A young couple, probably in their early thirties, walk the ancient Ridgeway path together in rural Buckinghamshire. He holds her hand protectively; she is wrapped in the straps of a baby sling, her unheld hand raised to caress the head of her little one. This vision of marital affection and newly emerging parental devotion, set on the backdrop of some of England’s most beautiful countryside, would warm the heart of any onlooker.
My wife and I, walking some feet behind, caught up with them as the young mother stopped to attend to the apple of her eye. “My baby,” we overheard her saying, “Are you waking up, my darling? Are you hungry?” The attentive husband had already taken off his rucksack and from it was delivering a bottle of milk. As we passed them, we smiled and looked warmly at their baby, only to find ourselves staring at a cockerpoo.
I like dogs. Indeed, when we witnessed this harrowing spectacle, our cherished whippet Pico was trotting alongside us. But so were our children, and we could tell the difference.
Europeans have a fascinating relationship with dogs, a relationship that does not seem to exist in any other civilisation. The Japanese samurai always had their fighting dogs, Tibetan monks their little apsos; the Arabs have ever coursed gazelle and jackal on the dunes with their salukis; but the integration of dog-keeping into every aspect of culture is something uniquely European, and especially English.
Perhaps our affection for dogs is an effect of the Christian religion. Dogs appear seldom in Holy Scripture, but when they do they are signs of fidelity, victory, or healing. When the Baal-worshiping Jezebel, believing her husband’s political power should be arbitrary and unaccountable, had Naboth the viticulturalist murdered to take his property, the dogs of Jezreel would not eat his corpse but licked it in atonement instead. The same dogs, however, later delighted in gobbling up Jezebel’s body. A dog accompanied Tobias and the archangel Raphael in their quest to find Tobias a wife, a successful expedition that led to a happy marriage after the use of a dead fish delivered the lady in question from demonic infestation (it’s a great story—Protestants are really missing out). In the New Testament, dogs attend to the sores of the good man Lazarus, who Christ later describes as enjoying the beatific vision.
Perhaps this is why dogs became a motif of European sacred culture. St. Roch, the pilgrim saint, is always depicted with a dog at his feet, ready to give first aid in the style of Lazarus’s canine friends. The great St Philip Howard, when sent to the Tower for his loyalty to the ancient Faith, was permitted to take his hunting dog with him, who has been present in depictions of his master ever since. The association of saints and dogs reached its extremity in the 14th century, when religious devotion to a greyhound, St. Guinefort, grew up in eastern France. There were attempts by the Inquisition to suppress the cult of St. Guinefort, but the veneration of this hound persisted until the 1930s.
Perhaps there is no real connection between Christianity and the role of dogs in our culture, but the fact remains that dogs have a special place in European civilisation, unseen elsewhere. Whilst in medieval secular art, dogs were exclusively depicted doing a job, usually hunting, by the Renaissance it was popular when having one’s portrait painted to have one’s dog standing in the picture. Veronese’s Boy with a Greyhound is an obvious example, or Bartolomeo Passerotti’s Portrait of a Man with a Dog. This theme continued into the following century, exemplified by Van Dyck’s family portraits for King Charles I in which toy spaniels, miniature greyhounds, and enormous mastiffs are featured, all carefully placed to convey something about the people with whom they sit. In the 18th century, the wealthy English parliamentarians for whom Pompeo Batoni painted portraits wanted their sighthounds by their feet, like the loyalist nobles of the previous century, indicating that the Whigs were the true heirs of their political power.
Something odd also happened during this period. Paintings emerged of dogs without any people. These were not just artistic studies, like those of wild animals or still lifes, these were portraits for which the dogs’ owners paid a lot of money. John Wootton’s A Grey Spotted Hound and George Stubb’s White Poodle in a Punt come to mind. Soon we would have Briton Rivière’s Requiescat in which the human is not the subject—indeed the human is a corpse in the background. In the foreground of this painting sits a magnificent bloodhound, whose devotion, faithfulness, personality even, is the subject. This is an idea taken up and presented again in Landseer’s Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, and conveyed differently in his famous depiction of Bob, a newfoundland who was celebrated in Victorian society, being made a member of a charitable trust and awarded various medals.
