The Bewilderment of Pentheus On the attractivity of the state of nature (and on the state of nature as attraction)

The appeal of horror 

The fascination for the state of nature is deeply anchored in the libidinal economy of our time. An omnipresent obsession with the more-than-real prevails: with the extraordinary and the unsettled, with limits and a possible overstepping of these. You see it in films and television formats. The popularity of reality television demonstrates this, just like the search for hard kicks in night life and the leisure sector. The fascination for collective situations that are experienced as thrilling because they appear to make a direct contact with an absolute kind of ‘outside’ dominates both passively (in the ‘viewer’) and actively (in the ‘participant’) – with wildness, naked life, a state of nature before or pastculture and society. Of course, this is not new.

Shall we begin with the Greeks? There is a direct affinity between ‘The Bacchae’ and ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Expedition Robinson’. In ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides Dionysus has, in his own words, ‘hunted women, driven with stimulants, out of their houses’ to force Thebes to recognise his cult; and now they stay, deprived of their senses in the mountains. And the choir of women is completely under the spell, they sing: ‘…the whole earth will soon be dancing, when the roaring god leads his festive flock, to the mountains, to the mountains, where a crowd of women is waiting, driven away from their looms and shuttles by Dionysus’s goads’. Pentheus, the king, wants to know what the women, led by his mother, do during the Bacchus ritual. Pentheus embodies (male) rationality, but is tempted by the (female) possibility of ecstasy and loss of oneself, which he also wants to know, understand and control. The stranger who introduces the rites – no less than Dionysus himself who has taken on human form –, is captured and presented. He tries to dissuade the king from the idea of taking the sword against the bacchae (because no sword or shield is capable of dealing with a maenads led by a god). But Pentheus is immediately tempted when the stranger suggests spying on them, although he emphasises that it is forbidden for non-initiates to attend the rites. When Pentheus insists, Dionysus disguises him as a woman, so that he can look at the ecstatic women like a voyeur. However, the women feel that they are being spied on and thinking that it is a mountain lion (everyone hallucinates in this play), tear the intruder to pieces. When they come back to their senses they are filled with horror.

Aristotle interprets precisely this moment of tragic horror as the realisation of tragedy: horror triggers catharsis. Horror acts as purification, as chastening, because the horror is transferred to the viewer and turns to compassion. Whatever one may think about the Aristotelian hypothesis of catharsis, tragedy – at least this tragedy – is a journey into the abyss, a rite of passage through excitement and horror about the state of nature, wildness, the unregulated or anomic. The abject ‘other’ of the state of nature lies behind, beneath and between each civility or all culture, which never can be anything other than a shallow varnish or perhaps a suit of armour, a cocoon around the biological body. The body itself is the state of nature in our midst: zoë, naked life.

Is the bacchic drama a remote precursor of ‘Big Brother’? Pentheus violated a prohibition and was punished; in contrast, the television viewer accepts a widely extended invitation to yield to a voyeuristic desire to watch, a fascination for the pornography of the (consciously) disordered society. The bacchae celebrated a ritual, dedicated to a god and with fixed rules of play, while the participants in ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Temptation Island’, or the night-owls who dance on endlessly on a cocktail of heavy beats and pep drugs, are more like lonely atoms who hope to meet their genuine, natural self in moments of complete loss of self. And yet a line does run solidly from ‘The Bacchae’ to the reality TV formats. What keeps it all together is our fascination for the outer and undersides of our anthropological condition.

The human being of humanism is a polite and linguistic being, with his body stamped by socio-cultural forms of life in such a way that the reality of naked life appears to be erased. However, every human being always also remains a prelinguistic child, a mere biological body or, in Freudian terms, an unconscious reservoir of libidinal impulses (an ‘Id’) that is never fully obedient to the reality principle (the ‘Ego’) and the interiorised demands of society (the ‘Super Ego’). The human being was therefore always an oxymoron: both human and non-human, both natural and unnatural – both bios (formed life, way of life) and zoé(mere life, naked life). Hence the famous metaphysical definition by Aristotle of the human being as ‘the living being that has language’. The human being shares the simple fact of being alive with all other living creatures, whereas his linguistic ability in contrast makes him a zoön politikon, a member of the polis that is endowed with the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, the just and unjust. Humanism was therefore always rather more moralily than social science: a call to become a full human being. This call must be constantly repeated as a struggle against ‘the facts’: we are mesmerised by the biological. For his inhumanity or natural condition continues to fascinate the human being. It conjures up the possibility of an authentic and sovereign life, a reconciliation with ‘the total Other’ (Adorno). This is the other humanism, that of ‘The Bacchae’ or, more contemporaneously, of ‘Big Brother’: not a division but a transparent relationship between a culture and its excrement, what it suppresses and therefore pushes for (re)cognition. The greater part of the avant-garde wanted to explore and expose this inhuman. According to Walter Benjamin, living in a glass house was moral exhibitionism, a vice for liberated people.

