Mark Rowlands interview: The company of wolves

AS MARK ROWLANDS ANSWERS the phone at his home in Miami, his voice is drowned out by a cacophony of barking. This is the voice of Hugo, the youngest member (just) of the Rowlands household. He is, quite possibly, the best trained dog in Miami, because training a German shepherd is a piece of cake – once you've trained a wolf.

Rowlands has always loved dogs, and the bigger, the better. His family home in Wales was rarely without one. As a child, his favourite book was White Fang. But none of this is really sufficient to explain why, one sunny day in Alabama some 15 years ago, he answered an ad in the newspaper and went and bought a wolf.

Within half an hour the cub, whom he named Brenin (Welsh for King), had brought down the curtains and wrecked the air conditioning unit, and Rowlands knew that his life would never be the same again. For more than a decade, the wolf would be his near-constant companion. It was not only a deep personal attachment, it changed the way he thought – and that's important, because Rowlands is a philosopher.

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It's now several years since Brenin died and Rowlands's book, The Philosopher and the Wolf, out this month, is a tribute to him. It is a book which "gradually metamorphosed into something like an autobiography", because Rowlands knew that if he was to write about Brenin, he would also have to write about himself. But it is also a book of philosophy, a book about how living with a wolf can help you get to grips with what it means to be human.

"It was very cathartic to write," he says of the book. "I found myself caring a lot more about it than anything else I've written. I was completely drained by the time I finished it. I realised how much I missed this wolf, who was a major part of a certain part of my life."

That part of life is now ended. Brenin seemed to represent something in the person he was, a heavy-drinking, creative misanthrope who preferred the company of wolves. Now married, with a 16-month-old son (called Brenin), and a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami, Rowlands admits that he barely recognises himself.

When he bought Brenin, he was in his early twenties, in his first academic job at the University of Alabama. After polishing off a PhD at Oxford in less than two years, he headed Stateside, but admits he was more interested in playing rugby than writing academic papers.

Brenin went with him everywhere, even to lectures, chiefly because leaving him at home alone was a destructive disaster. His philosophy syllabus became the first in history to include the following disclaimer: "Please do not pay any attention to the wolf. He will not hurt you. However, if you do have any food in your bags, please make sure that those bags are securely fastened shut."

He describes Brenin as impeccably well-trained, a "strong, together" animal, saying he had to be no more careful with his wolf in company than the owner of any large dog. But he does have scars from the time he broke up a fight between Brenin and a pitbull. Then again, so does the pitbull.

In the rugby club social calendar, his magnificent "dog", 35 inches tall at the shoulder, 150 pounds, was a "babe magnet". "Yeah, I know," Rowlands says, wryly. "101 things to do with a wolf. Who would have thought that would be one of them?"

Walking and running with Brenin resulted in the wolf's fitness quickly outstripping his own. One day, when they were running together, he found himself looking at Brenin with a new admiration. He writes: "I realised something both humbling and profound: I was in the presence of a creature that was, in most important respects, unquestionably, demonstrably, irredeemably and categorically superior to me."

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Suddenly, he realised that there was no "objective standard" by which his ability to think could be judged superior to Brenin's ability to run. Man's intelligence, he argues, is a product of apes evolving the ability to deceive. Who are we to say we are naturally superior, or to condemn the wolf as uncivilised?

"In general, I don't think that humans are necessarily vile and wolves are great, that would be a very Beatrix Potter way of looking at things," he says. "I was interested more than anything in providing an antidote to the idea that human beings are necessarily and essentially better than wolves. In many important respects, what is best about human beings comes from rather unpleasant features of apes."

Yet he might never have written philosophically about our relationship with the animal world had Brenin not wrecked the inside of his jeep during one ill-fated ferry journey. Bored with being left on the car deck, the wolf decided to eat his way out.

Rowlands remembers being "a little upset" when he looked at the ruined seats, shredded seatbelts and disintegrating roof, but his mind was already on the bigger picture. He realised that John Rawls's ideas on rights and responsibilities could be applied to our relationship with nature, leading to several acclaimed books on the subject. "And if he hadn't eaten my car," he says, wryly, "I might never have realised it."

Leaving Alabama for a teaching post in Cork, Ireland, he added two further canines to the household: Nina, a German shepherd, and Tess, half-wolf, Brenin's daughter. Brenin, meantime, masqueraded as a malamute, the status of wolves in Ireland being dubious at best.

Then there was a year in London, which saw him walking his "one and a half dogs and one and a half wolves" on Wimbledon Common, and sitting up late into the night writing The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, an introduction to philosophy through sci-fi blockbusters, which became something of a blockbuster in itself. On the strength of that, he moved to France to write full-time.

It was in the Languedoc that he began to ponder the question of how the wolf sees time. Brenin, Nina and Tess, he observed, were completely content with their daily routine: the swim, the pain au chocolat (divided democratically between them), the siesta, the dinner in the same local restaurant. Time for the wolf, he came to believe, was not linear, like the human, but circular. And this theory, in turn, gave him a valuable insight into the search for meaning in our own lives.

"When you look at discussions of the meaning of life, historically, there have been two basic options. Either the meaning of life is happiness, or the meaning of life is purpose, which you build towards and strive for. And the problem is, neither of those things really work.

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"What I learned from Brenin, and Nina and Tess, is that the value of life does not have to be understood in these sorts of ways. Nietzsche talked about time as a circle, the eternal return. I didn't really understand the significance of that until that part of the life I was living with the dogs."

Instead, he believes that the meaning – or value – of life is found in the moments when we are at our best. "And often it takes some truly horrible moments for us to be at our best."

Little did he know, he was about to experience one. Brenin, who had well exceeded the average lifespan of a wolf in the wild, was now ageing visibly. He was diagnosed with cancer, and following complications after surgery, became seriously ill. Rowlands nursed him day and night in a daze of sleep-deprived grief, knowing that in all likelihood the pain was for nothing, that his companion of a decade would die.

Against all odds, Brenin recovered, but Rowlands thinks of this "season in hell" as one of his own "highest and best" moments. "I think often, not always, we are at our best when we realise that there is no hope, when we see that time will take everything from us, as I thought at the time it was taking Brenin away from me. Time is going to take our lives, our hopes, our achievements, all of those will go. So when we realise that we are damned, but we go on anyway, those are among the moments when we are at our best.

"I suppose in one sense, the book is about loss. A primary way of losing things is that we get older, we lose our strength, we lose our youth. In the end, time is going to take everything from us, that's the human condition, really. What we have to do is find a way to live with that."

Now, he cheerfully describes himself as "older and slower and weaker, but arguably nicer as well. It's always a trade-off, I guess." Certainly, his career has gone from strength to strength: teaching jobs in Exeter and Hertfordshire, a second popular philosophy hit (Everything I Know I Learned From TV), and in 2007, a move to Miami.

Though he did not know it at the time, Brenin's death marked the end of his days as a wanderer, a lone wolf. "I've been very fortunate in my life since then. Certainly in terms of happiness, my life is the best it's ever been, I'm really very lucky. I also know eventually my luck's going to run out, and the gods are going to take it all away." That was one of the lessons the philosopher learned from the wolf. But he also learned how to live with it.

• The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands is published by Granta, priced 15.99.