Dogs and Guardians


Homer assumes that a dog can recognise his master after twenty years:

ὴ τότε γ᾽, ὡς ἐνόησεν Ὀδυσσέα ἐγγὺς ἐόντα,
οὐρῇ μέν ῥ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἔσηνε καὶ οὔατα κάββαλεν ἄμφω…
             Odyssey XVIII 301-302
¶  Yet even now, when he recognised Odysseus close by,
he wagged his tail and dropped down both his ears…

In The Republic Socrates begins to talk about the qualities of the Guardians. We may well prick up our ears, because the Guardians are to have four qualities of dogs:

  • High spirits
  • Speed
  • Strength
  • A wisdom-loving character.

This last quality of a dog he explains to Glaucon:

ἀλλὰ μὴν κομψόν γε φαίνεται τὸ πάθος αὐτοῦ τῆς φύσεως καὶ ὡς ἀληθῶς φιλόσοφον.
πῇ δή;
ἧι, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ὄψιν οὐδενὶ ἄλλῳ φίλην καὶ ἐχθρὰν διακρίνει ἢ τῷ τὴν μὲν καταμαθεῖν, τὴν δὲ ἀγνοῆσαι. καίτοι πῶς οὐκ ἂν φιλομαθὲς εἴη συνέσει τε καὶ ἀγνοίᾳ ὁριζόμενον τό τε οἰκεῖον καὶ τὸ ἀλλότριον;
οὐδαμῶς, ἦ δ᾽ ὅς, ὅπως οὔ.        Republic 376a-b

 “Now surely this seems a clever quality in its nature, and one truly wisdom-loving.”
“In what way?”
“In that it recognises what it sees as friendly or hostile by no other means than understanding the one and not knowing the other.  And indeed how is it not wisdom-loving to use understanding as the criterion for what is suitable and non-recognition for what is unfavourable?”
“It must be so,” he said.

Socrates does not examine this more deeply: the dog makes the distinction simply on the criterion of familiarity. It is hostile to people it does not know and friendly to those it is familiar with.

This is a step towards something in the education of the Guardians that the modern student can find shocking. Socrates is proposing to make the Guardians always reject evil when they become adults by virtue of being unfamiliar with it: of having been kept ignorant of evil throughout their childhood and youth.

It can provoke lively debate among students. One of them summarised his objection:

“No: that’s not the way you do it. Children have to be taught to know the enemy. Why else do we tell them fairytales?”

Of interest:
Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, The Genius of Dogs: Discovering the Unique Intelligence of Man’s Best Friend, Oneworld, 2014

Next post: Pushing and shoving.