Recalling my pilgrimage to the grounds of Plato’s Academy several years ago, I was first reminded (in a roundabout way, as this post and the next will spell out) of my dog Aktis’s love of ball games, and then of philosophy’s idleness. Those boys playing soccer in that dreary lonesome park in a forgotten part of Athens sparked a fond memory of a humid evening last summer when Aktis and I were idle spectators at a soccer game. We were walking through a neighborhood park along the edge of a soccer field where a game was in progress. Divided into shirts and skins, the players were all Hispanic men, and they were good: fast, nimble, and handling the ball masterfully, with real finesse. This was no mere pickup game.
I stopped and settled in to watch for awhile. Akits reluctantly sat beside me (reluctant because technically this was a time-out during his afternoon walk). The sidelines were crowded with waiting players, spouses with children, and the odd bystander, ourselves among them. Ordinarily pick-up games are noisy affairs with the players cheerfully or not so cheerfully mocking, scolding, teasing, instructing, or commanding each other. But this game was relatively quiet: when someone spoke, it was aimed at advancing the game. The quiet increased the intensity of the game and made it easier to get absorbed in watching it.
After awhile something began nagging at the edge of my attention. I looked over at Aktis, always the likely suspect, and realized that it was the absence of an expected protest from him that had distracted me from the game. (What creatures of habit we are!) As I looked at him I thought how unusual it was that minutes had passed without him notifying me—by standing, by whining once or twice, by tugging on the leash—that I’d been standing around long enough and it was high time to move on. Yet there he was, so wholly absorbed in watching the game that he hadn’t noticed I was watching him.
Aktis’s gaze was fixed firmly on the ball as it made its way around the field. At one point, the player possessing the ball was about ten meters away and headed straight for us. Aktis tilted his head and then stood up, saying through his body language: “I’ll go ahead and get that ball!” To which I replied, whispering, “Oh, no you don’t.” Aktis sat back down, never taking his gaze off the ball. Just before the player reached us he made a beautiful pass upfield; as he kicked the ball Aktis tilted his head to the other side. He followed the ball’s journey from one player to another, usually moving his head when the ball changed possession. It was adorable (yes, German shepherds can be adorable) and wonderful to watch.
I’m convinced that Aktis was genuinely curious about the game. Indeed he was now more interested in being the idle spectator than he was in persuading me to move on so that we could work and play together. And that’s something, for I’m here to tell you he’s not usually a theoretical dog. Like others of his species, he regards almost all talk—and certainly all speculation—as idle; he lives for deeds. But here he was on the sidelines, cocking his head to one side then the other, plainly fascinated by the game.
I’ve always admired the pure concentration with which he locks his gaze on me or anything at the center of his attention. When he’s curious about what you’re saying or doing, or if he’s trying to sort something out, he often tilts his head to one side, then the other, as he did during the game. It’s as though his big erect ears were satellite dishes triangulating the best angle for receiving whatever message he’s seeking. He’s also always been an uncommonly visual dog. When only three months old, he noticed and then followed an osprey circling a hundred feet overhead. (I’ve never been around another dog that would track birds and planes high in the sky, but then again I’ve never had a bird dog!) He’s so visual that when I was training him in the basics of tracking, I occasionally worked him at night so that he would have to rely on his nose.
Here’s my speculation as to why he was fascinated. (If you’re interested in the evolutionary backstory of my interpretation, check out my book.) Like most dogs and most humans, Aktis loves ball games. He loves to track, hunt and chase; he loves to possess the ball and he loves to have you try to get it from him. Thus the game had intrinsic interest. So now, having been informed that this wasn’t a game he was going to be subbed into, he settled into watching these strangers do the sort of thing he loves to do—run with a ball, tussle with a competitor for possession, race after it when it gets loose, and so on. Again, like us, dogs are deeply social intelligent predators, so such patterns are instinctively familiar to them. In addition, Aktis had experienced elements of the game from us playing a stripped-down version of soccer with him. Moreover, because these players were so good, the game looked more organized and less chaotic than most soccer games. This made me wonder whether the very orderliness of the game might also be provoking his curiosity, as though the patterns were being so clearly exemplified that they suggested a meaning begging to be grasped—as though if he could just grasp it, he too could play the game!
How charmed I was to be watching a ballgame and notice that my canine pal was watching it right along with me. One more thing to add to the list of what we can share with dogs.
In my next post, I’ll continue down the serpentine path that led from the Academy to soccer dogs, and which will bring me to an observation about how one of philosophy’s most important landmarks could be utterly forgotten to history. Hint: the middle term is playing games.