Cruel Delight: Enlightment Culture and the Inhuman

Cruel Delight: Enlightment Culture and the Inhuman

by James A Steintrager


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An important contribution to studies of eighteenth-century culture and to literary history and theory and for those with an interest in horror, sentimentality, the invention of the modern individual, and ethics of 'the human.'"
-Daniel Cottom, David A. Burr Chair of Letters, University of Oklahoma

Cruel Delight: Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman investigates the fascination with joyful malice in eighteenth-century Europe and how this obsession helped inform the very meaning of humanity. Steintrager reveals how the understanding of cruelty moved from an inexplicable, apparently paradoxical "inhuman" pleasure in the misfortune of others to an eminently human trait stemming from will and freedom. His study ranges from ethical philosophy and its elaboration of moral monstrosity as the negation of sentimental benevolence, to depictions of cruelty-of children mistreating animals, scientists engaged in vivisection, and the painful procedures of early surgery-in works such as William Hogarth's "The Four Stages of Cruelty," to the conflict between humane sympathy and radical liberty illustrated by the writings of the Marquis de Sade. In each instance, the wish to deny a place for cruelty in an enlightened world reveals a darker side: a deep investment in depravity, a need to reenact brutality in the name of combating it, and, ultimately, an erotic attachment to suffering.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253216496
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/08/2004
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 9.20(d)

About the Author

James A. Steintrager received his M.A. in French and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. He teaches English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. He has published articles and essays on Enlightenment philosophy, poststructuralist theory, and libertine fiction, and is now writing a study on pleasure as a social system.

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Cruel Delight

Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman

By James A. Steintrager

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2004 James A. Steintrager
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-21649-6


The Model of Moral Monstrosity

What did it mean to call someone "inhuman" in the eighteenth century? How was moral monstrosity understood? Furthermore, why was it understood in a certain way? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer in this part of my argument, focusing on philosophical texts, primarily from the domain of ethics. Many of these texts come from the group of philosophers commonly placed under the rubric of the Scottish Enlightenment. Some of them — David Hume and Adam Smith, for example — are well known. Others, such as Adam Ferguson, James Beattie, and Thomas Reid, are less familiar. One facet of my argument is that knowing these philosophers individually is not important when it comes to inhumanity. On the contrary, what is crucial is that they share the same fundamental stance on the matter. It is not surprising that moral monstrosity should be an insistent theme within the Scottish Enlightenment, the members of which tend to share the heritage of Shaftesbury, the doyen of the Cambridge Platonists. Shaftesbury had claimed that all humans have innate feelings of an ethical nature. The faculty corresponding to these feelings would come to be called "moral sense," and one who lacks such sense will obviously be an aberration of sorts. Nonetheless, the roots of moral monstrosity extend into the seminal texts of British empiricism as well: the works of Hobbes and Locke. In fact, we can grasp moral monstrosity only if we see it as a strange hybrid of the rationalist methodology of empiricism and the elaboration of the sentiments — an elaboration that did not lack cynicism at times — in the ethics of the moral-sense school.

I should add as well that the notion of moral monstrosity examined in this chapter is not confined to Britain. It is found in French and German philosophy as well, perhaps without the same sharpness of detail but with equal vigor. Its dissemination is not a particularly mysterious process, and one could recreate without much trouble its genealogical tree. Chronologically, for example, Francis Hutcheson was a follower of Shaftesbury; Adam Smith a pupil of Hutcheson; Thomas Reid succeeded Smith in the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. On the Continent, Diderot translated Shaftesbury's work; Lessing read Diderot and incorporated many of the latter's ideas into his own philosophy and dramaturgy. While I will address questions of influence occasionally, my primary aim at this point is simply to demonstrate that a specific notion of moral monstrosity enjoyed a widespread and lengthy coherence. My approach to this coherence is not that of a philosopher trying to make sense of individual arguments or determine the truth or falsity of specific claims — moral monstrosity hardly calls for analysis of this type. The moral monster is never a topic of explicit debate. There is no essay dedicated to it. It is not a central figure in any of the texts in which it appears. The moral monster is in a sense marginal, yet it is also ubiquitous. It inhabits, one could say, the blind spot of the ethics of sentimentality. It is in many ways the product of what Enlightenment philosophers did not analyze with excessive care — often claiming in fact that the moral monster was in any case unthinkable. Nonetheless, they systematically produced and reproduced this creature, and we might wonder why this was so.

Although it is not an absolute origin, Shaftesbury's An Inquiry concerning Virtue, or Merit (1699) provides all of the elements by which the field of moral monstrosity would be delimited in the decades to follow. Shaftesbury considers in the majority of his treatise those passions that predispose humankind either to benevolence (although they do not always lead to this) or to the pursuit of self-interest (which may unfortunately sometimes cause harm). He then turns to consider an odd group of emotions: "those which lead neither to a publick nor a private Good; and are neither of any advantage to the Species in general, or Creature in particular." Shaftesbury must posit the existence of "unnatural affections" in order to explain certain distasteful aspects of human behavior. In their opposition to the "social and natural" passions — indeed by their very existence — these passions tend to undermine the primary claim that benevolence, combined with self-interest, forms the essence of our being. The first of such passions embodies perfectly their paradoxical status: inhumanity. It is defined as follows:

Of this kind is that UNNATURAL and INHUMAN DELIGHT in beholding Torments, and in viewing Distress, Calamity, Blood, Massacre and Destruction, with a peculiar Joy and Pleasure. ... To see the Sufferance of an Enemy with cruel Delight, may proceed from the height of Anger, Revenge, Fear, and other extended Self-Passions: But to delight in the Torture and Pain of other Creatures indifferently, Natives or Foreigners, of our own or of another Species, Kindred or no Kindred, known or unknown; to feed, as it were, on Death, and be entertain'd with dying Agonys; this has nothing in it accountable in the way of Self-Interest or private Good above-mention'd, but is wholly and absolutely unnatural, as it is horrid and miserable. (294)

Later in the text, Shaftesbury specifies that these unnatural passions are in fact "monstrous" (360). From this quotation, we can derive several interrelated characteristics of inhumanity — characteristics that provide us with an outline of moral monstrosity. First and foremost, affect is central. Monstrosity resides not so much in the cruel act as in a certain type of emotional response. In this respect, moral monstrosity can be most easily grasped as the inversion of the deep value of the eighteenth century: it turns pity into the malicious enjoyment of another's pain.

Second, and intimately tied to the first element, is the singling out of vision as the portal of cruelty. For Shaftesbury, "viewing" and "beholding" indicate the channel through which the inhuman creature reaps its pleasure. If the broadsheets of the day used words such as "cruelty" and "inhumanity" as lurid headlines to entice readers to learn of infanticides and their ilk, these terms in philosophical and other intellectually inclined texts were increasingly linked to the visual. Simply put, the enjoyment of watching pain, whether or not one is the agent inflicting it, becomes embedded in the definition of cruelty itself. This inclusion of the malevolent gaze within the definition of cruelty occurs quite literally in the case of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux (one of the first and most important French encyclopedias). From its first edition in 1704, the Trévoux had quoted in the entry for "cruelty" an observation of Saint-Evremond concerning theatrical tastes across the Channel: "The British, avid for the cruelty of spectacles, are desirous of seeing murders and bloody bodies on stage." This quotation would remain in subsequent editions of the dictionary. The general definition of cruelty in all editions up to the last, however, does not pinpoint the gaze. In the first edition we find that cruelty is "The characteristic of a barbarous, unpitying, inhuman man. One who enjoys doing harm to others, without the intention of making them better." Certainly, the pleasure of cruelty is already apparent, but the final edition of the Trévoux, published in 1771, drives home the change that has taken place in the interim: "A ferocious passion that excludes all feeling of humanity [sentiment d'humanité}, and that leads us to do harm to others, without the intention of making them better, out of pure insensibility or out of the pleasure of watching them suffer" (my emphasis).

Although it did not necessarily reflect the views of the Journal de Trévoux, which was decidedly Jesuit and anti-philosophe, neither did the Trévoux dictionary share the positions of the Enlightenment establishment. The philosophes themselves, moreover, had been eager to link the dictionary to the polemical journal in order to promote their rival project, the Encyclopedia, so one might reasonably expect to discover distinct formulations of inhumanity in these two reference works. And yet Jaucourt's definition of cruelty in the latter tome is remarkably similar to that of the Trévoux. In the Encyclopedia we find that cruelty is a "ferocious passion that contains within it rigor, hardness with respect to others, incommiseration, vengeance, the pleasure of doing harm out of insensibility of the heart or out of the pleasure of seeing suffering." Both texts, then, insist not only on insensibility as the subversion of pity but also on the actual pleasure of watching pain. In fact, the constructions of inhumanity and cruelty in the eighteenth century extend beyond the explicit project of the Enlightenment and achieve a relatively general currency. We can see a graphic invocation of moral monstrosity as a type of inverted pity wherein pleasure is gained from others' pain in the final engraving of William Hogarth's series "A Rake's Progress." The rake himself has wound up in Bethlehem Hospital thanks to his debaucheries. The real monsters of the engraving are, however, the two noble-looking women with the twisted smiles who have come to enjoy the show (figure 1.1).

The linking of insensibility and pleasure in the definitions of the Trévoux dictionary and the Encyclopedia require more careful consideration if we are to grasp their paradoxical nature. Insensibility is not, after all, a logical reason to enjoy inflicting or watching pain. In truth, the notion that inhuman creatures might enjoy watching suffering would seem to contradict the claim that the cruel are unfeeling. In this respect, James Beattie in Elements of Moral Science (published from 1790 to 1793, but made up of lectures dating from 1760) remarks concerning the absence of pity, "Sympathy with distress is thought so essential to human nature, that the want of it has been called inhumanity." Later, however, Beattie has difficulty defining malevolence because of its affective component: "To be indifferent to the welfare of those who are fit to receive good from us, would be to manifest a savage disposition which might be considered as the opposite of benevolence; but indifference is not a passion" (3.275). This conjunction of gaze and affect forms the kernel of eighteenth-century sensationism as it relates to ethics: the eyes are receptors that interface more or less directly with the emotions. Objectivity, that is, indifference to the spectacle of suffering rather than enjoyment or pity, is not an option. Or rather, it is an option that will be increasingly foreclosed as the century proceeds. As Henry Home, Lord Karnes, puts it in his Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1758), "As we are placed in a great world, surrounded with beings and things, some beneficial, some hurtful; we are so constituted, that scarce any object is indifferent to us." Upon closer examination, the "pure insensibility" posited by the Trevoux tends to prove illusory.

The apparent contradiction between insensibility and pleasure is related to the next two characteristics of the ocular feast of malevolence: it is both inexplicable — at least initially — and unnatural. Consequently, while Shaftesbury maintains that pleasure taken in revenge is reasonable because one might somehow logically enjoy retribution, seemingly unmotivated joy derived from another's pain cannot be explained rationally nor does it cohere with his view of how humans are molded in advance by a creator. For philosophers of a more Lockean and empiricist bent, such as Hume, inhumanity will remain inexplicable and therefore unnatural, given the manner in which even blank slates receive the marks that eventually determine their behavioral, emotional, and moral comportment. From these observations, we may infer a brief definition of the moral monster in eighteenth-century ethics as a creature that, in defiance of the natural order, enjoys the spectacle of another's pain for no reason.

In order to fully understand such monstrosity one final point must be added concerning the intertwined elements of affect, vision, inexplicability, and unnaturalness that define the model of malevolence: the overlapping of moral monstrosity and humanity is impossible. In the case of Shaftesbury, this is initially indicated in a purely nominal fashion. By putting moral monstrosity in the category of inhumanity, Shaftesbury guarantees by the principle of non-contradiction that humans cannot be placed under its rubric: X cannot also be not-X. For humans, moral monstrosity is not an aberration from a norm of behavior ("norm" taken in the sense of average); it is not an exaggeration of certain self-centered drives. On the contrary, it lies on the far side of an absolute divide: on the one side there is the human, on the other the inhuman. Shaftesbury's disciple Francis Hutcheson makes this point explicit in A System of Moral Philosophy (1755). In his etiology of aberrant affects, Hutcheson entertains a possible teratology of certain passions:

Some extraordinary and rare instances of most immoderate excesses of these selfish passions are in common speech properly enough termed monstrous and unnatural, but seem to have these epithets given them by some authors, as if they were a distinct kind; such as when men seem to delight in torments, or to have an unprovoked desire of insulting, or petulancy, unnatural lusts, enormous pride, tyranny and misanthropy.

Nominal monstrosity hides an essential continuity: self-regarding passions may appear to veer off into absolute difference, into disinterested malevolence, but they never really do. In ordinary language it is perfectly "proper" to label excesses monstrous. However, in the precise language of philosophy, one must be careful not to confuse exaggeration with differences of type. The inhuman does not exist. The natural can be distorted, but never abandoned:

These [the so-called monstrous passions] are only excesses of some passions naturally implanted, but raised to a prodigious degree without just cause, upon some false opinions or confused imaginations, and by long indulgence and frequent irritation. Every one sees this to be the case in monstrous lusts, where the natural passion is grown ungovernable; and caprice and curiosity oft make men try all kinds of indulgences. (166)

Marking out the territory to be explored by Sade at the end of the century — caprice, curiosity, long indulgence, and frequent irritation are all marks of the Sadean libertine — Hutcheson refuses to acknowledge the emergence of novel passions. Further, he suggests that the true task of ethics is to lead people back to an original affective order. With Sade, it will be precisely the plasticity of the passions that will be emphasized rather than their primal form.

Because inhumanity resists rational explanation, such monstrosity is thrust into a non-existence of a rather odd kind. It does appear, or at least seems to appear, but only instantly to recede. As Hutcheson writes in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725),

A sudden Passion may give us wrong Representations of our Fellow-Creatures, and for a little time represent them as absolutely Evil; and during this Imagination perhaps we may give some Evidences of disinterested Malice; but as soon as we reflect upon human Nature, and form just Conceptions, this unnatural Passion is allay'd, and only Self-Love remains, which may make us, from Self-Interest, oppose our Adversaries.

The text here slips back and forth between two equally excluded possibilities: the reality of absolute evil in other humans and our own disinterested malice in seeing them come to harm. Humanity is set off precisely by these two negated categories. Ego and alter are ultimately human, in spite of clashes that arise out of self-interest, because of an ineradicable nature that renders both incapable of getting true joy out of suffering. Thus, in his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728), Hutcheson transforms the inhuman into a momentary abstraction, a distortion that makes the beholder posit perfection where imperfection is far preferable:

In considering more fully the Passions about the Fortunes of evil Characters, distinct from Anger, which arises upon a fresh Injury, we may first consider the evil Agents, such as a sudden View sometimes represents them, directly evil and malicious; and then make proper Abatements for what the worst of Men come short of this compleatly evil Temper. As Mathematicians suppose perfect Hardness in some Bodies, and Elasticity in other, and then make Allowances for the imperfect Degrees in natural bodies.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part I. The Inhuman
1. The Model of Moral Monstrosity
2. The Paradox of Inhumanity
Part II. Curiosity Killed the Cat
3. Animals and the Mark of the Human
4. The Monstrous Face of Curiosity
Part III. The Bedside Manner of the Marquis de Sade
5. Science and Insensibility
6. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Human Vivisection
Select Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

specifically medical professionalization, is invoked. - inspired thesis of social specialization

Certain contexts are identified as impacting on the evolution of these ideas. The principal one is the development of science, especially physiology and anatomy. There is some reference also to professional specialization with a view to a systems analysis relating social and intellectual change in the manner of Niklas Luhmann. The book is divided into three parts. The first concerns theories of morality based on sentiment, in for example Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), David Hume, Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Denis Diderot, and Jean—Jacques Rousseau. The second is an exploration of William Hogarth's Four Stages of Cruelty. The four prints are reproduced, but curiously, the captions to the prints are nowhere quoted in full. The third discusses the Marquis de Sade, and vivisection. A running theme is the physiology, symbolism, and meaning of sight. Pity is grounded in the immediate perception of another's pain, in which as it were the optic nerves of the observer transmit the sensations and sufferings observed in the victim. By contrast the possibility of not pitying requires detached observation, like that of a camera obscura. Here the Luhman

that eventually explodes the grounding of morality in human nature" (p. 120).

This study is considerably indebted to theory—Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Luhmann. It is postmodernist and deconstructionist, but there is an overarching narrative here, derived from deconstruction itself. Steintrager's history of eighteenth—century thinking about cruelty is selective, inevitably; but the selection he makes and in particular the culmination in the thought of Sade, eventuates in a particular conclusion. His contention is that a naturalistic morality based on sympathy was ultimately unsustainable, but that this was not a loss. For its dissolution meant a release from nature, and therefore a liberation, which can be discerned in different forms in the fantasies of de Sade and in the categorical imperative and noumenal freedom of Kant. The detachment of the medical professional, the anatomist, the dissector, the vivisectionist, a guise assumed by the Sadean literary protagonist, made this liberation possible: Nonetheless, it is precisely self—reflection and distance—observing that one is using language to observe natural response from afa

2007) - Ideas (October

Yoking Kant and Sade together in this way is questionable. For Kant's categorical imperative requires a universalization which is utterly alien to Sadean freedom to follow desire, no matter how harmful to others. Most ethical systems proposing liberty as the key value have insisted upon reciprocity. Among classic philosophers, only Friedrich Nietzsche celebrates the liberty of the strong to oppress the weak (and indeed associates cruelty and joy). Furthermore, it is not definitive that a naturalistic, sentimental ethics was a dead end and unsustainable. Hume theorized a more sophisticated account of how fellow feeling is selected and universalized in moral discourse than is reflected here. And after Sade and Kant, a powerful philosophy of morality having a basis in natural sympathy was developed by John Stuart Mill. Steintrager is right to argue that cruelty was a problem for sentimental theory, and his revelation of the difficulties theorists experienced in confronting it is valuable, making his book well worth reading. His contention that perceptions of ordinary and scientific curiosity, and the validation of the detached gaze of the professional anatomist as socially useful, offered ways in which eighteenth—century thinkers could solve this problem, is surely part of the answer. But he might also have paid attention to theories of the sublime, and the aesthetic of the gothic, which get a mention only in his short epilogue. Finally, I am not convinced that the Hogarth prints should be read as a critique of science. Did Hogarth really intend viewers of the first engraving in the series to see in the various cruelties being inflicted on animals an analogy with scientific experiment? The practitioners and the audience in the fourth print, in which Tom Nero's hanged body is being dissected, are not presented as attractive persons: but did Hogarth mean us to perceive in them a further stage or form of cruelty? It is not easy to be cruel to the dead.—— William Stafford, Department of History, University of Huddersfield.Published by:

natural moralities such as that of Immanuel Kant.

Sentimental Ethics DeconstructedThis book, based upon a considerable body of British and French, and a certain number of German texts, is a valuable contribution to an underexplored topic. Its thesis is that the facts of cruelty—of the taking of pleasure in the spectacle of the suffering of humans and animals—presented a deep and ultimately insuperable problem for a naturalistic eighteenth—century ethic based on sympathy. Such an ethic had immense cultural power at this time, sustained by its imbrication with a dominant physiology and aesthetics of sensibility. But if not everyone is spontaneously moved to pity the dying lamb and the starving shepherd—if on the contrary there are those who delight in inflicting pain—then how can it be contended that a largely utilitarian morality of promoting pleasure and minimizing pain has a natural basis? Pity would have to be a universal response, or overridden only in specific circumstances, as for example when contemplating the punishment of a brutal murderer. Steintrager contends that a solution to this problem was to label those who delighted in cruelty as inhuman. So pity was a human universal. But such a solution is in fact no solution at all: it is a trick, a tautology which dodges the issue. Growing realization of this problem led to the eventual dissolution or deconstruction—this is a postmodern reading—of an ethic based on sympathy, resulting, for example, in the proposal of no

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