Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic

The following is a copy of the paper I presented at The London Conference for Critical Thought at Birkbeck College, University of London, on 29th June 2012. It is very much the record of a work-in-progress and, rather than attempting any hasty conclusions, my aim here is simply to pull at some of the threads that constitute the nexus of workers, animals, and democracy in Plato’s Republic in the hope of illuminating some of the unthought connections that remain to urgently concern us today.

I explore the issues here in greater detail in a subsequent lecture given at the LSE (Feb 2014), the full text of which is  posted here:


Two points, I think, are of the greatest importance here.

First, Plato argues that nonhuman animals as much as human animals possess an “instinct” or “urge” for freedom that is synonymous with the “instinct” or “urge” for democracy, and it is a sensitivity towards this shared possession, as opposed to an empathic sensitivity towards the suffering of others (however important this may be), which so acutely concerns Plato.

And second, it is this sensitivity towards the instinct for freedom shared among all living beings, and among domestic animals in particular, which, more than anything else, Plato fears will ignite a revolution that will bring down the oligarchy of his ideal Republic. This, I think, certainly provides us with “food for thought.”

*     *     *

Democracy, claims Plato, inevitably results in tyranny. This is because the legal equality of men and women, as well as the freedom in the relations between them, together create such sensitivity towards nonfreedoms that, ultimately, “if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it.” In the end, this sensitivity becomes so urgent that they thereafter “take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all.” At this point, writes Plato, tyranny quickly steps in to inflict “the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.”

As a result, in the formulation of Plato’s ideal Republic, its ability or otherwise to ensure that any hint of democracy is immediately stamped out becomes crucial to its conservation. Thus, the rulers of the Republic must be permanently on the lookout for signs and symptoms that point to the emergence of anything even resembling a democratic sensitivity, the most telling and the most dangerous of which, according to Plato, is a sensitivity towards the enslavement and exploitation of other animals. No one, he says, “would believe how much freer domestic animals are in a democratic city than anywhere else.” Dogs become almost indistinguishable from their mistresses, whilst donkeys and horses – who, in the Republic would labour invisibly for the benefit of its citizens – are instead allowed to freely roam the streets, “bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way.”

Here, we begin to map a clear correlation between the democratic freedoms of animals and those of slaves, women, and workers. In fact, in Plato’s Republic slaves, animals, and workers together constitute what is necessary for it to function as the ideal dwelling of the best (women being, as usual, absented from consideration). Moreover, the boundaries between these three groups are extremely porous, merging into a single group – that of wild animals – during times of crisis spurred by the democratic urge for freedom.

As a technique to prevent such crises, Plato maintains explicitly that the souls of men must therefore be hardened in its relationships with nonhuman animals, a hardening achieved by propagating callous indifference to their daily enslavement and exploitation. Without this calculated insensitivity towards other animals, insists Plato, the masses will inevitably become sensitised to the democratic notion of possible freedom for all. Democracy, in other words, right at its origin, necessarily includes freedom for other animals. This is the first point I want to make here.

Turning from the conserving to the founding of the Republic, we discover this founding rests almost exclusively with the mouth. According to Plato in the Timaeus, the mouth is arranged “to accommodate both what is necessary and what is best.” Through the mouth, necessary nourishment for the body enters, and through the mouth the best exits by way of the stream of speech that is the instrument of intelligence.

This is not to say, however, that everyone’s mouth serves as both entrance and exit. Rather, it is a question of degree. At one pole, we find those esteemed citizens such as Plato and Socrates who have eliminated entirely the desires of the body and whose mouth, unsullied by its necessities, thus serves purely as an exit for the best. At the other pole, separated by all those whose bodily desires are weaker or stronger, are located those who have utterly abandoned themselves to the desires of the body, the mouth having become solely an orifice of immoderate entry. At this latter pole, says Plato, stands the worker-ape: why else, he asks, “is the condition of a manual worker so despised? Is it for any other reason than that, when the best part is naturally weak in someone, it can’t rule the beasts within him but can only serve them?”

In the freedom to seek satisfaction for bodily desires, marked by the open entrance of the mouth, Plato thus equates the democratic urge with the “despised” character of the manual worker. At the same time, he makes it clear that the worker animal is fit only to eat, that is, fit only to perform those tasks necessary to the functioning of the Republic, while only the rulers, insofar as they are not diverted by the necessity of work, are fit to reason and teach. For Plato, democracy inverts this proper binary: rather than the mouths of the best enslaving the mouths of the necessary, the necessary enslaves the best. It is clear, however, that the mouth, be it in the Republic or in the democratic city, is nonetheless the instrument of enslavement. For Plato, however, the rulers of the Republic enslave the necessary workers, slaves, and animals to a lesser degree than the free worker enslaves the best in democracy.

There still remains for Plato the question of how, exactly, to repress the democratic urge or instinct from within the boundaries of the Republic. While the best, says Plato, feasts on fine arguments and lives in moderation, workers, slaves and animals, by contrast, have no access to such feasts of the intellect, their desires not being held in check by internal laws in alliance with reason.

As such, he argues, they inevitably succumb to the unreasonable, lawless desires of the body. Despite even the worker-ape’s best intentions, beastly and savage libidinal desires will attack him when his defences are down, that is, they will throw him from sleep, after which “there is nothing it – the worker-ape – won’t dare to do at such a time, free of all control by shame or reason. It doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god, or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness.”

In this moment the worker-ape thus ceases to be a gendered being and becomes instead a rampaging “it” synonymous with Freud’s “id,” a grammatical shift marking the worker-ape as both inhuman and animal. At this point the dominance of the mouth as entrance becomes absolute: no “food” will be denied: incest, bestiality, sex with gods; patricide, regicide; cannibalism – no act, as Plato specifies, is omitted.

Clearly then, at the founding of the ideal Republic, these dangerous desires such as belong to every worker-ape must somehow be contained. The mouth here is for Plato a pharmakon, both remedy and poison at once. Hence, he argues, for all those apes in whom law and reason are either weak or absent, the danger of the animal mouth which poisons the Republic with its urge for freedom must be “cured” by the mouth as pure exit. The language of the rulers, in other words, serves to illegally incorporate within the body of the worker “something similar to what rules the best.” In short, through the imposing of the language of reason and law, an external Guardian is installed within the worker in order to make of the latter an unwitting slave. It is an enslaving, moreover, of which the worker-ape knows nothing. This, insists Plato, is “better for everyone,” because in this way “all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing.” Such a taming – Plato’s word – renders submissive the dangerously strong and healthy bodies of the labouring classes to the demands of the ruling class, and it is only once such an external guardian has been fully incorporated that the worker-ape may be then “set free.”

The insistence here on the notion of incorporation in its specifically psychoanalytic sense in opposition to introjection, is central to understanding this mechanism for taming the urge for freedom. Indeed, a psychoanalytic reading is explicitly called for by Plato’s text. Introjection, as Maria Torok makes clear, always involves growth, a broadening of the ego by way of the mouth in which the external is assimilated with the internal, transforming both in the process. For the Guardian of the Law to function, however, it cannot be introjected by the worker-apethrough his or her mouth (as entrance), and so must rather pass by way of an incorporation through other orifices (primarily the ear). In short, it cannot be worked-over by the worker-ape because the language of the rulers serves principally to conceal the desires of the workers from the workers themselves.

Incorporation, continues Torok, is “the first lie” and “the first instrument of deception” – a trick which leads the ego to mistake its external enslavement for an introjection of its own making. Instead, the incorporation of the guardian ensures an encryption of the worker-ape’s natural desires, thus splitting the ego of the worker-ape into subject and object, the guardian having being forcibly consumed, devoured, and installed as an other-in-me. The instinct for equal freedoms is thus corralled, entombed by security guards within the animal body. All of this, insists Plato, is a matter of justice for everyone. The Republic is not tyrannical like a democracy, he says, but is rather a just city for all who dwell within its walls.

In speaking of the manual labourer as someone to be naturally despised, however, Plato makes an extremely telling point. The labourer, he argues, insofar as he is forced to attend to the necessary appetites of his beastly body, thus becomes accustomed “from youth on to being insulted for the sake of the money” – the money needed to satisfy those appetites, and it is this insult which makes of the labourer a despised being, an ape instead of a lion.

This shifts Plato’s hierarchy dramatically. Now the line is not between those whose natural disposition of the mouth is that of an exit for the best and those whose natural inclination is to abandon themselves to every shameless act of the body, but between those who need not concern themselves with the necessary satisfactions of the body, and those that must work to survive. In the latter – and this is Plato’s great fear, a fear that combines in equal measure the cannibal and the starving – the dreams of democracy, of revolution, inevitably slumber. Plato thus speaks not from a position of justice for everyone, but rather seeks to impose upon the poor the rules of the rich. We must, he insists, be governed by the same Law – the Law that money is power. The guardian incorporated within the body of the worker is, in simplest terms, an explicitly normalising discourse designed at the outset to protect the wealthy from the dreams and desires of those forced to live hand-to-mouth.

Moreover, not a single one of these apes may be permitted to escape this normalising operation. To allow even one worker to articulate the unlawful desires of the masses could be catastrophic. To this end, incorporation in the psychoanalytic sense is the only possible remedy, insofar as only incorporation forecloses even the possibility of articulation: the words of desire, of revolution, the articulation of the insult, literally cannot be voiced due to the presence of the incorporated guardian. For Plato then, to “eat well” is cannibalistic through and through: in being prohibited from consummating the lawless democratic urge, the worker-ape must be forced to consume an effigy of the rich, to incorporate an external Guardian in a process of auto-cannibalism through which the worker ultimately consumes himself, burying his dreams and his desires within an unnameable crypt deep within himself. Only in this way is the insult prevented from erupting into an instinct for freedom, into a revolutionary consciousness – the “cure” of incorporation being, according to Torok, precisely that which protects against the “painful process” of reorganisation, of introjection, of growth and transformation. Incorporation, she adds, implies a loss that occurred before the desires concerning the object might have been freed, whilst the very fact of having had a loss is simultaneously denied. This, writes Torok, “is an eminently illegal act,” creating or reinforcing “imaginal ties and hence dependency.”

Things, however, don’t end here. The incorporated object – here the guardian of the law – installed in place of, and to guard against, the desires quelled by repression inevitably recall that something else was lost – the incorporated object itself helplessly marks and commemorates the site of repression. Moreover, and here Torok and Plato are in agreement, these dangerous libidinal desires, while foreclosed in the light of day, return in the dead of night, coming closest to the surface in dreams. The “ghost of the crypt,” writes Torok, “comes back to haunt the cemetary guard,” subjecting him to “unexpected sensations.” For Plato, in dreams the purity of the world of Ideas is lost, replaced by bastard configurations that retain the potential to betray those terrifyingly lawless desires. As a result, says Plato, the Republic must, in order to ensure the conservation of its status quo, remain ever vigilant to the slumbering desires of its worker-apes. To do this, he even goes so far as to suggest that every sign and symptom betrayed by the actual dreams of workers should be analysed as a preventative measure in a kind of inverse Freudianism.

If we read Plato with Torok, we discover that the site of foreclosed desires, commemorated by the Guardian itself, is typically signalled by way of a fantasy of ingestion such as imagined by Plato. While there may be no food that the rampaging worker-ape – consumed by a wild democratic urge – will not eat, this will never sate the actual and persistently active hunger for introjection. The offer of food, as Torok notes, only serves to deceive it, a way of filling its mouth with something else. It is not this rampage of consumption that Plato fears might erupt within his Republic. Rather, such a rampage is both symptom and substitution of the hunger for introjection, a mark of its privation of progressive libidinal nourishment.

