I'd Rather Just Devolve, Thank You: Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Ambiguous State of Nature
31 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 31 Aug 2010
Date Written: 2009
Thomas Hobbes famously used the State of Nature as a rhetorical device to justify his version of political society. By depicting the condition of humans without laws he enlisted the imagination of his reader to witness the horrors of a human world absent political order, creating in the reader a subjectivity receptive to Hobbes’s particular vision of sovereignty as supreme authority. But if Hobbes’s treatment of the State of Nature was profoundly unique, Leviathan was hardly the first text to make use of the asocial potential of humans in the service of a higher vision of the human good. In fact the first extant literary text in human history, the Epic of Gilgamesh, gives a vivid portrayal of the uncivilized human through the character of Enkidu, the rival and friend of Gilgamesh, as it reveals to its reader the human place in the cosmos. Examining the figure of Enkidu and the relation between his initial role as friend-to-animals and enemy of human civilization and his subsequent transformation into the fully human friend of Gilgamesh, we see a very different picture of political subjectivity than that portrayed in State of Nature tradition. Using the recent work of Giorgio Agamben as a foil in viewing this text, I argue that in Gilgamesh we find a concept of humanity that is both more porous and more tenuous than that seen in Hobbes and other State of Nature thinkers (though perhaps approaching Rousseau). Enkidu presents the spectacle of a living transitional figure between nature and culture who celebrates the achievements of political order while at the same time revealing (and lamenting) the costs of becoming human. In presenting to its readers this liminal personage the Epic is an education in the tragic sacrifice of animality and nature, both within and without. This sacrifice opens a gulf between humans and nature, but also renders both the linkages and discontinuities between the natural and political worlds highly visible, creating a political subjectivity that is more paradoxical and open to revision than we see in later social contract thinkers. Reading Gilgamesh reveals a vision of politics as the art of domestication, but it is a domestication whose explicitly tragic quality is an open invitation to question the norms of the human political order.
Keywords: State of Nature, Animal Studies, Gilgamesh, Mesopotamian Political Thought
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation