Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog

There’s a good web-site at which presents the whole case against keeping dogs tied up, with many wretched photographs, plus statistics and instances of the neurotic aggression which the practice trains into the unhappy dog. Seeing it reminds me of one such instance noted by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, in his essay ‘On the Suffering of the World’:     dog03

Never do I see such a dog without feelings of the deepest sympathy for him and of profound indignation against his master. I think with satisfaction of a case, reported some years ago in the Times, where a lord kept a large dog on a chain. One day as he was walking through the yard, he took it into his head to go and pat the dog, whereupon the animal tore his arm open from top to bottom, and quite right too! What he meant was this: ‘You are not my master, but my devil, who makes a hell of my brief existence!’ May this happen to all who chain up dogs.

The strength of feeling in this passage of writing is perhaps not adequately explained by saying that Schopenhauer was fond of dogs, but certainly he was fond of them. He especially liked poodles, and he seems to have kept a sequence of them as companions during his later years – walking them every day, of course (he was a man of strict routines). But in fact he had this same sympathy for all suffering animals. Caged birds, work-horses, farm-animals, the victims of vivisection: for all these, the chained dog was really a type or representative, and accordingly Schopenhauer uses, in another of his essays, that same image for their relation to humanity as a whole, which he uses for the dog’s to its one master: “It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.”

The editor of the otherwise excellent Penguin Classics selection from Schopenhauer’s essays speaks of vivisection as one of his author’s “hobby horses” which, as editor, he has “not hesitated to curb”, i.e. to cut. He at least acknowledges that the theme was a preoccupation of Schopenhauer’s, but he implies that it was an eccentricity or whim separate from Schopenhauer’s main philosophical concerns, which is quite wrong. True, it did have some special biographical, and to that extent non-philosophical, import for him. His first choice of subject at university (in 1809) had been medicine, and in later years he was shocked to see how vivisection, which had been spoken of in his student days as something “cruel and terrible”, resorted to only with reluctance, had become so routine at the time of writing (1850s) that “every little medicine-man thinks he has the right to torment animals in the cruellest fashion in his torture chamber”. In this vehemence Schopenhauer may have been unusual, at least in Germany at that time, but it was no stray caprice. He saw vivisection as part of a systematic abuse of animals in general, and he plainly recognised this abuse as founded on the ethical nonsense that we now (thanks to Richard Ryder’s 1970s coinage) term ‘speciesism’: “This is a morality which knows and values only the precious species that gave it birth; whose special characteristic – reason – it makes the condition under which a being may be an object of moral regard.”

The blame for this species-chauvinism Schopenhauer puts, with a candid atheism most unusual (again) for his time, upon Christianity. In particular he deplores what he calls “that installation scene in the Garden of Eden”, when God “takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation to kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes.” So when Schopenhauer angrily dismisses the “odious and revolting” ethic put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, namely that we ought to treat non-human animals well, not for their own good, but because we thereby cultivate the like habit towards our fellow-humans, it isn’t Kant himself that he rebukes. The notion is after all in no way essential to Kant’s own philosophy, as Schopenhauer’s thinking about animals is to his. Rather, he puts the blame on “European priestcraft, which, in its profanity, knows no limit to its disavowal of, and blasphemy against, the Eternal Reality that lives in every animal.” Kant, he felt, had lazily allowed the Bible and the Church’s traditions to impose on him in this matter.

So how is Schopenhauer’s valuation of animals essential to his larger philosophy? And what, in particular, is that “Eternal Reality” against which – an astonishing charge – Christianity blasphemes? I shall now have to insult Schopenhauer’s philosophy by attempting a summary of it in three paragraphs. Skip them if you can’t face the mayhem; the remainder should still make reasonably good sense.

In his own main philosophy, Kant had made a crucial distinction, which Schopenhauer willingly inherits, between reality as it appears to us through our limited capacities of perception (i.e. the phenomenal world), and reality as it is in itself (which he called the noumenal), independent of our mind-conditioned categories of time and space, and therefore invisible to us. This second and fundamental reality, of which ours must be some sort of local manifestation, Kant did not attempt to explore. Among other reasons, it would have been impossible to do so without straying into theology or subverting it. Schopenhauer, however, was quite willing to do that, the second part of it anyway, and he expressly set out to complete Kant’s picture.

