Author Archives: Richard Koenigsberg

Why Do Ideologies Exist: The Psychological Function of Culture

From the Paper:

“Contemporary social theory suggests that what is ‘out there’ constitutes an independent domain, separate from individuals. However, even acknowledging that we are ‘subjects’ of language and discourse, the question remains: Who creates language and discourse? For that matter, how are we to explain the nature and shape of the entire panoply of ideas, material objects and social arrangements that we call culture? What inhibits us from posing the question: Why do specific ideologies and societal discourses exist?

“When people examine cultural forms such as musical symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners, it’s not difficult to acknowledge that human beings are the source; that these inventions represent a response to our desires and fantasies; exist because they fulfill human needs. We do not hesitate to conclude that symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners exist and are perpetuated as elements of culture because they provide physical and psychological gratification.

“People find it more difficult to say that cultural inventions such as war and genocide exist because they provide psychological gratification. We shy away from the idea that war and genocide represent the fulfillment of human desires and fantasies. We prefer to imagine that these cultural phenomena come from a place outside the self—are generated by “historical forces” independent of human agency.”

Excerpts from Dr. Koenigsberg’s paper appear below.

Click here to read the complete paper.

What Do Ideologies Do?

Recent social theory rarely addresses the question of the reasons why certain ideologies exist. Scholars write about “dominant discourses,” but the question is why particular discourses become dominant. To answer the question of why particular ideas are embraced and perpetuated, I suggest a psychological approach: What does this ideology do for the people who embrace it? What role does this ideology play in the psychic life of its adherents?

Culture is not a domain separate from human beings. Ideologies exist to the extent that people produce, espouse and perpetuate them. Ideologies are created by human beings for human beings. Ideologies perform psychic work, functioning to allow people to encounter, work through and attempt to master fundamental desires, fantasies, conflicts and existential dilemmas.

To comprehend the rise of Hitler, for example, one must uncover the sources of the appeal of Nazism. Why did millions of Germans become hysterical when Hitler spoke? Why were men like Goebbels and Himmler mesmerized by Hitler’s words? Hitler’s ideas touched a deep chord. His ideology drew forth and crystallized latent desires and fantasies, allowing them to manifest as social reality.

The Psychic Function of Ideology

Ideologies may be viewed as societally defined ideational structures that exist in order to permit latent dimensions of the psyche to become manifest in the external world. Ideologies perform psychic functions, allowing fundamental desires, fantasies, anxieties and conflicts to be projected into reality. Once an ideology gains currency, then people act “in the name of” the ideology. Thought and action seem to be generated by a belief system existing outside the self.

Recent social theory focused on the idea that the source of mind, thought, motivation and action lies in ideological structures that are external to the self. Indeed, the mind according to many current theories is nothing more or less than the “discourses that push and pull us.” The self from this perspective comes into being—derives its shape and form—as it encounters and internalizes the ideological structures of society.

However, the question remains: Who has created societal discourses and why do they exist? Why have particular ideas been “selected out” (from among the multitude of ideas that people have put forth) to become elements of culture? Why are specific beliefs embraced and perpetuated, and not others? Why do certain ideologies evoke such passion? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to articulate the meaning of culturally constituted ideas: to delineate the psychic work that these ideas perform for the people who embrace them.

Contemporary theory seems to suggest that what is “out there” constitutes an independent, autonomous domain, separate from individuals. However, even if one acknowledges that we are “subjects” of language and discourse, the question remains: Who creates language and discourse? For that matter, how are we to explain the nature and shape of the entire panoply of ideas, material objects and social arrangements that we call culture? What inhibits us from posing the question: Why do specific ideologies and societal discourses exist?

When people examine cultural forms such as musical symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners, it is not difficult to acknowledge that human beings are the source; to say that these inventions represent a response to our desires and fantasies; that they exist to the extent that they fulfill human needs. We do not hesitate to conclude that symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners exist and are perpetuated as elements of culture because they provide physical and psychological gratification.

It is more difficult for people to say that cultural inventions such as war and genocide exist because they provide psychological gratification. We shy away from the idea that ideologies of war and genocide represent the fulfillment of human desires and fantasies. We prefer to imagine that war and genocide come from a place outside the self; that phenomena like these are generated by “historical forces,” somehow independent of human agency.

I theorize that war and genocide—like symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners—exist because they represent the fulfillment of psychological needs. Why do ideologies of war and genocide exist? Why have they been perpetuated as elements of culture? Because—like symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners—they are responsive to and serve to articulate human needs, desires, anxieties and fantasies.

Hitler’s ideology constituted a modus operandi for himself and the German people, bringing forth latent fantasies and desires onto the stage of social reality. Hitler created “history” to the extent that he harnessed these latent desires and fantasies by focusing them through the lens of his ideology. His rhetoric—the metaphors and images contained within his speeches—functioned to evoke the shared fantasies of the German people.

Contemporary theory tends to disconnect the outer world of language, discourse and ideology from the inner world of need, desire, anxiety and fantasy. A psychological approach to the interpretation of ideology seeks to enable us to retrieve our projections. One begins with the assumption that we are the source.
By virtue of the externalization of our desires, anxieties and fantasies, human beings create a certain kind of world. Society’s ideologies reflect our struggles to come to terms with fundamental psychological issues and existential dilemmas. From this perspective, the ideologies, social arrangements and material objects that constitute culture may be understood as various kinds of solutions.

Metaphor & the Psychological Interpretation of Culture

Excerpts from Dr. Koenigsberg’s paper appear below.

Click here to read the complete essay.

We would like to receive your thoughts on this essay. Please leave your comments below. Library of Social Science Editors will read them—and respond.

I. Ideology and Metaphor

Ideologies contain and articulate psychological meanings. How is it possible to decipher the latent content of ideological texts? My method, analyzing metaphor, consists of identifying recurring images and figures of speech in the writings and speeches of individuals who have been significant in defining and promulgating an ideology.

An ideology functions to structure and externalize fantasies shared by a group. An ideology may be compared to the manifest content of a dream—that many people are having at once. The psychological study of culture focuses—not on the idiosyncrasies of individuals—but upon how shared desires, fantasies, anxieties and conflicts give rise to collective representations. We seek to reveal the sources and meanings of belief systems that define or constitute a given societal group.

II. Conceptual Metaphors

In The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (1990), Mark Johnson writes about “imaginative projection,” a principle whereby the body (i.e., physical experience and its structures) works its way up into the mind (i.e., mental operations). Johnson states that metaphors are not simply “figures of speech.” Rather, metaphors constitute “pervasive, indispensable structures of understanding by means of which we comprehend our world.”

Hitler’s entire worldview grew out of his belief that Germany was an actual body—and that Jews were pathogenic organisms whose continued presence within the German body politic would threaten to destroy the nation. These images and metaphors occur again and again in his writings and speeches.

Hitler experienced the idea of the Jew in a certain way. This experience generated Hitler’s perception of reality. It is as if this idea or object—“the Jew”—was present within Hitler’s body. The Jew was Hitler’s psychosomatic symptom. The “disease within the body politic” was a disease within Hitler’s own body.

Hitler’s rhetoric demonstrates how a source domain (the human body) becomes mapped onto a target domain (the body politic). Hitler’s metaphors play a cognitive function, revealing the source of his perceptions. Because Hitler projects the idea of a human body (his own) into the body politic, therefore he infers that Germany is suffering from a disease requiring diagnosis and cure.

III. Fantasy and the Embodied Mind

Presenting Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theory, Thomas Ogden states that fantasy “never loses its connection to the body.” Fantasy content is always ultimately traceable to thoughts and feelings about the “workings and contents of one’s own body in relationship to the workings and contents of the body of the other.”

If ideologies articulate fantasies and fantasies derive from the body, it follows that ideologies are bound to—not separate from—our bodies. How may we understand the relationship between body, fantasy and mental operations in the case of ideology? Textual metaphors, I suggest, convey the presence of the body—and allow fantasies about the body to enter social reality.

Nazi ideology represented a fantasy about Germany as an organism suffering from a potentially fatal disease. This fantasy about the body was conveyed through the vehicle of images and metaphors that appear endlessly in ideological texts that the Nazis produced. The Nazis created culture and history based on a fantasy about the body projected into their ideology.

IV. Psychic Determinism

Reality is continually constructed—as metaphors bring the body and its fantasies into the external world. Ideologies are those culturally defined structures that allow fantasies to become part of the “external” world. Ideologies are shared fantasies, transforming desires and anxieties into socially-defined structures of thought.

Analyzing ideologies is analogous to interpreting dreams. As dreams reveal the unconscious fantasies of individuals, so ideologies reveal fantasies shared by members of a group. To analyze an ideology is to interpret a collective dream.

V. The Human Body and the Body Politic

The reality that the Nazis constructed cannot be separated from bodily fantasy. If ideas about a target domain are derived from experiences in a source domain, it follows that ideas about bodies politic cannot be separated from the experience of our own bodies. Recent social theory has focused on the ways that discourse shapes the body. I hypothesize that our bodies—and bodily experience—give rise to and structure discourse.

In the case of nationalism, the experience of one’s body is projected into the idea of a body politic. Often, the line of demarcation between the two blurs. When Rudolf Hess declares, “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler,” he implies that there is no separation between Hitler and Germany. Hitler’s small body has fused with the large body. Hitler himself has become a body politic. Two have merged into one.

Hitler’s rhetoric about the German body politic contains a narrative about himself. When Hitler speaks about Germany as a body containing a disease, he is also speaking about his own diseased body. What was the nature of Hitler’s disease—that led him to devise the Final Solution as a means to kill the disease within the body politic?

Death to the Non-Believers: Political Violence as Terrorism

Excerpts from Dr. Koenigsberg’s paper appear below.

Click here to read the complete essay.

We would like to receive your thoughts on this essay. Please leave your comments below. Library of Social Science Editors will read them—and respond.

I. Political Violence as Terrorism

The term “martyr” derives from the Arabic word “shahid,” meaning “witness.” The martyr bears witness to his love for Allah by killing infidels. As he submits to the will of God by sacrificing his own life, so does the terrorist compel others to submit to the will of God—and to sacrifice their lives.

When the airplane plunged into the ground in Pennsylvania on September 11, the suicide bombers’ last words were, “God is great.” The terrorists gave witness to their belief that God is great—by virtue of their willingness to die and kill for him. The suicide bombers sacrificed their lives for Allah, and took Americans along with them.

“Allah” is a name given to an object or entity that some human beings worship. Other groups of people worship other objects or entities. People may worship a god, an ideology or their own nation. In each instance, people “look up” to the object, conceive of it as all-powerful, and are willing to perform “sacrifices” in the name of this idealized object.

Why do individuals and groups bind their identities to objects conceived as omnipotent? What is the relationship between attachment to an omnipotently conceived object—a god, ideology or nation—and the proclivity toward violence?

The phrase “Death to the non-believers” conveys the central meaning of political violence. Members of one group seek to dominate or kill members of another group that do not bow down to the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group. Terroristic violence is intended to compel belief: to force members of another group to submit to the same sacred object to which members of one’s own group have submitted.

II. Nazism as Religion

Nazism was a form of religion. Hitler declared, “We do not want to have any other God, only Germany.” Hitler was like a preacher, inspiring his flock to worship the German nation. Deutschland ueber Alles (“Germany Above All”), Hitler explained, was a “profession of faith that fills millions with a strength that is mightier than any earthly might.” Our love for our people, Hitler said, will never falter, and our “faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable.”

The other side of the coin of Hitler’s love for and faith in Germany was anger toward those who—he imagined—did not share his love and faith. Hitler declared: “We are fanatic in our love for our people. We can go as loyally as a dog with those who share our sincerity, but will pursue with fanatical hatred the man who believes that he can play tricks with this love of ours.”

Well before Islamic terrorism became prominent, I used the phrase “death to the non-believers” to crystallize my understanding of why Hitler felt compelled to exterminate the Jewish race. Hitler conceived of Jews as people who did not worship Germany sufficiently: were unwilling to embrace and surrender to the national community.

According to Hitler, every single German was required to embrace and to serve the German nation. No one was exempt. There “cannot be a single person,” Hitler proclaimed, who “excludes himself from this obligation.” The aim of National Socialism was dictatorship of the “whole people, the community.”

III. Punishing Those Who Doubt the Sacred Object

Citing the Qur’an, Bin Laden claims that Allah ordered Muslims to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that “His word is the highest and the uppermost and that of the unbelievers the lowermost.” When God ordered Muslims to carry out jihad and to kill and to fight, he said, “Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, and heal the hearts of the believers.”

Bin Laden advocates acts of terror in the name of Allah. Hitler authorized acts of terror in the name of Germany. Terroristic violence is initiated in order to punish people who—the believer imagines—do not worship the sacred object that the believer worships. Violent collective actions are designed both to punish the non-believer for refusing to believe; and to compel the non-believer to believe.

Terroristic violence seeks to demonstrate the power of the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group—by crushing or squelching members of non-believing groups. Acts of violence are designed to give witness to the greatness of one’s god, nation or ideology. The believer initiates acts of violence in order to terrify—to induce feelings of shock and awe in the minds and hearts of believers and non-believers alike.

IV. Violence as Squelching Doubt

Part and parcel of fanatic belief is the idea that everyone should worship the same god or nation or ideology that one’s own group worships. True believers like Hitler and Bin Laden become deeply disturbed when they realize that there are people in the world that do not share their beliefs.

I hypothesize that where there is fanatic belief—when one imagines that an object is omnipotent—then doubt also must be present. Doubt cannot be separated from fanatic belief—because in reality there is no such thing as omnipotence. If no-thing is absolutely true and no-thing absolutely powerful, then if someone believes that some-thing is absolutely true and absolutely powerful, doubt must be present.

Terroristic violence is undertaken in order to squelch doubt. As the believer begins to realize that the object he or she worships is not omnipotent—that there is no such thing as omnipotence in the world—the sense of doubt may be projected into another group or class of people. This other group or class of people comes to symbolize disbelief in the goodness and power of the object with which one’s own group is identified.

The struggle between competing ideologies—each possessing a claim to absolute truth—is a fundamental source of collective forms of violence. The very existence of another ideology—that claims to be absolutely true or omnipotent—is felt as working to undermine or destroy one’s own ideology. Acts of violence are initiated to determine—once and for all—”the truth.”

V. Ambivalence: “You are nothing, the sacred object is everything”

Inherent within an individual’s attachment or connection to an object conceived to be omnipotent is ambivalence toward this object. Identification contains both a positive and negative valence. On the one hand, the individual imagines that his or her ego has become more expansive—bigger and more powerful—by virtue of attachment to the object. On the other hand, the individual may feel diminished or crippled as a result of binding his ego to an object seemingly so much greater than the self.

The essence of this ambivalent relationship to an omnipotently conceived object is expressed in a phrase that recurs in Hitler’s speeches. Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” The word “everything” contains the positive dimension of identification. At the mass rallies at Nuremberg, tens of thousands of Germans gathered in a single location—as if bound together to constitute a single, omnipotent body. Germans participating in these rallies may have experienced a sense of being fused with “everything.”

The word “nothing” contains the negative valence of imagining that one is connected to or fused with an omnipotent object. By virtue of binding one’s self to this object—conceived to be gigantic and powerful—the individual’s ego shrinks by comparison. One becomes submerged within the object, losing one’s sense of individuality and agency.

VI. Compelling Submission

Terroristic violence seeks to squelch doubt or disbelief—by affirming the omnipotence of the sacred object with which members of one’s group are identified. Death to the non-believers means: “How dare you doubt that the object we worship is omnipotent? How dare you disbelieve in the power of the nation or god or ideology that our group worships?”

The Final Solution sought to convey the following message to Jews: “Do not imagine that you are exempt from the obligation to sacrifice your lives.” Acts of violence performed by one group are designed to terrorize members of another group: to compel them to bow down; submit to one’s own god, nation or ideology. Acts of violence seek to convert infidels or enemies into “believers.” That which kills must be real.

VII. Conclusion

Political violence conveys the message: Death to non-believers: death to those who refuse to acknowledge the omnipotence of our nation, ideology or god. The purpose of acts of collective or group violence is to compel others to submit to the sacred ideal to which members of one’s own group have submitted. Acts of terroristic violence are performed in order to “give witness” to the depth of one’s devotion.

Acts of group violence represent demonstrations: “Now you see how powerful our nation, god or ideology is.” Collective acts of violence seek to persuade other groups that one’s own nation or god is powerful, and its ideology true. Violence functions in the name of verification: This is what happens to people who do not acknowledge the power of our god or nation. This is what happens to people who do not embrace our ideology.

Each group demands that the other abandon its sacred object and bow down to one’s own sacred object. Group violence conveys the message—as Dostoevsky puts it—”Put away your god (or ideology or nation) and come and worship our god (or ideology or nation). If you do not worship the object that we worship, then we will come and kill you (and destroy your god, ideology or nation).” Terroristic violence seeks to compel members of the other group to bow down to the sacred object that is worshipped by one’s own group.

Dying for the Motherland

Excerpts from Professor Feldman’s essay appear below.

Click here to read the complete essay.

We would like to receive your thoughts on this essay. Please leave your comments below. Library of Social Science Editors will read them—and respond.

“Ultimately,” says Benedict Anderson, national ‘fraternity’ made it possible, for so many millions of people, “not so much to kill, as willingly to die” (Imagined Communities, 7). Over half a century earlier, a fictional Palestinian Jew similarly declared on the eve of his volunteering to the British Army in WWI: “You don’t understand me: I am going to die…not to kill”.

Sentiments of this sort abound in my study, Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative (2010), which traces the fluctuating attitudes to the desire/duty/requirement and obligation to die for the motherland in Hebrew discourses of the 20th century. However, the language and imagery in which these sentiments are often couched reveal that they were not fuelled solely by the national comradeship or ‘fraternity’ of the “imagined communities” argued for by Anderson.

Rather, the willingness to die for one’s country, be it a fatherland or motherland, seems to derive from a much older human ‘habit’ or ‘reflex’— the universal need to secure one’s well-being by appeasing the gods, or their human representatives (Nietzsche, Genealogy, 61). This appeasement began as a gift giving, or—at times of special duress (Robertson Smith, Lectures, 361)—by giving up life itself, whether of oneself or of one’s loved ones (Hubert & Mauss, Sacrifice, 100; Strenski, Contesting, 166).

Like other national movements and the secular at large (Naveh, Crown of Thorns; Marvin and Ingle, Blood Sacrifice; Strenski, Contesting; Asad, Formations; Rushdie, Shalimar), Jewish nationalism seems to have been unable to invent a new, un-sacred, language, a “language of irreligion,” in Rushdie’s words. Nor has it managed to separate itself from the arch vehicle of the sacred—the trope of ‘blood sacrifice,’ of dying on the nation’s altar, namely, one’s motherland.

The young pioneers in early-20th-century Jewish Palestine, for example, were quite unambiguous in their desire to lay down their lives for the moledet [‘matria,’ motherland]. “Oh my country, my dear motherland! To you I sacrifice, giving you my meagre powers as a gift,” writes Y. Schneerson, a member of the Jewish Palestinian NILI Gang, in 1917, as he actively assists the British in liberating the land from the yoke of the oppressive Ottoman regime.

A year later, as a Jewish Legion was being organized within His Majesty’s Army for the same purpose, the organizers encouraged the volunteers by linking the ubiquitous old-new figure of the modern military hero as a blood sacrifice with the ancient story of the first biblical murder: “We must be ready to shed our blood on the altar of our hope [so that] our blood will cry out of the earth to all the nations.”

Three decades later, however, a momentous shift in paradigm took place. A new image entered the national conversation. The generalized talk about blood sacrifice, symbolized early on by the blood of Abel, the first innocent victim of murder (Genesis 4), was replaced, rather ironically—by the archetypal story of an aborted human sacrifice, the so-called Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Thus in the 1949 Passover Haggada of Kibbutz Na’an, put together as the 1948 Israeli War of Liberation was drawing to a close, we find not only “heroism and blood” but also “the bliss/glory of the Binding of Isaac [ha-akedah, in Hebrew; lit., The Binding] and the agony of sacrifice.” Clearly, the harrowing cost in human life paid for the war intensified the realization that in national sacrifice, elation and grief, glory and agony, are forever bound together.

Nevertheless, from this moment on Israeli fallen soldiers have more often than not been symbolized by the biblical Isaac—paradoxically the survivor of that paradigmatic divinely decreed yet last-minute aborted human sacrifice. This paradoxical re-writing raises a curious question: How and why did a story interpreted for millennia as advancing a divine prohibition of human sacrifice, appropriately named in Hebrew a ‘binding’ rather than a ‘sacrifice,’ become a trope not only for a fully enacted sacrifice but for military death in battle? And why was Isaac, a rather ‘pale’ biblical persona and certainly the least heroic among the patriarchs, selected to stand for the modern national fallen warrior?

To phrase the question differently: When, in fact, did the so-called secularization of Isaac’s story begin, and what was the psycho-ethical implication of this choice?

Rites of Spring: Sacrifice, Incarnation, and War

Excerpts from Professor Vlahos’s essay appear below.

Click here to read the complete essay.

We would like to receive your thoughts on this essay. Please leave your comments below. Library of Social Science Editors will read them—and respond.


The 20th century’s wars—from 1914-1951, and their aftermath—killed perhaps 150 million individual human beings. We casually ascribe this calamity to madness, evil, or the inevitable efficiencies of an industrial economy. Yet I argue that this killing was embedded in the desire of peoples to fulfill—through war—the vision that drove them. This was the paradoxical, unconfessed vision of Modernity—which replaced universal institutions of collective identity (for centuries vested in social order and Church) with a dynamic new alternative.

This was a vision of collective apotheosis that promised human transcendence through the passion play of the Nation: War. The rituals and symbols of war in Modernity evolved from, and recreated, ancient patterns of human sacrifice and divine incarnation. These worked together, because the nation could truly be fulfilled now only through a passage of sacrifice and ascension. Moreover, this passage could be completed only through the intermediative agency of human body and blood. Modernity’s new framework of meaning thus renewed ancient and concepts of the sacred among early human communities—only now these bands of humans numbered in the millions.

Warfare, Divine Kingship, and the Cult of the Leader

Sacred kingship—first developed in ancient Egypt—had become divine kingship in Antiquity. Modernity appropriated the many rituals of sacred and divine kingship—including Christological narratives—and slaved them to the cult of the Leader.

Yet now, The Leader does not assume the lofty and unapproachable dais of the divine, nor as divine agent or divine incarnation legitimating his rule over the many. In Modernity, The Leader becomes the embodiment—in his very flesh—of the national body, so that the incarnation of the national divine can be represented, symbolized, and valorized by his physical presence. In Modernity too emerges the ritual artifact of Leader-Nation-union-transcendence through shared blood sacrifice for the nation. Here, at the moment of greatest peril, His sacrifice cements collective ascent in victory or honor in defeat, thus sustaining in death the living river of the nation.

The Father to the Son—the young men of the nation—the pure and innocent youth—allow the nation to transcend through their stainless sacrifice, which is the force that vanquishes evil, just as their blood replenishes the nation’s sacred soil, mingling perhaps with that of the fallen leader: The immortal community of “honored dead.” As a journalist of Il Popolo d’Italia wrote in 1918: “We are all sure that a radical, deep, unforeseeable transformation awaits us. Everybody feels that millions and millions of men cannot die without incredible renewals ensuing from the tremendous slaughter.”

Above all, it is the collective life force or essence, unleashed and united in war, that represents the divine incarnation of the nation. The nation became divine in its strength of unity, in its matchless purity, in the oneness of its love. The nation can only achieve this divine incarnation through the concentrated, focused sacrifice and renewal of its energy—its force—in battle. This is transcendence dreamed of and longed for by every citizen. Moreover it is only through the corporeal agency of our bodies that such a collective rapture of spirit can be achieved—hence the passage in blood, and the ascent in death.

In the 20th century, Stalin—in the “collectivization”—Hitler and Stalin—in their great war in the East—and Mao—in “the great leap forward”—recreated in our time, again, the grand rite of revolutionary virtue realized through purification. As so powerfully recounted recently by Adam Tooze (Wages of Destruction), Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands), and Yang Jisheng (Tombstone), the true spirit of the nation as divine incarnation could in revolution, finally be achieved only in mass cleansing: Of creation and rebirth through blood.

For two centuries and more, Modernity’s creed of mass sacrifice and national apotheosis ruled history. In its name this creed sacrificed 150 million humans and destroyed scores of societies, and ran the risk, for a while, of sacrificing all of humanity on an atomic altar. The age of national-religious war took ancient patterns of ritual meaning and used them to create a self-destructive mechanism of death that threatened the viability at last of human life.

Sacrifice and War in Modernity

The watershed of Modernity, 1784, is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii. There has never before or since been a painting that was both marker and decisive incitement to big change. In a splash-screen instant, the artist-as-revolutionary created the vision of incarnation, sacrifice, and war that would remorselessly drive Modernity—in a single image.

What the oath said was this: That we are all together, come what may; that we will live together, and die together, to realize the river of our identity. This is the sacred essence of Modernity: That now whole nations, not simply corrupt monarchs and their ass-kissing elites, are the thing itself. The nation is the people, the people are the nation—and where is this fraternity and unity most evident, most tested, and most triumphant?

After 1800, humanity—at least at first, Western European humanity, but then, remorselessly, everyone else—sought national transcendence through struggle culminating in battle. Battle here had to of course meet certain existential benchmarks: 1-Battle must represent a field of the nation, fighting together; 2-Battle must show the valor of the nation as testament of its unity; 3-Battle must show the steadfastness of the nation standing fore-square against those who would destroy it; 4-Battle must in the sacrifice of its most precious young, the very future of the people, that their blood will renew and nourish that nation, making it ever stronger.

This is a primitive recipe for transcendence. It does not rely on, nor require, victory as defined by, say, Clausewitz. Victory is in the valor, the unity of struggle, and the sacrifice. The battle itself becomes transcendence through the shared death-and-new-life experience of the nation: Which must metaphorically inhabit together—everyone—the testing and the sacrifice. Or there can be not transcendence. Nations have the right to kill because their people desire to sacrifice themselves, and that right (as the world wars show) ends when people suddenly lose that desire.

The Failure of Religious Nationalism

The irresolvable issue within Modernity is that religious nationalism became indelibly infused with, and flogged on by, old visions of universalism—but without any of the tolerance, accommodation, and political yielding that characterized the world of Late Antiquity. Hence, after 1800, each Big Man religious national dynamic—Britain, France, Russia, Germany, United States, yes, even Japan and China—sought to join their vision of themselves to a larger vision of humanity.

But how did this turn out in practice? Did any of these fabulously successful nations really create a universalistic vision for all of humanity? Even us? Don’t kid yourself. Looking at world politics from 1800 to today, it is always the same. Here is what the Big Man nation tells the world: 1-We are the greatest, the most civilized; 2-You should join us (or submit); 3-No one can stop us; 4-Hey, it will be a great party if you only get with the program and submit (or we will kill you).

All these nation-states of Modernity had unconsciously embraced the soul of primitive war as their ticket to unity and national transcendence. Moreover they had totally bought off on the idea that identity/transcendence could be fully realized in battle. But this inner requirement was existentially at odds with the outer requirement: That they win the competition over who will be the next “Rome”—the next universalistic vision for all humanity.

Modernity’s promise of personal-in-collective transcendence—realized through the states mobilization of the nation and then people’s triumphal sacrifice in war—gave the state unprecedented power. First Napoleon, and then the terrible triumvirate of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—showed exactly what could be done with a reality-construct if truly embraced by millions and their industrial economic engine.

America—and then post-Stalin Soviets in the 1950s and post-Mao Chinese in the 1970s—ratcheted back the ritual. The state saw the disenchantment among their people. For a while too, this loss-of-authority-through-disenthralling was counterbalanced for the state by the greatest weapons’ juju of all time: “The Atomic bomb.”

But today the state lives off of the residual brand loyalty of societies to the national war and sacrifice franchise. The United States Government has crafted an instrument of war that fully decouples the mythic tradition of collective sacrifice from the nation, replacing it with highly ritualized enterprise of “all-volunteer” sacrifice. Here, a select few American citizens become our representatives in battle, while the nation merely affirms in return: “We honor your service.”

In a time when war and sacrifice seem to be in recess, where we self-consciously seek to disenthrall ourselves of its bloody rites, the construct yet lives. More deeply the need that created it remains strong.