Thank you, my dear Stephen. I always look forward to engaging our readers in the mythological dimension, especially when it comes to this question of the mytho-historic origins of organized human life on earth.
This is indeed a fascinating question in all fields of inquiry. The search of origins in cosmology as in evolutionary biology have led to amazing discoveries. But when it comes to the psychogenesis of the human spirit, we must emphasize again and again, that this quest is not for the faint of heart. As we can learn from Primitive Mythology in a kind of “fundamental anthropology,” to use Girard’s formulation, we come to discover a much darker and more brutal reality underlying humanity’s spiritual origins. The place into which we are led ad inferos is certainly no Paradise, no Golden Age or Homeric chain of origins linking up humans to Olympian Gods. Just like Greek mythology proper, this quest leads us through the heart of scandal and human sacrifice. For what we find at the deepest and darkest root of our spiritual life is the gruesome spectacle of primal murder and its anthropophagic rite.
A great deal of psychoanalytic practice concerns this “shadow work,” and it is no different when dealing with the geneology of Ideas.
But what does it mean? In what sense was it necessary for organized human life? For obviously such performances serve no purpose from the survivalist utilitarian point of view. Yet they must have been psychologically necessary in a way we barely understand.
Now to answer your question directly:
“Does this stepping down from the literal practice of physical sacrifice into a symbolic ritual prove effective? Are deaths from violence, whether on the individual (homicide) or collective (war) scale lower as a percentage of the human population than in ages past? […] Or is the gradual switch over millennia from literal to more symbolic re-enactments of ritual a function of the evolution of human consciousness?”
I think you can make a case for the implicit tenets of these questions as complementary sides of the same mytho-historic coin. One can easily show through statistical analysis that we are better off in general than the general population was, say, during the Middle Ages or the Neolithic Period, etc… But that is not saying much. I should hope we are better off than Medieval peasants or cave dwellers! But a great many still remain bound to the modern serfdom of the working class, ethnic wars, etc. MLK famously spoke, for example, of the woeful discrepancy between our technological advancements and our moral decay.
The second point to make is to clarify the scope of the concept of “evolution” in the context of cultural and historical phenomena. One must be careful here, lest we slide unwittingly back, a la Jordan Peterson, into a kind of social or cultural Darwinism, which was widely used in its time to justify the intersection of white-supremacist and capitalist ideologies— as it is today. That is the problem with the ever-popular phrase “the evolution of consciousness.”
I know that the use of “evolution” in this popular context is meant metaphorically, used as a symbol of the individuation process, but this term, due to its empirical origin, always slides back into the scientific meaning in which it becomes the literal effect of genetic mutation. Evolution literally means a change in the genetic structure of the organism. Talk of the evolution of consciousness would have to coincide with the discussion of the early period of hominid variation and evolutionary permutation. But once we get to the current form of human consciousness and our language faculty, there is literally no evolutionary change taken place that would distinguish us from the earliest specimens of homo sapiens.
Now, the process of “cultural evolution”—in the last analysis, a misnomer—concerns directly the process of sublimation, as Freud called this dynamic of symbolic substitution. Or we may call these historic changes part of the process of cultural “sublation” (Aufhebung) to use the Hegelian term Giegerich prefers, a key term for describing the logical operation of the dialectical process in its three-fold sense: “a) negating and canceling, b) rescuing and retaining, c) elevating or raising to a new level” (The Soul’s Logical Life 67). This is what happens from stage to stage of cultural development: a sublation of one stage into another. Rather than evolution, we are dealing with the revolution of mytho-historic forms of consciousness.
So you mention my allusion to the image of Christ of Cross. Clearly we can see how it has performed the three-fold function of sublation. The literal killing and anthropophagic rite is canceled in its literalism. At the same time, the image of the crucified God rescues the primordial sense of the sacrificial act. And finally, through its “negative interiorization” (Giegerich) it places its anthropological meaning at a higher level of development.
If we wanted a shorthand, we might say that sublation is the result of the sublimation of the ages; one happens at the individual, the other, at the collective level. It would be a kind of alchemystically inclined dialectical materialism.
But the historic alchemy of cultural sublation is obviously not about the changes in the genetic structure of the brain or the human genome. What it concerns is a cultural matter, the prima materia of history, caught in the collective process of self-creation in time. Thus the alchemy of mytho-history concerns the changes and transformations of the human spirit across the ages.
So although “evolution” is not the right word here, as you can see, we may yet speak legitimately of development and even “advancement” in the specific technological sense. We can certainly compare a bow and arrow or poisoned darts with semi-automatic weapons and nuclear bombs and still be able to say: “we are so much more advanced than these benighted primitives!” But when you consider the diabolical purpose of such massive arsenals of mass destruction which can destroy all life on earth many times over, the nature of our “advancement” is surely begging to be qualified and delimited.