On Progress and Irony:

with particular reference to the abandonment of

human sacrifice

by  Carl Pfluger

Piopolis, PQ
Canada G0Y 1H0

Copyright (c) 1995 by Carl Pfluger.
This essay first appeared in
Reproduced with permission.


Plutarch, in his Life of Themistocles, tells us that just as the battle of Salamis was about to begin,


There is no doubt that Plutarch, writing more than 500 years after the event, recounted this episode of human sacrifice with horror, revulsion, and more than a little shame. He is eager to exonerate his hero and cast all the blame on an aberrational outbreak of vulgar irrationalism, a mass psychosis brought on by the stresses of war. And well he might. He regarded the Persian Wars (as most of us have been in the habit of regarding them ever since) as the great struggle of Greek against barbarian, the fight for freedom, humanity, civilization and enlightenment: for everything that makes our tradition worth defending. Yet here we have Greeks, at the very threshold of what was to be their Golden Age, behaving more barbarously than the barbarians themselves, succumbing to panic in their moment of trial, and perpetrating an act which seems to belong (if such things may be said to "belong" anywhere) to a much more remote, more primitive, antiquity. Like Plutarch, we might all prefer to believe that such things had never happened, or at least that they were done only very long ago, by people with no connection to ourselves. But this bit of history shows only too plainly that human sacrifice, at least as an occasional emergency measure, persisted far longer than it is comfortable for us to admit.

Nor was this the last time in Greek history that human sacrifice was at least considered (to speak in the idiom of modern strategic planners) "a live option". More than a century later a similar event was narrowly averted by the sort of dodge which must be counted, in these matters, as one of the stratagems of progress. This too was, probably significantly, at a time of military emergency, and Plutarch again tells the tale: in his Life of Pelopidas, a Theban general who, on the eve of the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.) had a dream in which he was commanded to sacrifice "a red-haired virgin" in order to ensure victory. When Pelopidas reported the dream to his colleagues, a typically Greek debate ensued, with generals sounding incongruously like sophists, philosophers and antiquarians, as they argued the pros and cons of carrying out the bloody command to the letter. (Precedent was generally in favor of it, philosophy against.) At last the prophet Theocritus threw his weight on the side of humanitarian opinion by declaring that a red-maned filly (which had opportunely intruded herself into the proceedings) would be an acceptable offering.

Plutarch's relief at this equus ex machina outcome is palpable; and in his summary of the arguments brought against human sacrifice he clearly presents his own view:


Such sentiments, of course, are entirely to Plutarch's credit; but we may want to ask ourselves, did they not make the question almost too easy for him? For Plutarch, in whom Hellenism had evolved into a religion comparable to Hinduism in its abhorrence of bloodshed (see his essay On - really "against" - Eating Meat) there was no question at all that the gods were good by definition; good in a way that made it impossible for him to believe that human sacrifice could ever be desirable to them. Therefore it could bring a man no favor; therefore, in Plutarch's universe, it could not even be a temptation. But for men of an earlier period, the case was different. Presumably at a sufficiently ancient period (which for Plutarch would have been represented by the myths of the Heroic Age, and which we know, or think we know, through the findings of archeology) things were equally unproblematic, but on the other side of the moral divide: when Agamemnon, like the Biblical hero Jephthah, slit his daughter's throat to purchase his military victory, he no doubt felt that the price of divine favor was a bit on the high side that day; but his duty would have seemed clear to him, and the thought that no god had the right to demand such a sacrifice would never have entered his bronze-clad head.

But for most of the thousand years or so between Agamemnon and Plutarch things seem to have been much less settled, and proportionately more agonizing. Somehow, and increasingly throughout the course of that millennium, people were coming to feel that human sacrifice was fundamentally wrong; but they had as yet no good reason to believe that it was in any way unwelcome to the gods. On the contrary: all their traditions told them that human flesh was the meat which the gods prized above all else. Therefore they could have no confidence that such offerings were, pragmatically speaking, ineffective - or even (such being the dread inspired by the gods in those days) safe to leave undone.

This was of course the formative era of all subsequent civilization, that Classical or Axial period which gave birth to all the religious and philosophical traditions which have continued living into our own day. But the feeling of revulsion against human sacrifice had begun long before the appearance of any fully-articulated philosophy. It was a movement in the history of religion, but we can scarcely see in its origins any kind of self-consciously critical theology. No doubt this general sentiment in favor of humanity contributed something to the eventual rise of just such a philosophical theology as we find expressed most luminously in Plutarch's own convictions; and once attained, this philosophically reformed religion decisively reinforced the original impulse. But the men whose lives Plutarch was writing had not enjoyed, in their own days, any such sense of metaphysical security.

To put it most starkly: the men of those times had begun to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being, in some significant respects, superior to their own gods; but they did not know exactly what to do about it. Ultimately they would succeed in disciplining those gods to the new moral order, but it was a long and harrowing process: a millennial dialogue, fraught with terror and tension, but also enlivened by the most high-spirited exercise of ingenuity, irony, courage and human-hearted aspirations. Plutarch's stories of Themistocles and Pelopidas give us a couple of glimpses into that turbulent and unsettled world; perhaps we should look for a few more such glimpses before we presume, tentatively and with profound respect, to pass judgment on the achievements of that epoch.


To the Greeks of the Classical period, and later to the Romans, the traditions of human sacrifice in earlier times remained a disquieting memory: "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum", as Lucretius said (I, 101) of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia; but they did remember them more or less clearly. When the tenderer consciences of a later time produced more palatable variants of the myths (as, in Euripides, Iphigenia was not really sacrificed, but snatched away at the last minute and replaced on the altar by a deer) the older versions were not expunged from the record, but continued to exist, and to be cited, as chilling reminders of a harsher past. The Hebrews, on the other hand, who passed through a similar development at about the same time, were far more consistent in editing their national memories. As a result, positive references to human sacrifice in the Bible are far fewer and more obscure than they are in the surviving corpus of Greek literature. They can, however, occasionally be discerned: sometimes where a brief reference has escaped the notice of the priestly or Deuteronomic redactor; sometimes where the matter of the tale was deemed important enough to be retained despite its embarrassing revelations about the mores of the early Hebrews. And perhaps these Scriptural instances are the more worth our attention insofar as our culture remains one in which the Biblical tradition is central, the pièce de résistance of our spiritual banquet, to which Hellenism (and latterly, various exotic spices from the East) have been added as garnishes, more or less strongly applied according to individual tastes.

The Bible's clearest and most notorious analogue to Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia (in its later, bowdlerized version) and, for that matter, to the one expediently averted by Pelopidas, is of course Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, commuted at the last minute to that of the ram providentially caught in the thicket (Genesis 22:1-14). By analogy one may infer an earlier version in which Abraham's first-born was indeed sacrificed, as is demanded by Yahweh in Exodus 13:2. But the assiduity of the Jerusalemite editors has forced this conjecture to depend for support on circumstantial evidence. (Abraham, as the first and most revered ancestor of a whole people, would be expected to have his record most thoroughly cleaned up and revised in accord with subsequent values.) But elsewhere in the Bible, where the vigilance of a later age was, for whatever reason, less strict, we may find evidence for the persistence of human sacrifice among worshippers of Yahweh into a period much later than the Heroic, or Patriarchal, ages. Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11:31-40) is a clear, but somewhat isolated, example; more revealing and significant, perhaps, is the sacrifice forced on Saul by Samuel - though the Biblical text stops just short of calling it that.

Saul, the first king of Israel, has a good claim to being the most unjustly maligned historical figure in the Bible. Both of the sources which, according to modern scholarship, constituted the bulk of the two Books of Samuel were biased against him. The Early Source favors David and his dynasty; the Late Source is hostile to the very idea of a secular monarchy, being written from that priestly and theocratic perspective which gave its final shape to all the Biblical literature. It is this later source which informs us that Saul, after winning a war against the neighboring tribe of Amalek, affronted Yahweh by refusing to make a holocaust of the whole nation, even going so far in his self-indulgent depravity as to spare the life of the defeated king, bringing him home with the spoils as a prisoner. In a bitter confrontation at the Yahwist sanctuary of Gilgal, the prophet Samuel denounced Saul, declaring that his government had lost its divine sanction, and browbeat him into surrendering Agag, the captive king; and then, as the Authorized Version renders it in its inimitably stately manner, "Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal." (1 Samuel 15:33.)

So Saul, according to this Late Source of Samuel (commonly dated to around 750-650 B.C.) lost the kingship of Israel because he had withheld the human sacrifice which Yahweh, the god of Israel, expected as his due after a war. (The laws mandating this sort of holocaust - usually rendered in English as "placing under the ban", or "devotion unto utter destruction" - have been preserved for our edification in several parts of the Torah: Exodus 17, Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 13 & 20.) In this refusal Samuel sees only greed; but perhaps we should pause for a modest encomium on King Saul, who dared to refuse this service to a bloodthirsty god (self-interested though his motives may have been - as whose are not?) at a time when he had not attained to Plutarch's serene conviction that such refusal was both safe, and morally correct. If we have any grounds at all for believing that the history of religion includes some evidence of moral progress, Saul deserves a share of the credit for it. Enslaving a people defeated in war may not be the last word in enlightened, progressive behavior, but it does constitute a modest step above the practice of exterminating them.

And perhaps even Saul's deferral to Samuel should be seen as not wholly a surrender, but as the conclusion of a negotiated compromise. The prophet, after all, did not get the holocaust, the "utter destruction" that he demanded in Yahweh's name, supported though he was by the sanction of law and custom: he got only the "representative" sacrifice of a single (albeit royal) individual. Such negotiations were indeed typical throughout the millennial process by which, among all the ancient civilizations, the gods were gradually weaned of their taste for human blood. A readily identifiable category of myths, which may be denoted "myths of commutation", preserves some memory of this process. Sometimes (as in the stories of Isaac and Iphigenia) it is presented as a gratuitous act of benevolence on the part of the gods themselves; more often, and more significantly, we may witness a process of bargaining between man and god, a tense and fearful dialogue in which a new set of religious arrangements was painfully (and for a long time precariously) worked out. In a charming passage of his Life of Numa Pompilius, the semi-mythical lawgiver-king of Rome, our old friend Plutarch relates how an angry Jupiter told Numa that he might gain protection against thunder and lightning with an offering of "heads":

- and that was why the Romans of Plutarch's day had an innocuous little charm against the thunder, and why they no longer performed human sacrifices - unless one counts the prisoners of war garrotted at the culmination of a triumph, or the gladiatorial "games" of the arena: but that belongs to another part of our story.

This legend of Numa's quick-witted bargaining with Jove, bald and almost farcical though it is, may remind us of some other scenes of negotiation with a deity bent on bloodshed. In Genesis 18: 22-33, when Abraham tries to intercede on behalf of Sodom, the manner of his pleading ("For fifty righteous men? - Forty-five? - Forty . . . ?") suggests nothing so much as an obsequious bazaar merchant dickering with a particularly difficult customer. On that occasion, as we all remember, Abraham failed, and Sodom felt the full force of Yahweh's genocidal wrath; but Moses had more success when the people of Israel themselves were threatened (not for the last time) with that same wrath:

(Numbers 14:13-16, Revised Standard Version)


Right. If you kill us, what will the neighbors say?

These last two Biblical stories may not be about the cultic practices of human sacrifice per se (as we saw in Samuel, the Bible is extremely chary of calling such things by their right names) but they do clearly reflect an ethos, and a conception of God, in which human sacrifice was only too possible. This is still a god whom one must approach with fear, the same god as can say (2 Kings 21:13) " . . . I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down." Not really a civilized god, not yet quite housebroken. At the same time, all these stories also show us something else as well: they show men struggling to grasp something better, and negotiating to make it acceptable to their gods - gods in whose power they still believed, and in whose goodness they wanted to believe, but of whose acceptance of the newer, more humane and merciful order they could not yet be at all sure. This accounts for the somewhat frantic character of most of these myths, their undertone of desperation; it is also a tribute to the courage of the men of those times, who were in the process of conducting a protracted revolution, perhaps the greatest moral revolution ever effected by human beings: a development which has been insufficiently recognized and celebrated, I think, precisely because to reflect on it too closely is to experience too sharply the shame of being descended from forebears who once participated in such terrifying rites. These gruesome vignettes are the family skeletons in the closets of all our cultural, ethnic and religious traditions.


It is likely enough that some of those skeletons will always be with us: such rites would never have arisen did they not express something essential about the human species, perhaps even about the deepest roots of life itself. As we bear in our blood the salinity of the Paleozoic seas, even while walking on dry land and breathing that free oxygen which we inherit from our remotest discernible ancestors (the anaerobic bacteria, without whose chemical self-immolation we could never have come into existence: who now survive furtively in the gangrenous wounds of our own bodies) and which we now transport, bottled, into the ultimate airless aridity of outer space; as we painstakingly dig up and mount in museums (those vestigially numinous closets of our nominally secular culture) the bones of our more spectacular reptilian relatives, gazing at them with a unique fascination equally familiar to the child, the student and the most seasoned professional; so must we carry with us, even to this day, some remnant of those primordial intuitions which found such graphic enactment on the bloody altars of antiquity: that blood will have blood, that prosperity must be paid for, that all who live and thrive must live and thrive by the death of something else; and that those thus sacrificed become somehow hallowed: a part of us, but a part filled with dread, which will continue to haunt us for a long time thereafter. Literally to sacrifice any being is to make it holy [sacer + facio]; but the holy (as is made glaringly clear in the Latin sacer) always includes an element of the terrible, the horrible, even the repulsive: that from which we recoil, even as we long for it and look to it for an enhancement of our own existence. It is the curse (and glory) of our species to be always aware of an obscurely ominous summons to some ever wider breadth of being and consciousness - and the idea of sacrifice certainly seems to express one facet at least of that longing for transcendence: especially if it is the sacrifice of ourselves; or at least (second-best, no doubt, by a long shot) of "one of our own".

Yet these dark and haunted intuitions are capable of being modulated through time; and the succession of such modes, incessantly calling out to each other, challenging each other with all the ironic confrontation of which human beings are capable, is as clear a demonstration of progress as any we are likely to discover in the long course of human history. I recognize the ironies which encumber that word "progress", but I will insist on it nevertheless; even though I can not (and probably would not, even if I could) provide a summary definition of its "ultimate" goal; even though, like Pindar, I " . . . know not what the day will bring, what course after nightfall destiny has written that we must run to the end."
(Nemea 6; tr., Richmond Lattimore, U. of Chicago Press)

I say only that reviewing this sanguinary fragment of our religious evolution can give us some modest, but genuine, grounds for hope: about the human condition, perhaps; or at least about some prospects for the continually unfolding story of life at large.

As a recognized institution, performed shamelessly under its own name, human sacrifice has existed in many forms, from the very beginning of what we are pleased to call civilized life. Royal tombs of the earliest dynasties in Egypt, Sumeria and China were "staffed" with the slaves, bodyguards and personal attendants of their deceased masters, slain to accompany them into the other world. Sometimes the kings themselves were sacrificed, likely enough as incarnations of the god whose recurring death and rebirth was seen as renewing the cyclical order of the world, on earth as in heaven. Children were slain at the inauguration of new buildings or cities, and their bodies buried beneath the walls; the murder of Remus by Romulus at the beginning of Rome may be a disguised memory of just such a "foundation sacrifice", a custom for which Biblical documentation may be found in 1 Kings 16:34. Aside from these regular and public solemnities, private individuals as well as rulers might offer up a victim on any number of special occasions: fulfilling a rash vow, responding to an ominous portent, contending with extraordinary distress, or merely seeking some particular favor. And of course war has always produced the greatest opportunities for collecting this sort of god-fodder.

The purely royal and domestic rites seem to have been mollified, and then decisively abandoned at an early time, commuted to bloodless and artificial substitutes. The statuary placed in Egyptian tombs from the Third Dynasty on is a vestige of the hecatombs of human victims sent down with the kings of the Archaic period, as is the army of life-sized clay soldiers found in the tomb of the "First Emperor" of China's Ch'in Dynasty. And kings soon learned how to avoid sacrificing themselves, either by staging purely symbolic rituals of death and rebirth (as in the Egyptian festival of Heb-Sed) or by procuring surrogate "kings for a day" to shed their blood for them, as tended to happen in Mesopotamia. And while it is possible that the pillars carved into the likenesses of human forms (caryatides, atlantes, telamones) which are so prominent a feature of ancient architecture may have originated as substitutes for the real human beings formerly sacrificed as supernatural supports for the walls, it is tolerably certain that by the time our ancestral cultures were taking their classical forms, neither Greeks nor Hebrews were in the habit of cementing foundations with human blood and bone.

No, it is only under conditions of special stress that human sacrifice survived into the classical period, and especially in the stresses associated with war. It is hardly likely to be an accident that the stories which bear on our theme - Themistocles and Pelopidas, Jephthah and Iphigenia, Saul and Samuel - all occur in the context of war. War not only tends to inure us to the shedding of human blood: it also produces the situations in which it is most likely that desperate expedients will be attempted. War, in some sense not entirely metaphorical, may be said to be the principal form in which human sacrifice has survived into the present day. It may be significant that in the sophistical debate attending the dream of Pelopidas, the conservative advocates of the old-time religion cited in support of their case, not only Themistocles and such obvious instances from the mythical ages as Iphigenia, but also the example of Leonidas, the King of Sparta whose defense to the death of the pass of Thermopylae could be seen, they said, as a religiously sacrificial act. A Roman parallel to this may be the story of Decius Mus, who voluntarily threw himself onto the Samnite spears in an act which the Romans recognized as a devotio, a solemn offering to the gods on behalf of the community. Comparable acts of heroic self-sacrifice by Roman commanders crop up in the pages of Livy with suspicious regularity; more soberly revealing of Roman attitudes was their treatment of prisoners of war. At the climax of a triumphal procession the highest-ranking prisoners taken from the defeated enemy were executed, out of sight in a dungeon, just before the official, open-air, sacrifice (of an ox) was performed. One could scarcely ask for more eloquent evidence, both of the primitively sacrificial nature of this custom, and of the shame which the Romans, by classical times, had begun to feel about it. And of course we should here recall the most notorious Roman exercises of gratuitous mass-slaughter, those "games" put on in their arenas. These seem to have grown out of Etruscan funeral games, and as such they may point back ultimately to the royal sepulchral immurements of the ancient Near East; but what kept them in existence throughout most of Roman history was the steady stream of prisoners sent down to them from the wars. Meanwhile - and again under the stress of acute military emergency - the Romans could still, on occasion, revert to human sacrifice in its purest and most unambiguous form. Livy recounts (XXII, 57) how shortly after the crushing defeat inflicted by Hannibal at Cannae (216 B.C.) two pairs of human victims were buried alive at Rome; and he darkly confesses that such things had occasionally been done before, though he calls it, with obvious embarrassment, "a most un-Roman rite."

No doubt he would have preferred to believe that it could only have been done by Rome's enemies; and indeed it does seem to be true that the Carthaginians, of all the major civilized peoples of the ancient world, persisted longest with all the archaic forms of human sacrifice, as did their motherland of Canaan/Phoenicia. But even among them some of the most dramatic examples seem to have occurred in military contexts, both before and after their wars with Rome. There was, for example, the case of their general Hamilcar, who fought against the Greeks in Sicily early in the fifth century B.C. According to Herodotus (VII, 167) when the battle of Himera was going against him Hamilcar threw himself onto the sacrificial pyre in a last desperate attempt to turn the tide. His side lost that war nonetheless, and in the peace treaty which followed the Greeks included a prohibition of further human sacrifices. Considering that this battle occurred in the same year (some said on the same day) as Salamis, we may be tempted to wonder: was this stipulation "merely" a matter of imposing humanitarian standards on a "barbarian" people, or was it also, at least in part, something like a "disarmament clause", an attempt to level the playing field of Ares by prohibiting a practice which the Greeks of that time regarded (rather as we regard chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons today) as shameful and reprehensible, but not necessarily ineffective? In other words, that what was most dreadful to them about human sacrifice was not that it wouldn't work, but that - given the commonly recognized character of the gods - it probably would?


From a narrowly religious point of view one might begin to suspect that the primary point of going to war was always to provide a clearly-defined class of sacrificial victims: human beings whom it is lawful, indeed mandatory, to kill. In this perspective a civilization like that of the Aztecs would represent the ideal type - at least according to the account of their practices which they offered to their Spanish conquerors (themselves no strangers to the disciplines of holy war, and to the ceremonial infliction of death as a religious duty.) The more blood-curdling texts which may be found in the Old Testament have almost that same primitive simplicity, but already mixed with a more pragmatic, almost incipiently secular, motive: the covenantal bargaining of do ut des, the notion that by promising one's god an offering of all the enemy, one may bribe him into fighting on one's side with sufficient zeal to ensure victory. This is the theory of sacrifice most generally discernible in the testimonies we have been gathering from both Scriptural and Classical sources; and it seems also to have been embraced with enthusiasm by those barbarians par excellence, the Celtic and Germanic tribes who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire, as may be seen in many passages from Classical and Norse literature alike, as well as in the grim archeological evidence which has come to light from peat bogs all over northern and western Europe. "Odin has you all!" cried King Erik of Sweden as he hurled his dart over the enemy in A.D. 960, according to the Flateyjarbok; just what that meant may be seen from a brief notice in Tacitus of a skirmish in the first century between two German tribes, each of whom
"had devoted, in the event of victory, the enemy's army to Mars and Mercury, a vow which consigns horses, men, everything indeed on the vanquished side to destuction."
(Annals, 13:57; tr., Church & Brodribb, Modern Library)

More graphic is this description by Paulus Orosius of the behavior of the Cimbri after a victory in 105 B.C.:


Orosius, a Christian writing in the fifth century, seems not to have noticed that this is precisely what Samuel had demanded of Saul, and what is prescribed as the normative rule of war in Numbers and Deuteronomy; otherwise he would hardly have called it "a strange and unusual vow." It is possible that such similarities had not escaped Bishop Ulfilas, the "apostle to the Goths" less than a century earlier: at any rate, when he translated the Bible into Gothic he chose to omit the books of Samuel and Kings, as being too likely to incite his already bloodthirsty people to behavior for which they needed no further encouragement. But then Ulfilas had lived for much of his life among Goths as well as Romans; and this may have given him a perspective inaccessible to Orosius, who had grown up entirely under the protection, and within the intellectual limits, of the later, Christianized, Roman Empire.

That he did in fact regard such rites as "strange and unusual" - and so repugnant to the moral sense of himself and his readers as to require no argument - shows that with Orosius we have at last arrived safely within the moral universe familiar to Plutarch, and to ourselves. But Plutarch, still painfully conscious of the horrors lurking in the not-so-distant past of his own tradition, had a sharper appreciation of his own era's religious enlightenment. At least he had a keener sense that in the history of human dealings with the mysterious forces of the world, and with the darker impulses of the human soul, something like progress does occasionally happen. (A strong sense of such progress also informs his diatribe against eating meat, which he concedes as a dire necessity to primitive hunters, but denounces as an "unnatural" vice in civilized people who enjoy the "luxuries" of an agriculturally supported society. Plutarch's reasoning about "nature" and "necessity" is hardly the last word on such things; but he was thinking about them, at least with half-opened eyes.) Orosius, in contrast, was no longer aware of the distance that he (or rather, his ancestors) had travelled. The dark shore from which they had set out was hidden from him by the fog of retroactive interpretation, tendentious commentary, and the general editing of collective memory so characteristic of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Orosius had forgotten the shame of his own predecessors, and with it the true sense of their more than heroic accomplishments.


This brings us to the great irony of progress. First we achieve, often at great cost, some new and superior level of development; then, out of shame, we repress the memory of our origins, depriving ourselves of all credit for having overcome our earlier limitations. Like upwardly-mobile immigrants who become ashamed of their own parents, the whole human race, in its tenure of this planet, has tried much too often, and much too successfully, to forget the sordid and painful past from which we grew. This is why so many people, and not only Fundamentalists of all faiths, are so uncomfortable with all forms of evolutionary thought; this is why the idea of progress has always been, and will always remain, controversial: a subject of never-ending ambiguities, arguments and contradictions.

Certainly the idea, or even the hope, of progress has not fared spectacularly well in our century. Not only has it been battered by all the flagrant horrors which the world's most self-consciously advanced societies began visiting upon each other in 1914, but - perhaps even more seriously - it has been poisoned and degraded by its polemical use as a rhetorical stick with which to beat ideological opponents. No human being of any sensibility can ignore the fact that "progressive" has been taken up as a proprietary label by some of the most monstrous and appalling political formations of our, or any other, time.

So the more naive and uncritical beliefs about progress which were fashionable during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been quite thoroughly discredited. Such facile assumptions as that progress is somehow inevitable, and may be left to take care of itself, like biological evolution; that it is always and unambiguously good and cost-free; or that it is a uniform process, fulfilling some immanent law of human development as a simple function of time - all these may be abandoned without regret. But none of this makes progress any the less real, nor any less valuable. Rather, we should value it more highly, the more we recognize how uncertain it is, how rare and precarious; how dependent on the sustained and deliberate efforts of human minds, human wills, human spirit and human feeling. Such efforts have often been painful, and often spurred by the still more painful consequences of our own previous folly. For instance, we of the West tend to take pride in our having achieved a higher level of enlightened toleration than is found in the Islamic world, with which we are currently having so much trouble. But for most of our common history, the Muslims were much more tolerant than we; and if we surpass them in this virtue now, it is largely because, having first inflicted so much misery on ourselves in the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe, we finally felt the need for a stronger strain of tolerance to protect us from the virulence of our own fanaticism. Gradually we have learned to esteem as a principle what we first accepted, in a peace of exhaustion, as a distasteful political expedient; but we would still do well to recall how we came to our own Enlightenment.

