INTRODUCTION

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There is charm as well as irony in the authorship of this book. For it is without question one of the most powerful justifications of the functional indispensability of religion to society ever written. Yet its author, Emile Durkheim, was himself a professed, virtually devout, agnostic in all matters of religious belief. His overriding commitment from student days on was to science and reason, and there can be no doubt of his strong belief that intel­lectual progress lay in the transfer from religious to scientific contexts of all fundamental ideas on universe, society and man. Nevertheless, from his studies of the nature of the social bond, Durkheim early reached the view that apart from a deep sense of the sacred—which is for Durkheim the vital substance of all religion—there can be no durable form of society. The sacred and the social are for Durkheim two sides of the same coin, and the distinction between the sacred and the profane is, Durkheim tells us, the profoundest distinction ever reached by the human mind.

Durkheim remains to this day, along with Max Weber, one of the two pre-eminent sociologists of religion. What the sacred is in Durkheim's thought, charisma is in large degree in Weber's. Both men were preoccupied by religion and its role in society, and from this common preoccupation has emerged most of the central propositions of the contemporary sociology of religion. The age in which Weber and Durkheim lived and worked was itself deeply preoccupied by the scientific or rational study of religion. In the generation that bridged the passage of the nineteenth to the twentieth century are to be found the names of E. B. Tyior, Max Muller, William James, Robertson Smith, Herbert Spencer, Sir James G. Frazer, Andrew Lang, Ernest Renan, and Sigmund Freud, one and all devoted, as were Durkheim and Weber, to the study of the origins, development and nature of religion con­ceived as the subject of scientific analysis. Their works had been preceded of course by those of such earlier interpreters, also rationalist in inspiration, as Feuerbach, Engels, Fustel de Coul-anges and others. But the high point of secular, scientific study of religion was reached about the turn of the century when both Durkheim and Weber were at work.

Durkheim's scholarly interest in religion goes back at very least to his student years at the famous Ecole Normale Superieure. There Fustel de Coulanges, distinguished historian, author of the influential The Ancient City (1864), taught, became indeed one of Durkheim's most respected teachers. It was in The Ancient City that Fustel had set forth his engaging theory that the foundations of the ancient Greek and Roman city states had been strictly and exclusively religious, inextricably involved in not only all of Greek and Roman belief but also social order. Moreover, the essence of this religious foundation was, for Fustel, the sacred, more pre­cisely what he called the "sacred flame" that was kept alight in every household, symbol of the continuity of the generations. It is unlikely that Durkheim could have been unaware of Fustel's idea of the sacred even though, at the time Durkheim studied under this great scholar, Fustel's active interests had turned entirely to the history of French social, political and legal institutions from medieval times on. Moreover Durkheim as a young man was living through the years in which Ernest Renan was publishing the successive volumes of his eminently scholarly and secular studies of Christianity and of the peoples of ancient Israel, studies in which the interaction of the social and the sacred is dealt with in essentially sociological as well as historical terms. Here too it is hard to suppose that Durkheim was unaffected.

But wherever and however acquired, keen interest in religion is to be found in some of Durkheim's very earliest writings, no matter how inconclusive and amorphous by the standard of his later work his earliest interest may seem to us. Several years before publication of Durkheim's first major work, The Division of Labour (1893), he had declared religion a necessary and vital force in social stability, an indispensable means of social constraint, and had even reached the point, Steven Lukes tells us in his authorita­tive biography of Durkheim, of actually writing of religion as born of the attachment of the individual to society. Such a declaration, when siifliciently matured and grounded in research, would be­come the cornerstone of The Elementary Forms.

It was, however, in 1895, according to Lukes, that Durkheim conclusively reached belief in the sovereign importance of religion in the social order and set himself resolutely and systematically to its study. Apparently it was about this time that Durkheim encountered the works of the English ethnologist Robertson Smith whose studies of the religions of the ancient Semites, among other works, had led him to the conclusion that the origins of religion are to be found, not in belief in spirits, in animism or other state of mind, but, rather, in the social act, in the rite or ceremony that symbolically binds the individual to his kinship community.

Religion, Smith wrote, "did not exist for the saving of souls, but for the preservation and welfare of society."

It is easy to imagine the attraction of such an hypothesis to the author of The Division of Labour and The Rules of Sociological Method. (1895). Even in his Suicide, which Durkheim was writing at the time (to be published in 1897), he gave religion high marks as a restraint upon the suicidal impulse, but only where the social element of communal authority was strong in religion. The natural and aboriginal function of religion is to bind the individual to the social order, but where this function becomes weak, as in the modern liberal or rationalist religions, its effect is diminished.

Durkheim's interest in the nature of religion and in its sources was becoming stronger all the time. In 1898, while still at the University of Bordeaux, he founded the journal, L'Annee Socio-logique, twelve impressive issues of which would appear before suspension at the beginning of World War I, and in these interest in religion, especially primitive religion, is strong in the writings of both Durkheim and his students. No less visible is the attention he was giving to religion in his Bordeaux lectures, which would be brought together with articles and papers by Durkheim's students and published in book form after his death. No matter what we find Durkheim discussing in these lectures and papers—property, contract, morality, education, law, etc.—almost invariably we find him explaining their authority in society in terms of their aboriginal religious foundations. Thus the sanctity of private property goes back to the sanctity of primitive ritual property; the binding character of private contract is anchored in the primitive idea of covenant with a god or spirit, and so on.

There is thus nothing astonishing at all, despite remarks along this line of a few early students and critics of Durkheim, in the appearance of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in 1912. There had been a long and intensive period of preparation for the writing of the b'ook, saturation in a vast literature on primitive religion, especially that pertaining to the Australian aborigines which Durkheim, along with many others in his day, regarded as the single most primitive extant people, and a good many articles on religious topics by himself and his students, along with the lectures he delivered at Bordeaux and then, from 1902 on, at the University of Paris. For, at very least, seventeen years, Durkheim's primary sociological interest was in religion prior to publication of The Elementary Forms.

Having now briefly set the background and context of the book's appearance, I want to turn to the book itself. Rather than seeking to summarize in narrative fashion its contents, I think it preferable and useful to identify the major aims of the book

as these may be found in its dominant themes and perspectives. In the most literal sense, it is of course a monograph on the religious customs of the Australians, but we should miss utterly the book's significance if we did not observe the uses which Durkheim makes of his Australian materials. These uses are very broad and highly interpretative, extending to the whole of religion as it may be found everywhere, with the Australian data employed as a kind of verification of Durkheim's views on the universal character of religion.

The book is in the first place evolutionary in character. That it is free of the conventional marks of evolutionary treatments in his day—successions of grand stages, cross-cultural data drawn from dozens, even hundreds, of peoples, and the like—does not offset Durkheim's clearly stated evolutionary intent. If, he writes, we undertake to explain any institution in the social order, it is always necessary to go back to its most primitive and simple form, in short to its evolutionary origin as the means of understanding later manifestations. In many places in the book there are refer­ences to the persisting and evolving religious elements which, he argues, bind primitive and modern religions into a single con­tinuum. If I seem to be stressing this evolutionary character of the book, it is only because many writers have chosen to deal with it as if it were in the anti-evolutionary movement which was coming into existence in certain anthropological circles in Durk­heim's day as the consequence of either functionalist or dif-fusionist premises. The book is as definitely conceived in the light of evolutionary methodology as anything that had been written by Tyior or Spencer, even though its transcending content is that of the origins of religion rather than grand-evolutionary succession of stages.

Second, there is the expressed desire to see religion in the terms of its simplest possible elements, those which may be descried in a people as primitive as the Australians, as the means of discovering what is fundamental, universal, and lasting in religion irrespective of the complexities and differentiations which become introduced in the great world religions. To employ Weber's notable phrase, an "ideal-type" is to be found in this book with respect to religion, one that utilizes the data of but a single people but that nevertheless serves, in Durkheim's mind, for all religions. What he writes here of the totem, the primitive cult, the rite, and the varied meanings of the sacred, is intended to serve in the scientific sense as a model, an ideal-type, from which all that is merely peripheral or incidental has been omitted.

