Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The link between violence and the sacred

This link is at the core of the above tea class. I explored the thoughts of René Girard. He's a French philosopher who did most of his career in the US (at the University of Stanford). The central idea is that culture, rituals, ceremonies and religion are the consequence of violence. They are the tools that man uses in order to pacify and reduce violence in society. Girard has read the accounts from anthropologists from all around the world and has recognized similar patterns in archaic religions.
First, he explains that we humans are very good at imitating others. A young baby will already imitate his parents' facial expressions. We can also see this in the ease at which children learn the language that surrounds them. Most learning happens through mimesis, imitation. This is good, because learning language, skills, culture is about growth and progress. However, our desires are also mimetic. We want what others want. This is captured in the phrase 'keep up with the Joneses' and it's interesting to note that Jones is a very generic name. It shows that people want what others have. 

With education, you can share thoughts endlessly with your students! Knowledge can be multiplied infinitely. However, physical objects like fields, cattle, food or a spouse either belong to you or to somebody else. So, when it comes to physical objects, the mimetic desire will lead to conflict, especially among people who have very similar tastes and strength. That's why brothers and especially twins are the most at risk developing such mimetic rivalry. Myths all around the world contain stories of brother rivalries. Here are a few: Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Thor and Loki, emperor Yang Guang of Sui and Yang Xiu (in year 602). These examples show how universal the phenomenon is, because it's a human characteristic.

When these mimetic rivalries turn into a large frenzy, a crisis happens. Girard calls it the mimetic crisis, of course! In Homer's Iliad, we can find such a crisis: Pâris has taken Menelas' wife Helen to Troy. This results not in a war between Greek cities and Troy and its allies. But the story also mentions Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Apollo... all the Greek gods as the real powers behind the fate of the fights. Is Hector successful, it's because Zeus wants it so. When Achilles finally defeats Hector, he received the help of Athena and weapons built by Hephaestus and Zeus gave a green light for the kill. This clearly shows that Homer and Greek mythology used the (sacred) gods to justify human violence. Many of these heroes are semi gods themselves, born by a woman impregnated by a god.

Bronze dagger with gold grip, Spring and Autumn period (Henan Province)

Hector dead, his body is protected by the gods whom he made plenty of sacrifices to. This shows that Greeks  could gain some favors and protection from the gods by worshipping them and making sacrifices. So, in archaic religion, the sacred mythology is closely linked to violence and helps to explain it and to avoid future problems. Its function is to use sacrifices and ceremonies to gain the favors of the gods and their protection. Religion and rules about what is sacred, what is forbidden... are created after a mimetic crisis in order to find a less violent way to deal with mimetic rivalries. The mechanism is the same, but the details will vary from one culture to another depending on the events that took place.

Another important scheme in this mimetic violence is the scapegoat. The concept is well-known, because this, again, is a universal concept. It helps to channel the violence on a single party instead of a war of all against all. In almost all religions, the scapegoat is guilty. That's what makes the Judaic and Christian religions more self-aware of this phenomenon, because the Bible shows scapegoats who are innocent. In Genesis (37-42) we have the story of Joseph and his brothers. And the Passion in the New Testament is about Jesus, completely pure and innocent, killed on the cross to satisfy the anger of the crowd.
What does it all have to do with tea ceremonies? 

This link between violence and the sacred explains why ceremonies are all about maintaining and promoting peace and reducing violence. The ceremonious aspect of some tea serves indeed to instill a peaceful atmosphere. But we should also be aware that there can be mimetic rivalries underneath it and that the ceremony serves to overcome the rivalry. For instance, there's a potential rivalry between the brewer and the other drinkers. The first is the owner of the teapot and the accessories. There's a risk of envy. Besides, in the context of tea in a religious community (or in a family), making the tea sacred means that it can only be brewed during ceremonies. This way, the members of the community won't fear that one or some of them would drink the (expensive and rare) tea on their own. This could lead to anger and violence. When the tea is considered sacred, there's hope that the potential thief will be deterred by the divine wrath his sacrilegious act would unleash. Before people believed in the rule of law, this was a good strategy!

Fear of mimetic rivalry and envy also explains why many brewers love simple teapots and cups. Something too special or beautiful might inspire envy. Choosing common accessories and staying away from fancy teas are also signs of fear of violence. 
Spring Da Yu Ling Oolong

No comments: