The Apocalypse of Modernity: Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End by René Girard

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Rene Girard in an Interview

History, and increasingly the mere daily record of events, are together apocalyptic, laying bare human nature for what it is primordially before the agonizing laboratory of the millennia creates the Christian society that its beneficiaries, swiftly taking it for granted, petulantly reject so that they might go “forward” into a liberated horizon beyond the one defined by the Gospel. “Progress” names that particular folly. A blood-drenched folly it is, beginning with the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century and reaching fullness with the mobilization of the whole society fomented by the Jacobins and institutionalized by their superman-successor, Napoleon Bonaparte. From the guillotine henceforth, modernity blurts itself sanguinely in the Commune, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, and resurgent Islam (Jihad), which continues belatedly the sparagmatic trend of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century. Yet despite the academy’s authoritative three-decades-long declaration of Dionysiac “Postmodernism,” despite the polysyllables of doctrine-inebriated intellectuals, Modernity in its lynch-mob vehemence has not succeeded in realizing its rainbow utopia. No fulfillment of the destructive quest heaves in prospect. Modernity spirals dizzyingly to its destined abyss, dragging with it those who know full well its madness but who find themselves sucked along with the lunatics into the maelstrom.

The contemporary West resembles nothing so much as an archaic society in the full panic of social breakdown, searching desperately for the scapegoats whose immolation will induce the gods to intervene. So perverse has Modernity become that people eagerly seek victim-status although of course they can only do so by indicting other people as their persecutors. The old gesture of designating the victim has therefore been turned inside out and the nomenclature along with it. Objects of collective passion, those who are about to die at the hands of the mob, are now called victimizer, not victims.

No one can fully understand the contemporary situation without first understanding archaic religiosity, and archaic religiosity only reveals its meaning in contrast with the higher, scriptural religiosity, which at one time informed the civilized condition. In the same degree as the contemporary West spurns the spiritual maturity of Judaism and Christianity, its situation reverts to archaic patterns. Thus, in the sacrosanct name of “Progress” – wretched regress. And in tandem with that regress travels the obliteration both of consciousness and conscience, as the individuated man dissolves into the moral crudity of the Caliban-collective. No one has understood archaic religiosity – no one understands the modern age as a case of accelerating sacrificial panic – with greater clarity and penetration than René Girard (1923 – 2015), who remained intellectually active until his death earlier this month. Two late books by Girard, Evolution and Conversion (2008) and Battling to the End (2010), demand attention from those who sense that the liberal-secular order ever more excruciatingly confronts and denies the revelation of its own nullity.

Girard 02 Evolution and Conversion

I. A Stanford emeritus since 1995, Girard trained in France as an expert in medieval manuscripts. After the war, in America, Girard tried to be a professor of French literature at a state university but failed to gain tenure. He then remade himself – as a scholar of Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust – and on his discovery of “novelistic truth,” about which he wrote in Deceit Desire and the Novel (1962), metamorphosed one more time into a philosophical anthropologist, an exegete of myth and ritual, and an explicator of Scripture, as the revelation to human beings of their own fallen character. Having pricked the balloon of European humanism; having shown up its fundamental tenet – the glorious autonomy of the supposedly free and original individual – for a destructive delusion of the self-inflated elites, one of the many idols in the temple of secularity: Having done this, Girard blithely pricked the balloon of post-humanism as well. As iconoclast, Girard indeed follows in the footsteps of that earlier and much misunderstood image-breaker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), the value and limitations of whose text the French successor has helpfully and perspicaciously revealed. In Evolution and Conversion, Girard addresses the often quoted, but little-understood, “God is Dead” episode from The Gay Science (1882). “Everybody distorts this text,” Girard writes.

Whereas everybody turns his gaze to the aphorism’s assertion concerning the deity’s demise, the aphorism itself emphasizes the collective character of the crime: “We have killed him – you and I”; and again, “We are all his murderers.” Nietzsche insists on the communal character of the murder. According to Girard: “Nietzsche is really telling us about the religious re-foundation of society,” because all archaic deities “begin first of all by dying.” Girard assesses Nietzsche’s aphorism qualifiedly as “a great text about the eternal return of sacrificial religion, a text about the creation and re-creation of culture that always involves the initial presence of the founding murder.”

What of the qualification? Certain narratives and meditations, in Girard’s view, “go beyond the explicit thinking of their authors.” Nietzsche’s Gay Science being one of these, its author unsurprisingly lacks awareness “of what he is expressing in the famous aphorism,” which in fact implies a meaning “essentially realistic and sacrificial” wherein “the birth of religion [and] its death… amount to the same thing.” Girard points out an element of the “God-is-Dead” episode overlooked by commentators, such as Heidegger, who “place the text within… modernist routine.” Thus, “the most revealing sentence is the one that says that God’s death forces the murderers to invent a new religious cult.” Nietzsche’s own “new” cult to replace Christianity, whose putative demise he celebrated, took the form of an old cult in revival: For Christ, Nietzsche wanted to substitute Dionysus. Girard’s deft analysis reveals Nietzsche’s deep confusion about the significance of the two symbols that provided his discourse with its dialectical poles. Nietzsche’s error having inveigled its way into axiomatic status in postmodern thought – whoever corrects Nietzsche also corrects Postmodernism. The author of The Anti-Christ (1888) identified Christianity with crowds and mobs, what the German language denounces as die Pöbel; he identified individuality, integrity, and authenticity with Dionysiac rapture.

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Friedrich Nietzsche

As Girard details in Violence and the Sacred (1972) and The Scapegoat (1982), Dionysus, far from signifying individuation, represents none other than the crowd itself in its most bloodthirsty mood. Heraclitus famously opined that Dionysus and Hades (that is, Death) were one and the same and he too, a religious reformer, glimpsed this god in orgies and bloodletting. Nietzsche, who knew his Pre-Socratics well, certainly knew the Heraclitean fragment. What amounted to his rivalry with Christ blinded him, however, to the prophetic admonition in his favorite antique writer. Girard remarks that “being jealous of Christ… inevitably means siding with Satan,” one of whose monikers in the New Testament, “Legion,” substitutes aptly for the mob. As Girard sees things, “to be on the side of Satan means that one [takes] sides with the crowd against the innocent victim, whatever name one chooses to give to that.” That Nietzsche indeed sides with the crowd is apparent from his first book, The Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music (1872), where he extols the fusion of the spectatorship in the theater with the chorus onstage hence also the dissolution of the individual. The praiseworthy effect of tragedy in Nietzsche’s analysis is indeed that it de-individuates every member of the audience. Nietzsche sided with the crowd in another, ironic way: He openly despised victims, especially Christ, for their weakness, while praising Bacchic libido for its strength. He despised Socrates and praised the sophists for the same reasons. Girard writes, “Nietzsche aimed at a deconstruction of Christianity, which he [nevertheless] understood correctly as the defense of victims.”

One of Girard’s interlocutors in Evolution and Conversion, João Cezar de Rocha, asks whether the scholar’s indictment of Nietzsche as a virtual Satanist unduly reifies Satan, a question that allows Girard to clarify an essential element of both his apologetics and his anthropology. “One shouldn’t believe in Satan,” Girard responds. Rather, Satan assumes the status in Girard’s interpretation of Christianity of “a powerful trope for describing the unanimity of the crowd when it accuses the victim of being guilty, and then murders the innocent victim without any remorse.” Satan functions as “non-being in the sense that the scapegoat mechanism is unconscious.” The name Satan would also represent the panic that attends the breakdown in the community. Girard writes: “In the rivalry business of doubles a transcendental force has always been perceived.” When rival-doubles come to blows, their enmity, in addition to affrighting, exerts an imitative allure, attracting partisans to mimic the combatants and plunging the community into spreading disintegrative violence. The victimary mechanism resolves this violence by focusing ire on the singular – and arbitrarily, selected, hence also innocent – scapegoat. “There is no coordination from outside, the system functions all by itself.” Because the scapegoat mechanism operates automatically, names like “Moira in Greek culture and Schiksal in Heidegger” can stand for the same phenomenon as a name like Beelzebub. Girard thinks of Dante, who in The Inferno pictured Satan as “a big machine, a sort of colossal puppet,” fixed in the ice.

The Biblical revelation consists of the unveiling and explication of the scapegoat mechanism and the critique of its rhetorical obfuscation in myth. In Girard’s understanding of Christianity, the Passion begins a gradual exposition-cum-neutralization of scapegoating that remains in agonizing process, incomplete, to this day, and whose consummation, which nothing can hasten, belongs to an unforeseeable future. Meanwhile, by depriving people of their persecutorial default-response to crisis, the Gospel actually exacerbates the human ordeal, imbuing victimization with the guilt of consciousness while at the same time constituting a new scandal for the great majority that has not yet reconciled itself with the Paraclete’s non-sacrificial dispensation. “Very often,” Girard remarks, “Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions… You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” It is paradoxical: “The world is becoming more and more Christian, but also less and less so, and one should emphasize both aspects.”

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Charles Darwin

II. In its main title’s first element, Evolution and Conversion makes an unavoidable topical reference, highlighted in the titular parenthesis, Dialogues on the Origins of Culture. Girard’s copula (his “and”) functions both as the hinge in a dichotomy, which thereby keeps the two concepts separate – and, again, as the sign of unavoidable continuity between them. Whereas the term evolution implies a purely natural process, its counterpart conversion implies consciousness and a break with nature. Given public identification of Girard as a Christian apologist, some readers might find themselves mildly surprised that the early sections of Evolution and Conversion, addressing the case of Charles Darwin, bestow praise on that controversial figure. Girard accepts the scientific conclusion about the pedigree of Homo sapiens, seeing no contradiction in that matter between science and religion; in this acceptance of Darwinian speciation, Girard’s view remains consonant with Catholic doctrine on the congruity of natural science and faith. While breaking decisively with Protestant fundamentalism. As for Darwin, despite his being “naïve in his conception of religion,” Girard judges him “extremely powerful and admirable in his way of arguing.” Indeed, “the theory of natural selection seems to me quite powerfully sacrificial.” On the Origin of Species (1859) strikes Girard as participating in “the modern discovery of sacrifice as the foundation not only of human culture but also of the natural order,” which would put that book in an odd constellation with works by Joseph de Maistre, Charles Baudelaire, Søren Kierkegaard, and James G. Frazer.

Like Darwin’s variation-producing mechanism of natural selection, foundational murder, replicated in ritual sacrifice, gives rise across time, from its simplicity, to the full richness of institutions. Foundational murder itself arises in the first place from the “hard-wired” mimetic propensity in human behavior. Aristotle, in his Poetics, remarks in an side that human beings are the most mimetic (his word) of all animals. That Homo sapiens constitutes a “symbolic species” stems from the effects of mimesis in the human collective. How, for example, does anyone learn his native tongue? He imitates his mother – and later on, he imitates other people. Language teaches the lesson of mimesis in a way that everyone can understand on the basis of personal experience.

If Biblical literalists experienced disappointment in Girard’s surprisingly open rapprochement with Darwin, militant anti-Christians would chagrin themselves equally in Girard’s demonstration of how Darwinian logic bolsters the case that the Bible deals in truth. Girard cautiously welcomes E. O. Wilson’s position that despite being a fantasy, religion must possess “intrinsic adaptive value,” while he obviously adhering to the position that the Gospel is anything but a fantasy. Girard writes: “This is what I am suggesting when I say that religion protects men and societies from mimetic escalation.” Not only does religion have the survival-merit granted it by Wilson, but “it is also the source of hominization, of the differentiation between animals and human beings.” Evolution and Conversion makes a back-reference to Girard’s most ambitious work, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1977), where he develops the phases of the event by which prehumans cross the threshold into humanity.

girard things hidden

In Things Hidden, Girard stipulates that “forms of human sociality, unlike animal forms, cannot develop directly out of mimetic rivalry, but they do develop indirectly from them through the intermediary of the surrogate victim.” Girard speculates that in the biological development of the hominid species that would become human, “intensification of mimetic rivalry… destroyed dominance patterns and gave rise to progressively more elaborate and human forms of culture.” Consciousness and symbolism figure in the event because “even the most elementary form of the victimage mechanism, prior to the emergence of the sign, should be seen as an exceptionally powerful means of creating a new degree of attention, the first non-instinctual attention.” According to Girard, the passage from universal violence to pacific order, as mediated by the victim, “creates the most favorable conditions for the emergence of this new attention.” Consciousness being inseparable from signification, the corpse functions as the primordial signifier, with the total scene as the signified. Under the sign, the community can now recall the event, so as to bring to bear on new outbreaks of rivalry the anodyne of sacrifice. Because the incipiently human group chooses to reenact the event, its members will effectively have converted from instinctive-animalistic to genuinely human behavior. Subsequent conversions will acquire their possibility in that prototype of intentionality.

In Evolution and Conversion, Girard revisits his theory of hominization: “One can argue that many groups and societies… were destroyed by lethal infighting, by the explosion of mimetic rivalry being unable to find any form of resolution,” until “the scapegoat mechanism provided [for] the fitness of the group.” Because in Girard’s thinking consciousness and culture belong together as two sides of the same phenomenon – transcendence in symbolization – and because the original, compact consciousness and culture take the form of the sacred, consciousness and culture would, themselves, be fundamentally religious. The modern mind never sees it that way, of course. Whether it is Voltaire or Nietzsche, or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, the modern mind, jealous of its own ego, pretends that it stands separate from institutions, from influence, especially that of religion. Dawkins provides Girard with food for thought. Whereas promisingly Dawkins acknowledges “a radical break between animal and human,” he proposes no means to bridge the gap that incipient mankind must have crossed. As for Dawkins’ “memes,” says Girard, they “seem to emerge out of nothing, while the selective force, which should discriminate between the memes… retained and the ones… discarded, remains unexplored.” Such conjuration typifies modern and postmodern thinking.

All archaic religion and all pagan culture derive in Girardian theory from the primordial event. Echoing the sacrificial matrix, worldwide myth repeats itself endlessly using a few variants of the same story about a mischief-maker whose immolation brings order from chaos and establishes the community. The crimes of the scapegoat correspond to specifiable stereotypes. Oedipus in the Sophoclean tragedy represents the full array of offenses. Ritual in turn corresponds to myth, displaying the same variants of a few basic actions, almost to the point of monotony. The mythic-ritualistic dispensation likely prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, which makes religious innovation, should it appear, the rarest of cultural occurrences. Innovation comes with Judaism and Christianity – with “The Scandal of Christianity,” in one of Girard’s chapter-titles. “In a nutshell, myth is against the victim, whereas the Bible is for the victim.” The Greek word parakletos, Girard reminds his readers, designates “the lawyer for the defense.”

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Apollonius of Tyana

Girard cites the Second Century writer Philostratus (The Life of Apollonius of Tyana) and the Gospel of John to instantiate the Pagan-Christian contrast. Writing of the famous pagan “guru” Apollonius of Tyana (15 – 100), Philostratus (172 – 250) tells (Book IV, Chapter 9) of his activities at Ephesus during a time of trouble. Today people would laud Apollonius as a community organizer. Finding the Ephesians in social crisis, he gathers them in the theater and claims to reveal the cause of their unrest, a blind beggar, whom he then urges the citizens to lapidate. The stoning cures the crisis. It is the familiar structure in myth and ritual of what Girard calls “unanimity minus one,” or what contemporary community organizers, in their street demonstrations, refer to as the ninety-nine per cent versus the one per cent. In the Gospel of John students of Scripture find the story of adulterous woman, hounded by the mob of righteous men who seek from Jesus rabbinical leave to lapidate her. The rebbi from Nazareth will not countenance it: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” The Good Word has salvaged the lady-victim. Shamed, the crowd disperses. “The disappearance of religion is a Christian phenomenon par excellence,” Girard avers; “of course… I am referring to the disappearance of religion in so far as we see religion aligned with the sacrificial order.”

Girard 01 Battling to the End

III. The cast of characters in Battling to the End differs rather startlingly from that in Evolution and Conversion, where the evolutionary theorists, socio-biologists, ethnologists, and anthropologists come under critical scrutiny. Battling to the End begins as a meditation on the anthropological significance of the study On War (1827, unfinished) by Carl von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831), continues as a discussion of mimesis as a force in history, and returns towards the end to an assessment of the human prospect in the context of the contemporary moment. While Clausewitz fills the role of a central character, an early discoverer of the mimetic principle, the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) and that Maîtresse du Salon and codifier of the comparative method in literary criticism, Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766 – 1817), also have important roles to play. The names strike the modern mentality as quaint, heterogeneous in their ensemble, and perhaps unserious. What wisdom could a defeated officer, a madman living in a tower, and a lady-facilitator of polite conversation about belletristic judgment share and what is it that these odd people might tell today’s sophisticates that relates to their condition? Much as it turns out. Girard’s canniness encourages him in seeing his specimen connoisseurs of Menschlichkeit as closely related to one another in thought and in his weighing their discoveries as equal in importance to those, say, of Darwin and Frazer. Girard wants to rehabilitate such names, to which, in the contemporary period, various stereotyped dismissals have applied themselves.

Yet, first and foremost, there is Herr Clausewitz. That old “Prussian General,” Girard writes, “had intuitions very similar to my own”; and “because he was at the turning point of two eras of war [he] bears witness to a new situation with respect to violence.”

In Evolution and Conversion, Girard discovers that Darwin perceived more clearly concerning anthropology than did Nietzsche, whose limitations Darwin reveals in a comparison. In Battling to the End, Girard discovers a corresponding clarity of perception in Clausewitz, “a major author,” over Hegel, whose limitations Clausewitz reveals in a comparison. Like Nietzsche after him, Hegel invested in “an excessive belief in individual autonomy.” That belief entailed an error about originality and identity that prevented Hegel, as it did all Nineteenth Century egoists, from grasping that “reciprocity,” or imitative violence, has its own logic that can trump reason and dissolve persons in “undifferentiation.” Consider Hegel’s notion of the hero, which Girard summarizes as “reasoned transcendence of private interest.” The Hegelian hero’s self-offering in battle (again in Girard’s words) “makes him spiritual.” For Clausewitz on the contrary, as Girard writes, “military heroism is less transcendence than aggravated mimetism.” Clausewitz sees the hero differently from Hegel because he sees war differently from Hegel, on the zero-sum rivalry-model of the duel, with its propensity for “escalation to extremes.” Indeed, On War begins with the comparison of war to the duel. Thus, “At the time when Hegel was thinking about possible consistency between human reason and the Logos, Clausewitz is telling us that [war] is really a duel.” Then too “the oscillation of the antagonists,” which Clausewitz observed in the Napoleonic campaigns, “leads straight to modern warfare” and to the dire contemporary situation wherein “the alternation can go to extremes and pass into reciprocity.”

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Carl von Clausewitz

While Girard has always set himself apart from his contemporaries in the humanities by his preference for ordinary language over neologisms, and while reciprocity is not an unusual word, the usage of it in the just quoted line might require a gloss. Reciprocity belongs to mimesis. It also belongs to the sacrificial crisis in that it produces the primordial victim and generates scapegoating. Reciprocity has to do with undifferentiation, a telltale symptom of social breakdown, which myth often symbolizes in the image of plague. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard cites the exchange of execration and threat between Oedipus and Tiresias in Sophocles as the paradigm of the phenomenon. As the accusations become ever stronger, the contestants, in the increasingly absurd extremity of their claims, become decreasingly identifiable. The community as a whole, some people siding with one contestant and some with the other, likewise descends into undifferentiation, as everyone becomes the model-rival of everyone else. This moment is the extreme, the war of all against all, with its threat of total annihilation. In discussing war in Battling to the End, Girard writes: “What Hegel did not see… is that the oscillations of contradictory positions, which become equivalent, can, very well, go to extremes.” Hegel believed that every contest was a moment of the overall dialectic and that reconciliation (Aufhebung), not annihilation, was the predestined outcome. Yet as Clausewitz believed, in Girard’s summation of his thinking, “the realities of war entail that ‘hostile feelings’ (battle lust) always end up overwhelming ‘hostile intentions’ (the reasoned decision to fight).”

In Girard’s view, Clausewitz saw better than Hegel did that what had previously held national conflicts in check no longer could. Recall Girard’s assertion in Evolution and Conversion that, “religion protects men and societies from mimetic escalation,” and Christianity most of all, but by persuasion rather than compulsion. Then consider: The Reformation shattered the Church into schisms; the Enlightenment’s critique of religion badly eroded belief among elites; and from 1789 onward, European radicals excused and even exalted violence as a justifiable means to their Utopian end. An officer in the army of Frederick Wilhelm III, Clausewitz participated directly in the Napoleonic phase of the French Revolution, being present on the line at Jena in 1806, witness to the Prussian defeat. He joined the Czar’s army to sustain combat against the victor. Battling to the End remarks the unprecedented character of Napoleonic warfare, with its mobilization of the populace and willingness to expend massive levies in adventures like the Russian Campaign; he emphasizes the Napoleonic wars as the first ideological wars and as the turning point from a self-limiting institution of war to modern total war: “With respect to total war and totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, we have spoken of the ‘militarization of civil life.’” Girard believes that, “we have turned the page on regulated, codified conflicts.”

Girard writes that Clausewitz foresaw the organization of whole societies for the waging of permanent war against all enemies, present, future, and imagined. According to Girard, Clausewitz grasped that war-posture invites a mimetic response. Once one society marshals itself totally for the purpose of war, all adjacent societies must do the same. The differences between one society and another begin to disappear leaving the rival-doubles locked in the posture of hair-trigger preemption. Mere suspicion of bellicose intention provokes preemptive action and invites reciprocation. Today on a global scale, in a process that began in the Napoleonic era, “we are nearing… the sacrificial crisis… the critical point when the group borders on chaos.” The proliferation of nuclear weapons means that the crisis, when it comes, can escalate all the way to total annihilation. Girard argues that, “convergence onto scapegoats has become impossible,” such that “mimetic rivalries are unleashed contagiously with no possibility of warding them off.” The modern world is thus existentially threatened by its own, post-Christian tendency toward the “escalation to extremes.”

Modernity can neither abjure violence nor polarize it effectively around plausible victims; it can only match violence with violence. It is another grave affliction of post-Christian mentality that it cannot imagine dire extremity, but believes itself immune from catastrophe. “From this point of view,” Girard writes, “[George W.] Bush is the very caricature of what is lacking in politicians, who are incapable of thinking apocalyptically.”

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Friedrich Hoelderlin

IV. Battling to the End represents Girard’s turn towards history. Girard envisions history, thanks to his lifetime involvement in the study of archaic societies, myth, and Scripture, on the largest scale, and as a narrative, the grammar of which allows for prophetic glimpses, as through a glass darkly, of probable futures. Girard thinks historically the way Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee before him have thought, and as Clausewitz did, despite his penchant for hesitant qualifications. A man of letters, as was Spengler particularly, Girard reads history with the novelist’s eye for how, in the unfolding of large events, a tiny detail, the curriculum vitae of one sensitive or critically situated person, can sum up a global Gestalt. Charles Dickens novelized in that way, as in A Tale of Two Cities (1859, coincidentally the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species), and so did Victor Hugo in Notre Dame (1831, the mortal year of Clausewitz and Hegel) or Les Misérables (1862). Clausewitz is already such a person, but so are the others whose lives and thought Girard takes as specimen instances. Hölderlin, the self-cloistering poet and student of Greek myth, is one. Madame de Staël, the organizer of Franco-German salons and authoress of De l’Allemagne (1813, the year of Bonaparte’s exit from history), is another. In assessing the work of Hölderlin and Staël, Girard avoids merely formal assessment. Despite the admonitions of the New Critics against “the fallacy of intention,” Girard assumes that perspicacious readers can discern the intended message that clear-sighted authors quite consciously put into their texts.

Contemporary literati largely submit to Martin Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, which exaggerates the poet’s pagan nostalgia and tries not to mention his Christian convictions. Like Hegel, Hölderlin witnessed the Battle of Jena, but he also remarked, as Hegel failed to do, the absolute fascination that Bonaparte in his triumph exercised over his contemporaries. With the advent of Napoleon the West had entered the era of what Girard calls “internal mediation,” in which everyone becomes everyone else’s model-rival. In Battling to the End, Girard sets out to correct Heidegger’s anti-Christian misreading of Hölderlin and to show how clairvoyantly the poet grasped his own moment in its historic, religious, and anthropological implications. Hölderlin’s “central intuition,” Girard writes, consisted in his recognition “that there is absolute similarity but also absolute difference between the Christian and the archaic.” The insight separated Hölderlin from his fellow seminarians Hegel and F. W. J. Schelling, who looked to make good the non-presence of the Biblical God, felt as an agonizing lack, in a revival of the pagan gods – or if not exactly in those gods then in some new form of the sacred understood as Destiny or Fate or the Inevitable. Nietzsche stubbornly peddled the same theme in his day and Heidegger again in his.

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Syncretic Apollo-Christ

Yet Hölderlin never saw the Christian-Pagan dichotomy in dualistic terms, the type of petulance that Girard lays against Nietzsche and Heidegger. He who pitches himself against the one set of gods as against another or as against the God cultivates rivalry, like the one that Nietzsche nourished with respect to Christ. Hölderlin believed, rather, that “Greek religion cannot be used against Christianity” because “Christianity has changed Greek religion forever.” In Girard’s reading, Hölderlin understood the Passion to have revealed the truth that, “to bet on Dionysus is to believe in the fertility of violence.” Hölderlin did not, however, oppose Christianity to Paganism as though a rivalry existed that could portend the survival of but one – which Nietzsche had done, precisely, in the other direction. Under Christian Revelation, even Paganism is transformed; what is valuable in it remains available.  There is no call for its abolition.

Girard argues that Hölderlin, who wrote a poem called “Patmos” and who knew how to think apocalyptically, saw what Clausewitz saw: Christian Revelation had demystified Paganism, depriving humanity of its pre-Christian innocence and leaving humanity on its own, in the silence of God, to confront reciprocity without protection. The “presence” of the pagan gods had corresponded with the violence of social breakdown and the awe of restorative murder. After the Passion, however, scapegoating persists only in bad faith hence also ineffectively. To rein in the otherwise inevitable escalation to extremes in the armed but de-institutionalized world that the Gospel itself produced, the sole recourse is Christ’s invitation not to imitate, hence also come into rivalry with, other men, but rather to imitate Christ’s imitation of the Father. “Dionysus is violence and Christ is peace,” Girard writes. Hölderlin “understood Hegel’s naiveté to a greater extent than any of Hegel’s modern adversaries, who have not had the strength to return to Christianity as [Hölderlin] did.” Enlightened people to this day believe with Hegel that reality is rational. Hölderlin grasped, as does Girard, that reality is mimetic – is religious. Hölderlin’s withdrawal to a carpenter’s tower for forty years gave evidence not of mental derangement but of commitment to Christian practice, the modern equivalent of St. Anthony’s Thebaïd.

As for Staël, modernity appreciates her mainly as a quirk. As they do with George Sand and Carolyn Sayn-Wittgenstein, feminists comment on her, wrinkling their noses at male disdain. Girard actually understands her. Staël examined whole nations as objects of a comparative-critical reading: “On the one hand, she pointed out the German’s self-conscious distrust of French wit, which is quick to target similarities and regard those who deviate from them with suspicion; on the other hand, she showed the German language’s capacity for abstraction, which is paradoxical given the German people’s leaning towards conformity.” Staël discovered that “nationalism is essentially mimetic.” Humiliated by Napoleon at Jena, Prussia imitated him, until at Sedan in 1870, General Moltke, Chancellor Bismarck, and Kaiser Wilhelm I together enjoyed the exquisite pleasure of vanquishing Napoleon III and making him a prisoner. European history from Napoleon to Hollande-Merkel consists in repetitive, Gallo-Teutonic confrontations-in-similitude, with regular escalations to the extreme. Sedan avenged Jena; Versailles avenged Sedan, and the jack-booted march down the Champs Elysées in May 1940 avenged November 1918. The next clash will surprise everyone, of course.

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German Surrender at Compiegne 1918

Events following 1914 and 1939 retroactively guaranteed Hölderlin and Staël’s common prophetic clarity, not to mention Clausewitz’s, and underscored the necessity of a new conversion. Lenin thought he could found Communism by killing his opposition and Stalin by starving the Ukraine and shooting his generals; Hitler thought he could establish National Socialism in the secret mass-murder of the Jews. In its Epilogue, Battling to the End advances the discussion to the present moment, from which, as Girard sees things, the outlook appears bleak. “Terrorism has raised the level of violence up a notch again.” The Jihad and the West’s bewildered response to it are “mimetic,” involving two forms of “fundamentalism.” One of those fundamentalisms is the Western secular dogma, complete with its politically correct blinders and increasingly Islam-like internal strictures – a defective substitute-creed that despite its self-righteousness can neither think religiously nor envision catastrophe; the other is Islam. Thus, “George Bush’s ‘just war’ has revived that of Muhammad, which is more powerful because it is essentially religious.” Indeed, “We are witnessing a new stage in the escalation to extremes,” in which reciprocity “uses Islam as it used to use Napoleon and Pangermanism.”

Girard makes no excuses for Islam, even while he harshly criticizes the West for its childishness and stupidity: “To the great surprise of our secular republicans, religious thought is still very much alive in Islam.” Nor does Girard propose equivalency between Christianity and Islam. He sees Islam as a non-participant in the Biblical revelation of scapegoating that therefore remains in the mode of archaic, sacrificial religion. It is not an indictment of Western affluence, but of Western intelligence, when Girard asserts in a Spenglerian sentence that, “Terrorism is the vanguard of a general revenge against the West’s wealth.” Reality is not rational, Girard argues: Reality is mimetic and it is religious. There are, however, two kinds of religion: The archaic and the Biblical. When secularity rejects the Biblical, it defaults to the archaic. The twin possibilities differ starkly: Either a new conversion; or an escalation to extremes pitting against one another two anthropologically imbecile contestants – Islam and the West – armed with nuclear weapons.

