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Willing Dogs and Reluctant Masters: On Friendship and Dogs, Gary Borjesson
gary borjesson

I loved it, but my credentials for reviewing it are even better than that: I don’t like dogs. They slobber, shed and speak not a word of English—none of which facts is denied in this account of friendship between dogs and humans. (In my defense: among the alogoi, the wordless, I do feel friendly toward dolphins, who luckily live in another element, and toward babies, who are both incarnations of potential rationality and cute—for which the animal ethologist’s term is “care-soliciting.”) Moreover, I have no idea whether Gary Borjesson’s fundamental claim is true: that real—not in-a-manner-of-speaking—friendship between dog and human is possible. My old friend Ray Coppinger, a dog evolutionist and breeder (he found the Jack Russell terrier that inhabits the Assistant Dean’s office at St. John’s College in Annapolis), whose expertise figures in this book, thinks otherwise. He once said to me that attributing friendly feelings rather than self-serving instincts to dogs is pure “anthropomorphizing.” So I’m starting out severely objective in several respects.

Yet I’m captivated by the author’s account of his life with the two dogs who are the principals in this story, Kestra and Aktis. His claims rest on acutely attuned and prolonged observation of his own dogs, and, peripherally other people’s dogs. This affectionate attention is at once trust-and doubt-inspiring. It makes an enchanting story, but it might also be self-confirming, producing the illusions of mutual love. For example, his dogs often smile at him, though I’ve read that animals with fangs don’t smile, that the evolutionary origin of the human smile is the wolfish snarl. So I’m one of the author’s acknowledged dog-skeptics—or rather, one half of me is. With the other half, I’m totally persuaded that the friendship view is the better hypothesis for dog, man, and world.

For not only is it a more coherent and a more friendly universe if the friendship hypothesis proves out, but it is also a more interesting world, since this position rests on postulates that modulate some current reductionist dogmas concerning beast and man, both in themselves and together. There are thought-provoking lessons here both for intra-species and inter-species relations.

Gary Borjesson’s philosophical reading continually underwrites and illuminates his meditations. Sometimes it’s almost as if this dog-and-man tale came into its own as a corroboration of Aristotle’s, Plato’s, and Hegel’s insights into animate nature—especially Aristotle’s. Thus the epigraph to the second chapter on the spirit of friendship is part of a passage taken from Aristotle’s Politics. Let me quote the whole, which I’ve always found puzzling, but which becomes very satisfactorily clear in this book:

Spirit (thumos) is what makes friendliness. For it is the very power of the soul by which we feel friendship. And here’s the sign: Spirit, when it feels slighted, is roused more against intimates and friends than strangers (Politics, 1327b 40-41).

And Aristotle mentions the Guardians, Plato’s warriors in the Republic, who are friendly to those they know and savage to those they don’t know and whose nature Socrates compares—here’s serendipity!—to that of a noble young dog (Republic, 375a-376b).

Spirit, spiritedness, passionate temperament, as a middle and mediating aspect of the human soul, is a Socratic discovery. Sometimes it is obedient to reason, sometimes it in turn masters lust; these latter are respectively the highest and lowest parts of our soul.

Why should spirit be the enabler of friendship? It is a working postulate of Borjesson’s book that Aristotle is simply right: spiritedness is the condition of friendship. The argumentation is of the best sort, the sort that starts in a variety of quarters, but from which all roads lead to Athens: The high road, however, connecting spiritedness to friendship, is the desire to be recognized, attended to, praised, and the corresponding recoil is the shame of being misconstrued, ignored, or disrespected.

By the intra-species hypothesis, dogs have spirit; it might even count as an oblique proof that some dogs have a lot and others but little, and even the latter have a sense of injury. One of the pleasures of this book is the interweaving of dog anecdotes and human reflection, and the principal subjects of the often poignant stories—never shaggy—are Gary Borjesson’s own two dogs. Kestra is sweet-tempered, a little passive, and, for all her lovableness, a little unkeen, but even she has an acute sense of her trust in her master being betrayed.

