The Political Anthropology of the Divine Beast (Part I)


We are political beasts.

This argument has been made at least as early as when it was made by Aristotle. It is from him that I select the expression ‘political beasts’. The reason I render the ζῷον (‘zöon’) in ζῷον πολιτικόν (‘zöon politikōn’) as ‘beast’ is because this seems to me to be the most apt translation. Two problems often lead us to dismiss the importance of the term ‘zöon’ — not only the importance of the term itself, but also in how it indelibly inflects that political part of our beastly nature.

The riddle of our nature opens up to us when we embrace it, not when we ignore it. “The utopian”, Joe Sobran wrote, “wants to fly by disregarding gravity instead of understanding it.” To disregard obstacles inherent in human life is not the same as to overcome them.

This is precisely the error to which we shall not succumb — and, indeed, that we shall endeavour to demolish.


In discussing the nature of men as ‘political animals’ or ‘political beasts’, as in the discussion of other topics, there must be a specifiable domain of knowledge (in this case, one much like Hume’s “Science of Man”), which is roughly mapped out, with an appropriate methodology, even if this is ad hoc. In other words: if such a domain did not already exist, it would be necessary to create one. Supposing this domain is established in some sense, but is not fully mapped out, then we must tend to this also.

What is this domain? ‘Political anthropology’. This is what we call the consideration of our nature as politically interactive beings. In The Concept of the Political, the jurist Carl Schmitt lays out the following heuristic, under this title, by which political philosophies can be cleanly separated into two rough groups by their underlying assumptions: “One could test all theories of state and political ideas according to their anthropology and thereby classify these as to whether they consciously or unconsciously presuppose man to be by nature evil or by nature good. The distinction is to be taken here in a rather summary fashion and not in any specifically moral or ethical sense. The problematic or unproblematic conception of man is decisive for the presupposition of every further political consideration, the answer to the question whether man is a dangerous being or not, a risky or a harmless creature.” (Schmitt, C. [], The Concept of the Political, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.58)

Also, Schmitt is at pains to avoid imputing a moral interpretative content to the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’. He takes a brief opportunity to remind the reader of this. Put bluntly, these have none of their moral meaning, in the sphere of the political. They are not used in political-anthropological discussion as normative terms. Rather, in political life, theirs is a practical, political and didactic meaning. So, it is important for Schmitt to be clear on what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ do not mean; their positive content is less important, since he says that “[t]he numerous modifications and variations of this anthropological distinction of good and evil are not reviewed here in detail. Evil may appear as corruption, weakness, cowardice, stupidity, or also as brutality, sensuality, vitality, irrationality, and so on.”

So, what is a man?

This question, rather naturally, recurs throughout European writing, especially political writing, from at least Classical Antiquity. It becomes much more complicated with Christianity, since it has to be reconciled with religious doctrines by means of contrivances and convoluted arguments. Under these new auspices, discussion around it intensifies. This too is quite natural, since many of the great scholars of Christendom are wont to rescue the pagan notions about men, sometimes openly, sometimes in subtle and cryptic ways — but always couched in the creedal and dogmatic language of the day.

We even see this strong trend into the Early Modern period. The transition from mediæval to modern thought is not the cut-and-dry separation — in any case, it is not at all the straightforward ever-improving progress from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance and an ever-unfurling flower of Enlightenment.

The historical movement from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is also, in a manner of speaking, mirrored in the philosophical movement from a discussion centred on the “statu innocentiæ” (the State of Innocence) to one centred on the “statu naturæ” (the State of Nature), the latter being a term used already in mediæval times, albeit adhering more or less to the meaning of the former. In the mediæval literature, the state of innocence is, of course, Man’s situation in Eden before the Fall; that state in which man is good and his enjoyment of himself, Nature and God’s harmony is — in a word — perfect. This gradually changes as the impetus of European philosophy takes it out from under the auspices of Scholasticism and wider mediæval thought. We see that with the secular or civil focus of Hobbes, for example, the “State of Nature” comes into its own. There is an inversion here that is rather interesting — or rather, a reversion, a subterranean attempt to set the nature of men (inverted by Christian doctrine) back on its feet.

So, how do we make sense of what we’ve turned around? What is this political theology we have just uncovered with this revolution?

