) and divining human intention by observing our scleras (not even monkeys can read the whites of human eyes and thus tell which way we’re looking), even appearing interested while we read them the paper. The result? There are hundreds of millions of exemplars of man’s best friend while only a few thousand wolves, one-time rulers of the world’s forests, remain.
Why don’t we learn to live as dogs? This is where Alizart is most convincing. Our planetary despoliation may land us in a post-apocalyptic world reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. After the canned goods have run out, we will need to live off scraps, adapt to the environment, live in pain. Dogs have done all these. And yet they have risen above misfortune. They are gentle with children, fraternal with other animals, patient with adults. Alone among domesticated animals, they meet their fate with nonchalance. While circus animals often become melancholy or mad, dogs live by Droopy’s catchphrase: ‘You know what? I’m happy.’