Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week


Word of the Week

Many are the stories we associate with the brave and humble DOG — to use C. S. Lewis’s happy words, our servant, fellow-worker, playfellow, and jester. Here’s one of the best-known. Odysseus, in disguise as a beggar who’s seen a lot and suffered a lot, has returned to his homestead in Ithaca, after twenty years of war and wandering on the seas. Nobody recognizes him. He is approaching his house, in the company of the faithful swineherd Eumaeus, when he catches sight of a very old dog lying in the sun on a heap of dung. The dog is flea-infested and gray; neglected by the servants. But he flattens his ears a little and wags his tail and whimpers. Eumaeus doesn’t hear it. Odysseus does. The dog’s name is Argos, and it was Odysseus who trained him when he was just a puppy. Argos — the name suggests both light and speed. Argos — I translate it as FLASH. There lies Flash, unable to move. Odysseus sheds a tear, which he doesn’t let Eumaeus see. But he asks the swineherd whether the dog was any good in the hunt, or just a useless lap-dog. Ah, says Eumaeus, he was the best of dogs, always in the front, never missing the scent, never going down the wrong trail. And Odysseus walks on, satisfied, but in that moment, as the poet Homer says, death fell in darkness upon the eyes of Flash, who had seen his master Odysseus, after twenty years.

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Our Word of the Week is a saying, “Man’s best friend,” and I’m told by dog-friendly anthropologists that it’s quite true. You see, the dog was able to pick off and separate healthy young rams from a wild flock, and healthy young bulls from a herd of wild oxen, and so on for draught animals and other large animals to be domesticated, and that meant that you could have shepherding and agriculture on a large scale. How can you plow the land, otherwise? Man and dog have been together so long, you may as well say that as a matter of sheer biological fact, the full flourishing of all the dog’s animal powers comes only in human society. “What is dog’s chief end?” says a Canine Catechism. “To serve Man, and love him forever.” A dog was the first present I ever asked my parents for, and so they took me to a dog pound in Allentown on my seventh birthday, where I picked out a collie runt and named him Duke. For we Americans may not give royal titles to our politicians, but we often give them to our dogs, who deserve them better! Since that time I haven’t been more than two years without a dog. Right now, we have Molly, a terrier puppy, alert, loyal, affectionate, sometimes a bit of a pest, but always happy when we are near.

The notion that dogs are faithful isn’t new. After all, the cartoon dog name “Fido” suggests as much. The ancient Romans loved their dogs. CAVE CANEM, read the mosaic on the doorstep of a house I saw in Pompeii: BEWARE OF THE DOG. The poet Lucretius was fond of them too, and noticed that setters will dream of chasing after the deer, “flaring their nostrils and sniffling over and over,” while the lapdogs “will leap to their feet with a sudden shake, as if / They’d caught sight of some stranger breaking in.” The best “dog” in Scripture is Caleb, Joshua’s faithful friend, whose name means “dog,” but then, for Catholics and the eastern Orthodox, there’s also the dog that followed the boy Tobiah when he and Raphael traveled on a long journey to bring assistance back to the boy’s father, Tobit, a saintly man reduced to poverty and stricken blind. And when they come back at last, when they’re within sight of home, we are told that the dog wagged his tail. I like to think that at my first shy and abashed entry into Paradise, if the Lord in his grace will have it so, I will be met by a four-legged fellow I’ll have seen before, wagging his tail and yelping, as if to say, “You’re here at last! I thought you’d never come!”

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We aren’t sure where the phrase “Man’s Best Friend” originated. Here’s the beginning of the entry for CHIEN (DOG) in Voltaire’s Philosophical Encyclopedia (1764): “It appears that Nature has given the dog to man for his defense and his pleasure. He is the most faithful of all the animals: he is the best friend a man can have.” I don’t care for Voltaire, but I’ll give him this one, gladly. Of course the phrase is meant in a general way: the dog is MANKIND’S best friend. One of my favorite dogs in English literature is the big goofy galumphing mastiff-mutt, Diogenes, which the young Mr. Toots gives to Florence, the heroine in Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Diogenes barks at all the right people — the bad ones; though sometimes he makes a mistake and barks at a good fellow, and afterwards is embarrassed by it. Of course, the dog is named after the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who held all the human race in scorn, and lived in a tub, and snarled at everybody, so his enemies called him and his followers “kynikoi,” what we now call Cynics, that is, Currish Guys. Diogenes the dog was a lot nicer than Diogenes the man.

Holy Family, Bartolome Esteban Murillo. Public Domain.

Many of our friends here have heard us reminisce about our dog Jasper, he of the 75 tricks, such as “Perch” — he jumps on the back of the couch, standing, and planting his front paws on my head — and “Present Yourself” — he comes over to where I am sitting on the floor, sits, and places one paw on each of my knees, waiting for the next command — and “Levitate” — he leaps three feet in the air, quite parallel to the ground. If only we human beings were so reliable! There’s a wonderful painting by Murillo that I think shows, by a dog, what we ought to be. Mary is at her distaff, spinning thread, and looking on with a smile. Joseph, a man in the prime of life, is seated on a chair, and he holds the toddler Jesus in his hands, while Jesus, standing up and facing away from Joseph, holds a dove in one hand, up above his head, while a little white dog looks on and “begs” for the present. I’ll let you think about that for a while! Ah, the Old Masters — they were faithful, too.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week
Stop by on Mondays to hear Tony discuss the word of the week, with etymologies, ad libs .. and pizzazz.
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