October 26, 2020

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, Junichirō 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 Mèo, 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.