Such sectarian feuds may also remind us that some of the severest denunciations of progress (as indeed of all aspects of evolution in life) have come from those who were, according to their own sense of things, arguing in defense of religion. And this presents us with another irony because, second only to the irrefutable advancement of science and technology, the clearest evidence of human progress may in fact be found in the history of religion; of which the gradual abolition of human sacrifice is the best and most dramatic example: showing us, among other things, that religions themselves are subjects of evolution. This is not the rectilinear progress of Condorcet, nor the "iron laws" of the Marxists - though their Hegelian notion of dialectic, if one takes care not to abuse it too thoughtlessly, conveys something of its ironically conflict-driven course. Rather, this record of the progressive humanization of the gods reveals an enterprise much more supple and multiform, willful and ambitious: a process not without reason, to be sure, but rooted first of all in some "reasons of the heart"; that is, in a pre-philosophical human feeling for which arguments were found only long afterward. Those arguments, and the beliefs which they eventually established, were the fruit of a long and convoluted dialogue between men and gods, a sometimes tricky process of mutual self-imaging; a dialogue inflected differently in each of the national traditions involved, but always tending, in however roundabout a manner, eventually to elevate the character of the initially uncivilized gods with which men had to work. This is the dialogue which caused Nikolai Berdyayev to say that the Hebrew Scriptures contained the truest history ever written; but of course that history was not confined to any one tradition, and one need not share Berdyayev's Christian faith to recognize that the whole exercise was hardly less valuable even if one side of this negotiation was, from beginning to end, wholly the imaginary creation of the other.


The very word "dialogue" is more likely to remind us of the Greeks than of the Hebrews. But the Biblical word "covenant" conveys much of the same substance, though with a different emphasis and in a different style. Covenant and dialogue both presuppose the existence of at least two distinct parties, with different personalities and different interests: both represent ways of "talking back" to the gods. Moreover, any covenant, even with a god, must include some element of negotiation. This is also implicit in the very notion of sacrifice: for if the gods, however much they may be more powerful than we, nonetheless want something from us, then we have something to bargain with, rather as even the most cruelly exploited workers have, in proportion as an economic order depends on their labors, a weapon available to them in their ability to go on strike. Of course we all know how in practice the freedom to use that weapon varies greatly from one time or place to another; and so it is hardly surprising that these divine-human negotiations also exhibited great variation.

Much of this was "merely" a variation in national styles, which grew naturally out of divergent historical experiences. Hebrew dealings with Yahweh are usually couched in the forms appropriate to the court of an ancient Near Eastern monarchy. "Let not the Lord be angry with me, who am but dust and ashes" - that is how Abraham pleads for the righteous Sodomites, having already prostrated himself on the ground: just the sort of manners which the Greeks found so offensive when Alexander the Great borrowed them from the Persian court. But the Jews, especially after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, lived for a long time under the threat of genocide, and could hardly feel free to afford that light-hearted irony and insouciant playfulness which characterizes so many of the Greek myths. Concentrated as they were into little more than a single city-state, it was only too clear to them that one false move could easily lead to their national annihilation, whether at the hands of hostile neighbors, or of their own irascible, ineffable, unfathomable Yahweh, who might at any time choose to wipe off the plate and slay the whole people "as one man". As with Dr. Johnson's man condemned to hanging on the morrow, this condition no doubt promoted a certain concentration of the national mind, but it was hardly conducive to the most relaxed and genial style of divine-human conversation. So the Biblical covenant was always being negotiated in an atmosphere of oppressive seriousness, and the ethical monotheism which the Jews, to their everlasting credit, nevertheless did manage to hammer out was always somewhat cramped in its style, always tinged with a sense of dread and terror (presumably these reflect ineradicable vices deep in the character of Yahweh himself) which has continued to oppress Judaism and its derivative religions ever since. That the Greeks had, by and large, an easier time of it was due to the pluralism both of their political existence and (hardly unrelated to it) of their mythology.

On earth of course the Greeks, more numerous and more dispersed, never faced that threat of national extinction; and in heaven too they enjoyed advantages denied to the Jews. Whenever Zeus got into one of his homicidal rages (which he did on occasion, if not quite so readily as did Yahweh) the Greeks never had to face that terrifying wrath alone and unmediated. They could always call on the aid of other gods - Prometheus, for example - more philanthropic and peaceable by nature, ready to take their part as man's allies and protectors. Much more "wiggle-room" in heaven that way; more chance to play one god against another and to negotiate a more favorable covenant.

The Hebrew word for making a covenant means literally "to cut", just as we still speak of "cutting a deal". One explanation of this refers to the act of cutting up an animal, as for sacrifice (see Genesis 15:7-20) or as Samuel "hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD." Thus we may say that Prometheus quite literally cut a covenant with Zeus on behalf of the whole human race when he instituted the form of animal sacrifice usual among the Greeks. He butchered an ox, according to the authoritative myth, and divided the meat into two portions: all the best cuts in one pile, hidden by the stomach; and the bones in the other, covered by a deceptively juicy-looking layer of fat. "All-knowing Zeus" chose the fat and bones, and though he was angered by the trick, they remained the Olympians' share ever after, while men ate most of the meat in the communal meals which were the essential part of an ancient Greek sacrifice.

This tale, verging though it does (like Numa's verbal fencing with Jupiter) on the farcical, is told by Hesiod (Theogony, 535-557) who is generally the most pious and god-fearing of Greek writers, sometimes approaching an almost Hebraic sensibility in his earnest and gloomy moralizing. Homer's treatment of the gods is notoriously more playful; and while the tragic poets were generally more serious, they were also much bolder in playing with variant versions of the myths and in directly challenging the gods, confronting them with human demands for justice: think of the moral stature Prometheus achieves with his defiant opposition to Zeus in Prometheus Bound. From such myths we may see that irony is not merely a perspective from which to view the history of progress; it is also an integral part of the process by which progress has been achieved: an agent, a stratagem, of progress itself.

