September 17, 2020

If one reason for writing a book about cats and philosophy was my love of cats, another was a certain scepticism regarding philosophy. Over the many years in which I pondered writing the book, philosophers responded with bafflement to the notion that cats might be a proper subject of inquiry. One objected that they have no history. When I replied that lacking the sort of history that humans possess might not be a disadvantage in living a good life, he looked dumfounded. Another told me he shared my view that cats should be of interest to philosophers. As testimony to his broadness of mind, he told me he was teaching his cat to become a vegan.

When cats come up against human stupidity, they don’t try to change it. They simply walk away. The cat that was the subject of a philosopher’s experiment in moral education was out of doors much of the time, I discovered. As well as hunting for her food, she had most likely found a second home. If the philosopher persisted in his moralising enterprise she would depart permanently. The follies of philosophers are entertaining, for a time. But they are also rather repetitive, and after a while it seems best to move on. Part of the purpose of my book is to deflate the anthropocentrism of philosophers, but it’s not philosophers I’m concerned to persuade. Rather, my aim is to dispel some illusions regarding philosophy itself.

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Of course philosophy has served many human impulses. Contrary to what is commonly supposed, an interest in truth has rarely been dominant. In its western variant, the subject seems to have begun as a search for ataraxia — a state of mental equilibrium that cannot be disturbed by the accidents of life. In other words, philosophy is used as a calmative throughout much of its history. There is some evidence that the ancient Greek Sceptics may have been influenced by contact with Indian practitioners of meditation they called gymnosophists (“naked sages”); the Epicureans and the Stoics followed the Sceptics in making tranquillity the endpoint of philosophising.

The Meditations of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius reads more like a funereal ode to resignation than a guide to living well. Epicurus was more cheerful, but his philosophy of reducing human desires to a satisfiable minimum would cut out much of the passion that makes life worth living. Knowledge would not be pursued for its own sake; sex would be engaged in medicinally, as a form of exercise. Happily, most human beings cannot sustain ataraxia for very long.

That philosophy originated as a search for mental quietude tells us something important about human beings and how they differ from cats. A sense of uneasiness about their place in the world seems innate in humans, whereas contentment is the default condition of cats. The evident satisfaction with which cats inhabit their skins is one reason — possibly the main reason — that so many human beings enjoy being with them. It is also why some people hate them. Nothing is more aggravating to those who creep through their days in misery than knowing that other creatures are not unhappy. Medieval and early modern fairs in which cats were chased, tortured and roasted alive were festivals of the depressed. Cats have as their birth-right the freedom from unrest that philosophers have vainly tried to achieve.

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A few philosophers have recognised that there may be something to be learnt from cats. The greatest among them, the sixteenth century essayist Michel de Montaigne, famously asked: “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?” Montaigne is conventionally classified as a humanist philosopher. In fact he was as sceptical of “humanity” as he was of the Deity, and considered other animals to be superior to humans in their inborn understanding of how to live. He was also refreshingly sceptical about the claims of philosophy. He questioned any idea that practising it could produce inner peace. Even the Sceptics, who believed inner calm could be attained by suspending judgement, attributed to philosophy a power to heal the soul that it does not possess.

Instead Montaigne recommended relying on nature, together with a little artful diversion, to give us balance in life. He recovered from the melancholy that followed the death of a beloved friend, he writes, by allowing himself to fall in love again. Thinking provided no remedy, and too much thought could be harmful. A cat can leap across an abyss without turning a hair. The more a human being thinks about the fearful drop beneath, the more likely they are to fall into it. An examined life may not be humanly liveable. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein some centuries later, Montaigne seems to have thought the chief purpose of philosophy was to rid oneself of the need to philosophise.

Cats have no need of philosophy because they already know how to live. Dull, commonplace folk will say the reason cats do not philosophise is that they lack the capacity for abstract thought. But imagine a species of cats that possessed this capacity while retaining the ease with which they live in the world. They might even give humans guidance on how to live. My book contains a list of 10 feline tips or hints on the subject. Of course these are not pieces of moral advice. Cats know nothing of morality as we understand it. They obey no commandments and feel no obligation to improve the world. Yet if we think of ethics as living according to one’s nature — as the ancient Greeks and Chinese Daoists did, along with Montaigne and also Spinoza — these feline philosophers could have something useful to tell us about the good life. To be sure, they would not expect us to follow their advice, nor would they care if we did. If they engaged in philosophy, it would be as a form of play.

