John Gray is an author who is sometimes irritating (to me, at least) but always interesting. He provokes in intelligent, witty, well-reasoned ways.
My main gripe about Gray is that he often uses a sort of "straw man" argument where he selects the writings of one person to represent a much more diverse way of thinking. He did this in Seven Types of Atheism, which I thought I'd enjoy but instead found annoying for that reason.
But after seeing a mention of his new book in The New Yorker, I eagerly bought a copy of Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. I've read the first two chapters of this short book and am thoroughly enjoying it.
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 cohabit.
Even as they rely on us, they remain independent of us. If they show affection for us, it is not just cupboard love. If they do not enjoy our company, they leave. If they stay, it is because they want to be with us. This too is a reason why many of us cherish them.
I really liked the following passage from Gray's first chapter, "Cats and Philosophy." It is indeed strange that we humans find the world to be such a threatening place, we have to fashion religions and philosophies to soothe ourselves.
No other animal does this, which shows that we have a lot to learn from cats and other wise non-human creatures. Gray writes:
Cats have no need of philosophy. Obeying their nature, they are content with the life it gives them. In humans, on the other hand, discontent with their nature seems to be natural.
With predictably tragic and farcical results, the human animal never ceases striving to be something that it is not. Cats make no such effort.
Much of human life is a struggle for happiness. Among cats, on the other hand, happiness is the state to which they default when practical threats to their well-being are removed.
That may be the chief reason many of us love cats. They possess as their birthright a felicity humans regularly fail to attain.
The source of philosophy is anxiety, and cats do not suffer from anxiety unless they are threatened or find themselves in a strange place. For humans, the world itself is a threatening and strange place.
Religions are attempts to make an inhuman universe humanly habitable.
Philosophers have often dismissed these faiths as being far beneath their own metaphysical speculations, but religion and philosophy serve the same need. Both try to fend off the abiding disquiet that goes with being human.
Simple-minded folk will say the reason cats do not practice philosophy is that they lack the capacity for abstract thought. But one can imagine a feline species that had this ability while still retaining the ease with which they inhabit the world.
If these cats turned to philosophy, it would be as an amusing branch of fantastic fiction. Rather than looking to it as a remedy for anxiety, these feline philosophers would engage in it as a kind of play.
Instead of being a sign of their inferiority, the lack of abstract thinking among cats is a mark of their freedom of mind.
Thinking in generalities slides easily into a superstitious faith in language. Much of the history of philosophy consists of the worship of linguistic fictions. Relying on what they can touch, smell, and see, cats are not ruled by words.
Philosophy testifies to the frailty of the human mind.
Humans philosophize for the same reason they pray. They know the meaning in their lives is fragile and live in dread of its breaking down. Death is the ultimate breakdown in meaning, since it marks the end of any story they have told themselves.
So they imagine passing on to a life beyond the body in a world out of time, and the human story continuing in this other realm.
Throughout much of its history, philosophy has been a search for truths that are proof against mortality. Plato's doctrine of forms -- unchanging ideas that exist in an eternal realm -- was a mystical vision in which human values were secured against death.
Thinking nothing of death -- while seeming to know well enough when it is time to die -- cats have no need of these figments. If they could understand it, philosophy would have nothing to teach them.