Anthropology, as Feuerbach (himself a kind of blessed fool) suggested, must ultimately be the starting point for Theology, just as Theology must be the point of departure for the return to Anthropology. The same also applies when we prefix (literally and figuratively) both anthropology and theology with ‘the political’. So, political anthropology is not only important for its own sake, but also the crucial precondition for a political theology, which is how we end up with all our myths and the prevailing structures of political organization.

Harnessing powerful myths, images, rituals as Master-words, we may string together sentences worth a thousand books, and find a narrative for ourselves — and so, we give rise to anthropological discourses.

So, what is man — and can we discover this in what he says?

The answer is ‘Yes’, but not a straight yes. Man does not say what man is, but he sees.

Since we can see how he is perceived by his fellows, we can answer the question firstly in those terms: ‘Homo homini lupus’ the rational realist Hobbes gives as a motto for his view of man (drawing on Plautus); ‘Homo homini deus’ replies Francis Bacon (drawing on Pliny the Elder); and at last, Schmitt (in his book The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes) poses these two formulations as successive, the former followed by the latter, by pointing to the deus mortalis, the ‘mortal god’, the dread sovereign of the Hobbesian state. Man becomes, to man, a god, where before all men are wolves. It is a wry connection to be drawn and, contextually, is a brilliant connection for the book on Leviathan to make.

Nevertheless, men are not suddenly something else, with no trace of their previous selves. In anything organic, there can never be a clean, completely separate periodization; nor, in any case, can there be anything without intermediate developments and a substantial continuity.

Again, we ask the question, slightly reformulated: What is man throughout? ‘Homo homini lupus’ or ‘Homo homini deus’?

In order to get a fuller and more accurate picture of man qua man, we must agree with both — in other words, agree with both expressions, as well as a third — a synthesis — which retains both. So, we must find this third way of expressing that which makes us human.

Men can be either wolves or gods, to other men. Again, they can also be both. How is this so? It is revealed in their polemical nature. In war, man is at his most predatory and yet his most divine, in one and the same instance. The Ancients, in the intuitive genius of their mythologies, acknowledged this but dimly — yet they did acknowledge it. Indeed, the Ancients had sacrifices before war, but afterward — and these latter were of a narrative nature, conducted after the fact of actual conflict, when the dust settled on the field and men lay mangled by the bronze spear. They would often ritually re-enact the slaughter of battle, the notable deeds of engagement, in the efforts to capture the divine connection in such deeds.

In Roman culture, the wolf-god connection becomes even more apparent, literal and surreal. The Romans would throw open the gates of the Temple of Janus and keep them open in times of war, even as the standard-bearers of Rome’s army adorned themselves and their armour in the skins of wolves. Is it any wonder, too, that Rome’s deified founder Romulus, was suckled on wolf’s milk? This is an even more direction connection! Even though a wolf and a god may be separated by a spiralling staircase of infinity, stretching from Tartarus to Olympus, from the Inferno to Heaven — with each winding step, each interstice, each single quantum an infinity unto itself, despite its infinitesimal slightness — the human dominion spans its entirety. Men can embody each and every increment of this spectrum.

These things are bound together: wolves and gods (in men); sacrifice and war (in the Sacred).

Moreover, the sacredness of war was even known to the philosophers — and to some more than others.

“War is the father of all things”, says Heraclitus. Great Polemos is our progenitor and his kind are everywhere, all around us, at all times. We may count ourselves among his descendants. Even so, it is also in the Heraclitean fragments that we find the wisdom that “nothing is beyond due measure” — that is to say, nothing is beyond the relations in which it exists to other things — “not even the Sun itself”. Everything in the heavenly spheres has a relative position, a mutual and relational aspect; somewhere and at all times, there are sextiles, the perpendicular meetings of squares and the outright diametric relation of oppositions. So, too, does everything on earth exist in its varying relations, within the web of all that is.

War is the most political activity; also the most sacred, and even, consequently, the most human. Given that this is the case, we must understand our origin in polemical terms, why this origin has a divine aspect, and how this brings us to live in political communities.

Men are war-makers first and foremost; tool-makers only insofar as these allow some advantage over other men. Naturally, our first tools were weapons; and if there will ever be a final tool for human beings, it will be a weapon. We have the terrible sense of sacredness which is speculative, which leads us to investigate the universe and interrogate of our place in it. We are only the one religious animal; not only this, but the only animal which ‘plays God’. Indeed, man is the only animal which makes of himself a god outright.

However, we are mortal — and this is what makes lives precious and wars sacred.

We may descend far enough away from our origin to forget it, but we will never be able to destroy it, remove it or somehow replace this origin with another.

The pulp writer Robert E. Howard addressed this with great clarity in his story ‘The Tower of the Elephant’. In this piece, the young barbarian, Conan of Cimmeria, is trying to get his bearings in a tavern full of thieves, thousands of miles from his native land, when he is unwisely mocked by an ugly thief. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages”, writes Howard, “because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” Needless to say, in the story, the Cimmerian leaves a dead man behind him.

How does Howard describe the wider scene of the Thieves’ Quarter? “Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf,” he writes, “and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings.” This, too, is significant. Here are the beginnings of civil society, yet men are still rude — the Zamorian thieves are so because they are criminal and degenerate; and yet Conan is rude, too, but it is because he is barbarian and as yet innocent. Still, wolf preys upon wolf. Even so, wolves differ — and we can admire some more than others. What has really changed, since the archaic time reflected (albeit with creative license) in Howard’s fiction?

Let us widen the field, beyond the scope of the individual, to pit the Celtic-Germanic barbarian race of the Cimmerians against the more ‘civilized’ races far abroad (civilized in the Persian, rather than the Greek, sense). Indeed, let us look to factual rather than fictional races and compare those whose manners preclude their strife-free mingling. We see the same glinting of steel, whether on the personal or on the national level. Men and their families quarrel and kill; nations slaughter and annihilate. This is the way of things, living among others. We confront one another as men, the most monstrous of creatures on the earth, in the most sacred capacity of war. Let us say, then, that ‘Homo homini hominus’. — But this still looks far too much like an evasion! What is the man himself, we ask again?

The question has remained thus far — but now finds an answer: Homo homini ferus—divini’! Man is to man a divine beast.

Indeed, man really is a divine beast! Let it be spoken aloud! Let it be announced to the world!

Why would we want to be otherwise?

What? Would we rather be—homo sapiens? The animal rationale? Isn’t this just the rambling beast, animal loquens, which speaks of itself as rational? The talking animal! Well, then, it might as well be the animal stultum, the jester of the universe, gibbering away senselessly at the feet of the sovereign of the Heavens.

No — we say No! — we are the descendants of the ritual killer.

This man is ferus, divinum, necans — the wild, divine, killing one. He rises out of the earth, stepping into view, like a divine avatar cast in bronze, like a titan reborn. His gods, like him, must have an almightily iron hand. Emanating from this glowing being, we finally have a political theology, but it is indeed a wicked theology, to borrow Yeats’ expression. It is as wicked as the thunderbolts cast from the heavens — and depends upon similar demonstrations of arbitrary, dreadful, superhuman power.

This is the shimmering image we see in the looking glass, a reflection of what we could be: the proud and brooding beast, the great dominator.


Ah, but we look away, for escapism is the order of the age! We want to pretend we are otherwise, than this beast. Even when we meet his gaze, we blink. For the same reason, men in the West today will not lock eyes with the divinities.

No, they prefer “deliberation”, “dialogue” and self-denial.

Talk! Today all is the mechanical pumping of hot air, the chattering of teeth and the snapping of heads — you are all talk, gentlemen! They must escape a decision, at all costs — especially a fateful decision, with dreadfully catastrophic consequences. This is what we call politics — and perhaps it is — but it is not political.

Only a god or a monster — or both — could take such a decision upon titanic shoulders! Of course, today we shun all genuine gods and monsters.

