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Plato is my dog, yo!: Dogs, Love and Truth

Jeremy Barris enlists the help of Plato, Ortega and pragmatist philosophy to argue that love at its deepest is our connection with ultimate truth, and that this connection is found in our love for our dogs.

If dogs are not our best friends, they are among them. We love them, they love us, and these are very meaningful feelings for us. I want to explore how these deep, largely wordless (or at least not very wordy) bonds are the same as the deepest dimension of any love bonds we have. They are certainly a lot more limited in scope than our love bonds with humans, but I think these limitations only affect the upper, shallower areas of what love consists in and offers. In fact, just because our love for our dogs is missing most of the higher levels, it takes in the deeper dimensions of love more purely than our love for humans does.

Plato maintains that love at its deepest is our connection with ultimate truth. I shall try to show both that Plato is right, and that this connection is found in its pure form in our loving connections with our dogs.

If this is true of dogs, it is also true of other animals such as cats. It may also be true of our love for particular trees, or for sentimentally important objects, for example. But for simplicity ’s sake, I shall only talk about dogs.

Love Forever

In his dialogue Symposium, Plato makes a very quick but very understandable connection between our everyday experience of love and our relation to ultimate, absolute truth.

First, it’s easy to discover in our feelings of love what Plato, in preparation for showing the connection with truth, describes as “wanting to possess the good forever” (206A). We certainly highly value what we love, seeing it as a good thing; and we equally certainly want it never to go away. As Plato goes on to point out, the most intense kinds of love or passionate care are also very closely connected with the desire for reproduction, for wanting something of oneself to continue, whether in the form of children or creative works, or even of one’s reputation. This is another way in which love manifests a desire to have what we value most last forever. Now, as Plato explains in connection with the beauty, or appealing character, that arouses love, what is most forever is what is unchanging. And what is most unchanging is absolute truth and absolute reality. These absolutes are simply what they are, and therefore involve no change at any time. Love, then, as a desire to possess forever, is really an experience of the desire for ultimate, absolute truth and reality.

Although Plato is talking about erotic love in particular, still, what drives this love is wanting to possess what one values forever. The same reasoning therefore applies to any love which shares this possessive drive. One’s love for one’s dog clearly does so.

While relating the famous myth of the soul as a charioteer in Phaedrus, Plato again describes love as the urge towards the best and true reality. In support of this idea he points out our absorption in the fine qualities of our beloved, amounting to reverence. We can understand his description of love more clearly if we consider that we have to value true reality to want to seek it, since truth is only an issue at all if one cares, and if we think of love as a sort of pure recognition of value, or pure appreciation. As a result, love is an irreplaceable source of our interest in truth, and therefore also of our sense of reality, as well as being an expression of how precious they are to us.

Digging Up Ideas

Many modern philosophers support this same insight (although with very different ideas about what truth and reality are). Ortega y Gasset, for example, argues that ‘contemplation’ means “to seek in a thing what it has of the absolute and to cut off all other partial interest of my own toward it, to cease to make use of it, to cease to wish that it serves me, but to serve it myself as an impartial eye so that it may see itself and find itself and be its very own self” (What Is Philosophy? pp.238-239). And he immediately asks, “is this not love?” He goes on to link this thought to Plato’s “idea about the erotic origin of knowledge” (p.239).

In Being and Time Heidegger goes further, discussing ‘care’ as our deepest bond with being or absolute reality. As Heidegger points out, one of the traits that define us as human beings is that we care about the nature of the world around us rather than just react to it. We even wonder about the nature of reality itself.

Philosophers in the tradition of Pragmatism, from Peirce to Putnam, make this link between love and truth/reality even clearer, by noting that what we experience as truth and reality depends on our interests and (so) our values. For example, we have purposes that are very important to us for which we have to move about. Because we have to act on these purposes, we are forced to experience reality as involving space and distances and things that can be obstacles between us and other things. If we were immobile like plants and didn’t use sight or the other senses as distance sensors, we would have no reason to experience reality as involving space and distance. We can generalise this thinking: all of the reality we experience depends on our interests, values and purposes. Our experience of reality would be very different if we had very different concerns and values.

Now, as both Plato and the more recent arguments indicate, this loving bond of valuing ultimate truth is the source of truth-oriented thinking, is the motive for it and the attitude that gives it direction and shape. Shaping our thinking in this way, it precedes our thinking. This means that love is not only our connection with ultimate truth, but that it is also deeper than and independent of the deliberate thought it precedes. Plato indicates this characteristic in Phaedrus too: he describes love as a type of madness, given to us by the gods.

It’s A Dog’s Love

The love we feel for our dogs, although lacking the scope of relationships which include mutual conscious insight, deliberation, and communication, nonetheless shares in the deepest dimensions of the loving relationship. What’s more, exactly because it lacks most of the subsequent, shallower dimensions, it consists in those deepest dimensions more purely. In other words, while dogs don’t hold up their end of a conversation too well, they do instead just love us and allow us just to love them. They, and we, want what is good and real about the relationship to continue indefinitely.

Although this argument has focused on love in connection with absolute, eternal truth, I should add what might be a departure from Plato (and perhaps a step towards a reconciliation between his overall framework and those of the modern philosophers I’ve mentioned), by suggesting that this is really still a love of particular beings. Absolute and eternal truth is, after all, the absolute and eternal truth of something – in this case, of these particular beings, right here and now, that we love.

Certainly, when it comes to our love for our dogs, this bond is one that transforms our experience of our lives. This alone suggests that this love is a connection with the reality and truth at least of who we are; and of the particular time-bound beings we are.

© Prof. Jeremy Barris 2008

Jeremy Barris is a Professor at the Philosophy Department of Marshall University, in Huntington, West Virginia.

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