lt took me a few months, but today I finished reading John Gray's provocative little book, "Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life." (Other books took priority in my morning reading time; my first post about this book is here.)
The final chapter contained some nice observations about our search for meaning, and what cats can teach us in this regard. Here's some excerpts.
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.
The search for meaning comes with awareness of death, which is a product of human self-consciousness. Fearing their lives ending, human beings invented religions and philosophies in which the meaning of their lives carried on after them.
But the meaning humans make is easily broken, so they live in greater fear than before.
The stories they have fashioned for themselves take over, and they spend their days trying to be the character they have invented. Their lives belong not to them but to a figure conjured up in their imagination.
One consequence of this way of living is that human beings may become fixated on occasions when their stories are disrupted. They may lose loved ones, find their own lives in danger or be forced to leave their homes.
Those who turn their life into a tragic story are coping with experiences of irremediable loss. But it is a way of coping that comes with a cost. While thinking of your life as a tragedy may give it meaning, it binds you to your sorrows.
...Contrary to the post-modernists, there is such a thing as human nature. It is expressed in the universal demand for meaning, for one thing.
But human nature has produced many divergent and at times antagonistic forms of life. How can anyone know their own nature, when human nature is so contradictory? Might the idea that each of us has a nature of our own be just another metaphysical fiction?
The truth in the fiction of an individual nature is that the good life for each of us is not chosen but found.
Even when they come from decisions we believe we have made, our experiences are not determined by us. The good life is not the life you want but one in which you are fulfilled. Stripped of metaphysics, this is Spinoza's idea of conatus and the Taoist belief that we must follow the way within us.
In this we are at one with all other creatures.
Humans do not rank above other animals, or below them. There is no cosmic scale of value, no great chain of being; no external standard by which the worth of a life can be judged.
Humans are humans, cats are cats. The difference is that, while cats have nothing to learn from us, we can learn from them how to lighten the load that comes with being human.
One burden we can give up is the idea that there could be a perfect life.
It is not that our lives are inevitably imperfect. They are richer than any idea of perfection. The good life is not a life you might have led or may yet lead, but the life you already have. Here, cats can be our teachers, for they do not miss the lives they have not lived.