Even for the most enthusiastic partisan of GA, its apparent disconnection from the nitty-gritty of anthropology in the traditional sense is bound to pose a problem. Readers in humanistic fields sometimes call me, as they did René Girard, an “anthropologist,” but real anthropologists who spend months and years in jungles and tundra learning the ways of hunter-gatherer societies are understandably unwilling to admit such as we into their fraternity.
Yet after a generation of “French Theory,” there is no longer an established academic field in which GA, or for that matter, Girard’s “mimetic theory,” can find a place. What has happened is that the anthropological profundity of deconstruction, whose core is its unearthing of the central role of deferral in the emergence of our species and its representational culture, has been overwhelmed by the quasi-Marxist politics to which it was at first associated and then subordinated. This division was clear enough in Jacques Derrida’s career, when with Glas (1974) its anthropological side, with its titillating paradoxes, began to appear merely ornamental, and was in the space of a decade or two abandoned.
Thus the field of literary anthropology that played a major role in our intellectual life for over a generation in the late 20th century has shrunk back into the world of English and comparative literature departments, abandoning the quest for humanity’s fundamental truths for such things as the exploration of traditionally tabooed sexualities. In consequence, the fascination exercised during the French Theory era by deconstruction on social science departments has worn off. Anthropology perhaps more than the others has sought to return to solid ground by abandoning speculative macro-notions for empirical micro-investigations. Its striking neglect of religion demonstrates to what extent it has lost the sense of the human as communal and scenic, as though the production of stone tools—for which much archaeological evidence is available—were the archetypal human activity.
I need not insist that the lack of paleontological evidence for our hypothesis does not imply its disconnection from lived human reality. The parallels between our scene of origin and cultural practices throughout human history are evidence of its validity as a heuristic model for understanding these practices.
As I suggested in Chronicle 760, the closest analogies to the originary hypothesis are to be found in the creation stories of the world’s religions. Although the schematism of the hypothesis cannot simply be put in parallel with these stories, they share the necessity of accounting for the origin not merely of a new biological species but of an entirely new form of self-consciousness, one that is from the beginning expressed in narrative form within human communities themselves rather than remaining, like scientific consciousness, external to its object.
In Roy Rappaport’s terms, religion and language emerge coevally, so that their coincidence may be said to offer a minimal definition of the human in its transcendence of the biological mode of existence. The collective scene, governed by the mimetic tension among its participants, discovers in the deferral of appropriative action from the fear of conflict the possibility of conscious sharing. The origin of the sign as an “aborted gesture of appropriation,” resulting from the need to avoid the potential conflict that such appropriation risks bringing about, designates its object as one of common significance, hence of sacrality, to the human community.
Given this originary model, the question posed to the separate faiths is how they differ in situating the human subject in relation to what is experienced as a providential will guaranteeing by means of the interdiction of individual appropriation the survival and perpetuation of the human community. It would be foolish to seek to construct a priori a paradigm of such configurations. Those which remain extant today, notably those belonging to religions that arose during the “Axial Age” of liberation from the “compact” societies of the archaic empires, are the products of millennia of historical experience. It is in the dialogue between our hypothetical event and the distillation of this experience that we must seek to understand the religions that have served as the spiritual bases for post-Axial and eventually modern civilizations.
After publishing The Origin of Language in 1981, I sought to extend its originary dialectic to the domain of literature, from Gilgamesh and the “Tale of Sinuhe” to the end of the Classical era. The result, entitled The End of Culture, appeared in 1985.
Today, were I a couple of decades younger, I might well attempt something similar in the domain of religion. It would be in fact a more compact, better defined project, given that, unlike the history of literature and the arts, the essential history of the major world religions ended for practical purposes with the creation of Islam. The Reformation was rather a return to a “purer” Christianity in reaction against Church corruption (the “indulgences”) than a new development, and more recently emerged religions such as Mormonism have been essentially offshoots of the old.
In default of such a major project, I can nonetheless attempt to outline the way in which the major world religions relate to the substance of the originary hypothesis. This project, extending the Judeo-Christian/Western vs Buddhist/Eastern comparison in Chronicles 515–516, would hopefully serve to encourage in-depth research by demonstrating the usefulness of the originary hypothesis as the foundation upon which all religions elaborate their belief-systems. What follows is a preliminary sample.
The Axial religions
There is a clear sense in which the transcendental Axial religions, in contrast to their immanentist predecessors, may be seen as attempts to return to an originary sense of the sacred from the distraction constituted by attributions of sacrality to objects and persons in the world. In our hypothesis, the sacred is experienced as prior to the human community, which it constitutes. But whereas the Axial religions, each in its way, posit the sacred as an extratemporal reality revealed in time to the human community, our minimal anthropology understands the sacred as in the first place a common sense of interdiction, distinct from a reflexive inhibition in the Pavlovian sense because it is experienced consciously. It defines a desire that cannot be kept or driven out of consciousness but must be recalled and denied because, as in the originary event, the desirability of the central object is a mark of its value to the community and not just to the desiring individual.
That the hypothesis can explain such things “minimally,” using Ockham’s razor as its watchword, by no means implies that this minimality is accessible to the participants in the originary event or in those that immediately follow. On the contrary, the millennial existence of immanentist religions makes clear that our notion of the sacred as a unitary phenomenon was not that of its early worshipers.
Whatever adjustments may be necessary to Jaspers’ conception of the “Axial Age” as outlined in his Origin and Goal of History (German original, 1949), it corresponds clearly enough to a growth in humanity’s self-comprehension, most significantly including both monotheism and metaphysics in the same general movement. Thus the Axial religions are far closer to each other than their immanentist predecessors; all rely on a “secular” view of worldly reality as subject to, but not embodying, the transcendental spiritual force of the sacred. The relative stability of these religions over the past millennium and more suggests that they represent a well-defined stage of human self-consciousness—one greatly perturbed by the rise of the epistemology of resentment in the early modern era that reached a high point in the French Revolution.
Given the immense historical significance of this development, it is curious that relatively little effort has been devoted to studying its epistemological implications. It was never a theme of French Theory, which had little to say about pre-Classical literature. Eric Voegelin’s distinction between compact and free societies parallels Jaspers’ categories, but in the absence of a reliable theory of human origin, exactly what the Axial Age discovered about the human is impossible to define in rigorous terms. Marshall Sahlins in his valedictory The New Science of the Enchanted Universe (Princeton, 2022) focuses on the immanentist religions from an anthropological perspective. Perhaps the most thorough study of the immanentism/transcendentalism dichotomy can be found in Alan Strathern’s Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History (Cambridge UP, 2019), although the book’s focus in on religion’s relationship to social governance rather than its effect on epistemology.
Immanentism attributes sacrality to the things of this world, whereas transcendentalism recognizes that these things are only sacred/significant in the context of the transcendentally assured providential survival of the human community. Transcendental religion posits the ontological dependence, conceived not as probabilistic but as necessary, of this survival on the transcendental sacred. The force of religious faith is that it accepts the need to affirm the absolute nature of the interdiction that protects the sacred object, not as emanating “magically” from that object itself or from forces immanent within it, but from the universal providence that preserves the human community from self-destruction, yet with the understanding that humans must themselves will this protection by obeying the interdiction, which they must nevertheless remain free to disobey.
Both immanentism and transcendentalism attribute the force of the sacred to something outside the human, but the first fetishizes the objects that appear to embody this force rather than understanding, as does the second, that the force is independent of the objects that arouse it, because their interdiction concerns not the preservation of the objects themselves but that of the human community from the force of mimetic desire, whose relationship to its specific objects is secondary to its operation within this community itself.
