Rene Girard 1923 – 2015


I have just learned of the death of Rene Girard.  In a healthy society, Girard would have been recognized as a thinker of the first order – and in a spiritually revived society, he will receive that attribution.  My first “scholarly publication” was an interview with M. Girard prefaced by an introduction to his work in 1986.  Girard treated even my stupid questions as serious.  The experience was in many ways life-changing for me.  Other people report the same.  I did not know Girard well, but I knew him now and again over the years and found him invariably to be friendly, ordinary, magnificently clear-sighted, and helpful.  He will be sorely missed, not only by his family and close friends,but also by his many students and readers.  I offer below an essay from 2008 on “The Gist of Rene Girard.”

The Gist of René Girard: Truth versus the Crowd in his Two Most Recent Books (TFB)

Born in Avignon in 1923, René Girard trained in Paris during the German occupation of France as a specialist curator of medieval documents; beginning in 1949 he taught in the USA as a professor-generalist in history. He would eventually arrive at a fundamental insight regarding human nature that puts him on the level with the most profound anthropological thinkers in the Western or any other tradition. The road to this insight reached across a decade and yielded a direct prospect only in the last stage. Girard first made his name, after switching his scholarly focus and obtaining a doctorate in French Literature at Indiana University in 1958, as a literary critic, with his study of vanity and resentment in prose narrative called, in French, Mensonge Romantique et Verité Romanesque (1962). Deceit Desire & the Novel studies the authorial obsession with the genesis of misery in the tendency of the human subject to acquire his desires from what he takes to be the desire, or object-of-desire, of another person. Novelistic protagonists indeed imagine that absolute being, seemingly denied to them, resides embodied in the other person so that the subject wants and attempts to become that other person. Girard had discovered in the novelists the non-originality of desire. He had also discovered—or rather, the novelists had discovered—a complex psychology and a related oblique rhetoric, the Mensonge Romantique or “Romantic Lie” of the French original, that systematically deny this non-originality of desire and claim complete, yet miserable, sufficiency of the ego. Even more simply, Girard had discovered the centrality of mimesis or “imitation” in psychology and culture.

Girard Deceit

The second chapter of Mensonge Romantique provided the springboard for Girard’s next book, Violence and the Sacred (1966), which undoubtedly ranks as his touchstone achievement. Fairly well known forty years after its publication, Violence and the Sacred nevertheless remains misunderstood by many of its readers. The generative chapter of Mensonge Romantique takes its title from Dostoevsky, “Men become Gods in the Eyes of Each Other”; in it Girard notes how Stendhal’s or Dostoevsky’s or Proust’s main characters think of themselves tacitly as victims of a “broken promise” or a swindle that has deprived them of their proper being, which they locate in someone made enthralling through the apparent possession of all that the sufferer lacks. Modernity, with its spiritual bleakness and assimilation of everything to the politics of democracy, has exacerbated this perennial and universal phenomenon. “Men who cannot look freedom in the face are exposed to anguish” until “there is no longer God, king, or lord to link them to the universal.” The despiritualized and isolated ego in its misery inclines, writes Girard, to “choose substitute gods” so that it might “escape the feeling of particularity”; it does so typically, Girard argues, by “imitat[ing] another’s desires.” In this way, what Girard calls mediated desire—the endless cycle of vain jealousies and imitations—links up with the anthropological question about the origin of the gods—of divinization.

Girard Violence et le sacre

In Violence and the Sacred, Girard turned to myth and Classical literature to tease out evidence to support his growing suspicion that certain recurrent features of primordial narrative enshrined the effects of an event—and here Girard emerged in his full audacity as a thinker—in which the human community, emerging abruptly from its pre-cultural state, founded itself by a specifiable, generative, paroxysmal crisis-and-resolution from which leaped the fundamental institutions of society, most especially ritual sacrifice, with its system of totems and taboos.

The major theses of Girard’s theory are: (1) That, as Aristotle affirmed in his Poetics, human beings are the most mimetic or imitative of animals; (2) that the human propensity of one individual to imitate another, not only in gestures, but in appetitive interest and desire, conduces to the belligerent convergence of two or more parties on solitary objects of mediated and amplified allure; (3) that, as the instinctual aversion of proto-humanity against intra-specific aggression broke down, such mimetic convergence became an existential problem for the most advanced hominid groups, leading in one such group to a unique sacrificial crisis, in which excitation over an object became a war of all against all; (4) that the afflicted not-quite-community resolves its mayhem through concentrating the chaos of blows on an arbitrarily selected individual who therefore seems not only the cause of the riot but also the agent of its resolution. The victim is thus (5) transfigured in the new type of awareness that he creates as both miscreant and intercessor-god; he becomes sacred, and the sacred, rooted in the dissimulation of “the scapegoat mechanism,” is, as Girard asserts, the oldest of institutions.

girard in garden

I. Violence and the Sacred showed that virtually every god or hero of classical myth boasts an ambiguity of character that previous theories of myth could not fully resolve. Thus Apollo both sends plagues and restores health; Oedipus saves Thebes from a monster and then perpetrates a monstrosity that threatens to destroy Thebes. As mentioned, many readers of Violence and the Sacred judged the book a scandal on the interpretation that Girard condoned the violence he had unearthed at the foundation of social order and sacred narrative. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1977) set the record straight, as did The Scapegoat (1981). In both, Girard advanced the argument that the tragic plight of the sacrificial order (social cohesion dependent on a murder) could only be overthrown by a new religious dispensation that he located in the Old Testament and the Gospel. The function of this new dispensation is revelatory: the prophets and later Jesus, through His Passion, lay bare the sacrificial structure of society; by rehabilitating the victim, as Girard says, the Passion rendered “the scapegoat mechanism” overt and cancelled its effectiveness except under a kind of bad faith. The Passion never ended sacrifice, but the working of the Gospel Logos in Western society has, century by century, made it more difficult to blame social ills on victims, the old stock-in-trade of myth and diatribe. The Scapegoat culminates Girard’s main phase, but his later work returns to the basic insights of the 1960s and 70s in reflective, distanced ways that are especially valuable for those coming to terms with Girard for the first time.

girard things hidden Girard Satan

Consider, for example, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), with its nuanced return to such themes as mimesis, dissimulation, the scapegoat mechanism, and the “anti-sacrificial” character of Jewish and Christian revelation.

The book’s title comes from Luke (10:18), “I see Satan fall like lightning,” but the author intends also a Miltonic resonance, with implications for a politicized century. The Biblical name Satan, says Girard, designates the scapegoat mechanism and the knot of human problems that ritual murder brutally addresses. The Bible radically opposes the persecution of innocent parties that characterizes primitive and archaic religion: “The opposition between the scapegoat concealed in mythology and unconcealed in Judaism and Christianity illuminates not only archaic religions, not only many neglected features of the Gospel, but above all the relation between the two, the unique truth of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” Turning to the Old Testament, Girard examines the Decalogue, with special attention to the tenth commandment, and the story of Cain and Abel, both from the perspective of his scapegoat theory. The tenth and longest—and in Girard’s analysis the chief—commandment abjures the faithful in the second person: “Not [to] covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him” (Exodus 20:17).

Girard notes that the archaic English verb to covet “suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited . . . but the Hebrew term translated as ‘covet’ means just simply ‘desire.’” The same verb occurs in Genesis where it describes Eve’s ardent gusto for the contraband apple. “The notion that the Decalogue devotes its supreme commandment . . . to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely,” Girard argues; it follows that, “the desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings—in other words, simply desire as such.” The nineteenth century novelists merely sustain the interest of civilized people in the phenomenon of mimesis. One of the precursors of all novelistic vanity-stories, the Biblical saga of the mimetic rivalry between Cain and Abel, recounts a conflict so generative that the Old Testament author boldly derives from it the totality of culture.

“When we examine the great stories of origin and the founding myths,” Girard writes, “we notice that they themselves proclaim the fundamental and founding role of the victim and his or her unanimous murder.” The Oedipus saga supplies an exemplary case, especially in Sophocles’ dramatic retelling, which unfolds like an episode of Crime Scene, complete with a review of the supposed evidence. In Oedipus at Colonus, the exiled sinner even becomes a god. The Genesis story of Cain and Abel distinguishes itself from myth, however, by being “the biblical interpretation of all founding myths,” bringing forward motifs that the myths, as such, take care to conceal. First exposed is the explicit cause of the murder, Cain’s covetousness of his brother, whose hunter’s offerings appear to please God more than Cain’s agricultural offerings. Like a secondary character in a Stendhal or Dostoevsky or Proust novel, Abel seems to the primary character to monopolize status and being. Cain murders his brother and tries to conceal his act. Girard remarks that details of Genesis make it clear that “the human race is not limited at that time to Cain and his two parents”; rather, “the name ‘Cain’ designates the first community gathered around the first founding murder.” Only on this hypothesis can one explain Cain’s anguished recognition, on being discovered as a homicide, that now he has set the bloody precedent, he himself will likely fall violently at the hand of another.

girard cain and abel

The cycle of vengeance works that way and can destroy a community. But . . . God intervenes in a kind of lull, “promulgating the first law against murder,” the sanction of the seven-fold retribution against anyone who raises his hand against Cain (Genesis 4:15). “Even more than the crushing character of the retribution,” writes Girard, “it is the ritual nature of the seven-fold sacrifice that reestablishes peace.” Law is culture: “The culture is clearly presented as the direct extension of the murder, and it cannot be distinguished from the ritual, non-vengeful developments stemming from this murder.”

Although Greek and Roman societies had largely dispensed with the crude and explicit forms of human sacrifice, animal sacrifice remained at the center of ritual practice in western antiquity, and covert forms of human sacrifice stood at ready, so to speak, in moments of urgency. Girard cites the blatant scapegoating episode attributed admiringly by the second century pagan hagiographer Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana to the fabled guru of Greek-speaking Asia Minor. In The Life, Apollonius arrives at Ephesus just as pestilence breaks out. Girard has argued—in respect of the Oedipus myth, for example—that in antique discourse natural and social metaphors tend to replace one another and to mix promiscuously. Knowing Apollonius for a wonder worker, the Ephesians turn to him for redemption from their plight, the exact same plight that afflicts Thebes in Sophocles’ tragedy. Apollonius calls attention to a beggar who has camped for some time outside the city gate, and to whose welfare the Ephesians have indeed been charitably administering. Apollonius identifies this beggar to the Ephesians as none other than an evil demon in disguise in whose malice dwells the cause of their misery. In order to rid themselves of the pest, the citizens must stone the beggar, whom they swiftly, unanimously, and lethally dispatch. Et voila! The situation returns to normal. “The miracle,” writes Girard, “consists of triggering a mimetic contagion so powerful that it finally polarizes the entire city against the unfortunate beggar.”

girard apollonius

Girard remarks that, when modern people read how, in the fifteenth century, citizens of a European town persecuted the local Jews for allegedly causing plagues by poisoning the wells they do not dismiss the accounts as fantastic. Neither should modern people dismiss the “miracle” of Apollonius as piece of grotesque fiction, although many have. Rather, “The clever guru must have gauged the situation and known that the city was prey to internal tensions that could be discharged on what we now call a scapegoat.”

One could contrast Apollonius’ victimary suppression of the civic anxiety at Ephesus with the reaction of Jesus to the mob of righteous men who bring to the rabbi the adulterous woman allegedly caught in flagrante in the Gospel of John. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” Jesus responds, utterly disarming the would-be executioners. Girard comments: “If Jesus had not convinced the crowd, if the stoning had taken place, Jesus would have risked being stoned himself,” because “failing to save a victim threatened with lynching . . . is to run the risk of suffering her fate also.” The righteous mob devilishly accuses the woman just as a century later Apollonius would devilishly accuse the beggar. Greek translates the Hebrew Satan as Diabolus, “Mud-Slinger” or “Accuser.” For Girard, the definition of a myth is an accusation, as in the Oedipus story or again, as at the Crucifixion, when all parties, even previously hostile ones like Pilate and Herod, become unified in the catharsis attendant on the collective killing of the Son of Man.

In the Gospel, however, the charges are the myth, as revealed by the anti-mythic narrative, which, like Jesus in the episode in John, sides with the victim. “Satan is mimetic contagion as its most secret power, the creation of the false gods out of the midst of which Christianity emerged” in the precise moment when the antique religions began to fail in their capacity to restrain the unchecked proliferation of social resentments. Philotimia, or “love of status,” was not incidentally a widely remarked social illness of late antiquity. Girard calls attention to the obstinacy of the prevailing deconstructive epistemology in acknowledging that myth—or anything, for that matter—has referential status. “The refusal of the real,” Girard says, “is the number one dogma of our time.”

