In his final work,The New Science of the Enchanted Universe (Princeton, 2022), published posthumously with the aid of his son and others, Marshall Sahlins returns to the sacred, the element of human culture central to the perspective of the founders of the discipline of anthropology, and in particular, to the “enchanted universe” of immanentist religion, which has largely given way to the transcendentalist religions that arose in what Jaspers called the “Axial Age” of the final centuries BC. In this analysis he was preceded notably by Alan Strathern, whose historical study Unearthly Powers (Cambridge UP, 2019) makes frequent reference to Sahlins.
Generative anthropology shares this foundational focus, but with the added insight of the originary equivalence of the sacred with the significant: what is worthy of linguistic representation. As a result, the scenario of the originary hypothesis permits us to clarify the difference between the immanentist religious perspective and the transcendentalist vision first crystallized for Western culture in Judaism, and in the East primarily by Buddhism.
As discussed in Chronicle 727, The Dawn of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) by David Wengrow and David Graeber, a sometime colleague of Sahlins, reveals that the difference between egalitarian and hierarchical societies is not as simple as we tend to think. The book points out that some not-yet-stratified societies had chiefs in some seasons and not in others, depending on the economic and military tasks they needed to perform. A relevant point made by Sahlins is that, in contradiction to the Durkheimian idea that social structures provide the model for religious hierarchies, sacred hierarchies already exist in egalitarian societies and may be said to provide a model for human hierarchies rather than the inverse.
But in the absence of an originary hypothesis, such observations lack a concrete ontological basis: why does the category of the sacred arise at all? Only once having defined the human by its deferral of violence through representation under the aegis of the sacred are we ready to understand that religious cosmologies, however pluralistic, tend toward a single center, given the unitary scenic organization of human culture from the outset. The sacred as a commonly felt will that preserves the community from conflict, whatever the variety of nonhuman “wills” encountered by the community, remains the central source of providential protection of this community from its potentially divisive mimetic desires.
Sahlins’ final work nonetheless presents an important insight into the evolution of the sacred as marked by the internal dialectic between the newer more radical transcendentalist religions and the immanentist conceptions that are never altogether dispensed with, with Christianity’s trinitary God marking the most ambitious attempt at synthesis. What is important from the generative-anthropological perspective is to demonstrate how our more concrete etiology of the sacred/significant clarifies this historical progression, which never leaves immanentism altogether behind. Empirical observation can discover real correlations, but in the absence of an originary hypothesis cannot situate them with respect to their origin.
Here is the kernel of Sahlins’ distinction, as expressed in the conclusion to his New Science:
Without ambitions to rule others, people submit to a world of powers that are acting among them, immanently and at all times, to determine their fate. Hence, it would be a mistake to say that the people “invented” the “spirits,” that they created the gods in their own image, or accord them some such ultimate power over the Powers. People did not create the gods out of thin air; they only hypostatized the forces that were already conditions of their existence. I repeat: humans did not imagine the gods, they only objectified, or more precisely, subjectivized, the extra-human forces by which they themselves lived and died. The forces were already there. They were not imagined. They were real, empirical, life-giving and death-dealing forces. People only gave them substantive qualities that made them negotiable, or at least intelligible—consciousness, understanding, volition, and intention. They hypostatized these existential forces as persons, hidden souls with whom their own hidden powers or souls might communicate, but who, as the instantiation of these forces, were metapersons.
(174-175; italics the author’s)
It is precisely “the forces that were already conditions of their existence,” which Sahlins takes for granted to be external forces, that must rather be understood in the terms of our hypothesis, grounded in our assumption that the human, as defined by language, the sacred, and the culture that emerges from them, originates as the survival mechanism of a species that, as a result of its growing mimetic intelligence, comes to pose a greater danger to itself than does its external environment. It follows from this assumption that the most significant “forces” Sahlins refers to, rather than the dangers posed to the originary human community by the outside world, are those the proto-humans have come to pose to themselves as a unified community.
This does not of course imply that the participants are directly aware of this controlling factor. But it adds a cognitive element to what Sahlins presents throughout as a pure effect of social organization, as though immanentism and transcendentalism, despite the clearly more cognitively advanced societies to which the latter has given rise, were simply arbitrary alternatives with respect to the anthropological understanding they reflect. Although the “bottom line” is indeed the ability of these belief systems to maintain social order rather than their anthropological accuracy, to understand the sacred as a transcendental reality of the human community as such rather than a force inherent in the “metapersonal” worldly realities, human or otherwise, to which it comes to be attached constitutes a higher level of anthropological self-understanding.
Why is the immanentist vision so congenial to the members of pre-hierarchical societies, such that only the “Axial” turning-away from what Voegelin called the “compact” archaic empires, whether in Israel, India, Greece, or China, could inspire the idea of transcendent being, of a distinct ontological status that corresponds in its mode of reality to that of the purely ideal objects of language, which are instantiated in the world without ever being objectified?
Sahlins’ point that the hierarchy of sacred agents, rather than being a reflection of the social structure of elementary societies, instead anticipates it, in fact corroborates the originary hypothesis. It is this hierarchy that reflects the underlying unity of the sacred, which must adapt itself to the individual beings that surround us, animals, weather conditions, plants needed for nourishment and/or clothing and protection, but is ultimately unified not by the coordination of the wills of the various metapersons conceived as embodied in natural beings, but by the fundamental need of the human community to protect itself against internal disorder, which need assigns to these worldly agents linguistic signs as indicators of their significance. The understood unity and hierarchy of these agents is not that of their existence in nature, but of their existence with respect to the human community that depends on them, always in the context of an underlying communal order which is the sine qua non for all other human activities.