We see here a gradual transformation of the role of dogs in our society. In the classical European conception, the dog held a privileged place somewhere between an instrument and an extension of human personality. All dogs had jobs, jobs that made the lives of their masters either possible or easier. It is by these jobs that dogs are still categorised today. All breeds are either hounds (hunting dogs), gundogs, terriers (ground dogs), pastoral dogs, working dogs (guards or labourers), or toy dogs. Even those little dogs in the last group had important jobs, keeping their masters and mistresses warm as ‘sleeve dogs’ or working as household ratters.
In order for dogs to do their jobs, however, they had to enter into the personality of their owners. In this way they are completely different to horses, cats, or any other creature to which we have given a place in our world. Observe a shepherd working with his collie and you will see that his human agency has been imparted to his dog, a creature that has become a near-perfect extension of the shepherd, allowing him to spread himself and his causal power across whole fields from a stationary position.
Dogs featured in portraits of humans because of this unique relationship. The dog is there in the portrait as an aspect of the personality of the human, telling the spectator something about him which could not be conveyed were the dog absent. Look at Van Dyck’s portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox. Were his greyhound not there, a whole complexus of the young duke’s character would remain undisclosed to us. We know from the dog that the duke is not, at least, a cruel master, that he is a composed man in possession of gentlemanly qualities, and we know this largely because of the dog. The dog’s presence in the painting does not tell you much about the dog, but a lot about his master to whom he is wholly directed and whose personality he is there to transmit.
A dog wants to ‘understand’ its master and unite its desire to its master’s will. This finds an analogue in human relationships. Essential to personhood is the capacity to go beyond the self and make one’s own the perspective of another. As Roger Scruton argued in On Human Nature, we cannot know a person by looking at his elbow or his shin—we encounter the person in the face. Faces form the magnetic field within which persons rest like loadstars. And it is in that I-You encounter (to use Martin Buber’s terminology) that we cease to be just human beings, mere examples of a species, and become unique, irreplaceable, non-transferable persons. We are persons inasmuch as we are persons for each other. Scruton once told me that, in his view, dogs sit somewhere between brutes and persons. Dogs do, in part, enter into a kind of relatedness with us to adopt our perspectives.
When a man throws a stick for his dog, the dog will look for that stick and is not content to pick up another. In this way, dogs transcend their instrumentality, engaging with us as quasi-moral creatures that seem to have a share in our interior lives. It is this remarkable capacity for quasi-interpersonal engagement, however, that makes them so morally dangerous. It was their jobs, their subordination to our needs—the fact that we could always see them from the perspective of utility—that protected us from a purely sentimental relationship with them. Now they have lost their jobs, we have become ensnared.
Fundamentally, dogs justified their existence in human society by serving us. To serve us, they had to enter into our perspective, according to their capacity, and become extensions of our personalities. By our dogs, we were able to extend ourselves into the non-rational world of the animal. Simultaneously, dogs were ennobled by being elevated to share in our rationality.
By this relationship, dogs helped to keep us from the ever-present temptation to cut ourselves adrift from the natural world of which we are a part, which they still inhabit, and without which we cannot be happy. European culture, for all its music halls, theatres, and art galleries, never ignored the need for therapeutic treatment against this unnatural temptation, and hence nurtured remedies like hunting, horse riding, and hiking. Indeed, part of the genius of Europe has been—contra Rousseau—that of celebrating these earthy activities in its high culture (rather than exploiting high culture to set up a supposed dichotomy between them). In our outdoor pursuits we have ever been accompanied by our canine companions.
Having lost their jobs, however, dogs have continued to inhabit our world without any purpose beyond enjoying the quasi-interpersonal relatedness which developed between us and them so that they could do their jobs properly. We can warm ourselves by directing our emotion at our dogs, for they, like mirrors, beam our emotion back at us. In an age of sentimentalism, the jobless dog is a colossal moral danger.
Sentimentalism is false emotion. It is that emotion that purports to be outward-facing, but is actually self-directed and kindled for the purpose of enjoying cheap consolation. Sentimentalism is the autoeroticism of the emotional life. The neo-revolutionaries that torment the modern world provide good examples of sentimentalism. The question of whether the activists are fulfilling their declared goals is not what is ultimately important; what matters is the intense feeling they have of standing on the ‘right side of history.’ Their chaotic exhibitions of passion are self-didactic, teaching them that they are who they think they should be. In this way, sentimentalism buys up counterfeit goodness, bypassing the imperative to acquire virtue, attend to conscience, be called to account, master oneself, confess one’s failings, atone for one’s evils, and make terrible sacrifices. The behaviour of the perpetual adolescents of postmodernity is the product of a Disneyland education combined with rage. The overcoming of sentimentalism is long and difficult. There is, however, a shortcut: kids. The arrival of children is transformative. Unless one is completely morally bankrupt, children have the effect of making one grow up quickly, accept responsibility, develop some self-control, attend to concrete necessities, and put oneself second. No decent father is the father he thinks he should be. Every good father is deeply aware of his parental shortcomings. That is what is so wonderful about fatherhood. A good father knows that he must grow because, in a thousand indirect ways, his children call him to account, invite him to stand in judgement over himself, accuse himself, and resolve to be a better Dad tomorrow. This sphere of accountability is the interior territory where dogs cannot go. A dog will always gaze at you with big eyes, hanging tongue, and communicate that you are great, regardless of how much of a prat you actually are.
Dogs, when looking up at their masters, come as close as any sub-rational brute can to executing an act of worship. For the modern sentimental soul, the presence of a dog is like a drug. A dog can become a perfect surrogate for every possible relationship, injecting with each tail-wag that fix of emotional consolation without demanding any of the personal growth required by a real bond.
Now, at peak decadence and degeneracy, our culture has accepted as normal the emergence of human-canine hybrid ‘families.’ It is not uncommon for people with dogs to describe them as their ‘children’, or for couples with one or more dogs to describe themselves as a ‘family.’ This is profoundly disordered.
Occasionally, my whippet takes off after some quarry halfway down a field, and in that moment I am reminded of his job, the job for which—over a few thousand years—humans bred wolves into creatures that can run down other animals at forty miles per hour. I am reminded in that moment that, as much as I love my dog, he is doing something deeply unhuman, of which I have no experience, out of which he will not grow. He will never reflect on his impulses, nor criticise me for not protecting him from them. When I see my dog do that for which he was bred, I remember that, in fact, the relationship that exists between us is almost wholly in my head. Between my whippet and me there will always be an immense and uncrossable abyss, for the singular reason that my pet is not a person. The shepherd knows this about his collie, and the foxhunter about his foxhounds. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, if my whippet could talk, I would not be able to understand him.
Perhaps, in this age of sentimentalism, the worst thing that could have happened in dogdom is the founding of the cockerpoo. Cockerpoos have no job. They are bred solely to be living teddy bears, showering their owners with constant energetic affection and, with their non-shedding coats, leaving no dog hair to disturb the pristine showroom house, that ubiquitous Huxleyan, synthetic dwelling severed from the natural world which mature people invite inside. The special role of dogs in European civilisation is one of its many achievements. But as our civilisation unravels, so too its delights become severed from their roots and go rotten. Now, the great work of the conservative is not so much to conserve, for so much has been lost that there is little to conserve at all. The great work is that of recovering, restoring, and redeeming. The place of the dog in European society is in desperate need of redemption. One solution would be that of resituating hunting at the heart of our common culture again. By this, most dogs would get their jobs back, and a fine therapy for overcoming sentimentalism towards animals can be found in the cultural celebration of killing them.
In truth, I have no solution to the problem I have raised beyond stressing the wider moral transformation that our culture so urgently needs. Dog ownership is among the many joys of my life, and it grieves me that such an innocent pleasure has aided our downfall.
Sebastian Morello was trained in philosophy by Sir Roger Scruton, by whom he was supervised for his master’s and doctoral degrees. He is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist, and has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.