the social animal/ the animal society

“There was a time when all the body’s members/
rebelled against the belly;”

Thus begins Menenius Agrippa’s speech, in the first act of Coriolanus, Wyndham Lewis’ favorite among Shakespeare’s plays. Agrippa’s speech in praise of the belly is directed at the plebes, who are clamoring for bread, and threatening the aristocracy. Usually the aristocracy is thought of as the noble head – not the glutton’s paradise of the belly. But in Shakespeare’s time, it was the belly, distributing the wealth, rather than the head, commanding the commons, which was the tendency of the time. This gives the speech that odd twist in a play in which Coriolanus will flame out as a head, a severed, noble soldier, even though, ideologically, Coriolanus’ entire being is caught up in the most extreme version of the aristocratic ideal. Menenius Agrippa’s speech is a variant on the old notion of the chain of being – the notion that informs another speech directed at rebellion, this one given in Troilus and Cressida by Ulysses, where the point is directed against an aristocrat in revolt, much as Coriolanus was in revolt – that is, it was directed against Achilles. But in the degraded world of Troilus and Cressida, Achilles does not have the nobility that is inscribed in Coriolanus’ nature.

Thinking about the ‘extension of man’ embodied in the tool and the machine – the thesis that Hacking picks up from Canguilhem, as I was at pains to show in the last posts – connects with some notions I’ve been playing with in my research on happiness. Lately I’ve been following a radical critique of capitalism, founded ultimately on forms of alienation that recur in all spheres of capitalist social life. At the same time, the nineteenth century saw another critique of capitalism that emanated from its ideological defenders, the liberals. Where the radicals turned to alienation as the shadow that continually pursues the promise of happiness, the liberal critics turned to life. In the twentieth century, there were three phrases that became current that represented the outcome of this turn: Weber’s ‘life style’ – Wittgenstein’s ‘forms of life’ – and Scheler’s ‘life order’.

What I think I’m going to do is write a string of posts about the notion of the social animal, or the animal society, which is, I think, the locus within which the social, for liberal thinkers, dissolved into the vital. This dissolution happily divorced liberalism from its early tight bind with the rational. It rejoined a theme that one sees in Shakespeare – the theme that the social order is a more than metaphorical expression of larger orders – the division of labor is implicit in the very human body, the hierarchy of command is implicit in the revolution of the planets around the sun, etc. Of course, these ideas emerge in Plato’s Republic too. Shakespeare’s source for Coriolanus is Plutarch’s life, translated by North.


northanger said…
what about that pineal gland thingy?
roger said…
North, somewhere in the LI castle there's kicking around a post I wrote about animal spirits, which deals a bit with the pineal gland. I don't want to dwell too much, though, upon Descartes - I'm more interested in Darwin and Espinas, that crazy social psychologist, at the moment.