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Millions of Cats

By Wanda Gag


Millions of Cats, a fantastical tale by Wanda Gag, is a story about an old couple that is faced with the very difficult problem of finding the world's prettiest cat. The old man and woman in the story decide they need a cat to make them happy and only the prettiest cat will do. But when the old man looks out across the land filled with millions of cats, he decides he simply must take them all home because he cannot decide which one is prettiest—they all seem equally pretty in their own way. The old woman, however, realizing the impracticality of picking so many cats, decides that the cats might be better judges of their own prettiness than either she or her husband and insists that they pick amongst themselves the prettiest one. When the cats prove incapable of picking one cat, they eat each other up, until only the homeliest kitten is left. Interestingly, it is this scraggly, ugly kitten that turns out to be the prettiest cat in the whole world in the eyes of the old couple, but only after it has been nursed back to health.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Danielle F. dela Gorgendiere

Millions of Cats raises questions about the nature and judgment of beauty and its relationship to happiness. One branch of philosophy, called “aesthetics,” has long dealt directly with questions regarding beauty. Although in the book, Wanda Gag never explicitly uses the word, “beauty,” she still manages to explore aesthetic issues through a close look at what makes cats “pretty.” When we recognize that beauty and prettiness are similar things, we can use what aesthetic philosophers have had to say about beauty to guide our conversations about this book.

Some philosophers believe that beauty, to use a cliché, is in the eye of the beholder. There is no way of determining the most beautiful thing in the world because each person has his or her own criteria for determining what is beautiful. Others believe that beauty is not so subjective as this, and that there are, in fact, objective and universal standards for determining whether or not something is beautiful. Those who believe that something is beautiful even if it doesn’t adhere to these standards are considered wrong. Questions regarding whether beauty is subjective or objective have puzzled philosophers interested in many topics in aesthetics, from the prettiness of cats to the beauty of a painting. This is the theme of the first question set below.

Aesthetic philosophers also wonder whether beauty is culturally constructed. They try to decide whether or not our understanding of beauty is informed by our cultural backgrounds. Some philosophers think that our cultural background strongly influences our understanding of beauty. These philosophers believe that each culture creates its own standards of beauty and anyone who is born into this culture will be taught these standards. For example, someone born in the United States, where thinness is considered a more beautiful attribute than fatness, is likely to believe that thin women are more beautiful than fat women, whereas someone born in Niger, where fatness demonstrates wealth, is more likely to believe that fat women are more beautiful.

Other philosophers believe that culture has nothing to do with our understandings of beauty. In this case, our understanding of beauty might be either completely subjective, where each individual person, regardless of his or her cultural background has a distinct understanding of what it means to be beautiful, or beauty is defined by objective and universal standards, as described in the previous paragraph. Whether or not beauty is culturally constructed is explored in the second set of questions below.

Some philosophers are also concerned with the relationship between beauty and happiness. Can beautiful things make us happy? There are a variety of possible answers to this question. Some might ask whether we are talking about “inner beauty” or “outer beauty.” Some might equate outer beauty with physical appearances, arguing that outer beauty is superficial and is therefore less emotionally satisfying than inner beauty. Others might argue that if outer beauty is what we seek, we will necessarily be happy when we find it. Still others might argue that beautiful things don’t make us happy, but rather our happiness about a thing is what makes it appear beautiful to us. Things don’t make us happy simply because they are beautiful, but things appear beautiful because they make us happy. Whether and how beautiful things make us happy is the subject of the third set of questions below.

And finally, aesthetic philosophers may be interested in who has the authority to judge what is beautiful. Some philosophers believe that no one person is any more qualified to judge what is beautiful than anyone else. These philosophers tend to be of the camp that believes that beauty is culturally constructed and that as such each person judges beauty according to their own personal standards. Others believe that certain trained professionals should be granted more authority in judging beauty. Not surprisingly, these people tend to believe that there are objective standards for judging beauty. Thus, a good judge of beauty must be trained and familiar with recognizing these standards and must also be objective, that is, they must be outside the beauty contest, whatever it may be. The fourth and final set of questions below directly addresses this issue of the judgment of beauty.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

The Subjectivity of Beauty

When the old man and woman ask the cats to decide for themselves which one was the prettiest, the cats disagree and eat each other up.

  1. Why did the cats disagree about which one of them was the prettiest?
  2. How would you decide which cat was the prettiest?
  3. Is the way that you would decide which cat was prettiest different from the way your classmates would decide which cat was prettiest?
  4. If two people disagree about what is pretty, is one of them wrong?
  5. Who gets to decide whether or not something is pretty?

Beauty as Culturally Constructed

In the story, the very old man sees how different all of the cats are from one another and cannot decide which of the millions of cats is the prettiest, so he decides to take them all home to the very old woman.

  1. Why did the old man think that each cat was too pretty to leave behind?
  2. If you were in a land filled with millions of cats, like the place in the book, do you think that you would be able to pick out which cat was the prettiest?
  3. How would you pick out which cat was the prettiest?
  4. How can you tell when something is pretty?
  5. Is it possible that there could be two prettiest things in the world? What about a million?
  6. Is it possible that everything in the world could be pretty?
  7. Could everything in the world be the prettiest?

Beauty and Happiness

The old man and woman decide that they need to find the prettiest cat so that they can be happy.

  1. Why do you think the old man and woman think that the prettiest cat in the world will make them happy?
  2. Should they have been looking for a pretty cat if they wanted a cat to make them happy?
  3. Do you think that the kitten the old man and woman decided to keep at the end of the story made them happy?
  4. Do you think that a pretty cat could make someone happier than an ugly cat?
  5. Could something ugly ever make somebody happier than something pretty?
  6. Do you think that old man and woman were happy with the kitten before they realized that it was the prettiest cat in the world?
  7. Do you think that it was the kitten’s prettiness that made the old man and woman happy?
  8. Do you think the old man and old woman would have been happy if the kitten wasn’t pretty?
  9. Do things that make us happy look prettier than things that make us unhappy?
  10. Do we love something because it is pretty or is something pretty because we love it?
  11. Do pretty things always make us happy?
  12. Is everything that makes us happy pretty?

Who Gets to Judge What’s Pretty?

The old man and old woman decide to let the millions of cats decide amongst themselves which one of them was the prettiest.

  1. How do you think the cats judged who was prettiest?
  2. Do you think that the cats were better judges of their prettiness than the old man and woman?
  3. Are there other ways that the cats or the old couple could have decided which cat was prettiest?
  4. How do you think the couple should have decided which cat was prettiest?
  5. Are some people better judges of prettiness than others?

This book module deals with aesthetics. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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