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The discussion between A and B captures the cannibal at a crossroads, at a precarious point in history when access to him becomes opaque and the way he is understood radically altered. Beyond this point, the anthropophagus will become the creature we know today: a product of particular circumstances. Extreme hunger, extinct customs in regions now invaded by tourists, and the manifestations of a profoundly deranged mind: all these are glimmers of a causality once described by distinct sciences. The anthropophagous nation has been reduced to a sad rabble of eccentrics, who each separately lead a tortured existence within a small ecological niche, incapable of constituting any starting point for the articulation of a moral philosophy.

Having ended up as functionaries who know very well where their next meal is coming from, the philosophers of our times teach us one or another version of utilitarianism, moral relativism, or juridical positivism. Sensible to the pleasures of the no longer topical, I have elected to present the reader with a study about a period of the past during which the eater of human flesh made his atrocious hegemony felt within the bounds of the science of natural law. The debate between A and B allows us to contemplate, at least as a possibility, a situation in which the cannibal was an original subject of universal history. If true, then the cannibal is one of the great forgotten figures of philosophy, and the story of man and his obligations, as these were seen by the philosophers of the past, would be incomplete without him.

    - Introduction to An Intellectual History of Cannibalism
[O]ne cannot help but detect a fairly strong strain of remorse in the book for the loss of a natural-law framework for thinking about the various transgressions human beings make against one another, and arguably against themselves. Would you care to make more explicit than you do in the book your reasons for feeling that modern legal positivism marks a turn for the worse?

The goal of my book is not to make a decision in such venerable disputes as the one between universalism and relativism, but rather to refine our knowledge as to the context and the nature of some of these theoretical developments. But I also raise the question of the significance of the decline of natural law theories, and that led me to reflect on the status of the state as a moral subject. When sovereignty is liberated from the constraints of a higher law, then there are two options left: amoralism or the belief that the Good is immanent. The idea of the welfare state, for instance, seems to me such a perversion made possible by the instrumentalization of the idea of sovereignty. At its heart is the faith that the state is better than its citizens.

    -INTERVIEW: The Raw and the Cooked: An Interview with C?t?lin Avramescu (Justin E. H. Smith, Fall 2010, Cabinet)

At first blush, one is surprised to find a fair numbers of reviews posted for a treatise on mainly 17th and 19th century political philosophy, published by a university press, on a rather obscure subject. But, consider just that title and you can easily imagine why the book has found so many readers. After all, despite the thesis that Mr. Avramescu develops, the idea of cannibalism still has the power to provoke visceral reaction and public sensation.

That thesis though is that while the cannibal became a central figure in Western philosophy and political theory precisely because his behavior placed him so far beyond the Pale that he was useful in any discussion of what Man would be like in the absence of morality and law, he was eventually written out of such discussions first because cannibalism conflicted with the notion that Man was born good and only later corrupted by the state and society and, second, because relativism demanded that all human behaviors be explained away morally, lest the Christian world be permitted to pass judgment on the Third World. This is less a history of cannibalism as a practice then than a history of how cannibalism as a thought experiment was used and then largely discarded in our moral philosophy. And it may come as less of a surprise, in this context, that the author would like to rescue the cannibal from the trash heap of history. In his opinion--and, predictably, in mine--the cannibal served a useful purpose, as an archetypal symbol of the cruelty that Man is capable of at the extremes of society. Likewise, in the process by which the figure of the cannibal was banished--both because legitimate doubt was cast on the old stories of exploration that had relied on cannibals as a trope and because post-Christian thinkers thought it an unacceptable form of cultural imperialism to judge the behaviors of Others--we lost the capacity to even discuss morality coherently. We went from Hobbes's vision of the state of nature as a war of all against all, where the individual was threatened by every evil and perversion imaginable, necessitating the creation of a strong enough sovereign power to protect ourselves from each other, to a kind of Ben and Jerry's vision--"If it feels good do it"--wherein it is the state that threatens the ultimate cruelty, because it restricts us from doing anything that strikes our fancy.

As one would expect in an academic book, translated from the original Romanian, that examines such philosophers as Hobbes, Locke, Diderot, Rousseau, Pufendorf, Grotius and the like, in depth, there is some tough sledding here. It's not a beach book. But it is fascinating and the author's command of the sources is astonishing, as is the novel way in which he draws them together to convince us that the cannibal was an important figure in intellectual history in the first place. Personally, I though he could have--and should have--enunciated his own conclusions more directly. As is, he scores many of his points off of the materialist and relativists rather obliquely and defends the natural law tradition with less force than the times require. But it's still an entirely worthwhile and thought-provoking read.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Catalin Avramescu Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Catalin Avramescu
    -BOOK SITE: An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Princeton University Press)
    -EXCERPT: Introduction to An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (PUP)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: An Intellectual History of Cannibalism
    -ESSAY: Abnormals of all nations, unite!: On the exceptionality of political liberty: Can democratic constitutions be called "normal"? Not according to political philosophers from the classical period to the nineteenth century. Today, the ubiquitous misuse of democratic institutions renders the exemplary constitution as abnormal as ever. (Catalin Avramescu, 10.12.2007, Eurozine)
    -INTERVIEW: The Raw and the Cooked: An Interview with C?t?lin Avramescu (Justin E. H. Smith, Fall 2010, Cabinet)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Catalin Avramescu on the Idea of Cannibalism (Philosophy Bites, 12/06/09)
    -ARCHIVES: Catralin Avramescu (Euro Topics)
    -ARCHIVES: "Catalin Avramescu" (Eurozine)
-REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Catalin Avramescu (Jenny Diski, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Jenn Paton, OpenDemocracy)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Steven Shapin, LA Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (JUSTIN E.H. SMITH, N+1)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Simon Blackburn, Times Higher Education Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Richard King)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Tabish Kair, LiveMint)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Stephen J. Gertz, Booktryst)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Wendy C. Hamblet, Metapsychology)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (David Bates, Isis)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Noel Malcom, StandPoint)
    -REVIEW: of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Dave, Madame Pickwick)

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