Tank, a bulldog with a heart as loyal as a soldier, and Bojangles, a rambunctiously sweet rescue dog, were two of the loves of my life. Inseparable, they died within a year of each other. Believing that they had souls, I gave them as good a passage from this world as possible, at home and surrounded by family.
Yet after my dogs' deaths I found myself feeling oddly shy talking about their loss, even as I choked back tears. Why, I wondered, did I feel so self-conscious -- and why did I have only the fuzziest notions about the afterlife of my animal companions?
In search of insight, I turned to Ptolemy Tompkins' new book, "The Divine Life of Animals: One Man's Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On." In it, Tompkins undertakes an exploration into the myths and beliefs across time that have defined animals' place in the metaphysical scheme of things. In the following interview, I share the highlights of our conversation.
Pythia: In your book you range from prehistoric cultures that viewed animals as spiritual beings, to Buddhist beliefs around the reincarnation of animals, and figures like Saint Augustine, who believed that animals would not be found in heaven. What was your purpose in laying out all these and other scenarios?
Ptolemy: In our modern culture, where people are skittish about talking about whether humans have souls, you can't just immediately jump to the animal soul. So I saw myself as having to go back through history and see when the idea of the soul began. I wanted to address why we sense that the soul is real, but feel out of touch with what it really is.
Whether a 12th century Sufi mystic or an Australian aborigine, people used to have a much more specific idea of the soul. But we live in an age of metaphysical timidity: people don't want to ask serious questions about the soul and the afterlife because they're afraid that they're being naive -- and all this goes triply for asking about your dead dog. But if an animal or someone I know dies, where is that specific personality that I knew? Did it melt back into some kind of larger consciousness? Does it still exist in another dimension? These are completely valid existential questions.
Pythia: I was fascinated by your description of the "Fall" -- the narrative of a golden era when animals and humans lived together in harmony until dropping out of it into conflict -- that you say is one of our oldest stories. Why does this myth have such significance?
Ptolemy: Whether in the Brazilian rain forest or the story of Adam and Eve there is this recurring theme that in the past animals and humans lived in more fluid accord with each other. What a lot of thinkers believe this myth means is that life on the physical level was preceded by a spiritualized existence that we "fell" out of. But it's also understood that at some point in the future things will return to their true essences and that the journey of life, while difficult, has something good about it.
Pythia: Another theme in your book is the ongoing question of which species is more important -- animals or humans. Where did you come out on that debate?
Ptolemy: There are two arguments in myth and religion that go back and forth. In one, humans are at the center of everything. Or, humans are just arrogant beings who think they're special when they're not. I decided that both these ideas are extremes. Along with other thinkers, I believe that there is something about human beings that sets us apart from the rest of nature, but that doesn't mean that we aren't a part of nature. Very often in myths of the Fall, for instance, it's a human being who causes the problem. What this says to me is that our humanness is a special part of creation, but that we ruin our uniqueness when we cut ourselves off from nature.
Pythia: How does what you're saying fit in with this other idea that you write about, the "Great Chain of Being?"
Ptolemy: In esoteric philosophy you find this idea that the cosmos is hierarchically structured. In this Great Chain of Being, animals are below and angels are above, with human beings dead center in the middle. Some say this is a humanist-centric idea and that it denigrates animals. But I think that at it's best it means that something more is demanded of us. In all the traditional cultures it's the responsibility of human beings to oversee the interactions of the different species, and to honor nature through ritual activities.
Pythia: At the end of your book, you seem to indicate that we're coming full circle, and entering a new era.
Ptolemy: I think we're in a time when a new overarching narrative needs to come into play. We don't know exactly what that is yet: it has something to do with science and religion meeting, and with Eastern and Western faiths. The New Age drives me nuts, even though I'm kind of a New Age person because my dad raised me in it. (Tompkins' father, Peter Tompkins, was the author of "The Secret Life of Plants.") But there is a core intuition at its heart that is correct, which is that there is a new story about to come together out of this huge mix of different perspectives. Something is about to change, but it hasn't happened yet and that's why there's so much confusion.
Pythia: Does this circling around to a different story that is both old and new also include integrating the values of prehistoric and indigenous cultures, especially with regard to animals?
Ptolemy: We are as cut off from nature and our true spiritual identities as it's possible to be without going crazy. What we've done to the planet is a symptom of that. No traditional culture would look at a human being without the context of the natural world. But if we're going to move out of that state of alienation and back into a state of genuine connection with the universe, we have to do it with animals. We fell out of Paradise together, and we'll fall back into it together.
Pythia: Indeed in your book you write that, "Whenever humans forge a truly spiritual connection with animals the space separating earth from heaven becomes just a little smaller." In this sense is the way we relate to animals an important spiritual practice?
Ptolemy: Anytime you have a feeling of compassion for an animal you're connecting to the entire physical and spiritual universe. It's a tiny keyhole to this whole lost world of connection. You can still be a realist and know that physical life is tough. But you can also feel that connection to an animal and its existential plight, and realize that it's a brutal world for animals marked by suffering. In the course of this conversation, how many pigs have been slaughtered in South Carolina?
Pythia: At the end of your book, you arrive at your own synthesis of ideas about the next world as a kind of transcendent earth where the individual personality, animal or human, lives on.
Ptolemy: To me, there's no question that there is another world. Although it's beyond our present capacity to imagine, the physical world in the afterlife isn't erased, as much as it is completed, an "earth above the earth." The bigger world above this one, which this world is on its way back into, will somehow resolve the ghastliness of this world. T.S. Eliot expressed something of what I'm trying to say in a line from "The Four Quartets": "The completion of partial ecstasies, the resolution of its partial horrors."