Today, with our thoroughly modern, humanitarian ‘humanisms’ (both Christian and secular), we sanitize ourselves as being either beings divinely created separate from ‘the animals’ or something evolved away from animals in our capacities if not in our very essence. (The first humanism corresponds with creationism; the second, neo-Darwinism.) The latter humanism, at least, is a sort of ‘speciesism’ which acknowledges evolution ‘from’ (that is, away from) the lower animals, only insofar as to mobilize ‘natural selection’ arguments for why we abuse and destroy these lower creatures. On the other hand, the former humanism is just a simpler, perhaps even less sinister, sort of speciesism. (Ironically, animal liberation movements operate on the same — albeit even more strictly unspoken and unexplored — presuppositions as both of these speciesisms.) So, these sentimental creeds, so exhibitive of hysteria and so furtively, perniciously harbouring spite — against all that is genuinely holy, healthy and life-affirming — must be mined out and detonated.

This task could not be more crucial.

Since some sort of humanism or other is deeply ingrained in our contemporary efforts to self-destruct, this author thinks it is time to track down and extirpate these errors, while at the same time laying out a positive concept (rather than merely a negation of a negation!). Our alternatives must be powerfully positive. That is to say, as a general rule, when we smash something we oppose, we must vigorously propose something else. Even as we demolish the vindictive absurdities erected over our sacred sites, we must be careful to restore our altars, sacral fetishes, and ritual mysteries — even if this means making new ones, in honour of the old.

First, some preliminaries for our positive iconography: positing a political nature for human beings must nevertheless not be taken to adhere to some unspoken (and therefore unchallenged) assumption that there is indeed a more general human nature, which is meaningful, which even unites us and so on. ‘Humanity’ indicates nothing which more specific and concrete categories do not already specify much better; and this, to the better enrichment of these indications. Indeed, for that matters, at its most general, ‘humanity’ indicates nothing which is not already generalized much better; again, enriching said indications. We are wont to describe talking as a profoundly and solely human activity. However, other animals communicate just as well — nay, better in some ways!

Here, context is important. Of course, this is the very thing the humanitarian-humanist wants to obscure and obliterate. Everything, especially thinkers, must be de-contextualized. To this end, Aristotle’s second formulation of man’s political nature, as the  ζῷον λόγον ἔχον (‘zöon lōgon echon’), has been taken on in a corrupted form and much abused over time.

It is indeed a strange affectation by which we think of ourselves as a sort of animal loquens. A creature of universal grammar! Universal speech and thought! Universal being! Finally, universal humanity. This absurdity, although seemingly rational (but to whom?), has gradually stretched, exceeded and broken (humanitarian) Reason, the very thing its adherents claim as its justification. Yes, it is a strange and decadent affectation. Nevertheless, this is where our discourse is at the moment and where the errors must be overcome.

The great masses of people today, including their intellectually-bankrupt intelligentsia, are inclined by an obstinate and obstructive obtuseness to regard the expression ‘I speak’ as more profound than, say, ‘I speak French’, simply because it implies in more cases.

At first, the universalist position seems profound; in all honesty, it isn’t even shallow. Even when Aristotle uses the expression mentioned above, ζῷον λόγον ἔχον (‘zöon lōgon echon’), it is something altogether different at his hands. One speaks something meaningful and intelligible to one’s fellows. In other words, one communicates in a community! (The etymological connection here is far from trivial.)

Our contemporaries prefer the predicate ‘I speak’ by itself, because its veneer is the purely imagined power to open doors, break down barriers, and end all dangers. It does not. The predicate derives its worth from the fact that is open-ended and, thus, potentially open to a specific content.

Supposing ‘I speak’, I must speak something, or else be speaking nonsense — in other words, saying nothing at all; not speaking.

Little do our pontificating illiterati realise, that any profoundness of this predicate derives specifically from its determinateness in explicitly specific cases — i.e. from precisely those cases in which that which is spoken is specified: e.g. ‘I speak French’, ‘we speak English’, ‘we speak different languages’ or ‘we speak related languages’. It is from expressions like these that the predicate is abstracted — and only in these expressions does it have any meaning whatsoever. Nevertheless, we prefer the empty predicate.

The philosophies in which we’re schooled encourage and reinforce this. This enshrinement of an abstraction is a piece of sophistry to which we are attracted so closely only (and therefore merely!) by the mendacious meddling of our managers. According to their own logic, they are self-described chatterers and it is by this that they are to be defined. Very well then! We shall agree on this — and only this — point!

About S. J. Irving

S. J. Irving is a writer from Scotland. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Devil's Review.