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Why humans suffer chronic disquiet is a deep and difficult question. Pascal thought it pointed to the divine origin of the human soul. Inherently restive, human beings spend their lives escaping from themselves in what he called diversion — activities such as sport and war, love and politics — when their true home is beyond this world. Montaigne also believed humans spent much of their lives in diversion, but regarded this as a flaw in the human animal. Enough of a sceptic to leave open the possibility of religious faith, he nonetheless thought human beings could temper their anxiety by learning how to surrender to their natural condition. Here I side with Montaigne.

One source of human unease is the awareness of mortality. In order to stave off the fact of death, we make stories of our lives and these stories become the meaning of life for us. But time and chance break up the tales we tell, so our days pass in fear of tomorrow. Humankind is the death-defined animal. In contrast, cats show signs of knowing when they are nearing death, but they do not spend their lives in dread of dying. Cats do not turn their lives into a story. Instead they know only the day, and seek no meaning beyond it. If the soul is untouched by death, the feline soul is closer to immortality than the human soul can ever be. That may be why cats have been worshipped as gods. Immortal mortals, they live without thinking of death. We humans cannot forget our mortality, but by observing the ways of cats perhaps we can forget some of our fears.

The best way to learn from cats is by living with them. My book reflects 30 years of feline company, 23 of them with a cat who was with me, still enjoying his long life, when I was writing it. But as I detail in the book, memoirs and fiction can be very illuminating. An eminent war correspondent writes of how he adopted a hungry kitten in the ancient Vietnamese city of Hue (soon to be destroyed in the course of the war). The cat grew up to be an intrepid traveller, accompanying the war correspondent across the world and living out its fierce, joyful life in New York and London. An American writer tells us how her world was undone and remade when she lost a tiny, dauntless, one-eyed cat she adopted in Italy. The pleasure cats take from our company, she suggests, may be a truer kind of love than the mixture of dependency and vanity, neediness and resentment, which so often shape the attachment of humans to one another.

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For those of us who love them, a large part of the charm of cats is that they are not domesticated. They live with us and may cherish our company. But unlike dogs they have not become part-human, and while they may come to love us they do not at bottom need us. If they can no longer rely on human beings they soon re-wild. Rather than being domesticated by humans for their practical usefulness, cats domesticated humans by teaching us to love them. They seem to have begun co-habiting with us around twelve thousand years ago, when they discovered rodents in grain stores that humans had created, in shifting to our more sedentary way of life. Cats have been prized for their skills in pest control ever since, though they are not always very efficient in this capacity. There are photographs of cats and mice together, with the cats showing no interest in the mice. In return for our giving them a home cats give us their company, but never become our servants.

The cliché that humans project their own emotions onto their animal companions is the opposite of the truth in regard to cats. People who love cats do not do so because they imagine cats resemble them. They love cats because they know cats are very different from themselves. Without contact with something beyond their world, human beings soon go mad. By entering our world, cats have given us a window looking out of it.

Cats teach a paradox. If you pursue ataraxia you will spend most of your life in turmoil. Not craving inner quietude, cats revert to it whenever they are not practically threatened. Not looking for meaning in their lives, they are free to live them as they come, without looking for distraction or consolation. It is life itself that they value.

Human beings may be too frail to emulate the fearless lucidity of the feline mind. Philosophy, after all, is testimony to human infirmity. Better take up a religion, or return without regret to the common world of diversion. But whatever you do, consider: you will live more lightly if you pass some of your time with a cat.

Feline Philosophy: Cats and the meaning of life will be published by Penguin

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  • October 3, 2020
    I like cats and dogs and several other species of mammals and also birds and some other non-mammalian species. And I like philosophy and have studied it seriously, off and on, for more than fifty years. One might find this article amusing or not (I’m in the latter category), but it has no serious... Read more

  • September 21, 2020
    In a rare sojourn to Princeton's MBA program, Einstein proved that time is, indeed, money : ) Read more

  • September 21, 2020
    Hmm. I'm unconvinced that dogs or cats cannot bring memories to mind voluntarily. I have seen no evidence to support the idea. We do know they dream... Read more

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