John Gray is one of our greatest pessimists—and delightfully so. As he has it, our belief in a better future—one that will fashion a higher meaning for us—is all too often a futile task. “Human uniqueness is a myth,” he contended in his book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. A story, he maintains, that was “inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.”
In the English philosopher’s latest work, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, he builds upon this mindset. He starts with the position that we, as animals ourselves, can be provided with hints on how to live well from contemplating how cats go about their existences. “The good life is not a life you might have led or may yet lead, but the life you already have,” Gray writes. “Here,” he adds, “cats can be our teachers, for they do not miss the lives they have not lived.” In other words, our feline friends are content as is, while humans seek a notion of happiness to break free from ourselves.
Gray has followed this form in his own life. A former politics professor at Oxford University and one on European thought at the London School of Economics, he left academia in 2007 to do, as he puts it, “freelance work.” That is, freely write what he wanted to and how he wanted to without constraints. “If you can do anything,” he told me, “then the solution to time scarcity is only to do the things that you really think are worth doing, and nothing else.”
I recently spoke with him, and we covered an array of topics, including why he rejects the idea of progress, what critics get wrong about his work, his friendship with Isaiah Berlin, and, yes, cats. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Eric Allen Been: Early on in Feline Philosophy, you write that “[w]hen people say their goal in life is to be happy they are telling you they are miserable.” That idea seems to be one of the overarching themes of the book. Could you unpack that line of thought?
John Gray: One of the things one could read into the statement is that people who make such a goal are placing happiness in the future. And one of the contrasts I make throughout the book is between humans and cats. Cats don’t live in the future. For them, happiness is not a goal, project, or a far-off condition that they slowly approach. It’s the default condition they find themselves in when they’re not being directly threatened in some way. And in this context, if you set happiness as a goal or a project, you’re placing it beyond your current condition. You’re placing it in some hypothetical future that you may or may not achieve.
So that implies that you’re discontented or rejecting your existing condition in favor of one that you have imagined. It’s an argument for the power of the human imagination in many ways, but not one that it should be some healing power.
But having goals, as a species and individuals, have helped us move forward in so many ways. Shouldn’t that be a good thing?
I’m skeptical of prevailing ideas of progress. I mean, what progress means almost as a word is “cumulative” or a “creative improvement” or “advance.” In other words, we all know that some things are better at some times than at other times. You can even say that about the states of society. I mean, Europe in 1990 was better than Europe in 1940. We could all make those judgments, but the idea of progress as it’s used in Western-liberal societies at the moment, and has been for a long time, means something more precise. It means a cumulative or a creative progress over long stretches of time. And that can either apply in history or in a single human life. So, the idea is that once something is being achieved or attained or secured, that remains largely intact so that the person, or the society concerned, can then go on to something else, which is better.
So, say having abolished slavery, you can go on to achieve democracy, having achieved rights for women, you can go on and achieve freedom and equality for gay people. Now all those notions, for me, are good things, of course. However, in the real world of human history, what has been achieved over two or three generations is often swept away. What has been achieved over a period of time, for human life, is fragile and reversible. And there are long periods of human history in which, not only is there no cumulative progress, creative advance of the kind I’ve just been discussing, but there are long periods, in which what people understand by progress is not even possible.
Do you put yourself on the left or right political spectrum? Or do those notions not have any meaning to you?
They don’t have much meaning for me. Some have said that I’ve changed my political position.
I know the literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has come after you for this.
Well, everybody is criticized, but it’s not really true. First of all, the period that these critics are talking about is decades. And I think someone who didn’t respond to human events and changes in politics over time—somebody who remained static—would be a strange kind of thinker. But there’s a more fundamental reason why my views can’t easily be categorized.
We’re used to thinking of politics or people who write about politics, or write theoretical books about politics, in terms of large projects of human emancipation and large theories about human history. My view of politics, which I’ve expressed in a number of places many times, is that politics is a succession of partial, temporary remedies for occurring human evils, partial and temporary. So what works in one period of history, even in the same society, will not work, say, 40 years later.
Do you think the nearly consistent charge of you being a pessimist is an apt one?
Well, if you compare my views with the unreal, magical, and indeed, often hysterical hopes that many people have for the future and our species, then I’m certainly a pessimist. But then so would be Shakespeare and Sophocles and Homer and Montaigne, because no one shared these hysterical hopes at all, probably, until the eighteenth century, due to the European Enlightenment. And many people subsequently have not shared these ideas. Actually, I think I’m with the human majority, but the dominant trend of thought or feeling almost in our society is one which does have these hopes.
There’s an underlying hysterical pessimism by my critics. That’s to say that unless they could believe that the future is going to be an improvement, consistent improvement, over anything that ever existed in the past, which again is what progress means, because they think it’s advanced throughout history and it’s got to a certain point, embodied in them—of course embodied in them. How could they possibly doubt the reality of progress when they themselves embody it?
And it will go on to even higher things. Unless they believe that, they feel life would be meaningless. That would be despair. That would be nihilism. But if they feel that, that’s their business. I’m not concerned. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not a Christian. I’m not a psychotherapist. I’m simply concerned about thinking critically about the ruling religions, the secular religions of our time, and apply the tests of history and realism—reality—to them and see how well they do. And then I put out my results to the public and people can read my books if they want to.
I never aim to evangelize or even persuade the reader. I don’t care whether they are persuaded. The point of the books is to trigger a process of thought in the reader, and that can go wherever it goes. I’m very pleased if that happens. I don’t belong to any religion either, but many of my readers do. If they become better Christians, better Jews, better Muslims, better Taoists, better Buddhists, that’s their business. I’m pleased about it, but it’s not the goal of what I do. The goal of what I do is just to present my findings and my thoughts, and people can make of it what they want.
You promoted in your book The Silence of Animals, which seems to be a precursor to this new book, a notion of so-called “godless mysticism.” Could you explain what that term means for you?
That’s a good question. I mean, there’s a tradition of godless mysticism, which I sort of disinter from elements in Christianity, Buddhism, and from European atheists. I mean, there are atheist mystics. One important person I mentioned in the book is Fritz Mauthner, who perhaps survived in the history of philosophy only because of a dismissive reference made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But a very interesting thing is Mauthner was a tremendous influence, stylistic and otherwise, on writers like Samuel Beckett.
But Mauthner had almost no influence in philosophy, although he was widely read during his lifetime. And Mauthner was a godless mystic. He actually invented the phrase in German. And a godless mystic was someone who believed that words and modes and concepts, although useful and unavoidable instruments, indeed, could be systematically misleading in that some aspects of the world are in the strict sense ineffable.
Now, I suppose the reason why we call that mysticism is that some of the great mystics, even Christian mystics, like Meister Eckhart, from German Medieval times, said the same thing about God. He said something like, “I pray to God to rid me of the idea of God.” A nice paradox.
So godless mysticism is really a theory about the limits of language, but as a practice, I suppose, it means not putting too much store in general concepts. First of all, I mean, for Eckhart, being a practicing Christian, contemplative of it, it was putting much too much store on the idea of God. For people who aren’t practicing their religion, it might mean not putting too much store in ideas, big ideas of freedom or progress, or that kind of thing. So, it’s linked with the rest of my writing, if you like.
You were close with Isaiah Berlin, right?
Never a student of his, but for 25 years, up until his death in 1997, I became friendly with him and he with me, and I would often see him. I wouldn’t take academic work with me to him, but I would see him for long conversations, several times a year. A conversation with us might last an entire afternoon.
Would you say he was an influence on you?
Big influence. Maybe the biggest of the people who I knew personally. There have been writers like Montaigne who have been influential for me, for example, but obviously I didn’t know him. The big influence, regarding Berlin, is I liked his pluralistic way of thinking about ethics, which is thinking of ethics not in terms of a single good, but instead of conflicting goods and conflicting evils that were essentially different, and not reducible to any one thing. And often conflicted, so one had to make choices, sometimes without any clear criteria for making them.
