There is no need to restate a general theory of the sacred. Many others have already supplied that. I shall limit myself here to locating a few points of reference.
First of all, I would like to say that in my view the sacred is not one of the categories of religion. Religion, rather, is one possible rendition of the sacred. Surely it cannot be said that “every religious concept (this term is broader than religion) implies a distinction between the sacred and the profane.” That distinction itself is a mark of the sacral concept of the world. A sacral society is one in which everything, including whatever is not sacred, is judged from the standpoint of the sacred. The profane is not the sacred, but it can exist only in a society which orders everything with reference to the sacred. The fact that man treats a given element as sacred does not mean that the rest is not sacred for the world is a whole. What it means is that the rest is located with reference to the ever present sacred.
I shall not, of course, get into the debate over the objective existence of the sacred itself, or over man’s fabrication of the sacred out of whole cloth, in terms of illusion, invention, fantasy, or primitive ecstasy. I am drawing no conclusions about those possibilities. I simply note that there is a whole order of experiences which is absolutely essential (to the extent to which no one has yet been able to escape it), which cannot be reduced to rational categories, to “explications” (which always presuppose duplication), and which is experienced even when one means to curtail and eliminate it.
I note, also, that man always ends by referring, most often unconsciously, to this order of experiences, and that it is from that standpoint ultimately that he assigns meaning, purpose and limits, both to the world in which he lives and to his own life. On the other hand, it is a sphere of the greatest disinterestedness, for, in referring to this, man is not pursuing a goal. The goal will appear when he attempts to lay hold of the sacred and, in so doing, gives it a sociological form. Yet, at the same time, it is a sphere of total interest, for the whole person is involved and ultimately finds there his meaning and his non meaning. Only with the greatest difficulty can all this be designated and described. Man never assigns a clear and explicit “sphere” to the sacred, yet we always come upon its secondary trail in every age and in every activity, over and above what man expresses openly and pretends outwardly to be.
Any attempt to pinpoint this experience requires that one be on one’s guard against all the simplisms. There is the romantic simplism, which says that a sacred is expressive of an emotion in the face of the great spectacles and forces of nature. There is the rationalistic simplism relating the sacred to whatever is set aside for use in worship. Then there is the political simplism, according to which the sacred is a means whereby the powerful and the heads of state establish and maintain their authority. The materialistic simplism describes it as a fantasy on the part of a person powerless to grasp the real-we could go on and on.
On the other hand, we must also be on our guard against complex and ultimately nebulous designations of the sacred as : “what is decisively important for man,” “that from the standpoint of which man is going to judge everything,” “that which cannot be called in question, which is beyond man’s reach, and about which man tolerates no discussion.” That may all be true, but it is much too broad, too uncertain. In the last analysis, such approaches aim at something far beyond the sacred and are totally lacking in Precision.
Inescapably, if man sets up a sacred, there is some reason behind it. Yet I always find it hard to believe that, if “primitive” man had a great capacity, a great intelligence as a worker, a speaker, an artist, an organizer, he was afflicted with downright stupidity the moment some other type of expression was involved, such as the religious, the mythical, the sacred, the magical. Such a total break at that point is very improbable. Therefore, I think the sacred must have had a meaning just as real as the fabrication of the first tools.
1. Functions and Forms
If we bypass the fearful sacred, the tremendum as such, we perceive that the sacred establishes a certain type of relationship with the world. Man’s movement toward sacralization has its source in his relations with the universe. In a world which is difficult, hostile, formidable, man (unconsciously, spontaneously, yet willingly, to be sure) attributes sacred values to that which threatens him and to that which protects him, or more exactly to that which restores him and puts him in tune with the universe. What was achieved in the early ages, this integration into a threatening and reassuring totality, in which man restored his life forces, has been destroyed. It has to be reconstituted, perhaps for the first time in history. In that consists the depth of humanity’s crisis today. Man is in search of whatever is going to assure him of this universal communication, this life-giving force, and this refuge in which he can be restored.
But this search, this new sacralization, can (like the other) be carried out only in terms of the most all-embracing, the most profound, the most moving experiment that man could make. The sacred has to relate to man’s necessary condition, to that which is inevitably imposed upon him, to that which he must experience without any possibility of remission. He has to attribute an ultimate quality to that condition because it is inevitable. He has to place a value on it because it has been imposed upon him. He has to transmute it into the order of the sacred because he cannot conceive of himself outside of that order. It is a despairing call for mastery over that which escapes him, for freedom in the midst of necessity.
One is always impressed with the restrictive character of the sacred, imposing taboos, limits, prescriptions. In reality, however, the institution of the sacred is an affirmation by man of an order of the world, and an order of the world with which he is familiar, which he designates and names. For man, the sacred is the guarantee that he is not thrust out into an illogical space and a limitless time. We always have a false meaning of freedom whenever we think that a given restriction on our actions is a restriction of freedom, when it may be a condition for freedom. To be able to do “anything at all,” “whatever comes into my head,” is not livable. I can exist only in a certain order, and my freedom exists only if it operates in a certain order. The sacred is the order of the world.
To be specific : thanks to the sacred, man possesses a certain number of points of reference. He knows where he is. It saves his continually having to make exhausting decisions. He has stable coordinates. Thanks to the sacred, he can be oriented in the world and know where and how to act. He is not in a deadly weightlessness, nor a crazy kaleidoscope. Everything in the world is not identical and indifferent. The sacred designates for him a set of guides and discriminations, ready-made to facilitate life in this Universe.
It can be objected that these are false points of reference and unfounded discriminations. However, even if I concede that there may be no sacred as such to which man’s loyalty is restricted, even if I concede that the sacred is a pure creation of man, at least I’ll say that this order which man imposes on the world appears false and ridiculous to us because we judge by other criteria, but that is not the way things are in that man’s perspective. I’m not at all certain that the world order imaged by our modern science is objectively that which is. That, too, is a matter of an appearance obtained by a set of methods which we consider exact and superior. The fact is, we have no assurance that they, in their turn, might not be judged and ridiculed on the basis of some other point of departure. Our only guarantee is the efficaciousness of the experience. Now, for the “primitives,” they claimed to have the same guarantee through the sacred!
So the sacred, in the process of establishing an order, has a function of discrimination. Everything operates in pairs (pure/impure, permitted/forbidden, etc.). It places in front of and around man a certain number of boundaries, of limits. Thus it defines a domain in which man is free, together with a forbidden, or rather, an untouchable domain. The domain is one of actions, rites, places, and times. The points of reference and the limits always have a very firm, and finally, a very pragmatic quality. It is always a matter of knowing what it is possible to do, and sometimes how and where to do it. From then on, the sacred defines a certain order of action, for it is precisely that action which cannot be carried out thoughtlessly. It is appointed in a given space. The sacred is an organization of action in a space, and at the same time it is the establishment of a geography of that space in which the action can be undertaken. It is a veritable general topography of the world, involving all aspects of the latter, material and spiritual, transcendent and close at hand.
By reason of that fact, the sacred is a bestower of meaning, for obviously the two aspects, meaning and orientation, must not be separated. The sacred gives orientation thanks to the topography, but in so doing it attributes a significance to the acts which I perform. The latter cease to be senseless. They are arranged according to a set of signs which make it possible each time to perceive the meaning of what I am doing. So the sacred defines an order in space, thanks to which I receive meanings (which, moreover, make perfect sense; meaning is possible only in relation to a certain order).
However, the sacred also has to do with time. What seems noteworthy here is that the sacred always appears to play a reverse role in relation to time, because the sacred time is that of festival, of transgression, of ecstasy, hence of disorder.
But this reversal, as I consider it to be, needs to be rightly understood. The sacred time is inserted into the sacred order as a period of legitimate disorder, of transgression included in order. In other words, the sacred time does not usher in an era of anarchy, a lunatic history. It is not the absolute beginning of something other. It is the insertion into the course of time of a limited period, determined in advance, during which transgression is the rule, just as taboos had been the rule previously. It is a time between the times, a silence between words, a plunge into the absolute origin, which one must come out of in order to begin. It is a plunge into chaos, which one must come out of if the order is to have force, virtue, and validity. It is a delimitation of the time during which the dark powers can act, an opening into that which man distrusts but cannot eliminate.
At this point, let us avoid explanations which are too modern (a time in which man lets himself go, after having been too repressed during normalcy, etc.). It is better to stay with this feature of the delimitation of the moment of the dark powers, whatever they may be. Thus the sacred time is also an element in the overall topography. It releases a set of forces, and supplies a set of reference points to guide the action and to make it efficacious.
Finally, the sacred has a third function, that of integrating the individual into the group. The sacred cannot exist except as a collective. It has to be received and lived in common. Conversely, the group has no solidarity unless everyone participates in the same sacred. I am not saying that it is a means of solidifying the group, because that implies a conscious intention, something never found in the institution of the sacred. But it is indeed a function. A group never exists on the basis of clear intention. The form which constitutes the group is the opposite to a contract. The latter can take place only after there has been a sufficiently powerful motive for concluding a contract. If such motives are purely voluntary, the contract, like the group, is very fragile, for nothing is less enduring than the will.
A genuine, strongly cohesive group presupposes an urge or a reference to a transcendent, an imperative received and recognized by all, and to which all have recourse. That is the only thing that can establish a lasting group in the face of all the reasons which all the members constantly have to withdraw, to go their several ways, and to despise the others. If today we are able to display a very great independence toward our groups, if we think to be very individualistic, that is possible only because we are living in a very “protected/protecting” society. Whenever there is no social security, the solidarity of the family or of the neighborhood becomes a matter of life or death. The converse is also true. Whenever there is no longer any solidarity of the family or the neighborhood, the individual is so threatened that social security becomes a necessity. In the world situation prior to this century, it was impossible to survive without a number of groups responding to every need. However, no group can survive with sufficient power solely on the basis of conscious interest. In other words, man can live thanks only to the group. Yet that necessity neither establishes the group nor strengthens it. Man is not the mechanism he is too often described as being, who automatically pursues his interest in all areas. It takes a higher urge, a commonly recognized experience, a reason which eludes all reason. It takes a motivation which we not only feel inscribed within us but which also imposes itself upon us, like the love urge. A social group can exist only if all its members are included in a common “reason,” are subject to an imperative recognized as transcendent. They must be living in a community relationship, not one, of course, which is constant or openly recognized, but one which is latent, and so basic that it can bloom outwardly only in rare moments. Yet everybody shares in this order.
Thanks to the sacred, and to that alone, there can be harmony between the individual and the group. Through participation in, through insertion into the sacred, man is led to accept and adopt all the group behavior. The most excessive, the most whimsical, the most illogical demands are responded to as a matter of form, either because they are expressions of the sacred or because they are understood through a diffusion of sentiment from the sacred. Human sacrifice, self-sacrifice, deification of the king, cannibalism, deviant sexual practices, etc., are all normalized. The sacred brings about normalization through the justification which it supplies. Everything, in fact, which participates in the sacred order is justified in such a way that there can be no further moral problem. Morality is a product of those societies in which the sacred fades out and tends to disappear. It is a weak substitute for that which had been radical, ultimate, and established beyond dispute. The more morality is rational, the further removed it is from the sacred, and the weaker it is. Anyone participating in the order of the sacred feels so completely righteous that he can have no remorse. If, on the other hand, he disobeys, it isn’t a question of the “evil” he may have done, of sin, of remorse. It is, rather, a question of being struck down by the group. Once he has put himself in opposition to the sacred order, he cannot survive. It isn’t just a matter of the group’s having been contaminated by the impure, or infiltrated by the forces of evil. It is, rather, that the order which man had established for himself must be total if it is to be an order. If a person who has denied that order continues to survive, that is proof that the order is not an order, whence the irremediable character of every attack upon the sacred. It is the entire group which is called into question in such a way that it can be shattered only if the desacralizer survives. That is why, in the myths containing such stories, the powers of the group and of the entire order of man, of nature, and of the divine intervene simultaneously. They are all considered to be under simultaneous attack.
Given the functions which the sacred fulfills in human society, we can understand certain of the forms it assumes, certain of its aspects which are universally recognized. First of all, the sacred appears as the expression of the unpredictable, dark and destructive powers. It is a mysterious domain in which numerous unseen forces are presumed to act. It is the concentration of all that threatens and saves man. It has to be that if it is to be order, if it is to set limits and provide meaning and justification.
If man had clearly ascribed these functions to himself, he could not have taken them seriously. It is not because there is thunder and lightning that man invents the sacred. Man made the thunder the source of meaning and of limitation because the world has to have an order, because action has to be justified. With a spontaneity, an “instinct,” as inescapable as those he could have for hunting and fishing, man “knew” that he could not justify himself, that he could not tell himself that he was right (this approbation has no value and fails to reassure him because it leaves him in complete uncertainty). Neither can he say to himself that it is he who establishes an order in the world whereby he can locate himself. He hasn’t the means for doing that. That is why the development of techniques is desacralizing, insofar as through them man is able to establish his own order.
Thus the concentration of powers is linked to the function itself which the sacred was to assume, and they are powers with which there can be no compromise, no accommodation. Every transgression is impious, that is, inexpiable. No pardon can be looked for from within the system. A man cannot ransom himself: the powers are inexorable. The order of the world depends upon them.
A second form or quality of the sacred to be kept in mind is a remarkable combination of what we would call absolute value, rites of commitment, and embodiment in a person. These are human formalizations of the dark powers, but it is especially important not to dissociate those three aspects. What constitutes the sacred, what makes it visible, tangible, and an expression of the body social, is this combination of the powers. There is no sacred in a society unless absolute value, rites of commitment, and embodiment in a person are conjoined. Each of these factors is related to the other two.
The absolute value is one of the sure signs of what a given person or group holds sacred. There is the untouchable, or again, that which cannot be called into question. This defines the boundary of the sacred. One can argue or joke about a given idea, a given behavior, or criticize a given reality or person. Then, suddenly, one is brought to a halt by an icy coldness or a flush of anger. One has just attacked what the other holds sacred. No argument, no friendship, no understanding or good faith can survive such an offense. In this matter one may not laugh. Criticism is not acceptable. The very being of the person seems under attack. He reacts because he has the feeling of being uprooted. The nerve of a tooth has been exposed. The reaction is vital. Even if he has no clear knowledge of what the sacred is for him, even if he can’t explain it, he is laid bare at that point.
It is exactly the same for the sacred of “primitive” peoples. How many ethnologists have had this experience. They touched the stones which had been set up, the sculpted posts, the masks, all those things which are supposed to be sacred, and no one objected. Then, in a corner of a closed cabin, hidden in an angle of the woodwork, is an unnameable package containing nothing in particular. This they have no permission to inspect or to disturb. It is the heart of the sacred, from which everything is ordered. In this sense we can, of course, accept the idea of an ultimate sacred reality which cannot be altered or called into question.
But this absolute value (which can be maintained, incarnated, in anything whatsoever: an object, a human being, an animal, an idea, a place, a principle, a sociological reality) has to be combined with rites of commitment. These are more often referred to as rites of initiation, and of course that is what they are, rites of transition and initiation. Only after one has received a certain training, declared oneself and finally been “accredited,” can one enter without prejudice into this sacral world and participate in the collective sacred. But it is too often forgotten that this all involves a mark, or marks, often physical. The young initiate is “marked.”
At that point he is committed. He can no longer escape from the world order into which he has just been inserted. He becomes a participant in the rites, ceremonies, and forms, and through them he participates in the entire order, in which henceforth he has a role to play. Thus he is committed. He cannot renounce the sacred, nor violate it. He cannot think of not sticking to his role. The ultimate value of the group must become his ultimate value. He integrates all of society’s sacred into himself. He is within that order, and he becomes one of its units who must be active.
Finally, the sacred implies a person who embodies it, for the sacred must be incarnate. This person is not of the same order as a sacred object, or a sacred idea. The person in question is the one in the group who concentrates in himself all the “virtues” implied by the sacred. He is the living sacred in motion, actualized in the present. He is not in himself the point of reference of the entire world order, but he is the point of reference for all the people, to show them how they should act, how they should appear, and how they should behave toward the sacred.
Thus the sacred exists only when there are the three elements in combination. The rite of commitment implies a commitment to the sacred value, and at the same time it implies a fixation on the exemplary person as a model. The exemplary person is the most committed of all through more exacting rites and in close relation to the sacred value. The sacred value has no meaning unless people are marked to obey it and unless there is a man to incarnate it. Under those conditions the sacred can truly be an order of the world and not a metaphysical abstraction for dilettantes.
In addition, and this is the last form of the sacred I would like to call attention to, it was shown long ago that the sacred is organized around opposite poles which, though conflicting, are equally sacred. This implies an “ambiguity” of the sacred, as Roger Caillois has shown. The sacred is the coupling of pure/impure, holy/blemished, cohesion/dissolution, profane/sacred, respect/violation, life/death. It is important to remember that it cannot be said of these polarities that one term is sacred while the other is antisacred, or desacralizing. The sacred is the relation between the two. Just as there has to be a south and a north, a right and a left, for direction and for mapping a route, so the antithetical categories taken together are the sacred. Thus it is the sacred of respect and order which implies the sacred of violation. The latter would have no meaning were it not for the former. Likewise, the sacred is both “condition of life and gate of death,” as Caillois well puts it.
This organization around antithetical terms (which was discovered long before the application of the structuralist method) is a specific characteristic of the sacred. The same word often covers opposite things. Thus the sacred is that to which sacred respect is due and at the same that which is condemnable and ought to be expelled from the social body. The word covers two extremes between which there are no intermediate stages nor gradations (a person is totally pure or totally impure). Yet between the extremes there is a link, a relationship, a tension, an equilibrium, so that the one cannot exist without the other. It is around the axes thus established that the whole order of the world and of the society is organized. To us this may seem absurd and irrational. Perhaps it is, but the important thing is that there should be axes of orientation and criteria of discrimination. In other words, that the world should not be a horrible chaos in which All and Nothing would be equally present and equally possible.
