Werewolves and the State


In Society Must Be Protected (p. 53), Foucault writes

The role of the legislator is not the role of the legislator or the philosopher who belongs to neither side, a figure of peace and armistices who occupies the position dreamed of by Solon and that Kant is still dreaming of….

Fontana and Bertani (p. 283) interpret this as referring to

the ‘median position of referee, judge, or universal witness’ which has been that of philosophers from Solon to Kant.

Solon stands here with Kant as the archetypal philosophical universalist and man of peace. But Solon’s self image is not like that at all. He represented his mediation this way:

That was why I stood out like a wolf at bay amidst a pack of hounds, defending myself against attacks from every side…. I set myself up as a barrier in the debatable land between two hostile parties. Linforth, IX and XI, p. 139;
 from Aristotle’s The Constitution of Athens.)

In the words of Anhalt (p. 134)

Solon’s simile recognizes the efficacy of the symbolic ‘wolf’, a kind of pharmakos or scapegoat, for the promotion of social cohesion, and gives the tradition a twist, for the poet takes the role upon himself. He transforms the wolf symbol into the hero necessary for the preservation of his society.

In other words, the bringer of order (Solon) was like a wolfish outcast from civilization and eater of men, or perhaps a werewolf — a pharmakos like Socrates in Derrida’s Pharmakon of Plato. Perhaps this squares with Agamben’s werewolf (Homo Sacer, p 107):

The [temporary] transformation of the werewolf corresponds perfectly to the state of exception, during which (necessarily limited) time the city is dissolved and men enter into a zone in which they are no longer distinct from beasts.

Agamben (p. 31) does cite Solon, but not the wolf metaphor:

with the force of the nomos I have connected violence Bian and justice Dikē (in Lindforth IX, p 135: “These things I accomplished with arbitrary action, bringing force to the support of the dictates of justice….”)

and also cites a werewolf passage which Anhalt has cited (p. 132):

The story goes that whoever tastes of one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitable transformed into a wolf. Thus when the leader of the mob (dēmos), seeing the multitude devoted to his orders, does not know how to abstain from the blood of his tribe…. will it not then be necessary that he either be killed by his enemies or become a tyrant and be transformed from a man into a wolf? Republic 565d-e; Homo Sacer, p.108.

So anyway: the werewolf is Solon (the founder of Western Civilization), Socrates, the tyrant, and the state of exception. Following David Gordon White you could also throw in Saint Christopher, Romulus and Remus, and the primal ancestors of the Turkish and Mongol hordes. Wolves symbolize the state of nature, tyranny, founding violence, restorative violence, rebellious violence, and anarchy.

As we know, government is the monopoly of legitimate  violence — even Weber knew that, though “legitimate” has no definable meaning in this phrase. All order is founded on violence, but you only want one founder, preferably in the distant past — you really don’t want lots of founders. They’re just too bloody-minded and wolfish.

Appendix: The Werewolf in Marie de France’s Bisclavret

Agamben noticed different things in Marie de France’s werewolf story than I did. For Agamben, the werewolf’s temporary transformation was an image of the state of exception, and his special relation to the king was in some way confirmation of this identification.

To me, the matter-of-fact way Marie introduces the werewolf, who disappears from his home for three days a week to wreak havoc, seems much more interesting, as does the King’s untroubled acceptance of the merveille of a wolf “that thinks like a man” (a sen d’ume). Marie was probably a Norman Frenchwoman living in England, and her Breton stories were set in high and far-off times — even from the perspective of the twelfth century. And to her, the Bretons and their Welsh cousins were probably rather frightening exotics.

Most startling, however, was the response when the tamed wolf attacked his treacherous wife’s lover when he appeared. The wolf had apparently been fully accepted as a Breton good ol’ boy by then, and everyone was careful to be fair to him: “Throughout the household it was remarked that he would not have done it without good reason” (qu’il nel fet mie sens raison), and the wolf was thus allowed to go about his business unpunished. Ultimately the true story came out, the faithless wife and her lover were sent into exile (the wife without her nose, which Bisclavret had bitten off) and Bisclavret regained his human form.

In conclusion, Marie writes: “The adventure you have just heard actually took place, do not doubt it” (L’aventure qu’avez oïe veraie fu, n’en dutez mie.) So it must have been true.


Anhalt, Emily Katz, Solon the Singer, Rowman and Littlefield, 1993.

Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer, Stanford, 1998.

Foucault, Michel, Society Must Be Protected, Picador, 2003.

Linforth, Ivan M., Solon the Athenian, Berkeley, 1919.

Marie de France, Lais de Marie de France, Livre de Poche,1990.

Marie de France, The Lais of Marie de France, Penguin,1999.

White, David Gordon, Myths of the Dog-Man, Chicago, 1991.