I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist . . . you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that ­absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange. . . . Yes, well, as I say, this young Thomist told me that not only could my dog not love me (since he lacks a rational nature), but I could not love my dog (something about there needing to be some rational equality between lover and beloved). Now, while I admitted that I could only presume the former claim to be incorrect (if only on account of the tender sobriquets—Honeychild, Blossom, Barbarossa—by which my dog addresses me), I was adamant that I could be absolutely certain of the falsity of the latter. But my friend was not deterred: “Oh, no,” he insisted, “you don’t really love him; you just think you do because of your deep emotional attachment to him.”

Of course. Foolish of me. Leave it to a two-tier Thomist to devise a definition of love that does not actually involve love. If you can believe in pure nature, I suppose you can believe anything.

The occasion of the exchange, incidentally, was a long and rather tediously circular conversation concerning Christian eschatology. My interlocutor was an adherent to a particularly colorless construal of the beatific vision, one that allows for no real participation of animal creation (except eminently, through us) in the final blessedness of the Kingdom; I, by contrast, hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason. On his side, all the arguments were drawn from Thomas and his expositors; on mine, they were drawn from Scripture; naturally, limited to the lesser source of authority, I was at a disadvantage. Still, it seemed worth voicing a few protests, even if only a debiliori: that the biblical imagery of the redeemed state is cosmic in scope and positively teeming with fauna (lions lying down with lambs and such)—that Paul’s vision of salvation in Romans 8 is of the entirety of creation restored and glorified—things of that sort. All in vain, though; nothing I said could rival the dialectical force of his ringing sic Thomas dixit.

All right, I am being rather unfair. He was wrong, of course, but not boringly doctrinaire. I bring the conversation up because it came to mind last week when I was reading about a Christian ethicist so passionately committed to defending the (unmistakably) exceptional nature of human beings that he thinks it necessary to forbid his children any sentimental solicitude for the suffering of beasts, and to disabuse them of the least trace of the dangerous fantasy or pathetic fallacy that animals experience anything analogous to human emotions, motives, or needs; they cannot really, he insists, know anxiety, grief, regret, or disappointment, and so we should never allow them to divert our sympathies or ethical longings from their proper object.

I really have no idea what to make of that. Certainly, as tutelage in a rightly ordered moral sense, it would be hard to imagine a more disastrous course to take. Granted, ethical discernment requires a sane arrangement of priorities—a baby makes moral demands on us that a budgerigar cannot—but it definitely does not require the suppression of any natural impulse of pity, mercy, concern, or fellow feeling. Compassion, like any of love’s modalities—like any virtue—is not diminished in being extended, but becomes an ever more deeply rooted habitus of the soul. And the reverse is true too. There could be no better way of instilling indifference to human suffering in a child than to train that child in callousness toward the quite obvious sorrows, terrors, yearnings, and hopes of animals.

And they are obvious. At least, our experience of the animals with whom we live is that they exhibit behaviors similar to many of our own; that those behaviors clearly seem to be signs of emotional and mental qualities familiar to us from our own knowledge of ourselves; that animals possess distinctive individual traits, characteristics that are irreducibly personal (even if we feel obliged to recoil from that word on metaphysical principle), their own peculiar affections and aversions, expectations and fears; that many beasts command certain rational skills; and that all of this makes some kind of natural appeal to our moral sense. (Among my own pets over the years, I have known a dog who would protect and tend any wounded animal she came across with doting tenderness, a cat who unmistakably mourned the death of his brother, another cat who brought food of her own to share with a dog who would not eat, and so forth.) We can, if we feel we must, for the sake of our prior assumptions, strive to convince ourselves that all of that is just so much maudlin anthropomorphism; but we might just as well try to convince ourselves that the kindred feelings and thoughts we fancy we perceive in our fellow human beings are just so much mawkish “idiomorphism.” It is an almost impossible feat of willful ignorance—a denial of direct experience verging on sheer emotional and moral obtuseness.

It is also boring. We have learned so much about the intelligence, cognitive and social, of so many animals—humpback whales, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, elephants, gray parrots, dogs, and so on—all of it quite fascinating, thought-provoking, and in many cases delightful, and it seems a cruel impoverishment of our speculative and moral imaginations to dismiss it all as a process of biomechanical stimulus and response, only accidentally resembling the workings of human consciousness. Nor, I think, does the acknowledgment of animal consciousness truly threaten to diminish our sense of the vast gulf—cognitive, moral, creative, imaginative—separating the human world from that of even the most intelligent of animals. In fact, all my anxieties run in the opposite direction: that, in order to affirm the uniqueness of humanity within organic nature, as well as the unique moral obligations it entails, we will reject all evidence of intentionality, reason, or affection in animals as something only apparently purposive, doing so by reference to the most egregiously vapid of philosophical naturalism’s mystifications—“instinct”—and thereby opening the way to a mechanistic narrative that, as we have learned from an incessant torrent of biological and bioethical theory in recent decades, can be extended to human behavior as well. Concede that a dog’s love is really only “instinct” masquerading as love and, surprisingly, you will find you cannot prevent others from concluding that human love is just a more elaborate variation of the same phenomenon. Far better to take pleasure in the knowledge that all consciousness, however meager, is already a challenge to the mechanical philosophy.

In the end, it comes down to metaphysics (as all things do). If one adheres to, say, a particularly crude version of the Aristotelian or Thomistic picture of animate life, and thinks that the vegetal, animal, and rational functions of the soul must be segregated into strictly impermeable compartments, then one cannot regard the hierarchy of the nutritive, sensitive, and intellectual capacities of a rational being as anything but a composite series of suppositions and superpositions; then the rational soul is simply “something other” than all other aspects of natural life, inhabiting the physical world like a Cartesian ghost or angelic metic (an unsettlingly gnostic picture). My own preference, however, is to preserve the hierarchy of “psychic” functions, but within a theological vision of the human like that of Maximus the Confessor, perhaps somewhat “updated” (taking into account, I mean, the hierarchy’s “horizontal” axis—its evolutionary history—as well).

For Maximus, the human being is the great “­methorios” (that is, both boundary and medium) between the ­material and spiritual orders, the priest of creation and so the microcosm in whom created nature is summed up and joined to the spiritual realm. It is tempting—to me, at any rate—to imagine humanity standing at the apex of the material world’s “great chain of being” not as a kind of cosmic viceroy presiding over an alien colony, but as the true mediator of rational light to the physical realm, including the minds and wills of beasts. It should not startle us, then, to discover that there are different degrees within the continuum of eminence comprised by human nature: greater or lesser approximations to human reason, fuller or feebler adumbrations.

I am aware of the objections that the suggestion might provoke from those who, on philosophical or ethically prudential grounds, believe that human uniqueness can be affirmed only by insisting on an impenetrable partition between rational and animal soul, erected precisely where the human body ends and all other bodies begin. But I am too intransigent in my sentimentality, perhaps, to argue the point at length. I would rather defer the question to the end of days, when creation will be restored in the Kingdom, shadows in mirrors will yield to the light of clear ­knowledge, and (so I am reliably informed) the lion will lie down with the lamb.