Tabby, or not tabby: that is the question

Sacred wisdom: Cats played an important part in the religion of ancient Egypt.

Are cats the best philosophers? A new book argues that they have a far better attitude to life than humans, and studying their behaviour can help to dispel many of our illusions.

A woman is sitting on the sofa watching the news. Every item makes her more anxious – the world seems to be going from bad to worse. She imagines the pandemic spreading unchecked, climate change accelerating, political leaders taking further steps to undermine democracy. But beside her, her cat dozes peacefully, occasionally stretching its legs or whisking its tail. It has no cares at all.

Which of the two has a better understanding of the world? Most people would choose the woman. But in his book Feline Philosophy: Cats And The Meaning Of Life, the philosopher John Gray suggests otherwise.

Gray peddles a deeply pessimistic view of existence: he has been described as “our pre-eminent prophet of doom”. He even argues that philosophy is a waste of time. But ever since childhood he has found consolation in cats. His oldest one, a Birman called Julian, was his companion for 23 years, and – he believes – taught him many lessons.

“If you live with a cat very closely for a long time,” he says, “ – and it takes a long time, because they’re slow to trust, slow to really enter into communication with you – then you can probably imagine how they might philosophise.”

Humans, he says, are tormented by the need to find meaning in their lives and make sense of a frightening world – and the prospect of death. That is why they embrace philosophy and religion, and try to persuade themselves that mankind is gradually making progress. He describes these as “stories” which help us believe that there is some kind of moral order in the universe.

Gray refuses to buy into these stories. As far as he is concerned, most of the things that happen to us are the result of pure chance. Any system of belief that claims to have more than a vague answer to the puzzles of life is not to be trusted. People who give undying allegiance to a political party are misguided: what matters in an election is not a creed, but who has the best answers to the country’s current problems.

Cats, on the other hand, have no need of such stories. The only time they worry is when they are hungry or threatened. Their default position is to feel contented.

What Julian taught him above all, Gray says, is that one should live in the here and now, because imagining the future is futile. “Hardly anyone has forecasted the biggest events in my lifetime. And, more importantly, most of the really big events were not considered even to be within the range of reasonable possibilities.”

We make ourselves unhappy, he adds, by setting ourselves goals which often prove impossible to attain. “Cats live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve or not achieve.” While humans see sleep as something they need to live their lives successfully, cats “sleep for the joy of sleeping”.

Are cats the best philosophers?

Paws for thought

Some say, yes. Humans tend to behave as if they are separate from, and superior to, the natural world, and have a degree of control over their destinies. But we can only really be happy – and live sustainably on the planet – if we live in harmony with nature and recognise that we just have to accept things as they come. Cats enjoy life because they have none of our illusions.

Others argue that it is easy enough to live in the here and now if someone is providing you with free food and shelter and nothing is expected of you. Humans have no choice but to think ahead. And just as it comes naturally to a cat to climb a tree, it comes naturally to us to grapple with the big questions in life. To ignore them would be a waste of the greater intelligence we have been given.

You Decide

  1. Is the idea of human progress an illusion?
  2. Does a real understanding of the world come from instinct or intelligence?

Activities

  1. Draw an illustration for John Gray’s book of a cat reading or writing.
  2. The ideas of the philosopher Socrates were explored through dialogues between two people with different views. Write a dialogue between a cat and a dog discussing which has the better attitude to life.

Some People Say...

“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that humans and cats have co-existed for at least 12,000 years, beginning in villages in what is now Turkey. The cats ate meat left over by the humans, and rodents which were attracted by the grain stores. The humans recognised their usefulness, and as well as encouraging them on farms, took them on board their ships, allowing them to spread across the world.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether there is such a thing as absolute virtue and morality. Gray argues that our ideas of right and wrong are dependent on when and where we live. In the 19th Century, for example, “morality required spreading civilisation by extending imperial power. Today, morality condemns empire in all its forms.” Whichever view you take, these antithetical ideas provide “the same satisfaction to those who pronounce them – a gratifying sense of virtue”.

Word Watch

John Gray
A philosopher from the north of England, his other books include False Dawn: The Delusions Of Global Capitalism and Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans And Other Animals.
Peddles
Advocates. The word also means to sell things in small quantities. It is not to be confused with pedalling, which is what you do on your bicycle.
Pre-eminent
Leading. The adjective “eminent” means outstanding.
Birman
A long-haired breed of cat with a silky coat and deep blue eyes.
Allegiance
Loyalty. In medieval times a courtier would address the lord he served as “My liege”.
Creed
A set of principles. The word comes from the Latin “credo”, meaning “I believe”.
Futile
Pointless. It is derived from a Latin word meaning “leaky”.

Subjects

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