Tag Archives: Derrida

Political Cohesion, Friendship and Hostility

In a pluralist democracy, with different values ​​and interests, with different social classes and political organizations holding different ideologies, political cohesion is essential as the groups should all work for progress and security for the whole political body, despite all divergences. With regard to political cohesion, a large literature focalizes on group identities and on emotions as catalysts for group-based political action. The broad consensus is that political cohesion is based on the development of strong and subjective identities that are central in the construction of a socio-political membership.[1]

According to Henri Tajfel, a social identity implies “knowledge of his (individual) membership in a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to the membership.”[2] In other words, the starting point of political cohesion, i.e. social identity, is a set of beliefs forming a collective consciousness and a set of emotional states.

It is also necessary to consider that in today’s Western societies the consequences of globalization have exacerbated the disparities linked to social, economic, cultural and ethnic situations and weakened the bonds of affinity and solidarity between individuals. Social fragmentation and weak civic trust impact negatively on perceptions of the political body, since weak social cohesion hinders the development of civic engagement and collective political action.

Division of labour, objective solidarity and equality formed the prevailing conceptual framework used for thinking about socio-political cohesion and social identity in most of the countries of Western Europe during the years that the French economist Jean Fourastié called les “trente glorieuses”,[3] This conceptual horizon changed at the beginning of the 1980s, when words such as solidarity and equality disappeared from the socio-political discourse.

To understand the new system of thought we can refer fruitfully to the analysis that M. Foucault developed in the courses held between 1977 and 1979 at the Collège de France on the new form of liberal political rationality that he called neo-liberalism.[4] According to Foucault the specificness of this form of liberalism lies in a new function of the market: the market’s operating mechanisms now correct public and social policies, whereas before public policy had the task of correcting any negative effects of the market. The key to the new function of the market is competition, which in turn becomes the regulating principle of social, public and private behaviour.

Competition is not thought of as a natural fact whose development can be sustained by eliminating obstacles, correcting deviations. Competition, according to Foucault, is an idea to be implemented with a continuous action at all levels, public and private. The state must ensure that its members acquire the ability to sustain competition, even by competing with each other. Competition, continues Foucault, is a “formal game between inequalities”.[5] Competition breaks the bonds of interdependence that underlie social cohesion based on the division of labour. Competition implies a logic of separation that leads groups, whether economic, ethnic or religious, to close the groups in on themselves in order to defend their chances of survival or their cultural values.

We can say with Robert Castel[6] that the old social question is reformulated in a new framework: namely that the problems are always the same: poverty, unemployment, and marginalization of the weakest groups, immigrants etc., but that the way in which these problems put society at risk has changed. As has been observed, it is no longer a matter of class conflict in the name of political and social equality, but of an internal destabilization coming from the outside, for example, from international competition (arriving immigrants, the employment effects of offshoring etc.). It follows that the perception of social identity changes. It can no longer be based on class-consciousness, solidarity among individuals and common interests. All of this raises an important question regarding the conditions under which political cohesion can be generated. Since the collective conscience based on solidarity, interest and the common good is no longer valid, it is necessary to address or to accentuate the emotional bonds of belonging.


Civic friendship

It seems that the need for a cohesive society, above all politically, brought back a relationship that modern thought had almost always relegated to the private sphere of the I-you relationship. The close relationship between philia and politiké, characterizing the ancient world and broken in modernity, is rethought nowadays through different theoretical expressions and numerous figures: from fraternity to solidarity, from partner to comrade. These figures and expressions seem to be united by direct reciprocity and elective affinity. Above all, these interactions among individuals seem characterized by a special form of affectivity, that “calm” feeling of mutual sympathy which is friendship. Friendship is defined as the product of a choice that equal subjects make in favour of a harmonious sharing that gives rise to collaborative relationships. The political body would then be cemented by friendly feelings able to form a “we” that would make of individuals fellow citizens because it would promote understanding, solidarity and mutual support. So, numerous political studies turn to friendship, starting with the Communitarians such as McIntyre and Sanders. This new philia should recompose the complex differentiations characterizing contemporary liberal-democratic societies. According to McIntyre, friendship is the emotional tie that expresses the interrelation of civic virtues that make possible the recognition of the common good. Friendship is the bond that unites citizens: “the kind of bond between citizens which, on Aristotle’s view, constitutes polis …is the bond of friendship and friendship is itself a virtue”[7]

Interestingly, the political relevance of friendship has been highlighted not only by communitarians, but also by liberals. Already in the last parts of A Theory of Justice, Rawls suggests that the obligations and duties that the principles of justice require may not be sufficient to ensure the best possible good in a just and equitable society. Such a society must be based on the sharing of the conception of justice, and this sharing is expressed in the “civic friendship”: “Among individuals with disparate aims and purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship”.[8] So the government of a just and fair society is not only based on rules and procedures, it requires also a sharing of values ​​and friendly interpersonal relationships. Inspired by Rawls’ observations, other liberal thinkers emphasized the role of friendship in the formation of public morality and public spirit, both essential for the liberal democracy. They range from Jason Scorza[9] who inserts references to Emerson on the Aristotelian reflection, to Thomas A. Spragens[10] who criticizes the civic friendship proposed by Rawls as a completely impersonal form, and turns to the Aristotelian idea of ​​friendship as a virtue. Spragens elaborates a form of civil friendship that would allow him to meet the aspirations of the four schools of liberalism he had previously analyzed: liberal realism, libertarianism, liberal egalitarianism and the liberalism of difference. He calls his new way “civic liberalism”, which seeks to achieve the liberal goals of security and tolerance, prosperity and limited government, the reduction of social discrimination and economic inequality. The key ingredient in Spragens’s formulation of liberalism is the “civic friendship” which, as “a condition of mutual enjoyment, affection, and good will among [citizens]”[11], could fill the shortcomings of the abovementioned forms of liberalism.

However, Spragens does not agree with the thesis of other liberal thinkers who believe that the friendship should relate strictly to the private sphere. On the contrary, he develops the argument that civic friendship represents a recovery of a dimension of liberal aspirations. According to Spragens, civic friendship enhances society’s stability, its economic performance and its capacity to mobilize community.[12] In short, civic friendship should improve the most important liberal virtues: “Responsible self-reliance, respect for the human dignity of all fellow citizens, law-abiding self-restraint, democratic humility, reasonableness and good judgment, neighbourly eunoia, and the public-spirited willingness to participate in civic service.”[13]

Nevertheless, this friendship may be hard to put into practice, since Spragens’s proposal does not clarify how such friendship would be institutionalized. Friendship thus assumes an ambiguous position between the private and public sphere, between the moral and the political horizon, between a horizon of spontaneity and autonomy and one of normativity.

Turning to the history of political doctrines, civic or political friendship has almost always had this ambiguous status, perhaps with one exception: the Jacobin Saint Just, friend of Robespierre, “the incorruptible” creator of the republic of virtue.


Political friendship between hostility and unconditional hospitality: from Louis Antoine de Saint Just and Carl Schmitt to Jacques Derrida

Who undoubtedly overcomes these ambiguities is Saint Just, who proposes what I’d call a radically utopian and “exclusive” model of civil friendship. In the effort of building republican institutions suited to form a “Patrie”, develop citizen’s resistance to moral corruption, and its intolerance toward injustice, Saint Just turns to friendship as a manifestation of the virtue and as a means of replacing all other interests with the public interest.[14] Saint Just replaces the social role of the family and the institution of marriage with a new one: friendship. He institutionalizes friendship and makes it the revolutionary instrument for establishing a society of equals, where citizens voluntarily cooperate, “so who declares not to believe in friendship”- Saint Just says- “must be banned”. [15]

In the paragraph “Des Affections” in the sixth fragment of Institutions républicains, Saint Just describes the ideal Republic where every man (here intended as the male) at the majority of 21, that means when he becomes fully a citoyen, has to declare at the Temple who his friends are. This declaration must be renewed every year during the month of Ventôse. This is a compulsory bond and subject to sanctions, because who deserts a friend, without a public justification, or who doesn’t respect friendship, is banned from the Republic. Friendship is the virtuous bond par excellence, and it must be present throughout the citizen’s life; it is thus strongly regulated: the tutors of children will be chosen among their fathers’ friends, preparing the funeral is an assignment of friends, and their remains are put in the same tomb. It is also prescribed that friends will cry for each other.

Friends have a legal role: contracts must be drawn up only in the presence of friends; legal disputes between two citizens have to be brought to trial in front of friends of both sides. Friends are responsible for their friend’s crimes and are banished from the republic with him.

It is interesting that alongside this normative approach to friendship, Saint Just presents marriage in an absolute individualistic and free perspective. Marriage has just to obey the laws of love, and the bond remains private until a pregnancy occurs. Moreover, when the couple presents itself in front of the civil registrar, he has the simple role of witness. The marriage bond includes few juridical requirements outside the mutual consent that rules the community or division of property and that can establish the end of it. The marriage loses its legal and civil character, all that remains are the rights to inherit, and this is restricted to the nuclear family. The foundation of society is not marriage and the family, both now absolutely privatized. Friendship is the fundamental cement of the society and the State and assumes a strong public meaning. Friendship is the real bond of the Republic, and at the same time it is the instrument by which the civil society will be reformed. Friendship is the relationship that has to exist among the citizens, and what makes selfish and competitive individuals into virtuous and altruistic citizens.

As a public and permanent bond, friendship has a substantial impact on improving the Republic’s political cohesion. He who doesn’t believe in friendship, he who has no friends, is not a friend of virtue and is therefore not a friend of the Republic; consequently, he is a stranger, and he is considered to be a foreigner. Saint Just tells us that the foreigner made civil respect disappear and leads citizens to have contempt for, and to be afraid of, each other, thus establishing a principle of jealousy between them[16]. The foreigner is the enemy of the Republic; he wages war from the outside and undermines the Republic’s stability from the inside. The stranger, the foreigner is the enemy and he is therefore banned (or very probably guillotined): friendship appears to be more and more a tool of social homogenization. The Republic can thus become a community of virtuous friends, united by affectional bonds. In this way the moral and normative horizon substitutes the political bond based on the contract: the ethics takes the place of politics, not, however, without practical and juridical consequences. We have seen that citizens are legally liable for their friends’ criminal behaviour and will also be banned from the Republic. Friends have thus a mutual duty of control and censure, all the time wondering where the false friend who threatens the security of the Republic is hiding. Therefore the Republic becomes a reign of denunciation and mistrust: the reign of Terror. The Republic becomes a community of virtuous friends with mutual emotional bonds that consolidate and guarantee membership in the social body. But this entails excluding anyone who has no friend, and considering him a hostis, i.e. an enemy of the state, a traitor, a stranger and foreigner.

And so, instead of wondering who and what make “us” citizens belonging to the same political body, we are only wondering how to identify the “non friend”, the other, the enemy. Individuals are bonded by a common sentiment, yes, but by a sentiment of resentment and hostility. And thus happens what Tocqueville expressed so concisely: “In politics shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships”[17]

Thus a series of questions arise in face of today’s reproposal – albeit with some variations – of friendship as the foundation of social-political cohesion.

How far can a friendship be an “open” relationship? As well as in the interpersonal friendship “I-you”, the other is an unwelcome element, at worst a stranger; even in politics whoever is outside the group, class, nation, or state is the “other”, the foreigner, arousing astonishment, anxiety and suspicion. Can the sentiment of friendship assert itself in the political body without having to point out a common hostis, in the double sense of foreigner and enemy?

The reference to Carl Schmitt’s most famous thesis is immediate: it reminds us that in politics the concept of friend recalls the term “enemy”. According to Schmitt, what specifies the nature of ‘the political’ is the distinction between friend (Freund) and enemy (Fiend): “the specific political distinction … is that between friend and enemy.” And its function is to denote “the utmost degree of intensity of an union or separation, of an association or dissociation.”[18]

Political friendship does not therefore lead to the end of hostility and divisions in the political body. On the contrary it implies enmity, since the friend / enemy dialectic is constitutive of the political. Focusing on friendship risks only accentuating the conflict between “who is with me / us and who is against me / us”. In politics friendship would be understood only within this polarization. The more friends there are, the more enemies there are, or better, the more enemies will be created. And one will use all the argumentative power in defining the enemy, the other, rather than defining “us”. We wonder if just who has little awareness of “us”, has to evoke with greater hostility an “other”, characterized as an enemy. It is no coincidence that Schmitt talks a lot about the enemy and very little about the friend! The enemy is “…nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third party[19]

And he goes on to say that it is up to the one who is within the conflict to decide whether this otherness means the negation of one’s own kind of existence and therefore, once identified as an enemy, it is therefore a stranger that must be denied in his existential totality.[20] That is to say that the stranger may be subdued or destroyed.

Jacques Derrida’s crucial work from 1994, Politiques de l’amitié,[21] is a first attempt to find an answer to our questions. Searching for social cement beyond the bond of laws and the link of common interests, Derrida examines the political history of the idea of friendship, wondering if it is constitutive of the political. Derrida’s analysis moves by “a deconstruction of the genealogical schema, a paradoxical deconstruction”[22] of the current meaning of political friendship. To do this, Derrida starts from a quotation, attributed to Aristotle by Montaigne: ‘O my friends, there is no friend’ and advances by opening it to many interpretations. He finds the genealogical history of this quotation from Aristotle to Kant, Cicero, Montaigne, Nietzsche and through to Carl Schmitt.

He analyzes the “canonical” interpretation of friendship and he highlights that it is fundamentally ambiguous. From one side, since this interpretation emphasises what friends are, or do in common, it excludes the different. According to the canonical interpretation of friendship, the friend is “another self”. And Derrida underlines that its structure is egoistic, and narcissistic: the friend is “A narcissistic projection of the ideal image, of its own ideal image”.[23]

On the other side, friendship turns toward the “other”. This is the reason that the French revolutionaries linked friendship with politics in the form of universal fraternity. Friends are as brothers, i.e. they are bound by blood or by nature, and Derrida underlines that the structure of friendship is androcentric. What, he asks, about sisters and sexual difference? What about countless diversities characteristic of “humanity”? “Canonical” friendship implies that: ”the figure of the friend, so regularly coming back on stage with the features of the brother…  seems spontaneously to belong to a familial, fraternalist and thus androcentric configuration of politics”. [24] And thus (we can say) an exclusivist configuration of politics.

Friendship therefore seems to imply an internal contradictory logic that leads us to an outbreak of hostilities. At this point Derrida has to confront Schmitt and his interpretation of the political based on the conceptual couple friend / enemy.

According to Schmitt, this antinomian friend / enemy logic would operate everywhere in politics, both outside and inside the State. It would therefore not be true that the more friendship, the less hostility. The greatest hostility is between friends or brothers. The generalization of political friendship or fraternity thus acts to the contrary: friendship is not the remedy of hostility, because it always implies separating friends from enemies. The political is based, according to Schmitt, on the ability to identify enemies from friends; in fact, if the two were identical, the political itself would disappear. Hence, as Derrida points out, Schmitt dwells a great deal on the definition of the enemy. He warns that the enemy in politics is always the public enemy. We don’t have to mix the private and the public enemy. The hostis is not the inimicus, i.e. /who we have a personal relationship of enmity. But, as Derrida observes, this strict distinction makes Schmitt’s argument collapse. Because we can wage war on our friend, a real war, i.e. we can destroy our friend and at the same time, privately, love him. Hence Derrida finds a first semantic slip and inversion: the friend (amicus) can be an enemy (hostis).[25] But in this way we can’t tell the friend and the enemy apart and the political collapses.

Without here deepening Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the Concept of the Political, I just want to recall the results of the deconstruction of the friend / enemy antinomy.

In an attempt to dismantle the idea of ​​friendship as a fraternal union based on the mirror image of oneself, Derrida observes that friendship is not the ability to define and talk about who is a friend, and therefore to exclude who are enemies. It is not a matter of asking, “Who is a friend?” (And therefore “who is an enemy?”). It is a matter of asking “what is…?” According to Derrida, this question “what is…” always supposes: “…this friendship prior to friendships, this anterior affirmation of being-together in allocution. Such an affirmation does not allow itself to be simply incorporated and, above all, to be presented as a present-being (substance, subject, essence or existence) in the space of an ontology, precisely because it opens this space up.”[26]

Friendship is linked to being together without wanting to find a common definition. On the contrary, only in the incommensurable space, that is to say, in being together without any common measure, one turns to the radical otherness of the other, which presents himself no longer as an enemy (hostis) but as an unexpected and unknown guest.

The Derridean deconstruction of Schmitt’s political dichotomy friend /enemy leads us to a concept of friendship that coincides with unconditional hospitality. Is this too angelic a solution? Maybe. Certainly, Derrida’s proposal does not seem to be heard much today and indeed seems completely impracticable.

In conclusion, we move at this point between two radical and divergent positions of political theory. On the one hand the definition of the nature of the “political” by means of the “friend / enemy” antinomy, a simple but effective definition, leads us to look for real or constructed enemies to make the group cohesive. And so in place of that calm affection of industrious harmony peculiar to friendship, another sentiment, hostility, prevails in society. On the other hand, the proposal coming from the deconstruction of the Schmittian antinomy replacing the political friendship with the ethics of unconditional hospitality seems truly utopian today, as we face increasingly restrictive States, increasingly closed in their internal logic.

Our question arises again: can friendship be the emotional foundation of social-political cohesion in a modern state?

It is not a question of seeking the “we” of the Aristotelian polis, a narrow community, nor the “we” of a polis that would coincide with all mankind, the cosmopolitan community, a Cosmo polis. For this reason the question arises again and again, despite the theories with which we have tried to give an answer.

This motivates us to search backwards, returning to modern thought to evaluate other formulations.


Back through history

 We will not follow the path that starts from Hobbes. According to him, in the wake of the idea of ​​man’s innate unsociability, friendship is an alliance based on personal interest, like the state, of course, but it is only a private agreement: “By nature then we are not looking for friends but for honour and advantage from them. This is what we are primarily after; friends are secondary”[27] In fact, between the two covenants there is a fundamental difference; the state is formed by a contract that gives life to mutual obligations, while friendship is based on the gift that does not commit the other party to reciprocate:

When the transferring of right is not mutual, but one of the parties transferreth in hope to gain thereby friendship or service from another, or from his friends; or in hope to gain the reputation of charity, or magnanimity; or to deliver his mind from the pain of compassion; or in hope of reward in heaven; this is not contract, but gift, free gift, grace: which words signify one and the same thing.[28]

Therefore, we cannot turn to Hobbes, who, from the beginning, excludes that friendship may have a public role.  And so Hobbes starts a trend that impacts modern political thinking: friendship is only an individual, private relationship and not a public relationship among citizens.

One thinker, who, in modern political thought, reflected on the public role of friendship, was Rousseau. We know that for the contractualist Rousseau, founding our mutual social duties only on reason was too abstract. It was therefore necessary to find the sentimental roots of social virtues. He found their origin in the piety that controls the “amour de soi“, from which friendship also derives, since friendship is the “partage” of the positive self-love. And civil friendship, as a model of non-conflictual relationships, allows the development of a sense of belonging that integrates the individual into the political body.[29]

Rousseau is certainly the inspiring source of Saint-Just.  Undoubtedly, Saint-Just radicalizes, and greatly so, Rousseau’s conception of civil friendship. However, even in the variant expressed by Rousseau, the public role of friendship isn’t free from the dangers we have previously highlighted. The political body, based on that kind of friendship, implies hostility towards the foreigner, as indeed Rousseau himself expressed clearly in the Emile:

Every patriot is harsh to foreigners; they are only men, and nothing in his eyes. This is drawback inevitable but not compelling. The essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives. Abroad, the Spartan was ambitious, avaricious and iniquitous; but disinterestedness, equity and concord reigned within his walls. Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfil around them. Such philosophers love the Tartars so as to be spared from loving their neighbours.[30]

Civil friendship is set up among fellow citizens; the others are strangers. Here again we find the exclusion that inclusion based on civil friendship brings with it. We understand how the Jacobin leader Saint Just was a faithful disciple of Rousseau. And yet it is not possible to ignore the emotional foundation motivating social and political behaviour. Actually, holding together the social body necessitates not only reason, but also common sentiments. This is an idea that Rousseau inherited from Spinoza, among others. And it is a Spinozistic lesson as well that these affections have to be regulated and governed appropriately.

At first sight Spinoza seems to indicate – just like Rousseau- what feelings are the most suitable for the construction of the body politic. These would be identified when Spinoza in the Ethics mentions friendship. Spinoza doesn’t define friendship, even if the term already appears in the third part of Ethics.[31] At first sight it would seem that friendship is a characteristic bond, which connects wise human beings who live according to reason. The desire to join with other persons in friendship is what characterises “generositas”, an active affect[32] that, together with courage (animositas), belongs to the strength of character (fortitudo): a characteristic affection of the human being led by reason.

Generosity and its derivations, modestia, clementia, and so on, are forms of virtue, not because of their presumed ability to stop selfish passions. In fact, for Spinoza, it is happiness that produces virtue, not vice versa. Generosity and the other virtues are positive affects in which the essential desire to continue to exist and enhance oneself (cupiditas) makes clear and intelligible that it cannot be disjoined from the desire to help other human beings. The relationship between generosity and self-conservation is not immediate and direct. During our life we are exposed to meetings with other things or individuals that can hinder or strengthen our effort of being. Now what strengthens our being is that which is in accordance (convenire) with our own nature. And, Spinoza continues, nothing is in accordance with our nature more than other human beings, and so there is nothing in Nature more useful to a human being than the other human beings  – homini nihil homine utilius – .[33]

This is the reason why “utilitas” is to be understood in a strong sense: what is most useful to us is not simply what the other human beings possess or the favours they  can do for us, but what they are. From here it follows that the desire to join in friendship with other human beings is a desire of accordance; it is the desire that one’s being is in accordance with that of the other human being, and friendship itself is a desire of accordance. Moreover, because of what we previously said, what is useful for the conservation of oneself coincides with the good and the utility of our fellow beings. This consideration is the basis on which the virtuous circle of reason is delineated, so that all the virtues (let’s remember that for Spinoza virtue means power to act) that facilitate the accord among human beings, such as piety, justice, loyalty or honesty, can come from the research of accordance, can come from friendship. The utility that a virtuous man searches under the guide of reason is the good that human beings desire one for the other, and for which they cooperate with a power equal to the sum of all individual powers. Therefore it would seem that friendship, so understood, means the rational desire to be in accordance, convenire, with other human beings, and is the very basis of the social and political union. In this, Spinoza’s position would be very close to that of Rousseau and Saint-Just.

But Spinoza’s analysis of friendship does not end here. Indeed, two clarifications are required. The first rises from the question of whether friendship, for Spinoza, is only inherent to the free and virtuous human being. The second concerns the relationship that the human being who lives under the aegis of reason has with the State and its laws.

Let’s briefly answer the first question. Desire (cupiditas) lies in all levels of human life from the passionate through the rational and to intellectual love. So it does not seem coherent to think that the desire of friendship is an exclusive prerogative of the rational man. All individuals strive to persevere in and to enhance their being, and they desire accordance with other individuals. Indeed in E3p35 the passionate form of desire for friendship appears at first in a tight relationship with the desire of recognition and of exclusivity.  Not only does the passionate friendship want mutual love in an exclusive way, but it also wants the monopoly of preferences.  An essence is for Spinoza always singular and igenium indicates this singularity. The passionate human being as res singularis judges the good and the evil according to his/her opinion, ex suo ingenio, and he/she often takes only his/her personal interest into account.[34] In this form of friendship the passionate man strives to impose on the friend his own opinion about good and evil, thus turning out to be particularly irritating. For this reason passionate friendship is a changeable relationship that can easily turn to hate and envy; it is a relationship exposed to fluctuatio animi, to the vacillation of feelings. Yet friendship is a relationship possible for everyone, both for the passionate being and for the wise man.

Moreover, friendship as desire for accordance with the others can, for the passionate human being, be a source of joy that, as positive sentiment, can begin the “virtuous circle” of the active affects and so help the individual to become rational. But does this mean that friendship can be considered the basis of the political body? Can the state stir up friendships to make citizens rational and free? All the virtues of the wise man: doing good for others, seeking harmony, helping others and desiring to unite them with friendship, are “inner” personal conditions. They have a value in external behaviour, and therefore in social bonds, but under no circumstances can they be directed from the outside. The State cannot produce fortitude or generosity in its citizens. The rational human being by his own essence desires (cupit) to observe the criteria of common life and collective utility, and consequently desires (cupit) to live according to social rules and norms. But if all human beings were rational, living together in harmony and following the collective utility would be a natural automatism coming from the spontaneous cohesion of everyone’s cupiditas and we would not need the State. But not all human beings are rational; on the contrary, all human beings are “passionibus obnoxious”, “traversed by passions”[35], including the wise man. Therefore, living freely according to reason is never an acquired state once and for all, but is a continuous realisation, an effort that always fluctuates between self- strengthening (rationality) and deprivation. Spinoza tells us that we are all “ut maris undae[36], “as waves in the sea”, exposed to passions, to illnesses, to death.

