The Philosopher and the Wolf


The Philosopher and the Wolf is a profound and original book. But I never would have found it if it hadn’t been recommended to me.

The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

Even after I ordered it, it sat on my shelf for over a year before I finally picked it up.

I can understand why the back cover copy didn’t grab my attention, because this is a rather difficult book to describe. It’s not quite an autobiography, because the author is often overshadowed by the wolf, and neither of them is the main character. It’s not quite philosophy — although Rowlands presents complex theories with a brilliant ease that makes them applicable to everyday life. And it’s not quite a nature book, either.

And so we’re stuck with that vague catch-all term “memoir”. But this feels unsatisfying somehow. Because to me this book is so much more…

The Philosopher and the Wolf is a beautiful and often hilarious story about a man’s relationship with a wild creature who became his friend and brother: Brenin was “…an extraordinarily well-travelled wolf, living in the US, Ireland, England, and, finally, France.”

And because the wolf’s penchant for property damage meant he couldn’t be left at home alone, “He was also the, largely unwilling, beneficiary of more free university education than any wolf that ever lived.”

Rowlands was a philosophy professor, and so he brought his wolf to work with him. Brenin sat beneath his desk each day, through all his lectures. And their constant companionship forms the underlying thread of the story.

The prose is crisp and powerful. And Rowlands’s honesty — both about himself and his struggles — is admirable, and sometimes painful to read.

This passage about the author’s reclusive misanthropic tendencies really spoke to me:

“There is something lacking in me. And, over the years, it has slowly dawned on me that the choices I have made, and the life I have lived, have been a response to this lack. What is most significant about me, I think, is what I am missing.”

He attempts to come to terms with these realizations through the lessons that his friendship with Brenin have revealed to him.

But to label this book as a memoir would be to ignore so much else.

The Philosopher and the Wolf is also about ourselves as a species: the ways in which we differ from the creatures around us. And how our simian cunning and deceptiveness gradually shaped our worldview in ways that set us on a developmental path which veered sharply from that of other animals.

And The Philosopher and the Wolf is also about our constant search for happiness. In one of the most moving chapters of the book, as Rowlands struggles to come to terms with Brenin’s death, he writes:

“The human search for happiness is regressive and futile. And at the end of every line is only nevermore. Nevermore to feel the sun on your face. Nevermore to see the smile on the lips of the one you love, or the twinkling in their eyes. Our conception of our lives and the meaning of those lives is organized around a vision of loss. No wonder time’s arrow horrifies us as well as fascinates us. No wonder we try to find happiness in the new and unusual — in any deviation, no matter how small, from the arrow’s path. Our rebellion may be nothing more than a futile spasm, but it is certainly understandable. Our understanding of time is our damnation.”

And in the end, The Philosopher and the Wolf is about how to find meaning in a life that doesn’t have an intrinsic meaning of its own.

Rowlands’s life with Brenin taught him what he was made of in his greatest — and most painful — moments.

And this is something that not even time or futility or the void can take away from us. “What is most important in your life is the you that remains when your hope runs out.”

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • I’m not one to comment on blog posts…BUT wow, that’s quite a review…though beautiful, I was sad to read…’The human search for happiness is regressive and futile.’ ‘Our conception of our lives and the meaning of those lives is organized around a vision of loss.’

    Those statements may be true for the author and reviewer, but what about the rest of us whose lives, though lacking at times, sparkle with meaning and joy.

    Such a heavy worldview can only engender suffering…

    I wonder if the author is comfortable indulging in pain and loss??

    He might have a hard time moving beyond these familiar emotions.

    But I guess sometimes we have to face the shadow before we can move forward.

    Also, the whole ‘constant search for happiness’ catch-phrase is such an out to avoid responsibility for living life…If happiness is elusive then we don’t have to work for it, we don’t have to do anything, we’ll never reach outside ourselves and our comfort zone to live into something new.

    There’s so much beauty and potential in the world, why not live into that instead?

    The only thing lacking in this guy is his tardiness in pulling his head out of his butt 🙂

    • I don’t think Rowlands has outlined a heavy or negative view at all. I find the idea that life has no inherent meaning to be quite freeing. I don’t believe in a god, or an afterlife, or that we were somehow put here to fulfil some divine purpose. But why should the idea that our existence is entirely random be negative? I think this frees us to choose how WE want to live. And that can include the choice to live a fulfilling life OR a miserable life based on the limiting beliefs we take on. I see it as a life philosophy that we create for ourselves – rather than some divine belief system handed down from on high. And I think that this choice is quite wonderful and empowering.

