Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray might sound like a whimsical self-help book but is actually a subtle, engrossing and revealing read about what it is to be human. People suggest that that there is no instruction manual to life, and you would be better served discovering Meaning (with a capital M) in the great works of literature. John Gray thinks there is no such thing as Meaning. An eminent author, he has spent his career trying to rubbish the idea that there is any “meaning” to life.
Life is not a story…you do not know how your life will end, or what will happen before it does. It would be better to throw the script away.
Cats have no concept of Meaning. They like the present. They have no concept of themselves existing in the future, and so do not worry about future happiness. Gray writes:
Obeying their nature, they [cats] are content with the life it gives them. In humans, on the other hand, discontent with their nature seems to be natural.
The ideas in Feline Philosophy are not new. Gray is 72, and has written several well-received books, most notably False Dawn (1997), in which he unfashionably wrote that capitalism was disintegrating, and Straw Dogs (2002), in which he criticises the human belief in “progress”.
In the last five years, Brexit, Trump and a pandemic have seemed like jolting shocks. If you don’t believe in “progress” however, you can accept these events as natural, and therefore less painful. For Gray, belief in a second referendum or a Trump wipeout was people wrongly having faith in the world getting better. It’s a philosophy that says ‘don’t have hope in the future improving, or you will only feel devastated when it doesn’t.’
Gray’s career has been spent trying to get humans to abandon future hope. Unhappy with the present, we seek comfort in “illusions” that promise a better tomorrow — in gods, progress, politics, morality. Gray wants us to instead live according to our nature, like cats: doing what we and others want, in the present, enjoying life itself. Cats “live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve”.
If it all sounds horrifically destructive, I can assure you it is not. I found the book liberating. If you’re interested in his ideas, the breezy tone of Feline Philosophy is a perfect place to start. And don’t worry if you don’t have a cat — it isn’t really about cats. Cats are just the device Gray uses to express his lifelong opinions. Should you own a cat, there are several moving anecdotes about human’s relationships with their feline friends. They touched me, even as a “dog person”!
Feline Philosophy manages to upend all of your beliefs, reconstruct them, and make you, along the way, want a cat. I’m not sure how, in 100 pages, a book manages to do that, but it makes for a comforting yet exhilarating weekend’s read.
Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray is published by Allen Lane, 111 pages.