The people of the Bible did not like dogs. Though we think of dogs as “man’s best friend,” and show great love and care for our animals, sometimes to the point of treating them almost like children (witness the phenomenon of “pet parents” and pet hospitals and pet cemetaries in Western society), the biblical world viewed dogs as disreputable mongrels and scavengers. Clearly there are many differences between the biblical world and our own, and it is not my point in this particular note to examine that difference in detail, except that it serves to introduce the subject of today’s entry, a dog with no illusions.
In The Book of the Dun Cow (spoiler alert), one of the main characters of this odd allegory is a deeply melancholy dog named Mundo Cani (dog of the world) who is known as “a dog with no illusions.” A stranger to the land of chickens, Mundo Cani is a rather dour and unhappy animal, with frequent and incomprehensible cries of anguish. His generally melancholy nature seems to puzzle those around him who are far more sunnier springtime sort of animals. Then there is a fierce war and Mundo Cani manages to save the world of the animals from the evil wyrm (dragon) by poking at his insecurities and then poking out his eye with a cow’s horn as a weapon. The king of the chickens is sad that his last words to the self-sacrificial dog were harsh and bitter (and untrue) accusations.
My point is not to discuss the plot of the book in detail, as the sketch provided above ought to be sufficient for our purposes. What I would like to examine, as odd as it may be, is the relationship between melancholy and having no illusions as well as the phenomenon of self-sacrifice. Let us note at the outset, lest anyone be confused, that not all self-sacrifice is an act of nobility, however it is seen by those who do it. There are plenty of people who view their acts of self-sacrificial violence as martyrdom, not realizing that their deeds are evil and ignoble and their behavior abominable. In speaking of the nobility of self-sacrifice, moral considerations are necessary in the analysis, for both ends and means must be good for a deed to be noble and right.
Why would melancholy be connected to the absence of illusions? The book of Ecclesiastes connects the absence of illusions to sadness in a few ways (all quotations from the NASB):
Ecclesiastes 7:20-22: “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others.”
Ecclesiastes 6:3-12: “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they may be, but his soul is not satisfied iwth good things and he does not eve nhave a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things–do not all go to one place?” All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage does the wise man have other the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living? What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind. Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is. For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man? For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?”
Ecclesiastes 7:1-5: “A good name is better than ointment, and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go into a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Sorrow is better tha nlaughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in th ehouse of pleasure. It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools.”
Ecclesiastes 4:1-4: “Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun. I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry betwee a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.”
Ecclesiastes 2:12-17: “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I become extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die. So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.”
More verse could be found, to be sure, but these are sufficient to get the point across. With much knowledge often comes much sorrow, and so having a more accurate understanding of the world often leads to greater melancholy. It is generally when we are young, if our upbringing permits it, that we have some illusions as to the pleasure of life and the basic goodness of the world and the people in it. The longer we live, the more we are confronted with the darkness that is both around us and inside of us, and we are faced with difficult and unpleasant choices and a recognition that the options of life have been constricted both by time and the state of our health and of the world around us, but also by our commitments and responsibilities. The cares of this world and the burden of knowledge about ourselves and others weighs heavily on us, such that it often drains much of the happiness out of our lives. Such temporary pleasure as we seek is all too often merely futile and passing and of no lasting value or significance, and all of our efforts to do great deeds that will be remembered face the possibility of oblivion.
If it is clear that there is much about this world that increases one’s melancholy with one’s knowledge (obviously, for the faithful, there is the counterbalancing truth that God is in control and will work life’s troubles to the good for His people, but though that is a comfort and helps us to avoid despair, it does not avoid the essentially melancholy nature of life or the truth that much of our entertainment that we use to produce a simulcrum of happiness is in fact illusory. Is there any connection between a lack of illusions, a generally melancholy spirit, and self-sacrifice? Mundo Cani would be one example of this connection, but this connection is frequently found in scripture. In literature there is Sidney Carton, another one of my favorite literary characters, exchanging places with a doomed man and facing death in the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. There is Paul in 2 Timothy nobly approaching his death having finished the race, knowing that he awaited a crown of glory in heaven upon his resurrection with the blessed believers. We find Jesus Christ suffering in deep melancholy in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion, under no illusions as to what faced him, but committed to doing the will of His Father. Being under no illusions in an evil world is not a pleasant matter, and yet some noble people know that this world is evil and choose to do good anyway, even if it costs them to do it.
People often think of melancholy these days as depression, though that is not necessarily the case. To be sure, those who are melancholy, as a result of their general commitment to ridding themselves of pleasant illusions, can be susceptible to depression given what they experience and see and come to know. However, there are gifts in melancholy, whether that is a clear-sighted view of what is often unpleasant reality, or the commitment to do what is right without the illusion that it will necessarily be pleasant. Those qualities are necessary at times in life, and they are the sorts of qualities that help people become more noble in character, refined by the fire of life’s trials and tribulations.