It is perhaps appropriate that I should finish John Gray’s Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life with my own mackerel tabby tomcat sitting squarely and contentedly upon my lap. This is particularly so as Gray’s book seeks to ‘get to grips with the philosophical and moral issues around the uniquely strange relationship between ourselves and [cats]’.
Part philosophical examination of how our relationship with cats can inform what it means to be human, and part self-help manual with its closing ‘Ten Feline Hints on How to Live Well’, Feline Philosophy draws upon centuries of philosophy, with references to the likes of Montaigne, Pascal and Schopenhauer interspersed with illuminating passages about the lives of cats – both real and fictional – from the writings of the Japanese novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki, Mary Gaitskill and Doris Lessing amongst others.
The result is a highly readable, often charming and occasionally whimsical mix of philosophical musings, literary fiction and autobiographical writing, at the core of which, is a central comparative exploration of the vagaries of both cat nature and human nature. In particular, while Gray posits that cat nature can be relatively easily defined in its very constancy, just what is human nature when it is at home? Referencing the French polymath Blaise Pascal and the Russian dissident writer Varlam Shalamov, Gray argues that, as mankind has increasingly divorced itself from nature by way of notions of its superiority as a species, the concept of a ‘human spirit’ is a shaky one. That is to say that during times of extreme adversity, such as being incarcerated in an Arctic gulag in the case of Shalamov, human beings quickly lose what we conceive of as their ‘humanity’ whilston the other hand, ‘cats never stop being cats’.
In addition to this, Gray reminds us that human civilisations haven’t always been defined by a sense of superiority over other animals, and that this belief has largely arisen via the adoption of monotheism and notions of man being made in God’s image. Indeed, such was René ‘I think therefore I am’ Descartes’ zeal to demonstrate that unlike humans, animals were insensate machines, that he reportedly threw a cat out of a window and declared its terrified screams to be nothing more than a mechanical reaction.
Naturally, being both a cat-lover and atheist, Gray gives Descartes short shrift and argues that humans neither rank above other animals, nor below them. And while cats are no different to other animals in being blissfully unburdened by the knowledge of their own mortality and the need to invest their lives with meaning because of this, Gray argues that while cats have nothing to learn from us, they, in as much as they are domesticated companions that are far less dependent on human interaction than dogs, have much to teach us.
Personally, on an immediately practical level and finding myself increasingly in need of the occasional afternoon nap as I get older, I found Gray’s feline-inspired exhortation to ‘sleep for pleasure, not profit. Sleeping so that you can work harder when you wake up is a miserable way to live,’ particularly agreeable. (IL)
Feline Philosophy: Cats and The Meaning of Life by John Gray (Allen Lane / 2020)