A performative utterance which makes something happen, points to spiritual depth and complexity, establishes or confirms the identity of a community or institution, and gives recognition to the implicit functions and reciprocal obligations which make up the fabric of social order.

The function of ritual is complex, but it centres on the fundamental matter of existence. Institutions—the communities and social inventions that make a society—have an identity problem. Does an institution actually exist, or is it just a collection of people doing something they happen to want to do today? Does a regiment exist? Does a contract exist in any sense other than written good intentions? When you tear up the paper, do you tear up the contract? Although these things exist in law, the same problem applies to the law itself: it is invisible; it can be described—but that is also true of UFOs. In any case, the description can be torn up. What gives such thought-institutions existence is ritual.

When the market economy, with its networks of exchange, is no longer present to hold society together, the remaining alternative will be a powerfully-affirmed culture in which people regularly participate, as distinct from being present only as spectators. And a regular, participative cultural event in which the essential framework and much of the content remains unchanged is a ritual. Ritual affirms people’s sense of belonging to the community, and it does so in seven ways:

1. Membership. Taking part in ritual implies belonging. The ritual itself has no practically useful function, so the reasons for being there are to participate at a symbolic level—or simply because you want to. This sense of membership is often deepened by dance, once a central expression of the religions, including Christianity. Dance is synchronised, interactive, and requires people to engage with, and sometimes even to touch, each other. It is also middle-voiced; that is, it is neither active nor passive but somewhere between the two; there is a sense of being willingly swept up in doing something dramatic and beautiful without having to make decisions about it. For the resilient communities of the past, dance was no mere entertainment: it was a key expression of membership.R67

And ritual affirms membership also in the sense that it is a hub: it is a reason for regular meeting, for being mutually aware, being in touch, being around to help and cooperate. Unless there is such a regular meeting place, no amount of effort to “love your neighbours” is going to work: you won’t know their names; you will scarcely meet them. Communities need to have some reason for getting together. If that reason is a myth, nothing is lost. What matters is the getting together.

2. Emotional daring. When a group shares an emotion with you, it is likely that you will be able to feel it with more intensity and insight, or at least with more confidence, than you could alone. Personal joys and sorrows are placed within the context of collective joys and sorrows: you can feel emotionally uplifted by the exultant music of the Messiah or the great Harvest psalm; strong bonds can be built up in a community that is encountered at such depth.R68

A community which not only feels the same emotion as you do, but enhances it, is a community you feel you can trust. And there is an ecstatic quality about being happy among other happy people. It sometimes happens when playing in the snow.

3. Continuity. Ritual reassures by bringing constancy, with the same music, dance and choreography—the way we do it here—handed down between generations, and evolving slowly, if at all. It is a symbol of continuity, a stable code for the community.

This differentiates it from the daily schemes and politics of the moment. Its presence is real, dependable, reassuring; it is there on its own terms; it is something to which the individual can defer. The shaman (priest) in the early religions who changed the ritual or liturgy broke the spell, and would be in trouble, perhaps at risk of his life. The rules and practices confer timeless legitimacy on the community.R69

4. Consciousness of time and events. Ritual is linked to time and natural events, such as the closing down of the day’s activity at dusk: the event is marked; it takes place in the mind as well as in the environment.R70

It celebrates the stories and events that made the community, acknowledging seasons and accomplished tasks, renewing members’ awareness of their community’s history, and of the stories and traditions which give it identity. Once, local saints and heroes were remembered; the agricultural year was celebrated; rites of passage (baptism, adulthood, marriage, death) were observed: a young man would be made explicitly conscious of becoming a full member of the community, and of the responsibilities and duties that conferred. Ritual was the performative utterance that turned events into the building blocks of a culture. James Roose-Evans comments on the barely-visible remnant of these rites of passage: “No wonder we undergo identity crises until we die.”R71

5. Practice. Ritual requires talent: music, speech, building and decoration, often along with dance, acting and dressmaking, cooking, games, wrestling, organisation and stage-management. The effect of these carnival practices extends beyond the material product to the cultivation of truthfulness, justice and courage, and these properties of citizenship are virtues that can be placed at the service of the community.R72

6. Meaning. Ritual’s characteristic medium is narrative truth—the poetic truth which raises questions that may demand long reflection. In Lean Logic’s vocabulary, the space in which we think about almost-unanswerable questions is ironic space, inviting a lifetime of exploration. It is artistic, so it cannot be completely understood; though introduced to it in childhood, participants will not grow out of it. Instead, they will grow into it, discovering its depth throughout their lives, and teaching as they learn, learning as they teach.

If you reflect for a lifetime on a not-immediately-understandable poem, or on the text of a ritual, you will have the freedom to live by your interpretation of it: nobody tells you what to think: you pull the meaning out of the words. Ritual is a form of pull, and in this sense is a source of freedom.

7. Locality. Ritual changes the nature of the place a little bit, making it special; because the ritual has happened there you will think about it in a different way for the rest of your life, like a tree under which you once made love, and which you still pass with musing nostalgia from time to time. Ritual events make places, bring them alive, haunt them or bless them, populate them with the spirit of what happened, so that today’s inhabitants are not alone. Ritual is not just any ritual: it is yours, because this is the ritual which you help to make, with the people you live amongst, in the place where you live.R73


The power of ritual as an effective means of sustaining societal structures was illustrated on a grand scale in the imagination of Plato. In his Republic, goods are shared out amongst all members of the guardian class—an arrangement which would require highly developed altruism and commitment to the common good. But in his “City of the Magnesians”, he went even further: here, goods would be shared amongst all citizens, and the problem was, of course, to find ways of making this exceptionally ambitious and unstable social ethic hold up. His solution to the problem was to design the city’s culture around the ceaseless performance of ritual; every day of the year had its own festival, binding the city together in a rhythmic pattern, integrating the gods into the enterprise. The citizens, as Catherine Pickstock writes, were “strung together on a thread of song and dance”. The performance of ritual constantly renewed the commitment to the fragile ethic of common property. The City of the Magnesians is fiction—a utopia—but Plato accepted, as a fact of life, that shared ritual is crucial for the delivery of social cohesion.R74

Ritual, though seemingly useless, asserts the legitimacy of the community (or institution, or nation) and the authority of its traditions and leadership. The presence of tradition sustains the idea that the community has an identity, permanence and depth. As the anthropologist Maurice Bloch notes, the ritual locates a particular social order in its setting as “a fact of the nature of the world”. In a non-demoralised society, this sense of legitimacy provides a thread of continuity that extends through the social order as a whole. Ritual and tradition can transform a community’s chances of survival; giving it the courage of its conventions.R75


Related entries:

Carnival, Script, Rote, Truth, Tactile Deprivation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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