An ironic posture with respect to the most sacred objects of human concern has been most especially characteristic of the Hellenic heritage, from Homer and Hesiod down to the present. On the Hebraic side of our tradition such irony has usually been far less welcome, denounced as blasphemy or at best as unseemly, wanton frivolity. But then the Jewish religions (including of course Christianity and Islam) when viewed from any perspective other than their own, can seem unbearably narrow-minded in their restrictive monotheism, their obsessive pretensions to doctrinal purity. This exaltation of single-mindedness is what chiefly has handicapped their appreciation of irony at its highest levels, for irony always implies keeping more than one perspective in view at the same time, and sustaining the creative and life-giving tensions among them in a polyvalent exercise of dynamic balancing. Wishing to be as broad-minded as possible, one might be inclined to say that there is, after all, much of value to be found on all sides of our diverse traditions . . . but then such breadth of vision would have put one already on the side of the ironists, as opposed to the true believers in Yahweh and his offspring.

Yet there is ample scope for irony even in the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. Think only of the eponymous patriarch Jacob/Israel, of whose adventures with his friends and relations (the divine no less than the human) one is tempted to say what Oscar Wilde said of Dickens, that one would need a heart of stone to get through it without laughing; yet whose nocturnal wrestling at Peniel (Genesis 32: 24-30) may be seen as the supreme mythic prototype of all these confrontations between men and gods. And it is only with irony that we can simultaneously experience the power of such traditions lurking in our past (and therefore somehow present in ourselves) and also feel our own power to confront them: wrestling with them like Jacob, pleading with them like Abraham, adroitly re-directing them like Numa, or brazenly tricking them like Prometheus. Only by continuing with some such exercises, in terms and forms appropriate to our own day, will we remain worthy of any of our heritages.

For there was an inevitable natural limit to at least this phase of religious progress. Once the status of God had been so elevated and refined that he had neither desire nor need for sacrifice in any form - when he was no longer an "interested" party, in the material sense - then obviously this particular form of negotiation could go no further. And so, in what may be the ultimate irony of progress, the process which had begun by humanizing the gods concluded by lifting them out of range of all the human passions which formerly they had shared with us. The God of the philosophers has no taste for blood because he has no blood of his own: he is beyond all blackmail, bribery or retribution; but he is also beyond love. And yet Plutarch, who certainly regarded himself as a philosopher, radiates the warmest human feelings to be found in any writer of antiquity. What does that teach us? Perhaps this: that in defining one's self against a background of inherited belief - whether that background is a savage mythology or the most sophisticated of philosophical systems - a man is never better than when he rises above his own nominal principles.

It is a habit of our time to take religion in one of only two modes: either Fundamentalist, in which commandments, however harsh, intricate or exacting they may be, are in principle simple and unambiguous: authoritative in a way which brooks no appeal to a "higher law" because one's god is the arbitrary source of all law, the ultimate judge himself not subject to judgment; or else liberal, tolerant, critical and forebearing, but so "high minded" that one has virtually no sense of God as something other than human: such people tend blandly to believe that whatever they think of as good must be true, ex hypothesi, of God. Either way, one's conscience is untroubled; either way, there is no conflict in one's mind between the good and the sacred. Both these modes are self-contained, sustainable and consistent; but I find myself wondering what Plutarch would have thought of us.


One of Plutarch's most characteristic works is his essay
On Superstition, which begins with these words:

And then, although he himself was in so many ways the most "tender-minded" of writers, and one of the most sincerely religious people who have ever lived, Plutarch, in confronting this antithetical pair of spiritual vices, says that we must come down unequivocally harder against superstition than against atheism. Throughout this essay he reiterates that it is better to believe nothing about the gods than to hold superstitious beliefs about them - among which, of course, he counted the belief that they could ever be pleased by human sacrifice, or by bloodshed of any sort. If he could observe us today, I suspect that Plutarch would say that virtually all modern people are hopelessly enmeshed in one of these twin snares, atheism or superstition. Either we ignore the gods, for all practical purposes, or we adhere mindlessly and slavishly to some arbitrary cultus, and thereby mutilate our own essence, our humanity, with a shameful lack of regard for our own dignity.

No, Plutarch would not have liked our Fundamentalists: it is worth remarking that the very word he uses [´µ¹Ã¹´±¹¼ov_± (deisidaimonia)] conventionally rendered by the Latinate "superstition", literally means "god-fearing" - a word which has always had such favorable connotations in Judaism and its derivative religions. But I am not sure that he would have seen much difference between modern religious liberals and the atheists of his own time: decidedly preferable to the superstitious, no doubt, but chiefly valuable for their negative virtues: their lack of fanaticism and their freedom from religiously-grounded fear. Soft-hearted though he was, there is always in Plutarch a solid sense of inner character, of that capacity for making hard choices which is what makes us human. He has been most remembered, after all, for those ever-fresh and endlessly inspiring Lives; and while it has become a vice of modern religious liberalism to avoid being "judgmental", especially about other peoples' practices, religious or otherwise, some of the men whose lives Plutarch wrote did not shrink from passing judgment on the proclivities of the gods themselves.

