Born in Avignon in 1923, the late René Girard (deceased 2015) 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 required a change of scholarly interest. 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 Vérité 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 the complete, yet miserable, sufficiency of the ego. Even more simply, Girard had discovered the centrality of mimesis or “imitation” in psychology and culture.
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 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… 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.
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 proto-humanity’s instinctual aversion 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.
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 basis of their erroneous interpretation that Girard condoned the violence he had unearthed at the foundation of social order and sacred narrative. Things Hidden since the Beginning 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, of course, 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. 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 Judeo-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 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 farmer’s 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.
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. Gladiatorial spectacle fulfilled many of the functions of human sacrifice; in effect, the victims were offered publicly to a presiding god, presumably Mars. As the Second Century writer Lucius Apuleius points out in his picaresque novel The Golden Ass, Imperial society in his time was pervaded by fears of false accusation. Denouncing someone as, say, a witch would entail consequences, possibly mob action, that would again have fulfilled many of the functions of sacrifice.
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,” Girard writes, “consists of triggering a mimetic contagion so powerful that it finally polarizes the entire city against the unfortunate beggar.”
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 Antioch 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, 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 ill 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.”
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 most 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 puts it, of individual conscience. Of the author of The Descent of Man, Girard writes 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.
The “cutting-edge” critics themselves are meanwhile entirely self-mimicking and more than a little bit sacrificial. Paradoxically, however, even as contemporary radicals try to rally followers by designating malefactors, which is virtually the only thing they do anymore, 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. 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, the modern radicals attack the source of knowledge about victimization, while yet claiming to be on the side of victims.
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 own spontaneous communal origin ritually.
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.”
An earlier version of This article appeared in The Brussels Journal in 2008.)