In The End of the Sacred, Sylvain Durain posits the thesis that the pre-Christian societies, matriarchal in nature, did not contain any cultural mechanism that established and maintained peace within social groups except for sacrificial rites.
The author narrates how the evolution of Greek, Jewish, and Roman cultural practices followed by the rise and establishment of Christianity ended sacrifices, leading to a more stable and peaceful society.
It’s a compelling and peculiar book linking a range of themes and ideas that the reader will certainly find, if not engaging, at least original. Here’s the thesis of the book.
In the Beginning: the Matriarchy
At the dawn of time, human societies developed according to a matriarchal model. The established religious structure was monism, a concept highlighting the indivisible nature of the gods and their creation.
The world, monism tells, is made out of beings and matters united within the same fabric. We’re all connected and the universe is one same thing. Time is conceptualized as a cycle. What dies reincarnates into something else, in a forever fashion. All things alternate between the two states of order and chaos in the never-ending cycle of Gaia, Mother Earth.
Early societies were built as matriarchies. The feminine was revered for its power to give life (newborns, food, etc). On the family level, children did not know their fathers because the mechanism of procreation was not yet well-known. They were raised by their mothers and their brother who did not incarnate authority for the child. On the tribe level, the chief (usually a male) served as a scapegoat that the tribe sacrificed when life shifted from orderly to chaotic.
Early humans already observed the stars and had a better knowledge of the cosmos than we’d think they had. They believed that whatever rules applied up there equally applied down there. Night was to day what chaos was to order. Humans paced their lives in unison with the Great Cosmic Cycle, as Joseph Campbell would probably say.
When chaos inevitably ensured after a period of peace, it was because someone must have done something. That someone had to be expurgated (and that something, redeemed) for order to return.
The process of expurgation was the sacrifice.
Girard and Sacrifice
In the mid-20th century, a French polymath named René Girard came up with the theory of mimetic desire. His stint as a literature professor had led Girard to notice that there was a strong process of imitation of desires at work in human beings.
Desires, found Girard, are not inherent to human nature; they’re imitated. We’re wired to want what others want. And the more other people want something, the more we want it too.
He called this principle the theory of mimetic desire. Over a period of time, desires converge. While a group of associating individuals have each their own desire at the beginning of their association, social contacts lead them to covet an increasingly restrictive and homogenous number of things — until they all focus on the same objective.
As the Trojan War highlighted a few thousand years ago, the competition for the same want (the beautiful Helen, in this case) necessarily leads people to fight for it. Girard called it the mimetic crisis, a crucial moment of social chaos within a group when the members fight against one another, leaving them to different courses of action:
- Go through with it and kill each other until the “last man standing.”
- Designate a scapegoat to blame and sacrifice it.
That’s how sacrificial rites (of animals, things, or humans) developed in every pre-Christian society around the world. In certain places (The Celts, Ancient China, Nordic Civilization, or Mesopotamian cities), the object of the sacrifice was the (male) chief of the tribe. His confounded nature as chief, a link to the gods, economist, magician, etc made him the perfect scapegoat. The sacrifice diffused the mimetic crisis, restored peace, and everyone went back to their daily lives until the next mimetic crisis.
Structures and Shift
Three different structures contribute to the construction of any society. The first one is the family. Strong families create strong individuals which make strong citizens who contribute to a strong country. The second level is the political (state) level. The third level is the religious level.
In pre-Christian societies, these structures were matriarchal in nature. As we said at the beginning, the revered religious deity was Gaia, the Mother Earth. At the two other levels, the feminine was the only sex of the two capable of providing offspring.
A matriarchy, however, necessarily came with sacrificial rites. The Jews, Greeks, and Romans may have been at least partly conscious of this problem at some point in their respective history as they sought to resolve it.
On the religious level, the Jews were the first to innovate, not with monotheism (the Persians were a little bit ahead of them), but with a masculine god, Yahweh, in place of the cyclic Gaia. On the political level, the Greeks introduced the concept of democracy. Democracy, Durain argues, was not conceptualized to solve socioeconomic problems but the sacrificial rites issue. The killing of the scapegoat was replaced by a “non-bloody” casting of the vote, thereby ending the need to sacrifice the chief in times of hardship. Finally, on the family level, the Romans made the innovation to lawfully ascribe the family authority to the man of the house, husband of his wife, and father of his children.
There was a certain willingness of these respective societies who’ve bequeathed us so much of their own culture, to shift the matriarchal society toward a patriarchal value system. The shift will complete with the rise of Christianity, built on the sacrifice of Christ.
Christianity and the Shift to a Patriarchy
While the Greeks, Jews, and Romans each sought to shift to patriarchy at their own respective levels, Christianity was incontestably the only religion that fully enabled the transition, thereby ending the practice of sacrifice wherever Christian thought was received and applied.
No religion gives as much space to sacrifice as Christianity. The symbol of Christ dying on the cross for mankind’s sins is the principal symbol of Christianity. Christianity could have hardly become what it is today had Christ not given his life in this way.
Jesus Christ was the Son of God, the closest representation of God on Earth, symbolized and conceptualized by the Word (the Word of Christ) as announced in the Jewish scriptures many centuries prior. When Christ sacrificed himself, his blood washed the sins of humankind forever. If the Son of God has now been sacrificed, who could offer a more valuable scapegoat?
Christ didn’t sacrifice for us as much as he sacrificed for all of the future scapegoats that would have died at the stake had he not volunteered. His sacrifice was the last sacrifice, rendering all further sacrifices pointless. In order for humankind to remember it well, Christ instructed before his death that future Christians repeat the sacrifice in a non-bloody manner during the ritual known as the Eucharist.
Christianity’s patriarchal transformation transformed the three societal levels we’ve highlighted above. On the religious side, God is masculine without a doubt — He is the Father. The Trinity (The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) were devised to prevent any association with the old monist goddess Gaia. On the political level, the baptism of Clovis inaugurated a new conceptualization of the kings as lieutenant of Christ. They become the symbol of Christ on earth, representing his authority to the population. The desire to sacrifice the king does not even arise since Christ already sacrificed himself. The King symbolizes authority and stability, thereby completing the transformation of the matriarchal political system into a patriarchy.
Finally, the Christian conceptualization of the family confirms the Roman tendency to make the father the patriarch and the main axis of responsibility onto which the family reposes. In the story of Adam and Eve, God invites the new couple to unite and multiply. Later, St Paul writes that man must subject himself to God, that his wife must subject herself to God and her husband, and that the children must subject themselves to their parents. These introduce three societal concepts ensuring peace and stability, enabling the development of a prosperous society:
- Unity: of man and woman.
- Authority: of man to God, of woman to God and her husband, and of the children to their parents.
- Hierarchy: the children aren’t at the same level as their parents.
Christianity in Modern Times
The sacrifice of Christ and the subsequent adoption of Christianity transformed most societies from a matriarchal sacrificial monist society to a patriarchal non-sacrificial monotheist one. The author observes that societies that refused Christian teaching remained sacrificial matriarchies.
The ongoing dechristianization and deconstruction of the Christian heritage in the West aren’t moving us forward like many progressive atheists like to believe, but backward. A shift away from Christian patriarchy will necessarily bring us back to a sacrificial matriarchy, as certain practices such as abortions (the sacrifice of the child) already illustrate.
The calls to dismantle the patriarchy when tuning into the mainstream narrative are mistaken and akin to sawing the branch onto which the West is desperately holding. It’s not less patriarchy that we need, but more. Patriarchy, through the symbolic representation of man as Christ, prevents the comeback of the matriarchal sacrifice and its innocent scapegoats.
A shift away from Christian values will not “free us”, but bring us back to the dark ages of the pagan rites.
Such is the risk of implementing modernism in a complex society we only have a superficial grasp of.
Notes on the Book
Sylvain Durain’s essay was compelling and well-researched. Readers familiar with the theories of René Girard will find their application to the patriarchal and matriarchal concepts relevant in a society where the feminist discourse tends to increasingly focus on the deconstruction of the former rather than the construction of the latter.
Yet the book was at times, unclear. The author, for example, does not specify how the patriarchal conception of the family prevents the mimetic crisis from taking hold within the nucleus, except for the fact that the father “embodies authority”.
He also briefly ventures into economics (a questionable choice for a book grounded in psychology, sociology, and religion) during which he cites as a source David Graeber, a famous anarchist known for his lack of intellectual rigor and political partisanship.
The end of the book is equally puzzling.
The author begins his conclusion by discussing the conception of the sacred in relation to the conception of the family, highlighting that a wholly incarnated family contributes to a society free of sacrifice. So far, so good.
Then he engages in a bizarre tirade with conspiratorial overtones against vaccines, liberalism, Klaus Schwab, and artificial intelligence, mixing each of these complex topics to the comeback of sacrifice in a society where the deconstruction of the traditional family is pushed by the narratives of the new global order. This is regrettable as none of these issues were discussed in the corpus, and their mere citation in the conclusion brings little value to the main thesis of the book.
Nonetheless, “The End of the Sacred” is a good book that will help readers better understand the roots of the resurgence of sacrifice and the hidden social functions of Christianity in the Western world.
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