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Men on the Menu
July/August 2009

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. 

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March 3rd, 2010
3:03 AM
It was an enlightening read. I seriously hope no one's practicing cannibalism but then again, with the changes in our climate, who knows one day we'll run out of food and humans becomes the next viable option! Yikes, Patty

Uta Scholz
March 1st, 2010
3:03 PM
Good luck to professor Catalin. I remember my research papers about law system and it's gaps. it was long work and I had to follow too many authors with different points of view.

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