Cats and Philosophy
A philosopher once assured me he had persuaded his cat to become a vegan. Believing he was joking, I asked how he had achieved this feat. Had he supplied the cat with mouse-flavoured vegan titbits? Had he introduced his cat to other cats, already practising vegans, as feline role models? Or had he argued with the cat and persuaded it that eating meat is wrong? My interlocutor was not amused. I realized he actually believed the cat had opted for a meat-free diet. So I ended our exchange with a question: did the cat go out? It did, he told me. That solved the mystery. Plainly, the cat was feeding itself by visiting other homes and hunting. If it brought any carcasses home – a practice to which ethically undeveloped cats are sadly all too prone – the virtuous philosopher had managed not to notice them.
It is not hard to imagine how the cat on the receiving end of this experiment in moral education must have viewed its human teacher. Perplexity at the philosopher’s behaviour would soon have been followed by indifference. Seldom doing anything unless it serves a definite purpose or produces immediate enjoyment, cats are arch-realists. Faced with human folly, they simply walk away.
The philosopher who believed he had persuaded his cat to adopt a meat-free diet only showed how silly philosophers can be. Rather than trying to teach his cat, he would have been wiser if he had tried learning from it. Humans cannot become cats. Yet if they set aside any notion of being superior beings, they may come to understand how cats can thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live.
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.1 Both try to fend off the abiding disquiet that goes with being human.
Simple-minded folk will say the reason cats do not practise 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 they have fashioned 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.
A few philosophers have recognized that something can be learned from cats. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (born in 1788) is famous for his love of poodles, a succession of which he kept throughout his later years, calling all of them by the same names – Atma and Butz. He also had at least one feline companion. When he died of heart failure in 1860, he was found at home on his couch beside an unnamed cat.
Schopenhauer used his pets to support his theory that selfhood is an illusion. Humans cannot help thinking of cats as separate individuals like themselves; but this is an error, he believed, since both are instances of a Platonic form, an archetype that recurs in many different instances. Ultimately each of these seeming individuals is an ephemeral embodiment of something more fundamental – the undying will to live, which, according to Schopenhauer, is the only thing that really exists.
He spelt out his theory in The World as Will and Representation:
I know quite well that anyone would regard me as mad if I seriously assured him that the cat, playing just now in the yard, is still the same one that did the same jumps and tricks there three hundred years ago; but I also know that it is much more absurd to believe that the cat of today is through and through and fundamentally an entirely different one from that cat of three hundred years ago … For in a certain sense it is of course true that in the individual we always have before us a different being … But in another it is not true, namely in the sense in which reality belongs only to the permanent forms of things, to the Ideas, and which was so clearly evident to Plato that it became his fundamental thought.2
Schopenhauer’s view of cats as fleeting shadows of an Eternal Feline has a certain charm. Yet when I think of the cats I have known it is not their common features that come first to mind but their differences from one another. Some cats are meditative and restful, others intensely playful; some cautious, others recklessly adventurous; some quiet and peaceable, others vocal and highly assertive. Each has its own tastes, habits and individuality.
Cats have a nature that distinguishes them from other creatures – not least ourselves. The nature of cats, and what we can learn from it, is the subject of this book. But no one who has lived with cats can view them as interchangeable instances of a single type. Every one of them is singularly itself, and more of an individual than many human beings.
Still, Schopenhauer was more humane in his view of animals than other leading philosophers. According to some reports, René Descartes (1596–1650) hurled a cat out of a window in order to demonstrate the absence of conscious awareness in non-human animals; its terrified screams were mechanical reactions, he concluded. Descartes also performed experiments on dogs, whipping one while a violin was being played in order to see whether the sound of a violin would later frighten the animal, which it did.
Descartes coined the expression, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The implication was that human beings are essentially minds and only accidentally physical organisms. He wanted his philosophy to be based on methodical doubt. It did not occur to him to doubt the Christian orthodoxy that denied animals souls, which he renewed in his rationalist philosophy. Descartes believed his experiments proved non-human animals were insensate machines: what they actually showed is that humans can be more unthinking than any other animal.