Both ‘The Bacchae’ and ‘Big Brother’ play on the division that we are, the human, all too human fascination for what lies past the limits of the (normal) human existence. Because we are unnatural animals (we are cultivated, social, linguistic), wildness is the contrary of ourselves, of our culture and our society, and thus exciting – despite any horror. The decisive difference between ‘The Bacchae’ and ‘Big Brother’ is that the confrontation with naked life as a mass spectacle is staged: as something worth being seen by everyone, and not just by the initiates and the god for whom the cult is established – it is significant that the slope where the wildness and later the gruesome murder take place is never depicted in the tragedy about the bacchae . In ‘Big Brother’ or the ‘Robinsion Expedition’ the reverse is true. Where a public ‘one’ views what a private ‘one’ does, an anomic anonymity is created that inadvertently recalls the situation of the camp guard who watches how a prisoner disrobes with difficulty – but here it is voluntary, swift, and with a sunbed tanned body. This generalised fascination for the transgressive and ‘the outside’ that is deeply anchored in the libidinal economy of our time may indicate a premonition: the possibility of a coming state of nature. Just like Pentheus, we are all willy-nilly disaster tourists to a certain degree. We therefore call this fascination the beWILDerment of Pentheus. He confuses the obscene of seeing with the genuine ecstasy of the delirious bacchae. His bewilderment is also a state of wildness. He wants to empathise with the cult of intoxication but he is already lost in the moment that he disguises himself and thus sheds his rationality to take part in an initiation, in rites that are not intended for him – in transition rites from culture to wildness and back. The ‘Expedition Robinson’ is a trek of this type, but without a ritual structure. And the spirit of the game is: the war of everyone against everyone. Let that be precisely the standard formula of the state of nature. Back to Nature, return to Hobbes.

The language-less, naked life as a first state of nature 

The human being is a disjunctive synthesis, a mysterium coniunctionis, an uncomfortable combination of culture and nature which has been understood from antiquity as a strange mingling of soul and body, of humanity and bestiality, of linguistic capacity and object nature. But: ‘what is the human being, when he is always the location – and simultaneously the result – of continuous divisions and caesuras?’ (Agamben). The human being assigns himself certain ‘typically human’ characteristics, and then he realises repeatedly that he is still ‘something different’, does not coincide completely with the self-description in terms of linguistic ability, rationality, morality.... Perhaps, as Giorgio Agamben also suggests (in The Open: Man and Animal), it therefore indeed matters not thinking the coupling or mysterious synthesis of these characteristics and their opposites but rather their radical decoupling, i.e. their disjunction. Eh voilà, the human being: a figure of thought or topos, whose essence is an empty conjunction – ‘culture and nature’, ‘human and inhuman’.

We are under the spell of society and its language, which let appear the contrary of the socially and culturally developed (the bios), and also of reasonableness and the rationally understandable, as formless life (zoé); and in particular do not allow its appearance, covers it with clothes, words, manners, rituals, hides it in taboos and expels it to ‘the private’ (‘the private/privy’ is an old word for toilet in Flemish). The formlessness of mere life is a language effect: what cannot be symbolised, appears within the symbolic order as an opaque pap. We call this ‘Real’ (Lacan) or ‘Outside’ (Blanchot, Foucault…) the first state of nature, in which ‘nature’ is synonymous with the prelinguistic reality. It is the state of the baby that babbles and enjoys polymorphously, a state that we make contact with in the moment of orgasm or ‘the small dead’, which according to Bataille momentarily repairs ‘the continuity of existence’, briefly suspends the distinction between human life and mere life.

This first state of nature is, of course, a limit concept, a real fiction, a fictitious reality. Fictitious, because no ‘outside language’ exists: the human being can at most stammer, not remove the glasses of language to actually inspect the Real. Kant already knew this: ‘The thing itself is an unknown’. We cannot look beyond the limits of language or society, which does not mean that the Real never pierces through the symbolic order temporarily. However, every genuine contact with the Real, such as in a situation of sudden danger of death, is traumatic and results in a shock, in an aphasia or speechlessness, in an inability to speak or symbolise. But the first state of nature is also real, and exactly within language: every language includes its ‘outside’ by giving words a referential force. The inexpressible exists in language via the word ‘inexpressible’. ‘The body’, ‘the universe’… and thus also ‘nature’ are all indications for what eternally falls outside language, because language includes it as ‘outside’. This is the case at least until the time that the universe will be changed into a computer network. The state of nature is even contained in the most trans-humanistic techno-utopia.

Agamben frequently suggests that naked life, and so the zoé, is mere biological life. But the expression only makes sense by relating it to the oxymoron that the human being is, as Agamben also does in many other passages. The notion then refers to a ‘zone of non-differentiation in which – like a missing link, which is always lacking, because it is already there virtually – the link between the humane and animality, between the human being and non-human being, must occur’. This zone is represented in the conjunction ‘and’, which simultaneously couples and decouples the opposing terms that the human being embodies. In this disjunctive conjunction there appears ‘neither an animal, nor a human life, but only a life isolated and excluded life from itself – only a naked life’. Within naked life a distinction can no longer be made between human and inhuman, culture and nature. It is the life of the camp resident, and also, albeit less extreme, that of the illegal settlements, the slums of the big cities. The horror of this life makes speechless. Naked life is not expressible, and therefore not testifiable, which connects it with our first state of nature of language-less.

Naked life is also at stake in bio-politics, which has in modernity a multiple form and, in particular, not a purely negative character. Naked life is included in the legal order through human rights, and it is monitored and normalized by an unceasing medicalization (also literally: medics define the lower and upper limits of human life). And the post-fordist economy appropriates it as a production force via the demand for unbridled life creativity. The latter may surprise but: as an empty hybrid, naked life is also pure potentiality, pure capacity that does not realise or determine itself within a singular expression, a specific series of actions or, more generally, a particular form of life. It is precisely for this reason that one cannot distinghuish within naked life between culture and nature, humanity and bestiality, private and public existence … Bio-politics claims this naked generic life of pure potentiality, both through the extremely violent state of exception of the camp, as well as in the form of an economically usable factor of production. According to Agamben, it is the vanishing point of all politics so far; in the opinion of Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt, bio-politics primarily acquires form within the new production relations of post-fordism, in which work and life, productivity and generic capacities (ofspeaking, co-operation, imagining, etc.) form an inextricalble knot.

The state of nature as dystopia: Hobbes

Where there is a language, there is society: addressing another person means effectively creating a social relationship. Linguistic communication forms the fuel of every society and this remains so in the digital network society. All communication, and so every living together, is always also permeated by inequality of power and thus the possibility of conflicts. This is ‘the political’: the co-existence of sociability and power, which also as a rule generates a political association, and so ‘politics’. Politics – stated traditionally: the Sovereign (the King, the People, etc.) – order the political and ensures general pacification. This happens via generally binding decisions which usually have the form of laws or legal regulations. Thus we come to what we could call the second state of nature.

This second state of nature is the one in which people deal with each other without political meta-regulation: neither Law nor Sovereign exists (everyone is a sovereign). Anarchy literally reigns (lack of principles, lack of norms, lack of laws). Once again this is a limit concept: the second state of nature is the real fiction of a life before or after politically organised society. Fictitious, because no one can look ‘before’ the conjunction of politics and society, nor imagine a life that is not only exceptionally but permanently situated outside ordered society. Aristotle also calls man a zoön politikon and speaking animal in one breath. Man knows of good and evil because he is a speaking animal, and he engages in politics because of his knowledge of good and evil. The Penguin edition of Politeia therefore provides the chapter from book 1 in which this famous passage stands with the title ‘The State exists by Nature’. According to Aristotle, the polis arises from natural association, and not from war. There is man and woman, and master and slave: these two asymmetric couples together comprise the household in the economy of the oikos. The various oikia form a clan via family connections and soon a village, and not much later different villages form an association, a polis. This association is, admittedly, asymmetrical. The slaves are not citizens and the Athenians were certainly not gentle with Melos in Thucydides: when the Melians refused to join the Athenian alliance, all of the adult men in the city were killed and the women sold as slaves. Nonetheless, in view of what is understood as the purposive evolution of this tangle or this ‘association’, the polis or city state is something that grows(from the lap of the oikos) and therefore is natural according to Aristotle. But the second, political state of nature is also real, because it is always presentwithin society as a possibility. This virtual reality is the subject of countless film scenarios, but it is sufficient to think of the disruptive effects of a big electricity breakdown, such as the New York black out in 1977 (with massive looting and arson) to grasp the reality aspect of the second state of nature: a sudden implosion of all social structures, the elimination of the monopoly of violence, the breakdown of all control and repression, an explosion of violence, robbery and arson, a destructive orgy, total anarchy in its most negative form.

