As I Was Saying/Essay XXXV

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Essay XXXIV As I Was Saying
Essay XXXV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXXVI



Essay XXXV: About Sacrifice

THE world has not yet had the happiness of reading my great forthcoming work, _The Case for Human Sacrifice,_ or _Moloch the Modern World's Hope,_ in nine volumes, with plates and diagrams illustrating all the advantages of Ritual Murder, and the religious side of cannibalism. It is even possible, alas! that the reader will never have the rapture of reading this great scientific monograph; for I have a great many other jobs on hand, in the distraction and excitement of which it is possible that my first fiery and youthful enthusiasm for Human Sacrifice may have somewhat faded, with the passage of years and the consolidation of more moderate convictions. But though I doubt whether I could, by this time, bring myself to sacrifice a baby to Moloch, and though my first boyish impatience at the tame compromise adopted in the cases of Isaac and Iphigenia has long died away, I still think Human Sacrifice is infinitely more decent and dignified than some scientific operations proposed at the present time. At least Human Sacrifice is human; a great deal more human than humanitarianism. And when modern medical men gravely get up and propose that human beings should be put in lethal chambers, when there is any reason to fancy that they are tired of life, I am still (relatively) prepared to cry: "Give me Moloch and the cannibals."

First consider the fundamental point: that the pagan altar at least treated a man's life as something valuable, while the lethal chamber treats a man's life as something valueless. A man's life was offered to the gods because it was valuable; more valuable than the best bull or the finest ram, or the choice things from the flocks and herds which were always chosen because they were choice. But the moderns, who do not believe in the existence of gods, tend at last not to believe even in the existence of men. Being scientific evolutionists, they cannot tell the difference between a man and a sheep. And being highly civilized townsmen, they would probably be very bad judges of the difference between a good sheep and a bad one. Therefore, there is in their sacrificial operations a sort of scornful and indifferent quality contrary to the idea of sacrifice, even at its blackest and bloodiest. They are always talking about eliminating the unfit, getting rid of the surplus population, segregating the feeble-minded, or destroying the hopeless; and this gives all their work a character of contempt. Now, in the very vilest blood-rites of barbarians, there may have been cruelty, but there was not contempt. To have your throat cut before an ugly stone idol was a compliment; though perhaps a compliment that you would have politely disclaimed and waved away.

It would have implied that you were, in the words of the old feudal custom of rent, the Best Beast. And however beastly you might think the people around you, and their religious views and liturgical habits, there would be some satisfaction in being the best beast among them. Human Sacrifice had this great though fallen splendour clinging about it; that at least it was the very contrary of the Survival of the Fittest. Like all the deaths of the martyrs and the heroes, it was the Surrender of the Fittest. The scientific destroyers necessarily talk in the opposite terms and spread the opposite tone. They sacrifice the black sheep of the flock; the mad bull of the herd; the unfortunates of the human community whom they choose to regard as mad or merely as weak-minded. They do not merely kill, but annihilate; not only in the sense of reducing people to nothing, but even of regarding them as nobodies. The sacrificial victim was always regarded as something; he was even respected as somebody. The victim was often a princess whose beauty was admired, or a great enemy whose courage was envied. Some have said that the latter was the origin of cannibalism; in which case it would be quite a handsome compliment to be cooked and eaten; and something of a snub or sneer, to any sensitively constituted gentleman, to be spared and left alive. The reader may be relieved to learn, however, that I do not really recommend the inclusion of cannibalism and human sacrifice among the ritualistic innovations of the Advanced School in the Church.

The truth remains, however, even in the literal and Latin meaning of sacrifice. It means to make a thing sacred; or, in this case, to make a man sacred. And to make him sacred is to make him separate; something set apart, and not to be confused with flocks and herds and the beasts that perish. Now the opposite evil, as it exists in so much scientific philanthropy, is the tendency to deal with men in herds; to treat them like sheep; and not only to class them with the beasts that perish but to take particular care that they do perish. And this is tyranny of a new kind, as compared even with the old despotic execution, let alone the old hieratic sacrifice. Even the public executions, now conventionally condemned, had this sort of wild justice about them: that they did not deprive the chief actor of the limelight. But the new death-ray of scientific destruction would not pick out personalities and individuals as does the limelight. And there is danger that the very fact of dealing with lives that are supposed to be futile or featureless or merely uncomfortable and unpleasant, instead of with great crimes or blasphemies, may bring into the business a spirit which is worse than merely cruel; because it is merely callous.

It is a favourite joke among the more solemn historians that Robespierre, credited or discredited with the guillotining of thousands of enemies of his own theory, actually began his political life with an argument for the abolition of Capital Punishment. It is less often noticed, though it is really a better joke, that he used the only really good argument for the abolition of Capital Punishment. He said: "Every time you kill a man by law, you diminish something of the sacredness of Man." But human sacrifice, whatever its other little weaknesses, did not diminish anything of the sacredness of Man. From the point of view of that particular pagan heresy, it even increased the sacredness of Man. For it was founded on the opposite principle, that the best thing must be sacrificed or made sacred. And though this particular form of the sentiment is barbarous and benighted, and in moral practice abominable, the sentiment itself is one which ought to be understood better than it is in what is commonly called an age of enlightenment. Unfortunately, the enlightened are also benighted. They never seem to throw any light on these most mysterious and interesting parts of the nature and history of Man; and since they cannot understand the idea in its highest and purest manifestations, it is natural that they should be merely puzzled by it in its basest and most brutal. But a huge part of human history will remain permanently unintelligible to those who cannot even entertain this idea: the idea of giving up a thing not because it is bad, but because it is good.

Speaking seriously, of course, most human sacrifice tends to be inhuman, because it tends to be diabolist. The line is not always drawn at first, or drawn easily, between a somewhat dark and ruthless deity and an actual demon. But one thing at least we may learn from the real history of the world, and that is how to avoid a blunder made by more than half the histories in the world. Whatever else is true, it is not true that blood-rites belong entirely to prehistoric or even primitive peoples. The progressive historians, of a school no longer very obviously progressing, did their very best to hint and imply that complex civilization is a complete safeguard against unnatural creeds or cruel ceremonies. It is nothing of the kind. Some of the most civilized and highly organized cultures, like Carthage at its wealthiest, had human sacrifice at its worst. Culture, like science, is no protection against demons. And poor Robespierre was nearer the truth than the later progressives when he said that there was no protection for the commonwealth but Virtue and the Worship of God.