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Humans don’t know how to be happy No self-respecting cat would have written a book like John Gray's new Feline Philosophy

Cats don't overthink. Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Cats don't overthink. Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images


October 26, 2020   4 mins

Many years ago, the late Alan Coren observed that three categories of books seemed to be surefire bestsellers: books about Nazis, books about golf and books about cats. In 1975, therefore, he published a book called Golfing for Cats, and put a swastika on its cover. It was a huge success. It’s with similar thoughts in mind, I suspect, that John Gray’s perspicacious editor at Allen Lane, Simon Winder, will have encouraged the great philosopher to produce his new little book, Feline Philosophy. 

It is, in its way, a more whimsical and till-point friendly companion-piece to Gray’s 2013 The Silence of Animals. And with it John Gray — for whom the idea of progress is a myth, morality a vain imagining, reason an ignis fatuus and the search for truth a fool’s errand — even dips his gnarled toe into the listicle-infested waters of self-help, supplying in his final chapter “Ten Feline Hints On How To Live Well”. Actually, it’s very charming. And, despite his gloomy worldview, he clearly loves cats, the big softy.

Gray has one central idea, around which he circles like a cat preparing to settle in a laundry basket. It is that what marks humans out from other species is our reflexive thinking and our abstract awareness of our own mortality. Humans are miserable because we try to find meaning in something larger than ourselves – be that systems of philosophy, religious devotion or abstract ideas about the thriving of our species. All of these are, one way or another, unsatisfactory displacement activities: we are, in the cat-loving T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “distracted from distraction by distraction”, constantly trying to push down the terror of the meaningless and inevitable extinction that awaits us.

Cats don’t worry about that stuff, Gray says. They don’t tell stories to themselves about themselves. They accept their own natures, rather than seeking to change or understand them. They live in their bodies and in their sense-worlds, moment to moment. “Unless they are confined within environments that are unnatural for them, cats are never bored. Boredom is fear of being alone with yourself. Cats are happy being themselves, while humans try to be happy by escaping themselves.”

The whole project of philosophy, Gray says in the first few pages, is essentially misconceived: “posing as a cure, philosophy is a symptom of the disease it pretends to remedy”. We are made miserable by our faculty for thinking, in other words, and we try to make ourselves happy with… more thinking. As the title of Boethius’s most influential work expresses it, we look for “consolations” in philosophy, and we look in vain. “Throughout much of its history, philosophy has been a search for truths that are proof against mortality,” Gray writes — from the idea of an eternal realm of Platonic forms onwards — but as Freud was to show, the repressed tends to return.

The three main schools of ancient philosophy — Stoics, Sceptics and Epicureans — all promised to bring their followers to the tranquil condition of ataraxia. Epicureans said you could achieve inner peace by adjusting your circumstances; Stoics by adjusting your reactions to the world; Sceptics by ceasing to try to make sense of it altogether. But even if you get a measure of relief through one of these approaches, asks Gray, is the life you end up with one much worth living? Gray dismisses Marcus Aurelius’s thinking as “not an affirmation of life but a pose of indifference to life”.

Rather, he says, there’s a sideways jump to be made: out of language and away from thinking altogether. Though he deplores the ruinous anthropocentrism of Aristotle and the Western tradition, Gray has a certain amount of time for the Taoist notion of tao and te — that is, the key to existence is for each creature to obey its own nature. The nearest parallel he finds in Western philosophy is Spinoza’s idea of conatus — which he glosses as “the tendency of living things to preserve and enhance their activity in the world”. Just be yourself, you could say.

Cats, having no choice but to be themselves and nursing no illusions that they do have a choice, find this quite unproblematic. They are, as Gray puts it, “selfless egoists”. Indeed, they even escape the charge of cruelty, which Gray calls “negative empathy”, because empathy itself is alien to them.

All of this is set out not just through vignettes of Schopenhauer, Montaigne and Descartes (dreadful cat-torturer, that last one: chucked them out of windows in a spirit of philosophical inquiry) but through a number of anecdotes and encounters with cats in history and literature. My to-read list now includes lesser-known short works by Colette, Junichirƍ Tanizaki, Mary Gaitskill and Patricia Highsmith (in the last of which a cat does a murder).

The standout is a real-life cat, the excellently named MĂšo, rescued as a kitten from the Vietnamese city of Hué ahead of the Tet Offensive by the American journalist Jack Laurence. As this whisky-drinking feline refugee moved to Connecticut, Manhattan and later the UK with his traumatised rescuer, his adventures seem to present an example of feline virtue. He passes through horrors without internalising them. Taking pleasure in a sunny windowsill even as the bombs fall, he “flourished wherever he found himself”. And he offered comfort and companionship to humans not by saying or by doing, but simply by being.

Where Gray makes a bit of a leap, of course, is in his confident assertion that cats think, or rather don’t, in the way he supposes. In truth, we have no idea what goes on in a cat’s furry little head, and that alterity is what makes them so attractive. When my cat sat on the end of the bed, perfectly still, staring at nothing, how am I to know that she wasn’t wondering intently about whether existence precedes essence? Indeed, in insisting that it’s vain of philosophers to see humans as different from the rest of the animal world, and at the same time insisting that we are uniquely cursed with self-consciousness, Gray seems to me slightly to be having his Whiskas and eating it.

And what of their ethics and affections? Gray concedes that cats show affection to humans, but he says — probably rightly — that it’s a fleeting and essentially self-interested thing. A cat won’t spend much time mourning you if you die. He concedes that a mother cat will risk death to protect her kittens, but that perhaps falls under his rubric of a beast following its nature. And he doesn’t develop what seems to me an interesting point — which is that the adult cat’s meow is an inter-species communication. They don’t meow at each other: only at us. That bears exploring, I think.

You finish reading Feline Philosophy with much to chew on — and a firm sense that no self-respecting cat would have felt the need to write such a book.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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Ali C
Ali C
3 years ago

My cat owns me and I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about this as a talkative beast…. but cats have fewer neurones than dogs as they are not herd animals – they are smart in their own way but they don’t interact or learn quite as well as dogs. But they are fabulous pets. Proper cat owner know they love fully and in special ways. Ours head butts us for ages and in return, we rub his chin. Our savannah used to lie on our collar bones while we slept, trying to be so close to us, to be almost inside us she loved us so much. She was a strange beast, prone to stealing food from strangers houses – steaks covered in gravel would appear on the floor. Cats don’t give much away but they do love.

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
3 years ago
Reply to  Ali C

Yes. My old cat was very affectionate, jumping onto everyone’s lap. When the family got together to play a board game, he couldn’t help but tread onto the board and make himself comfortable. The lap of the game, so to speak.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Girling

There’s a podcast by Eric Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying (Dark Horse Podcast) which is also a youtube video. The moment they start their cat squats on the table in front of the mic. Every single time. He seems fascinated by the whole process.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Ali C

I’m not sure it’s love – you may be anthropomorphising. But many cats certainly appear to crave physical closeness with their human. On the first night with my rescued street cat, she was so scared she hid under a table and wouldn’t come out. So I bedded down on the sofa to see what would happen. The minute the light went out she was curling on the pillow beside my head (not very hygienic!). This was a cat which had become adult without any real human contact. From that moment on we bonded.

mike lyvers
mike lyvers
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Maybe it was “mammalamorphizing”.

barwickl
barwickl
3 years ago
Reply to  Ali C

In the journal/ podcast MindDMind Matters articles/podcasts O’Leary, in her article ‘In What Ways are Cats Intelligent’ published Aug 18, 2020, discussed that while dogs brains are indeed bigger cats brains The surface folding and structure is about 90% similar to that of ours (humans, just to be clear.) The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive information processing, is greater and more complex to that of dogs, in fact a cats cerebral cortex contains approximately double the neurons to that of dogs.

Regardless cats are a trip. I remember a cat my family had when I was younger. Gucci her name was. She would sit with my step dad by the fire listening to jazz, or sit next to him as he played his studio grand piano–she seemed to really enjoy jazz…but maybe she just loved being in his presence

Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson
3 years ago

Some years ago I was home from university, where I had been reading Wittgenstein on language and ascribing states of mind. My dad and I were in the kitchen with the cat, who had just been given his evening meal, involving a new – to him – brand of cat food. Can’t remember which, but he took an instant dislike to it. One cursory sniff and he began vigorously scraping his paw on the floor next to his bowl – exactly as he would if he had just done his business in one of the flowerbeds. It’s impossible to say if he was intending to communicate for our benefit. Probably not, I would guess, but his meaning could not have been clearer from where we were standing.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

This reminded me of when, as I wallowed in the bath, I saw out of the corner of my eye our coal-black cat Benji sitting bolt upright on the counter by the basin, staring at me with unblinking eyes. I wondered what – if anything – was going on in his mind. He could have been thinking, ‘stop wallowing and feed me’, or ‘you need to lose a little off your hips, girl’. But I like to imagine he was musing on the meaning of life.

