Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $24
Cats are the vessels for John Gray’s austere worldview in his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. The title may make it sound like a stocking filler, unexpected from a philosopher best known for his contrarian politics and skepticism about human progress. Apocalypse Meow might have been more in character. But it’s not as cute as it first appears.
Gray proceeds from the uncuddly premise that life is a bleak struggle from which, through philosophy, we seek diversion. Many of the thinkers he surveys, from Lao Tzu and Aristotle to Montaigne and Spinoza, have tried to philosophize their way to tranquility, but no one has quite succeeded. Despite the great minds wrestling with it, the vexed question of how to live continues to induce a state of indissoluble anxiety.
Not for cats. If we were all cats, Gray says, he would be out of a job: They have nothing to learn from philosophy. Unlike “the human animal,” he suggests, which is engaged in a lifelong “struggle for happiness,” suppressing its nature, always seeking diversion from the misery of being, cats “obeying their nature . . . are content with the life it gives them.” Here is the problem. Self-regarding, self-sabotaging, we humans — misled, because myth-led — cling foolishly to our diversions and ideologies while ignoring “the sensation of life itself” enjoyed by other animals.
This all accords with conclusions Gray has made elsewhere. Those who have read Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals or The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths will recognize the cat gambit as a pretext to retread old ground. To demonstrate the superiority of the feline disposition, Gray must first dismantle the foolish notions we have of how to live — a task he’s always taken a sour kind of pleasure in. There is no stable morality or justice, he says — they are concepts “as immutable as styles in shoes”; nor can the good life be attained through the use of reason (“neither how we live nor the emotions we feel can be controlled in this way”).
These well-trodden arguments are where Gray is in his pomp. Other, more spurious claims — about the nature of cats themselves — may give readers pause. Anyone who’s learned to apply Gray’s own supple, contrary brand of thinking will question suppositions like “cats are never bored,” “cats are happy being themselves,” and “cats do not need to divert themselves from the fact that they will some day cease to exist,” for which he offers little to no empirical evidence.
“Happiness is the state to which [cats] default when practical threats to their well-being are removed,” he claims. “That may be the chief reason many of us love cats. They possess as their birthright a felicity humans regularly fail to attain.” Certainly, this fits the popular image of cats; it’s what people mean when they say how nice it would be to be one. But how much of this alleged contentment is sentimental projection?
Perhaps Gray’s misty eyes can be explained by the four cats he thanks for making an “indispensable contribution” to the book: “Two Burmese sisters, Sophie and Sarah, and two Birman brothers, Jamie and Julian.” It’s clear he reveres (and perhaps envies) the indifference of his longtime pets, their self-
sufficiency, their refusal to acknowledge superiors. Perhaps they were a model for Gray’s own iconoclasm.
Did sentiment overtake reason? “Of course, [the book is] not a scientific inquiry,” Gray has admitted to the Observer. “But if you live with a cat very closely for a long time — 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.” “Probably,” “imagine,” and “might” have a lot of lifting to do.
But that won’t be a problem for most readers. Cats are a perfectly adequate MacGuffin for this pleasant ramble through what philosophy can and can’t help us with. And it’s hard to resist the usual pleasures of reading Gray. His discursive style is always beguiling. His wide reading yields lovely digressions in the company of Colette, Patricia Highsmith, and Mary Gaitskill, among others. Cat lovers will enjoy the celebration of feline mythos, from the cat gods of ancient Egypt to purring contemporary domestics, while hardcore Gray fans will be reassured by the usual references to immortality cults, Hobbes, the gulags, and so on.
The heat-seeking aphorisms that characterize his best work are also in evidence, from his claim that philosophy “is the practice of elucidating the prejudices of middle-class academics” to the assertion that “Much of the history of philosophy consists of the worship of linguistic fictions.” This is the Gray many know and love (or hate); the undaunted Gray who bows neither to the gods nor thinkers who came before him.
Can cats show us the meaning of life? The book ends with a surprisingly declarative statement. Whether you agree perhaps doesn’t matter: The objective is contemplation. Besides, if you’d learned anything by the end of the book, it’s surely that to pursue meaning is to chase a mouse that isn’t there.