But I will begin with Nietzsche instead, who famously liked to look for the hidden motivations behind our behaviors. For example, in a poignant passage early in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Nietzsche speculates that we like to look at small children playing, or even herds of animals grazing, because it reminds us of a “lost paradise,” the time in which we ourselves were not burdened with so much knowledge, so much history.
For all his exaggerations, Nietzsche may be on to something with this. Perhaps we love animals because they exhibit to us qualities that we wish to possess–or even qualities that we used to possess and have lost over time. In Nietzsche’s example, it is the peace of herd animals such as deer, their total immersion in the present moment that we envy. However, it seems to me that our love of dogs would be an even better example of this tendency. Allow me to explain.
In Book II of the Republic, Plato considers what sort of qualities one might wish to find in the leaders, the “guardians,” of a political society. He concludes that good leaders must be “gentle to their own people and harsh to the enemy. If they aren’t, they won’t wait around for others to destroy the city but will do it themselves first” (trans. Grube).
For a moment this conclusion places the characters in the Republic at a loss, because those qualities seem so opposed and irreconcilable. How could they ever be found in the same people? I have heard this sort of complaint from female friends before in regard to dating: guys are either jerks or weaklings. A happy medium does not seem to exist.
But then the character Socrates has a flash of insight:
“We overlooked the fact that there are natures of the sort we thought impossible, natures in which these opposites are indeed combined . . . a pedigree guard dog naturally has a character of this sort–he is gentle as can be to those he’s used to and knows, but the opposite to those he doesn’t know.”
The accuracy of this account is just stunning, especially considering that millennia have past since Plato wrote it. My golden retriever endures a daily torrent of violent “love” from my toddler that often leaves me cringing, yet the retriever takes it all happily, with nary a snarl or growl. In fact, he usually wags his tail while being “petted” on the head with a large plastic school bus. But let the UPS delivery man come to the door, and my retriever is instantly transformed to a wild beast from hell: snarling, baying, and recklessly throwing himself into the door.
But Socrates has even more to say on the excellence of dogs. According to Socrates, they are nothing short of philosophical in their approach to these matters:
“When a dog sees someone it doesn’t know, it gets angry before anything bad happens to it. But when it knows someone, it welcomes him, even if it has never received anything good from him . . . Surely this is a refined quality in its nature and one that is truly philosophical . . . It judges anything it sees to be either a friend or an enemy, on no other basis than it knows the one and doesn’t know the other.”
It is worth pausing here to contemplate this. Recall that Plato is a philosopher, so for him to call dogs “philosophical” is one of the highest compliments that he can give. Why is he so impressed? He is impressed because he recognizes the logic of the dog’s approach: it is most forgiving to those it knows, to those who are part of its human “pack.”
Why would that impress Plato? Perhaps because he was a close observer of humanity, and so he knew that our sad tendency is to act in the exact opposite way: we are often cruel to our own family members, to those closest to us who should naturally have the most claim on our love. Yet to total strangers, we act chivalrously, even magnanimously. It makes no sense. But we do it anyway. And so we look longingly at dogs, who manage to stay loyal to their own, even to the very end. Even when their own are no damn good.
Temple Grandin speculated in her book Animals in Translation that humans learned to be pack animals from dogs. Apparently it is a lesson we are still trying to learn.