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JOHN GRAY: ‘What can we learn from cats? Don’t live in an imagined future’

In his book Straw Dogs, John Gray dismantled the history of western philosophy, with its illusory faith in our species living somehow above evolving life and outside the constraints of nature.

TIM ADAMS: What’s it like to be a cat? John Gray has spent a lifetime half-wondering. The philosopher… has had feline companions at home since he was a boy… The last of them, Julian, died earlier this year, aged 23. Gray, currently cat-less, is by no means a sentimental writer, but his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, is written in memory of their shared wisdom…

Other philosophers have been enthralled by cats over the years… The rationalist René Descartes, Gray notes, once “hurled a cat out of the window in order to demonstrate the absence of conscious awareness in non-human animals; its terrified screams were mechanical reactions, he concluded”.

One impulse for this book was a conversation with a fellow philosopher, who assured Gray that he “had taught his cat to be vegan”. (Gray had only one question: “Did the cat ever go out?” It did.) When he informed another philosopher that he was writing about what we can learn from cats, that man replied: “But cats have no history.” “And,” Gray wondered, “is that necessarily a disadvantage?”…

Gray writes with great amusement in this book and elsewhere of the stubborn gap between philosophers’ higher ideals and the more animal instincts of their lives… Gray believes that humans turned to philosophy principally out of anxiety, looking for some tranquillity in a chaotic and frightening world, telling themselves stories that might provide the illusion of calm. Cats, he suggests, wouldn’t recognise that need because they naturally revert to equilibrium whenever they’re not hungry or threatened. If cats were to give advice, it would be for their own amusement…

Readers of Gray will recognise this book as a postscript or coda to Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, the 2002 bestseller in which he elegantly dismantled the history of western philosophy – with its illusory faith in our species living somehow “above” evolving life and outside the constraints of nature. That book aimed its fire particularly at the prevailing belief of our time: that of the inevitably steady forward progress of humankind brought about by liberal democracy…

Cats don’t appear to get bored, because in Gray’s terms it would never occur to them to struggle to be happy. Humans, on the other hand, “are self-divided creatures whose lives are mostly spent on displacement activity”. Much of this displacement activity is a product of that other disabling difference to their feline companions, the certain knowledge of death. Gray is, typically, both irreligious and anti-atheist, reserving genial contempt for the likes of Richard Dawkins, and their censorious belief “that religion can be simply erased”…

Gray never bought the idea that his book was a handbook for despair. His subject was humility; his target any ideology that believed it possessed anything more than doubtful and piecemeal answers to vast and changing questions. The cat book is written in that spirit… And what does he say to those critics who argue that his writing dwells on the reductive, brutish side of humanity, as opposed to its great collective achievements? “If you think, as I do, that civilised life is like a spider’s web, easy to destroy, but hard to construct, then what I write is perhaps a caution, a warning. I’m anti-hubris.”

In the last sentence of Straw Dogs, Gray asked a question, almost plaintively: “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Has writing the current book helped him to understand what such a life of experience might look like? “Cats live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve or not achieve,” he says. “If we attach ourselves too heavily to some overarching purpose we’re losing the joy of life. Leave all those ideologies and religions to one side and what’s left? What’s left is a sensation of life – which is a wonderful thing”. SOURCE…

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