Girard 319 Things Begin

Afterthoughts November 2015: I wrote all that four or five years ago.  I have made only a few changes.  Since then, events have accelerated. There have been more Muslim attacks on the West, most recently in Paris – the intolerance of the Left has increased dramatically, until it has begun feeding on its own – and the Liberal Establishment, which owns the world, is beginning to look as detached from reality as Louis XVI was in 1789 or Nicholas II in 1917. The world teeters, it would seem, on the verge of a global multi-factional war that will involve every nation and consume several of them at least. Governments will side with Islam against historical Tradition. People will make war on their governments to regain control of their own societies.  The outcome of no election can forestall this because forces have been released that lie beyond bureaucratic or political control. The situation is, as Girard so often wrote and said, an apocalyptic one. There is no other way to describe that situation. Having, under Reason, divested itself of Christianity, the West, however, can no longer think apocalyptically. It can only think ideologically, which is no kind of thinking at all – and Western Liberals even have a heady name for their willful anti-cognitive bias. They call it Postmodernism, which has issued in the concept of Multiculturalism and the agenda of Diversity.

Conscious people call Postmodernism the Second Reality, but they might also categorize it as a self-evident recursion to pre-Christian praxis, which is what befalls any community that thinks it can transcend good and evil, as these gain definition in the Gospel. Disdaining the Gospel, the Left claims that utopia is inevitable – once only the blocking-agents have been liquidated. What the Left makes inevitable is a global sacrificial crisis, once only the remaining brakes on that crisis have been liquidated. Because Christianity supplied the brakes, Christianity’s liquidation, the goal of deconstruction, guarantees the inevitable. It is, in Girard’s phrase, “the eternal return of sacrificial religion.”

The agents of political correctness and social justice will never see themselves as persecutors. They are deeply enmeshed in the trammels of ritual closure and psychological projection. The more they anathematize Revelation, the more deeply enmeshed in those trammels they become. Girard addresses the problem again in When These Things Begin (2014). He writes, “The crystallization of the group’s tensions at the expense of a victim is an unconscious process.” A bit later he follows up, remarking that, “to become Christian is, fundamentally, to perceive that it isn’t just others who have scapegoats,” and reminding his readers “that the two greatest Christians, Peter and Paul, were two converted persecutors,” who, “before their conversion… thought that they didn’t have any scapegoats.” Because the modern mentality rejects religion as essentially unserious – never mind that it rhetorically extols any religion except Christianity for its enriching quaintness, reducing that religion to enriching quaintness – it tends to see rituals as costumed folkloric displays. “Rituals aren’t only, as is sometimes said, mere pantomimes of reconciliation, a sort of harmless ‘happening’ by which the group’s members strengthen their feelings of belonging.” In the case of ritual, Girard argues, “we’re talking about human culture at its strongest and most powerful.” Christianity, for Girard, is a massively de-ritualizing dispensation: “Christianity teaches us that this essential mechanism of the human condition is based on a lie, but a kind of lie that is ungraspable because of what philosophers call ‘the closure of representation.’”

Girard 392 Paris

Paris Kumbaya

When, in the aftermath of the Paris massacres of November 2015, or any similar perpetration, the spokesmen of the Western establishment scramble to misrepresent the character and causality of the event – this is what Girard means by “the lie.” Of course, a panicked need to make an event ungraspable indicates that, for those who would deliberately make it so, it is, in fact, quite graspable. This type of anti-intellectual obscurantism has only been available since the historical punctuation of the Gospel, but has emerged in full articulation fairly recently, belonging to the past two hundred years and reaching a pitch of intensity in the last few decades. Medieval Christians openly persecuted Jews without any moral hand wringing; they felt no need for a justifying rhetoric beyond the mythic accusation that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. Liberals need victims, but they wish not to be identified as victimizers; nor do they think of themselves as, or wish to be seen under the guise of, religion. Under the rubric of deconstruction liberals undertake predictable rhetorical rituals to justify the practical rituals carried out by their virtual proxies. The fact that liberals know that their camouflaging enterprise falls short of its goal only redoubles their panic.

Girard argues that: “Our era has already lived through or is preparing to live through the collapse of the three most powerful attempts to replace religion.” National Socialism was one such attempt; Marxism was the second. “A third collapse looms,” Girard asserts; it is “the collapse of the capitalist democracies, which would be the failure of scientism, of our attempts to reduce the problems of humankind to a false objectivity, to a sort of mental and physical hygiene, in the manner of ‘unbridled capitalism’ and psychoanalysis.” Girard has a casual style but he always chooses his words carefully. His characterization of Modernity as a regime of “hygiene” has a connection to his characterization of medieval anti-Jewish pogroms of the middle ages in The Scapegoat as seeking pseudo-rational terms to justify an act that is slowly becoming grotesque to perception. In commenting on Guillaume de Machaut’s Fifteenth-Century account of a pestilence-cum-persecution, Girard remarks that it produces a novel coinage, based on the Greek, Guillaume’s “épidymie.” The expulsion of the Jews from French villages, like the expulsion of Oedipus from Thebes, purified the community of its affliction. Liberals think that they can still achieve the utopia of equality by expelling all dissident thought – and that is the reason they have begun to immolate their own.

Liberalism might well be “deviated Christianity,” Girard states. Thus, “even if the institution of Christianity was, on a local scale, the instrument or the instigator of witch hunts, Christianity is the true destroyer of such practices, because it makes human beings aware of the arbitrary nature of the persecutory snowballing that leads to violence.” A “deviated Christianity” is, however, a partial Christianity, seizing on one element, inflating it to supremacy, and abolishing all others. Liberalism takes the oleological phrase, “the last shall be the first,” as the only operational phrase in the whole Gospel, de-contextualizing it and making of it an agenda of rectification based on resentment. Liberalism thereby turns against itself a Christian motif, which signifies only through its connection with other Christian motifs, to play out an agonizing parody of moral rectitude. Liberalism is culture-in-dissolution trying desperately to reconstitute itself while scrambling madly to create a new myth of foundation. In describing the way in which the original sacrificial crisis resolved itself spontaneously in the immolation of a victim, Girard perfectly describes the contemporary regime of political correctness. Political correctness in effect sacralizes its enemy-victims.