So here is the “naturaliter” need of the political Community, whose laws cannot, however, prescribe that its citizens be rational and thus free. “Freedom of spirit or strength of Mind is the virtue of a private citizen: the virtue of a state is its security.”[37] The State cannot impose on me to become rational and free, the State cannot impose on me to desire to make friends with other human beings, as it will happen for the Jacobins! The State must guarantee the security that permits the citizens can become rational and free!  This is the meaning of The Theological Political Treatise’s statement saying the aim of the State is security and freedom. Neither can the State entrust its stability only to the honesty of its administrators. According to Spinoza, the State will be very precarious when its security depends on the honesty of an individual and when affairs can be well led only if they are in honest hands. On the other hand, it is necessary that public affairs are organized so that who directs them, whether passionate or rational human beings, administrate public affairs in a good way.[38]

Lastly, let us try to outline what kind of socio-political union we can develop by focusing only on public friendship. Spinoza tells us something very disturbing.[39] He says that friendship, understood as the basis of politics, can provoke a process that leads to the dissolution of the state whose purpose is security and freedom. For example, we could think of a group of people living close to each other. These people do not use reason. They recognize as human beings only those who are perceived as similar on the basis of characteristics that the instinctive inclination of the group makes them admire. Based on this admiration, these individuals are bound by a feeling of passionate friendship. If one of them becomes the real or imaginary victim of an injustice, the others can respond with indignation, that is, with hatred against the one who has wronged the one they recognize as one of their own group. Hatred and hostility will be the more intense the more the real or imaginary guilty party is dissimilar from the group. The desire for revenge is born; revenge is a consequence of hatred and hostility. The mimesis of the affects triggers off in everyone the desire for revenge and for joining the others with the same purpose. So the collective power of a multitude is realized: an “imperium democraticum“, a democratic power. This power is exercised informally by a multitude. This power is collective and is united by a common affection of hostility, born of passionate friendship. Undoubtedly, this union is not idyllic. What is disturbing in the Spinozistic lesson is that the instinctive and affective form of political union based on private feelings could be lynching. Can we consider this “imperium democraticum” – characterized by the power of summary executions on the basis of citizen’s private sentiments, without prior judicial condemnation – a state whose purpose must be to guarantee security and freedom?

Spinoza is drastic. He tells us that hate and hostility and all affects related to them, such as Derision, Contempt, Wrath, Revenge, are intrinsically bad. “Hatred can never be good.”[40] . And when we wish to destroy the enemy we hate, this desire is shameful from the private point of view, and unjust from the public civil point of view.[41]So by trying to destroy the enemy, we first destroy ourselves and our civitas. Hate and hostility are sad affections that diminish the power of the individual and immobilize him in irrationality and social servitude. In a community dominated by impotence and disintegration, citizens are more committed to finding and banning enemies rather than to building institutional systems that help good governance.

Although Spinoza states that there cannot be a political body without an affective cohesion, he doesn’t indicate one sentiment as more suitable than others to make a people cohesive. Any sentiment used to maintain the cohesion of a political community, even the most noble, has its limits and dangers, including friendship. He notes its effectiveness, but also its limits. A fortiori this leads us to reflect on the dangers of thinking the antinomy friend / enemy as constitutive of the politics: it is ultimately more disruptive than aggregating. On the other hand, the proposal of universal hospitality would imply that all human beings were rational and wise, which they are not.

Spinoza helps us reformulate our implicit initial question. We need to understand the emotional causes underlying tyranny, superstition, nationalism and demagogy. But instead of proposing other emotional means for uniting and directing a political community, it is necessary to ask ourselves how to fight the sad passions in politics to try to develop institutions that are more effective because they are more rational.



Castel, Robert: “Le insidie dell’esclusione”, in Assistenza Sociale n.3-4, 2003

de Cuzzani, Paola: “Forskjellene og indignasjonen: Toleranse mulige veier”, in LOS-notater 9620, Bergen,1996

Derrida, Jacques: Politiques de l’amitié, Galilée, Paris, 1994 english translation: J. Derrida, Politics of friendship trans. George Collins, London & New York: Verso,1997

Foucault, Michel: Cours au Collège de France 1977-78, Gallimard, Paris, 2004

Fortunet, Françoise: “L’amitié et le droit selon Saint-Just”, Annales historique de la Revolution Française, 1982 – N° 248, p. 181-195

Hobbes, Thomas: On the Citizen Edited by Richard Tuck, Michael Silverthorne,  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998

Hobbes, Thomas: Leviathan: With selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, Edited, with introduction by E. Curley, Hackett Publishing Company,  Indianapolis Cambridge, 1994

Huddy, Leonie: “From Group Identity to Political Cohesion and Commitment”, in Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears, and Jack Levy (Eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, 2013

Lepan, Géraldine: «L’amitié selon Rousseau, de l’expérience douloureuse au projet politique», in Consecutio Rerum,  2, nr.3, 2017, pp. 226-255

MacIntyre, Alasdair: After Virtue, Bloomsbury, London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney

Matheron, Alexandre: “L’indignation et le conatus de l’État spinoziste”, in Spinoza : puissance et ontologie, ed. M. Revault d’Allonnes, de H. Rizk Kimé, Paris, 1994,

Rawls, John: A Theory of Justice” the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Emile: or On Education, The Collected Writings of Rousseau v. 13, translated and edited by Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom, University press of New England, Hanover and London, 2010

Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de: Fragments sur les institutions républicaines, Transcription d’un cahier manuscrit déposé à la Bibliothèque nationale, Éditions 10/18, collection Fait et cause, Paris  2003

Schmitt, Carl: The concept of the political, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago London, 2007

Scorza, Jason:  Strong Liberalism Habits of Mind for Democratic Citizenship, Tuft University Press, Medford, 2007

Spinoza, Opera. Im Auftrag der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt. Vier Bände, Heidelberg, Carl Winter-Verlag, 1925, English translation: Spinoza: Complete Works, with the translation of S. Shirley, ed. By M.L.Morgan, Hackett publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Spragens, Thomas. A. Jr.: Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Ideals, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999 , p.71



[1] Cf. Leonie Huddy, “From Group Identity to Political Cohesion and Commitment”, in Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears, and Jack Levy (Eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.pp. 511-558.

[2] Henri Tajfel, Human groups and social categories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, p.255, quoted by L. Huddy, “From group identity”, Id. p.514.

[3] It is the period from the end of the Second World War to the first oil crisis of ’73, characterized by the great economic and social development of the industrialized countries.

[4] Michel Foucault, Cours au Collège de France 1977-78, Gallimard, Paris, 2004.

[5] Id, p. 124.

[6] Robert Castel, Le insidie dell’esclusione”, in Assistenza Sociale n.3-4, 2003.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre,  After Virtue, Bloomsbury, London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney p. 182.

[8] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 5; cf. also p. 90, p.205,p. 417, p. 454, and p. 470.

[9] Jason Scorza, Strong Liberalism Habits of Mind for Democratic Citizenship, Tuft University Press, Medford, 2007.

[10] Cf. Thomas A. Spragens Jr., Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Ideals, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, p.71.

[11] id. p. 179.

[12] id. p.188.

[13] id. p. 229.

[14] Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Fragments sur les institutions républicaines, Transcription d’un cahier manuscrit déposé à la Bibliothèque nationale, Éditions 10/18, collection Fait et cause, Paris  2003, p.4

[15] id., p. 28. Cf. Françoise Fortunet, “L’amitié et le droit selon Saint-Just”, A.H.F.R., 1982 – N° 248, p. 181-195.

[16] Saint Just, op. cit. P. 19-20.

[17]  Alexis de Tocqueville, Souvenirs, Calmann Levy, Paris, 1893, p.10.

[18] Carl Schmitt, The concept of the political, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago London, 2007, p.26.

[19] Id. p.27

[20] Id. p. 30

[21] Jacques Derrida, Politiques de l’amitié, Galilée, Paris, 1994

[22] Jacques Derrida, Politics of friendship trans. George Collins ,London & New York: Verso, 1997, p. 105

[23] id.p.3

[24]  id. p. viii

[25] id. p. 88

[26] Id.p.249

[27] Thomas Hobbes : On the Citizen Edited by Richard Tuck,  Michael Silverthorne,  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 22.

[28] Thomas Hobbes Leviathan chap. XIV, 14,82 , Edited, with introduction by E. Curley, Hackett Publishing Company,  Indianapolis Cambridge, 1994, p. 79.

[29] Cf. Géraldine Lepan, « L’amitié selon Rousseau, de l’expérience douloureuse au projet politique », in Consecutio Rerum,  2, nr.3, 2017, pp.  226-255

[30] Jean Jaques Rousseau, Emile: or On Education, The Collected Writings of Rousseau v. 13, translated and edited by Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom, University press of New England, Hanover and London, 2010, p. 164

[31] Spinoza, Opera. Im Auftrag der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt, Heidelberg, Carl Winter-Verlag, 1925, B. II, Ethica III, prop. 59,sch.pp.188-189

[32] Spinoza distinguishes the terms affect and affection. The term “affectio” designates a change occurring within a being due to an internal or external cause. The term “affect” (affectus) designates the modification produced in a body (and in the mind) by an interaction with another body. This interaction can increases (joy) or diminishes (sadness)  the body’s power of activity (potentia agendi): ”By affect I understand affections of the body by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, together with the ideas of these affections”.(Ethics, III,def.3, transl. by William Hale White). Thus we will use affect for “affectus” in relationship with Spinoza thinking of emotions.

[33] Spinoza, Opera,op.cit.  Ethica IV, 18.sch. p.223

[34] id. Eth., part IV, prop. 37, sc. II, G. II, p. 237.

[35]  For the translation of the term “obnoxious” see P. Cristofolini, «Piccolo lessico ragionato», in B. Spinoza, Trattato politico, ETS, Pisa 2000, p. 241. For the English translation see V. Molfino, Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and Aleatory between Spinoza and Althusser.Brill, Leiden, Boston, 2014, p. 63.

[36] Spinoza, Opera, op. cit. Eth. III, p. LIX, sch.G.II, p.189

[37] Spinoza, Complete Works, with the translation of S. Shirley, ed. By M.L.Morgan, Hackett publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002, p. 682.“Libertas, seu fortitudo privata virtus est; at imperii virtus securitas” ( Spinoza, Opera, Tractatus Politicus, 1,6, G. III, p. 275) see also Francesca Bonicalzi, L’impensato della politica: Spinoza e il vincolo civile , Napoli, Guida 2006.

[38] Ibidem.

[39] For this interpretation see Alexandre Matheron, ” L’indignation et le conatus de l’État spinoziste “, in Spinoza : puissance et ontologie, ed.  M. Revault d’Allonnes, de H. Rizk Kimé, Paris, 1994, where A. Matheron explains the incompleteness of the Tractatus Politicus because Spinoza would  hesitate to disclose a shocking truth: that ” the very origin” of the political society and the state is “something irremediably bad” since “the basic form of democracy, according to Spinoza, is lynching” Id., pp. 159-164. See also mine Paola de Cuzzani, “Forskjellene og indignasjonen: Toleranse mulige veier”, in LOS-notater 9620, Bergen, 1996.

[40] Spinoza: Complete Works , op. cit. p.344.  “Odium nunquam potest esse bonum” (Spinoza Opera, Eth.IV.p XLV, G. II, p. 243)

[41] Cf. Spinoza Opera, E.IV, p. XLV corollarium, G.II, p. 244.

Thinking of the Shadow. Conceptions of Cruelty in the History of Western Thought

As regards thinking of the shadow, I can contribute to the present discussion qua intellectual historian who, together with the theologian Michael Trice, has reconstructed in recent years the understanding of a particular manifestation of the shadow in the long life of Western philosophy: cruelty. Between 1998, when I started investigating Judith Shklar’s and Richard Rorty’s liberalism of fear, and 2017, when I completed a volume of collected essays of mine to be published by Northwest Passage Books under the title Philosophy of Cruelty, I devoted considerable time and attention to retrieving, mapping and reflecting upon the conceptions of cruelty developed in the history of Western thought. What follows here is a concise overview of the five most common and/or most articulate conceptions that I have identified in the course of my studies, and repeats almost verbatim what I state in the aforementioned collection of essays of mine. Longer and more detailed analyses can be retrieved in my older publications on this subject. Please note also that my research is intentionally limited to explicit uses of the terms “cruelty” and “cruel” in the languages accessible to me.  Extending it to cognates such as “violence” or “aggressiveness” would make the project unmanageable.

Cruelty as Vice

Cruelty has been regarded very often as a quintessentially human vice affecting specific individuals. This conception of cruelty is characteristic of ancient and medieval philosophers, whose approach to ethics typically centres upon the notion of personal character rather than upon the notion of rightful or good actions and norms—the latter being predominant amongst modern and contemporary thinkers. Also, this former conception of cruelty takes a chief interest in observing what consequences cruelty has for the perpetrator, rather than for its victims, as commonplace instead for modern and contemporary approaches to cruelty. In particular, ancient and medieval philosophers suggested that cruelty is a vice affecting persons involved in punitive contexts, e.g. courtrooms, schools, armies and households. In De Clementia, Seneca claims that “cruel are those who have a reason for punishing, but do not have moderation in it”.[1] Besides, he claims that, as concerns the person who “finds pleasure in torture, we may say is not cruelty, but savagery – we may even call it madness; for there are various kinds of madness, and none is more unmistakable than that which reaches the point of murdering and mutilating men.”[2] “Cruelty” is thus defined as “harshness of mind in exacting punishment”, rather than unrestrained lust for blood.[3] As a vice, ‘”cruelty” is said to be “an evil thing befitting least of all a man”,[4] and it can take private forms (e.g. family feuds) as well as public forms (e.g. tyranny, insofar as “[t]yrants”, unlike kings resorting to cruelty “for a reason and by necessity[,…] take delight in cruelty”).[5] Cruelty is the opposite of clemency, yet “it is as much a cruelty to pardon all as to pardon none.”[6] Clemency, according to Seneca, does not mean indiscriminate forgiveness, but rather a balanced blend of moderation and justice.

As famously discussed by Aristotle, our vices are said to spring from a lack of balance within the human soul; to exceed in forgiveness is as conducive to vice as to exceed in harshness. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica echoes Seneca’s position and combines it with Aristotle’s ethics:

Cruelty apparently takes its name from “cruditas”[rawness]. Now just as things when cooked and prepared are wont to have an agreeable and sweet savour, so when raw they have a disagreeable and bitter taste. Now it has been stated… that clemency denotes a certain smoothness or sweetness of soul, whereby one is inclined to mitigate punishment. Hence cruelty is directly opposed to clemency.[7]

Also for the doctor angelicus [angelic doctor] of the Catholic Church is “cruelty… hardness of the heart in exacting punishment”,[8] hence a form of “human wickedness”; whereas “savagery and brutality” are a form of “bestiality”.[9] Cruelty contains an element of rational deliberation, which “savagery” and “brutality” do not possess: these, in fact, “take their names from a likeness to wild beasts… deriving pleasure from a man’s torture.”[10] Cruelty is therefore something evil that we do intentionally and which corrupts our character by exceeding in what would be otherwise acceptable; but it is also something that we can do something else about, for all vices can be remedied by proper self-correction. As Aristotle and the medieval pedagogues used to teach, whatever the initial endowment of inclinations and talents in our character, each of us is responsible for the kind of person she becomes.

Cruelty as Sadism

The distinction drawn by Seneca and Aquinas between cruelty and bestiality, epitomised by sadistic pleasure, seems to vanish with several modern thinkers, who actually take sadism as the paramount, if not the sole, example of cruelty. This is a second, fairly common conception of cruelty, according to which cruelty turns into something worse than a vice, indeed something devilish or extreme. To some, cruelty becomes so extreme a tendency that it transforms into a sheer figment of our imagination, i.e. some kind of philosophical or literary ‘ghost’. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, argues that “Contempt, or little sense of the calamity of others, is that which men call cruelty; proceeding from security of their own fortune. For, that any man should take pleasure in other men’s great harms, without other end of his own, I do not conceive it possible.”[11] Bishop Joseph Butler, on his part, states that “[t]he utmost possible depravity, which we can in imagination conceive, is that of disinterested cruelty.”[12] David Hume, on this point, affirms: “Absolute, unprovoked, disinterested malice has never, perhaps, had place in any human breast”.[13]

The element of rational deliberation that Seneca and Aquinas observed in cruelty is adamantly underplayed in this second conception of cruelty, as Thomas Hobbes’ understanding reveals once more:

Revenge without respect to the example and profit to come is a triumph, or glorying in the hurt of another, tending to no end (for the end is always somewhat to come); and glorying to no end is vain-glory, and contrary to reason; and to hurt without reason tendeth to the introduction of war, which is against the law of nature, and is commonly styled by the name of cruelty.[14]

Rather than a vice, for which a person must take responsibility, cruelty morphs into a malady of the soul, the result of a poor, incompetent or broken mind, which reduces the humanity of its carrier and makes her closer to wild animals. Perhaps, this malady can be cured, or at least confined by appropriate measures of social hygiene. After all, animals can be tamed and trained; though sometimes they are put in cages or butchered. And the cruel human person, now likened to the beast, can be treated instrumentally, like commonly practised with horses and pigs; all this, naturally, being the case for the greater good of the commonwealth to which she and her victims belong.

Cruelty as Avoidable Harm

The idea of cruelty as something sick, if not even something sickening, colours also the work of the French Renaissance sceptic Michel de Montaigne. In his Essays, Montaigne observes that “cowardice is the mother of cruelty”[15] and states:

I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and by judgment, as the extreme of all vices. But this is to such a point of softness that I do not see a chicken’s neck wrung without distress, and I cannot bear to hear the scream of a hare in the teeth of my dogs… Even the executions of the law, however reasonable that may be, I cannot witness with a steady gaze.[16]

As for wars, it is worth repeating that Montaigne remarks: “I could hardly be convinced, until I saw it, that there were souls so monstrous that they would commit murder for the mere pleasure of it… For that is the uttermost point that cruelty can attain.”[17] The conceptions of cruelty as vice and sadism are accounted for in Montaigne’s reflections, but they are also subtly advanced to a broader condemnation of cruelty as harm to be avoided: capital punishment might be reformed, hunting abandoned, and wars prevented. In this perspective, his contribution to the understanding of cruelty in Western history is momentous, just as momentous were his Essays for the West’s intellectuals in the three centuries following their publication, and it connects the modern conceptions with the ancient one. Moreover, Montaigne is the first Western intellectual to devote an entire essay to the topic of cruelty—a stark sign of how genuine was his hatred for cruelty. “Montaignesque” is therefore the third conception of cruelty to be presented, i.e. cruelty as harm to be avoided.

The champions of the European Enlightenment are probably the most vocal and best-remembered members of this approach. Montesquieu, for example, labels as “cruel… torture” and gruesome “punishments”, legal servitude for insolvent debtors and colonial occupation.[18] In his essays On Tolerance, Voltaire describes as eminently cruel all wars of religion, whilst in Candide he condemns as such rape, corporal punishment and mutilation, even when lawfully administered in the name of justice.[19] Adam Smith, champion of the Scottish Enlightenment, ascribes the attribute “cruel” to infanticide,[20] personal vendetta,[21] economic monopolies,[22] burdensome taxes of succession or of passage of property,[23] the suffering of the “race of labourers” in periods of economic recession,[24] and mercy to the guilty.[25] In Italy, Pietro Verri argues that “[r]eason can show [what] is unjust, extremely dangerous, and immensely cruel”—and reason led him to condemn “torture” as “cruel”.[26] Cesare Beccaria, the most influential penal reformer of all times and both a friend and a student of Verri’s, condemns torture as cruel too, whilst also noting: “man is only cruel in proportion to his interest to be so, to his hatred or to his fear.”[27] Hence, it ought to be a duty for the legislator to “[c]ause men to fear the laws and the laws alone. Salutary is the fear of the law, but fatal and fertile in crime is the fear of one man of another. Men as slaves are more sensual, more immoral, more cruel than free men”.[28] For Jean-Antoine-Nicolas, Marquis de Condorcet, instead, “cruel” is the institutional neglect of “the progress of education”, for it constitutes nothing but the shameful misdeed of “abandoning men to the authority of ignorance, which is always unjust and cruel”.[29] Even the non-instrumental Enlightenment thinker par excellence, Immanuel Kant, does espouse the spirit of reformation of his age, and calls “most cruel” the institution of “slavery” exercised in the “Sugar Islands” by Dutch landowners,[30] whereas merely “cruel” are the “duels” fought in the name of “military honour”, which, like “Maternal Infanticide”, lead to cases of “Homicide” as distinguished from “Murder”.[31]

19th– and 20th-century political and legal reformers followed in the footsteps of the ‘enlighteners’ of the 18th century. Amongst them are also Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty. Judith Shklar, who was a Montaigne scholar, defines cruelty in two ways. The former reads: “Cruelty is… the wilful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear… [it is] horrible… [it] repels instantly because it is ‘ugly’… and disfigures human character”. The latter reads: “Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter.” Judith Shklar believes that cruelty, to a meaningful extent, can be controlled by appropriate doses of liberalism, which is itself in many ways a child of the 18th century: “the first right is to be protected against the fear of cruelty. People have rights as a shield against this greatest of human vices. This is the evil, the threat to be avoided at all costs. Justice itself is only a web of legal arrangements required to keep cruelty in check.”[32] Good laws and good political arrangements can reduce the pain that we impose upon/suffer from weaker/stronger creatures like us. That is the hope animating the American and the French Revolutions, as well as many of the emancipatory struggles fought during the following two centuries. Still, additional cruelties can be retrieved—and rejected—in other areas too. Giacomo Leopardi, for one, aims at a different target. He associates cruelty with the rewards and punishments awaiting us post mortem [after death], which he claims to be nothing but the sorrowful fictional creations of tragically misguided philosophies and religions. Whether “healthy or sick”, these creations are, in his view, signs of “cowardice” and mere “childish illusions” that were developed in the face of “the absence of any hope, …the desert of life, …men’s infelicity[,]… and destiny’s cruelty”.[33] Though living as such is cruel in and for itself, even crueller it is to live in fear of the priest’s gloomy superstitions or the philosopher’s hollow concepts.

Tom Regan sketches a fascinating taxonomy of cruelty, which he derives from yet another area that seems engulfed with cruelty: the human treatment of animals. As Regan writes:

People can rightly be judged cruel either for what they do or for what they fail to do, and either for what they feel or for what they fail to feel. The central case of cruelty appears to be the case where, in Locke’s apt phrase, one takes ‘a seeming kind of Pleasure’ in causing another to suffer. Sadistic torturers provide perhaps the clearest example of cruelty in this sense: they are cruel not just because they cause suffering (so do dentists and doctors, for example) but because they enjoy doing so. Let us term this sadistic cruelty… Not all cruel people are cruel in this sense. Some cruel people do not feel pleasure in making others suffer. Indeed they seem not to feel anything. Their cruelty is manifested by a lack of what is judged appropriate feeling, as pity or mercy, for the plight of the individual whose suffering they cause, rather than pleasure in causing it… The sense of cruelty that involves indifference to, rather than enjoyment of, suffering caused to others we shall call brutal cruelty…Cruelty admits of at least four possible classifications: (1) active sadistic cruelty; (2) passive sadistic cruelty; (3) active brutal cruelty; (4) passive brutal cruelty.[34]

Whichever class of cruelty we encounter in life, Regan believes that we must try to eliminate it. In particular, he focuses on (3) and (4), i.e. the types of cruelty that seem to characterise the human-animal relationship in contemporary societies. Persons are not only cruel to other persons: as long as pain is taken to be a relevant ethical factor, then also animals can become victims, and maybe even perpetrators (though Regan does not explore this avenue).

