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The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (eds.)


Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest in 1907 and began teaching in the field the history of religions in 1946 at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was a member of the University of Chicago faculty from 1957 until his death in 1986. His many books include: Cosmos and History (1959), The Sacred and the Profane (1959), Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1960), Images and Symbols (1969), and Myths and Reality (1963). Published by University of Chicago Press, 1959. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Notion of "Real Elite" in Sociology and in History by Louis Massignon


The useful and practical significance of the notion of "real elite" depends on the degree of reality ascribed to the individual person in relation to the group to which he belongs. Is the individual only one of a species, without his own originality? Such is the dictum of certain sociologists, for whom the real elite of a social group is but a chance product of statistical averages "standardized by repetition" (according to the conclusive judgment of Boltzmann). But such a statement robs this real elite of all its real qualities, for it identifies each of the members of this elite with the external relations in the hierarchical scale that differentiate it. Thus the personality of each one disappears and along with it the very usefulness of the notion with which we are concerned in this essay.

It seems to me, then, that sociology ought to go beyond this, and consider the notion of the real elite as an experimental resultant, obtained through investigations into group psychology. There is an inequality among men; a minority exists in every epoch and in every group. The cohesion of this minority has been sustained in a lasting and almost magnetic fashion by its "historical basis of reaction," its social vitality and action of persuasion. We read in Ecclesiastes of a certain person who suddenly showed himself capable of saving everything when the city was threatened, but fell back again into obscurity when the danger subsided. Posterity is grateful to them, to these superior men, these animators, pace-setters, inventors, and discoverers. They are the "great men" inscribed on Auguste Comte’s universal calendar of positivism and, more recently, celebrated on the international calendar of UNESCO. But the cult of such men dies with the earthly cities which they have made flourish through some accidental invention (vanishing like the epidemic that it has wiped out) without much regard for their true personality. In truth, they have accelerated the process of disintegration by over differentiation (and "fission") of the cities and civilizations of this world. They have been able to "insensibilize’’ their bodies against the sufferings inflicted by disease but, in so doing, have hastened the decay of their spiritual support. It is true that some religions allude to "great souls." Hindus call them mahatmas, Arabians abdâl, and Christians saints, but they are usually ignored during their lifetime. And so, if their posthumous renown gives to their name a special glory, it is not because of their posthumous life, which spiritists and theosophists have not been able to establish with certainty, but to their apotropaion character. That is to say, they are not isolated in time but become part of a homogeneous series, bearing witness to the same certitude about the efficacy of spiritual means in improving corrupted social and political situations with their sense of compassion for the universal.

How does one establish this? How can one prove that every true human elite is apotropaion? In general, the historians pay very little attention to this. Our ordinary historical documentation comes almost entirely from a class of scribes, generally those concerned with fiscal matters, for whom the official praises of hired annalists are as suspect as the underhanded slanders of apocryphal memorialists. Play-by-play minutes of national parliaments, operational reports from headquarters of intelligence agencies, are worth no more than the caricatures and Pasquinades of "his majesty’s opposition." And, as soon as the Marxist party seizes power, it manufactures an official history for political purposes which are even worse. Also a number of our philosophers of history, in their discouragement, reduce the unfolding of events to the mathematical application of an arbitrary axiomatic system of their own invention. Thus they explain the social upward mobility of the inner circle of Caesar or Napoleon in terms incomprehensible to the public of their times. This, in turn, is soon rejected by the founders of a new axiomatic system attempting to explain the evolution of humanity instead of seeking Jungian archetypes, the resurgence of which has coincided with the turning point of Caesar’s or Napoleon’s career.

The great attempt of Arnold Toynbee in his interpretation of world history does not escape the error of the axiomaticians. He has been reproached by sociologists for believing in the omnipotence of the scholarly analyst of the laboratory without ever having used the laboratory, and for explaining events as the function of "technical" expressions which hide reality from him in the same manner that the accounts of corporations are carefully edited and kept from the public by so-called "experts." No more convincing, and perhaps funnier, is the position of theosophy, which accepts the all-powerful synarchy, not that of the real elite of technicians, but of "those of the Agarttha" in their Tibetan sous-sol.

Let us return to the historians. In Semitic tradition, there is a strong tendency to reduce human history to an aesthetic number structure. The notion of real elite is for this tradition a simple fact of symbolic arithmology. ("L’Arithmologie dans la pensée sémitique primitive," Archéion (Rome), July-August, 1932, pp. 370-71.) The turba magna of the Elect, in the Johannine Apocalypse is gathered up to the ONE: by means of numbers: four (the four evangelical animals) and twelve (the twelve judges of the Twelve Tribes, the 144,000 Righteous Ones of Israel). The term turba magna itself refers to a people already thus classified, and their classification by number is based on the structure of their hierarchy. Islam, which best preserves the archaic elements of Semitic thought, has elaborated a very complete theory of the real elite, in is "numbered peoples." ("Exposé au Centre International de Synthèse" (Paris, 1932). It is not a case of people accidentally gathered on a mosallä (prayer esplanade) for similar gestures or chanting. It refers to a people whose concerted gathering increases until it reaches a collective number ("ordinal," rather than "cardinal," as A. Koyré suggested to the writer in 1932), attaining a Herbartian threshold, with a quantum qualifying it, reversing, as it were, a providential role. Through repetition it consciously announces the "clamor for justice" (sayhapil Haqq) of its prophetic animator. For example, we are told that ‘Umar was the thirty-eighth among the first forty adherents of Islam who dared to come out of hiding in a provocative manner. And still today, in a Syrian town when the number of initiated Nusayris reaches forty, they can and must found an initiation lodge (forty was also the number of the Martyrs of Sebastian, who were the protomartyrs of the Greek order of Basilians). It is equally interesting to note that the number 313 is the number of the heroic elite selected by Gideon, and it also happens to be the number of victors in the first raid on Bedr by Islam. It is believed that in the supreme holy war the Mahdi will have 313 Companions.

Such symbolic numbers designate not only the simultaneous presence of the members in the group at a given time but also the duration in time of the groupings. According to the Koran (s. 18, v. 24), 309 is the number of years of the mysterious slumber of the Seven Sleepers in the Cavern of Ephesus, the time for their maturation by grace. It is also, for the Shitites, the period of the exile in hiding of the Fatimite pretenders up to the time of their victorious insurrection with their Mahdi in North Africa. ("Les sept dormants d’Ephèse," Revue des Êtudes Islamiques, 1954, pp. 73f.)

This quantification of the span of human history would modify the Platonic conception in the Timaeus, making the history of the world a homogeneous and indefinite continuum, a simple reflection of the eternal return of the interlocking planetary cycles, with their conjunctions and oppositions. It would introduce into it a singularity, an irreversible progression, with condensations at its ritical moments, as individual points on a curve. This would form a fibrous tissue of typical events, in a structure of single or irrational numbers or in series, such as the Fibonacci series (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. . .). As Bravais showed in constituting the science of phyllotaxy, this series really represents the rhythm of the vital growing of plant stems. The crises of growth, of parturition in pain (ôdînes), of humanity would coincide with the surging of the real elite from the mass in consciously substituting itself for the collective suffering, with the compassion reserved for the "royal souls"; I have noted this point with respect to the fate (and the vow) of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France. ("Un vœu et un destin: Marie Antoinette, Reine de France," Lettres Nouvelles, September-October, 1955, Paris.)

The strong instinct for unity in Semitic thought is reflected in the undifferentiated character of the Arabic alphabet, which makes of each letter both the sign of a number and the element of a name. The method of aesthetic number is also an onomastic method. The Hijrian year 290, for example, corresponding to the year 902 of our Christian Era, evokes two feminine names of considerable eschatological importance in Islam, Maryam (mother of Jesus:M + R + Y + M = 290) and FATIR, the initiation name of Fâtima, daughter of the Prophet, ancestress of the Fatimites (F + A + T + R = 290). The coincidence of these two values meant for the Fatimite conspirators that the hour had come to revolt, since Maryam was going to "reengender" Jesus for his triumphal return in the form of a Mahdi son of Fâtima, in whom the Spirit of Maryam in the Muhammadan cycle is revived. The revolt took place and led in the year 309 of the Hijra to the proclamation of the Fatimite Caliphate, which, incidentally, founded Cairo after Mahdiya. (La Mubâhala de Médine et l’hyperdulie de Fâtima [Paris, 1955]; ef. also "La Notion du vcou et la devotion musulmane à Fâtima," extract from Studi orientalistici in onore di Gioro Levi della Vida [Rome, 1956], II, l-25.)

This instinct persists among non-Semitic peoples in the naming of newborn children. So that something of the elite of their dreams may pass into them, these infants are named after a war hero or a theatrical star, and it is believed that they will survive the rapid decline of their patron’s glory, even though nothing of this glory may remain with them. Pierre Janet used to tell us that sociology can attain the real, provided that one applies a little psychological introspection, and this introspection can bring about a vivifying participation in other lives. In order to be conscious of themselves and to realize their destiny, the masses need to turn toward the names of transhistoric personalities, like the names of prophets invoked in the recommandatio animae borrowed from the Essenes by the Church of the Catacombs, a real elite if there ever was one. Frazer, in the "Dying God," and G. Dumézil in his researches on the first kings of Rome, have shown mistakes to which the scorn of this profound instinct can lead men, however basic it may be. And the investigations of parapyschology, like those of Gotthard Booth, have shown how "birds of a feather" gather in constellations of an ideal heaven, yet not without social efficacy.

An elite is necessary for introspection, the true moral relationship of the members to the whole body for the sake of the well-being of the group. In this regard Professor Bendick recently made a very interesting study of real elites in contemporary American society. He found it possible to show the exact bearing of someone emerging from such and such group into institutional life (executive, legislative, and judicial) on styles of dress or art of the different castes. Equally observable was the catharsis effected in these groups by their real elite, which heroically maintains what they consider the right scale of professional values against structural failures.

As a mathematician would say, there is no whole without a structure. In this view the structure precedes the whole, as quantity "fixes" the matter, whether it is a question of space or of time. A social body cannot be studied without introducing the idea of an operational group, or organic factor. It is the real elite which defends it against death. Without the hypothesis of the function of the real elite in such a group, at least latently, this cannot be understood.

But posing this philosophical hypothesis is not enough. We cannot grasp the notion of a real elite without recourse to an observation of human history. For example, there is a number, probably a fixed and limited number -- archetypal, Jung would say -- to which we can reduce the mass of themes in the universe as they might be catalogued by such folklorists as Aarne-Thompson. This limited number is that of dramatic situations endowed with a viable catharsis in a given social context. The elite becomes aware of these crises and finds in their outcome a recapitulation of its own definitive personality over and above the arbitrary schemes of philosophies of history. It is in such a heroic act that the elite affirms itself; an act endowed with an axial, communicative, and transsocial value, an act which is capable of raising the mass, of giving value to interested acts, as "in a series" (profitable virtues, mercenary acts, mediocre appetites, leprous sins). The heroic elite is linked to these deeds only by its suffering in truly redemptive compassion for the universal.

Here I shall examine just one such act. Let us take the sacrifice of Abraham as an example. As a symbolic archetype this sacrifice has been recapitulated by Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It arises again and again throughout history in nocturnal ascension, found in the Christian sacrifice, the Table of the Sacred Host to console the Apostles for the departure of their Master (I Cor. 5:1-13). It can also be traced back through the Jewish Passover of the Exodus. It is noteworthy that the mystic Al-Hallâj wanted to become the ritual oblation in such a sacrifice. In assisting at ‘Arafât at the dedication of the victim of the annual Hajj, he felt that the popular faith was waiting for the presence of a sole righteous one among the assistants, one whose unreflecting intercession might obtain general pardon for all the sins of the year. He wanted to take cognizance of this by compassion; and he was taken at his word. (Akhbâr al-Hallâj (3d ed.; Paris, 1957), pp. 64, 161-62.)

To which you may say to me: That happened a thousand years ago, are there still analogous cases? Yes, for in a real sense Gandhi was killed for the sake of justice, after a long exalted life, having taken upon himself all the pain and misery of the Hindu people. ("L’Exemplarité de Gandhi," Esprit [Paris], January, 1955.) In the person of this man of pain and suffering these people now recognize themselves. It little matters that after ten years this name should enter a momentary period of silence in India. In other countries, by an apotropaion substitution, the reflection of his torch has lighted other kindred souls. Thanks to the example of this old man grown thin by so many fasts and sacrifices, poised like a flaming target in front of the circle of suffering faces which his fire continues to light and to search out, the spiritual values of man are not defeated by the totalitarianism of nations.

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