May 18, 2011

Beasts Within

At whatever point you choose to dip into the history of philosophy, from Plato (or before) to some ephemeral chap of the moment, you’ll find that it’s pretty commonly understood that underlying every man is an animal, and not a cute kitten either. No, not with Darwin did the idea emerge that somewhere within us was the beast, or at least its legacy. One way or another, the history of humanity has revolved around suppressing this thing in us that subverts reason and supplants honour.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been finding out about his inner animal, and its consequences, this week. I’m not going to try and convict him here, of course, but the tale is cautionary. Ask around the world of posthumanists and their ilk and you’ll find an overwhelming reluctance to distinguish humans from animals in any sort of meaningful way, despite several thousand years of this being at the centre of the meaning of civilisation. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a conceit, but it is pretty daring, and is challenged most dramatically when a given human behaves, for want of a better way of putting it, like an animal.

To what standard shall we hold people? To nature? I don’t quite see a basis for morality there. Indeed, in making moral imperatives, and in judging moral transgressions, we always designate something in the man that supersedes the animal in him. At the same time, these codes always acknowledge the animal’s presence, its danger, and its closeness to the surface. To deny its presence is to abdicate vigilance. To celebrate its presence is surely to risk us all. No, our human qualities must cage this beast, subjecting it to an iron will and an unimpeachable reason.

This is an essential and on-going task of the individual and of the society. If we fail, we shall lose the meaning of the ‘inhuman’, and if we reach that point, send us all to Riker’s Island.


  1. Doctor, you should first decide whether the will and reason are natural and only later decide whether morality can be based soundly in nature or not. As the former go, so will the latter, I believe...

    When I heard about this, leaving aside that we're talking about a Frenchman, I wondered in what world people who go chasing after women should be trusted with money. Surely, there are enough people who love money, even Frenchmen, that there be no need to corrupt the unerotic with the erotic.
    Then there's something else, too, I believe people no longer love power enough; there is also an unmanly contempt for politics around us; put together, we see we are left with people who are not good politicians because they do not expect that of themselves - because we do not expect it of them - and because academics have taught generations upon generations to contemn politics and politicians.
    This man did not behave in a politic manner; his immorality or criminality are subsidiaries of that and they admit of certain doubts, some of them, I am advised, pending judgment in a court of the law. But it is impossible to have a country worth loving without admirable politicians...

    As for academics who refuse to take human beings' claims to humanity seriously - theirs is not really a minority opinion. They simply go farther down a road which many travel. - For to take the other road would be to take human beings seriously when they make claims to importance; that would require to take their claims to truth seriously; and to do that would require an examination of what life is worth living; particularly, it would require understanding and a defense of the relative goodness of the associations which the human beings form together in order, making up the way of life for which they make their claims. - In short, someone would have to argue that the human being is a political animal, that the family and the city are natural, and that his speeches make reasonable claims to truth. - So far as I can tell that would put most of academia out of a job...

  2. Ah. So that's why I don't have a job.

  3. I believe that morality - both private and public - is central to what being human is about and that many of the problems which beset the way we do things, particularly things relating to the res publica, have to do with a tendency to regard it as superfluous.

    We create our own values, both as individuals and societies, and how we choose them and choose to live them say a lot about the way we see and respect ourselves. In the area of "private" morality, this is the basis of that elusive, yet central concept known as honour, one of the highest gifts we make to ourselves.

    If the allegations are true, S-K has lost sight of such principles completely (if indeed he ever had it). But people of wealth, privilege and fortune seem particularly prone to lose contact with reality and basic decency. In a different area, zu Guttenberg is another example of this.


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