Thus man constantly, and everywhere in the same way, has tried to establish an order, which implies something sacred. But the latter has frequently been called in question. That is, a principle of organization, once it has been put into operation, can, at a given moment and at the cost of much effort, be challenged and repudiated by someone, by a group located outside that world order. Thus Georges Gurvitch claims that such was the role of magic with respect to religion. Historically in the West we have known two attempts : Christianity, which called in question and desacralized the pagan sacred, and the Reformation, which called in question and desacralized the medieval sacred. In both cases there was an intent to desacralize radically. From the standpoint of the creator-God, who was at the same time a liberator, Jesus Christ, Lord of history and an incarnation of the love of God, a sacral world order was no longer necessary. The sacred has no place, no reason for existence in the biblical revelation. Primitive Christianity attacked the sacred of nature and the sacred of power in the Mediterranean world. The Reformation attacked the sacred of nature and of power which had been reinstated, and it also attacked the sacred of the church.
What is absolutely decisive in this double attack, which had been as profound as possible, is that, on the one hand, the sacred was irresistibly reinstated (which would go to prove that it is a human creation and an unavoidable necessity of such depth that it cannot be uprooted and of such vitality that it cannot fail), and on the other hand, what had been the instrument of desacralization became itself sacred. Thus Christianity for two hundred years succeeded in destroying the pagan sacred of nature and the sacred of power, in the name of Creation and of the Incarnation and of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Yet, what was to become the sacred after that?-the church, the revealed truth, the very thing that had been the instrument of desacralization. With that as a beginning, the remainder was reinstated. The natural order of Creation and the power of the emperor as the vicar of Christ became sacred. We must understand that with the ambiguous and conflicting (the pure/impure) structure surrounding the sacred, the process is, in fact, inevitable. Also, the sacred and the desacralizing agent are found inevitably to be building blocks of the social world. The sacred is such that it necessarily absorbs that which desacralizes.
Such was the experience with the Reformation. It attacked all the reinstated sacred, as well as the sacred of the church and of dogma. It did this in the name of Scripture as containing the revelation, and it set in motion an actual violation of moral regulation. It restored freedom to the person with respect to the economy, for example.
Then what happened? The Bible became the “sacred text.” It joined the game of the sacred. At all levels, the profaning actions became sacred actions (smash the statues of the saints, lend money at interest, and exploit natural riches, as God said to do). In addition, the ensuing conflict, the wars of religion, were typical of sacred conflicts. From that point on, everything was reinstated. The Protestant princes became sacred personages (and the republics became sacred as well). The Protestant church and morality are typically sacred. As far as nature is concerned, that is not treated as sacred in itself but, for one thing, its use becomes sacred and, for another, Protestants elaborate a natural law based on a specific sacred in nature.
Now we are witnessing a new enterprise of desacralization, in which we are currently involved, and which concerns us in this book. The tendency, since the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, toward desacralizing and “dereligionizing” (the two are not identical) is well known. One thinks right away, of course, of the action of scientifically minded persons and of philosophers, and that is not without its importance. The scientific process of the period, which tended to refer everything to the observable and the tangible, was a solid foundation-too much so! It was forgotten that the instruments which made the observations possible were limited, and that after all it was not impossible to make other observations with more delicate instruments. Moreover, in order to be able to apply the scientific method, it was necessary to delimit the object precisely and to isolate it. In consequence of this delimitation and isolation, everything not included in that field of experience counted for nothing. Ultimately a method of reasoning was established which made it possible to take into account a very great number of phenomena and thus to advance toward an understanding of nature-an understanding, which was mistaken for the understanding. This purely rational method excluded everything not susceptible to that type of reasoning and explanation.
For those various reasons, science appeared to be in outright conflict with religion, and to be a profanation of what man had held sacred up to that point. Now, with the emphasis on efficiency which began to gain ascendancy, it became obvious that religion up to the present has shown itself remarkably inefficient. Science, to the contrary, was ever more efficient in all the spheres which were set forth for man’s action and admiration. In addition, the sacred, that dark and mysterious domain in which unseen powers were supposed to act, also showed itself to be weak and without foundation. The terrible threats and the vengeance which profaners had always dreaded were never carried out.
Science quietly took over areas formerly held to be untouchable. It brought light into the darkness, and it stopped at nothing. Sacrilege never seemed to be struck by lightning. The illuminated darkness was not filled with powers or monsters, but only with bodies subject to algebraic calculation. One could calmly affirm that it was the suspension of reason which had given birth to monsters. This approach extended to all the available spheres, and history, like nature, ceased to be a place of mystery and miracle. Instead, history was seen as a rational chain of events linked together by discernible causalities, and involving the interplay of observable forces. All the rest which did not fit in with this systematizing was treated as non historic, as legend and untruth.
At that point a philosopher entered the picture to reduce everything to rationality, and a sociologist established the ages of humanity. Accordingly, the age of religion became an age of infancy, a period of images and illusions. Now that stage was over and done with, was radically superseded. Thanks to the sciences, humanity became adult, and the mark of an adult was reason. We had entered a new era. Progress was irreversible. Yet let us remember that, by a singular turn of events which can be called prophetic, this same sociologist in this era of rational science claimed to set up a new religion, to recover a “Virgin Mother,” and to found a cult.
Be that as it may, this intellectual, scientific, and philosophic evolution, which is so commonplace that it is needless to dwell on it, would surely not have sufficed to pull society in the direction of desacralization by rationality alone. It took events, group trends, common experiences which rendered man open and susceptible to that kind of thinking which was then vulgarized and made intelligible even to Monsieur Homais.
Now those events did take place. It is, of course, impossible to If assign priorities and to make a final determination whether the thought preceded the event or vice versa. Let us recall some events. One fact of importance which is too often neglected was the death of Louis XVI. The king had remained the sacred person in full force. The sacrality of Majesty, the arcana imperii, had persisted in the popular subconscious in the eighteenth century exactly as it had been in the twelfth century, or even in the seventh century before Christ. The condemnation and execution of the sacred person par excellence, the focal point of the sacred forces, the instigator, the initiator of vital powers, was a mutilating, uprooting experience and a loss of psychic moorings. A great psychoanalyst was of the opinion that the French people had not yet recovered from the shock in 1 793 and that that explains their reactions.
Along with that and more socially, perhaps more profoundly, the people as a whole were able to experience directly the results of the desacralizing science through the development of technology. We must remember that the negative reactions of individuals against technological innovations during that period (the introduction of steamboats, railroads, etc.) were not in the first instance motivated by considerations of personal advantage but were reactions in the category of the sacred. It was the fear of transgression, of the unleashing of secret powers, of the implementation of what had previously been thought untouchable and unnameable. But, as always happens in those spheres, the turnaround was for that very reason all the more total, and one passed from one extreme to the other because the sacred of transgression is but the obverse of the forbidden sacred.
Thus the untouchable domain, when it is profaned, becomes the domain of its opposite. Perfect purity, when it is desacralized, becomes the very rationale of prostitution. The secret, vital experience, once it is brought into the open, becomes an act of the most vulgarized and banal utility. So when the effectiveness of technology had triumphed over the sacred terrors and hatreds, it brought about this same reversal. It was the release of man along a path of efficacious rationality, the unbridled use of means, the increasingly rapid conquest of the most profound. The latter had to be profaned because nothing could any longer remain outside this expropriation. That would be another threat and another judgment. Yet the people of that period were unaware that this frenzy of exploitation was itself a sacred. Oh no, it was all clear and easily explained.
Finally, in addition to a number of other factors which we cannot deal with here, let us remember that this was also the era of urbanization. For many reasons, an increasing number of people left the country and crowded into the cities. They were workers for the most part, and some merchants. That had its desacralizing effect at two levels.
First, man is breaking his relationship with nature, with the vital resources, with the natural cycles, etc. The sacred was always an experience connected with nature. Man was part of this whole which had been given him. The sphere of the sacred always related to the world of nature. There had been no sacred except in relation to, and in respectful reserve toward, the phenomena of birth and death, of germination and the lunar cycle, etc. Man who leaves that milieu is still imbued with the feeling and imagery derived from the sacred. However, these are no longer revived and rejuvenated by experience. The city person is separated from the natural environment and, as a consequence, the sacred significations no longer have any point of contact with experience. They soon dry up for lack of support in man’s new experience with the artificial world of urban technology. The artificial, the systematized, and the rational seem incapable of giving birth to an experience of the same order, the more so since they are linked with the desacralizing movement, and since man is being trained by that means.
A second level at which urbanized man becomes part of the desacralizing trend is that of the structure of his work. Work in the country mediated the sacred order. Through such work man could share more profoundly in the sacred, which thereby became a constituent part of his experience. In contrast, the new type of industrial, mechanized work was essentially rational, without mystery or depth. It failed to mediate the world of nature. It did not involve learning from an independent power. It was not a risky cooperation with unknown forces whose menacing graciousness predominated, in the end, over our own actions.
In our day, mechanized work obtains clear and unambiguous results which can be calculated in advance without reference to an extraneous Wholly Other. Any interference from that direction could only be troublesome and negative. Moreover, the work of the beginner is in the same category of simple, legal relationships with sure and certain accountability, and results explained without recourse to mystery.
Work had once been filled with those secret things, with those hidden participations in a unitary world from which one snatched a fragment and became a Prometheus in so doing. Now, by contrast, work is a process of the global seizure of a world which, the more it is worked the more it is robbed of its depths. In this way man is experiencing desacralization. He is quite prepared to listen to and accept the message of pure rationalism, the demonstration that profanation is a good representing progress. Since he is experiencing profanation every day and is performing it himself, why shouldn’t he accept it?
Thus man today relates to a world which is clear, simple, and explicable, a world needing only to be put in order and which is capable of being put in order. It is a world transformed into an object from which man thinks to withdraw himself so as better to act upon it. He expels it in order to control it. He isolates himself from it in order to calculate its techniques. There really is no more sacred. Undoubtedly some peasant superstitions still persist, Catholic ceremonies and beliefs of the past, all of which are ultimately Doomed.
Corresponding to this progress of man, there is organization and lucid opinion. Politics as well is to be stripped of its participation in the sacred. Everything is completely explicable. No longer is it necessary to appeal to some mystical body, to some miraculous charisma, on behalf of the authority of the law or the sovereignty of the administrative power. Power is a matter of system. Again, organization is all that is needed.
Thus man thinks of himself as new, released from the crushing burden of the ancestral sacred. Now he is subject only to reason and will. That being the case, it is indeed true that what was formerly sacred, which had been destroyed, expelled and profaned, can never again be what it was. It is indeed true that the order of experiences which had been integrated into the sphere of the sacred, but which is now explained and rationalized, can never rise again from those ashes which are now scattered and swept away. It is indeed true that the former religions are dead and will never live again. For Christianity, this means that it cannot remain, nor ever again become, the religion it once was. It has to be itself, faith in the revelation of the Wholly Other, or nothing (unless some other path should lead it to a new adulteration and the chance to become some other religion). The sacred which has been profaned cannot, even in rapture, ever be sacred again. That would involve an act of the will which the wary unconscious rejects whenever lack of experience forbids its participation.
This is what sociologists and psychologists, between 1930 and 1950, loudly proclaimed as the “secularization” of our modern world. In truth they were a little late. The phenomenon we have described was characteristic of the nineteenth century.
3. The Sacred Today
On May 3, 1961, Premier Khrushchev, addressing himself to Abdel Nasser, said, “I am warning you in all seriousness. I tell you that communism is sacred.” He repeated that on several other occasions. Premier Khrushchev knew what speech was all about. He displayed great skill in it and was not given to using words carelessly. When he said solemnly that communism is sacred, it is unlikely that that was just a manner of speaking! Communism has entered that invisible, intangible, dreaded, and mysterious domain in which lightning and rainbows mature, and the Grand Master was attesting to that mutation.
The truth is that for nearly a half century we have witnessed a massive invasion by the sacred into our western world. Rational man has not been able to adhere to his rationality. In the end, the world is revealed to have a number of false bottoms. The more man penetrates into himself the more he is led to question the systematic certitudes so painfully acquired during the nineteenth century. We are detecting the remote depths which can no longer be concealed, and we have learned that our lucid intelligence rests on a base of mystery. We have seen reasonable man caught up in waves of mystic insanity and acting like a barbarian. We have witnessed the exasperated search for universal communions, from surrealism to jazz to eroticism. The fact is that man cannot live without participation in the sacred, and we are seeing his protest.
But man cannot retrace his steps. The forms and meanings of the sacred today can no longer be those of an enduring sacred. Man is forced to create something to serve as a sacred. Is it substitute or reality? I can’t say. In any event, it cannot be said that man is no longer religious just because Christianity is no longer the religion of the masses. To the contrary, he is just as religious as medieval man. It cannot be said that there is nothing sacred now just because we claim to have emptied out the sacred from nature, sex, and death. To the contrary, the sacred is proliferating all around us.
However, we must realize that the sacred is no longer located in the same place as before. It is obvious that man defines the sacred in relation to his own life milieu. That has to be the case if the sacred is really to be the unimpeachable, inviolable order to which man himself submits and which he uses as a grid to decode a disorderly, incomprehensible, incoherent world that he might get his bearings in it and act in it. It is in his own milieu that he has need of an order, of an origin, of a guaranteed possibility for a life and a future. It is for this milieu that it is important to have rules of behavior deriving from the sacred. Moreover, it is the milieu which provides man with his most universal, most rich and most fundamental experience, which gives the sacred its substance, its corporality, and which prevents its becoming a dry intellectual Construct.
It is, then, the milieu which is invested with sacred values. That milieu had once been the natural milieu. It was in relation to the forest, the moon, the ocean, the desert, the storm, the sun, the rain, the tree, the spring, the bull, the buffalo and death, that the sacred was ordered. As long as nature was man’s milieu, nature was the origin and object of the sacred. Man constructed his myths and religions in relation to nature. The sacred was the humanized topography of nature. In a secondary way, to be sure, there was also a sacred related to the group. When the group expanded to a certain size, sacred personages appeared, such as the king, the priest, or the magician. Yet it must not be forgotten that the group was immersed in nature, was impregnated by it, and established in relation to it. The nature/culture polarity was a couplet rather than a contradiction. Levi-Strauss has shown how man attempted to structure his group in terms of the classification which he established in the universal reality of nature. That was where his experience lay. That was the most direct manner in which he was present to the world. Finally, it was an attempt which did not vary greatly throughout scores of centuries because the milieu of man’s active experience remained the same.
The novelty of our era is that man’s deepest experience is no longer with nature. For most practical purposes it no longer relates to it. From the moment of his birth, man lives knowing only an artificial world. The dangers which confront him are in the domain of the artificial . Obligations are imposed not by contact with nature but solely by contact with the group. It is not for reasons of survival in the natural milieu that the group formulates its rules, its structures, and its commands. The reasons are entirely intrinsic. The relations of the group with other groups have become more unremitting and imperious than formerly and in any case more. imperious than the relations with nature had been. Nature now is subdued, subjugated, framed, and utilized. No longer is it the threat and the source, the mystery and the intrusion, the face and the darkness of the world-either for the individual or for the group. Hence it is no longer the inciter and the place of the sacred.
Man’s fundamental experience today is with the technical milieu (technology having ceased to be mediation and having become man’s milieu) and with society. That is why the sacred now being elaborated in the individual and in the collective consciousness is tied to society and technique, not to nature. The sacralized reality will have less and less reference to natural images and relationships. Formerly, when power participated in the sacred it was always in a sacred of nature (having to do with the power of fertility, Lupercalia, destructive powers, and revelatory powers, etc.). It was with reference to nature that the social power was exercised. Today, however, there is no longer any reason to make use of that reference. It simply has no meaning or content. It is the political power in itself which becomes the source and the instigation of the new sacred. Society now becomes the ground and the place of the forces which man discerns or feels as sacred, but it is a society turned technician, because technique has become the life milieu of man. The trouble is that this technical milieu is no more comprehensible (even though technology in itself is), no more reassuring, no more meaningful than the “natural” milieu. Man in the presence and at the heart of this technical milieu feels the urgent need to get his bearings, to discover meaning and an origin, an authenticity in this inauthentic world (Enrico Castelli). He needs axes of comprehension, of interpretation, of the possibility for action-that is, the sacred. Thus the desacralization of nature, of the cosmos, and of the traditional objects of religion is accompanied by a sacralization of society as a result of technology.
This corresponds exactly to what we discovered above, that the desacralizing agent becomes the center of the new sacred. The power which instigated the transgression of the old order cannot help being sacred itself. It enters the sacral world and finds itself endowed with an unquestioned presumption, which is all the more blinding for having triumphed over the first presumption. J. Brun emphasizes this very mechanism when he writes that the masters of desacralization in our modern era (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) “are henceforth held to be beyond suspicion. One sacralizes them, consecrates them. They have become the new sacred monsters, so that what we are witnessing is a reinstatement of the very sacred which we claimed to have exorcised.” Moreover, he shows how our political manifestos and petitions take on a sacred quality “replacing the encyclicals,” and that all our intentions to desacralize, “if they denounce the sacred as an expression, still imply it as a requirement.”
