Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism, and Social Thought in France / Edition 2

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From the counter-reformation through the twentieth century, the notion of sacrifice has played a key role in French culture and nationalist politics. Ivan Strenski traces the history of sacrificial thought in France, starting from its origins in Roman Catholic theology. Throughout, he highlights not just the dominant discourse on sacrifice but also the many competing conceptions that contested it.

Strenski suggests that the annihilating spirituality rooted in the Catholic model of Eucharistic sacrifice persuaded the judges in the Dreyfus Case to overlook or play down his possible innocence because a scapegoat was needed to expiate the sins of France and save its army from disgrace. Strenski also suggests that the French army's strategy in World War I, French fascism, and debates over public education and civic morals during the Third Republic all owe much to Catholic theology of sacrifice and Protestant reinterpretations of it. Pointing out that every major theorist of sacrifice is French, including Bataille, Durkheim, Girard, Hubert, and Mauss, Strenski argues that we cannot fully understand their work without first taking into account the deep roots of sacrificial thought in French history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226777368
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Family Community Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author most recently of Durkheim and the Jews of France, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism, and Social Thought in France

By Ivan Strenski

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Ivan Strenski
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226777367


Sacrifice without End

Sacrifice has been one of the most contentious and divisive notions of religion and politics in the West. From the time of Luther, differences between Catholics and Protestants could in a way be reduced to conflicts over the Mass and its sacrificial conception of the Eucharist. But perhaps nowhere has Eucharistic sacrifice aroused such bitter political and religious historical controversy as in France. There, as early as 1534, assaults on the Catholic Mass were launched in what has come to be known as the "Affair of the Placards." In a coordinated campaign against the sacrificial Eucharist, posters denouncing the Eucharist and Mass were put up simultaneously in public places (one even on the door of the king's bedchamber!) on a single night in several principal cities of the realm. Royal repression followed swiftly, but so also did Protestant reactions. Shortly thereafter, Calvinist Antoine Marcourt denounced royal repression with a new placard of his own outlining a detailed theological argument against the Mass and its sacrificial Eucharist. This pattern of attack and response continued over many years, culminating in the infamous St. Bartholomew'sDay massacre of France's Protestant leadership in 1572 and in the French Wars of Religion. Protestant attacks on the Mass were understood by one and all as skillful blows to the very heart of Catholic life and identity. After all, in the twenty-second session of the Council of Trent on 17 September 1562, the vast majority of the assembly made sure to define the core of Catholic identity by asserting the sacrificial character of the Eucharist over Protestant objections.

Likewise, in the domain of civic and personal ethics, the question of the status and extent of personal sacrifice in behalf of the collectivity has posed terrible alternatives for Western moralists ever since the dawn of the modern era. The relative weight of the demands of the community over against the rights of individuals, the opposition between altruism and self-interest, in no small part have set the terms of our politics and public policy debates. Given that France is one of the principal points of origin for Western notions of citizenship, civic duty, nationalism, and the like, France also becomes a major source of examples for the working out of relations between self-interest and sacrifice. Whether in the course of the ordinary duties of citizenship or in the extraordinary demands made in wartime, France has been the venue for some of the classic contests between devotion to individual rights and dignity over against the imperatives of life within communities. The French Revolution's rhetoric of sacrifice for the "nation" has perhaps set the standard for calls to patriotic sacrifice ever since.

French moral philosophers of the nineteenth century were also preoccupied with questions of whether the standard of sacrifice in a republic should be a total "giving up" of one's person to the service of the community or whether it was enough for it to be the less extreme "giving of " one's person and possessions for the sake of the community? Are we today required to be "saints" or "citizens"? How much of the individualism inherent to the very nature of personal life in the modern nation-state are we required to sacrifice for the very existence of that nation-state?

These academic debates were conducted in contexts anything but academic. Contending positions were played out against the background of the real threat of civil war, renewed revolution, or revanche as well as decades-long preparations for a war of revenge against Germany for the defeat of 1871. Thus, when we reach the height of the nationalist agitation at the end of the nineteenth century, the French literature of "sacrifice" is as rich and elaborated as perhaps any that could be named. Not only that, but so too was French strategic thinking about the conduct of war itself. There, French soldiers were expected to display their devotion to the patrie in unleashing the notorious "Gallic fury" in reckless--sacrificial--attacks "to the death" along an often impregnable front. The celebrated Dreyfus Affair could arguably be said to have been conceived at the time as a debate over whether one man ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the honor of the army and nation. France has indeed had its fill of serious talk of sacrifice.

Unfortunately for those seeking simple solutions, no handy "Excalibur" is ready to slice neatly through the dilemmas thrown up by sacrifice, whether between Protestants and Catholics in the religious domain or between self-interest and altruism in the domain of civic ethics. Yet, while liberation from theological and moral anguish does not seem imminent, perhaps we can at least deepen our understanding of the discourse of sacrifice by which we seem trapped. Perhaps we can better understand the discourse about sacrifice and the dynamic of its role in modern society by understanding its history in a particular context like that of France. In doing so, we may even get some purchase on our moral dilemmas. I believe we can better see what talk about sacrifice has really concerned if we consider it in the historical contexts in which it has been particularly conspicuous and influential. The history of France helps us then to put sacrifice into perspective. It lets us see "around the edges" of a notion to which there have always been alternatives, but alternatives that were not always fully appreciated. In part, getting perspective on sacrifice is part of what I have set out to achieve in the present work.

In gaining this perspective, the discourse of sacrifice in France presents an excellent, perhaps even privileged, venue of inquiry. Dating from the early seventeenth century, and summing up in a way the lessons of the religio-political rhetoric of the Wars of Religion, France can cite a school of Roman Catholic theology defined by its determination to articulate a theory of sacramental sacrifice, a theory so influential that it has been said to have defined Catholicism in France's golden age. It was likewise in France that one of the major political events of past hundred years with lasting effects too numerous to mention here--the Dreyfus Case--was fought out in the public arena in terms of the rhetoric of sacrifice. During World War One, another major watershed in the formation of the mentality of the twentieth century, France was also the home of a theory of mass warfare that pushed sacrifice to the fore--so much so that this military failure may single-handedly have been responsible for the bad odor into which the notion of sacrifice has fallen ever since. And, perhaps not accidentally, France is also home to the leading thinkers taken with the idea of sacrifice. Here, I count Emile Durkheim, Joseph de Maistre, Jules Michelet, George Bataille, Rene Girard, and perhaps most influential of all, that pair of inseparable Durkheimian team members, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. They authored what some would still argue remains the single-most influential book ever written on sacrifice, if not the required point of departure for almost every subsequent theoretical effort in the field. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that it merits being credited as the "first theory" of sacrifice.

Thus, when we survey French religious and political history, we find a rich field of discourse about sacrifice. French saints, theologians, and mystics thought about sacrifice in the religious sphere, and they thought with it. Religious folk assumed without question a certain notion of what sacrifice was. This ideal of sacrifice was not the calculated, prudent, "giving of " part of one's life or treasure typical of bourgeois morality. It was, rather, a total annihilating surrender of the self, a complete "giving up" of oneself. Sacrifice served thereby to achieve expiation for sin. Similarly, when French military men, politicians, social thinkers, philosophers, belle-lettrists, or ordinary citizens thought about sacrifice in the social sphere, they too thought with the same notion as the French saints, theologians, and mystics--even when they became critical and thought against it.

In this book, I shall be arguing several related theses about the nature of sacrificial discourse in France.

First, beginning in France in the seventeenth century, Catholic thinkers laid down this classic definition of sacrifice as a cosmic drama involving self-annihilation and expiation. I further argue that the place we need to seek the first most prominent and well worked out sources of French talk about sacrifice is in the Roman Catholic theology of the Golden Age. As we will see, this discourse of sacrifice is developed within the Eucharistic theology articulated at that time against the challenges presented by the Reformation.

Second, the notion of sacrifice stipulated in Catholic discourse has carried far beyond its own context of origin and has been either silently assumed or independently rediscovered ever since then by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It is, in this sense, "embedded" or "entrenched" in French thought and recurs there as conditions dictate. Although one need not employ the same epistemological language as French nationalist writers of the fin-de-siecle, Micheline Tison-Braun, author of a massive study of the conflict between individual and collectivity in the works of modern French literature, well captures the spirit of an entrenched mentality apparently at work in French thinking about sacrifice in and around the time of the First World War. She observed of Adrien Bertrand, one of the masters of the literature of the First World War, what seems like talk of embedded or entrenched spiritual notions of sacrifice.

Indeed, Bertrand reversed the traditional relationship between effects and causes: it is not the intensity of patriotism that calls forth sacrifice. Nor is it, furthermore, social pressure that induces or imposes it. It is piety--communion and service--that seemed to Bertrand to be a structure of the spirit that in encountering brute social facts--whether in the form of instincts to gregariousness or resistance to them--made a mere biological symbiosis into a spiritual unity and transformed a common human swarm into a real father-land.
Sometimes the persistence of such a sacrificial "spirit," to use Tison-Braun's language, seems like a matter of direct continuity, as indeed at times it may be. Thus, writing in a time of virulent anticlericalism, Georges Goyau, that prolific commentator of the contemporary scene of the end of the last century, refers confidently to a "subconscious" Catholicism that "still survives in the soul of France." That "subconscious" Catholicism, says Georges Goyau in 1918, is the very thing which "incites" the French "to sacrifice." Thus, for adherents of the ideal of continuity, despite centuries-long traditions of native Protestantism, Free thought, anticlericalism, militant atheism, as well as the admiration for ancient Roman models of sacrifice during the French Revolution, classic Roman Catholic structures of thought and affect persist beneath the surface of much of the political culture of France. To be sure, there is much in this claim, given the persistence of Catholic institutions to provide a constant real base of social formations in which such a Eucharistic ideology of sacrifice might inhere. A contemporary author, Suzanne Desan echoes Goyau and speaks of the Roman Catholicism of France as going "beyond adherence to specific beliefs and forms of devotion; for many it meant . . . a way of life and a vast frame of cultural references." Chief among these "cultural references" derived from Catholic models of thought is, I am arguing in this book, a particularly durable discourse about sacrifice with a plausible Catholic pedigree and lineage, even if the discourse about sacrifice in France may derive from other sources or be generated "spontaneously," so to speak.

But, having laid out a case for social and historical "influences" and continuities in sacrificial discourse in France, I am not insisting on it. Continuity and influence may not provide the sole, or even most defensible, account for the recurrence of a particular kind of sacrificial discourse in France--even if one were to speculate about supposed "unconscious" continuities as perhaps the words of Goyau and Desan suggest. Sometimes, even among the most virulent Catholic thinkers, such as Joseph de Maistre, for example, we search in vain for clear indications of influence from the classic Eucharistic theologies of sacrifice of the Catholic Golden Age. While it is not unreasonable to believe that de Maistre was schooled in the theology of the Catholic Golden Age, solid evidence is lacking. Or, if we turn, as we will, to the French Revolution, we likewise find discourse about sacrifice reminiscent of the Catholic Golden Age, but, again, without, solid--at least textual--evidence for continuity. This is particularly so in light of the great and easily substantiated debt of the French Revolution to the exemplars provided by ancient Rome. Then, if we turn to modern times and search the theory of sacrifice made rightly famous by sociologists like Emile Durkheim and his creative followers, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, while we find affinities with the Eucharistic theologies of sacrifice of the Catholic Golden Age, we would be wrong, as I shall argue, to claim that the anticlerical Durkheimians were in the business of carrying on Catholic theological ideas.

In any event, the argument of this book does not depend on claims of direct "influence" or putative continuity, unconscious or otherwise. Indeed, as I shall argue in conclusion, the persistence of discourses about sacrifice testifies perhaps more eloquently to the structural requisites that human social life places on us all. This is to say that the persistence of talk about sacrifice seems to mean that many believe that it is in the very nature of viable social life that sacrifice--in some description--will be required. Coming to this conclusion does not require historical precedent, although it never hurts to have available a vivid cultural lexicon for expressing sacrificial ideas, such as the Catholic Eucharistic theology in France provided. Third, in the period which most concerns me--the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--I am arguing that we simply cannot understand talk about sacrifice in the many domains in which it was a critical idea unless we understand this cultural lexicon provided by the religious and political history of France. To wit, I claim that even today, when we read the Girards, Batailles, Yourcenars, Huysmans, Balzacs, Claudels, Maurrases, Barreses, Derridas, and such, we cannot generally understand their talk of sacrifice, unless we know more about their French background--both in terms of the social conditions favoring talk about sacrifice as well as the stock of cultural knowledge available to them to express their concerns. In the conclusion of my study, I shall in fact argue that the most influential of all theoretical works on sacrifice, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss's Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions deliberately attempted to contest and overthrow what was in effect the classic Catholic definition of sacrifice so deeply entrenched in French religious and political culture. This was at the same time an attempt to overthrow a form of social life implicit in Catholic ideas of sacrifice and to put in its place a new concept of sacrifice more conducive to the kind of society Hubert and Mauss desired. More recently, the same dynamic of using Catholic ideas as an implicit foil against which to articulate ideas about sacrifice can be seen as much of the burden of the life's work of Rene Girard, who might be said to be dedicated to the thoroughgoing discrediting of what amounts to the Catholic notion of sacrifice and with it the entire form of social life resting on victimization implicit in it. Interestingly enough Girard links himself with Hubert and Mauss as an ally struggling against the hegemony of Catholic sacrificial symbolism.

Symbols and Meanings: Controlled/Contested/Entrenched

Mention of attempts to unseat the Catholic notion of sacrifice brings me to another large purpose in doing this study. Tracing the fortunes of this dominant notion of sacrifice occupies much of the narrative of this book. But more than that, I believe a certain logic of contestation can be discerned within this history. To wit, whenever the dominant notion was asserted, and because it was well understood how critical the delineation of the ideal of sacrifice was, it was also contested. I shall tell this story of the discourses of sacrifice not only from the point of view of the "winners"-- the dominant Catholic discourse--but also from the disadvantaged point of view of those defeated in this centuries-long combat over the symbol of sacrifice. My history of the discourse about sacrifice in France is then a history of a process of struggle to control the meaning of sacrifice.

Focusing on the process of contest and struggle, however, demands that a few distinctions be made among key terms. These are the concepts of control, entrenchment or embeddedness, and ownership. Consider entrenchment or embeddedness first.

Using an example more familiar to our own time, one could say, for example, that the national flag of the American Confederacy carries certain entrenched or embedded meanings clear to all. When it is displayed today in the American South to represent the body politic or even a university's football team, it is not surprising that African Americans, for example, take offense. The racist meanings of the "Stars and Bars" are so deeply embedded or entrenched in it that disclaimers to the contrary are naturally taken as insincere, naive, or worse. Symbols with embedded or entrenched meanings take on a certain incorrigible fixity and thus are resistant to the individual or often even collective will to dissociate those meanings from the symbol itself. Thus, if people brandish the "Stars and Bars" in certain contexts and then counter charges of racism by disclaiming any such intention, they are rightly judged to be insincere, naive, or worse. This is because the meanings of a symbol like the Confederate flag have attained a certain normative or taken-for-granted status. Individual intentions do not count. Proposed new meanings are thus judged "artificial." To be accepted they would require justification and argument; entrenched meanings are "natural" and integral parts of the cultural landscape. Entrenched meanings become all-purpose points of reference then, either to support or indeed to reject what has been so entrenched.


Excerpted from Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism, and Social Thought in France by Ivan Strenski Copyright © 2002 by Ivan Strenski. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Sacrifice, Religion, and Politics 1
2 Catholic Politics, French Sacrifice 12
3 Contesting the National Rites of Sacrifice 52
4 The Dreyfus "Mystique" and the Conservation of the Sacred 95
5 Tartuffe, the Protestants, and Republican Sacrifice 132
6 Durkheim and Social Thought between Rome and Reform 156
Notes 181
Index 221
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