Why cats may have more to teach us about living the good life than Socrates

Unlike humans, cats aren't burdened with questions about love, death and the meaning of life. They have no need for philosophy at all. So what's to be learned from this "unexamined" way of being? English philosopher John Gray explains.

Who says the unexamined life isn’t worth living? Not cats, according to philosopher John Gray

Unlike humans, cats have no need for philosophy. They're content with the life nature gives them, says British philosopher John Gray, author of Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. He suggests there is a lot we can learn from cats, especially how to live 'the good life.' (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

*Originally published on May 6, 2021.

Socrates is credited with saying "the unexamined life is not worth living."

And for centuries, human beings have looked to philosophy as a way to contemplate and potentially even answer many of life's biggest, toughest questions.

Why are we born only to die? What is the meaning of existence? What constitutes a good life?

But 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.

A cat sits on the ground enjoying an apparently blissful and unexamined moment as the sun sets behind the landmark windmills on the Greek island of Mykonos on Oct. 6, 2020. (David Gannon/AFP via Getty Images)

Free from the burdensome questions about death, love, morality and the meaning of life, cats instead exist simply 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 actually explicitly said that the goal of philosophy was relief from anxiety. The goal of philosophy was a condition they called ataraxia, or unshakable tranquility — unshakable equilibrium within one's self.

And one of the arguments of the book, which was shared by the great early modern philosopher Michel de Montaigne, is that philosophy has never achieved this and can't achieve it, because human restlessness is too deep-seated, and mere argumentation and mere reasoning can't really get human beings out of that condition. So it's a failed attempt to overcome the condition that it tries to cure. 

French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: 'When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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 discomfort that they feel when they confront the knowledge which comes to them in the course of their lives, that they're going to die. As far as we know, only humans have the recurrent or continuing sense of mortality; that's to say that they themselves are going to die.

So these apparently unique features of the human animal, I think, have generated a unique 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 own mortality, but the question still kind of lingers when one reads a book like yours: what might cats know of their own mortality?

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, they aim to die.

'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,' John Gray writes in his book, Feline Philosophy. (Macmillan Publishing/Justine Stoddart)

Some people have taken my book as an argument that we should be like cats, or become cats. The 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?

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 right answer, which, if only if we're clever enough or resolute 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 pandemic ... but in everyday life, don't have a single right answer and may not even have any answer. 

Human beings simply have to come up with something from their own reserves with which they're satisfied, or if not satisfied, then at least they can live with. 

So, if by craving tranquility, 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?

If you want to know the variety of human goodness, don't read philosophers. Read really good novelists of various kinds in various languages from various cultures and various times in history. Read novelists or writers or poets. You'll learn a lot more about the variety and the real nature of the good life than you would by reading philosophers. 

French writer Colette with her Chartreux cats, a rare breed of cat bred in France. In her 1933 novel, La Chatte, a love triangle emerges between Camille Malmert, her husband Alain Amparat, and his Chartreux cat, Saha. (Manuel Freres/Getty Images )

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 represent themselves as teachers. They pass on something to others, but others can use it in a variety of ways, depending on what their needs are. 

So the best philosophy, I think, is one that takes people back to these other forms of art. One can enjoy philosophy as a form of art, as I do myself, but think that in terms of the human good, or the good life, other types of art are more useful and more liberating, and actually more interesting.


About the author

Tayo Bero is a radio producer and writer with CBC. A self-proclaimed foodie, she is also passionate about equity, inclusion and making sure the people around her stay woke. Find her on Twitter @tayobero