The way of the prophets: History, structure, imagination: The Lévi-Strauss Lecture 2021

Ramon Sarró


I follow here three different prophetic movements in Africa with which I have been closely engaged. I highlight the singularity of the prophet vis-à-vis the group, as well as the difficulties built into the ethnographic method to combine the study of sudden historical transformation with the study of the structural dimensions of a society. I invite the reader to explore Bergson’s work on religion and morality as a resource to help us think the ethical singularity of the prophet. The study of the “call” prophets receive and of their creative imagination may complement Weber’s emphasis on exemplarity, extraordinariness, and charisma. This combination can help us understand the unique role some individuals have in imagining and materializing “the new,” transcending local boundaries and orienting people’s ethos towards a universal humanity beyond the strictures of their societies, even if prophets, far too often, end up failing in realizing such an ideal.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/728884