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.