In graduate school, I wrote a master’s philosophy thesis on the concept of animal souls, ethics, psychology, and other related things. One of the most outstanding things I discovered during the writing process is that many philosophical and theological authorities attest to psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals. (Yes, even Aquinas! [i]). Basically, what this psychological continuity means is that humans and non-human animals may share a common psychological life. While all humans and non-human animals are “subjects of a life”, what’s most striking about psychological continuity is that some humans and some non-human animals share psychical experiences in common with each other [ii]. It’s an exceptional discovery, but for some reason I found it almost impossible to apply in a specific and concrete way.
Until a few days ago.
Along with my interest in dogs, I have a deep, abiding interest in the poor. In fact, my patron saint, St. Roch, is not only the patron saint of dogs, he’s also a Franciscan mendicant that most would label “poor.” The poor, dog-loving saint: sounds good, doesn’t it? I could say a lot about my love and devotion for the poor and dogs here, but for now I’ll leave it with the words of Bl. Frédéric Ozanam, who said, “Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by poring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes.” [iii] We could say the same things about dogs, too.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the poor. There’s an image I return to often when I recall my time spent with the poor. It’s the image of a homeless man sitting near a bridge with his Border collie. Whenever I see this man, he appears tired and worn out. His skin is strikingly tan and leathery, as if he were some old buffalo hide used to keep villagers warm. Seeing him is like seeing the wounds of Christ — which are unseen seen from afar — that would become manifest if one were to only approach close enough to the man’s venerable appearance. There’s a lovely Border collie that accompanies this venerable-looking man. Anyone with eyes could see that the two of them are an inseparable pair. And that’s what I think when I look at them: Why do they appear so inseparable?
People sometimes become sensitive about issues concerning psychological continuity between human and non-human animals. And rightfully so. I imagine they become sensitive about it for a number of reasons: for one, they don’t like the idea of psychological ‘sameness’ or ‘parity’ between humans and non-human animals; or else, they’re scornful about the ecological and ethical ramifications involved with there being psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals. Whatever their issue might be, it seems like there are good reasons to get sensitive about psychological continuity. I mean, think about it: Aren’t dogs treated better than the homeless sometimes?
I think what really bothers people is not that a homeless man and his Border collie together represent psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals; instead, what bothers people is that they can’t disregard the poor, especially when the poor are accompanied by the sentiments of an animal that represents their struggles. In one sense, the homeless man and his Border collie represent what’s good about the meaning of psychological continuity; in another sense, they represent everything miserable about it. On one hand, they represent what it means to regard the idea of psychological continuity positively. (The homeless man and dog “stick-it-out” together because only that will do when humanity chooses to not care!) It’s beautiful, really. But, on the other hand, they illustrate what it means to disregard the idea of psychological continuity as something positive. (The homeless man has to keep a representation of his injustice and plight with him just to get his fellow humans to notice!) The central question in either case is whether the life of the vulnerable is being regarded with adequate care and concern.
We are quick to dismiss the suffering and plight of the homeless. We judge, but we don’t do so sufficiently because we do it without charity. Then, we try to excuse ourselves, but in doing that, we miss out on the rationale of simple love and action. Capturing the eternal law for the poor is what really matters, because so many actions, even if they’re noble or honorable, pale in comparison to the higher lawfulness of merciful acts of justice and charity in feeding, caring and sheltering the poor, oppressed, hungry, thirsty and vulnerable.
Don’t worry though. I have a way to help inspire these actions of eternal significance. The notion of the Dog of God can be our guide. With this notion, we’re inclined to regard the life of the poor, especially if, alongside the poor, the common plight of our canine friends is evident therewith. The Dog of God is the notion that, in truly witnessing dog and man in a “bond of love” — in a bond of psychological unity — the fire of compassion for humanity is lit (Col. iii, 14). Witnessing this inspires us, but given the temporal nature of the bond of love between man and animal, one must act soon or else lose their inspiration and, with it, their willingness to act in mercy, justice and charity. The spiritual gift or reward for acting promptly? – the exuberant and waggish joy a dog feels when he has pleased his master. It’s a little gift for a “little dog” [iv]. Won’t the Eternal Master, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father, shower his flock with a higher gift than that of a natural dog? Yes, and the feeling of this spiritual gift is likened unto “entering into the joy of your Master”! (Matt. xxv, 21).
After being afflicted with a serious disease, St. Roch laid in a forest, dying, awaiting his death. Low and behold, it was the heroic action of a local man’s little dog who saved St. Roch’s life by bringing him the “bread of life.” There, together, the poor mendicant and the little dog represented not merely psychological continuity and unity between humans and non-human animals, but a holy image (see above) that signifies the loss of psychological diseases and the obtainment of Heaven. Let’s use this holy image to cure our own psychological disease of indifference towards the poor and the common plight of all creatures, who are all “subjects of a life.” In so doing, we follow the example of the holy life of charity. Those subjected to such a life (and follow it willingly) know that in visiting the poor, “we gain much more than they do.” [v] And let it be so.
[i] cf. Judith Barad’s treatment of this in Aquinas on the Nature and Treatment of Animals (US: International Scholars Publication, 1995), print.
[ii] cf. Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights”
[iv] cf. Greek kuón in Matt. xvi, 26