If, then, people and dogs have common ground of a higher order than animal needs, it must be in the territory of the spirit. For the author is far from committing the philosophical solecism of attributing reason to dogs. Spirit, however, is, just as Aristotle says, where friendship is at home. Now among us humans, this capability of the spirit is both an accomplishment and a work in progress, and so it is if one of the friends is a dog.

This book is full of observations about friendship—discerningly borrowed and observantly original; it is a credible descendant of those wonders of human perspicacity, Aristotle’s books on friendship (Nicomachean Ethics, Books 8-9). One of those borrowed observations is that “the point of being friends is to charm each other”; I love that, because I once long ago phrased it similarly to myself, sailing the Aegean with a friend: “The motor of friendship is mutual delight.” It doesn’t have Aristotle’s gravity, but he would not repudiate it. Applied to dogs, it does, however, imply that what Aristotle considers the highest kind of friendship—that of beings of intellect in increasingly deep, mutually satisfying conversation—is not a necessary option (and indeed not available) to a dog/man pair of friends.

And that indefeasible fact means that friendship as a work in progress takes on a very different shape for this inter-species pair. Here the work of friendship is obedience training, where man is master, dog subject! As the title of the book declares, dogs, the good ones, are willing. Not that they are called good because they like to obey, but they obey because they are good. They have in them that which can listen—”obey,” from the Latin ob-audire means “to listen and really to hear.” That is just what Socrates thinks of spiritedness: It is pride able to listen to reason. They are, one might say, a-rationally rational. They understand, and so they accept the superiority of their masters.

Here is where Gary Borjesson’s book becomes topical and controversial. The second part of his title is “Reluctant Masters.” He analyzes out this component of our modernity: the reluctance to act with authority, to accept the charge of mastery, be it in child-rearing or dog-training. The result of this abashment often moralizing—in the face of asserting the control of superior reason is spoilage: spoiled children, ruined dogs. The book is full of funny and sad examples; some are reports of outrage expressed by spectators watching the book’s author at work being a master.

One result of the failure of rational mastery is loss of dignity on both sides, and with it, of equality. For, at its best, friendship is mutual and is a relation of peers. Some of the most poignant passages of the book are about mutuality, the balanced equality of dog and human in the territory of spiritedness. Indeed, in the controlled competition that characterizes the play between these two spirited animals from different species, the dog often wins—to the man’s delight. The result of mastery accepted is an equality at once properly delimited and invaluable.

Aristotle, one last time, says that happiness is the soul fulfillingly at work in accordance with its own goodness (Nichomachean Ethics, 1098a I 3-16). The willing master of this book really means to train his dog to happiness. He (or she—the author’s favorite dog trainer is Vicki Hearne) teaches the young dog to obey, first as parents habituate a child, by gentle and consistent compulsion, even fear. That training produces the inner control that in us is called self-determination, freedom. Within these bounds the dog has scope to fulfill his dog-nature as a competitive pursuer and predator of minor wild life and as a cooperative playfellow of humans and dogs. The descriptions of these play-episodes induce sympathetic joy.

I’ll now take it on faith, the writer’s faith, that dogs, domesticated wolves, may be happy under—no, may be made happy by—human mastery. But that humans, uncircumventably the masters of domesticated nature, can be exhilaratingly happy, and also better, more thoughtful, and more just in their friendly companionship with dogs—that’s proven beyond doubt by this lovely book.

Books by Eva Brann and those related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review and appears here by permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD,  21401-1655 (she does not use computers and thus no email).

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1 reply to this post
  1. “He once said to me that attributing friendly feelings rather than self-serving instincts to dogs is pure “anthropomorphizing.””

    Why does anyone ever listen to this rubbish? There is absolutely no conflict between having “self-serving instincts” AND “friendly feelings.” In fact, the “friendly feelings” would in this case, be the very best way to get the “self-serving instincts” activated!

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