The world’s two chief historical examples of transcendentalist religions are Christianity (along with Islam, its more strictly transcendentalist “Abrahamic” cousin) and Buddhism. In Chronicles 515–516 I examined the essential opposition between the Western and “Eastern” notions of paradox, found respectively in the writings of Zeno of Elea and the Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna, as reflective of their divergent modes of transcendentality. In both cases, the transcendentalist world-view can be situated with respect to the scene of the originary hypothesis; each involves the selection within the scenic model of what is understood as the essential element.
Christianity engages maximally with the sacrificial element of the scene. The identification of the Jews’ One God with the sacrificial victim faces up to the violence that is not merely a means of procuring nourishment, but whose source may be conceived from a human standpoint as the violence we would do to each other in the absence of the sacrificial figure—whence Girard’s excessive emphasis on the human “emissary victim” as the generative element of the originary scene.
In contrast, the Buddhist conception privileges not the central figure but the scenic locus itself, particularly insofar as each isolated individual can contemplate the scene within his own mind independently of the collective scene focused on a central object of common desire. Meditation and the “mindfulness” life-style measures associated with Buddhism in the West are all ways of recalling the “transcendent” permanence of the scene itself, in contrast with whatever worldly action may take place on it. Like Sartre’s pour-soi, which is separated from l’Etre by a néant, the Buddhist scene is defined by its initial emptiness; only once the empty scene exists can it become the locus of human interactions. The layer of uniquely human consciousness added by the creation of language/culture, whose permanent virtual existence mediates our relationship to our perceptions and thoughts, is contrasted with the impermanence of the desires that this structure came into being in order to regulate. Whereas the Judeo-Christian religions accept the ongoing necessity of the potentially sinful relationship with the world that the scene facilitates, Buddhism concentrates on the scene itself as a means not merely of limiting human conflict and perpetuating communal harmony, but as the core of a universal “chain of being” that includes humanity as one element among the rest. Thus for Buddhism the focus on the scene is the key not merely to regulating worldly desire but à la limite to doing away with it altogether in the state of nirvana, a paradoxical eternal non-being perhaps best understood as analogous to that of a signified, an Idea.
As a matter of practicality, although Buddhism is in principle atheistic, in actual practice (notably in Japan, with which I am minimally familiar), it tends to be supplemented by a local theism of an immanentist type, with Shinto shrines existing alongside Buddhist temples and receiving frequent donations. That the Axial transition in the East was characterized by a subjective turning away from worldly violence (“sin”) rather than engaging with it helps explain the lesser focus of Asian cultures on understanding and mastering the structures of external reality through science and technological development. In contrast, the impact on these cultures of Western modernity, understood “dialectically,” explains why—beginning with Japan in the Meiji era—modern Asians tend to be more naturally drawn to these sectors than the jaded descendants of their Western initiators.
It is easy enough to understand why immanentism should be the mode in which emergent humanity conceptualizes the external forces it encounters. In the originary scenario, although our analysis distinguishes between, on the one hand, the sacred will that deters the participants from coming to blows over the division of the prey animal and, on the other, whatever force they conceive as embodied in the (dead) animal itself, at the origin, the sign as an aborted gesture of appropriation could distinguish only between the sacred/significant object of universal attention and the (profane/insignificant) rest of the universe.
Sahlins’ “enchanted world” is a romantic fantasy only from the standpoint of our own disenchanted world. As ethnographers have described the mentality of its inhabitants, it appears far more fearsome than idyllic. All that the participants in the originary event would know concerning the sacred will that prevents them from fighting over the prey is that the desired source of protein is for the moment interdicted. The gesture/sign is directed at the animal, the original aim of the “gesture of appropriation,” but given this gesture’s abortion, the sign points to the animal specifically as a locus of sacred interdiction. It cannot distinguish within that locus between the object pointed to and the (sacred) force that dictates the participants’ deferral of appropriation of the animal until all the participants’ desires have become coordinated in a communal action.
Thus in this originary use of the sign, its referent conflates the prey animal with the interdiction that sacralizes it, just as all language may be said to defer the possible appropriation of its referent for a moment of sacred contemplation. Although lacking the explicit syntax of a declarative sentence or a negative imperative, the originary sign as a gesture of renunciation/interdiction that confers significance on the animal sets it off from the “ordinary” world of what Sartre called the en-soi and instead makes it available on a collective and individual scene of representation or pour-soi as the embodiment of the interdicting/deferring will that acts upon it. Thus it should not surprise us that humanity could acquire only through the long experience of diverse forms of human authority an intuition of the independence of the sacred from its temporary worldly incarnations.
Further reflection will be necessary to explore what had been until recent times the most prominent feature of transcendentalist religion: the emphasis on the afterlife of the soul, the agent of human différance/deferral, whether in an other-worldly heaven/hell as in the Abrahamic religions, or, as in Buddhism, via an “eternal return” into beings whose degree of transcendent spirituality is dictated by the accumulation or dispersal of (immanent) karma.