Doing good, not out of self-sacrifice. Conversation with Massimo Recalcati

by Gabriele Nissim

Massimo Recalcati, a poignant interpreter of Jacques Lacan, in his recent book Contro il sacrificio (Against Sacrifice) published by Cortina Editore, clearly explained the function of the psychoanalyst and the educator relating to the people affected by distortions of the personality, unable to live their life in tranquility and crushed by the inhibitions of their super-ego.
Two are the therapist’s key tasks:

- Stimulating patients to accept a sort of self-limitation, which Recalcati defines as the symbolic sacrifice: you must contain part of your drives in order to access the human and social dimension of life. This is, by the way, what Epicurus said (see the interpretation by Pierre Hadot), who described the impossibility to have it all and invited his supporters to restrain themselves in order to establish good relations with the others and not become slaves to a landslide of continuous desires.
- Working in the analysis to free the patient from the phantom of sacrifice that in a seemingly opposite way leads him to a total renunciation of his vocation and makes the sacrifice for its own sake the measure of his life, getting him to depend from the others and thus distracting him from any responsibility in the world.

My question is if this double challenge indicated by Recalcati can become a useful proposal for today’s society, where the people’s identity is deeply shaken by the complex issue of migrants and has become a true battlefield where populists feed a culture of hate and enmity. Maybe, now like never before the mechanism of contempt and intolerance of the other goes hand in hand with an escape from any responsibility.

But let’s proceed orderly, and let’s see how Recalcati defines the two traumas and their consequences on people’ behaviour.
If an individual behaves with the spirit of Marquis De Sade, he always remains a wretch, because he yields to his drives, he turns the other into an object, up to annihilate him. This way, a social life is impossible. This is why the human being must accept a compromise with his or her own ego in order to realize a human life with the others.
This is the drive renunciation that Recalcati defines as a symbolic sacrifice, a price to be paid to accomplish a life in common with other people.

More complex instead is the inhibitory brake that causes in human beings what the psychoanalyst defines as the phantom of sacrifice, which describes the behaviour of those who live sacrificing their own lives in many different ways.
Seemingly, the idea of sacrifice can be viewed as a positive pathway leading us to figure out the donation of one’s life to the others.
Actually, though, the stifling of one’s own desire and personality, typical of the psychotic, leads to some counter-effects such as envy, the spirit of revenge, a perverse mechanism of superiority towards with the others, a renunciation to responsibility for the other, a continuous aggression.
Those who make the goal of their lives out of this distorted sacrifice, in the end, hate human beings, because they feel continuously in credit with the others and never see any acknowledgement of their efforts in turn. Thus they blackmail their neighbour and live this distorted state as a masochist race with themselves, of which they are never satisfied.

Recalcati reminds us of two metaphoric figures described by Friedrich Nietzsche: the camel and the priest. The former is, according to the German philosopher, the animal which resembles the most a particular kind of man who lives to serve, give up and obey. It embodies the spirit of sacrifice, it is the one who gives up his freedom and makes himself a slave to the powerful. You may believe that this behaviour stems from a spirit of service and a humble attitude.

Instead, those who, like the camel of Nietzsche, mortify their own interests, inclinations and affections, and is keen on serving and bending, is actually a man who gives up the exercise of his freedom out of fear and cowardice.
He loves the strong man in dictatorships and calls for the demiurge in the most difficult situations because he prefers delegating his own responsibility to somebody else to avoid running a personal risk. This way he escapes the burden of choice and freedom. As Erich Fromm wrote, this is the secret of the seduction of totalitarianism on defeatist individuals. Human beings seek freedom, but they often are scared of exerting it. He bows his head in front of the dictator because he dreams of someone who solves all problems on his behalf. Thus, it is an interested sacrifice, in that those who practice it deceive themselves into believing they have found the most advantageous route.
The priest according to Nietzsche is instead the one who renounce all pleasures of worldly life to then obtain a definitive reward from God in the Afterlife.
Seemingly, he is motivated by a spirit of abnegation, but actually, in this way he can express a sense of superiority towards the other men. In facts, he turns his renunciation into the very mechanism at the basis of his power: a very rewarding exchange in the present, as well as in the kingdom of heavens. In everyday life he can play the role of the moralist and severe critic and look at the others from above; in the future life, he will be rewarded by God.