In When These Things Begin Girard tells Michel Treguer that “sacralization makes the victim the model of a strictly religious imitation and counter-imitation.” Where the liberal mentality sees the internal alien – that intolerable presence the “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” or “Islamophobe” – as a wicked victimizer hence also as the instigator of the general crisis, it responds, first, by anathematizing everything belonging to the victim’s Gestalt. Under the aegis of the sacred, Girard explains, “everyone… takes care not to imitate whatever the victim did, or appeared to do, to trigger the crisis… the group divides itself up and separates its members by means of taboos.” The ever-ramifying codes of anti-racism, anti-sexism, and all the rest, exemplify the ethos of “counter-imitation.” By settling the taboo on those deemed external to what is “correct,” liberals contrive to keep on hand a ready supply of victims, any one of whom may be put in the stocks in the town square at a moment’s notice.

Girard 401 Click

Social Justice Warrior

In what way, however, do the proponents and practitioners of political correctness imitate their victims? Here the idea of “privilege” comes into play. The enemy-alien possesses a “privilege” illegitimately. The item thus possessed stands outside the moral categories; only its possession by a reviled possessor is immoral. Any righteous person may therefore appropriate such a possession. Righteous appropriation indeed redeems the possession. On this pattern Smith may be fired from his office of authority for having transgressed the taboo, while Jones, who belongs on the right side of the moral frontier, may happily take over Smith’s office, acquiring and sanctifying Smith’s formerly abused authority. Unsurprisingly, political correctness has proven itself remarkably effective, a fact which drives the intensification of its strictures, as the number of attractive prizes and likely fall-guys dwindles. The newest device of political correctness reaches back to the medieval Sicilian village, where the wrinkled widow with a mole on her nose might be lynched with impunity. A “microaggresion,” which the Left now describes as a veritable épidymie, is the malocchio or “evil eye,” to which any imagined “discomfort” may be attributed by any aggrieved attributer, with dire consequences for the attributed party. Claimants of offense by the malocchio stand assured that countless peers will immediately imitate their “offended” posture. Since the entirety of the post-Christian ethos reverts not merely to pre-Christian but to pre-Pagan behavioral models, no one should be shocked by Liberalism’s re-invention of prehistoric magical causality.

In Modernity’s attempt to re-sacralize the world the concept of a “microaggresion” functions as a myth. Girard remarks how “the Gospels see that myth is dominated by a false accusation.” Modernity believes that it is the culmination of history; that history comes to a stop with Modernity just as the Dialectic came to a stop with Hegel. In Girard’s view, “History isn’t finished.” History refuses to be finished because history since Revelation has consisted in the slow, often painful working out of a new epistemology that clarifies moral perception in a way that initially disturbs those who stand in its light. “In the United States and everywhere,” Girard tells Treguer, “a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims… It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” At any rate, it is no longer possible for the West to persecute except in the name of victims. Is this not exactly why the righteous ones of the contemporary West require, to do their dirty work, non-Western mercenaries whom they classify as “refugees” in order to endow on them immediate protective victim-status? As Girard wrote in Battling to the End, Islam has never participated in the Gospel’s revelation of scapegoating and remains mired in the ritual closure of cultic archaism.

Girard’s use of the label “scientism” implies a great deal. Girard returns to the topic midway through the conversations of When These Things Begin, making two linked comments of a controversial cast. The first comment is that in the earliest sacrificial societies “ritual provided a model of action and cultures applied this model in the most varied situations.” Some of those applications strike the modern mentality as absurd, such as the rondes de printemps that supposedly induce the advent of spring; others – such as the ritual extraction of ores, smelting, and blacksmithing – produce tangible results so that the origins of metallurgy lie actually in sacred activity. The second comment is that, “by de-sacralizing the world, Christianity has given us the means of transforming into a readily-available technique the creative imitation that ritual can produce only once, when it still has the energy that later disappears through repetition.” Girard is not saying that Christianity aimed itself at the production of science; he is saying rather that only a profoundly de-sacralizing religion could have opened up an epistemological space in which science might arise.

Everything about Modernity is atavistic: Modernity even reverses the development of science by re-encumbering it beneath the weight of religious taboos. No better example comes to mind than the politicization, which is actually the ritualization, of climatology. Because they sense the malocchio behind every skeptical or dissenting voice the scienticians of global warming shriek in public, without embarrassment, for the expulsion and punishment of their critics.

16 thoughts on “The Apocalypse of Modernity: Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End by René Girard

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  3. @Tom – Thanks for posting this, which gives me a sense of what the man was about.

    It is a style of analysis to which I have some resistance – in a sense I find ‘continental’ philosophizing rather too alluring, in its confident intellectuality! (the premier modern example – one I have spent much, too much, time on reading is Petr Sloterdijk). But there is certainly a lot of insight in there.

    Obviously I have my own alternative framework, and so am resistant also for that reason! But I do find it somewhat unhelpful to divide culture into the archaic and the Christian – with modernity regarded as a return to the archaic. Of course there are resemblances between the archaic and the modern – but I personally am more impressed by the unprecedented qualities of the modern.

    For example, the modern ‘mob’ (mostly a media phenomenon – with sanctions implemented via bureaucracies) has a very different character from the ‘hands-on’ mobs of ancient times – which went in for rending, stoning, lynching and the like.

    Like CS Lewis I am more impressed by the differences between modernity and paganism, than by the similarities. The modern sacrifices are more abstract than slaughtering animals. The terror of gods is absent. The terror of a miserable afterlife is absent.

    And the modern mob (in The West) has a lot of strongly Eloi – passive victim – qualities; lacking even the Dutch-courage of Dionysian excess.

    One favourite parable of modernity is Cowslip’s Warren in Watership Down – which I will not spoil by describing, for those who have not yet read that wonderful socio-political fable.

    Anyway, caveats aside, again thanks – I spent a profitable half-hour on this.

    • A mob is a chameleon-like thing: It can be childishly Eloi-like in one moment and bloodthirstily Morlock-like in the next. When the group of righteous men approach Christ with the Woman Caught in Adultery in tow, they are aggressive, full of certainty, ready to kill. A few moments later, they depart sheepishly. But it’s the same mob.

      I’m not sure whether I’ve done justice to Girard in his nuances. Of course, he recognizes that the modern moment differs from the archaic moment. What he is trying to do – or what I am trying to do after him – is to suggest how, when the modern moment believes that it can become even more modern (let’s say by stifling dissent), it recreates a situation that was previously characteristic of the hoariest, prehistoric societies. It is not the same, but it is sufficiently similar to justify the remark.