Conscious awareness can spring up in many living things. If one strand in natural selection led to humans, another led to the octopus. There was nothing preordained in either case. Evolution is not moving towards increasingly self-aware forms of life. Appearing by chance, consciousness comes and goes in the organisms that possess it.3 Twenty-first-century transhumanists think of evolution as leading to a fully self-aware cosmic mind. Such views have precedents in nineteenth-century theosophy, occultism and spiritualism.4 None of them has any basis in Darwin’s theory. The self-awareness of humans may be a one-off fluke.5
This may seem a bleak conclusion. But why should self-awareness be the most important value? Consciousness has been overrated. A world of light and shadow, which intermittently produces creatures that are partially self-aware, is more interesting and worth living in than one that basks in the unwavering radiance of its own reflection.
When turned in on itself, consciousness stands in the way of a good life. Self-consciousness has divided the human mind in an unceasing attempt to force painful experiences into a part that is sealed off from awareness. Suppressed pain festers in questions about the meaning of life. In contrast, the feline mind is one and undivided. Pain is suffered and forgotten, and the joy of life returns. Cats do not need to examine their lives, because they do not doubt that life is worth living. Human self-consciousness has produced the perpetual unrest that philosophy has vainly tried to cure.
A CAT-LOVING ANTI-PHILOSOPHER: MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE
A better understanding of cats, and of the limits of philosophy, was shown by Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), who wrote: ‘When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?’6
Montaigne is often described as one of the founders of modern humanism – a current of thought that aims to leave any idea of God behind. In fact he was as sceptical of humankind as he was about God. ‘Man is the most blighted and frail of all creatures,’ he wrote ‘and, moreover, the most given to pride.’ Scanning through past philosophies, he found none that could replace the knowledge of how to live that animals possess by nature. ‘They may reckon us to be brute beasts for the same reason that we reckon them to be so.’7 Other animals were superior to humans in possessing an innate understanding of how to live. Here Montaigne departed from Christian belief and the main traditions of western philosophy.
Being a sceptic in Montaigne’s day was a risky business. Like other European countries France was wracked by wars of religion. Montaigne was drawn into them when he followed his father to become mayor of Bordeaux, and continued to act as a mediator between warring Catholics and Protestants after he retreated from the world to his study in 1570. Montaigne’s family lineage included Marranos – Iberian Jews, who under persecution from the Inquisition were forced to convert to Christianity – and when he wrote in support of the Church he may have been safeguarding himself against the repression they suffered. At the same time he belongs in a tradition of thinkers who were open to faith because they doubted reason.
Ancient Greek scepticism was rediscovered in Europe in the fifteenth century. Montaigne was influenced by its most radical strand, Pyrrhonism, named after Pyrrho of Elis (c.360–c.270 BC), who travelled with the army of Alexander the Great to India, where he is reputed to have studied with the gymnosophists (‘naked sages’) or yogis. It may have been from these sages that Pyrrho imported the idea that the aim of philosophy was ataraxia, a term signifying a state of tranquillity, which he may have been the first to use. Suspending belief and disbelief, the sceptical philosopher could be safe from inner disturbance.
Montaigne learned much from Pyrrhonism. He had the beams of the tower to which he retreated in later life deco- rated with quotations from Pyrrho’s follower, the physician-philosopher Sextus Empiricus (AD c.160–c.210), author of Outlines of Pyrrhonism, where the sceptical outlook was summarized:
The causal principle of scepticism we say is the hope of becoming tranquil. Men of talent, troubled by the anomaly in things and puzzled as to which of them they should rather assent to, came to investigate what in things is true and what false, thinking that by deciding these issues they would become tranquil.8
But Montaigne questioned whether philosophy, even of a Pyrrhonian kind, could deliver the human mind from turmoil. In many of his essays – a term Montaigne invented, coming from the French essais, meaning ‘trials’ or ‘attempts’ – he used Pyrrhonism in support of faith.
According to Pyrrho, nothing can be known. As Montaigne put it, ‘There is a plague on Man: his opinion that he knows something.’9 Pyrrho’s disciples were taught to live by relying on nature rather than any argument or principle. But if reason is powerless, why not accept the mysteries of religion?
