If all sins in the first place derive from originary resentment of the sacred center, reflecting the disappointment that one cannot possess the central object in its entirety but must content oneself with an “equal part,” so are all virtues yet more obviously affirmations of this center.
Faith is first of the cardinal virtues because it expresses this affirmation most fundamentally; before it can inspire love or even hope, one must “believe in” its reality. Faith is quasi-cognitive, it tends to be expressed in propositions, or credos. But like all language, the language of faith is ostensive before it is declarative; it points to and affirms the center before it can assert anything concerning its existence, and the words of a credo are less important than the “profession of faith” they underwrite.
Hope, which expresses the expectation that the originary peace be prolonged in time, is consequently the most visceral of the virtues. It is so to speak the human transformation of the “life-force” that makes us get up in the morning with the feeling that we have what Sartre called a “project” into which our “animal” energy is channeled. Hope is not in essence a passive awaiting, but a sense that we have at least a chance to accomplish our goals, and this sense depends on the deferral of conflict that the human provides us. Thus the virtue of hope is an awareness that our specifically human sense of purpose depends on its mediation through the sacred center, so that all our projects are not just our own but come to us through the communal harmony that is the gift of God.
Finally, love, as I have said many times, is the transcendence of resentment. This must be first true of divine love before it can become true of human love. We love God—in originary terms, we renounce our resentment of the central object—although he withholds himself, revealing himself to us only partially, as our portion of the sacrifice that is our “equal” part of the whole.
More broadly, we can say that “God is love,” that is, that no other “virtues” are really necessary to participate fully in the human community. For if love is the transcendence of resentment, and originary resentment, resentment of the center, or of God, is the fundamental sin, then love of the center, of God, is the One Virtue. We can love without being conscious of faith or even hope, since when one loves, the other virtues are implicit in love itself.
As opposed to the sins, directed explicitly to worldly things, either objects or other people, the virtues are all, even love, much more obviously directed to God, or more precisely, to a God-centered universe—so that, inversely, if we truly love our fellow humans, as all great moral thinkers such as Hillel concur, one need not think of God as the theme of our actions, since in this love, God, or simply “the sacred,” is always present.
In romantic love the universe becomes centered on the loved one in a kind of idolatry, one that in the Christian, essentially chaste form of “courtly love,” explicitly leads to a desire for divine communion, as in Dante’s Paradiso. In contrast, the “pagan” form of such love is, in cultural terms at least, experienced as an alienation, even a curse. Yet one could make the argument that Sappho’s radical affirmation of the cultural significance of “private” passion already contains the essence of what the Judeo-Christian tradition will locate in a more anthropologically comprehensive theological context.
The interest of presenting this material in GA terms is that the additional concreteness supplied by the hypothetical originary scene provides an imaginary “laboratory” for its exploration. This illustrates the distinction between GA as a humanistic anthropology and “social science,” which directly models empirical worldly realities. The “imaginary laboratory” is not a mere fantasy, yet neither is it an objective reality independent of our theory. Above all, its minimality makes it possible to vary aspects of its paradigm in ways that might appear at first glance counter-intuitive.
In this and following Chronicle(s), I shall attempt (finally) to understand the victimary in its own terms as an alternative anthropology, distinct from that which GA has adapted from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Please bear with me if this Chronicle bears the marks of a transition. We are already aware that the cardinal virtues and sins of the Western tradition are not those of the new victimary dispensation, but we must try to explain the parallel universe of victimary thinking without either indulging in polemics or accepting the victimary as the new human truth.
Why has Western society experienced the need to extend the helplessness of concentration-camp prisoners to entire human groupings, while assuring them both of their necessary innocence and their obligation to denounce the crimes of their oppressors? Is this just a temporary spike or is it but a new stage in an inexorable progression that opposition can only delay? How interpret the increasingly “totalitarian” (a term I noted in Charles Krauthammer’s column recently) excesses of victimocracy that have been a major catalyst for this series of Chronicles?
Where are the cardinal virtues today? How have we evolved into a society in which virtue is increasingly redefined as the victimary vengefulness exemplified by the Dartmouth incident referred to in my last Chronicle, where accusing those in authority of racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia… proves one’s purity of heart? Given that this attitude, which seems fully convinced of its own virtue, appears to pay tribute to a notion of the victim very different from that espoused by Christianity, how can GA help us to understand this new moral epistemology? Does this phenomenon give proof that Western society, or some important segment of it, has reached the limits of Christianity, even of religion as such? Is victimocracy then a sign of the godlessness of modernity, of its indifference to our traditional humility before our potential sinfulness, of a boundless and increasingly aggressive self-righteousness?
We know that Christianity, as a radicalization of the prophets’ concern for the “widow and orphan,” is the historical source of today’s refocusing of the social order on the victim. We may even consider Christianity as “the first victimocracy,” provided, and this is of supreme importance, that we remain fully conscious of the paradoxical nature of this affirmation of the “scandal to the Jews and folly to the pagans” that Paul describes. The reign of Jesus is that of the powerless qua powerless, not the powerless who call on the power of the state to enforce its latest punitive rule against “discrimination.”
The ultimate question is whether or not we all, “oppressors” and “victims” alike, are and/or have always been nevertheless members of one society, subject to the same universal “moral model” of symmetrical reciprocity. The alternative can be put in very simple terms. When we encounter the affirmation of this model in the Declaration of Independence as “all men are created equal,” should we read it as affirming universal human equality, or does it imply the exclusion and oppression of women (and slaves)?
On this point, we can understand the Gospels’ “antisemitic” insistence on the Jews’ responsibility for Jesus’ death in a universalistic, non-discriminatory sense, one that I find consonant with Girard’s insistence that the world of the Pharisees represents the highest form of religion as an order in itself, in contrast with the Christian transcendence of the sacrificial. The point is that Jesus was himself a part of the Jewish community, so that the victim and his sacrificers are in this perspective one people; insisting on the agency of the Romans would on the contrary resemble the victimary as currently conceived, with Jesus as a member of an oppressed, “subaltern” group victimized by a colonial power. That in the Gospel story the Jewish mob “compels” the Romans to crucify Jesus is indeed the source of the infamous Christian anti-Judaic paradigm (Jesus as the truly “first” who arouses Jewish anger because he demystifies the Jewish claim to firstness). Nevertheless, if read as an anthropology rather than as a polemic of one religion against another, Gospel “antisemitism” suggests that the Romans, influenced by the collective force exercised by the Jews, are forced to recognize that they too are part of sinful humanity—and therefore equally open to salvation and conversion. (This too seems to me entirely compatible with the views of Girard, who has always insisted that we are all of us, Romans, Jews, and disciples alike, responsible for the death of Jesus.)
Strikingly, in the victimary era, the paradigm of the Holocaust has been inverted into a growing antisemitism that has the opposite focus from that of the New Testament. Today, just as its soldiers are compared to the S.S., Israel is seen as corresponding to Rome, the colonial power. The Jews, who in the time of Christ represented humanity-in-general, have become an aggressive remnant of “white” European colonialism imposing their tribal will (dixerunt Walt and Mearsheimer) on otherwise enlightened, pacific Americans. Antisemitism, along with hostility to Christianity, is the one prejudice that does not confer a mark of victimhood. On the contrary, as in the days of anti-anti-Communism, to denounce antisemitism is to receive the reply that “Jews always call embarrassing truths antisemitic.” Somehow one rarely hears this response to accusations of “Islamophobia.” (Cf. Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis, April 2014.)
The victimary originary hypothesis
Whence comes the power of victimary thinking? Historically it appears to originate in a radicalization of the Judeo-Christian concern for the victim triggered by the horrors of the Holocaust, although this simple causality should be enriched by situating Nazism itself as an apocalyptic movement in the context of the apparent breakdown of the market system after WWI and the beginnings of the dissolution of the racial caste system in the European colonies. But its promotion of the epistemology of resentment makes it part of the revolutionary tradition begun in 1789.
Years of pondering this question have led me to conclude that the ultimate explanation for the victimary cannot be found directly in the originary hypothesis. The moral model derived from the hypothesis, which I believe fundamental to the human as such, and which has led me to defend Judeo-Christian morality in opposition to the victimary, is nevertheless not shared by the latter, even implicitly, as the foundation of its own anthropological vision. Hence we can best understand this vision as derived from an alternative originary hypothesis, one never understood in precisely these terms, but which can nonetheless be constructed from its moral stances.
What I am tentatively proposing here is that the victimary originary hypothesis differs not only from that of GA, but from the originary intuition that has been since the beginning the foundation of all religions. This new approach in no way contradicts my earlier moral stance, but, precisely, it allows me to express my opposition to victimary thought in the most fundamental terms, as a conflict between two anthropological paradigms, rather than a quarrel within a shared paradigm between (in my view) a correct and an erroneous interpretation of it. To show proper respect for my victimary opponents is a prerequisite to meaningful dialogue with them, and in any case to a full understanding of their position and the reason for its apparently ever-growing influence.
