Hobbes’s Werewolves: Against a Climate Change Lycanthropy

18 April 2020

This entry was a finalist in our inaugural Blogging Democracy Contest. University of Chicago undergraduates were asked, “Does climate crisis demand a new social contract?” Below is Samuel Clark’s reply.


Amidst deadening seas and parching lands, we contend with a new species of monster. We might call them lone wolves of the climate age—a group so thoroughly convinced that “there would be no future life for everyone” that they have, as Bruno Latour acidly puts it in Down to Earth, “decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible.” The Guardian details five financiers’ fevered imaginings of how to weather the endgame of their extractive designs: shock-collared guards, padlocked food cellars, and robot servants. Private 737s with carbon footprints the size of an African village’s annual consumption jet to “resilient” luxury developments, which tower like latter-day forbidden cities, above cities hijacked by a nihilistic vision of an urbanism for the few. All the while, a scant 100 investor and state-owned fossil fuel companies remain responsible for nearly 70 percent of the world’s historical greenhouse gas emissions.


We do not yet have a political vocabulary for this callousness. But the brutes of our precarious moment seem to invite Hobbesian claims—collapse, a return to the state of nature. There are echoes of the central question of the Hobbesian project: what does it mean to gain or lose humanity? Proffering an answer, we would do well to consider Hobbes’s monsters against our own.


The shadow cast by English Civil War over the Hobbesian project is well known. But Hobbes spent the better part of the first decade of his philosophical career in France. He published De Cive in Paris. Whispered in taverns and cafes would have been stories of violence of a different sort than civil war. One might hear of a bloodshed which would annihilate a family, only to be swallowed whole back into the mouth of the night. Or catch on the wind the howling from a shadow-soaked alley beside the inn. As Diego Rossello reminds us, there are many interpretive modes for senseless violence, and Hobbes would not have been ignorant of the wolf-man.


Indeed, Hobbes’ well-known pronouncement in De Cive that “man is a wolf to a man” borrows the words not just of Plautus, but also those of Henri Boguet, a French judge and demonologist who declared man “a wolf to man” in his  1603 Dicours Execrable des Sorciers, a ledger of murderous “lycanthropy” in the Burgundian countryside. The inhumanity catalogued in the Dicours Execrable fits into a larger canon seeking political or cosmological meaning in the savagery of the lone, mad violence which periodically erupted into daily life. Hobbes, like Boguet, encountered the ambivalent humanity of wolf-man as an illustration of the human animal’s seeming capacity for monstrous transformation. But where Boguet sought to explain these savageries through recourse to the supernatural, casting the wolf-man as an itinerant in the space between earth and hell, Hobbes introduced the werewolf as a figure who stalked the inarticulate zone between political human and the pre-political animal. Throughout his work, Hobbes took great pains to establish the human being as conditionally political, and by extension, only conditionally human. Alone among the beasts, man has the singular potential to use “speech and method” to enter into political commonwealth.


Within the Hobbesian imagination, we depend upon these political instruments of the commonwealth for continuation of our humanity. Hobbes supplants the Aristotelian confidence that man is an animal born fit for society with a conviction that man becomes human only under certain political conditions. In constructing only what is internal to the polity as human, Hobbes syllogizes the inhuman as apolitical. Though solitary individuals can renounce their own humanity, doing so strips their actions of any political potency or staying power. Hobbes’s formulation of man’s conditional animality finds kinship with the trials of the time. Early-modern proceedings against alleged werewolves did not presume lycanthropy to be an enduring state—the wolf itself was never tried. The bloody deed being done, the accused was thought to return to the state of humanity.


In a Hobbesian sense, putting the inhuman on trial lacks meaning, since the werewolf is not a political actor. The wolf is cast as exactly the opposite—the brute irruption of pre-political animality into the realm of the human commonwealth. Because the “predatory nature of beasts” marks the outer edge of the political for Hobbes, the notion that a man-turned-wolf would endure as an ongoing figure of inhumanity signals the liquidation of politics itself. James Howell, a contemporary of Hobbes, entertained this idea quite literally. He fretted that a war-wracked English commonwealth, first having “fallen quite from the very faculty of reason,” had subsequently unleashed in its citizens a “pure lycanthropy.”


Most of the world has not given up on humanity. Yet an emerging politics of the climate change era implicitly echoes Howell in suggesting that rising temperatures have made wolves of us all. The neo-Hobbesian framing of what many scholars call the “Anthropocene” draws a hazy “geological” epoch of “human” impact. But this risks obscuring the core political question of our time: how do we understand inhuman violence? And how do we make sense of such violence if it does not stalk the hinterlands of an imagined state of nature but, instead, constitutes a political program at odds with the continuation of human life?


In attending to the disparity of responsibility for climate change, we cannot simply blame the lone wolves of Hobbes. In the dead-eyed “equality” of a Hobbesian state of nature, “those who can do the supreme thing—that is, kill—are by nature equal among themselves.” But this cannot explain the bitter inequality of the effects of climate change. Submerged coastlines and desiccated farmlands are not the fallout of a climate “war” fought “all against all,” as if we are all battling with an equal armament of carbon footprints. Today’s inequalities are the calculated result of a sustained effort by a ruthless few to extract the last ounces of blood and treasure from a choking earth.


Mankind is not equal in its inhumanity. We must recall what Giorgio Agamben clarifies; that the Hobbesian state of nature is a thought experiment derived not from the historical particulars of a specific epoch, but from the reflexive consideration of the state “as if it were dissolved.” It is from this perspective of dissipated politics that violence against the human project has come to be defined under the imagination of a Hobbesian Anthropocene. To place the imagination of an Anthropocene “climate state of nature” at the forefront of our politics elides the categorical difference between those who remain committed to human solidarity and those who have ruthlessly forsaken it.


If we are to imagine a just arc to the coming age, it cannot be through the psychodrama of lone bad actors inflicting spasmodic acts of individual bloodshed. Imagination of the polity “as if it were dissolved,” rings hollow when that very same thought looms grotesque as the explicit strategy of those most responsible for climate change. We are instead called to articulate a positive, humanistic vision of politics in the climate era. We must counter this wolfish minority’s ruthless abandonment of a shared human commonwealth, and expose their rank solipsism for the dangerous political project it is.


There is no provision in the Hobbesian formulation for a group of individuals who have renounced humanity while still operating as political actors. And yet this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. The stalking range of the new werewolf is not merely the farmstead or the alleyway. These wolves buy and win elections. They are global predators. They must not be left to roam alone in an apolitical slurry of Anthropos.


In the past, werewolves were tried—not just to punish the crime but to bring the accused back into the realm of human laws. The stakes are now existential; our inhuman culprits are no longer countryside murders, but political and geophysical forces.


Still—are we ready to put our werewolves on trial?


Photo Credit: Vincent van Zalinge, via Unsplash.


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1 Comment

  • Ann Bayliss says:

    Submerged coastlines and desiccated farmlands are not the fallout of a climate “war” fought “all against all,” as if we are all battling with an equal armament of carbon footprints. Today’s inequalities are the calculated result of a sustained effort by a ruthless few to extract the last ounces of blood and treasure from a choking earth.

    Beautiful and interesting writing! Thank you!

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