      I don’t think a short review can do justice to ideas that the original author spent many pages carefully explaining. But I’ll take a crack at the points you’ve raised here. In terms of meaning, his point is that this concept of meaning implies something towards which we must aim. So if the meaning of life is tied to desires, goals, projects, or “becoming something”, that meaning is also constantly slipping away. We’ve set ourselves up for something that we can never attain.

      Let’s take the example of happiness. In Rowlands’s view, to believe that the meaning of life is to be happy results in so many people chasing something that they can somehow “attain”, “if only” things were a certain way, or if only I could have this or be this or do this. Looked at from this perspective, it leads to the endless pursuit of something we’ll never reach. And I would agree with that. We see this in western society’s obsession with our own individual happiness.

      This also relates to the other quote you raised about loss: ‘Our conception of our lives and the meaning of those lives is organized around a vision of loss.’ He was contrasting the intelligence of the wolf with the intelligence that we possess as apes. He talked about how his wolf took such delight in each walk, in each meal, in each repetitive game because, as far as we can discern, other animals don’t have this sense of passing, or of nevermore. And so they really DO live within the moment, and so death has no dominion over them.

      Humans are different in that we’re the only animal – as far as we know – who is capable of understanding that we will die. And so we’re incapable of living up to that cliche of “living in the moment”. We can never truly enjoy the moment for what it is, because none of our moments are what they are in themselves. They’re always filtered by our memories of what has gone before and our expectations of things to come. And so the moment always escapes us. However, he DOES feel that we can experience what it is to live in the moment, even as other animals do, and that this can give us a clue about how to live. He calls these our “highest moments” – I’ll get to that in a second.

      So this is what Rowlands means when he says our lives are organized around a vision of loss. Unlike other animals, we are always aware that those moments are slipping away.But I don’t think this is a bleak or miserable notion at all. I think understanding and recognizing this can set us free.

      He gives the example of his wolf when he had cancer. “For Brenin, cancer was an affliction of the moment. One moment he would feel fine. But another moment, an hour later, he would feel ill. But each moment was completely in itself and bore no relation to any other moment.” But for humans, the horror of cancer or any other human illness is that it is spread out through time. We’re fully aware of it, that this illness will cut off our life. And so things like this have a horror for us that they don’t hold for a creature of the moment.

      But Rowlands’s conclusion is not a bleak one. In fact, he spends most of the book gradually coming to understand – through the example of his wolf – how and why the choices he made in the past caused him to be unhappy and unfulfilled.

      And in evaluating the life of his wolf Brenin, he concludes that what is most important in life is not something you can ever possess. Instead, it lies in our “highest moments”. We can’t experience being in the moment fully, like the wolf does. Because we are creatures of time and not of the moment, those moments will always slip through our grasping fingers. But what we CAN discover is who we are capable of being at our best. Sometimes our highest moments are the darkest moments of our lives. But if we can rise to the challenge even there – if we can experience this fully and still smile and say “I am going to die, but in this moment I feel good and I feel strong, And I am going to do what I will” then we will know who we are, and who or what remains of us, even after all our luck has run out and our schemes have failed. And we can then take that lesson of what it felt like to open ourselves to our highest moments, and bring it back into our temporal time’s-arrow-life.

      And in case you’re wondering where all these ideas led him, Rowlands gave a quick sketch in the final pages of the book:

      “I’m now married — to Emma, not only the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, but the kindest person I’ve ever known […] my career has spiralled ever upwards […] my books have become bestsellers […] and i’m no longer the sort of person who is capable, or would would even consider, drinking two litres of Jack in a single sitting, no matter what the circumstances or motivation […] but i say this knowing that none of this is, in the end, is what makes me worth it”

  • Quite a response Ryan! I stumbled across Mr Rowland on The ABC (Australian radio) “Bodysphere pod cast”. Superb show about exercise. Half of the show features Rowland and the other half an Australian philosopher. They talk about the physical, mental and spiritual good that comes from exercise…What it feels like to be alive. Check it out.

    Broadly speaking about happiness and the “good life”…what works for me is 1. “gratitude” for all things is very powerful and I think working and “creating” (moving, thinking, writing, playing as much as possible more than passively “consuming” gives one energy and purpose.

    The Zorba the Greek quote might gel with your sentiments (in English): “I’m afraid of nothing, I want for nothing, I am free”.
    Cheers Ryan


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