Although he agreed with Kant that the noumenal world couldn’t be directly known, he believed that we could trace, with a certainty amounting to fact, its essential nature through its manifestations in our world, and mainly through our experience of its animating presence in our own bodies. And what he found that essential nature to be, or at least to be best understood as, was ‘will’: not divine or purposeful or even rational will, but a mere blind striving. Hence the title of his great work of philosophy, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), usually translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’. All “representations” – that is, all the phenomena of the world which we can perceive around and within ourselves, including plants, natural objects and forces, and of course all the other animals – share this noumenal inner nature, the will. It urges itself through them – dresses itself in them, one might say – but also recklessly breeds from and then discards them. Sometimes Schopenhauer speaks of it as the “will-to-live”, and in that character it readily accommodates, in its restless and purposeless push, the Darwinian machinery of evolution, which indeed Schopenhauer partly anticipates, as he does also, for obvious reasons, the Freudian notion of the unconscious. He was a most prescient thinker.

However, he viewed this reality, which he had thus glimpsed, with horror. He calls it “the worst of all possible worlds.” For, as active in our phenomenal world, the will is patently and destructively at odds with itself. All its various avatars (all the contents  DSC04795.JPGof the world which represent the will here) both directly and indirectly struggle against each other for the space and the means to live. And in the case of its most recent ones (recent, that is, in our time-bound understanding), the conscious beings like ourselves, there is a special doom of unhappiness, so he believed. For the urgings of the will within us can only be satisfied momentarily, if at all, and such brief escapes from its pressure prove, for humans at least, to be escapes only into vacancy and ennui. Non-human animals, Schopenhauer believed, have the better chance of happiness, living as they do in the moment, without the stored pains of past and future to distress them: in fact he says that their “obvious composure often puts to shame our own frequently restless and discontented condition.”

Or rather they would have the better chance of happiness, if humans only allowed it: but it’s just at this point that he comes to the story of the chained dog, and I hope it’s now easier to see why that story has such emblematic power for Schopenhauer. He knew something of Eastern spirituality (again, most unusually for a philosopher of his time and place), and was fond of quoting, from the Upanishads, what he called “the mystical formula tat twam asi (This art Thou), by which is meant every living thing, whether man or animal”. That “deepest sympathy” which he feels for chained dogs is therefore intended literally: “This art Thou”, and therefore this suffering also is yours. (Schopenhauer’s own word, Mitleid, is much more direct and expressive than the rather abstract terms ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, which seem to be the best that English can do by way of translation.) Schopenhauer suffers with such dogs, then, not because he is a dog-lover (though he was) or an unusually sympathetic character, still less because animal suffering is a ‘hobby horse’ of his, but because he and the dogs are of the same life, driven through the world by the same indifferent will, ephemeral vessels for the Eternal Reality which animates them all. And this Mitleid, he argues, is indeed the only authentic basis for morality, because Mitleid itself is founded, not on ethical speculation or arguable principles like Kant’s, but on fact – the fact of our existential oneness with all sentient life.

In one of his essays, Schopenhauer characteristically suggests that instead of addressing each other as ‘Sir’, ‘mein Herr’, and so on, we should say Leidensgefährte … my fellow sufferer.” I dare say that he sometimes addressed his poodles in that way, though no doubt he did his best to protect them from suffering. At any rate, his feeling about the world and its denizens, and his cast of mind in general, are very well summarised in something he says in his essay On the Basis of Morality:

The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living things be delivered from pain.’ Tastes may differ, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.


[Quotations are taken from The Essential Schopenhauer, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher, HarperCollins 2010 (pp.7-8, 35, 14); Essays and Aphorisms, ed. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 2014 (pp.218, 219, 149); and The Basis of Morality (1840), transl. A.B.Bullock, Swan Sonnenschein and Co. 1903, available online (pp.95, 220, 214).]

In Prison, and You Visited Me

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The moderate antivivisection and animal rights groups,” says the Understanding Animal Research web-site, giving such groups as VERO its undesired blessing, “campaign within the law – by leafletting, peaceful demonstrations, lobbying, etc – and society must protect their right to do so.” How revealing that “etc” is! a patrician wafture of the hand towards the various other harmless pursuits of the law-abiders, not even staying with them long enough to see to the full stop. However, there’s “a small minority of radical animal rights extremists who attempt to force their views on others with illegal actions”, and to these the UAR devotes more sincere attention; indeed, it runs a separate web-site on the subject, at

Illegality seems to work, then – if only to the extent of attracting attention of a kind authenticated by self-interest. Such was in fact the larger or even sole reason for what the suffragettes did in the way of illegality: as Christabel Pankhurst wrote, “Women will never get the vote except by creating an intolerable situation for all the selfish and apathetic people who stand in their way.” And of course from this safe historical distance, and given their success, even the UAR has to admire what they did: you can read on its web-site a little about “the suffragette movement and its heroic struggle to win the vote for women”.

I guess that the UAR would likewise approve of what the American rebels achieved by forcing their views on Britain in the 1770s, or of what Henry David Thoreau did in 1846 when he refused to pay taxes to a government which countenanced slavery, preferring to go to prison. For there is, fortunately, a populous tradition behind the sort of “illegal actions” which the UAR selectively deplores. Most, perhaps all, of the really elementary reforms have had their share of it. And of course we acknowledge it with enthusiasm in the legends of high-minded outlaws like Robin Hood and William Tell.

Needless to say, breaking the law doesn’t prove anyone right, any more than leafletting does; it just makes being right that much more crucial, and being wrong more deplorable and tragic. (There’s a finely sardonic song by Georges Brassens on this theme, entitled ‘Mourir pour des Idées’.) Either way, the activist takes that risk and, if caught, endures the penalty. And the penalty is commonly a much more severe one than society imposes upon those more routine criminals who abide by its looser principles of greed and selfishness, and offend only its rules, not its mind-set. Certainly it has been so for animal rights activists. One such has written, from prison, “They’ve arrested us, made sure we got totally disproportionate and excessive sentences, and separated a lot of us into different jails across the country in a vain attempt to isolate us and break our spirits.” In fact the few things which I’d like to say about breaking the law for a political cause, and paying the penalty, I shall say as far as possible in the words of those who have known what it means from experience, especially words written in prison, which surely have an almost hieratic claim on our attention. (True, Mein Kampf was written in a sort of prison – though an extremely comfortable one, more of a political salon – and it’s a great pity that it wasn’t taken more seriously outside Germany at the time.)

The first thing to acknowledge is that the law as it stands is always the principal obstacle to reform; after all, it’s what any really important reform has to start by altering. Hence what the anarchist/pacifist Emma Goldman, charged with inducing others to resist conscription, said to a U.S. court in 1917:  “no new faith – not even the most humane and peaceable – has ever been considered ‘within the law’ by those who were in power. The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside the law.” Accordingly she got two years, followed by deportation to Russia.

Henry Thoreau was more fortunate, spending less than 24 hours in prison (someone paid his fine for him, very much against his will). Even that brief sojourn had a profound effect upon his thinking (It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.”). Out of the experience came his celebrated essay Civil Disobedience, in which he put the question, very much as Emma Goldman was to do, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

You note the word “do”. Thoreau, for different reasons, shared UAR’s low estimation of the politer campaigning arts, and its practitioners: “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” And later he says, “Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.”

Yes, “the perception and the performance of right”: here we begin to see that breaking the law may after all be its own kind of demonstration, aimed not at making a noise and nuisance about a desired change, but rather at instancing that change. Probably there was some element of that in the suffragette campaigns, conclusively demonstrating, as they did, that women have more than home-making powers: strength of will, bravery, daring, ability to organise, all the powers which had been traditionally cornered by men.

Most of the animal rights illegality has indeed been of this kind (although less well-judged or downright wrong-headed stunts have often been given more media attention): that is, they have demonstrated the justice and beauty of animal freedom by effecting it. An early example was set in 1977, when the so-called ‘Undersea Railroad’ liberated two dolphins from their barren tanks in a Hawaii University laboratory. A note left on site said simply “Gone Surfing”. When right is performed in this way, we don’t need a leaflet to explain it: the life within ourselves, which we share with all the other animals, recognises it at once, and rejoices in it. So must it also at the sight of dog-animal-testing-research-picturewrecked hunting-towers, broken cages, smashed traps and the like: every one of these is an appeal to the moral imagination, an emblem of freedom.

