Friday, March 23, 2012

Schopenhauer And Spinoza On Dogs

I don't read philosophy for answers to the meaning of life or any of the other ridiculous questions that have caused lunatics to bang their heads against the wall for as long as humans have been able to babble. What attracts me again and again to books of philosophy is the marginalia, the odd biographical details and digressions and just plain absurd minutiae that these characters cough up on such a regular basis. The best biographies --hands down-- are of the philosophers. The unhappy little hunchbacks who waddled around the streets of their towns and endured the taunts of rock-throwing children (Kierkegaard). The closet gnomes, martyrs, and maniacs. Empedocles wrote, "Wretches! Utter wretches! Keep your hands from beans!" Three of Ludwig Wittgenstein's eight siblings committed suicide. Kant wrote a treatise on rainbows. And the great master of gloom Schopenhauer took issue with Spinoza's Ethics over what he perceived to be their disregard for the virtue and dignity of dogs.

I was reading Schopenhauer's History of Philosophy last night when I discovered the old crank railing against Spinoza for "his as unworthy as false deliverances about animals."  From assertions in the Ethics Schopenhauer concludes, "Dogs [Spinoza] seems not to have known at all. To the monstrous proposition with which the 26th appendix [of the Ethics] opens...the best answer is given by a Spanish literateur of our day (Larra, psuedonym Figaro), 'He who has never kept a dog does not know what it is to love and be loved.'"

I spent two hours rooting around my apartment for a copy of Spinoza's Ethics in order to locate the passage that so offended Schopenhauer. Here it is: "Besides men, we know of no particular thing in nature in whose mind we may rejoice, and whom we can associate with ourselves in friendship or any sort of fellowship; therefore, whatsoever there be in nature besides man, a regard for our advantage does not call on us to preserve, but to preserve or destroy according to its various capabilities, and to adapt to our use as best we can."

I'm officially on the side of Schopenhauer in this important argument, by the way, and was pleased to later run across this additional tribute to dogs (in his own splendid Ethics): "Hence comes the four-legged friendships of so many of the better kind of men, for on what indeed should one refresh oneself from the endless deceit, falseness, and cunning of men if it were not for the dogs into whose faithful countenance one may look without distrust?"


  1. I'm gonna run around today warning, "Keep your hands from beans!" I'm sure everyone in Iowa will understand. Sorry to miss the event tomorrow. But my book (your book, my copy) is in the mail. See you soon for your John Hancock, I hope.

  2. spinoza was anthropocentric. (then again, so was everyone until Nietzsche.)

  3. Schopenhauer preceded Nietzsche, and Montaigne preceded both!

  4. An important topic. Schop saw what brutes & humans have in common. See especially "Basis of Morality" for some heart-tugging passages.

  5. I believe spinoza named his dog brahma

  6. I thought I remembered Schopenhauer as saying 'I wouldn't want to live in a world without dogs'. As I feel the same way, I wanted to give him credit for the line, but can't find it in his writings. Are you familiar with this 'quote'?

    1. Hi Michael, I can't think of a Schopenhauer quote along those lines, but I'll keep looking. In the meantime, there's this, from Mary Oliver: “Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?”

  7. Schopenhauer was right on this issue as he was on almost every other issue.