And he represented that current of thought, if you like, that tradition. Which he identified, particularly, with the Russian radical writer, Alexander Herzen. Here’s a story. On the very last occasion I sat with him, not long before he died… I wish I’d seen him once or twice after that before he died, but I was traveling abroad so I couldn’t… But he was already pretty ill, so I asked him a question. I said, “Is there one single writer or thinker that you could name, of all of the philosophers, all of the thinkers and writers you’ve read, who influenced you the most, who would that be?”
And without a single second of hesitation, he said, “Alexander Herzen.” And I knew exactly why, because I’ve read Herzen’s memoirs. But I said, “Well, why is that?” He replied, “Because he had a dramatic amount of tremendous passions.”
Isaiah loved freedom and justice. Herzen had a tragic life, in many ways, but he never stopped loving life and he never stopped fighting for his goals, even though he knew they conflicted with each other and with certain deep-seated features of human behavior. But he was a man who spent his whole life fighting for freedom, and yet he thought that freedom for human beings was an anomaly, almost unnatural.
So, Berlin sort of loved that concept, and I love that. And for Berlin, it was not John Stuart Mill, David Hume, not Spinoza, none of these thinkers. It was Herzen.
And one writer that I know that you admire is Joseph Conrad, who died in 1924. And yet you once stated that he’s a great 21st century writer. What did you mean by that?
Well, he catches a lot of the themes of our time, our doubts about progress. The people who are the most adamant, the most insistent that there is progress, are the ones that are most consumed by these doubts. If you don’t believe in it, as I don’t, and never did actually, you don’t get terribly worked up about it. But the people who take criticism of progress as heresy, they take it as almost a personal attack on them, but they’re obviously consumed by the notion of progress. And so were the Edwardians.
We tend to forget that, in the Edwardian times, there were writers like H.G. Wells, who was a great progressive, but much of his science fiction, The Island of Dr. Moreau, for example, explores the horror that could be created in the world by the misuse of science. And he, himself, died in despair. Of course, he was ill, for a very long time.
Lots of Edwardian writers were very pessimistic. A lot of writers were influenced by the darker side of [Friedrich] Nietzsche or [Arthur] Schopenhauer. The Edwardian period was one of doubt about progress, which turned out to be very well founded doubt because what happened then was the first World War, a cataclysmic event.
One of Conrad’s great novels, Heart of Darkness, is an attack on imperialism. He captures the sense, which everybody has now, whether or not they admit it, that civilization is skating on thin ice. And that’s all in Conrad.
What drives you to write the way you have for the past several years? One of the things that interests me about your work since Straw Dogs, which came out in 2002, is how free-roaming your books can be. Shifting from philosophy to literature to politics, and so forth.
I began to feel that what I wanted to write in a way about philosophical questions that were not in the mode of academic fluency. And Berlin was a bit similar, I mean, he used to say he gave up philosophy because it was too hard. I never quite believed that. There’s a story, which he used to tell—which I’m sure it’s true, by the way—whether he said he was flying over the Atlantic during the second world war and wondering what to do when the war ended, and whether he should go back to philosophy and so on. I forget who it was now who said it, but a friend of his, American philosopher, said, “Well, you know, it’s going to be logic after the war. That’s what philosophy is going to be all about. It’s going to be about logic.” And Berlin said, “I’m not good enough at that. I’m not going to do it.” I don’t think that was the reason.
My speculation is that he wanted to do philosophy in the set in which these rather unruly Russians like Alexander Herzen had done it. He wanted to do philosophy in a less formal way, as really being about the kind of thing that philosophers would just laugh about if you told them that, or that philosophy’s about the meaning of human life, or that it was trying to create a weapon that individuals could arm themselves with against the madness of the world, the absurdity of the world. And so, they would just laugh at that. They want to get some solid results.
But philosophy, as Bertrand Russell used to say, “It doesn’t really make progress.” It’s more like art in that respect. There’s good art and bad art, but art doesn’t progress the way science progresses. Science does progress. I’m not a postmodernist. I don’t think science is a collection of stories. I think it does progress. We know more than we did ten years or a hundred years ago about many things. And that’s why there are more human beings on the planet, having transformed the planet by the use of science, not always in a good way, but that’s how it happened.
So, I guess, without comparing myself with Berlin or any of these other people, I felt I wanted to address questions which were really questions of philosophy, but from an angle that included literature, poetry, and so on. And I thought I’d be better off writing like that, even though in my last academic position I could write what I wanted and I didn’t have any other duties. I felt I could do that best if I was freelance. And so, in 2007, that’s what I became.
What would you say is the most misunderstood topic or running concept of your last several books has been by critics?
That’s a damn good question. Let me see. I guess with Feline Philosophy—and mind you it’s only one or two people who’ve kind of suggested this—that I’m sort of arguing humans should become cat-like. And it’s as if I’d written they should start eating cat food or purr instead of speaking or something like that. That’s very silly. I guess a certain kind of literalism is something I fight against all the time because there’s a certain kind of fundamentalism, whether in religion or politics or anywhere else, which takes things in a very literal way.
Here’s the best example I can think of more generally apart from my present book. When people say, “You don’t believe in progress, but wasn’t the abolition of torture progress?” I say, “Yes, if done away with, very good.” They then say, “Well, there’s progress.” But, again, progress doesn’t mean a particular advance. It’s only progress if it continues and even improves.
Now the trouble with the abolition of torture, which was a great advance started by the Enlightenment, which I give the movement credit for, even though I’m a great critic of the Enlightenment. But the trouble is that the advancement was severely disrupted. Take the twentieth century. Torture didn’t simply creep back. It reemerged as one of the bases of political power in Russian Leninism and Nazi Germany. So, its “abolition” didn’t last all that long. And of course, it’s back now in China, and look at the actions of the U.S. in Iraq, at its various activities at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
What do you make of the charge that you have been inconsistent in your ideas?
I don’t have a kind of project—political or universal. How my books are written, and this isn’t very fashionable, is they’re for individual readers. And they’re different, these readers. They have different lives. But I don’t think I’m inconsistent. In fact, the people who don’t say I’m inconsistent say I’m terribly, boringly consistent; that’s what they say.
Bringing it back to Feline Philosophy. Why center your bigger-picture ideas around the nature of cats, and what do you want to be the main takeaway from the book?
My non-philosophical reasons are that I lived with cats for 30 years. The last one passed away just before the end of last year, at the ripe and happy old age of 23 years old, which is a great age for a cat. And he was very happy. He had to be euthanized, but it was very peaceful. Cats, more than any other domesticated creatures who live in close proximity to humans, enable the humans they live with to look outside of the human world into something else. Cats aren’t human, or part human, the way dogs, or maybe even horses, have become to our wishes. Cats remain themselves, but that’s precisely why those of us who love cats, love cats. It’s not the anthropocentric projection of our own personalities on cats. It’s that they’re quite different from what any human being is, or even could be. And so, they give us a kind of window. I find that very fascinating.
What would be the takeaway from the book? It would be: you could be a little bit happier if you don’t pursue your happiness in the way that humans do, but just live the life you find most interesting and revert to nature when you have troubles. You’ll find you recover from those troubles. It’s a bit like Zen. In Zen, there’s an idea of the natural mind. If you talk to real Zen masters, they say everything you need is in your natural mind. It’s all there. You don’t have to go somewhere else for it. You don’t have to strive for some fantastic state of enlightenment, different from anything you’ve ever experienced before. If you do that, you’ll never find it. You’ll waste your life, actually. And I think there’s a danger in modern culture of people wasting their lives searching for what they think will make them happy, because if they found it, it might not even make them happy.