A second quality of the modern sacred we would like to emphasize is a result of the foregoing. In the world of the sacred, man is related to the world directly. There is a lack of distinction of subject from object, an immediacy of relations, an experience of totality. That was brought about in certain contacts between man and nature. Currently we are seeing a suppression of the distance between man and object, the restoration of an immediacy. But it does not have the same meaning as before. The irrational in which man places his hopes is in no way a surpassing of rationalism. It does not represent a new grasp of reality which would at last assure man of his being and his world. The reason is that this immediacy is a result of the very structuring of society into which man is integrated and assimilated, and to which he finds himself reduced.
One is forever seeking to make the integration more complete, more precise, in the hope that ultimately it would involve the whole man.
There is no more distance, but that is not because of an insertion into the sphere of the sacred. It is because of an insertion into the social mechanics. Man’s singular fate was that, in imposing on nature his lucidity, his analysis, and his language, he dissociated himself from her and entered a situation which he finds intolerable, that of an absence of communion. He continually has had to restore, and even to reorganize, the sacred. So by a remarkable turnaround we are witnessing in our day a reverse process. As a result of having imposed his reason, his technology, and his procedures on society, man finds himself forced into an extremely intimate association with society. Society can no longer live, move, or grow without a soul, and it can have no other soul than that of man. That is a need, and how can this need be denied by the great and powerful body which is filled with all the promises and threats?
Society can fulfill itself only by acceding to the sacred, but the latter exists only in immediacy with man and in the sacrifice of man. So here we are in this equally intolerable (for the present) condition of a sacral communion by means of the progressive absorption into something artificial, the very thing which had served to disengage us from the primary absorption in nature.
Symbolism is one of the essential expressions of the sacred. In symbolism we confront the same problem. We are persuaded that modern man no longer responds to symbols. He displays nothing of the symbolic and no longer operates by means of symbols. However, all we can really say is that our symbols which have been consecrated by long tradition no longer symbolize anything. They are outdated and fail to convey meaning. The symbol of the water of baptism or the wine of Holy Communion is as void for contemporary man as the phoenix or the grail.
Obviously we cannot here go into a detailed study of symbols, symbolizing, and the process of the obsolescence of symbols,s but there are two aspects I would like to emphasize. First, a symbol is surely not a conscious creation of man and his group. People never say to themselves, “Look, we’re going to take this as a symbol for that.” There is no express agreement or code which has been worked out to link the symbol with the group and with the truths signified. The emergence of a symbol is connected with a lived experience matched to a set of raw, accepted, and undisputed truths which are frequently rooted in the organization of the ancestral mind. They are designated as archetypes by Jung, and they are sometimes mythical. If there is an archetype of red, red will become a symbol according to the circumstance-of the military power, of the Roman consul, of the wild offering of the Khmerian elephant hunters, or of the will to revolution. The result does not come about through a knowledge of the archetypes, nor through any clear awareness of the correspondence between symbol and reality. The symbol imposes itself as such on a person in a given group at a certain stage of its evolution. Its function is to express in an unmistakable manner a truth which is known and lived in common. It is such that it could not be anything else. It alone expresses that truth. The truth, in turn, can be expressed exclusively by that symbol.
But progressively, in the evolution of the group, the symbol loses its potency. The symbol wears out to the degree in which the raw, experienced truths evolve. The symbol can vitalize that truth for a while, but not indefinitely. There is an increasing discrepancy between the accepted truths and their fixed symbols. That brings about a consciousness of the symbol. Man becomes aware that it was a symbol and not the current, indisputable truth. At that point, a certain amount of systematic analysis will keep the symbol alive, but it is ruined in the very process of being justified. The moment there is an awareness that this object, this color, this deed is a symbol, the moment one knows it, it has already ceased to be a symbol. Conscious awareness and analysis destroy the symbol, which no longer communicates as such. It has now become a discourse understood only by specialists and, if necessary, by the faithful who must have it explained to them, which is the very opposite of a symbol.
That granted, however, it cannot be said that modern man no longer has a feel for symbols. To be sure, he no longer has direct knowledge of the meaning of the fish or the swastika. Yet the latter is very instructive, for it has become a symbol once again for modern man, but with a meaning entirely different from the meaning it had three thousand years ago. Symbolism is not abandoned today. I would say, to the contrary, that the symbol has again become an essential mode of expression for moderns. Without going as far as Marshall McLuhan-for whom all modern thought is already and will increasingly be mythical and symbolic because of the impact of the media, particularly television-we nevertheless are forced to acknowledge that it is thanks to the symbols living in the mind or the heart of modern man that advertising and propaganda have so much influence. Vance Packard’s studies of advertising symbolism are well known,6 but advertisers do not manufacture the symbols. Modern man is already living that symbolism; thus its use can be effective and can give rise to the search for “motivations.” These latter are never anything but the individual’s reaction to the appeal of common symbols.
Likewise, despite its too systematic character, the sexual symbolism of various technical objects established by Baudrillard (the system of objects) is essential for an understanding of the order of relations existing between techniques and modern man. Obviously, modern man knows nothing of automobiles and refrigerators as symbols, yet the automobile and the refrigerator would hardly have their lure, would not occupy the place they do in life, if they were mere objects of convenience without a meaning. They must, and they do, symbolize a profound truth of life.
Thus western society shows itself very destructive of worn-out symbols and yet an avid consumer of living symbols which link this new world to the deepest roots of one’s being, and which restore the sacred to its imperial position.
4. What Is It?
The modern western technical and scientific world is a sacral world. We have seen that this sacral world implies an order and a transgression, a topography of the world, but that, today, it is a topography of the society and not of nature. I shall set forth as a proposition? that the modern sacred is ordered entirely around two axes, each involving two poles, one pole being respect and order, the other transgression. The first axis is that of “technique/sex,” the second is the “nation-state/revolution” axis. Those are the four factors (I say exclusive of every other) of our modern society. Just as every sacred is always organized by opposing pairs, so we find the same structure at the present time.
It would seem, at first sight, that technology is not susceptible of such sacralizing, since it is rational, mathematical, and explicable at every point. It is hard to see how it could be part of a world so radically contrary to it. Nevertheless, the fact is that technology is felt by modern man as a sacred phenomenon. It is intangible, the supreme (in the cabalistic sense), unassailable operation. All criticism of it brings down impassioned, outraged, and excessive reactions in addition to the panic it causes.
To be sure, much has been said about money as sacred, and of course that is true. This is mentioned so often that I have no need to go over it here, but there are two things I would like to point out: first, this is not a trait peculiar to our times or to our society. Money has been sacred from the very beginning (cf. my study, L’Homme et I’Argent). This sense of the sacred has taken different forms according to the age, but money has always been part of the domain of the powers. Hence its sacred quality is not a new phenomenon. It is simply that it has been susceptible to greater emphasis because of the expansion of the reign of money, its universalization, and its unbelievable power at the very time when the other traditional sacreds were tending to fade out (in the nineteenth century). It is indeed a fact that the ideology of money, the religious fervor for capital (in no way the same kind of sentiment the miser might have for his gold pieces), the exaltation of its role and of its virtues have been, in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the most obvious expression of the sacred. The splendid passages of Marx on capital as a vampire, or on money as capable of everything, or on the need for money becoming the only true need (in the total sense) suffice to characterize this growth of money as sacred.
My second observation is that I have the impression that, since 1929, this sacred has been tending to diminish. It is no longer the major axis of the world. Assuredly the religion of money still persists, for it never fails to ensure existence in this “consumer society,” but the mechanisms of capitalism on the one hand, and of the technical society on the other, have become so complex that money is less and less directly obvious. It is less and less clear to the collective mind that money is the guarantee of the future. There is social security. It is less a certainty that money dominates society, science, and the state. It is less obvious that money guarantees us against the new threats which we face.
Obviously, one can do many things with money, but less and less can we do everything with it. Furthermore, there has been a crisis of confidence in money since 1929. It has been the object of such general criticism from the point of view of socialism and of various humanisms that the collective conscience and public opinion finally have been affected. If money remains as a power, if it still forms part of the sacred, it is no longer the order of the world, in spite of all the efforts to keep on explaining everything by it. Average opinion is less and less responsive to such a generalization. If money is still a god, it is a god on the wane, who is no longer loved except in secret and with a bad conscience. It is no longer the glorious divinity parading its triumphs. Rather, it seeks to conceal them. Progressively it finds itself being replaced in the hearts of the faithful by other social powers and other beneficent divinities, while its priests-bankers, money changers, and capitalists-are pointed to as wicked magicians. Money today is no longer the center of the profoundly sacred. Even if it still is wanted and glorified by the crowd, it is not around money that human space is ordered in its interior exterior correlation. It is not this world’s axis.
In the world in which we live technique has become the essential mystery, and that in diverse forms according to milieu and race. There is an admiration mingled with terror for the machine among those who have retained notions of magic. The television set presents an inexplicable mystery, an obvious miracle constantly repeated. It is no less surprising than the highest manifestations of magic, and one worships it as one might worship an idol, with the same simplicity and fear.
But the force of habit, the repetition of the miracle, ends up wearing this primitive adoration thin. It is scarcely met with any longer in European countries. There the proletarian classes, workers or peasants, take pride in the little god who is their slave, be it motorcycle, television set, or electric appliance. It is a pride of condescension, an ideal of life which is incarnate in those things which serve. Still everyone has the sacral feeling that no experience is worth anything unless one has these powers in his home.
The thoughtful proletarian carries this much further. With him, technology is seen as a whole, rather than in its occasional manifestations. Technology is the instrument of liberation for the proletariat. It need only progress for the proletariat to free itself a little more from its chains. Stalin named industrialization as the sole condition for the realization of communism. Every advance in technology is an advance for the proletariat.
This is indeed a belief in the sacred. Technology is the god who saves. It is good in its essence. Capitalism is abominable, sometimes demoniacal, in its opposition. Technology is the hope of the proletariat. The proletarian can put his faith in it because its miracles are at least visible and progressive. Much mystery still attaches to it, for if Karl Marx could explain just how it was that technology would liberate the proletariat, that is certainly not at the level of the proletarians themselves, who know absolutely nothing of the how. For them it remains mysterious. They have simply the formula of faith, and their faith is placed enthusiastically in the instrument, so mysteriously active, of their liberation.
The nonintellectual bourgeois classes are perhaps less responsive to this worship, but the technicians of the bourgeois class are without doubt more strongly infatuated. For them, technology is indeed sacred. They have no rational ground for such a passion for it. They are always flabbergasted when someone asks them why they have this faith. No, they don’t expect to be liberated. They ask nothing of technology, and yet they sacrifice themselves and devote their lives frantically to the development of factories and the organization of banks. The “welfare of humanity” and other twaddle are commonplaces which no longer serve as a justification and have nothing to do with the infatuation. Of course they do not believe in a sacred. They smile when the word is spoken, but they fly into a mystic rage when one contests the validity of technology, and from that point on they call down doom on the contesting person.
It could be that the technician performs his techniques because that is his profession, but he creates it adoringly because, for him, it represents the domain of the sacred. No reasons or explanations are involved in his attitude. This somewhat mysterious, yet completely scientific power, which covers the earth with its radio waves, wires and paper, is to the technician an abstract idol which gives him a reason for living, and even joy. One indication, among others, of man’s sense of the sacred in technology is the care he takes to treat it with familiarity. It is well known that laughter and humor are frequently a person’s reaction in the presence of the sacred. That is true of primitive peoples, but it is also the reason why the first A-bomb was called “Gilda,” that the giant cyclotron at Los Alamos was named “Clementine,” that batteries are called “water pots” and that radioactive contamination is called a “burn.” The technicians at Los Alamos rigorously banned the word “atom” from their vocabulary. All that is significant.
Given its diverse forms, it is not a question of a religion of technology, but rather, of a sense of the sacred, which is expressed differently by different people. In the end it finds expression with everybody as the marvelous instrument of power, linked always with mystery and magic. Whether it be the workman who turns up the volume on his transistor because that gives him a pleasant confirmation of his superiority, or the young snob who hits 1 25 mph in his Porsche, or the technician who is fascinated by a rise in statistics, whatever their bearing, in any case technology is sacred as the common expression of the power of man. Without it he would feel poor, alone, naked, deprived of his makeup, no longer a hero, a genius, an archangel, which a motor allows him to be at little cost. When all is said and done, technology is for contemporary man that which assures him of his future, and for that reason it is itself the very order of growth.
As a counterpart to this attitude, man sees his origin as always having been Homo faber. That throwback of technology into the past, that proclamation that man became man only when he was faber, that is, technician, is probably one of the surest marks of this sacred, for it is always in his sacred that man sees his origin. In a world peopled with gods, man is a fallen god who remembers his heavenly past, but in a world peopled with machines the only origin he has is the beginning of techniques. His manner of representing his own starting point, his primal, exclusive characteristic, shows right away where his sacred lies.
With that as his point of departure, he reconstructs his history in terms of technology. There again, the manner of recounting history is indicative of the sacred. It is no longer a history of great heroes, of wars, of charismas and gods. It is a history built up little by little on the progress of techniques. From the standpoint of this origin it couldn’t be otherwise! But make no mistake, that is not a secular history. It is a different sacred history. And finally, at the present time all social phenomena are established in relation to technology, whether from serious motives or not. Technology now more often arouses apocalyptic ecstasies or visions of the kingdom of God (Alvin Tomer!) than rational reflection. The pseudo-explanatory reactions coming from the technician’s trauma are revealing from the very fact of their ecstasy, which discloses the presence of the sacred. But it is a sacred of order, of organization, which commands the respect of the human partner.
Every sacred of respect implies its transgression. It may seem strange and paradoxical that I have presented sex as the sacred of the transgression of technique, strange from two points of view. In the first place, it seems quite obvious that there is no relation between the two phenomena. How can you compare the activity of the creative technician, the servant of a universal mediator, with the activity of a man who has separated sex from the procreative instinct in order to gain from it his own special identity? In the second place, how can you speak today of sex as sacred when sex obviously has been desacralized? Sexual liberty, claimed and achieved, clearly shows that western man, especially the young, have put an end to sexual taboos, have transgressed the prohibitions, have made sexual activity a physiological activity without mystery, one which is normal and free from complexes. People go to bed together the same as they dine together. Alvin Tomer tells us of the young for whom going to bed together is a quick way to get acquainted. In a civilization such as ours, it is necessary to cement human relationships quickly. There isn’t time for the subtle approach. One makes use of every means for being casual as rapidly as possible, for being friends. One means is sex, taken as a point of departure rather than as a fulfillment.
The pill and Freudian desacralization have rendered the sex act and the entire domain of sex meaningless. Here let us take note of an important fact. Desacralization and demythicizing produce insignificance. Loss of the sacred robs actions of their value and meaning. What differentiates the animal act from the human act is precisely the attribution of meaning, for that attribution corresponds to a new organization and hence to a new ordination. Now that is effected only through the sacred. The sex act treated as sacred had a richness and a depth which it apparently no longer possesses. The display in public, the indifference, the ephemeral quality in this sphere are manifestations of desacralization.
Formerly in primitive religions, and recently in bourgeois morality, sex was sacred. The whole system of taboos, of collective judgments, of secrecy show clearly that a sacred dwelt there. It was perhaps the most important sacred of all, for it was from the standpoint of that artificial construct that the profound personality of man was created, together with the social structure. But everything we do today proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that this sacred has disappeared. We are living manifestly in a situation which is profane, indifferent, and without significance, all of which is translated into a sexual life which is barren, a source of keen discouragement, and finally a search for more elaborate sexual techniques to make up for the emptiness of the meaning through the aggravation of the act.
That is doubtless all true, but it seems to me not to be the whole story. We are looking at only one aspect of the phenomenon. If sex is, in fact, desacralized, that means that what was formerly a domain of the sacred, a domain of prohibitions and taboos, has now become a means to the sacred. Our age has resacralized sex instantaneously, in the very act of desacralizing it.
The important thing here is not at all the maintenance of certain traditional aspects of the sexual sacred, referred to by Harvey Cox as vestiges of the past and which he finds symbolized in the importance of Playboy and Miss America. That is without interest. It is, rather, that the exacerbated claim to sexual liberty, the publicly flaunted frenzy, is so serious and so fundamental today. This is not just a need to satisfy bottled-up drives, nor an attempt to combat old, out-worn prejudices (sexual morality has been fairly well, if not totally, disintegrated for a century now). The seriousness with which it is taken, the furor aroused by any display of opposition, shows the depth of the problem.
Sex is no longer a natural, free sphere of activity. It is an instrument of strife, a struggle for freedom. Sexual freedom? Not at all. It is a struggle for freedom pure and simple, of which sexual freedom is merely a sign, a concrete manifestation. It is a struggle to declare oneself autonomous and capable of living within oneself. It is a struggle against an order. It isn’t a question of desacralizing the sexual domain, but of desacralizing the order by means of sexual transgression.
In May of 1968 I saw in a faculty council room a very significant inscription: “This place has been desacralized. These chairs have been fucked on.” Thus sex was a means of destroying the sacred, of transgressing the social order, of which the meeting hall of the mandarins was the high place.
However, like every other transgressing force, it too becomes sacred. Only the sacred can destroy the sacred. Human life is sacred, and so are the assassin, the executioner, the soldier, and the phenomenon of war. The strife over sex has nothing to do with the platitude, “Why make a mystery out of something natural? We should free ourselves from ancestral prejudices.” If that were all there were to it, I am reminded that since the eighteenth century the bourgeoisie had a remarkable success to its credit in this matter. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were probably the only ones in which, in the bourgeois class, sex was effectively naturalized, physiologized, and stripped of mystery without loss of interest! With this result achieved (which it obviously has been in today’s youth) one would not expect the strife to continue. But it does continue; evidently that was not the result which was sought. Those most consciously involved in the movement make it a revolutionary action par excellence. Unfettered sexuality is revolution. They follow Wilhelm Reich rather than Freud. Sex is the means for transforming life. Today’s revolution takes place at that level. Everything is so organized as to take in and assimilate the whole of life. All political acts and words are inevitably caught up in it. The conformity is complete. Sex and violence are the only adequate means of freedom.
What we have here is a means, and a means raised to such a height and possessed of such powers and virtues that one is forced to see it as a sacred phenomenon. All the life and activity of the revolutionary is reconstructed around it. He bestows such prestige upon it that the irrational exaltation which results can belong only to the sacred. Anyone who performs a sexual act (even such a modest one as going to see Swedish films), however banal or however deviant the act may be, is looked upon as having achieved something. He has the sense of having shared in a great adventure. Never has sex been so glorified, so exalted, as when it has been made commonplace.
The relation between sexual liberation and the revolution belongs to magic thought (Reich, typically, is a “magician,” as is Miller). That is, it is desacralizing and sacred at the same time. The sexual explosion and frenzy of our time is truly Dionysiac-and that is not just a pictorial manner of speaking. The sacred Dionysus is once more in our midst. It is a sacred of transgression, a transgression of the order.
But what is today’s order? In the end there is just one order for the entire body social as well as for the individual, namely, technology. That is the great organizer of our times, and we have seen its sacred character. It is in relation to technological order that the sexual explosion is taking place, not in relation to a bourgeois order (which is meaningless) or a “moral” order. Furthermore, the fear of being “caught up in it” is linked to the power of assimilation (not analyzed, but felt, experienced, lived) of the system of technology. If one invokes sex, if one throws oneself into the sexual exaltation, it is in order to break the iron ring of technological organization associated with the vampirizing of man by technology.
Moreover, sex and technology have already been seen as mutually related. For example, McLuhan has shown how the symbols of sex and of the machine have been fused together by the contemporary mass media (The Mechanical Bride, 1957), and this has been taken up again by Baudrillard. But the person who has given us the closest look at this phenomenon is certainly J. Brun (Le Retour de Dionysos), when he shows that techniques derive from Eros, and that the machine is an “exo-organism of Dionysus.” “The machine today is charged with erotic power because it was already charged with existential power.” He has seen clearly the social character of the technological system on the one hand, and on the other hand the association between technology and sexuality stemming from their common origin. However, he probably has not sufficiently stressed the mode of their relationship, namely, this ambiguity of the sacred, of taboo and order, and at the same time of transgression and unleashing.
For this mechanism to work the two have to be of the same nature. The system is no longer “sexual taboos” and “orgiastic festival.” It has become more complex, as has all our society, and at the same time it has been universalized and deepened. The system has become “technological order” and “erotic festival,” fulfilling the same functions as the former system. Doubtless it could be said that there is a technological frenzy, a technological orgy, but these are not in the domain of the sacred and transgression. They are one aspect of the integration of man. It must never be forgotten that the sacred order is not external, cold, and administrative. It presupposes adoration, communion, abandon, self-dedication, and a glorification of the sacralizing power. There is no sacred order unless there is “devotion,” and this is indeed what is signified by the technical vertigo which has laid hold of modern man. He is “devoted” to technique, but the latter is simply the creator of order. Whatever the vertigo, however great the devotion, the order sooner or later becomes intolerable, all the more so because man is implicated in it totally. Hence it has to be broken by some means completely alien to the order, yet similar to it in origin.
That is exactly what is happening. What experiences could be more mutually alien than sex and technology? Yet we have cited major studies which have shown their related origin. That is also why the sexual sacred of transgression is making its appearance in the most technological country. It is not simply a protest of “nature” on the part of crushed and frustrated man. It is a total calling into question, a fundamental rejection of everything derived from technology, which is more abhorrent for being not only powerful but also sacred. Everything connected with it is rejected: consumption, bureaucracy, growth, power, sophistication.
Yet, at the same time and as part of the same movement, those very characteristics are transferred to the sacred of transgression. Sex becomes the manifestation of power. Sexual practices are more and more sophisticated, and sexual consumption becomes excessive. This represents a reciprocity of qualities between the sacred of order and the sacred of transgression. We alluded above (chiefly through Baudrillard) to the sexualization of the technical object. Here we are observing the technicalizing of sex. The game of the sacred appears complete.
We said that the other major axis of today’s sacred is that of the nation-state and revolution. The nation-state is the second ordering phenomenon of our society. That and technology are the only two. But we have to consider the nation-state as a complex, not just as the state or as the nation.
That the state is one of the sacred phenomena of this age seems hard to dispute. Here again, I urge the importance of not using the term vaguely or loosely, but in the most strict sense possible, in the light of studies of the sacred by sociologists and ethnologists. The state is the ultimate value which gives everything its meaning. It is a providence of which everything is expected, a supreme power which pronounces truth and justice and has the power of life and death over its members. It is an arbiter which is neither arbitrary nor arbitrated, which declares the law, the supreme objective code on which the whole game of society depends.
Surely the mystery of its power and its share in the sphere of the sacred didn’t just happen in our day. It is a commonplace of the sacred that the king should have a sacral origin, charisma, and a legitimate power of life and death. There is no need to stress the libraries of books which have been written on those themes. Yes, political power has always belonged to the sphere of the sacred, has always been a manifestation of the sacred of order and respect.
However, what appears new and strange today is that political power no longer presents the same aspect. It is no longer incarnated in one man, the king. It is abstract. The modem state is a rational, juridic administrative organism with known and analyzed structures and areas of competence. Where is the hidden mystery here? Where will one find the tremendum and the fascinans? And yet, in the nineteenth century, after the period of the desacralizing determination to reduce the state to its role of management and law, we have seen the sacred rise again irresistibly.
The executioner state is total. It demands every sacrifice and disposes of everything. It is a machine which is both farseeing and blind, a perfect stand-in for the deity. It was not fascism which arbitrarily and stupidly made a sacred out of the state, pasting it onto a different reality for decorative and propaganda purposes. Rather, the other way around, fascism was made possible because the modem state had once again become sacred. More than anything else, more than economic or social conditions, more than class or other struggles, it was the fact of the sacredness of the state which incited and brought about the fascisms. Otherwise, how explain the fact that the Bolshevik state became the same as the fascist state, though it arose out of very different economic situations and ideologies, and had opposing aims? How explain the fact that the modem state structure imposed itself on all the communist nations, and recently on China and Cuba?
That is where the mystery of political power is today. In its universality, in its combination of transcendence and proximity, we once again encounter the classic sacred. This was already forecast by a twofold ideological movement during the very period when, through the “enlightenment” and the French Revolution, it was thought that one was advancing gloriously toward an era of the decline of power (liberalism), an era of desacralization (elimination of the charismatic king) and of rationalism (institutions and administration). By the twofold ideological movement I mean Hegel and the anarchists. By the one, the state was seen as the fulfillment of the dialectic of the Idea, from which history gets its meaning. By the other, it was looked upon as the Beast of the Apocalypse, the focal point of all oppression. The frenzied anger of the anarchists toward the state, their blind vengeance against all its agents shows the extent to which it was sacred to them.
Both sides were ahead of their time. The state became sacred again during the war of 1914-the state, let us remember, not the political power, but our state, the god of war and of order. What makes it sacred is not that it sets itself up as God, but the fact that the people accept it, live it, and look upon it as the great ordainer, the supreme and inevitable providence. They expect everything of it, accept its every intention, and inevitably and inexorably think of their lives and of their society in relation to it.
Such is indeed the sacred. Without it our state is nothing. No purely rational loyalty suffices for the modern state. It demands more than a reasonable participation on the part of its citizens-for example, at voting time. That would correspond to the aim of the lay state and the legal state. But it is love and devotion which are required. The state is the sacred toward which our utmost in adoration is directed. Am I exaggerating? We shall study the matter in detail in connection with political religions (see Chapter VI). The state is constantly increasing its demands, together with its areas of competence, so that it can no longer be tolerated except as a mystique-and it is indeed through a mystique that the citizen responds. The more the state asks of the citizen and endangers him, the more he is ground down, the more his response is one of adoration. That is all he can do under the circumstances. This, again, is an obvious sign of the sacred-that which terrifies the most arouses the greatest intensity of awe. But this sacred is incarnate in a human activity, namely, politics.
In contrast, and during the same period, there developed another sacred grandeur, the nation. From the nation as a simple fact in the eighteenth century, there emerged, in the nineteenth century, the nation as an ought-to-be. All peoples must constitute themselves as a nation. It was the era of nationalism, in which peoples enclosed within an empire were under compulsion to liberate themselves, as in the case of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Conversely, peoples separated into principalities should unite to form themselves into a nation, as in Italy and Germany.
