The present age prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The present age prefers the sign to the thing signified is a dictum by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, first recorded in the preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity.

It was made well-known by being cited in Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967):

"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."

Here it is in the French edition of the The Society of the Spectacle:

« Et sans doute notre temps... préfère l'image à la chose, la copie à l'original, la représentation à la réalité, l'apparence à l'être... Ce qui est sacré pour lui, ce n'est que l'illusion, mais ce qui est profane, c'est la vérité. Mieux, le sacré grandit à ses yeux à mesure que décroît la vérité et que l'illusion croît, si bien que le comble de l'illusion est aussi pour lui le comble du sacré. »

Here is the dictum in a wider context in the George Eliot translation of 1854.

"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, change, inasmuch as it does away with illusion, is an absolute annihilation, or at least a reckless profanation for in these days illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. Religion has disappeared, and it has been substituted, even among Protestants, by appearance of religion — the Church — in order at least that "the faith" may be imparted to the ignorant and indiscriminating multitude ; that faith being still Christian, because the Christian churches stand now as they did a thousand years ago, and now, as formerly the external signs of the faith are in vogue." --The Essence of Christianity (full text of George Eliot translation)





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