Third is an aspect of the book that has been too often neglected entirely by its critics, one I do not hesitate to refer to as pheno-

menological. It may seem strange to some to refer to Durkheim in this fashion, for he is commonly dealt with, especially by the symbolic interactionists, as the positivist pure and simple, the very antithesis of the investigator concerned in verstehende terms with the meaning of a given element or structure of human behaviour. But from the beginning of his book Durkheim leaves us in no doubt that his dominant objective is that of portraying religion in the terms which, he tells us, have been crucial in the minds of the religiously committed themselves. Durkheim is severe on those rationalists who have thought their analysis of religion complete when they have delineated religion in assertedly scientific fashion without regard to the elements which are dominant in the minds of the religiously devout. Rationalists have typically con­centrated, Durkheim writes, on the objects of religious proposi­tions, cosmological, ethical, and other. But the universal and enduring appeal of religion to its votaries lies, Durkheim stresses, not in what it may say about things, external or internal, but, rather, in what it does for the believer in his relation to world, society, and self. It is not in search of new truths about universe and self that the communicant turns to his god; it is, rather, in quest of the spiritual strength that only one's god can give him, Durkheim argues, that accounts for the religious experience. On this point, Durkheim concludes, the testimony of the conse-cratedly religious is worth far more than the research results of rationalists who have approached religion as outside observers.

Fourth, the book is not only a study of religion; it is also an inquiry into the sources of the categories of the human mind: such categories as time, space, cause, and the other structures of the mind through which individual experience becomes assimilated and ordered. As I have said, distinction between the sacred and the profane is, for Durkheim, the greatest single distinction the human mind is capable of; greater than distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, the logical and illogical, or any other. So powerful was this distinction upon the primitive mind, so binding and authoritative the hold of the sacred, that from this sphere of sacred experience sprang eventually the basic structures of human thought applied to all realms. Thus, Durkheim tells us, it was the experience over countless generations of participating regularly and rhythmically in the communal, sacred rites that gradually created a sense of time. Similarly, it was the spectacle of the all-powerful, absolute primitive community that established the idea first of god or gods and then of the kind of causal omni­potence that would in due time become secularized into the category of cause that exists in human minds. Hume had thought these categories the results of additive, cumulative, sensation-

based experience that takes place in the life of each individual from infancy on. Kant, responding to Hume, had declared the categories built into the very function of the human brain. Durkheim, rejecting both of these epistemological propositions (though favouring Kant in some degree at the expense of Hume), argues that the categories are the evolutionary products of the individual's long exposure to the constraints of the sacred in social context.

It cannot be said that Durkheim's sociology of knowledge, or rather of the sources of mind, has won wide acceptance. It has quite manifest faults; among them the problem posed by the transfer into the germ plasm of environmentally acquired traits, a transfer not acceptable to modern genetics. And yet it has to be said that even if Durkheim's sociological explanation of the nature of mind and thought is deficient, his typology has proved to be of much use to those sociologists or comparative historians of culture concerned with the variations among peoples of cultural perception. The perception of time, cause, space, and force does vary immensely among peoples despite fundamental likeness of native mental faculties, and it is in these terms, those of the sociology of knowledge, that Durkheim's treatment of the categories of the mind has proved to be fruitful.

