Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray


Review by Walter Cummins

As I read John Gray’s Feline Philosophy, I couldn’t help thinking of the concluding lines of Archibald McLeish’s “Ars Poetica”—“A poem should not mean / But be”—revising them for Gray’s subject: A cat should not mean, but be. Cats, as Gray explains, have no problem just being. It’s humans who are driven to mean, to lead purposeful lives that matter. Can you conceive of a cat finding satisfaction in cutting off two seconds in its record time of dashing through the rooms of a house or proudly wearing a new Gucci collar or being promoted to managing pet? Gray makes the point: “If cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity. Life as the cat they happen to be is meaning enough for them. Humans, on the other hand, cannot help looking for meaning beyond their lives.”

Not only seeking meaning in our human lives but anthropomorphizing that need to the cats we live with—naming them, analyzing their personalities, concerned that they didn’t eat their dinner, upset they hissed at a companion, distressed that they were yowling for no apparent reason. We want our cats to be happy and lead a good life, defining such a life by the same standards we use for our own.

Gray believes, “A more fundamental reason why humans accepted cats in their homes is that cats taught humans to love them.” Do they love us in return? Is seeking a lap or offering a nuzzle a sign of affection? Gray sees a fundamental difference in the way we relate to one another: “That cats acknowledge no leaders may be one reason they do not submit to humans. They neither obey nor revere the human beings with which so many of them now cohabit.”

Cruelty to cats, Gray believes, reveals an expression of envy, a form of revenge for the human unhappiness that cats do not suffer. “Boredom is fear of being alone with yourself. Cats are happy being themselves, while humans try to be happy by escaping themselves.”

As much as Gray writes about cats, he uses their ability to simply be as a contrast to examine the human inability to exist similarly, examining philosophical and theological theories concocted to make our existences matter. For Gray, the fundamental reason we are not content without such answers is the awareness of death that arises from our self-consciousness: “Most [humans] cannot bear the thought of their own non-existence.”

Cats, like any non-human creature, have no conception that they won’t go on day after day seeking food, grooming themselves, batting around a toy or a mouse, climbing onto a human lap, and napping for hours. When they have some realization that they cannot continue their days, they crawl into a corner and expire, most likely without regret. That’s not to say they aren’t upset when a human or an animal that has been a significant part of their existence is suddenly gone. Their reaction might even be a form of grief. Cats don’t like change.

With the power of impending death in human thinking, Gray reviews a number of theories to make death less of a threat, especially those that offer the concept of an afterlife, some continuation of our individual being as in John Donne’s “Death, thou shalt die.” If they could read that line, cats wouldn’t understand it: “Not having formed an image of themselves, cats do not need to divert themselves from the fact that they will some day cease to exist.”

In the quest to come up with guidance on the best ways for humans to cope with their lives Gray compares thinkers like Pascal, Montaigne, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and Rorty and belief systems like Taoism,  Buddhism, and Christianity, offering his own opinions of their validity, such as:

For Pascal, human unease points beyond the world. For Montaigne, it comes from a flaw in the human animal. Here I side with Montaigne. Humans are self-divided creatures whose lives are mostly spent in displacement activity. The sorrows they have in common with their animal kin are multiplied by thought constantly doubling back on itself. It is this reflexive self-consciousness that engenders the special wretchedness of the human animal.

Gray also refers to fictional and memoir writings about several authors’ cat. Doris Lessing tells how, with a vet, she brought a dying cat back to life for additional time and then worries that she had somehow betrayed the cat, who had been ready to die the first time. In our tears and painful grieving over the loss of a cat we love we may be attributing a human emotion to an event that reminds us of our own future fate.

Planning for our own demises, my wife and I quickly chose cremation, blending our ashes with those of the six deceased cats who had enriched our living for years. We considered their lives to be as important as our own, no doubt an evaluation that never would have occurred to the cats themselves. For the cats it’s a matter of, I came and I went. For us it was a matter of acknowledging that they had a meaningful impact while they were here.

Such a concept would be empty for a feline. Cats are at one with their being, leading an existence that is inseparable from the natural world. They spend their days just doing without thinking about it. Gray considers us dissatisfied in our groping for a reason to be: “… while cats have nothing to learn from us, we can learn from them how to lighten the load that comes with being human.” Our species’ existence involves a divided self, an inability to fully connect with the natural world because we are diverted into the alternative non-physical world of our imaginations.

And yet, as much as I mourn being a widower, knowing my own non-being impends, dreading an election, disturbed by the thousands killed in wars this very day, and expecting the worst from climate change, I’ve often regretted what I believe my cats were missing; say, a trek through the snow in the Bernese Alps, choosing a book in Blackwell’s, lunch with my daughters, hearing Bill Evans’ recording of “My Romance,” contemplating the thoughts of John Gray. Existential angst is the price we pay for the occasional satisfactions that redeem what Gray calls our human “wretchedness.”