On Keeping a Dog

“The Moral Value”

by G.K. Chesterton

Published in the "Daily News"

Reprinted in Coffs Harbour Advocate, Friday 3rd Feb 1911

Cynics often speak of the disillusioning effects of experience, but I, for one have found that nearly all things not evil better in experience than in theory. I found love with a small l more thrilling than Love with a large one, and. when I saw the Mediterranean It was bluer than the color blue. In theory, for example, sleep is a negative thing, a mere cessation of life. But nothing will persuade me that sleep is not really quite positive, some mysterious pleasure which is too perfect to be remembered. It must be some drawing on our divine energies, some forgotten refreshment at the ancient fountains of 0life. If this is not so, why do we cling to sleep when we have already, had enough of it; why does waking up always seem like descending from heaven upon, earth. I believe that sleep is a sacrament; or, what is the same thing, a food.

Here, however, I only want to maintain that the real experience of things is often much better than our poetic anticipation of them; that peaks are often higher than they look in pictures and truths more terribly true than they appear In copy-books. Take, for example. the innovation which I of late introduced into my domestic life; he is a four-legged innovation in the shape of an Aberdeen terrier. I have always imagined myself to be a lover of all animals, because I have never met any animal that I definitely disliked. Most people draw the line somewhere. Lord Roberts dislikes cats; the best woman I know objects to spiders; a Theoeophist I know protects, but detests, mice; and many leading humanitarians have an objection to human beings.

But I cannot recall ever having shrunk from an animal; I do not mind a slug, however slimy he is, nor a rhinoceros, however much his horn is exalted. When I was a little boy I used to keep a pack of snails as representing what I thought the proper pace for hunting. Thus I fell into the mistake common to many modem universalists and humanitarians. I thought that I loved all God's creatures, whereas the only point was that I did, not hate them. I did not dislike the camel for having a hump or the whale for containing blubber. But I could not seriously have supposed that the time would ever come when a whale's blubber would move my heart with a quiver of affection; or that I should know one camel's hump among others as one knows the profile of a beautiful woman. This is the first of the extraordinary effects of having a dog, upon one who has never had one before. One loves an animal like a man instead of merely accepting an animal like an optimist.

But then, again, if the dog is loved he is loved as a dog; not as a fellow-citizen, or an idol, or a pet, or a product of evolution. The moment you are responsible for one respectable animal, that moment an abyss opens as wide as the world between cruelty and the necessary coercion of animals. There are some people who talk of what they call "Corporal Punishment", and class under that head the hideous torture inflicted on unfortunate citizens in our prisons and workhouses, and also the smack one gives to a silly boy or the whipping of an intolerable terrier. You might as well invent a phrase called "Reciprocal Concussion" and leave it to be understood that you included under this head kissing, kicking, the collision of boats at sea, the embracing of young Germans, and the meeting of comets in mid-air.

That is the second moral value of the thing; the moment you have an animal in your charge you soon discover what is really cruelty to animals, and what is only kindness to them. For instance, some people have called it inconsistent in me to be an anti-vivisectionist and yet to be in favour of ordinary sports. I can only say that I can quite imagine myself shooting my dog, but cannot imagine myself vivisecting him.

But there is something deeper in the matter than all that, only the hour is late, and both the dog and I are too drowsy to interpret it. He lies in front of me curled up before the fire, as so many dogs must have lain before so many fires. I sit on one side of that hearth, as so many men must have sat by so many hearths. Somehow this creature has completed my manhood; somehow, I cannot explain why, a man ought to have a dog. A man ought to have six legs; those other four legs are part of him. Our alliance is older than any of the passing and priggish explanations that are offered of either of us; before evolution was, we were. You can find it written in a book that I am a mere survival of a squabble of anthropoid apes; and perhaps I am. I am sure I have no objection. But my dog knows I am a man, and you will not find the meaning of that word written in any book as clearly as it is written in his soul.

It may be written in a book that my dog is canine; and from this it may be deduced that he must hunt with a pack, since all canines hunt with a pack. Hence it may be argued (in the book) that if I have one Aberdeen terrier I ought to have twenty-five Aberdeen terriers. But my dog knows that I do not ask him to hunt with a pack; he knows that I do not care a curse whether he is canine or not so long as he is my dog. That is the real secret of the matter which the superficial evolutionists cannot be got to see. If traceable history be the test, civilization is much older than the savagery of evolution. The civilized dog is older than the wild dog of science. The civilized man is older than the primitive man of science. We feel it in our bones that we are the antiquities, and that the visions of biology are the fancies and the fads. The books do not matter; the night is closing in, and it is too dark to read books. Faintly against the fading firelight can be traced the prehistoric outlines of the man and the dog.

[This essay was later collected and excerpted as "On Keeping a Dog" in Lunacy and Letters.]

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Last modified: 24th April 2017
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk