I told a friend that I had learned a lot from my dog and when he asked me what, I found I couldn’t answer. What did I mean? When my dog died in May I felt such depths of sadness because I loved him and he reciprocated this love. He had been part of our family for 14 years, our animal and human lives belonging to one another.
In old age he slept most days and sometimes one wondered if he would wake up. But he always did. He had extraordinary resilience. There was great pathos in his slow, limping mobility when we went out for our walks. He had once been a magnificent runner, and had taken great pleasure in showing off his extraordinary ability to jig and turn 180 degrees on a sixpence, flat out.
In his final weeks he was very sick and it was a daily quandary about how long to let him live. What was the criteria to make such a decision? As we asked around the answer was frequently “quality of life”, but this presumes animals exist in solipsistic solitude without minds, the meaning of their life determined by our crude utilitarian measure of pleasure or pain. Was he ready to leave us and die?
Our attitude towards animals has been formed out of a long philosophical argument about the status of different forms of life. Aristotle defined three kinds. Plants possess a nutritive soul, which is the capacity for metabolism and reproduction. Animals also possess a soul of sense-perception and the potential for action. Humans are the superior form with a rational soul, the essence of which is the ability to reason.
Thomas Aquinas expounded the theological case for this human exceptionalism in Summa Theologica (1485): “The life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man.” René Descartes (1596-1650) established the Enlightenment view. Animals are simply sophisticated machines without minds. And because they cannot reason, they do not comprehend the prospect of their own death and extinction.
In his novella The Lives of Animals (1999) JM Coetzee grapples with some of these arguments. A novelist, Elizabeth Costello, is invited to Appleton College to deliver its annual Gates Lecture. The subject she chooses is animal rights. In the final seminar of her visit a professor of philosophy, Thomas O’Hearne, suggests that because animals do not understand death they have no fear of it. It is a mistake to equate a butcher who kills a chicken with an executioner who kills a human being. The events are not comparable.
Costello dismisses his argument. “Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve.” She agrees that this fight lacks the dimension of intellectual or imaginative horror, but this is because the whole being of the animal is in its living flesh.
Modernity has thrown up a border that separates human and animal life. On one side human beings have a right to life; on the other side animals have none. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes this border as the condition of bare life. The term is found in Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of the “bare state of nature”, which exists before sovereign authority constitutes “the people” into a social order. If this authority is suspended it results in a state of unconstrained individual freedom in which “to have all, and do all, is lawful for all” (De Cive, 1642). This state of bare life reduces humans to the status of animals. No appeal to our humanity will protect us from being degraded or killed with impunity.
In the light of this history, the philosopher Hans Jonas suggests an alternative way humans and animals might coexist. He writes in The Burden and Blessing of Mortality (1992) that “all life says yes to itself”. Human life is not separate from nature; we share a common ancestry with animals. We are animals in nature as we are subjects in history, reaching beyond our biological life into forms of being, creating culture out of nature. All sensate life has its own end, its own purpose, and this includes animals.
Pope Francis repeats the sentiment in his 2015 encyclical, subtitled On Care for Our Common Home. He rejects Aquinas’s view. All animals have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Human beings are kin with animals yet more than them, responsible for the stewardship of nature of which we are also a part. And yet we still imagine that unlike animals we master our fate. Our animal selves suggests otherwise. History is filled with states of bare life in which humans reduced to animal life are abused and slaughtered, much as we do to animals themselves.
Is this a just and moral comparison? My dog’s life showed me that it is. The suffering and violence humans inflict on each other is sanctioned by reducing others to the status of animals. It is the tragedy of animals to suffer human cruelty without appeal to a political community. It becomes the tragedy of humans that we treat them so, as if we must expunge our animal selves, which do not obey reason and which are bound to nature and so to death.
In his final days my dog taught me that dying, like giving birth, can be a long labour. And that the measure of our time is best explained by fate, not by our independent will. In his dog’s life he brought joy, the moment of stillness which is neither past nor future, but fully alive and complete in the present.
This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect