Avramescu, Cătălin

Cătălin Avramescu’s The Philosophy of Cannibalism

Cătălin Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism not only sketches out a genealogy of philosophical thought on a primary actor in the “grotesque theater” of human savagery and cruelty; it unfolds a history of the discipline of political science that demonstrates that discipline’s integral implication in the history of human brutality.

Political science, explains Avramescu, composes a field of analytical study of political events and ideas that, since Thomas Hobbes, has declared itself modeled on the sure foundation of principles of Euclidean geometry. Its claim to be “a science of rational deductions, systematically and logically drawn from a number of axioms” (p. 5) has permitted political science to distance itself from the uncertainties and ambiguities of the fluctuating world of empirical events, which it studies.  As evidenced in Hobbes’ famed aphorism, “examples prove nothing,” political science believes itself to be analyzing the world and human cultures from the stable perch of human reason and order–“civilization”–removed from the volatile arena of human passions and the lawless realm of pre-civilized humans in a “state of nature.”

Avramescu tracks the course of intellectual ideas about the cannibal, understood by political scientists as the primary “monster” of the human species, standing outside the rational and moral world of the “civilized,” natural deviants from human reason. The most horrible act that human reason can imagine is the act of eating the flesh of one’s own kind, so the cannibal was placed at center stage in this “theater of the grotesque.” From Homer and Stabo through the Roman historians to Hobbes and Thomas Mathus, the cannibal has been figured as the example par excellence of the lawless savage. Avramescu charts the rise, endurance, and the falling away of this infamous actor who for centuries dominated the European imagination, and stood at center stage in the drama of “natural law,” the enduring subject of political scientific analysis.


The intriguing upshot of Avramescu’s detailed analysis is that political scientists emerge into view, in the course of this fascinating intellectual history, not as mere objective observers and analysts, charting political ideas and cultural adherences and deviations from natural law, but as themselves caught up as actors in the history of barbarism they are charting. As Europeans began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to wander far beyond their borders and discover the frontiers of the planet, first as explorers, then as imperialist adventurers and evangelist missionaries, the strange new cultures that they encountered at the far reaches of the globe came to be charted in the political scientific literature of the time as evidence of the evolutionary superiority of European cultures. Avramescu reveals how the political scientists, standing confidently on the solid ground of human reason, accepted unproblematically the wealth of tales about “murderous savages,” expounded by the traveling adventurers, imperialists, and evangels, as disinterested anthropological descriptions. Their failure to question the interests of the parties producing this impressive accumulation of “scientific data”–the boost in travel story sales, the justification of slaughter and enslavement of the indigenous, the seizure of indigenous territories–rendered the political scientist party to the atrocities they inadvertently helped to justify to European audiences. The figure of the flesh-eating cannibal, so far from the polite society of “civilized” Europeans, framed the moral view of the political scientist and colored the latter’s objective descriptions of the barbarity of the Europeans abroad.

However, continues Avramescu, with increasing vigor, the “state of Nature” philosophers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, launched a systematic critique of the legends of cannibal tribes. By the eighteenth century, political scientific vision began to clear and the scientists began to consciously cultivate skepticism in their European audiences regarding the existence of whole tribes practicing cannibalism. Much more likely, they argues, only random acts of cannibalism occurred, and these a result of sheer physical necessity, since life in the “state of nature” was no picnic. The cannibal began to disappear from the theater of the European imagination, partly because many of the tales of cannibal tribes were being recognized as stretched descriptions by interested authors, but also because many of the indigenous tribes were being eliminated altogether or believed to have been “civilized” by exposure to European governance and religion. Enlightenment ideals of individual rights and the universal “dignity of man” spurred mounting critiques of the Sovereign and the Church, and also promoted the outlook that African, American, and island peoples were civilizations in their own right, different from but not inferior to European societies.

From the “subversive image of the subversion of the moral order” (p. 255), the cannibal became figured as the “universal human being,” driven by physical necessity and the scarcity of food to acts that offended his own moral order, as much as that of European societies. As hunger ceased to be a common social experience in the West, Avramescu concludes his intellectual history, so too fascination with cannibal peoples waned, having “exhausted their theoretical fruitfulness” (p. 250). Cannibal stories fell away, as theories of natural law were abandoned, and political science began increasingly to rely on the positive science of law and to employ purely utilitarian and political terms to construct their models of the philosophy of law. The idea of the savage other, outside the civilizing forces of the sovereign and religion, fell to the background of European concerns, as a new “monster” entered the imagination–the state. As the modern state fell increasingly under critique, under the influence of Enlightenment ideals, the history of human politics and power became more and more broadly framed as a succession of savage brutalities, beside which exotic tribal customs could not hold their place of fascination.


Avramescu’s study of the intellectual history of ideas about cannibalism is an absorbing analysis and a compelling critique of the history of political thought, which every student of human history and intraspecies violence will want to include in her personal library. The translation offers a flowing and elegant read, accessible to any educated audience, and would serve well as a textbook in higher education classes on political thought and violence.

— original source: http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/ —

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