Furthest Right

Enlightenment on Sacrifices (Joseph de Maistre)


I by no means accept the blasphemous axiom, Human fear first invented the gods.[Primus in orbe deos fecit timor. This passage, whose true author is unknown, is to be found amongst the fragments of Petronius. It is quite at home there.]

On the contrary, I am happy to notice that men, by giving God names expressing greatness, power, and goodness, by calling him Lord, Master, Father, and so on, show clearly enough that the idea of divinity cannot be born of fear. It can be seen also that music, poetry, dance, in a word all the pleasing arts, have been called on in religious ceremonies and that the idea of rejoicing was always so closely involved in the idea of festival that the last became everywhere synonymous with the first.

Far be it from me, moreover, to believe that the idea of God could have started with humanity or, in other words, that humanity can be older than the idea.

It must, however, be confessed, after having made sure that this is orthodox, that history shows man to be convinced at all times of this terrible truth, that he lives under the hand of an angry power and that this power can be appeased only by sacrifice.

At first sight, it is not at all easy to reconcile so apparently contradictory ideas, but, if they are studied closely, it can easily be understood how they agree and why the feeling of terror has always existed side by side with that of joy without the one ever having been able to destroy the other.

“The gods are good, and we are indebted to them for all the good things we enjoy: we owe them praise and thanks. But the gods are just and we are guilty. They must be appeased and we must expiate our sins; and, to do this, the most effective means is sacrifice.”

Such was the ancient belief and such is still, in different forms, the belief of the whole world. Primitive men, from whom the whole of humanity has received its fundamental opinions, believed themselves culpable. All social institutions have been founded on this dogma, so that men of every age have continually admitted original and universal degradation and said like us, if less explicitly, our Mothers conceived us in sin; for there is no Christian dogma that is not rooted in man’s inner nature and in a tradition as old as humanity.

But the root of this debasement, or this reification of man, resides in sensibility, in life, in short in the soul, so carefully distinguished by the ancients from the spirit or intelligence.

Animals have received only a soul; we have been given both soul and spirit….

The idea of two distinct powers is very ancient, even in the Church. “Those who have adopted it,” said Origen, “do not think that the words of the apostle the flesh lusteth against the spirit (Galatians 5:17), should be taken to mean the flesh literally, but to refer to that soul which is really the soul of the flesh: for, they say, we have two souls, one good and celestial, the other inferior and terrestrial: it is of the latter that it has been said its works are manifest (ibid., 19), and we believe that this soul of the flesh resides in the blood.”[Origen, De Principiis, Book iii, Chap. iv. 8.]

For the rest, Origen, who was at once the most daring and the most modest of men in his opinions, did not persist in this problem. The reader, he said, will form his own opinions. It is, however, obvious that he had no other explanation for two diametrically opposed impulses within a single individual.

Indeed, what is this power that opposes the man or, to put it better, his conscience? What is this power which is not he, or all of him? Is it material like stone or wood? In this case, it neither thinks nor feels and consequently cannot be capable of disturbing the spirit in its workings. I listen with respect and dread to all the threats made by the flesh, but I want to know what it is ….

Fundamentally, it appears that on this point Holy Scripture is in complete agreement with ancient and modern philosophy, since it teaches us “that man is double in his ways[James 1:8.] and that the word of God is a living sword that pierces to the division of the soul and the spirit and discerns the thoughts of the heart.”[Hebrews 4:12.]

And Saint Augustine, confessing to God the sway that old visions brought back by dreams still had over his soul, cried out with the most pleasing simplicity, “Then, Lord, am I myself?”[Confessions, X, xxx.]

No, without doubt, he was not HIMSELF, and no one knew this better than he, who tells us in the same passage, How much difference there is between MYSELF and MYSELF; he who so well distinguished the two powers in man when he cried out again to God: Oh, thou mystic bread of my soul, spouse of my intelligence, I could not love you.[Ibid., I, xiii.]

Milton has put some beautiful lines into the mouth of Satan, who howls of his appalling degradation.* Man also could suitably and wisely speak them ….

[* “O foul descent! that I who erst contended
With gods to sit the highest, am now constrain’d
Into a beast; and, mix’d with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute,
That to the height of deity aspired!” – Paradise Lost, ix, 163-167.]

I am aware that the doctrine of the two souls was condemned in ancient times but I do not know if this was by a competent tribunal: besides, it is enough to understand it. That man is a being resulting from the union of two souls, that is to say, of two intelligent constituents of the same nature, one good and the other bad, this is, I believe, the opinion which should have been condemned and which I also wholeheartedly condemn. But that the intelligence is the same as sensation, or that this element, which is also called the vital principle and which is life, can be something material, completely devoid of understanding and consciousness, is what I will never believe, unless I happen to be warned that I am mistaken by the only power with a legitimate authority over human belief. In this case, I should not hesitate a moment, and whereas now I have only the certainty that I am right, then I would have the faith that I am wrong. If I were to profess other opinions, I would directly contradict the principles which have dictated the work I am publishing and which are no less sacred to me.

Whatever view is taken about the duality of man, it is on the animal power, on life, on the soul (for all these words meant the same thing in the ancient language), that the malediction acknowledged by the whole world falls….

Man being thus guilty through his sensuous principle, through his flesh, through his life, the curse fell on his blood, for blood was the principle of life, or rather blood was life.[Genesis 9:4-5; Leviticus 17:11; Deuteronomy 12:23-24.] And it is a remarkable fact that old Eastern traditions such as these, which had long been forgotten, have been revived in our own day and upheld by the most distinguished physiologists. Let us accept the vitality of blood, or rather the identity of blood and life, as a fact which antiquity never doubted and which has been acknowledged again today; another opinion as old as the world itself was that heaven grew angry with the flesh, and blood could be appeased only by blood. No nation doubted that there was an expiatory virtue in the spilling of blood. Now neither reason nor folly could have invented this idea, still less get it generally accepted. It is rooted in the furthest depths of human nature, and on this point the whole of history does not show a single dissenting voice. The entire theory rests on the dogma of substitution. It was believed (as was and always will be the case) that the innocent could pay for the guilty; from which it was concluded that, life being guilty, a less precious life could be offered and accepted in place of another. Thus the blood of animals was offered, and this soul, offered for a soul, the ancients called antipsychon, vicariam animam, as you might say a soul for a soul OR substitute soul….

It should be noticed that, in sacrifices properly speaking, carnivorous or nonintelligent or nondomestic animals like deer, snakes, fish, birds of prey, and so on, were not slaughtered. A]ways, among the animals, the most valuable for their utility, the gentlest, the most innocent, those nearest to man by instinct and habit were chosen. Since in the end man could not be slaughtered to save man, the most human, if I can put it like that, in the animal world were chosen as victims; and the victim was always burned wholly or in part, to bear witness that the natural penalty for crime is the stake and that the substitute flesh was burned in place of the guilty flesh….

The roots of so extraordinary and so general a belief must go very deep. If there was nothing true or enigmatic about it, why should God himself have retained it in the Mosaic law? Where could the ancients have found the idea of a spiritual regeneration through blood? And why, at all times and in all places, have men chosen to honor, supplicate, and placate God by means of a ceremony that reason points out to all and that feeling rejects? It is absolutely necessary to appeal to some hidden and very powerful cause.


The doctrine of substitution being universally accepted, it was thought equally certain that the effectiveness of sacrifices was proportionate to the consequence of the victims; and this double belief, at bottom just but vitiated by the force that vitiates all things, gave birth on all sides to the horrible superstition of human sacrifices. In vain did reason tell men that they had no rights over their fellows and that they even testified to this themselves by offering the blood of animals to atone for that of man; in vain did gentle humanity and natural compassion reinforce the arguments of reason: in face of this compulsive dogma, reason remained as powerless as feeling.

One would like to be able to contradict history when it shows us this abominable custom practiced throughout the world, but, to the shame of humanity, nothing is more incontestable…. Once again, where did men take their opinion from? And what truth had they corrupted to reach their frightful error? It is quite clear, I think, that it all results from the dogma of substitution, whose truth is beyond dispute and is ever innate in man (for how could he have acquired it?), but which he has abused in a deplorable manner: for, accurately speaking, man cannot take up an error. He can only be ignorant of or abuse the truth, that is to say, extend it by false induction to a case which is irrelevant to it.

It seems that two false arguments lead men astray; first, the importance of the subjects which are to be freed from anathema. It is said, To save an army, a town, even a great sovereign, what is one man? The particular characteristics of the two kinds of human victim already sacrificed under civil law are also considered, and it is said, What is the life of a criminal or an enemy?

It is very likely that the first human victims were criminals condemned by the laws, for every nation believed what the Druids believed according to Caesar,[De bello gallico, vi, 16.] that the punishment of criminals was highly pleasing to the Divinity. The ancients believed that every capital crime committed in the state bound the nation and that the criminal was sacred or consecrated to the gods till, by the spilling of his blood, he had unbound both himself and the nation….

Unfortunately, once men were possessed with the principle that the effectiveness of sacrifices was proportionate to the consequence of the victims, it was only a short step from the criminal to the enemy. Every enemy was a criminal, and unfortunately again every foreigner was an enemy when victims were needed….

It seems that this fatal chain of reasoning explains completely the universality of so detestable a practice, that it explains it very well, I insist, in human terms: for I by no means intend to deny (and how could good sense, however slightly informed, deny it?) the effect of evil that had corrupted everything.

Evil would have no effect at all on men if it involved them in an isolated error. This is not even possible, for error is nothing. If every previous idea was left out of account, and a man proposed to slaughter another in order to propitiate the gods, the only response would be to put him to death or lock him up as a madman. Thus it is always necessary to start from a truth to propagate an error. This is especially striking if one thinks about paganism which shines with truths, but all distorted and out of place in such a way that I entirely agree with that contemporary theosophist who said that idolatry was a putrefaction. If the subject is examined closely, it can be seen that, among the most foolish, indecent, and atrocious opinions, among the most monstrous practices and those most shameful to mankind, there is not one that we cannot deliver from evil (since we have been granted the knowledge now to ask for this favor), to show then the residue of truth, which is divine.

It was thus from the incontestable truths of the degradation of man and his original unity, from the necessity of reparation, from the transferability of merits and the substitution of expiatory sufferings that men were led to the dreadful error of human sufferings….

But we, who blanch with horror at the very idea of human sacrifices and cannibalism, how can we be at the same time so blind and ungrateful as not to recognize that we owe these feelings only to the law of love which watched over our cradle? Not long ago a famous nation, which had reached the peak of civilization and refinement, dared formally to suspend this law in a fit of madness of which history gives no other example: what happened? – in a flash, the mores of the Iroquois and the Algonquin; the holy laws of humanity crushed underfoot; innocent blood covering the scaffolds which covered France; men powdering and curling bloodstained heads; the very mouths of women stained with human blood.

Here is the natural man! It is not that he does not bear within him the indestructible seeds of truth and virtue: his birthrights are imprescriptible; but without divine nurture these seeds will never germinate or will yield only damaged and unwholesome fruits.

It is time to draw from the most undeniable historical facts a conclusion which is no less undeniable.

From four centuries’ experience, we know that wherever the true God is not known and served by virtue of an explicit revelation, man will slaughter man and often eat him.

Lucretius, having told us of the sacrifice of Iphigenia (as a true story, that is understood, since he had need of it), exclaimed in a triumphant tone, How many evils can religion spawn!

Alas, he saw only the abuses, just like all his successors, who are much less excusable than he. He was unaware that the scourge of human sacrifice, however outrageous it was, was nothing compared to the evils produced by absolute godlessness. He was unaware or he did not wish to see that there is not and even cannot be an entirely false religion, that the religion of all civilized nations, such as it was in the age when he wrote, was no less the cement of the political structure, and that, by undermining it, Epicurean doctrines were about to undermine by the same stroke the old Roman constitution and substitute for it an atrocious and endless tyranny.

For us, happy possessors of the truth, let us not commit the crime of disregarding it….


What truth is not to be found in paganism?…

How then can we fail to recognize that paganism could not be mistaken about an idea so universal and fundamental as that of sacrifice, that is to say, of redemption by blood? Humanity could not guess at the amount of blood it needed. What man, left to himself, could suspect the immensity of the fall and the immensity of the restoring love? Yet every people, by admitting this fall more or less clearly, has admitted also the need and the nature of the remedy.

This has been the constant belief of all men. It has been modified in practice, according to the characteristics of peoples and religions, but the principle always remains the same. In particular, all nations are agreed on the wonderful effectiveness of the voluntary sacrifice of the innocent who dedicates himself to God like a propitiatory victim. Men have always attached a boundless value to the submission of the just to sufferings….

As has been said in the Dialogues, the idea of redemption is universal. At all times and in all places, men have believed that the innocent could atone for the guilty, but Christianity has corrected this idea as well as a thousand others which, even in their unreformed state, had in advance borne the clearest witness to it. Under the sway of this divine law, the just man (who never believes himself to be such) still tries to draw near to his model through suffering….

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