Book Review: ‘Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life’

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A lot, according to John Gray in Feline Philosophy, a playful but insightful new book

Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, by John Gray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $24)

Parents sometimes say that nothing gives you more insight into the natural differences between men and women than raising a boy and a girl. I don’t have kids, so I can’t really judge — but I do know that one could make an analogous claim about cats and dogs. As the owner of one of each, I find it obvious that they have very different natures. My dog is energetic, submissive, and warm; my cat is lazy, independent, and standoffish. When I call my dog’s name he runs to me; when I call my cat’s name she looks at me with sheer indifference, not moving a muscle. My dog is happy to do as I do: to sleep with me if I’m sleepy, to walk outside with me if I need fresh air. If my cat does anything with me, it is on her terms. If she doesn’t want to cuddle with me, she won’t; if she wants to eat, she will meow at me until I feed her.

Now you might be wondering: Is there any place for a discussion of cats and dogs in a serious political publication such as this? Yes: A serious thinker has come out with a book arguing that we can learn much about human nature by analyzing the nature of cats. (Okay, there’s not so much about dogs in here, but I needed to mention them so as not to be accused of pet favoritism.)

In Feline Philosophy, John Gray, observing how cats live their lives, tries to draw lessons about how we should live ours. A philosopher by training, Gray writes widely about politics; he has published books on liberal political philosophy, on the modern condition, and on atheism. He now turns his attention to our feline companions, and to what they might teach us.

Feline Philosophy is not a philosophical treatise, nor is it an exposition of the scientific literature on feline behavior. It is instead a short essay that makes playful (yet insightful and provocative) hypotheses about cat nature, with the ultimate intention of providing wisdom about humanity.

When I first heard about this book I expected it to be filled with cute stories about, well, cats. This would have been fine by me. I soon saw, however, that Gray’s love of cats was rather peculiar, and certainly different from my own. He recognizes their cuteness, of course — but he almost seems to love cats on account of his disdain for humans. At the very least he thinks that cats are superior to us in some important ways. Whenever he compares cat nature to human nature, he finds the latter wanting.

Consider Gray’s comparison of cat love and human love. He argues that even when cats love humans, they remain independent of us. So long as we provide for their basic necessities, they will remain in their natural state of contentment. They can be attached to us, but they do not need us. In contrast, Gray holds, human love is characterized by all sorts of pathologies:

Among human beings love and hate are often mixed. We may love others deeply, and at the same time resent them. The love we feel for other human beings may become hateful to us, and be felt as a burden, a fetter on our freedom, while the love they feel for us can seem false and untrustworthy. If, despite these suspicions, we go on loving them, we may come to hate ourselves.

Cats are also superior, Gray reasons, because they lack the capacity for thought — and thought, in his estimation, is a curse. Thought gives rise to self-consciousness, which in turn enables us to know that we are going to die. “Our image of ourselves passing through time,” he writes, “comes with the realization that we will soon pass away. Much of our lives are spent running from our own shadow.” The story of Adam and Eve is meant to impart this very lesson: “In the Garden of Eden, the primordial human pair are clothed in ignorance of themselves. When they come to self-awareness, they find they are naked. Thinking of yourself is the gift of the serpent that cannot be returned.”

For Gray, then, thought is a source of existential anxiety that serves only to perturb our souls. Cats, meanwhile, do not think; hence they are not beset by perpetual unrest as we are.

Now one might object that cats are not special, since no animal is capable of abstract thought, certainly not at the level at which humans practice it. But Gray is aware of this; he responds by saying that even if cats did have the capacity for a human degree of abstract reasoning, they would still “retain the ease with which they inhabit the world.” Presumably he infers as much from the way they currently behave, though he does not explain how cats would differ in this regard from other nonhuman animals. In any case, he argues that whereas humans engage in philosophy to answer the questions that torment us, feline philosophers — if they existed — would practice their craft merely as a form of amusement.

So cats and humans have fundamentally different natural dispositions toward life. “Happiness in humans is an artificial state,” Gray writes. “For cats it is their natural condition.” Human happiness entails a struggle against our very nature, because it is in our nature to be miserable. Happiness for us therefore requires diversion. We spend our lives seeking power or wealth or love in the hope of escaping the inevitable angst that comes with our self-consciousness. Cats, on the other hand, attain happiness by simply being.

One is tempted to put in a few good words for humanity against Gray’s indictment. He is of course right to point out that human love is often unhealthy and that human thought often produces anguish. But the overall picture he paints is rather one-sided. If love can lead to great pain, it can also lead to great happiness. Bertrand Russell, another British philosopher, wrote in the prologue to his autobiography that he

sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy — ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness — that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.

Human thought, too, has its blessings. For instance, reason can help us appreciate beautiful things. When we think about the effort and ingenuity that went into creating a great painting, or a great piece of literature, or a great cathedral or palace, we feel an awe and a delight that are unavailable to creatures that lack reason. (To be fair, Gray might counter that the aesthetic bliss enabled partly by reason is not enough — is nothing like enough — to compensate for all the anxiety and confusion that reason also generates.)

Setting aside Gray’s bleak assessment of humanity, which is defensible even if you disagree with it, let us consider his proposals for how we should live. What indeed can cats teach us? Toward the end of the book Gray offers ten “feline hints on how to live well” — that is, tips that a cat would give us if only it could talk. Some of them are quite congenial to me — for example, “sleep for the joy of sleeping,” and “forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it.” That sounds sensible enough.

A few of Gray’s other feline tips are more controversial. He counsels us not to bother “persuading human beings to be reasonable,” because we are not reasonable and it is folly to pretend that we are. He tells us to “beware anyone who offers to make you happy.” Such people are not to be trusted, for they “offer to make you happy in order that they themselves may be less unhappy.” For Gray, those who claim to live for others only want to alleviate their own pain. I leave these tips for the reader to ponder.

The weakest part of the book comes in a somewhat odd argument that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the text. Apart from his observations about cats and humans, and the lessons he draws from them, Gray holds that “a good life for any living thing depends on what it needs to fulfill its nature. The good life is relative to this nature.” In a different passage he writes that “the good life is not the life you want but one in which you are fulfilled” — and what you find fulfilling will be determined by your individual nature. But there is an obvious problem. Gray has spent much of the book criticizing the contradictions of human nature, so how can he then encourage us to find fulfillment by attempting to realize that very nature? Strangely, Gray anticipates this objection but does not offer a solution. “Human nature has produced many divergent and at times antagonistic forms of life,” he writes. So “how can anyone know their own nature, when human nature is so contradictory?” Well, how indeed? He does not tell us.

Feline Philosophy is worth reading if you love cats or philosophy, and especially if you love both. The author is a bit of a misanthrope, but his misanthropy is central to the text and explains some of its appeal. This succinct book contains deep insights about the human condition and, yes, a few cute stories about cats. What else can one ask for?

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