In The New Demons (trans. C. Edward Hopkin, 1975), Jacques Ellul identifies the two sacred pairs that he believes make up today’s sacred.
The first sacred pair he names is technology and sex. I couldn't agree with him more. It is even more helpful to think of them using their Roman names: Vulcan, god of technology, and Venus, goddess of sex. Roman mythology affirms the tight relationship between technology and sex by understanding Vulcan and Venus to be husband and wife.
Jacques identifies the other sacred pair as the nation-state and revolution. I disagree with him here. I think this second pair is better understood as politics and war. Again, using their Roman names, we devote ourselves to Jupiter, god of politics, and Mars, god of war. Strangely enough, Roman mythology also affirms the tight correlation between sex and war by understanding Venus and Mars to be lovers. Sex and violence: still a profitable combination.
Let us recall that the sacred comes in pairs. One partner in the pair represents order or control; the other, disorder or chaos. In our first sacred pair, Vulcan is our source of control while Venus is the related source of disorder, festival, frenzy. Jacques says that the “nation-state is the second ordering phenomenon of our society. That and technology are the only two” (80). (We’ll consider adding Pluto, god of money, to the ordering phenomena of our society later.)
1. Sacred pole of order: the national state
a. The state. Jacques identifies the state as sacred because of the sacred functions it fulfills. “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…declares the law, the supreme objective code on which the whole game of society depends” (80).
He says this is nothing new. Across cultures and throughout history, kings have routinely been understood to “have a sacral origin, charisma, and a legitimate power of life and death… Yes, political power has always…been a manifestation of the sacred of order and respect” (80).
Yet today’s state does differ in form from those of the past. Now it is a vast abstract bureaucracy exercising increasing control over all aspects of every human being. “The executioner state is total. It demands every sacrifice and disposes of everything” (81).
This vast abstractness coupled with intimate control, this “combination of transcendence and proximity” (81), is what gives today’s state the sense of mystery which always characterizes what we humans regard as sacred.
There was a period of time, following the Enlightenment and French Revolution, when there was a “desacralizing determination to reduce the state to its role of management and law” (81). Nothing mysterious or delirious there. It was an era which witnessed “the decline of power (liberalism), an era of desacralization (elimination of the charismatic king) and of rationalism (institutions and administration)” (81).
But “[t]he state became sacred again during the war of 1914—the state,…not the political power, but our state, the god of war and of order” (81). Of order and of war? The state again became sacred because “people accept it, live it, and look upon it as the great ordainer, the supreme and inevitable providence. They accept everything of it, accept its every intention, and inevitably and inexorably think of their lives and of their society in relation to it” (81).
Worse, the state demands not just cooperation but adoration. We respond with enthusiasm. “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” (82).
b. The nation. In the 1700s, a nation—a government along with the people and land it controlled—was only that. Beginning in the 1800s, the nation become something more than that. “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” (82).
By the war of 1914, the nation’s importance had increased to the point that it became sacred. One mark of the sacred is ultimate value and its use as the criterion of good and evil. On this basis, “[i]t 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” (82).
Through the course of that war, other emerging marks of the sacred included “irrationality, fascination, provocation, and adoration” (83). One’s land, called father- or motherland, was said to be sacred. Death in battle was considered a sacrifice which, literally, means an offering to the divine. “[T]he 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” (83). “Only the sacred could gain acceptance for such atrocities” (83).
Rather than regarding modern national wars as devotion to Mars, god of war, Jacques sees them as sacrifices to the sacred nation. Rather than understanding modern warfare as devotion to a sacred of transgression or chaos, Jacques sees it as “part of the sacred of order represented by the state and the nation” (83).
Jacques states that we face “an unbelievable paradox…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” (83).
c. The national state. The national state: “the fusion of the state with the nation” (83). On one side, the state “combines all the national forces and concentrates them…Conversely, the nation finds its expression only in a powerful state…Nothing national exists outside the state, and the latter has…meaning only if it is national” (83). “The state is completely justified by the nation’s sacred, and the nation is completely glorified by the sacred of the state” (84).
2. Sacred pole of disorder: revolution
Jacques begins his analysis again by describing sacred characteristics of young revolutionaries. These include a confusion of delirium (emotional intensity plus stubborn irrationality) with wisdom, of blind allegiance with loyalty, and of a herd mentality with commitment. Revolution is “a plunge into chaos, out of which a new, young, and purified society is supposed to emerge” (84).
He exposes the shared origin of the national state as sacred pole of respect and order and revolution as the corresponding sacred pole of resentment and disorder. He notes that both emerged following the execution of Louis 16th, ruler of France, in January 1793. “It is exactly at that 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 modern state, the execution of the king, was the votive and consecrating act of revolution” (84-85).
As the modern national state demanded increasing love and community from its citizens, so too, says Jacques, revolution demanded a devoted community that hated it. Each sacred demanded of its followers the absolute hatred of those devoted to the opposite sacred. Because both the national state and revolution are equal but opposite sacreds, we have the historical irony that “revolution, a sacred of transgression, creates an equally fundamental sacred of respect the moment it manages to seize power” (85).
This has led, Jacques points out, to a change. No longer are revolutions occasional and irregular explosions of violence against established rulers. Because, according to Jacques, revolution is a sacred pole of transgression, it is now a permanent condition marked by regular outburst of rebellion. Still, we might better understand this in terms of war: always cold everywhere but also always hot in some places.
Copyright © by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.