The originary hypothesis is situated at the frontier of the humanities–the world of meaning–and the human sciences–the world of facts, at the point where transcendental meaningfulness emerges within the immanent world of appetite. The ethic of the originary scene is indifferently divine and human, coerced and free. The ethical imperative implicit in our hypothesis commands us to create within ourselves the intuitive equivalent of the outcome of this collective scene: the deferral of violence through representation.

The emergence of the human is the emergence of the transcendental in the life-world. By making this origin an object of hypothesis rather than dogma, we take a great ethical step. Seen in the context of their historical evolution, religious revelations are themselves hypotheses, in their way even minimal hypotheses. The act of faith quia absurdum reproduces within the individual imagination the originary state of crisis; its urgency reminds us that the worldly peace brought about by the deferral of violence depends upon the permanence of the transcendental Being that preserves the meaning of the sign. But faith does more than that; it affirms that our participation in this Being allows us an existential escape from the biological mortality that, pace Genesis, is not a consequence but a precondition of our resentfulness. The deferral of the originary crisis among human beings by means of the sign is the source of religious transcendentalism, the notion that the atemporal domain of meaning is a world that we can in some sense eternally inhabit.

 The originary hypothesis, which takes our historical point of departure seriously, but minimally, is the basis for a minimal human ethic that implies the critical suspension of the otherworldly. In contrast, positive thought that elides the historicity of human origin can propose no ethical principle other than biological necessity.

The ethical imperative implicit in the originary hypothesis is that we must minimize the historical specificity of the moment of origin, as expressed in the supplementary existential content of the sacred Being that preserves the meaning of the originary sign. We may formulate this ethic as follows: act in such a way as to make it indifferent whether, at the moment of origin, God created man or man created God.

This formula has in common with the doctrines of the higher religions the virtue of being interpretable on many levels. On the simplest–I hope to deal with others in future columns–it cautions against the two extremes characterized by Corneille’s Polyeucte, who seeks martyrdom in anticipation of eternal bliss, and Plato’s Callicles, who anticipates Nietzsche in interpreting ethical laws as the weak’s means of duping the strong. The unbeliever must act as though God will punish his sins; the believer, as though no God will reward his virtues.


How does this ethic compare with René Girard‘s interpretation of Christian morality, which tells us to minimize the sacrificiality of our conduct, to act so as to create as little victimage as possible? Sacrifice, the interpretation of God’s will as the lynching of a scapegoat, is exposed and rejected in the Passion. The God who lets his rain fall on the just as on the unjust will not intervene in the world either to punish evil or to reward good. Only the human community, by choosing love over resentment, can bring about peace on earth.

This vision of Christianity goes a long way toward the minimality of the originary hypothesis. A God who refuses to intervene in human affairs is no longer very different from the hypothetical Being that guarantees the meaning generated by the originary sign. The remaining difference is the assimilation of natural to human crisis that makes the Being who masters human violence equally the master of the natural violence of death. For the man on the street, the afterlife is what religion is all about. A hypothesis cannot promise its adherents the resurrection of the body or even, in anything like an existential sense, the eternity of the soul.

But are these dogmatic elements not mere aids to belief rather than the substance of belief; are they not expressions of the originary hypothesis in a different vocabulary?

I think not. Religious anthromorphism guides our intuition along a different path than minimal thinking. We all share in Jesus’ death, but Christ’s glorious resurrection can only be promised us. The application to the human body of the transcendence provided by the sign is the last refuge of the sacred cosmology that extends to the heavens the powers of a Being whose only proven domain of action is the human community. A minimalist ethic must recalculate the payoff of Pascal’s pari: we wager not on an eternity of existential bliss, but on sharing in the transcendent atemporality of human meaning.

The next step beyond religion is not the abolition of religion, but a new way of thinking that preserves the historical specificity of religious revelation while not itself participating in this specificity. Because the intuition of the originary scene is not divine revelation but hypothesis, it has no charismatic power. No doubt originary thinking, like Christianity, will gradually work out in history the lesson of its original revelation; but its origin, unlike that of Christianity, is a truly minimal event, Deriddean rather than Girardian, with no reality beyond its written trace. The ethic implicit in the originary hypothesis is to repeat on every occasion the minimality of this event–in practical terms, to suspect and reduce the signs of centrality. This is an esthetic more anti-heroic still than that of Christ on the cross–the protagonist’s ultimate humiliation is to become invisible.

There has surely never been a time when the public scene of representation has been so discredited as today, even as it remains at the horizon of our accomplishments. Everyone seeks fame, yet there is no longer any legitimate way to be famous. The closest thing we have to a heroic figure in our public life is Colin Powell, whose minority status would have allowed him to occupy the center in the most unexclusionary way possible, but who turned down an excellent chance at the world’s most prestigious job out of a healthy distrust of centrality under any circumstances. Powell is heroic by the very fact of having refused to take the heroic position, of having accepted to disappoint his potential admirers. In an age of such heroism, we can begin to appreciate the virtues of an ethic of minimality.