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What the cat knows

How our feline companions can teach us to exist in the world.

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Since the publication of his seminal Straw Dogs (2002), John Gray – a New Statesman reviewer and essayist – has defended a distinctive, and pleasingly subversive, philosophy of humans and their history. It is difficult to encapsulate this philosophy in a single sentence, let alone a word, but anti-directionalism comes close.

Anti-directionalism is a multifaceted view. One form it takes is scepticism about historical progress. The idea that history has a direction, and that one can be on the right or wrong side of it, is a conceit shared by those on the political left and right. Inspiration for the left was provided by Hegel, who thought history came to an end when he added the full stop to the final sentence of his book, The Phenomenology of Spirit: “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept.” This is what Hegel, modestly, thought he had achieved. Marx and his followers took up this idea, recasting it in materialist form, and understanding the end of history as the emergence of a perfect – ie communist – society. On the right, Francis Fukuyama adopted a similar approach, except he took the most perfect form of society to be modern liberal democracy. History, it must be said, has not been kind to these declarations of its demise.

Another form anti-directionalism takes is the denial that nature, rather than culture, has a direction. In some ways, this seems an unnecessary denial – Darwin already divested us of the right to believe that nature has a direction. Nevertheless, we still can’t quite seem to shake the idea. At one time, people believed in something called the “great chain of being”. The universe was ordered into levels of being: God at the top, then the angels, then humans, then the animals, and so on. Below the angels but above the animals: that is our place. The theory of evolution should have shattered this chain. But, strangely, it didn’t. Darwin’s discovery was, in the minds of many, superimposed on the great chain of being. Evolution was conflated with progress: a process slowly producing in more-and-more perfect life forms, with us, of course, at the top of the evolutionary tree.

John Gray’s engaging new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, can be understood as exploring the consequences of anti-directionalism about nature. His chosen guide is Felis catus – the domestic cat. It’s a good example of writing what you know: Gray has lived with cats for nearly 30 years.

Directionalism about nature sees humans as the zenith of the natural world because of what we view as the “higher faculties” that separate us from the rest of the natural world. Common candidates include our intelligence, morality and sense of our own mortality. However, as the environmental philosopher Paul Taylor once argued, a judgement that one faculty is higher or lower than another is impossible to justify. Cats are much faster than we are. But we are, allegedly, more intelligent. A common directionalist assumption is that humans are “better” than cats because intelligence is superior to speed. But there is no such thing as “better” in an unqualified sense – there is only better in a given respect, or better for a certain purpose. In the world we live in today, some baseline level of intelligence is generally more useful to us than blinding speed. But speed is much more useful to the average cat, especially to the feral street cat whose life depends on it.

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Nevertheless, the notion that there are distinctively human characteristics that somehow elevate us above all other animals is a pervasive and tenacious one. In Feline Philosophy, Gray attacks this idea with originality and dexterity, through the medium of the cat. In his hands, the cat throws into sharp relief the failings of human “higher” faculties. He brings to life what he sees as the essential nature, or soul, of the cat, through an examination of the lives of individual cats – fictional, historical and mythological. Fundamentally, for Gray, cats are echoes of our prelapsarian selves. The consequence of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is that Adam and Eve realise, for the first time, that they are naked. They become self-aware. An elevating characteristic, one might suppose. Not so, argues Gray: “Thinking of yourself is the gift of the serpent that cannot be returned.”

The ability to think about ourselves generates an alienation from the world to which only humans are susceptible. This alienation goes by various names. Heidegger described it as unheimlich – eerie. Sartre talked of angoisse – anguish, a realisation that we are not a part of the world in the way other things are. A cat can never really be alienated from its world in this way. It can be torn out of its world, and deposited in a new, utterly unfamiliar, environment. This happened to Mèo, a cat rescued as a kitten from the horrors of war-torn Vietnam, whose life was detailed in John Laurence’s book The Cat from Hué. Mèo subsequently lived a well-travelled life, first residing in the press compound in Danang, before moving on to a hotel room in Saigon, to Laurence’s mother’s house in Connecticut, then an apartment in Manhattan, and finally London. But even this extreme form of displacement falls short of the existential alienation imparted by the “gift of the serpent”. “Throughout the smoke and wind of history,” Gray writes, “Mèo lived his fierce, joyous life. Torn from his home by human madness, he flourished wherever he found himself.”

Fierce is an apt adjective for Mèo, who brought a certain violent gusto to his life, involving frequent attacks on unfamiliar adults, and occasional attacks on more familiar ones – Laurence’s housekeeper, for example – if their behaviour transgressed acceptable boundaries (such as using the vacuum cleaner). There is a type of flourishing available to a cat that is only rarely available to us. A human is never simply what she is, but is always striving to become something she is, as yet, not. This is the result of a self-image – a conception of herself and what her life should be – which, when unrealised, can occasion frustration and despair. Unburdened by such a self-conception, a cat is existentially complete in a way that we can never be and, therefore, can live in a way that is beyond humans.

Much of human artistic and intellectual endeavour has, Gray argues, been an attempt to cope with the existential incompleteness engendered by self-awareness. This striving is reflected in the development of philosophy and our conception of morality, mortality and the meaning of life, among other things.

Philosophy, Gray argues, was born in anguish and desire. According to Pyrrho, the ancient sceptic, the aim of all philosophy is ataraxia, or tranquillity – a goal shared by two other major schools of philosophy in the ancient world: Stoicism and Epicureanism. What does it say about the creature that invented philosophy that ataraxia would be its foremost concern? We might, echoing Wittgenstein, ask: what kind of creature has need of philosophy? The answer is a creature who is eerily estranged from its worldly home – a creature very much unlike a cat. Gray cites Hodge, the feline companion of Samuel Johnson. We can clearly see, Gray argues, Hodge’s whiskers peeking out from the pages of Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Bored and discontented, Rasselas leaves the happy valley, but fails to find contentment elsewhere. In the end, he returns to the happy valley, but it can never be the same place again. This book is about the inability of thought – intelligence – to cure our human restlessness, occasioned by self-awareness. “Hodge,” Gray argues, “gave Johnson respite from thought, and so from being human.” A cat has no need of philosophy and is all the better for it.

The search for happiness has a similar genesis and trajectory. How can we, given our essential alienation, be happy? Epicureanism (what Gray calls “a neurasthenic vision of happiness”) tells us we can be so by curbing our desires, whittling them down to a bare minimum. If you have fewer wants, then you will be less disappointed. Stoicism (a “funereal celebration of endurance and resignation”) advises us to extinguish our desires, perhaps by identifying a rational order in the universe in which one is merely allotted a part to play. Buddhism advocates a similar path: longing is the source of all human misery, and letting go is the cure.

Another strategy, advocated by Montaigne, is distraction. Talking about the grief occasioned by the death of his friend, Montaigne writes: “I needed a mind-departing distraction to divert it; so by art and effort I made myself fall in love, helped in that by my youth.” Gray regards the need for diversion as an essential human trait: “Diversion is a response to the defining feature of the human animal: the fear of death that comes with self-awareness… much of our lives are spent running from our own shadow.”

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The root cause of all these strategies – delimitation, denial and distraction – is the same: we can think about ourselves, and therefore are not fully in the world in the way other creatures are. As a result of self-awareness, we are constantly searching for a happiness we can never achieve. It begets morality: instead of simply doing, we worry about what it is we should do. And instead of simply living, we worry about what life means. Self-awareness may seem like a higher faculty but in many ways, Gray argues, it is pernicious. Cats offer the feline contours of a possible life that is alien to us.

I do wonder, however, whether the idea of self-awareness is really at the heart of the issues with which Gray grapples and, if it is, whether it is not a symptom of something deeper. I am pretty sure that Gray’s cats are self-aware. I’m almost as sure that Gray believes they are self-aware, too. A form of self-awareness goes hand in hand with having any conscious experience.

What Gray seems to have in mind is the ability to think thoughts about oneself, which is one of the more complex forms self-awareness can take. It is here that Gray’s choice of cats – as companions and also as the foil for his argument – is especially interesting. Compared with other mammals, and many birds, cats are asocial. A reasonable case can be made that the more advanced forms of self-awareness – such as the ability to think of oneself – are essentially social phenomena. They arise, most completely, in social groups. If so, perhaps it is the distinction between the social and the solitary animal that is really at the core of Gray’s arguments? This is an observation, not a criticism. But it does make one wonder how Gray’s arguments might have differed had his choice of companion animal been a more social creature. I wonder, too, how much of the exceptional work Gray has produced in the preceding decades has been entangled with his choice of animal companion. Rereading Gray in this light, we might find not only an engaging subversion of contemporary mores and unquestioned sacred cows, but also a portal into another world and another way of being, alien to us yet comprehensible to those with sufficient familiarity – 30 years of familiarity in Gray’s case – with its denizens.

Feline Philosophy is engaging, amusing, perceptive and untimely, in the most admirable Nietzschean sense. This is a history of human thought and civilisation as it might have been written by a feline philosopher – if cats had ever discovered a need for philosophy. 

Mark Rowlands is the author of “The Philosopher and the Wolf” (Granta)

Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life 
John Gray
Allen Lane, 128pp, £20

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation