CATS IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT (Part 1)

BACKGROUND-CATS IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT

The threat of plague and witchcraft waned in the 18th century, and the poverty and pestilence of earlier centuries slowly receded, making way for a new era full of new possibilities.  Man’s condition advanced with a concern for sanitation, and as the importance of good hygiene gained a foothold in major urban areas, health improved; an inoculation for smallpox in 1720, allowed the population to grow and thrive.  No longer preoccupied with the basic needs of life, men were able to pursue education, and were thereby able to raise their financial and social status.  An increasing educated bourgeoisie class blossomed into writers, scientists, and social activists. These intellectuals and artists, who sought knowledge for the betterment of society, gave the century its name: the Enlightenment, for it was certainly a period of light after so much darkness and suffering.  This light did not just shine on man alone, but on the cat as well.  As man’s condition progressed, so did that of the cat.  No longer seen as solely a symbol of witchcraft and the Devil, the cat became an icon of cleanliness in a time when cleanliness was truly next to godliness.  Consequently, the cat became an acceptable companion for royalty, the upper classes, and the bourgeoisie, and not least of all, the rising group of intellectuals composed of philosophers, writers, politicians and statesmen.  Even though the cat’s greatest enemies: the ignorant, poor and superstitious would continue to threaten its existence (as they still do today), the cat moved on to a period of pampered acceptance in upper class educated circles protected by a previously unheard of concern for animal welfare. 

 

Newton cat flap - cats in the enlightenment

Sir Isaac Newton

Philosophers of the time promoted these changes and espoused such concepts as the pursuit of happiness and the love of nature.  The concern for happiness and a return to the importance of nature were the essential ingredients of the Enlightenment.  Dennis Diderot (1713-84), one of the first Enlightenment philosophers, made happiness a legitimate goal for all people. According to Diderot, freedom, and the ability to accumulate goods, led to happiness.  These literally became revolutionary ideas, and Diderot became the ideological father of both the American and French revolutions.  Furthermore, during this time, the beliefs of the ancient Pagans were reborn.  The philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), proclaimed that god and nature were one. The thrust of philosophical thought had returned to the old Pagan idea of Pantheism, and with it, a new found respect for animals and their treatment emerged. Reflecting this renewed respect for nature, Pantheism seeped into every aspect of the arts. Later, Romanticism would be based on this new philosophy, and music, art and literature would mirror this close relationship.  Scientists, too, from Copernicus to Newton contributed to this awakening by spawning a tolerance for other cultures and ideas by moving away from the dictates of the once all powerful church. 

 


Newton was, unsurprisingly, a cat lover and had a cat when he was at Cambridge named CC whom he fed off his dinner tray, (Westfall, 1980 p.103/4), and it was perhaps for this cat and her kitten that he invented the first cat flap in 1700. (Cat holes in doors had been in use since the 1400’s, but Newton attached a flap to his to keep the heat in the room.) Proof is the two holes in the door which used to be Isaac Newton’s at Trinity College, Cambridge, covered because of today’s central heating, one large one, and one small one.  In addition, during this time, a constellation named, “Felis” appeared in an atlas by J.E. Bode (Engels, 2001, p. 171).

 

REFERENCES

Engels, Donald. (2001). Classical cats: the rise and fall of the sacred cat. Routledge.

Westfall, Richard S. (1980). Never at rest, a biography of Issac Newton. Cambridge University Press. pp. 103-4.

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Laura Vocelle

Comments

  1. Appreciating the hard work you put into yopur site and detaiped
    information you provide. It’s nice to come across a blogg every once in a while that isn’t the same
    outdated rehashed information. Fantastic read! I’ve bookmarked your sitre and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.