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
3 years ago

I wonder whether cats don’t grieve the loss of their slave? To add to the anecdotes, a singular memory of mine is that of my cat of the time, who was generally pretty quiet, jumping up in between my mother and I as we had an argument. She, the cat that is, yowled and rubbed and generally behaved in such an extraordinary way that we both stopped the argument, laughed and petted her to death. She soon moved off and our heated conversation started to grow back into a shouting match. Low and behold, she did it again. My mother and I rarely argued. After this experience, I’m not sure we ever did again.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

My elderly cat died a couple of months ago, but his cat flap has recently been discovered by. my next door neighbour’s cat, so I have been receiving visits. I mostly tease her with string, and she sometimes starts a good-natured fight with my hand.

Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I’m sure she’d appreciate a Dreamie or two 🙂

barwickl
barwickl
3 years ago

I believe cats mourn for those they care about. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of cats who live together when one of them passes they go around looking for them and act depressed, sometimes not eating for awhile. Mother cats are known to go around looking for kittens that have disappeared or been given away. Also if someone/animal that they care about is absent for some time, anywhere from a few weeks to even a few years, they tend to recognize them immediately upon arrival. So whole they can certainly be seen as living in the moment there may be more to it than just that.

mike lyvers
mike lyvers
3 years ago
Reply to  barwickl

I had a cat that starved himself to death after his brother died. I’ve never seen such grief. He refused water and food and died. The vet couldn’t save him. That was unusual, but it shows that at least some cats do indeed grieve the loss of a loved one.

Ian Manning
Ian Manning
3 years ago
Reply to  mike lyvers

Conversely, when my partner’s son’s male cat died, his sister, with whom he had lived since birth, was entirely unmoved. She showed no sign of missing him, not the slightest curiosity. All very odd, but showing, I guess, that, as with humans, you can’t generalise across species!

mike lyvers
mike lyvers
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Manning

Yes it is true that even among humans, siblings do not always get along!

Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson
3 years ago
Reply to  mike lyvers

Poor lad.

Barbara Martin
Barbara Martin
3 years ago
Reply to  barwickl

We had two kittens, a brother and sister. She was both beautiful and quiet whereas he was a bit messy and not very bright at all but very friendly. She spent her days hiding upstairs until, a few years later, he was ill and then he lay on a chair in the kitchen until he died peacefully. When he was still alive but obviously near the end, she came downstairs one day, looked at him, sniffed the air and decided he was not long for this world. Her character changed completely and she spent her days being friendly and the evenings sitting beside us. There is no moral to this tale but it seemed she did have a sense of self and of her position in some cat hierarchy that we were unaware of.

laptopski
laptopski
3 years ago

“Gray seems to me slightly to be having his Whiskas and eating it.”- that’s easy; eating his Whiskas and having it is difficult, if not impossible.;)

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
3 years ago

I can’t believe I’ve lived this long without coming across the word “alterity” so thanks for that.

I don’t know about cats never being bored, though.

J A Thompson
J A Thompson
3 years ago

A family I knew had one member who was blind. When the cat wanted a drink, she would stand on the basin and hit the tap with her paw, unless it was the blind person in the room, in which case she would rattle the plug and chain.

Ars Hendrik
Ars Hendrik
3 years ago

I like John Gray, he can be quite funny without meaning to be. I read ‘Straw Dogs’ years ago and remember a number of laugh out loud moments as the despair unravelled before my eyes.

I look forward to reading his book about cats, an animal very close to my heart. I have one ““ a thoroughly beautiful and useless animal that I occasionally envy (knowing full well that if I were magically transported into her tiny body I’d be stark raving nuts within five minutes).

That’s the point really ““ cats are not human, nor were meant to be. They are cats. There is literally nothing useful to learn from them other than in the abstract and imaginative. For his work then, John Gray might as well have settled upon the potato rather than the feline, for an equally meaningful comparison. Potatoes are quite content, happy to be themselves and rarely complain about anything. You can even skin them and boil them without soliciting so much as a squeak. We should be like potatoes.

All of this pointlessness reminds me of Camus’s comment in the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’: “All thoughts are anthropomorphic”. Yes, they are, be it potatoes or cats it really isn’t potatoes or cats that we are talking about ““ we are always talking about us. “If lions could speak we wouldn’t understand what they had to say” is another feline ditty along the same lines. Of course we wouldn’t understand them, how could we possibly draw anthropomorphosis from anthropomorphosis?

Once you’ve said that there is no point to anything, life is hopeless and all you can do is kill yourself of find some inane way of coping (knowing all along that you are just kidding yourself) there is very little left to say. But you are doubtless right in that anxious editors at Allen Lane need to keep the good philosopher at his Olivetti. Perhaps he’ll do the potato book next.

I know I shouldn’t be commenting upon a book I’ve not read ““ I will order it and read it, I promise. I do like the cover though: a painting by Balthus, a man who deeply loved cats and was a tad feline himself.

Ars Hendrik
Ars Hendrik
3 years ago

I like John Gray, he can be quite funny without meaning to be. I read ‘Straw Dogs’ years ago and remember a number of laugh out loud moments as the despair unravelled before my eyes.

I look forward to reading his book about cats, an animal very close to my heart. I have one ““ a thoroughly beautiful and useless animal that I occasionally envy (knowing full well that if I were magically transported into her tiny body I’d be stark raving nuts within five minutes).

That’s the point really ““ cats are not human, nor were meant to be. They are cats. There is literally nothing useful to learn from them other than in the abstract and imaginative. For his work then, John Gray might as well have settled upon the potato rather than the feline, for an equally meaningful comparison. Potatoes are quite content, happy to be themselves and rarely complain about anything. You can even skin them and boil them without soliciting so much as a squeak. We should be like potatoes.

All of this pointlessness reminds me of Camus’s comment in the turgid and ultimately useless ‘Myth of Sisyphus’: “All thoughts are anthropomorphic”. Yes, they are, be it potatoes or cats it really isn’t potatoes or cats that we are talking about ““ we are always talking about us. “If lions could speak we wouldn’t understand what they had to say” is another feline ditty along the same lines (can’t remember the philosopher who said it and can’t be bothered to Google it ““ probably a German). Of course we wouldn’t understand them, how could we possibly draw anthropomorphosis from anthropomorphosis?

Once you’ve said that there is no point to anything, life is hopeless and all you can do is kill yourself of find some inane way of coping (knowing all along that you are just kidding yourself) there is very little left to say. But you are doubtless right in that anxious editors at Allen Lane (or Penguin) need to keep the good philosopher at his Olivetti. Perhaps he’ll do the potato book next.

I know I shouldn’t be commenting upon a book I’ve not read ““ I will order it and read it, I promise. I do like the cover though: a painting by Balthus, a man who deeply loved cats and was a tad feline himself.

Please look out for my own forthcoming book ““ ‘Hitler the Nazi tabby cat scores a hole in one’. It is brilliant.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Cats have managed to forge their Way into my affections in last 30 years,Before that Labradors ruled..They are Eternal optimists/..! ”the world ends with a banger,not a wimpy”-T.S.Eliot

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
3 years ago

Its really quite simple. The moment that any and every human being identifies his or her self as a separate and always separative bodily human being he/she is hell-deep full of fear-and-trembling re the knowledge that their body is eventually going to disintegrate and die.
That dreaded possibility is ALWAYS there at the core of our being. All of our personal strategies keep this fear-and-trembling unconscious, which is more of less appropriate because to actually confront and feel this dread is truly terrifying.
Never the less the key to human maturity and sanity is to somehow confront and transcend this fear-and-trembling.
Only then are we happy and thus fit for human loving here.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

My cat knows how to be happy. Unfortunately he doesn’t know how to open his cat food or clean his litter box.

I, on the other hand, know these things… and am weighed down by the burden of this knowledge.