In modern political thinking the figure of the state of nature is inextricably linked to the names of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1758). The former dedicates a short chapter to it – the thirteenth – in hisLeviathan (1651) under the title ‘On the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery’ (we quote the original spelling). Rousseau is definitively more circumstantial: the first part of his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (1755) deals with ‘the natural state’, and the second section covers the transformation of this simultaneously idyllic and harsh reality in an initially social and then political association. Rousseau knew Hobbes’ work and refers to it regularly. But he fires his sharpest arrows without naming the intended target: Rousseau chiefly polemicises on a subdued basis with Hobbes. The contrast between Rousseau’s and Hobbes’ state of nature is thus also vast. For Hobbes the state of nature is a hell, whereas for Rousseau it embodies an almost paradisiacal form of life despite all possible shortcomings in the light of later developments in the history of humanity. Hobbes and Rousseau paint completely different portraits of the state of nature because they use this figure of thought to legitimise contrasting political constructs. Hobbes emphasises the need for an absolute Sovereign, while Rousseau argues in the exact opposite direction. Rousseau therefore became a hero to the French revolutionaries and, later, hippies and fans of well-being; anyone who now reads Hobbes hears in contrast a choir of conservative voices, varying from Carl Schmitt to Leo Strauss to the neo-conservative think tanks that count in the Bush government policy. 

‘Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind’, Hobbes begins. In the state of nature everyone can therefore cherish the same hope of realising personal goals. This sounds attractive, but it is calculated outside the three natural passions: they ensure a continuing reciprocal discord, a continuous threat of a fight for life and death. Firstly it is the pursuit of scarce but desired goods that triggers violence to make a person master of another person’s land, women or animals. Hobbes’ man in his natural state is reflexive, he knows that others will do to him as he does to them. This stimulates a second natural passion, that of mutual suspicion. Expressed in contemporary speech, the consequence is that the mechanism of the ‘pre-emptive strike’ enters into action, i.e. to act oneself as the first aggressor in order to put as many potential aggressors out of action preventively. Finally men in their natural state also know the passion of pride. Any expression of contempt, regardless of how small, is therefore repaid with violence. Hobbes concludes that people, during the time that they do not live under a common power that enforces respect from all, live in a state that we call war, and actually a state of war by everyone against everyone. In the original the famous text with the standard formula reads as follows: ‘Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man against every man’.

The word ‘Warre’ – Hobbes even writes it after the famous formula in capitals: ‘WARRE’ – addresses the imagination here, because it refers (in Dutch at least) to warrigheid, the general beWILDerment that belongs to the state of nature. And indeed, the Online Etymology Dictionary cites the following series: wyrre,werre, from Frankish werra, also used as werso or werran; in German, ir refers to verwirren, ‘to confuse, perplex. Cognates [or people who know] suggest the original sense was “to bring into confusion”’. Ergo: war is beWILDerment; a state that perplexes, that ‘makes people wild’ and dumbfounds. This madness of running wild is visible in the bacchae as murderous amazons and also in the legendary wild warriors, the Beserkers who run amok (leading to the expression ‘going beserk’) and who embody the violent intoxication of war, just like Rambo in their tracks.

Hobbes continues that the notorious war of everyone against everyone is not a continual actual state of war, but primarily exists in the form of a continuing and generalised threat of war, ‘a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known’. Of course, this condition of existence is not very beneficial for effective work and mutual exchange trading, and not at all for the development of the sciences or arts. Even more, the state of nature knows ‘no Society’ (although Hobbes suggests that families do exist). But the worst of all, according to Hobbes, is a ‘continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’.

It is pointless to complain morally about ‘the ill condition, which men by meer Nature is actually place in’. After all there is no Sovereign, and so also no law – and ‘where no Law, no Injustice’. Good and evil, or ‘Mine and Thine’, therefore do not apply either: ‘Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall virtues’. Men in their natural state only become moral beings after the simultaneous and common transfer of their capacity to exercise power to one man or assembly, who consequently changes into a Sovereign. This transfer of power is thus not based also on moral considerations but, again, on certain passions and reasonable insight (Hobbes’ Leviathan is largely based on a mechanistic psychology). ‘The Passions that encline men to Peace’, thus Hobbes writes, ‘are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and Hope by their Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace [or natural laws], upon which men may be drawn to agreement’. The state of nature may therefore be a hell, but the human being also has the necessary capacity from nature to escape it. But why would he then not immediately end ‘the Naturall Condition’? Why go through hell if one has both the required passions and the reasonableness to end this from the outset? Hobbes leaves this question unanswered, and this silence brings down the entire construction immediately as a fiction, as a political-philosophical fable. Or perhaps not? 

Anyone who has doubts about the unsocial nature of people must consider that his action usually shows little trust in others: ‘when taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him’. Of course, Hobbes also clearly realises that mutual distrust in a politically pacified society differs from ‘a warre of every man against every man’. He therefore adds a few other arguments in favour of the existence of a state of nature, which however do not make his plea much more solid straight away. Firstly, generalised war is not also a universal condition and origin of organised political society. ‘I believe it was never generally so, over all the world; but there are many places where they live so now’, writes Hobbes, who supports this last assertion further with a reference to the life of ‘the savage people in many places of America’. Apart from this call on both literal and figurative Indian stories, it is particularly strange to mention a state of nature and simultaneously to admit that it may not be a universal condition that necessarily precedes the establishment of a sovereign authority or a state. Hobbes assumes this universality and necessity in the rest of his argument in Leviathan, which does not particularly make more convincing the personally expressed doubt. Finally Hobbes also expresses an ex negative argument: ‘Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there no common Power to feare; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government, use to degenerate into, in a civill Warre’. Again this is lame reasoning, a not very convincing comparison. What does the disintegration of a politically organised society say about life in the state of nature that precedes every other form of political order? 

‘Uz-liuga’: war as the state of exception 

Is war, as the second state of nature, the origin (and end) of all history? Perhaps yes – the Bible just suggests the first: the expulsion from Paradise is the beginning of history. Prior to this Adam and Eve lived outside history, in an eternal ‘now’ that did not have any work and therefore no culture or economy, no technology or politics. That was so paradisiacal, but also so unhistorical. History begins with Adam’s sons, who only know of Paradise through hearsay. One could say that Cain and Abel are the first real human beings. As known, they clashed with each other: history begins with a fratricide. Hobbes’ myth of origin is in line with the Cain and Abel story. He summarises his pessimistic picture of man in De Cive in the formula that he took from Plautus: homo homini Lupus: the human being is a wolf for other human being (and this is why we need a sovereign to tame us). Kant paraphrased this thought: ‘Man is an animal that needs a master in his relationship with his fellow man’. Herder, in line with Rousseau, answered aptly: ‘The one who needs a master in his relationship with his fellow man is an animal’.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is predatory state, generalised civil war. To break this spiral of violence, people conclude a pact in which they jointly transfer their power to a single Sovereign who will guarantee their security. Thus begins society in the strict sense: the politically ordered living together. Against Hobbes, Rousseau put forward that the second state of nature (which is not one according to Rousseau), as well as the need for political order, will only arise with the generalisation of private property and the ensuing difference between poor and rich. We will return to Rousseau soon; let us first follow in the tracks of Carl Schmitt to understand the state of nature in Hobbes’ view more effectively.

According to the well-known opening sentence from Schmitt’s Political Theology, the Sovereign is ‘he who decides about the state of exception’. The latter is a paradox: the Sovereign stipulates by law that the laws no longer apply, e.g. because of a state of emergency or of war. He suspends the law, which technically and legally amounts to a division between the ‘force of law’ and the law. According to Agamben (in State of Exception), the state of exception ‘defines a “state of the law” in which, on the one hand, the norm is in force but is not longer (it has no “force”) and, on the other, acts that do not have the value of law acquire its “force”’. In a wor, the regular laws no longer apply in the state of exception, but the army and police can lawfully do deeds that are illegal in normal times.

