Monday 28 December 2020

Be More Cat

 Lately I've been reading too many books at once, with the result that (slow reader as I am) I haven't finished one in a while. However, I have now read all 111 pages of John Gray's commendably short and typically brilliant Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. Like all his work, it makes for a bracing, eye-opening read, and its pages, however few, are, as Dr Johnson would say, 'full of matter'. Never wasting a word, Gray surveys a wide horizon, touching on several religions and the thoughts of various philosophers (beginning with the cat-loving Montaigne). As ever, he coolly undermines all our illusions about ourselves and puts us in our place – our place being in the animal kingdom, from the other inhabitants of which we are distinguished chiefly by a morbid self-consciousness that leads us to fear death, to see our lives as meaningful narratives, and to devote ourselves to such dubious causes as the pursuit of happiness.
  Cats, needless to say, are unaffected by any such concerns and simply get on with living their lives, fulfilling their conatus. In this they are like all other non-human beings, but undeniably cats are a special case: they are the only undomesticated animals with whom we share our lives (or rather the only undomesticated animals who deign to share their lives, in part, with us). Cats were never domesticated; they are using us at least as much as we are using them for our human needs (vermin control, companionship, relaxation, something to care for, a show of affection). Unlike dogs, they never become ingratiating quasi-humans but remain absolutely themselves: even in terms of morphology and genetics, it is difficult to tell wild or 'feral' cats from 'domesticated' ones.
  What can we learn from them? Nothing by precept, of course, but everything by example: they have much to teach us, Gray argues, about how to live, and indeed how to die. As long as they are fed and their equilibrium is not seriously disturbed, cats live fearlessly, contentedly, without anxiety and without ambition. When their time has come, they die quietly, and when they have nothing particular to do, they sleep. One of the 'Ten Feline Hints on How to Live Well' that are listed at the end of the book is 'Sleep for the joy of sleeping – Sleeping so that you can work harder when you wake up is a miserable way to live. Sleep for pleasure, not profit.' Indeed.
  The first of the 'hints' is 'Never try to persuade human beings to be reasonable', and a later one is the almost folksy 'Forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it'. But these are indeed only 'hints', and the last of them is 'If you cannot learn to live a little more like a cat, return without regret to the human world of diversion'. Which is what most readers will probably do, but, after reading this remarkable book, they will return chastened, stimulated, and even a little wiser. 


  1. I absolutely agree, Nige, that it is healthy to accept that we are animals distinguished, as Homo Sapiens, as the *only* animals who *know* we are animals. I was wondering why you added the adjective 'morbid' to our self-consciousness. Unless you just meant that awareness of our mortality is an inevitable and inescapable part of self-consciousness. It's just there are a lot of people one wouldn't describe as morbid. Ignore me if I'm being finicky.

    PS your book went down a storm as a Xmas gift for a church haunting friend.

  2. Thanks Guy – always good to hear of the book being well received!
    As for 'morbid', I was just trying to express Gray's view of things, not my own.

  3. Apart from revelation, what can we know of the differentia of mankind from the (other) animals?

    Man is an animal that makes promises. This implies three things: that he possesses language (one cannot otherwise make promises), that he possesses a sense of self so that he can say "I," and that he possesses a sense of time, so that he can refer to himself as an agent in the future.

    But I like to say also that man is the animal that digresses.

    Dale Nelson