All of the three main schools of philosophy in the ancient European world – Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism – had a state of tranquillity as their goal. Philosophy was a calmative, which if taken regularly would produce ataraxia. The end of philosophizing was peace. Montaigne had no such hopes: ‘All the philosophers of all the sects are in general accord over one thing: that the sovereign good consists in peace of mind and body. But where are we to find it?… For our portion we have been allotted wind and smoke.’10
More sceptical than the most radical Pyrrhonist, Montaigne did not believe any philosophizing could cure human disquiet. Philosophy was useful chiefly in curing people of philosophy. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), he recognized that ordinary language is littered with residues of past metaphysical systems.11 By uncovering these traces and recognizing that the realities they describe are actually fictions, we could think more flexibly. Small doses of such a homoeopathic remedy against philosophy – an anti-philosophy, one might say – might bring us closer to other animals. Then we might be able to learn something from creatures that philosophers have dismissed as our inferiors.
An anti-philosophy of this kind would begin not with arguments, but with a story.
The cat entered the room as a silhouette, a small black shape framed against the harsh light coming in from the doorway. Outside a war was blasting away. This was the Vietnamese city of Hué in February 1968 at the start of the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese campaign against American forces and their South Vietnamese allies that would lead to America’s departure from the country five years later. In The Cat from Hué, one of the great accounts of the human experience of war, the CBS television journalist John (Jack) Laurence described the city:
Hué was war fighting at its most ferocious. In this case, it was an urban brawl between two armed and largely adolescent tribes, both new to the territory and intent on taking it, a street fight of fast action and merciless bloodletting. There were no rules. Lives were taken without thought – snuffed, wasted, zapped … At the end, the more violent powerful gang drove the other off and claimed what was left. The losers withdrew with their casualties and lived to fight another day. The winners got the ruins. So it was in Hué.12
As it edged into the room the dark form could be seen to be a kitten, around eight weeks old, slight enough to fit into Laurence’s hand. Skinny and dirty, its fur matted and greasy, the cat sniffed the air, catching the smell of the food the American journalist was eating from an army-issued can. The journalist tried talking in Vietnamese to the kitten, which looked back at him as if he were deranged. He offered it some of the food, which it approached cautiously but did not touch. Leaving some behind, the American left and came back the next day. The kitten appeared in the doorway, surveyed the room and walked towards him, sniffing his hand as he held out his fingers. All he had left to eat was a can marked ‘beef slices’, which he opened and offered on his fingers. The kitten ate ravenously, swallowing the slices of cooked meat without chewing them. Then the American soaked a towel in water from a canteen, and held the little cat by the shoulders, digging the dirt and fleas out of its ears, washing the filth from its mouth and rubbing its chin and whiskers clean. The kitten did not resist, and when the cleaning was done it licked the fur on its foreleg and washed its face. That done, it approached closer to the American and licked the back of his hand.
A jeep arrived, and Jack realized he was on his way home. He put the kitten in his pocket, and began a companionship that took them out of Hué by helicopter to Danang, where the kitten – now called Mèo, pronounced may-oh – lived in the press compound, eating four or five hearty meals a day. Along the way, Mèo scratched through the material of Jack’s jacket and nearly escaped, explored the cockpit and climbed up the pilot’s straps. They went on to Saigon, and this time Mèo travelled in a cardboard box containing his blanket and toys, unable to roam the plane and howling all the way. They stayed in a hotel together where Mèo had a much-resisted bath. His seemingly black fur proved to be an involuntary disguise, from which he emerged as a crossbred, red point Siamese with brilliant blue eyes.
In the hotel, Mèo was fed regularly – four meals a day of leftover fish heads and rice from the kitchen – though he made forays into other rooms in search of more to eat. He would jump onto the window ledge of the hotel room and lie there for hours, fully alert but almost motionless, his eyes following the movements of the people, lights and vehicles below. The American journalists involved in the war learned to endure it by getting high, drinking together and passing out, only to be woken by nightmares. At times they returned home for time off, but the war went with them and still disturbed their sleep. For his part, Mèo ‘appeared to understand what was going on better than any of us from the outside … And that gave him his freedom, even in captivity. As he sat by the open window … enveloped in a fine haze of cigarette smoke, Mèo’s eyes were as deep and blue and numinous as the South China Sea.’13
He slept in a bunker he had made for himself, a cardboard shipping carton into which he chewed a hole – a task that took a week – just big enough for him to squeeze through. He dominated the dozen or so feral cats in the hotel grounds, which learned to avoid him, and used the garden and rooms as hunting territory where he caught and ate lizards, pigeons, insects, snakes and possibly even a peacock, which mysteriously disappeared. His teeth now as sharp as daggers, he was ‘the small white hunter, a natural-born killer, an ambush waiting to happen’.14 Other than the Vietnamese hotel staff who came to feed him, he was hostile to anyone who came into the room, especially if they were American. ‘He appeared to have a grudge against humanity … Withdrawn and isolated, hostile toward all but the Vietnamese, he was a wild malevolent animal, a singularly deep and inscrutable cat.’15
He had no fear and was never caught when entering other rooms. Jack came to see him as the reincarnation of Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, ‘Intelligent, daring, cunning, ferocious … a VietCong version of the Chinese warrior-philosopher in the body of a cat … As a half-grown cat, he was tough, independent, irascible. Soldierly and serene. A Zen warrior in white fur … recklessness was part of his charm … Walking along the outside ledge of the hotel, attacking larger animals, setting traps with wicked guile, he risked his life with the casual abandon of those who think they’re invincible … He was never nervous and never wasted energy. His moves were fluid, unfathomable.’16
When he adopted Mèo, Jack felt he was affirming life in a situation where it was being destroyed on an enormous scale:
By providing food and shelter for the cat, I was affirming a life, however small and insignificant, in the midst of the slaughter. It wasn’t conscious. Being young, I didn’t dwell on my motives for doing things. It seemed right at the time. Though Mèo and I regarded each other as enemies, in a curious way we had come to depend on each other, just by being around, a kind of security in adversity. When I came back to the room after a trip to the field and heard him moving in his bunker or drinking water out of the tap in the bathroom or knocking something off the desk, it felt like coming home, belonging, feeling safe. Unprovoked attacks on me became less frequent, less ferocious, more of a ritual. Making it through Hué together must have formed a bond. Taking care of him gave me one small purpose other than reporting misery all the time.17
When he returned home in May 1968, Jack had Mèo follow him in the cargo hold of a later flight. If Mèo had stayed in Saigon he would most likely have joined countless other animal casualties of the war – the unknown numbers of dogs, monkeys, water buffaloes, elephants, tigers and other cats that were killed in the course of the conflict. If the Vietcong mounted another offensive, food would be short. Mèo could well end up in a cooking pot. So Jack took him to the Saigon Zoo, nearly empty as some of the animals had starved to death during the last offensive and few visitors came any more, where Mèo had the injections required in order to be certificated as safe to travel. A few days later he made the thirty-six-hour journey, screeching and scratching, to New York. When Jack picked him up and released him in his car, he jumped on the dashboard and clambered on Jack’s shoulder, sniffing everywhere and observing the passing traffic. Arriving at Jack’s mother’s house in Connecticut, he consumed a can of American tuna.
Mèo settled well in his new home, scaring off other cats, hunting, and attacking unfamiliar adults while playing harmlessly with the local children. The household in turn adapted to Mèo. He was terrified of the sound of the vacuum cleaner, which may have reminded him of a tank or a plane, so the cleaner was not used when he was nearby. After Mèo pounced on her, the housekeeper quit. When he disappeared, Jack’s mother searched for several days until he was discovered in a box in the garage, having somehow found his way there after a bad traffic accident.
The vet was not hopeful. Mèo’s shoulder was shattered, and he needed an expensive operation in the animal hospital. But after six weeks in the hospital he returned to Jack’s mother’s house, where he inspected his favourite spots and resumed his life of tree-climbing, sleeping in the sun and hunting. His recovery continued until a bout of pneumonia signalled by violent sneezing and a loss of interest in food sent him back to the hospital for another three weeks. Forbidden treats were smuggled in and the staff made a fuss of him. This time he returned to full health, though for the rest of his life he had a habit of sneezing.
Having recovered, Mèo left Connecticut to join Jack in a one-bedroom apartment in an old brownstone house in Manhattan, where Jack lived with his partner Joy. In 1970 Jack returned to Vietnam for a month and Mèo seemed to miss him. When he came back, Mèo paid no attention to him. He sniffed Jack’s luggage closely, as if it reminded him of something. Jack gave him a toy from Saigon, but he ignored it, went into his bunker and spent the rest of the afternoon there. In the evening, though, Joy told Jack, Mèo climbed on the bed, sat near Jack’s head and spent hours looking at his face while he slept.
Copyright © 2020 by John Gray