The behavior of the priest is one of the terrorist, who is ready to sacrifice his life in change for his beatitude in the heaven of virgins, and before self-immolating he feels as morally superior to the other men who, in his opinion, live in the world of sins of Western decadence; but also the communist ready to sacrifice all his friends and loved ones up to the point of committing laying of information, behaved quite the same way, because the goodness of the cause required the repression of all his feelings.

As Nietzsche observed, you can sacrifice yourself not only to a deity but also to elements that perform the same function. This was the attraction of ideologies, from communism to nationalism, where men accepted to sacrifice their own humanity in the hope of obtaining a heaven on earth in change.
This way the human being, after the death of God, started to worship his shadow, turning this shade into a new God and thus keeping on behaving the same way.

Those who live to sacrifice themselves, besides slyly blackmailing the others, have made the mortification of their body into a perverse pleasure, like anorexics, but also like many religious practices that have turned into virtue the fasting, the renunciation of one’s sexuality, the hiding of the female body,and the hard monastic life.
We could also talk about a strange mental exercise represented by the mortification of conscience. It is a personal challenge which can even give some satisfaction in the end.

Let’s think of the words by Nazi henchman Himmler, when he congratulated the Germans who after a significant deal of effort were able, for Germany’s superior good, not to feel compassion for the fate of Jews. He used to define them as selfless men, as they were inclined to win over a sense of natural pietas in the face of the systematic annihilation of human beings. This is the very reason why Isis terrorists liked showing their uncovered faces in front of the mobile cameras when they slit the throats of their victims. They not only did to spark awe but also to show their heroism in hiding their human feelings. Self-sacrifice became a pleasure and a moral value. A behaviour to be proud of.

How can we thus free ourselves from the phantom of sacrifice and find again our calling and authenticity? In psychoanalysis, Recalcati explains, it is all about stimulating patients to listen to the voice of their own desire, repressed by the censoring action of their super-ego. Therapists must give back the individuality of desire to the ethical responsibility of the subject, undoing the opportunist economy of the phantom of sacrifice.
People thus need to get back to be themselves and not depend on the others anymore. Finding again their own independence and putting to good use the strength that is inside them, people need no more to feel in credit, censor themselves, sacrifice themselves, envy the others and feel superior. This is the starting point, from which an individual can become a moral subject and decide what is good and evil, becoming an arbiter of his own fate.

As Agnes Heller pointed out (in A Short History Of My Philosophy) “if somebody chooses himself, nothing will be able to determine him from outside” and thus he becomes the cause of his deeds. Somebody becomes what he or she has chosen to become when he or she starts from his or her calling. Being faithful to oneself is the main norm of any ethics of personality.
This is the same starting point of Baruch Spinoza, who said that an ethical behaviour stems from the development of one’s more power. It is then, that the human being understands that he or she can achieve his maximum potential by doing things with the others. These are two perspectives, which, in syntony with Recalcati’s reflections, question the distorted view of life that is based on sacrifice, which does never lead to any true moral choice.
Very relevant is the interpretation of the death of Christ. Jesus does not sacrifice himself nor does he expect being saved by the Father, but rather he decides to die on the cross because he remains faithful to his own desire. He wants to teach people not to be afraid.

This is a key reflection on the philosophy of righteousness in difficult situations. Those who act in a certain way do not do out of the spirit of sacrifice, but because they see their humanity accomplished and it is right to do so. Ultimately, he or she acts in the spirit of Christ. We afterwards say that they have sacrificed themselves for the humanity. But in reality, when they take up a responsibility, they listen to their own desire and first of all they realize themselves.

But let’s get back to our starting point. Why can Recalcati’s reflection serve in our awkward times?
If we want to win the battle about migrants and hospitality in Europe, we would make a mistake saying it is a sacrifice and a renunciation to our wellbeing in the name of an abstract solidarity. It is the populists like Salvini who scare the people, saying we will be able to sacrifice ourselves for them. We must avoid falling into this trap.

There is no sacrifice in hospitality, but rather moral riches and revitalization of our identity thanks to our opening to the other, in a country where the birthrate dramatically decreased. It is us who need them to fill many voids in so many jobs we refuse to do. It is always the open societies, which show the most creativity and become the most dynamic ones. The walls and ghettoes are always the anticipations of decadence. Migrants are not the new phantom of sacrifice that punishes us, but instead the fulfillment of our calling. Of course, we need to accept a symbolic sacrifice when their arrival causes us uncontrolled drives. How many times do we see them beg in our streets and we feel a sense of unease? It is normal, but we must overcome it, figuring out the riches that we could build through dialogue and encounter.

Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

Analysis by

12 July 2018

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