‘An examination of cannibalism is bound to induce a species of metaphysical unease’


Illustration by Theodor de Bry from Americae Tertia Pars, 1592

From Cabinet Magazine:

Have you sensed that readers have had trouble coming to terms with how there could be an intellectual history of cannibalism at all?

I think cannibalism is challenging not just on an epistemological level. The cannibal provokes us at a deeper, ontological, level. How can cannibalism’s existence be justified? This question is particularly difficult, since the coming into being of the cannibal implies the disappearance of other beings. If this is true, then an examination of cannibalism is bound to induce a species of metaphysical unease.

One of my favorite things about the book is the bounty of details and anecdotes. You mention at some point a partial defense by Robert Boyle of the practice of cannibalism, on the grounds that our current eating practices are already perfectly disgusting, for example, eating the entrails of crustaceans, mixing dung into cheese to give it flavor, and so on. Observations like this one depict cannibalism as existing on a continuum with other dietary practices, rather than being a radical departure from our usual practices, and this in turn inserts early modern discussions of cannibalism into the much broader, and older, history of what might be called “dietary philosophy,” a concern that is omnipresent in Greek philosophy, and perhaps never really went away. Do you see the issue of cannibalism as embedded within a larger debate about carnivorism, the danger of beans, according to the Pythagoreans, and in general about, let’s say, the proper maintenance of the corporeal substance? Or are there distinct issues that arise here?

Until recently, moralists did not exactly have a craving for vegetarianism. Avoiding meat was mainly a religious imperative and even that was interpreted creatively. Medieval Eastern Orthodox monks, for instance, declared the European beaver, now almost extinct, to be a sort of furry fish, since it was an aquatic creature. That definition made it acceptable for a diet that forbade the consumption of red meat during specific periods.

What was significant for the moralist was not always what you eat, but how. In other words, what was at stake in early modern ethical discourse was not primarily the substance of the food, but the manners of the table. In the seventeenth century, for instance, refined cuisine was not for the faint-hearted. How animals were raised, sacrificed, cooked, and consumed reveals a brutal side of the early modern heart. I suspect things have not changed much to this day; back then, however, this brutality was more open for anyone to see. In an age of increasing refinement, this paradox troubled a few minds. They wept and yet they ate the objects of their compassion.

Moralists, then, focused on the manners of the table as a manifestation of the moral order (or disorder) of a society. That was the “larger debate” you mentioned. The question, then, for the early modern philosopher, is: where do you start deriving a moral science from? Here is where cannibalism comes into play, as a result of the shock it inflicts upon the modern moralist. It raises in him an elementary passion, and forces him to think about the human being in very exceptional circumstances and in an extreme state of derangement.

The sensationalist bent of the travel narratives was a clever epistemological device. Wonder and astonishment were considered, from classical antiquity to Descartes, as sources of knowledge. Disgust, then, should be seen from this perspective as a species of wonder, one that is productive at the root of ethics. 

“The Raw and the Cooked: An Interview with Cătălin Avramescu”, Justin E. H. Smith, Cabinet Magazine