Then, in the twentieth century, came the sacred nation (in truth this appeared prematurely and prophetically in France in 1793-albeit temporarily-in the absence of the older sacred order which, however, was not yet dead). The nation today has become the criterion of good and evil. Everything which serves the nation is good. Everything which harms it is evil. Evil becomes good by virtue of the nation. It is good to lie, kill, and deceive for the nation. One’s own national spy system is eminently good, while the spy systems of other nations are an absolute evil. The classic values have meaning only through their integration into the national framework. One is reminded of the famous remark of Barres, to the effect that justice, truth, and beauty existed only as French justice, French truth. The modifier is more important than the noun, or rather, it takes the place of the noun.
How can we fail to call the nation sacred under these conditions? The nation is the supereminent truth which gives the values their value. It would be easy to show that it has all the earmarks of the sacred, in particular, irrationality, fascination, provocation, and adoration. It was a common saying that the fatherland is sacred. One talked about the sacrifice of the dead in combat without realizing the significance of that concept, for of course the national sacred, like all sacreds, is built on its ration of blood, death, and suffering. It made its appearance at a time when wars, having become national, were wars of wholesale killing, involving huge segments of manpower and resulting in heavy slaughter.
This had to be justified by a grandeur beyond all reason. Only the sacred could gain acceptance for such atrocities. Roger Caillois has clearly demonstrated that modern warfare recovered one of the characteristics of primitive tribal wars. War is an “epiphany of the sacred.” This had disappeared since Rome, and probably earlier. But, while among primitive peoples war partook of the nature of the sacred of transgression, now it is part of the sacred of order represented by the state and the nation, and it is because it has taken on an all-embracing, terrifying quality that it enlists the people as a whole and becomes everybody’s sacrifice. Precisely in that sense is it an epiphany of the sacred.
There is an unbelievable paradox here that almost no one seems to comprehend. It is rationally irreconcilable that a modern state, the organizer of the good, of the great society, of progress, should at the same time express itself through the most horrible butchery. The relation between those two obviously conflicting traits can be explained only if both are expressions of the sacred and are mutually related through the sacred.
Finally, this sacral status will be carried to the summit, to the point of incandescence, through the fusion of the state with the nation to form the nation-state. There is no need here to trace the route by which that came about, nor the reasons for the combination. The fact itself appears certain. In all western countries (including the U.S.S.R. and the United States) the state is taking the nation in hand. It assures the whole of its indispensable services. It combines all the national forces and concentrates them. It resolves all national problems. Conversely, the nation finds its expression only in a powerful state, which is the coordinator if not the centralizer and the orderer. The fusion is complete. Nothing national exists outside the state, and the latter has force and meaning only if it is national.
At the same time that this is a political and economic phenomenon, it is also the fusion of two “sacreds.” Their combination produces a power which is unimpeachable. The state is completely justified by the nation’s sacred, and the nation is completely glorified by the sacred of the state.
Opposed to this sacred order, however, there necessarily appears the sacred of transgression: revolution. The fact that revolution belongs to the sacred is seen beyond a doubt in the exaltation exhibited by young revolutionaries. In May 1 968, for example, nothing was sensible, nothing reasonable, nothing open to discussion. All was explosion, delirium, unreason. The most illogical speeches were listened to as though they were the height of wisdom, all in the name of revolution. The latter is a plunge into chaos, out of which a new, young, and purified society is supposed to emerge. The revolution thus proclaimed as sacred has neither doctrine nor critique. It is obviousness, loyalty, and communion. Those Christians who immediately saw it related to their faith were not mistaken. For some, May 1 968 was Pentecost; for others, the beginning of the apocalypse. In both cases, the one of mystic fusion, the other of terror, it was an expression of the sense of the Sacred.
The revolutionary talk goes on at its level of incandescence and absurdity. No reason can prevail in the face of this existential loyalty. The revolutionary shuts himself up in a self-consistent universe from which nothing can dislodge him, neither reflection, nor fact, nor experience, nor argument. He is as insensitive to reality as he is to intelligence. He takes his stand within a global discourse which explains everything in a way which is not commensurate with reality but is entirely satisfactory to him. The word “revolution” is the answer to everything. Transition through revolution is the solution to every problem. It is useless to think anything through. Revolution is all that is necessary. To look for content, sense, or plan is completely blasphemous. The young revolutionary accepts nothing which might diminish his absolute in the slightest degree.
This social attitude made its appearance at the very moment, historically, when the two sacreds of a political nature were being constituted, the state and the nation. Until that time, revolution was but little spoken of and, in any event, the revolutionary phenomenon showed no mark of the sacred. It is exactly at the moment when the state begins to aspire to the sacred, when the nation becomes the supreme value, that revolution simultaneously takes on an identical aura. That which was decisively constitutive of the modem state, the execution of the king, was the votive and consecrating act of revolution. Then revolution carried through the sacrifice of the founding of the new city. The sacred grandeurs were born together.
But right away they set themselves up as opposed sacreds, the one of order and the other of transgression. Revolution becomes more and more divine and sacred (with an identical face; compare the face of Rude’s Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe with the face of Revolution at the barricades by Delacroix-it is the same). This happens in proportion as the state demands more and more love. It was normal for the sacred of order to imply devotion, but there is brought about at the same time a rejection which can no longer be anything but execration. Since the state demands love, and can live only by devotional participation, since it presupposes the entire citizenry to be in communion, the struggle against it has to be carried out at the same level; that is, it can no longer be a reasonable contest. It has to be a fierce hatred, an imprecation, which explains the revolutionary speechmaking with its extravagances, its inconsistencies, and its lack of realism. The revolution becomes an affair, no longer of opinion or of doctrine, but of total rejection of the sacred love. From that point on, one is lost in tactics and strategies. The only matters open to question have to do with rites and procedures. The presumed soundness of the movement is a given absolute, since it is a sacred of transgression in opposition to a sacred of respect and loyalty.
The revolutionary movement bears this character of opposition to the sacred within itself. It is an execration of political power in general and of the modem state in particular, but in practical reality it can consist in only a conquest of that power. Here the ambiguity of the sacred comes into full play, and it is because the revolution is sacred that it has this ambiguity. The sacred passes immediately from respect to transgression, from transgression to respect-yet it is the same sacred, as we noted in connection with the Roman sacer. Thus revolution, a sacred of transgression, creates an equally fundamental sacred of respect the moment it manages to seize power. It has not changed. There has been no betrayal. It is just that the sacred which gave it its sign has modified the sign.
So, in opposition to the sacred of order of the nation-state, a sacred of transgression is set up, which is revolution. But that entails a certain transformation. Revolution is no longer a separate, isolated act, an apocalyptic explosion in an otherwise cloudless sky. There is no longer a revolutionary movement, in contrast to periods of calm lacking in history. Revolution is no longer an act of conquest or of the destruction of the power, as a simplistic imagery depicts it. To the degree to which it belongs to the sacred, it is an endemic condition. It is the ongoing sacred of transgression expressing itself through periodic transgressions which we call Rebellions.
The rebellion itself is the immediate, momentary, contemporary act of transgression, but it is only that because it takes place within a mythological, universalized revolution. In the eyes of the rebels, this universalized revolution is an irresistible movement of history. The revolt is within a mythical discourse on revolution. Completely meaningful acts of rebellion receive their value solely in relation to the revolutionary sacred, which is not the revolution at all, but a sacred state.
The stress in recent years on the “revolutionary” festival is characteristic of this situation. To say that the “revolution” is a festival is completely false. But if we think of the festival as one of the specific, traditional expressions of the sacred of transgression, then in that sense the statement becomes correct. It is because the revolution is in the domain of the sacred that its periodic expression can be analyzed as a festival. It is not merely a substitute for the missing festivals of former times. It does indeed fulfill the same role and the same vocation, but these are sacred.
Lastly, the final trait reveals to what point that appraisal can be verified. The constantly proclaimed objective in recent years is participation, or self-management. It is characteristic of the relation between the sacred of order and the sacred of transgression that the latter, like the festival, has the purpose of reintegrating man into the order. The order has to be broken, but not for the sake of annihilating it. The purpose is to reinstate it as a sacred and to reincorporate oneself into it. The fact that the revolutionary statement now ends in formulas means precisely that the sacred of order is to be regained, and that it is not a question of doing away with it. The two are not merely contradictory. They are contradictory, but in such a way as to be bound to each other, which is what used to be expressed by the institution of the festival through the delimitation of the transgression in space and time. That no longer takes place, but insofar as it is a question of the two forms of the sacred, their “contradictory” relationship is expressed by the linkage of the revolutionary requirement of participation (in what?) in the sacred of order, and finally in the nation-state.
Those are the two axes of the modern sacred around which our social world is ordered. Within this social world, myths and religion are developing around the four “poles” of the sacred, as translations and explanations of that sacred. In reality, there are not separate, disjoined elements : a sacred, myths, and then “secular religions.” We find, to the contrary, in these secularized societies, the same religious organization as in the traditional societies. There is a system of relationships between the sacred, the myths, and the religions of the social world, which form a coordinated whole.