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Here’s Why a Dog is a True Philosopher

One of the few social media accounts I check every day is that of Niall Harbison (​Instagram​ / ​Twitter​ / Substack).

Originally from Ireland, Niall now lives in Thailand where he feeds and rescues street dogs. His mission is to save 10,000 dogs a month as he tries to scale up his current sterilizing and rehoming efforts.

Niall’s inspiring work and videos have attracted a huge following and have helped raise awareness of the plight of street dogs not just in Thailand, but around the world.

I share this not only because it’s such positive, wholesome content (which is a great reason in itself!), but also because there are so many parallels with Stoicism here.

For example, in a recent video (shared below) titled “This golden retriever has shown us all the true meaning of optimism, hope and gratitude”, Niall makes the following comment about said golden retriever, Tina:

I think what she teaches us more than anything is that there’s no point looking backwards. You couldn’t have a more miserable or sadder existence than Tina had. You couldn’t have a life more wasted. But even though she was so sick, even though she nearly died, she comes out of it with so much joy and only looks forward. She only smiles, she only enjoys every second, she wants to lap up every bit of attention she can get.

That resonates with people because we all face struggles in our daily lives. We all have knocks. Probably not as big as Tina or as extreme, but for her to be able to bounce back like that and to be so upbeat is what resonates with people. She is a truly special dog.

The sad existence Niall alludes to is that when he found her, Tina was chained up, unable to go anywhere, and very ill.

But after being rescued, receiving vet treatment, and care from Niall and others, Tina became a beacon of hope for others.

The refusal to look backward, the rejection of the past as being what defines us, the extraction of joy from every living second, and the resilience to bounce back from setbacks; it’s Stoicism in a nutshell.

I can’t help but think of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus who, like Tina, spent much of his life chained up as a slave.

But, like Tina, he didn’t harbor anger and resentment toward all humans because of the actions of one human. And, like Tina, when freed he went on to teach people important lessons about life that would stay with them forever.

As Niall concludes, if Tina can be happy today, maybe we can too:

I think people look at Tina and think if she can be so positive maybe I should have a little bit of a positive slant on my life. So, Tina’s taught me how to love, how to live in the moment, and just kill people with kindness.

Here’s the video of Tina. Gentle warning: you may shed a tear or two, but ultimately they’ll be happy ones!

As a dog lover, I’m in constant awe at the relentless energy and zest for life shown by man’s best friend. Not to mention, as Tina above demonstrates, their huge capacity for resilience.

Sure, dogs can’t reason like us or make temperate decisions or reflect on their actions but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

A dog drinks their water and eats their basic food as if gorging on the finest cuisine.

A dog makes the most of every trip outdoors, running, jumping, sniffing, and exploring.

A dog doesn’t hold back their affection; they’ll greet you with the same enthusiasm every day.

A dog doesn’t know tomorrow. Each of these simple things they do as if it’s the last time.

A dog’s life is short and if you really observe them, you’ll appreciate that they make the most of their limited years.

The simplicity, the love and affection, the seizing of the day; all these things we can learn from.

In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates is in dialogue with Glaucon (Plato’s older brother) when he declares that Glaucon’s dog is a true philosopher. From there the conversation proceeds as follows:

Glaucon: Why?

Socrates: Why, because he distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. And must not an animal be a lover of learning who determines what he likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance?

Glaucon: Most assuredly.

Socrates: And is not the love of learning the love of wisdom, which is philosophy?

Glaucon: They are the same.

So, not only can we learn from our dog’s love of their limited life, but we can also learn from their love of wisdom. Wisdom that they freely share in abundance while they can.

After all, if Socrates — the oft-called “godfather of Western philosophy”— says a dog is a true philosopher, who are we to argue?