War and the state of exception imply each other. Both characterise the decision-making competency of a Sovereign, and both usually go together: a war – or threatening danger of war, whether this comes from outside or inside (insurrection, civil war) – legitimises the state of exception fully or partially. In the latter case there are exceptional laws which, for example, give full powers to the executive or fully or partially neutralise constitutionally anchored rights and freedoms. The state of exception comes down to the temporary suspension of constitutional rights, such as the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association. It is frequently linked to a ban on gatherings, the establishment of a curfew, and usually also with a limitation of privacy, such as the possibility of house searches without a search warrant, the breach of the privacy of correspondence, and eavesdropping. Derrida summarises the state of exception as the suspension of legal order to defend the legal order, or also: suspending democracy in order to defend democracy. He calls it (in Rogues) ‘the self-immunity of democracy’, the immunity system that attacks itself.

Exception laws have been introduced in several Western democracies from the 1970s, initially in the wake of so-called far-left wing terrorism and then while citing so-called Islamist terrorism (in addition, governing by authorisation has been used frequently by invoking a deteriorated economic situation). The recent acceleration after 9/11 of – to phrase it gently – debatable measures (expressed at its most gentle), in particular in the US and UK, fits in with a more general reprofiling of the neo-liberal state. It no longer primarily pursues a more just redistribution of social wealth, but operates first and formemost as a security state. We are thus back to Leviathan by Hobbes, who in chapter 17 defines the Sovereign as ‘One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence’ (in the original text, this whole sentence is printed in italics). The contemporary security state operates like Hobbes’ Leviathan. This state does not use the fiction of a state of nature or a ‘warre of every man against every man’. It tallies with the Schmittian paradigm of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’, ‘we’ and ‘they’, usually in a moralised form (like ‘the Axis of Evil). The ‘War on Terror’ is a planetary state of exception.

‘In the beginning was the Word’, says the Bible, which thus also adopts a position immediately – more particularly at a cosmological level – against what we previously called the first state of nature. In the beginning there was the polis, because human beings spoke with each other, says Aristotle; this assertion does not refute the Biblical emphasis on the performativity of divine language, but completes it for human society. How can we then think of war if it is not at the origin of politics? As a sovereign and therefore political decision that disbands: social disintegration is not a natural fact, not even a social but a political fact.

According to Van Dale’s Etymological Dictionary, the word ‘oorlog’ [‘war’] occurs in Dutch from around 1200. Middle Dutch has the word ‘orloch’, and old High German the expression ‘uzliuga’. The latter word is a composition of the prefix ‘uz’ from Germanic and the Gothic ‘liuga’; ‘uz’ means as much as the current usual Dutch prefix ‘ont-’ [‘de-‘], while ‘liuga’ means a marriage or, more general, bond. Put together this therefore produces the basic meaning of ‘dissolution of an agreement’. In addition, there is also the Old Saxon ‘orlag’, the Old High German ‘urlag’, and the Old English ‘orloeg’; these words are related to the old High German word ‘irlegen’, which means deposit. Van Daleconcludes from this that it involves a ‘fate as set down for the human being’ (sic). Of course, this introduces an ambiguity: the word ‘oorlog’ [‘war’] apparently has a twofold semantic origin. On the one hand, war is a fate set down – set aside – for human beings, while on the other hand it is also ‘uz-liuga’ or dis-bandment. Etymologies may perhaps always be somewhat unreliable, but they also indicate the way towards a deep-lying understanding of the world that is stored in language as a huge archive.

The original meaning of the word ‘oorlog’ [‘war’] perhaps offers the best definition of the phenomenon: it is a human fate, a fatal, imposed dissolution of the normal order – of society and its political order to the benefit of the state of exception. War is indeed the disbandment of normal social order and its political-judicial anchoring, in a word: of the nomos (the Norm, the Law). In the normal condition, one cannot kill, only the Sovereign has this right: the monopoly of violence, together with the taxation monopoly, forms the basis of every political order of society. In contrast, one must kill in war in the Sovereign’s name (anyone who refuses this is a deserter and is usually shot). The Sovereign is also the dissolver: he is the only one that can kill without murdering and generalises this right selectively through the declaration of war.In short, the Sovereign – the President, the National Assembly… – is the origin of war, of the ‘fate as set down for human beings. In the beginning there was the bond, but it is threatened from inside by the authority that both binds and disbands: in the figure of the Sovereign, order and disorder, nomos and anomie come together. There is an oxymoron, a disjunctive conjunction, again in the issue. The imposed, binding disbandment of bonds is the core of beWILDerment, of the bewilderment specific to war, ’the WARRE’.

The state of nature as utopia: Rousseau

Back to Nature, return to… Rousseau – and then the image of the state of nature switches compared with Hobbes’ outline to such an extent that we can speak of a paradigm shift: ‘Let us conclude that, wandering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without shelter, without war, and without ties, with no need of his fellow men, nor any desire to harm them, perhaps without ever recognizing anyone individually, savage man, self-sufficient and subject to few passions, had only the sentiments and knowledge appropriate to that state; that he felt only his true needs and looked only at what he believed he had an interest in seeing; and that his intelligence made no more progress than his vanity’.

It is immediately clear that in Rousseau’s view, savage man was a primitive being. He had few desires and therefore also a barely developed thinking capacity. According to Rousseau, we only cultivate our intellect when we have to think up means to provide for our needs or to satisfy our passions. A vain creature – in Rousseau’s opinion, self-love is the outstanding social evil – continually thinks up strategies to impress others, man in his nature in contrast was solitary and found the little that he needed within hand’s reach. As a result, he also did not look far ahead: the observed present was adequate. He did not know property, nor a house or offspring, and was not burdened with a rioting imagination. Of course, savage man was not unfamiliar with physical desire, as distinct from love. It was simply satisfied between times, after which everyone went on her or his lonely path again. Words were superfluous, and the possible begot child was suckled by the mother after birth and left behind once it was able to look for food itself.

In Rousseau’s hypothetical natural condition, the first and second state of nature coincide completely. Man in his natural state was completely asocial, he lived a solitary life and made no relationships with the human beings that he encountered incidentally in his nomadic wanderings. In brief, Rousseau takes the second state of nature literally: it is not only pre- but ‘un-social’. The first human beings were therefore also in what we previously called the first state of nature. They lacked language, at most they uttered instinctive cries. Their intellectual capacity also remained undeveloped as a result, because forming any type of abstract ideas is impossible without the corresponding words.

The savage deprived of language and social intercourse knew neither god nor commandment, the state of nature was free of morals. But what did natural man do when he accidentally came across a fellow being who, for example, had just caught a large fish? Attack and rob him or go around him in a large circle? ‘Above all, let us not conclude with Hobbes that for want of any idea of goodness, man is naturally evil’, says Rousseau. The fact Hobbes’ state of nature does not experience any peace is because the author of Leviathanprojects passions such as competition, mistrust and pride onto it, whereas they only can develop through a social bond. Rousseau agrees with Hobbes that the savage pursued self-preservation, but notes that there is ‘another principle that Hobbes did not perceive’. This is compassion and the associated aversion to seeing living beings suffering or dying. This natural feeling replaced the action of laws, customs or virtues in the state of nature. It ensured that everyone acted according to the principle ‘do what is good for you with the least possible harm to others’. The state of nature was thus not at all a war of everyone against everyone. There were conflicts, for example concerning food, but they remained limited and did not escalate into a general bloodbath because the interplay between self preservation and compassion restrained the first human beings from vengeance and other useless violence. It sounds idyllic, almost paradisiacal, but of course Rousseau makes exactly the same movement of thought that he blames Hobbes for. Indeed, how could something like compassion, even if it is an innate feeling, develop outside any social bond? Rousseau’s portrait of natural compassion indicates a sensibility and tact that only a highly refined person has. Rousseau projects his social disposition into the state of nature, thus repeating the error of all previous writers about the state of nature. However, it is not an error but an impossibility. We have already said it: we simply cannot image the original first and second state of nature, except precisely in the form of a reading backwards from the existing social relationships.

Rousseau puts up a wall between the state of nature and society. The first is the anti-image of the second, which again illustrates its projective nature. The state of nature is synonymous with a human being minus all of the characteristics that make him a social being: no social relationships, no language, no morals, and of course no organised economy or polity. The outcome is an antinomy: either the state of nature or society, with the result that Rousseau must call on a deus ex machina. This happens in the brilliant opening sentence of the second part of hisDiscourse on Inequality: ‘The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying ”This is mine”, and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society’. Differently from in Hobbes, the human being therefore did not jump from the state of nature to the organised political space of the sovereign state bond. According to Rousseau, the latter was preceded by ‘civil society’ or the establishment of property relationships, which Hobbes already assumes in his brief outline of the state of nature. Rousseau repeats that Hobbes’ natural state is therefore not one: Hobbes’ savage is a proud and rivalling owner, a constantly suspicious bourgeois that seeks his own honour and advantage without fuss – in a word: a wild capitalist. That could fit with paleo-anthropology: making war is linked to the arrival of sedentary farmers; nomadic hunters could flee during skirmishes, but the farmers had a fixed territory that had to be defended (e.g. against nomads that did not accept the occupation of hunting grounds).

For Rousseau property is the source of all evil. Private ownership destroyed natural equality, created rich and poor, and thus generated a lasting conflict in the first human society. Of course, this did not happen in one step. Firstly, there developed separate families; in a second phase there was a continuing neighbourhood, so that the families merged to become villages. People met, enjoyed singing and dancing, and began to compare themselves with others. This led to both the first moral consciousness and the vice par excellence: people became vain and sought standing. Just as in Leviathan, the dialectic of respect and contempt leads to revenge and cruelties. ‘This is precisely the stage most of the savage peoples known to us have reached’, says Rousseau. Some other writers – Hobbes is not mentioned by name – confuse it with the state of nature and conclude ‘that man is naturally cruel and that authority has to be exercised over him to make him gentler, although nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state’. Actually, natural compassion continued to play through in the second development phase of humanity, which restrained self-love. This only changed with the discovery of the characteristics of iron and the generalisation of farming. There came an initial form of division of labour and barter, and in particular property became normal. People worked their own land and enjoyed the proceeds, and could call themselves the owner of personally made objects.

The natural differences in talents took on a new meaning with the adoption of property: ‘the strongest did more work, the most skillful turned his to better advantage, the most ingenious found ways to curtail his work; the farmer needed more iron, or the backsmith more wheat; and, by working equally, one earned a great deal, while the other had barely enough to live on. Thus, natural inequality spreads imperceptibly along with contrived inequality’. Rousseau notes that all the rest can be guessed, and his succinct history of humanity does indeed take a predictable turn. The rich wanted to be richer, not due to need but simply for self-satisfaction. They started to fight against their neighbours, enslaved the poor and the weak, and established slavery. Some of the dispossessed resisted and became bandits who made life difficult for the rich. ‘Between the right of the strongest and the right of the first occupant arose a perpetual conflict which came to an end only in fights and murders. Nascent society made way for the most horrible state of war’. The reference is clear, even without mentioning a name. According to Rousseau, Hobbes’ supposed state of nature is simply the outcome of the unrestrained hunger for profit – which itself ensued from the interplay between private property and self-elevation – and the destitution of the poor. This characterisation can also be found partially in Hobbes, but he is silent (and this may be sai to be revealing) about its premise: people are private owners. Anyone who reads Leviathan via the Discourse on Inequality immediately discovers this blind spot in the English philosopher’s primary psychological argument. Precisely because Rousseau does have an eye for the disruptive role of property and, in particular, its unequal distribution, he does not talk of a ‘war of every man against every man’ either. In the civil society that had entered war, the rich were against the poor and the few against the many.

The apotheosis comes a few paragraphs after Rousseau has described ‘the most horrible state of war’. According to him, this disastrous situation mainly led the rich to think about it. They were to realise that their usurpations were barely justified and the state of permanent war was very bad for them – ‘although all risked their lives, they alone risked their property’. To turn the tide, the rich ‘finally conceived the most carefully thought out plan that ever entered the human mind’. This plan was no more or less than Hobbes’ idea of a social contract, in which everyone to save his live would transfer his power to a Sovereign who would safeguard safety... apart from poperty rights. Without naming him again by name, Rousseau converts the author of Leviathan into a ventriloquist for the rich owner: ‘to this end [the transfer of power is meant], after having shown the horror of a situation which armed them against each other, which made their possessions as burdensome as their needs, and in which no one found safety either in poverty or in wealth, he easily invented plausible reasons for leading them to his goal. “Let us unite”, he said to them, “to protect the weak from suppression, to restrain the ambitious, and to ensure each person of the possession of what belongs to him. (…) In a word, instead of turning our forces against ourselves, let us assemble them into a supreme power which governs us according to wise laws, protects and defends all members of the association, repulses common ennemies, and maintains us in an eternal accord’. It reads like a perfect exercise in ideology critique: Hobbes’ construction presents the private interest of the propertied class as the general interest.