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An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Catalin Avramescu

Catalin Avramescu, a professor of political science at the University of Bucharest, has two unique achievements to his name. He has produced the first Romanian translation of Thomas Hobbes’s Elements of Law (the earliest of Hobbes’s political treatises, which foreshadowed the arguments of Leviathan). He has also written the first ever intellectual history of cannibalism. These two facts are not entirely unrelated.

The phrase “intellectual history of cannibalism” here is a shorthand for something more complicated: a history of the ways in which the idea of cannibalism has influenced, or been exploited by, philosophers and political theorists. Sometimes it has been treated as a problem — the dilemma of starving survivors of a shipwreck, for example — to which moral philosophy must supply a solution. But more often it has operated as an extreme or limiting case, something that helps to define normality by its absence. 

The cannibal, it seems, is the ultimate symbol of all the dark forces of violence and inhumanity, which must be excluded from civilised society.

So in what way was Hobbes a philosopher of cannibalism? Not in any literal sense — anthropophagy is hardly mentioned in his voluminous works. But he did, famously, set out a theory of the “state of nature” as a “war of every man against every man”. Before the imposition of political authority, he argued, human beings would be justified in acting on the basis of their “natural right” to seek their own preservation. This right would include, potentially, the right to do anything to any other person. It is in that “anything” that Avramescu locates the shocking possibility of killing and eating one’s neighbour. And in taking Hobbes’s argument to this extreme, he is following the tendency of some of Hobbes’s early critics, who, believing in a divinely ordained natural harmony, found the whole idea of natural conflict deeply offensive.

Hobbes’s response was, untypically, to appeal to facts: “the savage people in many places of America”, he noted, lived in the “brutish” condition he described. Since the early 16th century, there had been a huge growth in the publication of travel narratives, with many accounts of primitive peoples in Asia, Africa and the Americas. As Avramescu stresses, there was a constant interplay between this ethnographic literature and the theories of early modern writers about what was “natural” for mankind.

But as he also insists, the travel literature included detailed accounts of cannibalism in many societies, starting with the warlike “Carib” tribes of the Antilles, from whom our word “cannibal” is apparently derived. 

Previously, cannibals had been almost symbolic figures, mentioned as distant oddities by classical and medieval geographers. But now, thanks to reliable observers such as Dr Chanca (Christopher Columbus’s physician, who visited the Caribs) or Garcilaso de la Vega (the half-Spanish, half-Inca historian whose accounts of Andean tribes were based on local knowledge), anthropophagi could be seen as a part of normal life in some parts of the world.

Various explanations were offered: in some cases cannibalism was a follow-up to human sacrifices. Sometimes, it was an act of triumph over defeated enemies. For some societies, it was a way of disposing of the sick, or even an act of piety towards one’s deceased parents. But several writers insisted that the motive was essentially gastronomic: according to Louis de Poincy, the natives of Florida declared that human flesh was a tremendous delicacy, noting that “the sole of the foot is the most delicious bit”.

To a Western philosophical tradition brought up on general theories of human nature and “natural” laws, this sort of information was very disturbing. Avramescu explores the many ways in which Western thinkers tried to dismiss or deflect it, or to incorporate it in their theories. For some, such as Montaigne, all evidence of bizarre behaviour was grist to a relativist mill, and it was always possible to find even worse behaviour closer to home. Discussing the cruel punishments of Western societies, he wrote that “the savages do not so much offend me in roasting and eating the bodies of the dead, as they do who torment and persecute the living.” Others used the possibility of cannibalism to demonstrate that “despotism” (previously classified as a genuine form of government, in which the ruler had total proprietary rights over the ruled) could not be legitimate.

Gradually, the issue faded; 18th-century political theorists found ways of explaining cannibalism away, as a product of climatic influence, population pressure and other such scientific mechanisms. At the same time, the “noble savage” was reinvented by proto-Romantic thinkers, such as Rousseau. But, according to Avramescu, a line of filiation does connect the early descriptions of cannibal societies, which were usually portrayed as egalitarian and atheistic too, with the thinking of the early communists — which, has a grim appropriateness, given that communism is the only political system to have produced cannibalism (in the Ukrainian terror-famine) in modern times.

This is a fascinating book, but not an easy one to master. Divided into broadly thematic chapters, it moves forwards and backwards in time, sometimes revisiting the same material, and the argument is often elusive. Almost anything to do with cannibalism has been thrown in. There is, for example, a rich discussion of how the early Christian theologians defended the resurrection of the body against the objection that the same material would need to be used both for my body and for that of the cannibal who ate me, but its connection with the central arguments of the book is hard to see. The author’s admiration for Michel Foucault is unfortunately reflected in his prose style (“Surgery is the figure of modernity that displaces punitive practices as a method of the extreme visibility of the body”), and the translation from the Romanian is far from perfect. Nor, for that matter, is Avramescu entirely reliable on Hobbes, thanks to his strange failure to distinguish between Hobbes’s concept of “natural right” (which might, exceptionally, permit cannibalism) and his theory of “natural law” (which never could). Still, this is a remarkable work and there really is no other book like it.

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