In heaven as it is on earth? Are religious mysticism and Hegel’s “aufgehoben” (transmutation) sublimated forms of masochism?

The 81-year-old sociologist Peter Berger thinks that they are. In his book on the sociology of religion, The Sacred Canopy  (1967), he wrote this of mysticism (64):

The extent to which the mystical surrender may be called masochistic varies empirically, but it is safe to say that a strong masochistic element is present in nearly all varieties of mysticism, as evidenced by the cross-cultural recurrence of ascetic self-mortification and self-torture in connection with mystical phenomena. Where the perfect union is achieved, the annihilation of the self and its absorption by the divine realissimum  constitute the highest bliss imaginable, the culmination of the mystical quest in ineffable ecstasy.

In other words, mystics, like masochists, take secret pleasure—bliss—in pain, in the mortifications of the body, and in the loss of self to another. As in masochism, there is in mysticism a surrender of freedom: God becomes the Supreme Other; the One who dominates and subordinates the little self to the terms of the Higher Self.

Berger offers these lines from the Muslim mystic, Jalalu’l-Din Rumi, as representative of the mystic’s impulse to masochism (ibid.):

I died in mineral and became a plant,

I died as plant and rose to animal,

I died as animal and I was Man.

Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar

With angels blest; but even from angelhood

I must pass on: all except God doth perish.

When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,

I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.

Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence

Proclaims in organ tones: to Him we shall return

Put differently, for the little self to end its movement through the hierarchy of being, and to cease to exist at all, is to return to God. And Berger suggests that the mystical masochistic embrace of change, bodily mortification, and the abandonment of the little self brings with it a theodicy (ibid.):

[Mysticism] brings about an attitude of surrender that carries with it its own theodicy. Put crudely, to the same extent that everything is or is in God, everything is good—the problem of theodicy is thereby effectively aufgehoben  [transmutation], which indeed may be considered the principal theoretical and psychological ‘gain’ of mysticism.

Surrender is, of course, characteristic, not just of the mystical tradition, but of the nonmystical monotheistic tradition as well (Islam, for example, means surrender ). And the embrace of transmutation—aufgehoben—is telling as well. Here’s a bit from John Hibben’s 1902 book, Hegel’s Logic  (pt. 2, chpt. 10), discussing aufgehoben  in decidedly masochistic terms:

[W]hile dying as an independent, immediate, self-contained form, it regains another life in the underlying ground to which it is necessarily referred and by which it becomes specifically determined. In its essence, being – that is, mere being, as such as Hegel puts it – is aufgehoben.

This is a very significant word in the Hegelian terminology and cannot be adequately translated by any one English word, for it conveys three distinct ideas which must be taken together in order to express its full significance. The verb aufheben possesses the threefold meaning with Hegel, – to destroy, to re-create in a new form, and at the same time to elevate. To speak of anything as aufgehoben means that it disappears in its given form, but that it reappears in a new form, and that the new form always represents a higher point of view and a substantial progress in thought. The one single English word which comes nearest to expressing this meaning is the word transmute. When Hegel affirms that in essence being is aufgehoben, he means that it has lost its independence only to find it again in a dependence which has this peculiar characteristic, that it is not subordinated to anything which is foreign to its own notion or idea, but which is at the last analysis one with the initial being itself. That which being rests upon as its basis must be a part of being itself; otherwise the relation would be external and valueless.

So isn’t it curious that whether we are speaking of Hegel’s submission and transmutation of lower beings to Higher Being (and what this means for politics in Hegel’s system), or mysticism’s little self to the Big Self (and what this means for religion), or the masochist’s deliverance of body and self to the sadistic devourer (and what this means for sex), we seem to be talking about the same thing: hierarchy and domination in both heavenly and earthly things.

Why is that?

Why would politics, religion, and sex seem to be so tightly coupled, and what does this suggest about the (hidden from ourselves) irrational and contingent motivations that lurk just behind our overt—and seemingly rational— justifications for our political, religious, and sexual preferences?

Who’s on first? The little scampering shrews of the Freudian id, going this way and that, or Reason?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to In heaven as it is on earth? Are religious mysticism and Hegel’s “aufgehoben” (transmutation) sublimated forms of masochism?

  1. markbyrd says:

    May GOD Bless!!! Mark

  2. santitafarella says:


    What do you mean by God? Define, please.


  3. andrewclunn says:

    You should definitely watch this video:

    • santitafarella says:

      That’s a fun video, Andrew. Maybe I’ll put it later as a separate post. Thanks for sharing that.


  4. markbyrd says:

    GOD defined = EVERYTHING!!! Mark

    • santitafarella says:



      So then, that would be nothing in particular, right?

      So God is nothing and nowhere?

      Are you cracking an atheist joke, or being very Buddhist zen koan-y with me?

      Your God does not exist?


  5. markbyrd says:

    By definition Everything is all , should you find substance in nothing I am without doubt that the substance itself came from ,and is a part of ,GOD!!! I am a true Lover of GOD and have witnessed enough of HIS Power to know The TRUTH!!! GOD is Everything!!! Mark

  6. santitafarella says:


    Can you tell or describe your experience of God’s power in such a way that tells me why you think you know it was God that you experienced and not something else? And do you have a theory as to why some people have this certainty of experience, while other people do not? Grace? Being chosen? Something you did that gained merit?


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