As I write this, my fifteen-year-old and somewhat curmudgeonly cat Marlon is perched comfortably on my lap, purring loudly and contentedly. Yet even in this moment of relative relaxation he retains an alert poise; I know that if I were to move too suddenly, or accidentally stroke him in a discomfiting way, he would be on the floor in a second, and my poor body may be nursing yet another addition to its array of feline-inflicted scratches.
On the face of it, this would be the height of ingratitude from Marlon. Here I am, selflessly allowing him pride of place on top of my legs, his contentedness my only concern; surely this ought to protect me from the wrath of his sharp, tiny claws for at least a day or so? However, as outlined in a funny and thought-provoking blog a couple of years ago by the great science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, to expect this would be to misunderstand the nature of cats – and, in particular, to miss the characteristics which make them such delightful and instructive companions for humans.
Cats, Le Guin points out, are not like humans or dogs or wolves, which are to greater or lesser extents hierarchical creatures, seeing society for the most part as something in which some occupy positions of authority at the top and others lie beneath them. Instead, Le Guin sees cats as “intensely practical anarchists”, with “no concept whatsoever of a rightful hierarchy of social or moral authority.” Consequently, while a dog may look at its owner and see a master, cats look upon humans – even those who feed them and cuddle them and provide them with shelter – as nothing more or less than their social equals, who have no particular right to their obedience.
Now, cats are popularly perceived as having a distasteful air of aloofness and arrogance, which seems particularly pronounced when contrasted with the near-insatiable eagerness to please of many dogs, their most common rivals for the affections of humans. In reality, however, when a cat gazes at a human it is making a “declaration of equality” rather than one of superiority, and the fact that so many people mistake the cat’s gaze for the latter ultimately reveals more about us, and our hierarchical inclinations, than it does about our feline friends. “The gaze of equality from a small, speechless, furry creature,” Le Guin sums up, “is read as the intolerable challenge of an inferior claiming superiority.”
Obviously, cats and humans generally get along marvellously despite these misunderstandings. The positive effects cats can have on both our physical and our mental wellbeing are numerous and even scientifically verified – not that this is necessary, for any cat lover will likely attest to their calming and soothing potential of their presence. Apparently, even the frequency of a cat’s purr occurs at such a level that it produces an array of benign impacts for us humans, which can include the healing of our bones, the lowering of our blood pressure and the easing of any stress we may be feeling.
For their part, I think that most cats get a pretty sweet deal out of this arrangement as well – even when they are not openly expressing their pleasure by purring, as John Gray points out in an entertaining essay in the New Statesman, most house cats seem to enjoy “contentment (as) their default state. Unlike human beings… they do not spend their days in laborious pursuit of a fantasy of happiness. (…) 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.” Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that most cats seem to have found such contentment in their relations with us – after all, as Gray tells us later in the essay, cats were unlike other animals in initiating their domestication process with early humans on their own terms, creating a relationship based more on mutual benefit than human control.
So, while both dogs and cats are great in different ways, part of what sets cats apart is that they don’t take any crap from us humans, and consequently, I think, often live more peaceful and contented lives than their canine cousins. While I don’t think that this makes them any better than dogs, I do think that it means we can learn more from cats. Most unnecessary human suffering, at one level or another, stems from the existence of hierarchical structures which arbitrarily empower some people at the expense of others – whether that’s the patriarchal structure which privileges the violent husband over the unheard wife, the capitalist structure which favours the exploitative employer over the exhausted worker, or the family structure which can give the abusive parent immense power over the voiceless child. If, like cats, we instead stubbornly insisted on treating every person as being of no inherent greater value than any other, I’d wager that we could free ourselves of a lot of the pain and strife we inflict on ourselves at present. As we strive to build societies based on better values than the destructive and greedy urges which underpin late capitalism, I reckon we could do worse than look to the humble house cat for inspiration.
Perhaps it was this sort of thing Mark Twain was referring to when he wrote that “if man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” Or maybe he was just thinking about the fact that cats have soft, warm coats of fur and very practical and adorable whiskers, whereas we have neither. In any case, next time you feel like treating yourself or you need some cheering up, give your cat a stroke – or, if you aren’t so lucky as to own one, console yourself by watching one of the millions of cat-related YouTube videos. If it purrs, you can justifiably expect your bones to heal and your worries to dissipate. And if it scratches you: well, you can rest assured that the cat is merely treating you just as it would any other person or creature that did the same as you – as nothing more or nothing less than its social and moral equal.