In a comment on Chronicle 157 (“The Voice of Authority”), Don Socha observed that the historical model for the thinker who stands “outside of the authority of specialization” and emphasizes the ethical over the technical is Socrates. In his dual existence as a real person and a personage in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is the founder of the Western philosophical or metaphysical tradition that privileges the declarative sentence, which presents an objective model of reality, over the imperative and ostensive forms that interact directly with the real world (see “Plato and the Birth of Conceptual Thought” in Anthropoetics II, 2).
Socrates confronts us with the apparent illogicality of declaring an action to be good in an individual circumstance without being able to define what “good” is. On hearing someone say that X acted courageously or that Y’s decision was just, he would ask the speaker to help him define Courage or Justice. Why was this search for the general idea behind particular cases felt to be a danger to Athenian religion and morals? Socrates’ interlocutors may have been intellectually lazy but they were not lazy intellectuals; they were good citizens who relied on culturally accepted models of ethical action. The ostensive definition of courage and justice through examples was the affirmation of a traditional, ritual-based ethic. To seek a universal or “declarative” definition is to undermine the authority of these examples and of the social order they sustain.
Plato seeks to vindicate his master by establishing, independently of ostensive religious revelation, the conflict-deferring force of the sign. Plato’s designation of the Idea as the object of Socrates’ quest prefigures GA’s dictum that culture is “the deferral of violence through representation.” That A and B both seek “the good” is no proof, despite the Platonic Socrates’ repeated assertions, that what is good for B is also good for A. The Idea of the Good is nothing more than the signified or meaning of the signifier “good”; that we share the word does not imply that a common good exists. But Plato’s intuition, which leads him to elaborate in The Republic a model of the “good society,” can be justified anthropologically if we understand the linguistic sign as in the first place a means of deferring conflict. The notion that we can all commune in the Idea of the Good in the literal sense of founding our community on it is Plato’s attempt to relocate the sacred central object of desire within the world of language.
There is no evidence that Socrates thought that such a relocation was possible, let alone that he envisaged a Republic where the Good could become the transparent basis of the social order. Socrates invented a method of criticism; Plato converted the dialogues into discourses and made possible the edification of metaphysical thought. GA avoids the dichotomy of construction and deconstruction inherent in the metaphysical enterprise. Generative thinking is progressive and inclusive. It does not begin by teaching us that “we know nothing” in order to construct a new edifice on a foundation of originary intuition. It affirms rather that this intuition is already at the basis of what we are doing now, that no possible social alienation can obliterate the originary model of reciprocity that inheres in our common use of language.
What role can GA play in today’s agora? If Socrates set himself the task of refuting the smug moral certitudes of his contemporaries, what faces us today is an equally smug lack of moral certitude. Today’s interlocutor does not propose traditional examples of courage or justice from which the philosopher can extract the Idea; he denies the existence of the Idea by claiming that each society’s concepts of courage or justice are unique and incomparable. Where Socrates showed that the existence of different examples implies that they all derive from a single Idea, our task is to show that the existence of different Ideas implies that they all derive from a single example.
Everyone knows that we must control our tendency to rivalrous or mimetic violence. Everyone is also interested in the origin of the mimetic phenomenon of human language. To engage in “originary thinking,” that is, to create a minimal model of our origin consonant with the subsequent history of human culture, is to think the connection between these two forms of mimesis: the creature that uses language evolved from creatures that did not because language was a revolutionary new means for deferring violence.
There are two dominant points of view on the subject of human origins: those who prefer the Bible to Darwin and those who prefer Darwin to the Bible. Either we attribute the specialness of humans to God’s unfathomable will, or we deny it altogether. The believers are right to insist that human evolution is irreducible to its biological component. But my idea of a living faith is one that doesn’t fall back on the lazy cliche of “God’s will” but seeks to understand its purposes.
Identification with a distant, superior figure was not always confined to our superficial and voluntary relationship with celebrities. When kings and emperors ruled, their central position made them both loved and hated, indeed, beyond being loved or hated in the normal sense of the term. As a super-celebrity, the king acted as society’s mediator, diverting to himself the rivalrous tensions between its members. The ruler was the last worldly hope of the downtrodden; the victim of injustice would typically refuse against all reason to believe that the Tsar, or even Stalin, could have had any part in his misfortune. Generative Anthropology teaches us that this diversionary role is not a fortuitous benefit of kingship but the fundamental structure of the social order. Although lacking any power over our lives, the modern celebrity, like the rulers of the past, diverts toward the center the rivalrous energies of the periphery.
But from the practice of “sacrificial kingships” to our current affinity for presidential scandal, the place of the throne is also the place of the sacrificial altar; the central figure is a powerless victim as much as the holder of power. At the origin, sacred victim and sacred divinity are alternate faces of a single Being. The most significant of all ethical evolutions is the one that leads from identification with the community’s sacrificial power vested in its ruler to identification with the victim as the originary mediator of this power. Although elements of the demystification of sacrifice are present in all the higher religions, notably in Buddhism with its doctrine of withdrawal from the world of violent desire, the Judeo-Christian tradition’s moral analysis is more precise–as witness the “globalization” of the Western exchange system. The most profound intuition of Christianity is that the power of kings–and of celebrities–derives from the community’s focusing of its mimetic violence on the sacrificial victim. But to implement this intuition in social institutions is a lengthy and still incomplete historical process.
A key moment of this process occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century; the developed countries of Europe began to evolve into “consumer societies” where the goods one purchased were no longer mere proofs of wealth (“conspicuous consumption”) but conveyed “messages” about one’s posture toward the world. A society that extends to the majority of its population the possibility of defining themselves through the exchange system is incompatible with unselfconscious assertions of material superiority. The classical wisdom of the “golden mean” and “nothing in excess” (a wisdom accompanied, we should not forget, by sacrifices to various deities) was no longer sufficient to moderate the resentment generated by success. In order to maintain the circulation of the desire for self-worth that sustains consumer society, success in that society is subordinated to the compassionate attention focused on those–ethnic groups, animal species, even geological systems–that can with more or less credibility be considered its “victims.” By speaking of victims, one affects to assimilate modern society to the ritual cultures of the past that fall under the Judeo-Christian antisacrificial critique. In consumer society’s division of labor, this ideological operation is the province of the “new class” of academics and “helping professions,” while those directly concerned with productivity tolerate the anticapitalist ideologues as part of the price of doing society’s business.
As the exchange system reaches ever higher levels of reciprocity, it becomes increasingly important to defer the resentment it generates by presenting it as a source of disequilibrium, a world of persecutors and victims. To devalue a priori the object of our worldly ambitions by denouncing our ethnocentrism or even our “speciesism” not only protects us against the danger of success; it is itself a part of this success, a posture that demonstrates our moral worth. Let us consider two resentful people. The first consoles himself with the thought that if his neighbor has a big car, Michael Jackson’s limo is bigger. But he keeps this thought to himself; it is too openly resentful. The second, on the contrary, openly accuses his neighbor of despoiling the planet’s resources by using too much gasoline. Nietzsche was the first to see that the second is the cleverer of the two; in our society, he is almost certainly the better educated and better off. Moral indignation against his neighbor permits him to enjoy his own car in good conscience. Instead of seeking compensation through identification, he transfers the focus of competition from accumulating material wealth to denying complicity with the system that provides it.
But just as the insights of GA reflect the experience of consumer society, the further evolution of this social order both presupposes and generates ever higher levels of anthropological awareness. Our task is to make originary thinking accessible to a wider audience as an antidote to victimary thinking and its corollary moral relativism. The moral revolution that produced the democratic marketplace as a solution to the rigid hierarchies of ritual society is founded on the same originary revelation of human reciprocity that inspires the marketplace’s critics. All cultures, however diverse in detail, diverge from a common root and are constantly reminded of this root by their use of language. Just as all human languages are too similar not to derive from a common source, the same is true of human societies. Rather than “What is courage?” and “What is justice?” our new Socrates should ask his interlocutor to consider what originary conditions might account for the fact that human beings holding apparently incompatible concepts of justice and courage can and do enter into dialogue with one another.