The two students who freed the dolphins in Hawaii made no attempt to avoid detection; on the contrary, they signed that note and made their reasoning public at a press conference, and they were in fact subsequently charged and convicted. But even if the intention is to evade the law, such actions are necessarily a test of earnestness, and therefore constitute a tribute, paid in public (that is, in the sphere of criminal law), to the importance of a cause. So Emma Goldman said in court, “Your verdict may, of course, affect us temporarily, in a physical sense – it can have no effect whatever upon our spirit. For even if we were convicted and found guilty and the penalty were that we be placed against a wall and shot dead, I should nevertheless cry out with the great Luther: ‘Here I am and here I stand and I cannot do otherwise’.”

Is this ‘forcing views on others’? No, it’s showing what having a ‘view’ ought to imply: that is, doing “what I think right” and enduring the consequences with as good a cheer and undimmed a spirit as one can bring for testimonial to the cause. Emma Goldman illustrated the point with the story of Thoreau being visited in prison by his friend, the great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Emerson said: ‘David, what are you doing in jail?’ And Thoreau replied: ‘Ralph, what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?’” I suspect that this charming set-piece didn’t really happen, monkey-cages-lab-animal-testing-picturebut it accurately dramatizes something which Thoreau does say in Civil Disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” And who can be less justly imprisoned than animals?

I have not, of course, been talking about terrorism properly so-called, though the judiciary, in moments of hysteria, has occasionally used that term about animal rights activists. As the Observer said in 1992, “It’s a strange sort of terrorist campaign to say the least that is waged for 20 years without killing anybody.” In fact they are no more terrorists than Emma Goldman was, or Thoreau, or Emily Pankhurst. One of them has said, “I object so greatly to the use of violence that I joined the ALF. I separate violence against the individual from damage done to inanimate objects. The latter moves me not a jot, the other always will.” That doesn’t mean that they’ve always or even ever been right in what they’ve done. On the other hand, that they have been selfless, idealistic, motivated by compassion, and courageous, is certain, and those, after all, are the qualities which more or less define heroism.

From time to time, the animal rights groups which have been set up to look after the interests of imprisoned activists have published their letters from prison. I shall end with some quotations from these letters. To find oneself in prison is necessarily a painful shock, except perhaps to the habitual recidivist. The place itself is oppressive, ugly, sometimes frightening. The time spent there is not intended to be pleasant. I’ve spoken of good cheer and undimmed spirit: these letters show them not just surviving in those hard circumstances, but downright shining there.

All in all I’m in the shape of my life and very strong.

There is so much to laugh about in jail and we all do, often!

Having the privilege of being a United States prisoner, I still have it better than most 3rd World people do in their homelands. And nothing they do to me could even come close to the plight of animals.

I think humans are obsessed with the pursuit of selfish happiness, and animals live in the joy of now. It’s up to us to ensure they get the chance.

My personal ethical and moral beliefs haven’t changed one iota, nor will they.

It’s very similar to being back at my old boarding school!

They really must believe that caring for animals is the worst crime possible. I’m sure they are trying to send us a message, although I don’t understand what that message is because their dirty tactics only serve to make us stronger.

Everything here is great. I’ve kept busy while in prison at the gym, doing art and pottery and gaining a Btec qualification in Media Production.

I’ve had some wonderful visits this month and feel so loved and supported, for which I am so grateful – many women in here literally have no one and I wonder what prison life must feel like for them.

I may be in prison but I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else in the world. I am so glad I am who I am and feel the way I feel.



The Pankhurst quotation comes from Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts, Allen Lane 2001, p.256.

Emma Goldman’s fine speech can be found in The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, ed. Brian MacArthur, 1996.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849; it’s a short essay and is readily available, including online at

For a highly readable account of direct action and the animal liberation movement, mostly (and very well) written in prison, see Keith Mann’s From Dusk till Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press 2007, from which the quotations in the paragraph about terrorism are taken (pp.16 and 21): this is a remarkable and important book, strongly recommended. See also Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, Reaktion Books 2002.

Photographs are by Brian Gunn, Secretary General of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals (

Frosting the Glass (more on Euphemisms)

I ended the previous post (‘Public Labs’) with a quotation from the journal Comparative Medicine, chosen to show that ‘environmental enrichment’ – i.e. introducing natural or at least interesting features into the cages or boxes where laboratory animals are kept – has itself become a going animal-testing-equipmenttheme for research. But the quotation is also worth attention as a fascinating and instructive sample of animal-research prose. Here it is again:

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.

Let’s begin by appreciating that prize euphemism in the last clause, so rich in evasions that even now I don’t feel sure that I’m understanding it rightly. I take it to mean ‘particularly if you kill the animal unusually young’. If I’m right, this is something more sophisticated than the ordinary patch-words like ‘sacrifice’ or ‘euthanize’. A sort of smoke-screen has been laid down over the whole scene. The animal itself is, of course, made the victim of a passive verb (“will be maintained”): how often, in such journals, is a person ever seen doing anything to an animal in the active voice – assessing its ‘hot-plate latency’, for instance (see previous blog-post), by putting it on a hot plate? But, ingeniously, the verb in this case, though admittedly sharing in the general semantic fog, is detectably a beneficent rather than injurious one: ‘maintaining’ means looking after, doesn’t it? And it’s not even in the negative. In fact there’s no telling at what point in this clause the animal ceases to “be maintained”, a.k.a. is killed. The whole idea of time is helpfully obscured by converting it into space or quantity: ‘lifespan’ and ‘portion’. (For another instance of this same conversion technique, see the earlier post ‘Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics’.) A hint seems to have been taken from the famous lines in the Victorian poet Arthur Clough’s ‘Latest Decalogue’:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive.

Clough’s poem is indeed largely concerned with what we allow others to see us doing. In that respect, the words of the article are the equivalent of well-frosted glass.

I don’t mean to pillory this text. It’s at least a more or less grammatical sentence, using unpretentious vocabulary. The trouble is that it’s so much in thrall to abstraction that the real and material subject – cages, and the animals inside them – is not so much illuminated as replaced by the words. Thus, instead of an animal being well, ‘animal wellbeing exists’; instead of a cage, a ‘housing situation’. In fact, instead of animals or an animal, that devitalized generic term “the animal”. And so on. The point is more simply made by translating the sentence back into real life:

However, an animal can remain in good health – that is, it can grow, mature, and reproduce, without injury, illness, distress, and neurotic behaviour – even in a cage where it cannot do all that it wants, particularly if it is not allowed to live long.

Has anything gone missing in this plain-spoken version? Perhaps the full sense of that phrase “low likelihood of injury …etc.”? But surely the sense is quite adequately expressed in the word ‘can’, meaning simply that it is possible, but not certain, that the animal will suffer none of these set-backs. The authors have presented this idea as a probability, implying that a known proportion of any collective of such animals will be free of illness. But in either version, the proposition only makes helpful sense if quantified, or linked to other studies which have quantified it, and this the authors do not do here. I would guess, therefore, that they have preferred “low likelihood” to “can” for the same reason that accounts for all the rest: it’s more abstract, further away from unscientifically particular animals suffering particular injuries – the equivalent in prose of cleaning up the cosmetic-testing-animal-remainsdisgusting mess on the work-bench before anyone else sees it.

The article in question is a review of other work rather than a report of original research, so there wasn’t any mess of its own to clear up; the sanitized style is really just professional habit. But it’s a thoroughly bad habit. No doubt we need euphemisms in our personal communications, for the sake of kindness and decency. And of course sciences all need their particular technical vocabularies, though probably not as much as their initiates like to suppose. But with the horrors of the 20th century laid out behind us, it hardly needs saying that – in public discourse – euphemism, and abstraction more generally, make life easier for every bad practice, from casual cruelty to mass slaughter. The more plainly we speak and write, the better we ourselves, as well as others, can see what we’re really doing, and whether we ought to be doing it at all.

I should briefly add that the article in question proposes that ‘enrichment’ is not the invariable good it might be supposed, for science or even for the animals. The study was connected, in some way not specified anywhere in the text, with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, at Natick, Massachusetts. That’s not an encouraging association (see the post ‘Remembering (some of) the Fallen’), but at least the article has been made freely available, and you can read it, if you wish, at


The photographs are by Brian Gunn (