girard evolution and conversion

II. From the act of lapidation arises the tomb, over the corpse, in the form of a spontaneous pyramid. A Pharaoh, sepulchered funereally in a technically perfected pyramidal monument, is a mortal who, by his transition from life to death, has become a god and may receive veneration. That death and institutions show everywhere a kinship furnishes a theme of Girard’s recent book, Evolution and Conversion: Conversations on the Origins of Culture (2008). This book has the same form as Girard’s most ambitious previous publication, Things Hidden since the Beginning of the World, namely that of a Platonic seminar with Girard himself responding to learned colloquists. With his interlocutors formulating the questions, Girard brings his meditations on all things human and cultural up to date. It will come as a surprise that this self-identifying Catholic author in whose work the late John Paul II took a noticeable interest should undertake a robust, if qualified, defense of Charles Darwin. With equal pertinence, Girard addresses the moral and intellectual position in which his theory of the victimary origin of culture has put him—the seeker after truth as distinct from the or from any crowd. In the modern hyper-democracies, the crowd, the majority, is truth, by its vehement declaration and even though it stands by one opinion today and the exact opposite opinion tomorrow. Girard prefers the “elitism,” as he says, of individual conscience. Of the author of The Descent of Man, Girard says that: “Darwin is too naïve in his conception of religion [but] there is something extremely powerful and admirable in his way of arguing . . . The theory of natural selection seems to me quite powerfully sacrificial.”

Girard perhaps takes a cue from an independent admirer of his, Walter Burkert, who suggests in his Homo Necans (1983) that certain ethological phenomena strongly anticipate cultural configurations. Of the tension between truth and the crowd, Girard affirms that, “I can be defined as a sort of outsider . . . I’m a centrist, meaning I’m anti-crowd, the ‘mobilized crowd’ Sartre dreamed of, and ultimately the scapegoat theory is fundamentally an anti-crowd theory.”

Successful in his long academic career (he is a Stanford emeritus), Girard’s insistence on the objective reality of a fixed human nature has nevertheless tended to rankle American academicians and often to polarize the American academy’s left-liberal majority against him. In Evolution and Conversion, Girard speaks of the susceptibility of North American humanists to faddish mimetic contagions; of how someone like Lucien Goldmann, a brilliant senior colleague at Johns Hopkins, could stand “at the peak of his career and then suddenly [be] out of fashion” because of the allure of insurgent “structuralism.” The 1960s saw the beginning of what Girard calls “the great merry-go-round” of “theory,” in the fierce nihilism of which the calm advocate of the Gospel wanted no part. After structuralism came deconstruction; and after deconstruction came race-class-gender discourse and its swarm of proliferating variants. Girard sees such phenomena as the ever more swift trading-in of one “theory” for another—and the related inclination of convicted theoreticians to vie with one another in denouncing as a fall-guy Tradition for its alleged ceaseless persecuting cruelty—while they themselves are entirely mimetic and more than a little bit sacrificial. Paradoxically, however, even as contemporary radicals try to rally followers by designating malefactors, the only way remaining for them to do so in a society where the Gospel has been at work for two millennia is to designate the proposed victim as himself a so-called victimizer.

girard antifascists

Modern theory, being materialistic and atheistic, nevertheless cannot escape its hostile yet deeply mimetic relation to the Scripture whose influence it reviles. In attacking the Bible, therefore, modern radicals jealousy attack the source of knowledge about victimization; the radicals thus hinder Scripture’s progressive disarmament of scapegoating and abet social atavism, of the types with which, in our recent historical experience, we are only too familiar.

In the style of Darwin, Girard sees the scapegoat mechanism as the primary adaptation of human beings to their own violent nature; scapegoating is not exactly “natural,” but rather a cultural degree-zero for survival’s sake long regnant for which the only substitute is the conversion provoked by Prophecy and the Gospel. “Based on the presuppositions of the mimetic theory, one can argue that many groups and societies [in pre-history] perished and were destroyed by lethal infighting, by the explosion of mimetic rivalry being unable to find any form of resolution.” The scapegoat mechanism may be said, then, to have made “a fundamental contribution to the fitness of the group.” In mimetic theory, as in Darwinian evolutionary theory, any particular adaptation has only temporary effectiveness. The environment always changes; and the adapted species might indeed actively have brought about the change. The cultural scene that stems from and is elaborated on the innovation of scapegoating thus immediately differs as radically as possible from the prior instinctual scene. The community now deliberately imitates the original event whenever fractiousness afflicts it, mimicking its spontaneous origin ritually. The increased social complexity of the Classical and subsequent civilizations developed from the original sacrificial matrix but also outgrew it, so that scapegoating ceased to be an effective way to organize the enlarged, internally re-complicated community.

