Who says the unexamined life isn’t worth living? Not cats, according to scholar John Gray.
Unlike people, cats do not need philosophy. They’re content with the life earth gives them, says British philosopher John Gray, author of Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. He hints that we can learn from cats, especially how to live ‘the good life.’
Credited with saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
For centuries, people have looked to philosophy as a way to contemplate and potentially even solve many of life’s most important, most challenging questions.
Why are we born only to die? What is the meaning of existence? What constitutes a good life?
According to British philosopher John Gray, cats can often teach us much more about living the good life than philosophy ever could.
In his book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, Gray examines the nature of our philosophical pursuits and finds them wanting.
“In humans, discontent with their nature seems to be natural,” he writes. “With predictably tragic and farcical results, the human-animal never ceases striving to be something that it is not.”
Cats, according to Gray, make no such effort.
Free from the burdensome questions about death, love, morality and the meaning of life, cats instead exist to serve their most immediate needs and keep themselves safe from danger.
Gray spoke to IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.
“Philosophy is a symptom of the disorder it pretends to remedy.” Who else but a philosopher would say something like that?
Well, what I mean by that is if you go back to the origins of Western philosophy, you find that the three ancient schools of philosophy in the West — the skeptics, the Epicureans and the Stoics — all explicitly said that the goal of philosophy was relief from anxiety. The purpose of philosophy was a condition they called ataraxia, or calm tranquillity — unshakable equilibrium within one’s self.
What disorder do you think philosophy is trying to remedy exactly?
Well, essentially, the discomfort of human beings at being in the world. And especially the pain that they feel when they confront the knowledge that comes to them in their lives that they’re going to die. As far as we know, only humans have a recurrent or continuing sense of mortality; that’s to say that they will die.
So these unique features of the human-animal, I think, have generated a special and peculiar sense of discomfort or disquiet, and all the other species that lack this abiding disquiet at being in the world don’t develop philosophies and don’t develop religions.
We know that we are the only ones who are preoccupied with our mortality, but the question still kind of lingers when one reads a book like yours: what might cats know of their mortality?
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Well, no other animals, as far as I know, including cats, have developed death rituals. And so it doesn’t seem [to be] any part of their actual life in the world, except at the very end, perhaps when they have some sort of instinctual sense that they’re failing.
The other side of cats is that they won’t surrender to death from a predator just quietly. They’ll fight to the very, very end to protect themselves or their kittens if they’re female cats. So they have a strong love of life when they’re healthy, and when they’re sickening, they tend to crawl to some quiet, shadowy place where they, in a sense, aim to die.
Some people have taken my book to argue that we should be like cats or become cats. This book is better described as an argument why we can’t be like cats, but we can learn something from them. We’re too different from cats to be able to become cats, and that’s why we love cats.
In your work, you seem to strongly resist the idea that philosophy should profess to know all the answers to our lives’ varied questions. Can you give us your argument for why you believe that is?
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Well, a lot of our questions don’t have answers. If you say, ‘What should a government or a politician do in such and such a circumstance?’ there is a kind of common assumption we’ve inherited that there is a correct answer, which, if only if we’re clever enough or committed enough, we can find out what it is, and then perhaps implement that right answer. But lots of human dilemmas, not just in extreme situations of war or pandemics… but in everyday life, don’t have a single correct answer and may not even have an answer.
Human beings have to come up with something from their reserves with which they’re satisfied, or if not satisfied, then at least they can live with.
So, if by craving tranquillity, we will forever be in turmoil, and if seeking meaning and happiness are mere distractions, what are we meant to do? What are the ingredients for the best life?
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Philosophers are nearly always simplifiers. And maybe that goes with the fact that they’ve always represented themselves as teachers. Whereas the best novelists, the best short story writers, the best poets, to my mind, don’t express themselves as teachers. They pass on something to others, but others can use it in various ways, depending on their needs.