"This is a book about a wolf named Brenin," writes Mark Rowlands at the beginning of The Philosopher and the Wolf. However, a few pages later, he admits that "there is, I think, still a very real sense in which I don't understand what this book is."
Both statements are true, and their soft contradiction is part of the book's charm. Weaving together personal anecdotes, comparisons of ape and canine evolution, Norse and Iroquois myth, and philosophical deductions derived from all these sources, it remains, at its core, a weird and riveting book in which a man attempts, well, to speak for his wolf. Or as Rowlands puts it, "these are thoughts that exist in the space between a wolf and a man."
Rowlands was in his mid-twenties when he adopted Brenin. At the time, he was already a few years into his first job, as a professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama. Brenin was only six weeks old; this did not prevent him from inflicting $500 of damage to his new home — and Rowlands stipulates that there is no exaggeration here —within two minutes of his arrival. Brenin had made it resoundingly clear that under no circumstances could he be left alone in a house ever again, which in the case of Rowlands' profession, meant that he became "the, largely unwilling, beneficiary of more free university education than any wolf that ever lived." The Philosopher and the Wolf is overflowing with playful asides like this; Rowlands has as sharp an eye for finding humor in Brenin's life as he does for finding instruction.
The book is dense with elegantly rendered conclusions, triggered by topics as diverse as Brenin's restrained defiance in a dog fight, the dubious roots of our capacity for higher intellectual thought, or what precisely death takes from us. But while there is much focus on the differences in our species' social evolution, the pulse of the story remains the brotherhood Rowlands and Brenin achieved. With his remarkable ability to compress intricate ideas, Rowlands manages to encapsulate the intellectual and emotional fray of The Philosopher and the Wolf in the sentence, "What it is to be human: I learned this from a wolf."