- Cruel Delight: Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman
At the court of Brobdingnag, a land of (relative) giants, Gulliver describes to the King the European technology of gunpowder and its various uses in warfare. The horrified monarch is "amazed at how impotent and grovelling an Insect ... could entertain such inhuman ideas." The satire in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) is frequently multi-pronged, and if Gulliver's faith in the value of this technology is satirized, so too is the King's reaction. For, while this passage invokes inhumanity, a concept gaining currency in the early eighteenth century, it also exposes some key tensions. Why on earth should an insect, as the King deems Gulliver, not entertain inhuman ideas? The King's discourse makes plain that the inhuman is not simply the non-human, but (ironically) a particular mode of human desires and behaviours. How is it possible that some human behaviours can be deemed inhuman, and what is the logic that distinguishes proper human nature from its antithesis?
James Steintrager's Cruel Delight traces the discursive formations and transformations of the notion of inhumanity through the Enlightenment period. If pity increasingly becomes the mark of the human in the eighteenth century, as Steintrager contends, then the cruelly inhuman being—the moral monster—functions as one of humanity's constitutive outsides. As such, the drive to eliminate cruelty from the sphere of humanity ensures its import: "Crucially, the centrality of pity does not so much banish cruelty as determine its necessary place as an element of the communication system of eighteenth-century ethical discourse" (xiii). That the elevation of pity as the quintessential human trait should also elevate cruelty's importance is one of several paradoxes of inhumanity that Cruel Delight identifies. And this study's greatest strength is its sophisticated considerations of paradox. "Paradoxes and problems," Steintrager writes, "far from simply ending in interpretive impasses, tend to reveal discourse at its most intriguing and most productive" (xvii). Cruel Delight makes an elegant and compelling case for the productive power of paradox, and for the importance of cruelty in producing a social subject known as human.
The first of three sections, "The Inhuman," traces the rise of the notion of inhumanity in ethical philosophy at the beginning of the eighteenth century, taking as its launching point a 1699 definition of the inhuman by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. Other Enlightenment figures, such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, refine and qualify the idea of the inhuman, although Steintrager emphasizes that these thinkers share a fundamental position on inhumanity. Early Enlightenment writers tended to invoke the notion of inhumanity then deny its possibility: "Because inhumanity resists rational explanation, such monstrosity is thrust [End Page 232] into a non-existence of a rather odd kind. It does appear, or at least seems to appear, but only instantly to recede" (9). Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume all contend that disinterested cruelty—that is, cruelty for its own sake—does not exist; humans may appear to enjoy cruelty for its own sake, but never in fact do so. Apparent moral monstrosity is only apparent, the product of excessive or misdirected natural passions or an interested cruelty (such as one motivated by envy or revenge) displaced. Inhumanity remains strangely impossible in the early eighteenth century, even as it helps define the contours of the human.
The second section, "Curiosity Killed the Cat," considers the inhuman in visual arts and journalism, emphasizing William Hogarth's series of engravings The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751). Hogarth's narrative is "almost banal in its clarity," Steintrager writes (38): the protagonist Tom Nero begins by tormenting animals, moves on to killing a human, and ends up being dissected by the Royal College of Physicians. Cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to humans, and ultimately to the violent application of justice to the offender (or, the victimizing of the victimizer). Hogarth's rich background details and the parallels...