Friday, November 2, 2012

Rene Girard

I've been meaning for a while to post on Rene Girard. Girard is a Catholic literary critic, cultural anthropologist, and philosopher who is now a scholar at the Hoover Institute.  I discovered his work several years ago, although I'm late to the Girardian world. He is renowned. He has been elected to the Academie francaise and has twice been a Guggenhiem Fellow, among many other honors.

This is why he is renowned: Girard's theory of anthropology has a good claim to be 'the greatest idea anyone ever had'.

I'll try to distill it here, and to convey why it is a transformative insight.

Girard's insight is called Mimetic Theory. He posits that what makes us human is that we imitate. Mostly we imitate each other, and sometimes we imitate fictional characters. Sometimes we imitate God. But it is our imitation-- our mimesis-- that makes us human. Mimesis is how humans work. This is, I should note, not an original insight, and accords well with the classical (Aristotelian) understanding of the human mind as a form which takes on other forms, which become our thoughts and desires.

As humans we also desire, and desire is central to our striving. We want things-- love, wealth, friendship, salvation, that new red convertible, etc.

Yet as mimetic creatures, our desire is not autonomous. We imitate desire-- the desire of others. And here, Girard notes, is the seed of conflict. Desire is generally not binary-- between subject and object of desire, but a trinity-- subject, model, and object. We learn what to desire from the desires of others, from the desire of the models we imitate.

Now of course this is not news to Madison Avenue (I simply must drink Coca-Cola because my favorite quarterback drinks it!), but Girard points out that mimesis is not trivial. It is the source of much of our violence, the source of our religion, and the source of our civilization.

The source of our violence and of our religion and our civilization? This is how.

Girard observes that mimetic desire, while sometimes harmless and even beneficial, is often the source of great and even violent conflict. We cannot always have what our model(s) want, and mimetic desire easily descends into mimetic contagion-- the struggle of all against all. We often forget even that we are competing for desired objects. We simply want to defeat, and even exterminate, those from whom we model our desires and with whom we compete.

This can and often does lead to violent destruction- war, genocide, crime. A society in the midst of violent mimetic contagion cannot long endure.

The solution that mankind has worked out, Girard proposes, is a recurring mechanism at all levels of culture: scapegoating. Girard observes that violent mimetic contagion can be extinguished by placing the blame for all of the turmoil on a scapegoat-- usually a person or group of people who are different from most of the people in the community. We scapegoat those who are not like us. A community in violent mimetic contagion unite against the scapegoat, and expel or even kill the scapegoat, thereby quieting the mimetic conflict by unity inherent to scapegoating. The community remains peaceful for a while, until new mimetic contagion arises, and then a new scapegoat is found. It is a cycle of mimetic violence and scapegoating and reconciliation, endlessly repeated.

In some cultures under particularly intense mimetic stress, the scapegoat is an entire class of people. Girard offers a profound explanation for the Holocaust, and for all the holocausts man visits on man.

This need for scapegoating to calm mimetic contagion and the astonishing violence to which it can give rise is the origin of religious sacrifice. Religion serves as a way to calm mimetic violence, and virtually all primitive religions used (and still use) sacrifice-- the killing of a scapegoat-- to maintain harmony. Primitive religion is the institutionalization of scapegoating.

Originally the sacrificial scapegoat in primitive religion was a person (human sacrifice), which in time became animal sacrifice.

This regularization of the sacrifice of a scapegoat in order to mollify mimetic contagion and violence through religion is the origin of civilization, which have invariably been built on religious institutions and on the symbolic scapegoating inherent to religion.

Now Girard, a devout Catholic, makes an astonishing leap. He observes that only one religion in antiquity-- Judaism-- consistently taught that human scapegoats are innocent. Judaism consistently told the truth about scapegoating. Human sacrifice was abolished, and the Old Testament is full of imprecations for mercy and generosity for strangers. The story of Joseph is a story of the innocence of a scapegoat-- Joseph, who was betrayed and persecuted by his brothers. Girard casts light on God's disapproval of Cain because he tilled the soil and approval of Abel because he raised livestock. Abel could carry out animal sacrifice, whereas Cain, who worked the soil and had no livestock to substitute for humans in sacrifice, killed his own brother in mimetic violence.

Girard believes that violent mimesis and scapegoating of human beings is pure evil- he actually proposes that this is the manifestation of Satan in this world.

It is Girard's interpretation of the Incarnation that is most astonishing. He asserts that Christianity is God's definitive revelation of mimetic conflict and the evil of scapegoating to mankind. He asserts that God made us to imitate Him, and that our imitation of evil models and the violent mimetic contagion that arises from it is at the root of our own evil. God in the Person of Christ came Himself to die as a scapegoat-- a completely innocent scapegoat-- to show us by His life that we are to imitate Him in his non-violence and his mercy, and to show us that the human scapegoats whom we have persecuted and slaughtered for millennia are innocent.

Girard sees Christianity as the ultimate revelation of the role violent mimetic contagion and scapegoating has played in human history and as the solution to it. Christ's sacrifice of Himself exposed scapegoating as evil, even as Satanic.

Girard applies his thought to a broad swath of human experience, including politics, mythology, literature, homosexuality, sadism and masochism, Islam, the Apocalypse, among many others. His insight is a remarkable example of the power and relevance of Christian insight that after two millennia continues to reveal to us the truth about God and ourselves and the world.

Girard's insights are astonishing, and there is much more in his thought. I have merely scratched the surface. The best reference for Girard is his I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, which presents his work in a distilled and coherent form. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Violence and the Sacred, and The Girard Reader are superb works as well, although I'd recommend starting with I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning. Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution has a wonderful series of interviews with Girard on Uncommon Knowledge. The Catholic site Paying Attention to the Sky has a very nice essay-overview of Girard's thought.

Girard's work is content-packed and not easy-going, and it takes a while to become comfortable with his perspective, but it is worth every bit of the effort to understand him.

I understand things about my deepest beliefs and thoughts in ways that I had never imagined, and his insights have profound implications for our culture and our faith and our politics. He hews closer to the truth on what it means to be human than any thinker I have encountered.

When you've encountered Girard, you see the world very differently. We are just beginning to understand what he has uncovered. His ideas will change mankind, and unlike other modern prophets like Marx and Freud to which he has been compared, he will change mankind much for the better.   


  1. Sounds like a lunatic. Quelle surprise Egnor likes him. Fits my theory that every intellectual who is Catholic is a deranged sociopath.

  2. No. Gerard is just telling a story for which there isn't the slightest evidence and which offers absolutely no insight into the human condition.

    His ideas won't change mankind. Darwin came up with much better ideas, which did change the way humans view the world (save for a few idiots, mainly in America).

    Humans are animals, like other animals. Imitation isn't unique to humans and it isn't what makes humans human. Many other species with parental care of offspring use imitation to teach their young how to survive.

    'Mimetic desire' has never been observed in primitive societies by explorers or anthropologists.

    Human sacrifice only develops in fairly advanced societies with ga-ga religions. Animal sacrifice to appease the god(s) isn't much better. When primitive groups kill one of their members, it's not as a sacrifice, it's because the 'victim' was a pain in the butt, trying to dominate or to get more than a fair share of food, particularly meat from hunting, for example. Desire for objects requires a much more advanced society.

    Can you point to anything in Girard's writings which aren't just story telling? I doubt it.

  3. I doubt that Girard can change mankind if even a big fan like Egnor can’t resist the impulse to very publicly and prejudicially scapegoat his foes almost every day.


    1. What I say about atheists, Dems, etc. is true

      Except almost everything you've ever said about atheists and Democrats has been a lie. But since lying is what you are best at, you keep doing it.

    2. If you actually believed what you were saying was true, you wouldn't feel the need to play word games like nitpicking over the definition of homicide to divert the discussion, or to dodge questions like why a conservative power broker would want a supposedly liberal mailing list.


    3. I'm not nitpicking over the definiton of 'homicide'

      I'm insisting that it be defined accurately, without ideological bias.

      Your effort was to erect strawmen of pro-life folks by insisting that they were inconsistent by not wanting women who abort charged with murder.

      I wouldn't let you erect that strawman, and it upset you.


    4. Pointing out the blatent inconsistency in your position is not a straw man. And you don't upset me, you amuse me. Nitpicking over "homicide" was an attempt to divert by avoiding the actual point which was your desire to avoid punishing people you claim are murderers. That is a contradiction, whether you like it or not.


    5. evil yuropian godless atheistNovember 2, 2012 at 5:46 PM

      "What I say about atheists, Dems, etc. is true"
      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. You're hilarious, bro.

    6. Of course you believe what you say is true, and I’m sure the vast majority of scapegoaters throughout history have believed what they say they believe is true. The widespread hatred of the Jews in Germany was real, not some kind of sick inside joke perpetrated with a nod and a wink.

      You say you are a student of this guy, yet you don’t understand the very basics of what you are talking about. Gerard is talking about hateful liars like you. My God, you don’t even realize how much you are embarrassing yourself. Watching you do this to yourself day after day is sad, yet strangely fascinating.


  4. Great summary Dr Egnor.
    Girard's mimetic theory is supported by the last two commandments (referring to coveting). So his theory makes both common and theological sense.
    Bachfiend I suggest you read "The Golden Bough by J G Frazer" who provides the evidence of sacrifice and scapegoating in primitive cultures.

    1. Mark,

      I have the 1922 abridged version. It's still just telling a story. And anyway, the cultures aren't primitive - they're fairly advanced, at least within the last 5,000 years. There are no really primitive cultures that engage in scapegoating or human sacrifice, which negates the idea that either were the origin of religion. Not in the few hunter-gatherer societies that managed to survive into fairly modern times.

      Primitive religion probably arose much earlier. Why for example did Cro-Magnon humans engage in the very hazardous activity of entering dark difficult to access caves 35,000 years ago to paint breathtaking images of the prey animals they were seeing and hunting?

  5. Not sure how I got here but this was a very honest and precise write-up of the anthropology of the cross. I have read most of Girards books and also consider I see satan fall like a lightning his most elegant and concise work.
    Oh, and BTW, since 911 was mentioned by one of the commenters: that was a typical scapegoating myth, a cathartical event under the false flag of an external threat, which cannot stand to rational scrutiny

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