In a sense then, Plato’s fear of the rapacious starving worker is certainly justified, constituted as it is by the very mechanism of incorporation meant to suppress it. In this crisis of the polis, the mouth of the worker – empty, open, with its teeth bared (teeth being the mark of the first great libidinal reorganisation of the body’s relations) – calls out in vain to be filled with a language that permits introjection, that permits the mourning of what has been foreclosed.

This points to two, related questions: first, how might one mourn, introject, that which has been foreclosed by incorporation? Still reading Plato with Torok, such an interminable mourning would constitute an ongoing process of growth and transformation by which the entire social terrain would be reorganised according to the libidinal relations of freedom characteristic of a democracy to-come. Second, insofar as this question of freedom for all concerns, at its very origin, a sensitivity to the enslaving and exploitation of other animals, might one not say that a sensitivity to the consumption of animals – understood as a cannibalistic consumption of flesh – is a principal condition of any authentic democracy-to-come, as Plato indeed fears?

These questions can be brought closer together in conjunction with Derrida’s notion of “eating well.” To eat well, says Derrida, is never negation or repression but always affirmation, that which is without firmness, without closedness. In saying “yes,” the mouth becomes an opening to the most respectful, grateful, and giving ways of relating to the other and relating the other to the self. By contrast, Plato eats badly, the worker-ape in the Republic being cannibalistically consumed by a body that does not share what it eats, and with what it eats, but eats entirely on its own. In place of the violence of Platonic incorporation, Derrida argues instead there must be the lesser violence of a regulated introjection, the opening to which is located by way of an interrogation of all those places left open by cultures and discourses for a noncriminal putting to death.

Here too, the question of democracy is inseparable from the question of the animal: with both, one must learn to eat well understood as “learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat.” This, suggests Derrida, is the definition of infinite hospitality. It is also what Plato decries so vehemently as a democratic sensitivity – an infinite sensitivity – to the possible freedom for all. The interminable mourning or introjection advocated by Derrida thus by no means closes itself off to the repressed dreams and desires for revolutionary reorganisation: rather, interminable mourning is that which refuses to succumb to the illegal fantasy of incorporation.

Ultimately, we find ourselves brought back to the question of instinct. Plato understands the potential abandonment of the labourer to the democratic instinct as an abandoning of the human self to the animal realm. He, of course, can see in this abandonment of the properly human only an illness, a madness of the body that is both consequence and cause of the disease that is democracy, requiring the vigilance of a power at once diagnostic and repressive. The Platonic Guardian, in short, ensures the closed mouth of the worker, which Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.”

For us, however, things are different. Contrary to the entire Western humanist tradition, we find here an unlikely and unruly valorisation of instinct. Rather than excluding other animals, instinct here is essential to the revolutionary articulation of a fully democratic socius that necessarily includes other animals. Again, Bataille gives us a sense of this when he writes of how “terror and atrocious suffering turn the mouth into the organ of rending screams. … the overwhelmed individual throws back his head while frenetically stretching his neck in such a way that the mouth becomes, as much as possible, an extension of the spinal column, in other words, in the position it normally occupies in the constitution of animals. As if explosive impulses were to spurt directly out of the body through the mouth, in the form of screams.”

Sensitivity to atrocious suffering and, above all, sensitivity to nonhuman suffering is, insofar as it potentially reveals the shared instinct for freedom, the greatest danger to the oligarchic constitution of the Platonic Republic. This alone, given the atrocious suffering of other animals everywhere around us today, should give us sufficient food for thought – in itself a sensitivity to the need for shared nourishment, for eating well, understood as that which has the potential to liberate the repressed desires of an authentic democracy to come. Unwittingly no doubt, what Plato’s discourse on the ideal Republic lets slip is that sensitivity to the freedom of other animals is an essential first step in the constitution of a truly free society. Such a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.


About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

3 responses to “Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic

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