An Intellectual History of Cannibalism

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism


The cannibal has played a surprisingly important role in the history of thought--perhaps the ultimate symbol of savagery and degradation-- haunting the Western imagination since before the Age of Discovery, when Europeans first encountered genuine cannibals and related horrible stories of shipwrecked travelers eating each other. An Intellectual History of Cannibalism is the first book to systematically examine the role of the cannibal in the arguments of philosophers, from the classical period to modern disputes about such wide-ranging issues as vegetarianism and the right to private property.

Catalin Avramescu shows how the cannibal is, before anything else, a theoretical creature, one whose fate sheds light on the decline of theories of natural law, the emergence of modernity, and contemporary notions about good and evil. This provocative history of ideas traces the cannibal's appearance throughout Western thought, first as a creature springing from the menagerie of natural law, later as a diabolical retort to theological dogmas about the resurrection of the body, and finally to present-day social, ethical, and political debates in which the cannibal is viewed through the lens of anthropology or invoked in the service of moral relativism.

Ultimately, An Intellectual History of Cannibalism is the story of the birth of modernity and of the philosophies of culture that arose in the wake of the Enlightenment. It is a book that lays bare the darker fears and impulses that course through the Western intellectual tradition


A and B, the two philosophers whose dialogue opens Denis Diderot’s work Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville… on the Inconvenience of Attaching Moral Ideas to certain Physical Actions which they do not Presuppose (1772), review the recent discoveries in the South Seas, on which occasion they find themselves confronted with a situation requiring special consideration. Will an island situated in the midst of natural abundance, with a limited surface area (a league in diameter, as the text specifies) and whose inhabitants have arrived there almost by miracle, be able to sustain population growth? What will happen, asks B, when the people begin to multiply? For A, the answer is clear: they will begin to exterminate and eat one another. It is possible, continues A, that, due to this type of situation, anthropophagy may have appeared at a very ancient date and would thus be “insular in origin.” Hence there results the necessity and the source of cruel customs, such as infanticide, human sacrifice, castration, and infibulation, which arose in order to halt unsustainable population growth. Diderot qualifies these as “so many customs of a necessary and bizarre cruelty, whose cause has been lost in the night of time and which drive philosophers to distraction.”

Amateurs of metaphysics might wonder why we have found it fitting to torture the public with an analysis of oddities occurring on real or imaginary islands of the past. In the context of eighteenth-century theories, however, the discussion between A and B seems unremarkable at first sight. The primitive anthropophagi of exotic lands, the origins of religious worship and fanaticism in the necessities of natural existence, the obsession with population growth within a given territory: these are all tried and tested subjects of the Enlightenment. The significance of the theory that cannibalism is insular in origin will come to light only if we distance ourselves from the text and view it in relation to the type of science it sets out to employ, namely “natural history,” in the sense in which this term was understood during Diderot’s epoch. The anthropophagi of the Lancer Islands are placed in a situation that is at the intersection of two major theories. On the one hand, they are necessary products of natural history. The combination of limited natural abundance and the tendency to multiply cannot logically be prolonged except as far as a point at which the accumulation of bodies must generate reciprocal consumption. On the other hand, however, it is precisely the . . .

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