Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

 How many times have we heard our government tell us that we have to make sacrifices now so that we can have prosperity in the future.  Sacrifice usually means putting off gratification now for pleasure and prosperity later.  Becker, along with his special ‘informants’ like Hocart, understood the nature of sacrifice.  In EFE Becker dedicates part of Chapter 1 to sacrifice.  It’s critical to his whole argument.  He writes:

 At the centre of the primitive technics of nature stands the act of sacrifice, which reveals the essence of the whole science of ritual.  In a way, we might see it as the atomic physics of the primitive world view…If he does things [performs the ritual ceremony] exactly as prescribed, as the gods did them in the beginning of time, then he gets control over the earth and creation.  He can put vigor into animals, milk into females…

In the Hindu ritual and in coronation rituals, this is the point at which the contest came in.  In order to control nature, man must drive away demons and hostile forces.  If he makes a slip in the ritual, it gives power to the demons.  The ritual triumph is thus winning of a contest with evil…dice and chess probably had their origin as the way of deciding whether the king really could outwit and defeat the forces of darkness.

 Of course we sophisticates in the modern world don’t believe in this kind of thing or do we?  Oh, I think we do. 

 Hocart warns us that if we think this is so foreign to our own traditional ways of thinking we should look closely at the Christian communion.  By performing the prescribed rites the communicant unites himself with Christ – the sacrifice – who is God, and in this way the worshiper accrues to himself a mystical body or soul which has immortal life.   Everything depends on the prescribed ritual, which puts one in possession of the power of eternity by union with the sacrifice. 

 We don’t have to dig too deep into our personal lives to see how much ritual and especially rituals of sacrifice play a role.  Think of the hockey player who must lace his skates in exactly the same, precise order before every game or risk losing the game.  If his or her team loses, the loss can be blamed on the ‘fact’ that the ritual wasn’t performed properly.  Think of people putting small (or large) amounts of money into savings accounts so that they will ultimately be ‘saved.’  But I don’t want to rush Becker into the modern world just yet.  He has yet to finish his look at primitive society, how it was organized and why.  But in the Conclusion to this chapter, Becker tells us that:

 Man has always casually sacrificed life for more life.

 I find this particularly touching as we are spectators to our government’s treatment of veterans.  Of course they are expected to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, for our future prosperity and ‘freedom.’  Problem is the sacrificial fodder doesn’t want to just lie down and accept that its role is completed on the battlefield.  Sacrificial objects aren’t supposed to ask to be recognized for their sacrifice.  Witness Fantino’s casual dismissal of them. Harper wants to sacrifice lives for future prosperity alright, just not their future prosperity.  It’s for him and his buddies, not for the vets who have already played out their role and should now just slink off into obscurity and not cost the government one more cent.  What an asshole Harper is, but he’s no different than the Aztec priest who cut open the chests of thousands of captives in massive sacrificial ceremonies so that the kingdom would continue with the gods looking down in favour on him.  

4 thoughts on “Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

  1. Roger, the difference between Christianity and all other religions is that Christ made the sacrifice on behalf of every human being born into the world. It’s very difficult to be honest as a Christian living in a land of plenty such as Canada, since we have more good things than people who live in most other parts of the world, so I won’t pretend to understand why we have it so good. I don’t agree with the “prosperity” focus of some TV evangelists, however, neither to I believe in austerity with no “good things” to enjoy in this life. I won’t say more, but wanted to point out that this is why the gospel is called “good news.”


    1. All religions promise victory over death otherwise they would have no reason to exist. Christianity is no different than any other religion in that sense. Have you read all of my posts on Becker?


  2. Reblogged this on Roger Albert – Always a Sociologist and commented:

    Yesterday, I posted a note on one my own denial project. keeping busy. I have others, some idiosyncratic and some cultural that I share with you and just about everybody else in our world. I’m not exceptional nor am I immune from immortality-projects like nationalism and money. Sacrifice is the subject of this blog post. We’re constantly asked to make sacrifices to ensure the flow of prosperity. What’s that all about? Read on.


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