What We Learn from Our Dogs

The origin of the word “dog” is, according to one on-line etymological dictionary, “one of the great mysteries in the English language.”  We know the provenance of “hund,” but not of “dog.” I have suggested in an earlier essay that we should recognize the central role dogs they play in our daily lives, and spell the word – uniquely in the entire English language – “doG.”

It is not only the word which is shadowed and shrouded in a hazy original fog; it is also the creature himself, the dog of our family and the ‘hund’ of our friends, who is mysterious in myriad manner.  Canological anthropologists – my neologism for them, if they will forgive the intended compliment – have come to believe that “civilization as we know it,” and most especially civilization exemplified by and during the transition from Early Man the hunter-gatherer (during the meso- and Paleolithic periods, and on the cusp of the transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens) shared the hunt with dogs, and dogs were undoubtedly a huge assist to the process of live game pursuit.

It is worth noting that in certain extant hunter-gatherer societies of today women as well as men engage in the hunt, and the concept of man/hunter and woman/gatherer is notably inaccurate. We mention this to demonstrate the likelihood that during the hunt, dogs were equitably conjoined with men and women, and the concept of home-and-hearth included both sexes, all children, and likely dogs of both sexes.  Finally, at the dawn of agriculture and animal husbandry, the dog very likely (according to some canological anthropologists) single-pawedly made possible the guarding of the flock and the herd, and the protection of the garden from rodent ravagers.

Now a quantum leap, twenty millenia after the dawn of the herd and the ur-farm. If it is true, even partially, or sideways, even anaclitically correct, that dogs created (per se) the possibility of the birth of the city (the natural and logical consequence of gardening and herding), it is certainly conceivable that today – in an entirely new fashion – the dog could once again become the midwife to a New Man, a man of distinctly finer proportions and clearer ethics.  I believe this is happening, or could be happening, or could happen, today, even now.  Trenchantly, here is how it ought to happen, and indeed can happen.

It’s surely a commonplace to say that “a dog is a man’s best friend.”  Like so many aphorisms, the often-obscure depths are hidden in the glossy coat of idiomaticism. While I don’t want to spend unreasonably prolix time, here’s a glance at what we, in the significant truth which underlies our everyday speech, really mean by a “best friend.”

Old Testament friendship begins with the friendship between God and Adam, and finds its greatest human expression in the depth of the life-transcending phileo (Greek: φιλία) between David and Jonathan, son of David’s tragic arch-enemy, Saul. The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, in his book, “The Four Loves,” pegs it as “the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary …the least natural of loves.”  This kind of love, says Lewis, is nearly “a lost art,” and he disdains the manner in which our “modern” society ignores this depth of friendship.  Can you think of a single 20th century poem (I can’t) which, like the ancient odes, describes phileo between David and Jonathan, Roland and Oliver, Amis and Amiles, Orestes and Pylades, Ruth and Naomi, Christ and Peter? “To the Ancients,” writes Lewis,  “friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

It is precisely this depth of friendship, beyond companionship and dependence, surpassing acquaintance and familiarity, which dogs express towards us.  There is a caveat, however: if – and this is a very big IF for such a small two-letter word – if we allow it and encourage it to happen.  What does this mean…to “allow it to happen?