Fifth, it is impossible to miss in Durkheim's treatment of religion a consistently structural approach. It is not the struc­turalism of a Levi-Strauss in our day or of any of those working in the wake of a Noam Chomsky on the elemental linguistic-mental structures, but Durkheim's approach is a structural one all the same, and we know that Levi-Strauss himself was strongly influenced in the beginning by Durkheim's writings on symbol and rite. Of all the great sociologists at work in the early part of this century, Durkheim, I would argue, did the most to replace explanations founded in terms of psychological, individual, forces or states with explanations anchored in the patterned, persisting relationships of human beings, relationships among themselves and to their norms. Durkheim is pre-eminently the sociologist of social structure, and there is a vivid and unbroken line from his work, particularly his study of religion, to the writings of those who describe themselves in our day as functionalists or struc­turalists among anthropologists, sociologists and social psycholo­gists. For Durkheim the foundation of all religion lies in the sacred significance the structure of kinship holds for primordial man, and any scientific study of religion must concern itself with such structures as the molecular cult and with the positive and the negative rites of the cult, though, as I have stressed above, such structural thinking in no way prevents Durkheim from giving

explicit attention to religion as it is perceived and assimilated by the religious.

Sixth and finally, I would call attention to Durkheim's treat­ment of the relation between religion and science in mankind's evolutionary advance. Intellectual progress for Durkheim con­sists, quite obviously, in the transfer from dominantly religious contexts to dominantly scientific contexts of ideas on cosmology, on society and on the individual; a transfer, in short, from the sacred to the profane. He regards with manifest favour the progress of the sciences and their emancipation as intellectual systems from religion. The future will see, he tells us, a continua­tion of this trend, with matters still held to be too sacred for scientific examination becoming objects of rationalist-scientific research. And yet, this said, there remains nonetheless for Durk­heim an eternality of religion, one that springs from man's ineradicable impulse to pronounce some things sacred in sharp distinction from the profane, from the secular and the purely instrumental or utilitarian. He is unyielding in his view that apart from a bond that is sacred, the human community, indeed any belief-system, must dissolve into atoms. The great problem, he suggests, that faces Western societies is the preservation of a sense of the sacred in our belief-systems and in our social structures sufficient to make possible a social order without, however, diminishing the advance of science as the way of illumination of the unknown. Few would question at this moment the prescience of Durkheim's ideas.

It would be absurd to leave the impression that a book as bold and original as The Elementary Forms has been immune to strong criticisms. Quite the contrary. From the moment of its publica­tion it came under a good deal of attack, just as all of Durkheim's major works did, starting with The Division of Labour. In his study of religion, as in his other studies, critics found an emphasis upon the metaphysical reality of society that was often un­acceptable. The disregard of, or submergence of, the individual is undoubtedly the major charge against Durkheim to be found in all the critical literature generated by his waiting. It was said too that his study of the Australian aborigines lacked the authoritative-ness which can come only from direct, field acquaintance with a given people or culture. (To be sure, this criticism applies equally to such notable students of religion as Tyior, Frazer, and also Freud whose Totem and Taboo appeared one year after Durk­heim's work and also focused on the Australians.) Durkheim's sharp distinction between religion and magic on the ground that the latter does not produce communal ties ("there is no church of magic") has also come under assault by a number of ethnolo-

gists. Even Radcliffe-Brown, who was to become one of Durk-heim's strongest and most fertile admirers so far as method was concerned, found Durkheim's interpretation of Australian totem-ism seriously defective. Finally, and with much force, it has been said that use of one people, however intensively it may be studied, as "confirmation" of any theory of the nature of religion is an abuse of scientific method.

In all of these criticisms there is assuredly some degree of validity. It would be preposterous—and also alien to the basic scientific spirit that motivated Durkheim—to assert that the final answer, assuming there even can be a final answer, to the problem of the origin and nature of religion lies in this book. It is, however, the unfailing mark of the classic, whether in science or in literature or art, that in the long run it not only survives against, but even draws a certain degree of added strength and lustre from, criticisms of the magnitude which have been made of The Ele­mentary Forms of Religious Life. Criticisms notwithstanding, the eminence of this book in the circles of those concerned with the scientific understanding of religion is not only as great as, if not actually greater than, it was when it first appeared, but one need only examine in the most cursory fashion the line of distinguished works reaching to the present moment that has been, in one degree or other, inspired by Durkheim's treatment of the sacred, to be made aware of its continuing intellectual power.

ROBERT NISBET

New York, 1975