Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

Another striking feature of the campaign against cats is how little attention is given to the benefits they confer on human beings. For most of the time in which they have cohabited with people, cats lived outdoors. It is only relatively recently that they began to live in human households in large numbers. What is it that has allowed them to make this evolutionary step? Ailurophobes will say it is the anthropomorphism of cat lovers, who treat their feline housemates as surrogate human beings. But for many cat lovers, I suspect the opposite is true. What they cherish is not how cats resemble us, but their differences from us. Living with cats opens a window into a world beyond our own and teaches us something important about what it means to be human.

One of the most attractive features of cats is that contentment is their default state. Unlike human beings – particularly of the modern variety – they do not spend their days in laborious pursuit of a fantasy of happiness. They are comfortable with themselves and their lives, and remain in that condition for as long as they are not threatened. When they are not eating or sleeping, they pass the time exploring and playing, never asking for reasons to live. Life itself is enough for them.


Whereas human beings search for happiness in an ever-increasing plethora of religions and therapies, cats enjoy contentment as their birthright. Why this is so is worth exploring. Cats show no sign of regretting the past or fretting about the future. They live, absorbed in the present moment. It will be said that this is because they cannot envision the past or future. Perhaps so, though their habit of demanding their breakfast at the accustomed hour shows they do have a sense of the passage of time. But cats, unlike people, are not haunted by an anxious sense that time is slipping away. Not thinking of their lives as stories in which they are moving towards some better state, they meet each day as it comes. They do not waste their lives dreading the time when their lives must end. Not fearing death, they enjoy a kind of immortality. All animals have these qualities but they seem particularly pronounced in cats. Of all the animals that have lived closely with human beings, cats must surely be the least influenced by them.

“When I play with my cat,” Montaigne wrote, “how do I know she is not playing with me?” With creatures that can be understood only partly by us, one can only speculate about their inner life. Yet it is tempting to suppose that the secret of feline contentment is that cats have no need to defer to a picture of themselves as they imagine they should be. Certainly they have a sense of dignity: they avoid people who treat them disrespectfully, for instance. Yet cats do not struggle to remake themselves according to any ideal self-image. Not inwardly divided, they are happy to be themselves.

Again, it will be said that this is because they have no moral sense. There are many cases of heroic devotion in which cats have risked pain and death to protect their kittens. But it is true that they cannot be taught moral emotions in the way dogs have been taught to feel shame. Cats are certainly not virtue signallers. Nor – except when it concerns their offspring – are they at all inclined to self-sacrifice. But given that cats, consequently, do not kill other cats or anything else in order to become martyrs to some absurd belief system, that may be no bad thing. There are no feline suicide-warriors.

The moralising philosopher who believed he had persuaded his cat to adopt a meat-free diet only showed how silly philosophers can be. Rather than seek to teach his cat, he would have been wiser to learn from it, as Montaigne did. Living in accord with their nature, cats do not need moral instruction. Dissatisfaction with our natural condition, on the other hand, seems to be natural for human beings. The human animal never ceases to strive for some higher form of life. Cats make no such effort. Without any process of laborious cogitation, these lucid, playful and supremely adaptable creatures already know how to live.

- John Gray, What Cats Can Teach Us About How To Live

No comments: