My previous Chronicle dealt with sin and resentment but was focused on the contemporary problem of victimocracy, the empowerment of the resentment of presumably subaltern ascriptive social groups. The “brief history of resentment” it contains was focused on this matter of empowerment (although the word was not used in the Chronicle). In the context of this legitimization of resentment, I was more concerned to emphasize human sinfulness than to provide an originary analysis of the phenomenon of sin itself. I hasten to insist that I am not a theologian, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, and so have only a superficial acquaintance with religious doctrines. But I think GA, in this as in other areas, can provide its own useful conceptualization of categories of such broad human significance as “sin” and “resentment.”
We may divide the classic list of seven deadly sins into two groups: sins of excess, where the sinner lets himself be dominated by an appetitive or “natural” penchant (lechery, gluttony, avarice, and sloth), and sins of interaction, where the object of the sin is another human being (envy, pride, and anger). Although this latter group has a prima facie relationship with resentment, this is not obvious for the others, which involve taking to excess tropisms we appear to share with the animals.
The answer is that resentment, as I explained perhaps too briefly in the previous Chronicle, is always mediated by the sacred center, always a sin against God before it is directed to any particular object. An excessive love of food or sex or sleep is a failure to obey the fundamental necessity to defer our appetites or “animal instincts” to the mediation of the center that is the basis of the social order. Ultimately it is God who guarantees these values, or in a more formal, Durkheimian sense, God is our name for the Subject that proclaims them, not merely as specific ethical injunctions, but as the very principles by which a given society, as the local representative of humanity in general, affirms the responsibility of each of its members for its survival.
Let us recall that according to the originary hypothesis, the human began as a way of regulating the most potentially violence-provoking of our appetites, that for food, particularly high-protein meat. Although the human is best defined by its need to regulate internal conflict before dealing with enemies and adverse conditions in the outside world, in the general case, the two sets of problems are not (as a reader of Girard might sometimes think) unconnected. Humans fight over objects of desire. Although some would make conflict over sexuality the origin of our species, sex is one item that the species itself can, indeed must (sheep and sex dolls aside) supply. Sexual desire under the conditions of human as opposed to animal life may well be, as Genesis suggests, the origin of “shame,” the consciousness of participating in an “animal” activity that dominates the cultural in its own domain and is consequently fundamentally “erotic” and transgressive, but on the simplest level, the need to control the violence aroused by sexual rivalry is not a likely trigger for the originary event. Males frustrated by the dominance of the Alpha need not follow Freud’sTotem and Taboo and unite against him; they can sneak sexual favors at odd hours. Sex is a private, not a public activity, and therefore an unlikely occasion for the birth of the sign.
For hungry hunter-scavengers, the need to distribute the remains of a large edible animal, dead or dying, provides the obvious center to our hypothetical originary scene, as meat distribution still generally does in our family and collective feasts. Whence the originary equation of sin with unbridled appetite. All will be fed, provided they defer appropriation. Deferral, sharing the sign and not the object, is the beginning of humanity; sin is a failure of deferral, a failure to regulate one’s passions through the mediation of the sacred center. The sins of excess may then be understood as ways of running afoul of this precept.
The sins that concern the self’s relationship to others are more obviously forms of resentment. Envy is resentment of one’s human model before it is desire for what he possesses; one wishes to acquire his real or fancied proximity to the center. Pride and anger are inverse but equally resentful variants of the same phenomenon. The first asserts one’s own greater centrality in an effort to persuade those who might not be aware of it, including oneself; the second is the expression of an excess of zeal in defending one’s standing. More specifically, in a hierarchical world, the proud does not accept the ultimate destiny of firstness to serve the reciprocity of the group, but affirms his non-reciprocity as an end in itself; in contrast, the angry would assert the priority of reciprocity against the hierarchy that, in principle, serves it.
One might make the argument that anger is simply an excess of aggressiveness, and therefore belongs in the first group. But a mere excess of aggressive energy could be discharged by strenuous exercise or chopping wood; it would be unnatural to call this sinful. Recalling Achilles’ “rage,” I think it more natural to consider anger a fundamentally interactive phenomenon.
In all seven cases, to sin is to “succumb to one’s animal instincts,” to neglect the deferral, the néant, that makes us human. Sartre defined what we call here deferral as “freedom,” or “free will,” which he understood as a duty to take responsibility for our acts rather than attribute them in “bad faith” to our impulses. The quasi-religious term bad faith translates the concept of sinfulness into the cognitive terms of philosophy, as an intellectual rather than a moral lapse, but its point is for our purposes the same: to emphasize that our human consciousness, our ability to thematize, to think, to use representations, gives all our acts a moral valence. We are always tempted by sin, yet not mechanically impelled toward it, but in the normal human state endowed with the possibility of resisting the temptation. Or to put it the other way around, the failure to resist temptation is not normally the result of an irresistible impulse, but a conscious sin.
All students of French letters are or at least were in the past minimally familiar with the 17th-century quarrels of the Jansenists and the Jesuits, the subject of Pascal’s Lettres provinciales. The bone of contention was the distinction between sufficient and efficacious grace, la grâce suffisante and la grâce efficace. The latter is an originally Augustinian concept taken up by the Jansenists: God as the sole source of salvation must accord us his “efficacious” grace to liberate us from sin; the mere fact of our humanity, and even of our baptism into the Christian church, does not suffice to grant us this power. In contrast, “sufficient” grace, the mainstream Catholic concept espoused by the Jesuits, is presumably given to all, even to non-Christians, allowing us to avoid sin by our own efforts of will.
The notion that sin can be avoided only as the result of a prior election, which reached its height in Calvinism’s notion of predestination, is completely foreign to Judaism. It reflects the emphasis on eschatology in the Christian vision of human history, for which all of humanity “fell” with Adam and the possibility of salvation only reappeared with the sacrifice of Jesus, the whole story ending with the Last Judgment and resurrection in the flesh for the saved.
Although theology, here as elsewhere, is poor cosmology but good anthropology, it must be understood in its specific historical context. The Christian theologian is operating after the Crucifixion and Resurrection have already taken place, so that all those he addresses have at least a chance of salvation. The very notion of otherworldly salvation, as opposed to the Jewish ideal of virtuous life in the observance of God’s laws, reflects the Christian eschatological perspective. Salvation is not sinlessness, but (in its this-worldly manifestation) the confidence that one has the power to avoid sin, which is to say, in the terms of our analysis, that one is “fully human,” always in principle capable of deferring sinful impulses.
In contrast with Pascal’s very un-American understanding of salvation as always a goal, never a reality, in certain American evangelical sects, it is common to claim simply that one is “saved.” I rather think those who claim to be “saved” are not really so far from Pascal’s understanding, but they address the problem of avoiding sin in the opposite way from the Calvinists and Jansenists. The latter would make us virtuous by keeping us in constant fear of sin, for the least sin would be a sign that we are not among the predestined or the recipients of “efficacious grace.” By taking the opposite tack, the person who claims to be “saved” is in principle forced to be virtuous to demonstrate the truth of his claim. Different strokes for different folks.
However much I may share Pascal’s admiration for celui qui cherche en gémissant [he who seeks while groaning, that is, in a constant state of moral malaise], the notion of sufficient grace has the advantage of corresponding to our moral “common sense,” that we are responsible for our sins. This stance corresponds to a “Catholic” notion of Christianity in which the Church exercises a benign oversight over our existence, imposing a common-sense moral anthropology. This is a condition that the Reform, and such related Catholic movements as Jansenism, found insufficient in the face of the supplementary pressures for deferral incident to the rise of market society or “capitalism,” with which since Weber the “Protestant Ethic” has been associated. To put it in simple terms, the Catholic can be content to enjoy his pleasures, provided he not be a slave to them; the Protestant/capitalist, who can only accomplish the “primitive accumulation” of capital by keeping his pleasures to a minimum, must be driven by a supplementary personal quest to be among the elect.
The key point of the foregoing is that human “free will,” conceived as our capacity for deferral, Sartre’s liberté, is unavoidably a state of potential sinfulness, of which various ritual procedures seek to purge us, but never permanently. A “state of grace” in life is either a moment of ecstasy or a dangerous illusion. This vision of the human condition has been, outside of extreme conditions, a constant of Western society, and more broadly, of all society.
It is no coincidence that the French Revolution, in which popular resentment was first valorized, began at its most extreme point to proclaim its own religion, the “Cult of the Supreme Being.” Similar phenomena have occurred in the more or less monstrous repetitions of the French Revolution in Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba… not to neglect the “fascist” variants in Italy, Germany, Argentina… What one accomplishes in substituting for the notion of sinfulness the secular one of disloyalty to the revolutionary state as the embodiment of the collective welfare is to transform religion more or less overtly into the terms of Durkheim’s analysis as the expression of the values of the collectivity.
This may appear to be an act of enlightenment, but in reality it impoverishes the social imagination and its enactment of solidarity, as demonstrated by the nearly inevitable tendency of revolutionary movements to put in the place of sacred worship the stultifying idolatry of a Great Leader. Among the many institutions to which Churchill’s Burkean quip about being the worst with the exception of all the others applies, Judeo-Christian religion may well be the most deserving. As my readers well know, Darwin doesn’t explain the origin of the human; any religion, however badly, does, and those of the Western tradition, far better than most. The same conclusion applies in the domain of ethics, where such constructions as Kant’s “categorical imperative” cannot explain the source of human morality.
Resentment is as necessary to human survival as pain; it is a signal of a potential danger. But like pain, it is a necessary evil, and in no case a sign of virtue. I spoke in my previous Chronicle of the Old Regime’s encouragement of resentment as a defensive reaction to dishonor, necessary for the preservation of a man’s and his family’s integrity; honor is masculine just as originary violence was masculine. But although such resentment is not Nietzsche’s degraded ressentiment, neither is it a state of angelic sinlessness in which the offended party enjoys a sense of moral outrage at his “oppressor.” To be insulted is not to be oppressed, and both victim and offender remain private parties, not members of hegemonic and subaltern groups—between which, precisely, for better or worse, resentment in this “Cornelian” sense has no legitimate function.
Today the resentment of officially approved victimary groups is not only legitimized but encouraged and solicited.* The victimocracy continues to proliferate, like a newly introduced species with no natural predators. It promotes no new vision of humanity, as did the old totalitarianisms from the Montagne to Lenin and Hitler and Pol Pot. But this ideological poverty is in fact a sign of the greatest arrogance. In the place of a new world order, victimocracy offers humankind a unique, fully self-righteous moral principle founded on a foolproof epistemology. The principle: act always in such a way as to promote the interests of subaltern groups over their oppressors. And the epistemology: hearken always to the resentment of the victim, a sentiment by nature virtuous and above suspicion.
Given the hierarchical state of the world—in other terms, the pervasive existence of what I have been calling “firstness”—virtually every human interaction can be understood in victimary terms. In a faculty committee the other day, I was struck by the fact that some participants automatically interpreted the mutual hostility of professors in a troubled department as “bullying,” as though it went without saying that every conflict is between an oppressor and a victim—the perfect solution to every Girardian crisis of mimetic indifferentiation. Victimocracy is a form of angelism, comparable in attitude, if not in action, to a fanatical religious movement (have I mentioned jihad? but these are comfortable people, not potential suicide bombers). Our human exploitation of the natural environment, whether the weasel-named “climate change” follows a doomsday scenario or not, provokes similar reactions.
For various reasons, victimocracy has gained momentum under Barack Obama’s watch. Nevertheless, and however we judge his policies, the source of the gravitas the president retains is that he displays a moral conscience. One feels that he knows that neither he nor any of the rest of us are either angels or devils—that, good or bad, we are all potential sinners, each responsible for our own actions. I think he would do well to make this point every once in a while, not just to his victimary supporters, but to all of us.
*By way of illustration, I include here an excerpt from an April 4, 2014 editorial in the Wall Street Journal:
On Tuesday [April 1] Dartmouth’s finest seized the main administration building and disrupted college business. The squatters were allowed to remain until Thursday night, when the dean of the college negotiated and signed an exit settlement assuring them the non-dialogue would continue.
The demonstrators had a 72-point manifesto instructing the college to establish pre-set racial admission quotas and a mandatory ethnic studies curriculum for all students. Their other inspirations are for more “womyn or people of color” [on the] faculty; covering sex change operations on the college health plan (“we demand body and gender self-determination”); censoring the library catalog for offensive terms; and installing “gender-neutral bathrooms” in every campus facility, specifically including sports locker rooms.
[…] The occupiers filmed their confrontation and uploaded the hostage video to the Web, where [Dartmouth President Phil] Hanlon can be seen agog as his charges berate him for his “micro-aggressions.” Those are bias infractions that can’t be identified without the right political training.
Mr. Hanlon left after an hour and told the little tyrants that he welcomed a “conversation” about their ultimatums. They responded in a statement that conversations—to be clear, talking—will lead to “further physical and emotional violence enacted against us by the racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist structures at Dartmouth.” They added: “Our bodies are already on the line, in danger, and under attack.”