In this Chronicle, I will limit myself to the element of the human soul that can be shown to be reflected in all the Axial religions: the sense that humans are responsible for their disobedience to sacred interdiction. As Milton put it, we were made “sufficient to have stood, but free to fall.” Hence the function of religion is to discourage such disobedience by demonstrating the punishments it will incur in contrast to the eternal benefits of the contrary exercise of virtue. The source of such disobedience is the “original sin” of Adam and Eve under the influence of the serpent in Genesis 3.
This Christian term refers to the outcome of the sequence in which the serpent tempts Eve, who tempts Adam to eat the apple. How does this sad finale to the joys of Eden fit in with what in our originary hypothesis sounded like a happy ending: the communal feast celebrating the equal division of the prey that its sacred deferral made possible?
The point of the Bible story is that God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree, although emanating from the unique source of the sacred, is not the equivalent of his command “Let there be light!” Directed to humans, as will be the Ten Commandments and the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, this is a law that must be consciously obeyed, and can hence be disobeyed. The things of nature that God creates cannot talk back; God’s language is about them but not addressed to them. Whereas, to follow his orders, humans must constantly defer what they presumably desire, since in the absence of desire, God’s command would be unnecessary.
What is presented as God’s “learning process” in Genesis, which continues through the Flood and the Tower of Babel and leads eventually to his election of Abraham as the source of God’s own people, can be understood simply as the course of human history. If the first humans at their feast thought that henceforth the sacred would providentially resolve all conflicts before they started, they would soon have learned the contrary. Once one’s action is mediated by God’s language, it can be mediated by the serpent’s language as well. To follow God’s commandment, one must keep the lesson of the collective scene always in memory, whence the central role of scripture, of the Torah.
That the serpent as one of God’s creatures is given the human power of speech is a sign that language cannot be limited to the “chosen.” And that Eve was not God’s original human creation, that she received his command only at second hand, explains her openness to an alternative to the order established in the originary event—at which we may assume that no women were present, since hunters left their females with the children. Indeed, given that even today only the most liberal of Abrahamic religions grant women an equal ceremonial status, one can well imagine that in originary times, they would not have had access to language.
Hence Eve’s resentment is no stranger to modern feminism. But the condemnation of “patriarchy,” like all expressions of the epistemology of resentment, interprets divergence from the symmetry of the originary event as a form of oppression dictated by la loi du plus fort. The pragmatic/providential explanation of the superior status of men in traditional religion and society is simply that men are more potentially violent than women, more likely to engage in mimetic conflict. If women have generally been treated as “inferior”—while at the same time more precious—it is because, while controlling their potential for violence is less urgent, controlling their capacity for reproducing the species is a major communal concern. These are points in the “battle of the sexes” that women have always understood, as well as that the pragmatic role of the various religions in this domain is not simply an excuse for patriarchal repression.
The alternatives of humble submission to the law, as in Islam, or the attainment of moral equilibrium by putting away desire, as in Buddhism, provide simpler solutions than Judeo-Christianity’s foregrounding of the struggle to align one’s desire with the needs of one’s fellow humans, but they are in each case appeals to the moral self-consciousness, the soul, of the individual human, in contrast to the magical practices of immanentism.
Which solution is superior? The West has dominated the modern world so far, but given the current state of “the worst system except…” we may ask whether Christianity is capable of maintaining its hold on the social order, whether the Jewish nation-state can maintain its unity, or whether the West’s Marxist “heresy” can maintain its grip on nations with chips on their shoulders.
It may well be that it is Buddhist withdrawal from desire and its attendant karma that holds out the greatest hope for our species’ survival. To contemplate the scene of representation as a scene, one that we observe from within, as a play within the play of life, may be humanity’s best hope, whether before or after AI has become able to supply the bulk of our practical needs.
Could Buddhism return to its Indian birthplace to make peace between the Muslims and the Hindus, it would have at its disposal the world’s largest population in a multinational land of millennial culture, yet one that unlike the Western powers, Russia, China, or even Iran/Persia, has never known world hegemony. There are worse ways to conceive the End of History…