Feline Philosophy by John Gray
'The proper study of mankind is Man' wrote Alexander Pope, almost three hundred years ago. Here at Know your Cat, we have always felt that the proper study of mankind is our furry feline friends, and we are delighted to welcome to our cause philosopher John Gray. Gray has recently written a book called Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life. For someone who used to be an academic at Oxford this is a remarkably easy book to read – there are no complex sentences overburdened with references and recondite language, but instead a light, almost playful text that makes one basic point and makes it well. That point is, cats are better at living life than humans are.
Gray himself has lived with cats for years, and indeed, in his book he thanks his cats for what they have taught him. And what they have taught him is basically the thesis he expounds in his earlier best-selling book Straw Dogs. (We should take a moment here to point out that this best-selling author John Gray is not the best-selling author John Gray who wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Both men suffer from the disadvantage of not being named Wilbur K, Nebbenick or something equally distinctive.)
In Straw Dogs, and even more strongly in Feline Philosophy, Gray takes issue with Socrates and his claim that 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' Not so, says Gray – cats are totally free of introspection and self-analysis and they use the time that humans spend examining their lives to live life instead. Cats, Gray argues, are simply content to be. They lack the human flaw of imagining that every moment in which they are not happy is not merely a wasted moment, but proof that something is wrong with their lives. A human with nothing to do does things - often very stupid things - out of boredom. A cat goes to sleep – and sleeping for its own sake is something we humans should be doing more of.
As anyone who has had a cat (and few humans who have one really believe that they 'own' a cat), will know that one of the great things about the species is that – unlike dogs - cats have learned to live with humans without compromising their cat-ness. Dogs have been shaped by humans and, as pack animals, dogs share their anxieties, need to be loved and wear their hearts on their sleeves. Cats are always reserved, always perfectly happy to be alone, and when they do play with humans – as Gray quotes another philosopher 'Am I taking the time to play with my cat, or is my cat taking the time to play with me?' Cats say Gray, are uniquely capable of loving others without also needing them.
If cats could do philosophy, Gray believes, they would do it for fun. However, they are better off without it. With humans, philosophy is about attaining serenity by finding the meaning of life and coming to terms with whatever that meaning is. And humans fail because they spend most of their time living in an imagined future which is often filled with gloomy possibilities. For cats the meaning of life is way less significant than the importance of just living it. Cats, according to Gray live in the present and live in it more joyously and intensely - firstly because they expect far less of it, and secondly because they leave the future to take care of itself.
In ancient Rome the personification of Liberty had a cat curled up at her feet, because the Romans reckoned that of all living creatures, cats were the most free. Perhaps this is a side effect of being the only species to have successfully domesticated humans, and perhaps as Gray argues, it is because cats simply can't grasp the concept of servitude – either to humans or to their philosophies.