Girard An Immolation

A new adaptation became necessary, enunciated as through a glass darkly in Greek philosophic and tragic discourse but much more clearly and directly in Scripture. If the original “sacrificial crisis” that yielded the scapegoating mechanism were the inauguration of consciousness, the consciousness that the “crisis” inaugurated would be, and emphatically is, a morally imperfect one, dependent on méconnaissance and mensonge or “misunderstanding” and “prevarication.” The new adaptation will require an alteration of the prevailing sacrificial consciousness, one that draws individual awareness of underlying but unnoticed ritual mechanisms abruptly toward heightened acuity.

Girard says that this is precisely what happens through the Passion of Christ. In a piquant and deflating allusion to one of modernity’s arch-anti-Christians, Girard notes that: “Dionysian unanimity is the voice of the crowd,” whether it takes the form of all Thebes denouncing Oedipus or of everyone, at Calvary, denouncing Jesus. At the moment of the Crucifixion, it is literally the case, as Christ himself says in addressing the Father, that men “know not what they do.” Even the disciples disown the Master. After the Crucifixion, however, the Satanic, accusatory character of the crowd becomes transparent and the possibility of freedom in conscience—of conversion—has dawned. “Everything lies upon a mimetic unanimity, which is fallacious. The more we understand the truth of this description, the more we understand that it discredits not only those who crucified Jesus, but all the myth-makers in the history of humanity.”

37 thoughts on “Rene Girard 1923 – 2015

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  2. He will be sorely missed…how true are these words! His insights were almost supernatural to me and single-handedly he was the writer who made me think seriously about Christ.

    May he rest in peace.

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  4. An interesting if quite overrated thinker. A fave of liberal theologians everywhere. Halbertal has shown that his account of sacrifice doesn’t really fit the Biblical account. See here.

    • Yes, “Halbertal has shown,” just as “research has – always – shown” this that and everything. “X has shown…” that verbal fave of liberal academics everywhere. Richard Dawkins, for example, has recently shown that God does not exist. God – that “interesting but overrated” Creator.

      My dear “Man Who Was,” would it not be polite, would it not have been decently Christian, on the day of the good Mr. Girard’s death, to reserve such supercilious disregard? Could the raised eyebrow not have waited until tomorrow?

      I say with Eduardo – Rene Girard, Rest in Peace.

    • To be fair, Girard is an academic, not a dogmatic theologian. A useful intellectual is a man who looks at things through a new lens, in a way that makes you think seriously about subjects that interest you. For me, Girard has opened a new vista on the subject of sacrifice. I started reading his Sacrifice when I heard that he had died, and, like the serious reading of any serious thinker, I’m arguing with him as I read. I’m not a Girardian, but my time with Girard has not been wasted. A healthy intellectual habit to cultivate is to actually spend time reading important intellectuals even if you think you know what their conclusions will be. The path leading to those conclusions, even if you ultimately disagree with the them, is an important path to walk.

      • It’s not only his theory of sacrifice – it’s also the theory of mimesis that precedes his theory of sacrifice. Girard’s anthropology is,among other things, a powerful critique of modernity, which builds itself, not only on the Old and New Testaments, but on the work of a line of thinkers from Joseph de Maistre to Gustave Le Bon.

  5. It’s tragic that such an intelligent man has been underrated and over-looked. But in this Clown World, a real thinker and philosopher has no place.

    It looks like the tide will change soon and the old, demeaned thinkers like Girard will be given the prestige that they so rightfully deserve.

    RIP Rene Girard.

  6. These words are not necessarily directed to Bonald, and I do not intend them as a rebuke, but I invite comment from anyone who wants to tackle them. When the charge of heresy goes unaccompanied by a case in specific terms, then it has no more meaning than “racist” or “sexist” when used by someone on the Left.

    What, in specific terms, is “heretical” about Girard’s notion of sacrifice?

    Are lynch-mobs not a well-established phenomenon? Are they not sacrificial? Do they not appear in the Bible? Is the Bible for lynch-mobs or against them? Was the Moloch Cult of the Carthaginians, which had a Canaanite origin, not morally repugnant even to the Pagans of Rome at the time of the Punic Wars? Is Christ not an innocent victim, sent to the Cross by a lynch-mob? Are Job and Jonah not emissary victims who prefigure Christ? Does Jonah not try to dodge his mission because he knows the fate of prophets – to be killed by their own people?

