Transcendence Through War
Essay/Commentary by Alexander Chirila
Michael Vlahos’ “Rites of Spring: Sacrifice, Incarnation, and War”, is one of the most popular and widely read papers published by Library of Social Science. We’ve received commentaries from throughout the world. One of the most insightful of these is the essay authored by Alexander Chirila. Please read it (below), then check out Michael’s paper.
Alexander Chirila is professor of Writing and Literature at Webster University, Thailand. He is a social scientist, and author of fiction.
Dr. Chirila is the author of Manifest Individuation.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

His most recent book is the novel True Immortality.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

In “Rites of Spring: Sacrifice, Incarnation, and War”, Michael Vlahos describes a mythic formulation—a matrix of symbolic elements—that have evolved as an integral part of human history. This formulation is a complex narrative that stems from a universal concept: transcendence through sacrifice.

Transcendence in this context is not individualistic. Rather, Vlahos links transcendence with the collective—a journey or passage undertaken by a “river of humanity” joined in common purpose or ideology.

Uncoiling from the prehistory of the earliest societies and blossoming into the atomic age of Modernity, the myth of transcendence through sacrifice, bloodshed, and battle is an enduring expression of a desire to bridge Nature and the Divine through Death. Vlahos emphasizes this triumvirate and its representation in the tricolor scheme of red, black, and white.

War and battle offer purgation through a medium stronger than water—blood. When human collectives began to vie with one another in open conflict, the horror of battle was mythologized and transformed into the struggle between the Self and Other (or, as Vlahos points out, the barbaroi), or between combatants whose shared understanding of the value assigned to war served to strengthen the ritual significance of their sacrifice.

Vlahos draws from one of the Western World’s most influential war epics—Homer’s Iliad. The glory of battle and deification of its participants present a layered network of powerful symbols: on the one hand, the demigods of the battlefield represent ideals, the best of the nation made manifest. On the other hand, the active participation of the gods represents divine sanction, without which the war becomes so much wanton death and slaughter…and for so petty a cause!

The mythic theatre of war, as a matrix of symbols, perpetuates itself generationally by adapting to changes in the dynamics on two primary vectors: the sacred and the social. Vlahos points out that the sacred both validates and sanctions ritual enactments of fundamentally abstract desires operating on the collective level.

The social both accommodates and appropriates the sacred, transforming doctrinal religiosity into religious nationalism, or, in an earlier model, transforming an entirely mortal sovereign into a god-king. The divine incarnation of a king or emperor sanctioned his authority and demonstrated the tangible influence of the Divine in the affairs of the collective.

There are three layers of parallel formations that Vlahos illustrates: the Neolithic tribal and communalistic, where the social and sacred were tightly integrated and where one bled freely into the other; the Mithraic and Christian (and arguably Buddhist) offer of transcendence to the collective as opposed to the elite; and the modern rise of national bodies held together by a mortar mixed of blood and rhetoric.

By the 19th century, humankind had seemingly conquered nature only to find a new, untamed territory filled with beasts and shadows—itself. During the many revolutions that swept across Europe, a new paradigm of the symbolic matrix appeared.

Transcendence became the perfection of the collective through purgation. The eye turned inward, and saw there the promise of its own ascension overwhelmed by the failed promises of earlier regimes. Incarnation became the chrysalis of the old, monarchic model in its violent but necessary transformation into the glory of a new nation.

While the revolutions of the Western World (followed by those in Latin America and Africa) marked a definitive shift in the balance of power and the mythologies that created and sustained it—embedded in the literature, paintings, rhetoric, and leadership of the period—Vlahos argues that this ultimately self-destructive quest for perfection through revolution could not be sustained.

The matrix shifts again, now to the assemblage of great armies holding aloft the white, bloodstained sword of a perfect and purified society. Arguably, the narrative here, at least from a Judeo-Christian-Muslim perspective, is rooted in the Paradise promised by God.

Christianity was mobilized by the Church Militant. The Old Testament provides ample evidence of divinely sanctioned war; and Islam—though distorted by radical jihadists—has never been considered a nonviolent expression of monotheism. The narrative of paradise won through war’s mass sacrifice was perpetuated through Europe, enmeshed with the imperial legacy of Rome, romanticized in the Arthurian Legends and hideously corrupted by Hitler during the 3rd Reich.

Vlahos underscores the hypocrisy of claiming a universal ideal of transcendence against an-Other that would do the same. Only by demonizing this Other can the collective, girded for ritual battle, mythologize the ensuing bloodshed. While the tactics may have changed from the valorous skirmish lines of the preindustrial era to Improvised Explosive Devices and malware viruses, the symbolic matrix perpetuates itself by assuming the shapes and forms of the surrounding narrative.

The barbarians of old, the tyrannical imperialists who bartered in flesh—the Nazis and Japanese—these have already been mythologized. They are iconic characters in a story that charts the course of our river of humanity.

Vlahos brings us into the narrative present, writing that “today the state lives off the residual brand loyalty of societies to the national war and sacrifice franchise.” Vlahos suggests that this brand name is devoid of substance—at least for the time being.

The world is war-weary, and it is no closer to the transcendent incarnation of the collective formerly claimed by the god-kings of old and later promised by the rebel religions, and later still championed by secular societies touting a linear trajectory of unstoppable progress that would transform the world into a paradise of technology accessible to everyone.

Vlahos points out that we cannot entirely escape our collective desire for transcendence, or the primitive belief that this can be achieved only through sacrifice. The scale is grand because the world is small. The potential for utter destruction is directly correlated to the same technologies that seem to encourage conflict.

The most warlike qualities of our nature, arguably unchanged since the first stone arrowheads, found their way into skeletons predating the oldest pyramid, and have never entirely ebbed. While the symbols that best express this narrative become echoes and undergo evolutions of their own, the investment of belief that originally structured and empowered them shifts into the next formulation—but the river does not simply flow on.

It meanders and divides, becoming a network of interlaced matrices that tell the same story from different perspectives. Each “living river” claims validity; each one promises a different version of transcendence; each one is willing to fight and die for it.

This willingness—this collective will—now provides its own sanction, but in each case still depends heavily on the ritual of sacrifice…and just as often opts to sacrifice its own “unblemished” lambs: its young men (and now women), in the flush of their vigor.

The blood is still in the life, and it is still believed that the shedding of it will renew and rejuvenate the promise of transcendence so crucial to any nationalistic ideology. It remains to be seen how this symbolic matrix functions in an age of increasing homogeneity and globalization.