  4. BTW – I forgot to mention I was struck by the mentions of Napoleon.

    Despite the truly vast biographical literature, the figure of Napoleon remains strangely neglected as an exemplar of the horrors of modernity – and consequences of the French Revolution; perhaps because he was a man of such remarkably great ability (I mean as a general – informed authorities have rated him as perhaps the very greatest general of all time).

    Napoleon’s adventures were responsible for astonishing levels of slaughter – especially of his own countrymen: he seems to have permanently destroyed France as a premier world power, not least by the sheer depletion of her manpower.

    One of the most significant evil geniuses of all time, probably.

    • Yes – the wastage of humanity, as in the Egyptian and Russian campaigns, have always struck me as being essentially Napoleonic.

      Napoleon is fascinating to Girard for those reasons, but also because he is, in a way, the first “celebrity.” In the opening chapter of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, the youthful protagonist has ridden from Italy to participate in one of Napoleon’s battles. Not that he has been offered a commission or anything like that. He is simply so fixated on Napoleon that he wants to be near him. He continuously asks parties of peasants and groups of soldier-stragglers, “Where is Napoleon, where can I find him?” Most of Stendhal’s characters are Napoleon-obsessed.

    • Josh – that (“whoa!”) was my first reaction to reading Girard back around 1984 or 85, in the midst of the graduate-school humanities deconstruction orgasm. I find it entirely appropriate as a reaction to our late friend. Tom

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      • I read, labored but with care, to page 60 of ‘The Scapegoat’ (translated by Freccero) and gave up. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of your articles, including those on Girard, without learning a great deal and without great pleasure but I just did not understand this book; I read as one who is deeply skeptical of the social sciences and perhaps that is the problem. I will let what I have read bubble a bit and, if something clicks, I’ll come back and see if I can run it down and then continue on. Perhaps I should have begun with ‘Violence and the Sacred’ which was published earlier; perhaps there I might have picked up on his foundational thinking. In any event, I am now left with a thirst for an Agatha Christie novel. I take it on faith that Girard has much to offer. With thanks, Steve.

  6. No, Stephen – The Scapegoat is the place to begin. There is no abstruse theorizing in Girard, only a careful reading of what the texts – myths on the one hand and the Bible on the other, especially the New Testament – say. Perhaps this approach is, by itself, so different from the discourse of what you call the social sciences, that it seems baffling at first. I would recommend another try. I am willing to be consulted along the way. This is a book that I will be teaching again this Spring. Sincerely, Tom

    • Dear Tom,

      I have found ‘The Scapegoat’ to be, for me, a pretty tough — a very tough — go, so I have assigned it the status of reference material and have returned to the secondary sources. I’m at a loss to say anything conclusive so I’ll just give a few thoughts.

      It seems to me that archaic religion and Voegelin’s understanding of the ideologies correlate in that they both propose a false final solution, Girard’s emotional catharsis and Voegelin’s second reality, to the crisis and that this stands in contrast to dealing with things within the limitations of the given world where well-adjusted people endure the stress or patiently work things out or a bit of both. The scapegoat mechanism and the second reality compare in that they are both bandages, not cures. Girard discusses the ‘transcendent’ aspects of archaic religion and Voegelin argues — please correct me if I’m wrong — that obsolete, compact understandings of reality do contain truth but I’m not sure whether I should understand these two concepts (archaic religion vs compact religion) as pointing to the same thing or perhaps mutually supporting things. Archaic religion, when its transcendent meaning has been lost, does seem to relate well to the ideologies in its ruthlessness and its worldliness. I’m sure that there are many more aspects to both men that correlate to varying degree.

      I don’t understand Girard’s claim that the purpose of the Passion is to uncover the lies behind sacrificial religion; I view the the Passion as atonement, as love, as an expression of the nature of the Trinity and thus not subject to categorization or purposefulness. If I say that I find myself living in an age of grace, I could also say that God has revealed Himself according to His will and that these two statements mean the same thing. It is suggested that atonement (which again is an expression of the nature of the Trinity), can be one of two purposes but, again, I don’t see this unless the unveiling of the lie of the scapegoat mechanism can be considered one or one of many consequences of, but not the purpose of, the Passion. Or can it? Please correct me if I’m off.

      The isolate-humiliate-eliminate Stalinist method of repression is certainly Girardian and the Obama’s of this world have learned it well. Is Obama coming from anywhere other than a purely utilitarian place in this matter or is his practice of archaic religion to some degree a transcendent thing? The question is: Does Girard shed new light on Voegelin’s understanding of secular religion? By the way, I am astounded at the apathy of the citizenry in the face of all these public confessions and humiliations and firings over Facebook posts and the like. I think it’s a sign that we have gone much further down the road to totalitarianism that most people suspect.

      When I was reading about myth and the concealing of evil deeds, I couldn’t help but think of Edith Hamilton’s hygienic treatment of the Greek myths and I wondered whether she might have, in some inherited way, partaken in the coverup as well and that the coverup itself might loom larger in scope and penetration, that it is, in a way, pervasive. Is that far-fetched?

      Toynbee acknowledged the role of mimesis in history saying that it is directed backwards to ancestors in primitive societies but forward to ‘creative personalities’ and ‘pioneers’ in societies that are in ‘process of civilization’ ( http://www.cooperative-individualism.org/toynbee-arnold_challenge-and-response.htm ). I found that interesting. The statement: ‘in process of civilization’ might be said to be naive although I am quite sure that Toynbee was not thinking about archaic religion or Voegelinian things. He was a great scholar.

      It seems to me that the rule of law stands as the diametric opposite of archaic religion and that movies such as ‘High Noon’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and all the others that play to that theme are really celebrations of society’s victory over archaic religion.

      I think Girard is going to be a voice and a guide for me but I doubt I’ll ever be a Girardian in the same way I consider myself a Voegelinian. He bumps up against things that I hold as articles of faith. Voegelin, the explicator of so many things, has strengthened my faith. On the other hand, I can be corrected and I can learn.

      Many thanks,

      Steve

      PS: What do your friends at the Old City Hall say about Trump? I sense a whiff of the pre-modern in him.

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