    When the “Occupy” mobs disrupt the public square and call for “sacrifices” from the “one percent,” do they not represent what Girard calls the “unanimity minus one” of Dionysiac worshipers? When killer-proxies of Black Lives Matter assassinate policemen, are they not acting on behalf of a mob-mentality? If Biblical religion were not anti-Sacrificial, would the Multiculturalists not then be right – so that there would be no difference morally between the Little Brothers of Jesus and ISIS? If we found it repugnant when Muslims stone to death female adulterers, after burying them up to their heads in the sand, would this revulsion have nothing whatsoever to do with the meaning of Jesus’ treatment of the crowd of zealots in John?

    Is Girard wrong to contrast Jesus with Apollonius of Tyana?

    Assuming that a party has read Girard, then he will certainly know Girard’s answers to these questions. Again – in what way would any of those answers qualify as heretical? Or in what way would they be incompatible with Biblical morality?



    • This is a fair question, since I used the word “heretical” rather than just “implausible” or “wrong”. I am not a learned man like the pro-Girardians here, and my case is simple. Reducing sacrifice to a social pathology, one that Christianity exposes and refutes, contradicts Scripture, according to which God has been pleased with men’s sacrifices from the time of Abel. It was God Himself who dictated the Mosaic sacrificial rituals recorded in Leviticus. The stated purpose of these sacrifices is reconciliation with God, not relief of social tensions, and I do not think we are free to reject this understanding. (Nor have I seen any evidence that would motivate me to do so.) Jesus’ death, as well as its sacramental recollection in the Eucharist, has always been understood by the Church as a propitiatory sacrifice. Do you not affirm that Jesus died for our sins? Jesus is not only victim, but also priest. He assures us that He lays down his life of His own accord, and His role as the supreme priest, the one who offers a perfect sacrifice that really does bring atonement with God, is emphatically stated in the Epistle to the Hebrews. How can Christ being the supreme archetype of sacrificial priesthood be consistent with Girard’s theory? In fact, if we use Christ as our key to the meaning of sacrifice, as the Bible tells us to do, we come to an entirely different view of its essence. Christ’s sacrifice is His perfect self-offering to His Father; this offering of oneself to God is the true essence of sacrifice, with animal sacrifices only “working” as sacrifices because they are the symbolic offering of oneself. So central and positive is sacrifice in traditional Christian doctrine that we are all called to participate in Christ’s sacrifice through the Eucharist. How can Girard’s theory do justice to the Eucharist?

      Again, I freely acknowledge my ignorance. I don’t know anything about anthropology, ancient history, or literary criticism, and I only know about Girard what his admirers keep telling me. If I wanted to critique his bizarre theories about the origin of society, I would certainly have to go to the sources. But when somebody says that Christianity is anti-sacrificial, the simple faith I was taught as a child, that Jesus died for my sins, is enough to know that this cannot be right.

      • Dear Bonald:

        Thank you. That is a frank answer. I am grateful to you for it.

        Jesus submits to human judgment – the only God who ever did so. He does not sacrifice himself, and he does not want to die – hence the agony in the garden the night before the Crucifixion. If Christ wanted to die, he would be a suicide, thus also a sinner, which would be a contradiction in terms, as God cannot commit a sin. Other people indict Jesus and kill him. He does not indict himself. None of these facts is a expendable detail. A crowd kills Christ, everybody kills him, but uniquely, the Gospel reports this event, not from the perspective of the crowd, but from the perspective of the victim, who is innocent of every charge made against him. Nothing that Girard asserts about these events stands in the way of Christ as Redeemer or Redemption. Girard simply shows that in addition to a theology, the Bible presents, with extraordinary punctiliousness, and with profound moral implication, an anthropology as well. This is not a reduction of Christianity to sociology. Far from it. It is part of the salvation of humanity through the ordeal of moral conscience.

        Part of the problem is the equivocal use of the word “sacrifice.” There are distinct Greek words that all get translated into English or German or French as “sacrifice,” but that deserve nuanced translation. Giving up something is askesis or agape or philanthropia; it can include giving up one’s life for the sake of another. These are different, however, from thyia, which means to kill something, a man or an animal, without reference to its will, to please a god.

        A soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies has certainly committed a supremely moral act, but even so, it is not quite the same as a perfect Imitatio Christi, because no one has indicted him, accused him of crimes, and seen to his death.

        Girard’s theory of the origin of culture is not bizarre; it is extraordinarily studious and informed. It is contrary to every Liberal anthropology, which naturally makes it vulnerable to charges by Liberals that it is bizarre, but you are not one to be mimetically affected by Liberal stupefaction before reality.

        I do not insist that you become a Girardian. I will not even request you to be open-minded or to read the man’s books. We all have enough to read. You will understand that I had a thirty-year acquaintance with the man, who did me many favors charitably during that time, and that I therefore have good reasons o step up in his defense. perhaps it will mean something to you that Girard is one of the reasons that I am no longer a wishy-washy modern person, but have embraced a Traditionalism in which you also participate. Girard is part of what caused me to convert to Catholicism and part of what has led me to be a contributor to The Orthosphere.



      • Hello Prof. Bertonneau,

        Thank you for your gracious reply. I’d be interested to hear sometime how Girard helped lead you to traditionalism.

        Your example of the soldier who falls on a grenade makes me realize I should clarify my definition of sacrifice. It’s true in common speech that for one person to give something up for another’s good is called “making a sacrifice”, and of course nobody is saying that Christianity is opposed to that. When Jesus is identified as a high priest, we really must be invoking the other, strictly theological, definition of someone killing something to please a god. I do think it’s a key part of a properly sacrificial act that God (or a god in the analogous pagan custom) is the recipient, so that the thing offered to Him becomes His and thus sacred, so that it can act as a conduit to divine realities. To offer oneself to God is to simultaneously invite Him to offer Himself back, and thus the Eucharist is a source of grace to us as well as of glory to God.

      • “We all have enough to read.”

        You said a mouth full there, Prof. Bertonneau, and in my particular case too much yet to read (late bloomer of sorts, don’t ya know.). But your essay kept me pinned to my seat, and I think I now *have to* read Girard! Thanks a lot! Ha, ha.

      • Yes, I did. It is one example among innumerable examples of a reversion to pre-civilized behavior. When I was leading an education reform campaign in Michigan in the 1990s, I faced similar behavior on many occasions.

    • If Girard’s religious views disregard him as being celebrated here, I’m guessing that we can’t ever mention the ideas of Schmidt, Heidegger, Jung, Junger, Maurras, Evola, Aristotle, Seneca or the like either.

  7. Dear Svar, everyone’s remarks are currently being moderated. It is not particular to you or personal in any way.

      • Moderation is in effect on the site as a whole, not just in this thread, but for the reasons that you suggest – namely that we want to maintain focus in the discussion and sustain an ethos of courtesy.

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  9. Thanks for this article. I first read of Girard in Scruton’s books, brilliant mind. I’d echo those saying he opened up the bible to me as a serious book. I was drawn to his atonement view that we need to bring Satan back into the discussion to do justice to God. Essentially for Girardians God came as Jesus to save us from Satan, which is far preferable to the apparently ‘traditional’ view that Jesus came to save us from God. RIP indeed.

      • Yes indeed I’ve read his reservations in Face of God and Soul of the World. I Can’t make up my mind about them but I love Scruton’s recent theological turn.

        I’ve read about half of Girard’s output (at least in English) and quite a bit of secondary. Will get round to reading it all. Very interested in reading Battling to the End as I think I share his pessimism.

    • That’s not the traditional view, Metannoyed. Nor so far as I know is it Girard’s view.

      Alienation from God *just is* hell, or hellish. This is true by definition, and God can’t change that truth any more than he could make 2 + 2 = 5. God can’t make our alienation from him into something nicer. He can’t make it other than what it is. Jesus – i.e., God – came to save us from that alienation.

      • Thanks for responding. I agree with you, I was really just making a snarky reference to penal substitution theory.

  10. I am saddened to learn of Girard’s death. It was Tom Bertonneau, in fact, who introcuced me to his work when I was his student in the early 1990’s, and Girard’s work continued to influence my academic activity and my thinking heavily from then on.

    • It is nice to hear from a fellow “experiencer” of Central Michigan University in the 1990s, a reader of Girard, and a co-connoisseur of the 1940s fighter plane. For the information of those who read The Orthosphere, Mr. Beck is an accomplished Latinist.

  11. Pingback: Girard and the Cathedral analysis | reactionaryfuture


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