John Gray reviews a book on cats

Unless there are two British writers named John Gray, the one to which I’m referring has been problematic: an atheist who loves to attack other atheists and osculate religion (see my posts here). However, you can’t fully dislike a man who likes cats, and Gray clearly does. Gray, the head book reviewer for the New Statesman, has just reviewed in that venue a book that I’ve heard quite a bit about (and one I wish I’d written). Click on the screenshot to go to the book; Gray calls his review “What cats can teach us about how to live.


Despite his malfeasance elsewhere, Gray’s written a great paean to cats in his review, which is very positive. I wanted to put down a few paragraphs of what he says, which nicely expresses what many of us feel about our moggies:

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.

If there are people who can’t stand cats – and it seems there are many – one reason may be envy. As Jeffrey Masson, whose The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats is the best book on cats ever published, has written:

In English, if not in “cat”, the word contentment conveys something of a feeling of being at peace with the world or with yourself. It is more of a state than a fleeting emotion. A person can be happy (momentarily) without being content. Contentment cannot be purchased; happiness, on the other hand, has a price. For us, happiness is a serious business.

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.

I think that about sums it up. Now, if you love cats, and you live in or near Sydney, Australia, I’ll ask you to adopt Champas, who’s been at the Sydney Animal Welfare League for 433 days looking for a forever home. He’s 5 years old, and adorable, and the adoption fee has been cut to $50.

If any reader adopts Champas, or gets someone to adopt him, I’ll send them autographed copies of both WEIT and Faith Versus Fact.


Isn’t he cute?


Don’t make him live any longer in the shelter!

h/t: Ivan


  1. ed hessler
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I really liked this review when I read it a couple of days ago.

    I knew you’d likely get a nudge from someone so I waited, not wanting to overload your mailbox. I’m glad you posted this which means that many others will be able to read it who might not otherwise know about it.

    I’d known about Masson’s book but have not read it. Now, I’m very likely to do that because of Gray’s enthusiasm for it. If you have and care to add some comments I’d appreciate it.

    Gray’s essay is a lovely read.


  2. Danny Kodicek
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Very lovely, except that I cannot possibly let this go unchallenged: “The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats is the best book on cats ever published”. Clearly the best book on cats is The Unadulterated Cat:
    “Consider the situation. There you are, forehead like a set of balconies, worrying about the long-term effects of all this new ‘fire’ stuff on the environment, you’re being chased and eaten by most of the planet’s large animals, and suddenly tiny versions of one of the worst of them wanders into the cave and starts to purr.”

  3. Tom
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if you appreciate scifi but many years ago I read a few stories by a Cordwainer Smith which featured cats. I think the collection was titled The Underpeople.
    Just a thought.

    • Paul S
      Posted February 8, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Have you read The Unscratchables by Cornelius Kane? Read it a few years ago. It was different as a mystery novel, if not particularly good.
      It’s a quick read.

  4. Paul S
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Hadn’t realized The Lion in the Living Room was a book. I netflixed it a few weeks ago.

  5. busterggi
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I hate cats despite having 10 of them, all but 1 of which sleep with me. I also feed some neighborhood cats (& raccoons & possums).

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    It’s the same John Gray, and would have been a MUCH harder sell (for me) if it was the John Gray who wrote “Men Are from Mars, Women from Venus”.

    • grasshopper
      Posted February 8, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I will not even mention what comes from Uranus.

      • ratabago
        Posted February 8, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Television celebrity self help gurus. Doubly if the term Dr. is used to refer to them, or is part of the title of their show.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted February 9, 2017 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      However asinine that John Gray is, IMO this John Gray is worse.

      I recall an extremely accurate quote from the writer Francis Wheen after he’d been subject to some predictably nasty attack by Gray: “it’s a treat to be accused of splenetic grumpiness by John Gray, the Screaming Lord Sutch of academe”.

      He is consistently unpleasant, and intellectually inconsistent: he lashes out at anyone with optimistic, progressive views about humanity, especially anyone with Enlightenment leanings, and his arguments are so scattershot and lazy it tends to be a waste of time getting involved.

      Every now and then his name pops up because he’s compared Stephen Hawking with Hitler or described scientists as neo-fascists or called atheists the new Stalinists or something…you read the article in a daze of combined disbelief and irritation, feel dirty for having done so, and then you get on with your life, only you’re a little bit worse off for having made intellectual contact with Gray’s fatuous, credulous, joyless vision of the world.

      … So it’s a nice article but he’s still a berk.

      • Posted February 9, 2017 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Saul, please, tell us what you really think about Gray! 🙂

        (Your criticism is wonderful.)

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted February 9, 2017 at 8:27 am | Permalink

          Thanks 🙂

          I really don’t like being critical of a person if I can help it. But sometimes I just can’t. Certain people get my dander up so thoroughly.

          If people like him had any kind of positive ideological framework, rather than a relentlessly negative view of everything good in the world, and a suspicion of science and rationality that stems from their own ignorance of anything beyond the humanities, then I could at least respect them for their arguments. But they just seem mired in a state of perpetual, nihilistic, political adolescence.

          I can’t remember who said that the failure of socialism led inevitably to a kind of rootless contrarianism, where its former advocates could only take comfort in pointing out the faults in liberal democracy, but it’s an accurate description of people like Gray, Will Self, Jeremy Corbyn, even Chomsky. What does the most dogmatic portion of the left do now that the evidence is in, and its grand societal project has failed so thoroughly everywhere it’s been tried? It turns to a kind of nihilism. John Gray is just the ugliest manifestation of that kind of attitude. The successes of liberal democracy seem to actively irritate them.

          So +1 for the cat article, but -100 for being a pillock who makes the world a drearier place.

  7. grasshopper
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    This is how one’s mind works. One sees the word “cat” associated with the surname “Gray”, and one instantly thinks of Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes

  8. Merilee
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink


  9. Posted February 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Champas is a fine looking cat! Incredible that he’s been homeless for so long.

  10. robin
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I read the book awhile ago, and I enjoyed it. John Bradshaw is a scientist and I am familiar with his peer reviewed research on a variety of non-humans.

  11. Ido
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    For god’s sake, ozzies, adopt Champas!

    • Posted February 8, 2017 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      My sentiments exactly!!!!!

      • Barbara Radcliffe
        Posted February 8, 2017 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

        I would love to adopt him, but Adelaide is a long distance from Sydney, and Xhimi, Mikey and Bella would object (not to mention my husband). I do hope that he finds a great home very soon.

  12. Brian Davis
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Contentment is a cat’s default state? He’s never heard my female cat’s howls of protest when her brother won’t play with her.

  13. Posted February 9, 2017 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Good one, advocating for Champas! 🙂

  14. Yvonne Wilder
    Posted February 9, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Someone commented to the article about Champas and said he has been adopted. I hope they are correct!

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