The men of those transitional times discovered that there is at least one other way of being both religious and conscientious, a way equally distinct from the archaic mentality of abject submission to arbitrary power (which all Fundamentalisms tend to perpetuate) and from the New Age (really new in Plutarch's time, and still calling itself "new" in our own!) of generally pacific, but rather flaccid and loose-jointed benevolence. Their consciences had come to be at odds with their religion. They inhabited a radically unsettled world: they were still at sea between two distinct moral continents, and they had as yet no assurance that they would arrive safely at the more comfortable shore. For they still believed in their old gods - whether Yahweh, Jupiter, or Dionysus the Devourer - and they still held, by and large, the traditional views of their powers and appetites. Yet even while believing that human sacrifice was something which the gods desired very much, they chose, more often than not, to withhold it from them, forfeiting the favors which they believed it would purchase, and even putting themselves (as they thought) at mortal risk from the displeasure of those as-yet-unreformed "powers above."

It is not easy for us to take the measure of such men, because we have so largely lost the sense of being subject to the power of gods who are morally inferior to ourselves; gods who must be taken seriously, but who are also somehow contemptible, against whom we must marshal our best efforts: to educate them, eventually, but in the meantime (a "meantime" which lasted, as we have seen, for at least some hundreds of years) to resist, thwart, or circumvent them as far as humanly possible. Whence came this impulse to withhold human sacrifice? We may never find a certain answer to that question, since the impulse first made itself felt so long before anything like a philosophically articulated theology had arisen to give human values some semblance of clarity. And where did the men of those times find the spirit to play their daring game with the murderous gods, the courage to impose so resolutely, and in the end so successfully, this protracted embargo on heaven? . . . O admirabile commercium! That may be the greatest mystery of all, a mystery in the fullest sense of the word, a mystery of progress.

Progress and mystery are two words which do not sit comfortably side by side. Progress is associated with enlightenment, clarification, the elucidation of the obscure; by mystery we usually mean something irrational in human beings which defies lucid explanation. Yet here we find, at the very start of the most dramatically progressive leap in human religious history, a mystery. How did men make such a leap when neither reason nor faith gave them any encouragement to do so? I do not know. No doubt historians can illuminate some details of this miracle by pointing to various material conditions - social, economic, political - all of which played some part in it, and which have something like their own evolutionary laws; but ultimately the question will remain, I think, not quite reducible to them. I can find no better description of it, after all, than a mystery of progress, a mystery of the human heart.

How then shall we judge such men as Themistocles, or King Saul? We who are the heirs of their struggles can only recall them with gratitude and wonder. Wonder not that under such mortal stresses as the Persian Wars, or the Punic, the embargo was sometimes broken, and the occasional human victim sent furtively to heaven; rather should we marvel that it happened so seldom: that men who could expect no reward for their virtue held the line as well as they did; and that when they did give in, under pressure, to the sanguinary demands of the gods (which after all had all the support of tradition and precedent) they still regarded it as a failure on their own part, and that such occasions were remembered ever after (if they were remembered at all) with loathing and shame.

No, I will not condemn Themistocles, a Greek hero in the mould of Odysseus, who always applied his reason where it would be most effective - though I deplore, as he did, the panic which brought the Athenians to such a dreadful moment. And certainly I will not revile King Saul, who in establishing the Hebrew monarchy created one of the core institutions around which the religion of Israel eventually civilized itself. These were only two of the human participants in that millennial endeavor, that long, loud and ultimately fruitful conversation among gods and men, including men of many different races, classes and types. Prophets, priests, kings and commanders all took part in this dialogue. Some of their parts may be identified with fair precision, but it is not always possible to assign unambiguous praise or blame: many details escape us now. We can only gratefully remember that, in at least one particular facet of our lives, the human race at that time changed itself, irrevocably, for the better.


The Russian novelist Dmitri Merezhkovsky, in his crankish but intermittently illuminating book on the myth of Atlantis, tells of a Russian peasant, late in the nineteenth century, who killed his son because he had "heard" the voice of God commanding him to re-enact the sacrifice of Isaac. This unhappy peasant, Mikhail Kourtin by name, committed suicide in prison before his case was adjudicated. But it is impossible to believe that even in Holy Russia, pitied and patronized then as now for being the most backward and obscurantist country in Europe, he would ever have been sentenced as a sane man, nor his religious vision taken seriously. What in Plutarch's time could still be seen as a possible form of collective madness would now be recognized only as the insanity of an individual. This is one measure of the moral revolution wrought by the men of the period we have been discussing; but it is also a sign of how largely we have "succeeded" in forgetting what we have inherited from them. The idea that human sacrifice is simply unthinkable has so fully permeated our religious consciousness that I dare say there is now among us no Fundamentalist so benighted that, should he hear ever so clearly that inner voice which spoke to Abraham, should he even see the same light which the prophet Euphrantides saw before Salamis, he would not sooner believe that he was hallucinating than that this was the true voice and the true sign of God. But it is good for us to remember, sometimes, that it was not always so, and to recall to ourselves the courage of those men who stood against that command when the best course of action was not, as it has become with us, a foregone conclusion. It is of such resolution that all progress has been made - whenever it has truly been progress, and not the blind careering course of impersonal historical trends.

- END -

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