In the context of the present, preliminary essay, let us begin by examining the victimary redefinition of virtue. To simplify matters, we may limit ourselves to the virtue of love, the “greatest” of the virtues, which, as we have observed, may be said to imply the others. Imitatio christi really only asks us to imitate Christ’s love for others, and (we would probably add today) for life and the universe in general.
Victimary thinkers reject the Christian love that encompasses “thine enemy” as contributing to oppression. In today’s world, they would tell Jesus that however lovingly he regards all human beings, he must recognize that a different level of scrutiny is required for the conduct of those in hegemonic groups than for those whom the latter at least potentially oppress.
The key point is that these two conceptions of love, the Christian and the victimary, are not separated merely by degree, but imply two different originary anthropologies. Where GA’s originary hypothesis founds the human on the reciprocal exchange of signs that originates the “moral model” of egalitarian morality, the founding intuition of victimocracy is that the oppressor-victim dichotomy, modeled, as I shall elaborate further in a future Chronicle, on the indubitable reality of sexual difference, makes humanity fundamentally unequal, indeed, originarily immoral. Under these circumstances, universal love is not a virtue, but an ideological mask for oppression. Nor is the latter, in the absence of a Fall, the equivalent of original sin as understood in the Bible, although as I showed in Chronicle 417 (“Originary Feminism”), choosing Eve as the initiator of resentment and consequently the instigator of sinful self-consciousness clearly reflects an intuition able to comprehend, if not to accept, the victimary position.
The victimary hypothesis is already implicit in Derrida’s understanding of deferral or différance, which insists, with apparent unconcern for the anthropological anteriority of egalitarian societies, on the hierarchical nature of the “presence” instituted by representation as écriture,—”writing” in Derrida’s expanded sense in which it marks the “deferred” nature of language. Deconstruction involves precisely—and in its heyday was often dumbed down to—the “demystification” of apparently neutral oppositions such as male-female, black-white, Western-“Oriental”… in order to reveal their disguised victimary essence; each opposition contains, so to speak, a Nazi and a Jew.
And the most fundamental of these binaries is the one that has brought fame to such as Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler, that of sexual difference. Hunter-gatherer societies may tend to put less distance between the sexes than hierarchical societies (no harems or brothels here), but even the most egalitarian societies mark sexual difference, and may therefore, from the victimary perspective, be considered originarily unequal, unjust, and oppressive. For the victimary hypothesis shares the same fundamental moral ideal as that of GA, that of reciprocal equality; but it denies that human society has heretofore exemplified this model even in principle, or that even the greatest religious intuitions (at least those of the “hegemonic” West) have ever truly grasped it; Jesus was, after all, a white male. Indeed, one could make the case that this ideal model can never be grasped in its full essence, since we cannot know at a given time what apparently innocuous differences are in fact invidious and deserving of correction. (For an early expression of this idea, see the quote from Michael Kinsley in Chronicle 310, December 25, 2004).
In the victimary hypothesis, originary resentment of the center is not resolved by the advent of the sign, but denied in a myth or ideology by the hegemonic fraction of the society in order to maintain its domination. The victimary God is not, as Durkheim would have it, the Subject of the values of the society as a whole, but in a perspective closer to that of Marx, the incarnation of the values of the “ruling class.” Nonetheless, Marx agreed with Durkheim that the fundamental moral state of humanity is that of equality; for Marx, “class society” was the means to attain the requisite level of social development that would permit the communist utopia, and was not present at the birth of humanity. Victimary thought, in contrast, sees the human as hegemonic from the outset. This new anthropology is founded on an originary resentment of a new kind: not the symmetrical resentment of God by all humans, but the female resentment of men as projected onto the central divinity. The postmodern suspicion of sexual difference as being in itself the “original sin” of humanity is the model for debunking all previous cultures as ideologies disguising the oppression of victims, beginning, but certainly not ending, with women.
Although sexual difference is far from the victimocracy’s unique concern, it is significant that it has been revived in recent years as a central theme, long after the principle of sexual equality seemed to have been established. I think this is because sexual difference, anatomically based and unambiguous with only marginal exceptions, is the objective guarantee of the invidious nature of human difference in general. Even if racial differences could be eliminated or simply ignored in a future global society, sexual difference will presumably remain, and with it, an eternal reminder that humanity is still composed of oppressors and victims.
If this is indeed the best way to understand victimocracy—the very fact of being able to deduce this model being a product of the minimalism of GA—it should prove of considerable interest to develop its implications within GA’s minimalistic theoretical framework. I will pursue this project in subsequent Chronicles.
While awaiting this, however, I would propose that, whatever our victimary propensities, we continue to practice faith, hope, and love until further notice.