Political Theory

The Bull of Phalaris: Atrocity in the Canon

Kristofer Petersen-Overton Author ORCID home | opens in new tab Suffolk University


While political theory occasionally resembles a protracted discussion about violence, the same cannot be said for atrocity. Where something recognizable as atrocity does crop up in canonical texts, it tends to be characterized as a fundamentally extra-political phenomenon. The canon promotes a tautology: atrocity is extra-political and properly political violence is not atrocious. To begin my discussion of atrocity, I first consider the figure of the tyrant and tyrannical violence in Western political thought as a possible proxy issue for early thinking about transgressive violence. Of the many disquisitions on tyranny, Seneca’s distinction between ordinary cruelty and what he calls “bestial savagery” establishes the basis for a theory of atrocity, but it does not go far enough. I then survey canonical discussions of transgressive violence up to the present, emphasizing the recurring theme of non-instrumentality. Finally, I present a tentative formulation of atrocity that underscores its political nature.


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