I've been trying to find the origin of the phrase, "[so and so] sacrificed ... on the altar of success." I presume it is entrenched in some sort of religious background, but other than that I have nothing.
Thanks in advance for your help.
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The earliest three independent examples I could find of this sort of phrase―at the altar of success and at the altars of successful wrong―are from 1868-82. But the figurative use of sacrifice/worship at the altar of [something] is older. It may have started with goddesses as personifications of something and then taken a life of its own. Here are a few examples, including the earliest I found (my boldface in all quotes):
that most welcome Sacrifice on the Altar of Virtue
(Remarks on the Resignation of a Noble Lord, London, 1755.)
This is the most pleasing sacrifice at the Altar of Justice!
(William Combe, The Justification, London, 1777.)
Nothing could steal him a moment from sacrificing at the altar of his own vanity;
(The Lady’s Magazine, Vol. 9, 1778.)
Go and sacrifice, at the altar of Humanity, a portion of those superfluous sums, that are now thrown away without prudence (The European Magazine, Vol. 30, 1796.)
offer up all party opinions, as a patriotic sacrifice on the altar of his offended country The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, Washington D.C., July 10, 1807.)
when Christians shall be willing to make sacrifices on the altar of peace
Vermont Telegraph, Brandon, Vt., May 31, 1837.)
The Limestone Springs during the last week, had upwards of one thousand visitors […] This is the favorite temple for the votaries of pleasure, and gallantly do they worship at its altar. (Edgefield Advertiser, Edgefield, S.C., August 22, 1839.)
The earliest altar of success or of successful wrong are used very critically meaning putting aside one’s principles, or having none to begin with, and going along with the powerful out of expediency. But then from 1900 onwards we find at the altar of success used neutrally or even appreciatively, meaning working very hard and making personal sacrifices to achieve what you want.
The earliest I could find was offer homage at the altars of successful wrong in “A Glowing Tribute to the South” (The Fairfield Herald, Winnsboro, S.C., March 18, 1868) by Father Abraham Joseph Ryan, known as the “Poet-Priest of the South” or “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.” The gist of the article is that the South fought a just cause in the American civil war. The full article or the following excerpt was printed 16 times across the United States in the space of 12 months, so it may have been influential:
There are men who bend their principles before the bayonet. There are men who desert the altars of a Lost Cause round which they once stood with blood in their hearts panting for libation, and who kneel to offer homage at the altars of successful wrong. There are men who trample under foot the very standards that once floated proudly over them. There are men base enough to lift their hands against the very rights for which they once uplifted swords. We are not such. For us, principle is principle, right is right―yesterday―to-day―to-morrow―forever. Submission to might is not surrender of right. We yield to the one, but shall never yield up to the other."
Then there is at the altar of success in a speech by S. S. Cox in July 4, 1873 to the Reformed Tammany Society, a Democrat association (The Democratic Press, Ravena, Oh., July 24, 1873). The speaker is unhappy about the outcome of the 1872 U.S. presidential election. It is not altogether clear to me what he is talking about, but it appear to imply that someone acted out of expediency:
Our foreign ministers first ironically interpreted the election. Full of the Santo Domingo treaty and the Geneva magniloquence they laid down their crowns, even before the inauguration made it decorous; and that apostle of civil service, the accomplished Curtis feeling that there was no more for him to do, laid his reformatory chaplet at the altar of success.
Then we have again at the altars of successful wrong in The Farmer and Mechanic, Raleigh, N.C., May 17, 1882, and the implied meaning is the same as in the previous examples:
Even the Richmond and Danville Railroad corporation, at the shrine of whose power now worship Governors, Senators, Judges, Legislators and public officials of every grade, had to fight its way into and across the State over a hostile public sentiment, an opposing State Government, executive, legislative and judiciary, and the combined power of adverse corporations.
“But it succeeded, and nothing succeeds like success, while it is a characteristic of the governing class in North Carolina to bow down and worship at the altar of successful wrong.”
And then, from 1900 on, I found only at the altar of success, but used simply to mean working hard to achieve what you want. In most cases the tone is neutral or even positive Here are a few examples:
By its unbroken succession of seven victories Hank’s pretzel-eaters waded through the Dudes and the Millers, until to-day he stands second in the race, with a far off glance at the champions. All the prayers that Hank gave breath to and the incense that he burned at the altar of success bore fruit, though the material reward came late. The following table of standing is vociferative f a pleasing story to local fans:
(“Frisco Jumps form Last to Second Place,” The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, Calif., July 21, 1900.)
I expected to find a city of smoke and dust, a community of aggressive citizens worshiping at the altar of success rather than in the shrine of culture and art; but I soon discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that the makers of the city were no mere worshippers of Mammon, no purse-proud and insolent Cresus-es destitute of those higher aspirations for beauty and art which invariably mark the broadly educated children of civilization.
(“A Day in McAlester, Oklahoma,” The Indian Advocate, Sacred Heart, Okla., October 1, 1909.)
Women, of course, are constantly entering professions in which a knowledge of the evil of the world is necessary―such as the medical, the legal, and to a certain extent, the newspaper professions.
For such women I am rather sorry. They place a large sacrifice on the altar of success when they allow themselves to become sophisticated. And yet, of course, I realize that it is a necessary and if rightly made, a dignified sacrifice.
But for the rank and file of women who do not need to know all about good and evil my heartfelt advice is to leave the fruit of the tree strictly alone.
(The Topeka State Journal, Topeka, Kan., May 19, 1910.)
The best thing about the financial gain to the worthy cause was that the public did not need to be made a sacrifice on the altar of success. In the entertainment provided the liberally patronizing public got their money’s worth of amusement.
(Albuquerque Morning Journal, Albuquerque, N.M., August 27, 1911.)
“This business is a little bit over crowded, but, as always in every line of work, there are plenty of chances for the ambitious woman to make a big success of it if she goes into the thing whole heartedly and ready to sacrifice enjoyments, clothes, comfortable living upon the altar of success. She will be repaid many times when her business matures and she can have all these things and enjoy them better because she has earned them.
(The Washington Herald, Washington D.C., July 19, 1914.)
Jacinto does an amazing job of capturing the historical use of the phrase.
Conceptually, the phase is referencing the concept of sacrificial offerings to a deity, both in the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Old Testament) as set forth, for example, in Chapters 1-9 of the Book of Leviticus, and in prior pagan practice of the religions of the Mediterranean basin.
It is this connection to pagan practice that gives the phrase some of its pejorative bite, since Christians (to whom the phase is overwhelmingly directed) have disavowed the practice of sacrificial offerings, so making such an offering is blasphemous or heretical.
The notion of a sacrifice is that to request the favor of a deity or to atone for a sin from which you seek the forgiveness of a deity, you must sacrifice something precious to you, an event that normally happened on an altar in a temple.
This ceased to be Jewish practice when the Second Temple was destroyed ca. 70 CE and the era of rabbinical Judaism commenced. Christians associate the end of the practice with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ ca. 30 CE, which theologically for them is the sacrifice to end the need for all other sacrifices, and with the notion that Christianity superseded pagan practices and rituals.
The historical practice of sacrificial offerings used the same altar for all different manner of offerings for different purposes, so the "altar of success" phrasing, is, in context, referring to the particular purpose the altar is being put to use for in the metaphor on this particular occasion.