Cruelty as Paradox

As inheritors of the projects initiated in the 18th century, we can find Shklar’s and Regan’s definitions rather appealing. However, how many types of cruelty and cruel areas of behaviour can be actually tackled? How many revolutions, with their load of gunpowder and dynamite, should be fought? If three centuries of worldwide-expanding liberalism, culminated with Francis Fukuyama’s post-Cold-War proclamation of “the end of history”, have not eliminated it, what reasonable expectations can be entertained vis-à-vis the future?[35] Few are the philosophers who have pondered upon the paradoxical character of cruelty—a fourth conception that can also be retrieved in the history of Western thought. Cruelty persists within our lives and societies despite its being commonly denounced as something extremely negative and, above all, despite the recurring attempts to promote social progress and reform existing institutions. Judith Shklar herself admits that “cruelty is baffling because we can live neither with nor without it” and this is probably the reason why:

Philosophers rarely talk about cruelty… I suspect that we talk around cruelty because we do not want to talk about it… What we do seem to talk about incessantly is hypocrisy, and not because it hides cowardice, cruelty, or other horrors, but because failures of honesty and of sincerity upset us enormously, and they are vices which we can attack directly and easily. They are easier to bear, and seem less intractable.[36]

Philip P. Hallie marks a notable exception to the commonplace avoidance of the subject denounced by Judith Shklar. Firstly, Hallie defines “cruelty” as “the infliction of ruin, whatever the motives”[37] or, in two alternative versions, “the activity of hurting sentient beings”[38] and “the slow crushing and grinding of a human being by other human beings”.[39] He then distinguishes the instances of “cruelty upon humans” between those “fatal cruelties” that are due to nature and the far from uncommon “human violent cruelty” that is due to our fellow human beings.[40] To the latter he adds “implicit” or “indirect” cruelties, i.e. cruelties arising from “indifference or distraction” rather than from evident “intention to hurt”.[41] Thus understood, human cruelty can be further divided into “sadistic” and “practical”: whereas the latter refers to forms of instrumental cruelty, the former is “self-gratifying”.[42] By way of this articulate taxonomy, richer than Tom Regan’s itself, Hallie attempts to encompass and map the vast, polymorphous universe of cruelty, whose intricate nature explains perhaps its little permeability to philosophical analysis. Secondly, Hallie cuts the Gordian knot of cruelty’s intrinsic complexity by referring to it as a paradox, candidly and straightforwardly—in a book’s very title. Why simplifying something that cannot be simplified? Why misrepresenting it, in the attempt to represent it clearly? Hallie has in mind five particular cases of paradoxical cruelty:

  1. Cruelty brought about without any open “intention to hurt”, but in the name of altruism, happiness, justice, etc.[43] “Substantial maiming” can derive from “wanting the best and doing the worst”.[44]
  2. Cruelty caused by genuine “intention to hurt”, but aimed at educating and therefore avoiding worse cruelties, e.g. “in terrorem” [terrifying] literary techniques.[45] As 20th-century French literary scholar André Dinar also observes: “The cruel authors cauterise the wounds that can be healed and mark with hot irons the incurable ones, so to expose their horror”.[46]
  3. “The fascinosum [lure] of cruelty”,[47] as well as its ability to titillate “sexual pleasure”,[48] higher “awareness”,[49] the liberation of sensual “imagination”[50] and “masochistic pleasure”,[51] are all pursued willingly and proactively, very often, by fully conscious persons.
  4. Cruelty implied by the “growth” or maturing of any individual through painful “individualisation” for the sake of “human authenticity”.[52] No person becomes mature, well-rounded and responsible without facing a significant amount and variety of pain in her life, and without learning how to face probable, if not inevitable, later doses of the same bitter medicine.
  5. “Responsive” cruelty enacted in retaliation to “provocative” cruelty,[53]g. penal chastisements and just wars, although “mitigation” is recommended.[54]

Being a devout Christian, Hallie has no desire to promote cruelty. Quite the contrary, his work on this topic begins as an effort to reduce it. Nevertheless, as he deepens his understanding of it, Hallie comes to recognise that not all cruelty ought to be avoided, for its disappearance would be more harmful than its persistence. This is particularly true of the painful processes of growth and maturation, as well as of artistic disclosure of sorrowful truths or extreme sexual elation. Moreover, in an implicit reminder of Beccaria’s own wisdom, Hallie admits that cruelty may be a necessary evil in the public sphere. As baffling as this may be, cruelty seems to find rather easily assorted justifications for enduring in many aspects of life.

Cruelty as Good

Some philosophers have stepped beyond the sole acknowledgment of cruelty’s paradoxical character and entertained plainly the seemingly contradictory notion that it might be good. This is the fifth and last conception of cruelty, which comprises two main groups of thinkers.

In the first group are included those thinkers who have argued that cruelty does not need to have intrinsic value (or disvalue), but instrumental value alone and, as such, that cruelty may be capable of fulfilling a positive function. For instance, cruelty can be a tool to promote the common good. Niccolò Machiavelli is among them. According to him:

Every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed [by the rioting between the Cancellieri and Panciatichi factions in 1502 and 1503].[55]

Jacques Derrida states something analogous when he writes in recent years: “Politics can only domesticate [cruelty], differ and defer it, learn to negotiate, compromise indirectly but without illusion with it… the cruelty drive is irreducible.”[56] Instead of combating cruelty at all costs, one ought to learn how to draw as much good as possible from it. After all, the initiation of social life makes itself use of cruelty: why should its continuation be devoid of it? This is what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari seem to suggest, for example. The acquisition and continuation of the shared semiotic abilities that allow for human communities to develop is never devoid of cruelty. Schooling and socialisation are no free meal: “Cruelty is the movement of culture that is realized in bodies and inscribed on them, belabouring them.”[57] Sharing a similar awareness, Clément Rosset explores the instrumental role of cruelty in the private sphere, rather than the public one, and writes provokingly: “Joy is necessarily cruel”.[58] According to him, “[c]ruelty is not… pleasure in cultivating suffering but… a refusal of complacency toward an object, whatever it may be.”[59] Now, “the ‘cruelty’ of the real… is the intrinsically painful and tragic nature of reality.”[60] For instance:

[T]he cruelty of love (like that of reality) resides in the paradox or the contradiction which consists in loving without loving, affirming as lasting that which is ephemeral – paradox of which the most rudimentary vision would be to say that something simultaneously exists and does not exist. The essence of love is to claim to love forever but in reality to love only for a time. So the truth of love does not correspond to the experience of love.[61]

For Rosset, the answer to cruelty’s paradox lays in the nature of reality, which is ultimately cruel. Rosset’s thought could then be regarded as belonging legitimately to the fourth conception of cruelty as well, i.e. cruelty as paradox. In truth, the distinction between the fourth and the fifth conceptions is not clear-cut, and the same can be said of the distinctions between the other conceptions previously presented (especially between the first and the third, and the second and the third). These distinctions are mostly a matter of different conceptual emphasis, rather than of mutual incompatibility; and as we emphasise the fifth conception, it can be stated that, to a relevant extent, persons are shaped by cruelty and are bound to encounter it also and above all if they wish to derive a modicum of satisfaction from their mortal existence. The only way to live well, for Rosset, who was a Schopenhauer scholar, involves learning to embrace the suffering that life unavoidably unloads upon us. In the field of drama, Antonin Artaud echoes and expands Rosset’s tragic awareness: “Death is cruelty, resurrection is cruelty, transfiguration is cruelty… Everything that acts is a cruelty.”[62] To be is to be cruel—there is no way out of cruelty, which, however, must be conceived anew: “Cruelty is not just a matter of either sadism or bloodshed, at least not in any exclusive way… [It] must be taken in a broad sense, and not in the rapacious physical sense that is customarily given to it.”[63] Although never as clear as Rosset on what this novel understanding of cruelty may be like, Artaud developed a new set of shock- and scandal-filled stage techniques and communication devices, i.e. his Theatre of Cruelty, which was aimed at eliciting higher levels of personal awareness in the audience: “All this culminates in consciousness and torment, and in consciousness in torment”.[64]

In the second group are included those thinkers that have argued that cruelty might be intrinsically valuable, maybe even a virtue, which enriches our lives in a unique way and allows for the full realization of our nature. The most ‘in-famous’ example in this sense is that of the Marquis de Sade, who argues: “Cruelty is imprinted within the animals… that can read the laws of Nature much more energetically than we do; [cruelty] is more strongly enacted by Nature among the savages than it is among civilized men: it would be absurd to establish that it is a kind of depravity”.[65] Sade, who approves also of more refined forms of cruelty (i.e. the civilised libertine’s), infers from the naturalness and unavoidability of cruelty a reversed Rousseauvianism:

Remove your laws, your punishments, your customs, and cruelty will not have dangerous effects any longer… it is inside the civilized domain that it turns into a danger, as those capable of it are almost always absent, either because they lack the force, or because they lack the means to respond to the offences; in the uncivilized domain, instead, if it is imposed over the strong, then he shall be able to react to it, and if it is imposed over the weak, it will not be else than conceding to the strong according to the laws of nature, and this will not be inappropriate at all.[66]

Equally notorious is the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom the reader has already met repeatedly in this book. Idealising and idolising primeval societies, barbaric bravery and warrior mores, Nietzsche wishes to:

[E]mpathise with those tremendous eras of “morality of custom” which precede “world history” as the actual and decisive eras of history which determined the character of mankind: the eras in which suffering counted as virtue, cruelty counted as virtue, dissembling counted as virtue, revenge counted as virtue, denial of reason counted as virtue, while on the other hand well-being was accounted a danger, desire for knowledge was accounted a danger, peace was accounted a danger, pity was accounted a danger, being pitied was accounted an affront, work was accounted an affront, madness was accounted godliness, and change was accounted immoral and pregnant with disaster![67]

If Sade reverses Rousseau’s bon sauvage [noble savage (the term was never used by him, but is commonly associated with him)], Nietzsche reverses Seneca’s treatment of cruelty as vice. For Nietzsche, cruelty used to be a virtue in prehistoric or barbaric times, it is a fixed element in the human make-up, and it survives in countless rarefied forms today:

Cruelty is what constitutes the painful sensuality of tragedy. And what pleases us in so-called tragic pity as well as in everything sublime, up to the highest and most delicate of metaphysical tremblings, derives its sweetness exclusively from the intervening component of cruelty. Consider the Roman in the arena, Christ in the rapture of the cross, the Spaniard at the sight of the stake or the bullfight, the present-day Japanese flocking to tragedies, the Parisian suburban laborer who is homesick for bloody revolutions, the Wagnerienne who unfastens her will and lets Tristan und Isolde “wash over her” – what they all enjoy and crave with a mysterious thirst to pour down their throats is “cruelty,” the spiced drink of the great Circe.[68]

Given all this, as Nietzsche concludes, cruelty should be recovered in an honest and healthy way, for human beings are cruelty-prone animals that live in the mundane world, not the God-like, spiritualised, ‘fallen’ and heaven-seeking creatures of which religion and philosophy have pointlessly blared about for centuries. Just like all other animals, so do human beings have bodies, selfish selves, and ‘knightly’ instincts calling for competition, predation and domination. Humans are born to race against one another and the most deserving ones, in the end, ought to survive and lead. Any departure from this natural logic is a concession to degeneration and, essentially, an unhealthily indirect manifestation of repressed cruelty, which cannot but harm our species by letting slaves dominate over masters, priests over knights, and ignorant masses over cultured elites. Instead of understanding and embracing the cruel but actual reality of the world, which is the only place where true existential meaning can be found, the degenerate pursue mystification and escapism. Exemplarily, the loathed magician/pope of Nietzsche’s grand and initially ill-received philosophical allegory, i.e. his 1883–91 Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, discovers this hard truth in his delirium, as he realises that his own pantheon of abstract instruments of power (angels, demons, God, etc.) is the utmost and most cruel betrayal of any chance for real fulfilment. Nothing of what he has been preaching during his life, in order to lead his flock, is true and truly valuable: “In vain! / Pierce further! / Cruellest spike! / No dog – your game just am I, / Cruellest hunter! /…/ Speak finally! / You shrouded in the lightning! Unknown! Speak! /…/ Surrender to me, / Cruellest enemy, / – Yourself![69]

Concluding Remarks

This brief overview of the five most common and/or most articulate conceptions of cruelty that can be retrieved in the history of Western thought shows already how diverse the interpretations of this term can be. Cruelty, like many other concepts that we employ regularly in our language, whether in ordinary or technical discourses, is inherently contested, i.e. it allows for a variety of readings, usages and applications. As Michael Polanyi used to argue in the 20th century, it is important for concepts to be adequately ambiguous, insofar as they are meant to grasp a plethora of subsidiary details that we are only tacitly aware of, and of some of which we may become aware by subsequent processes of analysis, elucidation, comparison, critique, reflection, study, etc. These processes may even lead to a breakdown in the applicability of the concept, which is then abandoned in lieu of alternative ones. This abandonment does not mean that the concept is mistaken or useless. Quite the opposite, a concept is correct and useful insofar as we successfully interact with other persons by referring to it, that is, by referring to phenomena by means of it. As a concept in both ordinary and philosophical language, cruelty is no exception to the way in which several conceptions can be produced of any such item, and an array of diverse realisations about human affairs can be unpacked from it by reflecting upon it—in this case, by thinking of the shadow.



[1] Lucius A. Seneca, De Clementia, translated by John W. Basore, London: Heinemann, 1928–35[55 AD], II.iv.1–4. Whenever possible, given the great variety of editions over the centuries of Latin classics, I use the standard referencing system for such sources.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. I.xxiv.1–xxv.2.

[5] Ibid. I.xii.1–4.

[6] Ibid. I.ii.2–iii.3.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920[ca. 1268], <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/>, part II of part II, question 159, art. 1. I utilise here the standard scholarly referencing system for Aquinas’ Summa.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., art. 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, London: Andrew Crooke, 1651, <http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hobbes/Leviathan.pdf>, part I, chapter VI.

[12] As cited in British Moralists 1650–1800, edited by D.D. Raphael, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991, vol. 1, 334–5.

[13] As cited in ibid., vol. 2, 72.

[14] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part I, chapter XV.

[15] Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, translated by Donald Frame, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998[1580], II, 27.  Given the great variety of editions of Montaigne’s essays, I do not refer to page numbers and use the standard scholarly system instead, i.e. book and essay number.

[16] Ibid., II, 11.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, translated by Thomas Nugent, New York: Cosimo, 2011[1748], book VI, chapter, 12; book XV, chapters 1, 7 & 15; book XXVI, chapter 22.

[19] Cf. Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, edited by Louis Moland, Paris: Garnier, 1877[1769].

[20] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 6th edition, London: A. Millar, 1790, <http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html>, part V, chapter I, §25.

[21] Ibid., part VI, chapter III, §12.

[22] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan, Indianapolis:  The Online Library of Liberty, 1901[1776], <http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html>, book IV, chapter 8, §17.

[23] Ibid., book V, chapter 2, §§116 & 125.

[24] Ibid., book I, chapter 11, §263.

[25] Ibid., book II, chapter I, §27.

[26] Pietro Verri, Osservazioni sulla tortura, Rome: Newton, 18 (translation mine).

[27] Cesare Beccaria, Crimes and Punishments, translated by James Anson Farrer, London: Chatto & Windus: 1880[1764], 140–1.

[28] Ibid., 243.

[29] Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, Xème & IIème époque, 2004[1793–4], <http://www.eliohs.unifi.it/testi/700/condorcet/index.html> (translation mine).

[30] Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf, part II, chapter 2, §3 (translation mine).

[31] Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Law. An Exposition of the Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence as Science of Right, translated by W. Hastie, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1887[1796], part II, section I, chapter 49, art. E.

[32] Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, Cambridge: Belknap, 1984, 237.

[33] Giacomo Leopardi, Operette morali, “Dialogo di Tristano e di un amico”, <http://www.leopardi.it/operette_morali.php>, (translation mine).

[34] Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, 197–8 (emphases removed).

[35] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: The Free Press, 1992.

[36] Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, 3, 7 & 44.

[37] Philip P. Hallie, The Paradox of Cruelty, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1969, 14.

[38] Encyclopaedia of Ethics (edited by Lawrence C. Becker, New York: Garland, 1992), s.v. “Cruelty”, by Philip P. Hallie, 229–31, 229.

[39] Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There, New York: Harper & Row, 1985[1979], 2.

[40] Philip P. Hallie, The Paradox of Cruelty, 5–6.

[41] Ibid., 13–4 & 29–31.

[42] Ibid., 22–4.

[43] Ibid., 15–20.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 20–2.

[46] André Dinar, Les auteurs cruels, Paris: Mercure de France, 1972[1942], 7.

[47] Philip P. Hallie, The Paradox of Cruelty, 70–5.

[48] Ibid., 41 & 46.

[49] Ibid., 43.

[50] Ibid., 42 & 50.

[51] Ibid., 48.

[52] Ibid., 55–8 & 60–2.

[53] Ibid., 33.

[54] Ibid., 79–82.

[55] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by W.K. Marriott, 1908[1515], <http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince00.htm>, chapter XVII.

[56] Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002[2000], 252.

[57] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, New York: The Viking Press, 1977[1972], 144.

[58] Clément Rosset, Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, translated by David F. Bell, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993[1988], 17.

[59] Ibid., 17–20.

[60] Ibid., 76.

[61] Ibid., 98 (emphases removed).

[62] Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double, translated by Mary Caroline Richards, New York: Grove Press, 1958[1938], 101–3 & 85.

[63] Ibid., 102.

[64] Ibid., 114 (emphasis removed).

[65] Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir ou Les Instituteurs immoraux, Paris: Larousse, 1966[1795], 139 (translation mine).

[66] Ibid., 140–1 (translation mine).

[67] Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997[1881], §18.

[68] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Judith Norman, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002[1886], §229.

[69] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, translated by Thomas Common, 1891[1883–91], part IV, §65, section 1 (generally known and translated as Thus Spoke Zarathustra).