Letter to O

Letter to O

by Beyon Miloyan

Hello again my dear O — ,

What a beautiful dog; may she look upon you with a loving eye until her last breath. You asked what I think about your adopting her… I think you did well. Train her properly, but do not expect more from her than she can provide.

The canine of course is considered the epitome of loyalty, but the ancients saw in her other admirable traits also. Homer, for example, recognized the power of her memory; Aeschylus, her determination; and Cicero, her sagacity. Pliny gave example after example of these qualities. In The Republic, Plato identified the dog as a true philosopher and a paragon of the guardian of the state: a true philosopher, for she distinguishes friend from foe through knowledge alone, and a true guardian because of the indefatigable spirit with which she opposes her enemies. In this way, Plato united the common virtues of the canine and made her a model of the ideal citizen: a lover of wisdom, who is most gentle with her friends and most fierce with her enemies.

But above all, what a beautiful creature who brings tranquility to the souls of her friends and helps soothe the aches left by the shortcomings of human society! What a far cry from fallen man, who devours half of himself — not only in self-defense but even in anticipation of harm — who slanders and backbites his brethren; who shows no mercy to his neighbor, regardless of the injustices he may have endured; who exploits others in the interest of furthering his own ambitions; and who goes through life perpetually suspicious of the sins of others. Yet the dog does not demonstrate any of these faults, and even excuses ours. Pilate condemns Christ, but Banga does not condemn Pilate. There is a popular saying circulating online. It says: “to err is human, to forgive is canine,” — a paraphrase of Alexander Pope’s “to err is human, to forgive divine”, itself an expansion of the Latin phrase “errare humanum est . . .”.

But is it true? And should we be so “romantic” as to attribute such outstanding qualities to the canine? One might say that these are merely allegories that serve to attune our minds to virtue. But even Aesop, who recognized the commendable traits of the canine, did not fail to indicate her flaws: Despite her loyalty, she succumbs to greed; despite her determination, she is liable to temptation; despite her sagacity, she is quite stupid; despite her loyalty, she is rather quixotic; and last but not least, she lacks freedom (and would even go so far as to boast of it)! This is not to belittle your trusty canine, but to say that she cannot well be considered the epitome of loyalty (nor, therefore, of forgiveness), because she does not have the freedom not to be loyal. True loyalty can only be given freely — when one understands that she has the option to be disloyal, and that this may even be advantageous in some sense, yet still chooses loyalty. Now if true loyalty is an expression of one’s freedom, then how much more is forgiveness!

The problem is that forgiveness has widely come to be viewed as a mere psychological process, such that forgiving and forgetting share a sort of functional equivalence, and where forgiveness implies a return to some status quo ante. In reality, every act of forgiveness is a profound gift from one to another — an affirmation of his very being. To forgive another is to remove the mortal burden of sin from his shoulders, and to take it upon oneself. A second problem, while unrelated to the canine, stems from the same tendency of man to anthropomorphize her: it assumes forgiveness to be a sort of super-psychological construct, such that groups are as capable of forgiveness as persons. For example, Armenians still hear such reasoning from Turks, who use it to justify the Genocide of our ancestors: “We once called you the loyal millet; we only killed when you became disloyal.” But how can a millet or ethnos be (dis)loyal? Where does such (dis)loyalty lie, if not in some mythical collective consciousness that no one can stand by? Forgiveness, my dear, is the portion of persons — free persons — and not of animals or collectives or machines.

What spiritual good is the dog, then, if she cannot truly embody loyalty or forgiveness? Many find comfort in dogs nonetheless, it is true, but I believe their intangible value may lie today in something far greater than in drops of comfort: It may lie in revealing to us our pathological relationship with mankind and the rest of creation. First, we see that man goes to unreasonable degrees to domesticate nature, as countless dogs are now seen in major cities throughout the world, where, despite being cooped up in small apartments, they still often receive better treatment than man — man feeds hungry dog, but not hungry man; man clothes naked dog, but not naked man; man shelters homeless dog, but not homeless man; man sympathizes with crying dog, but harbors judgment towards crying man. This does not merely reflect a failure to tend to one’s neighbor, but a distorted sympathy where dog is seen to be more righteous than suffering man, and more deserving of charity. But as much as man anthropomorphizes dog, dog, in turn, canomorphizes man, so that man’s heart becomes as tethered and shackled as the canine’s. And this is the fate I wish for you to avoid.

Cherish your dog, my dear O — , and treat her well as a gift to your benevolent Creator, but see to it that you do not become one yourself.