To say that the esoteric ideas of René Girard (d. 2015), which have a niche but committed following of ‘Girardians’, are enormous in their scope is an understatement. Girard was a ‘hedgehog’ in Isaiah Berlin's sense of being someone who, in his case, knows 'two big things'. The two big ideas at the centre of Girard's work are 'mimetic desire' and 'sacrifice of the scapegoat', and while Girard's focus on them can seem obsessively insistent, he weaves extraordinarily rich and fruitful insights from them. Whilst there seems to be something preposterous about the grand-ness of his central claims, Girard's wide reading and profound understandings of philosophical, religious and literary texts repeatedly startle one with their lucidity and seriousness.
For Girard, humans are above all mimetic creatures, in that in almost everything that we do we are copying each other. Via this copying we are able to “break out from routinely animalistic appetites and construct our own, albeit unstable, identities”. “It is the very mobility of desire, its mimetic nature, and this very instability of our identities, that makes us capable of ‘adaptation’, that gives the possibility to learn and evolve”. This is a profound and pregnant assertion from which Girard goes on to explore fundamental questions about individuality, authenticity, and society.
As opposed to ‘good’ mimesis, which enables the transmission of culture, education and the development of the human mind, much of Girard’s thinking is concerned with what he calls ‘bad’ mimesis, which leads directly to his second principal idea of sacrifice and the scapegoat. According to Girard, our mimetic nature leads us into competitively reciprocal and escalating cycles of desire which can rapidly become socially contagious: the more someone else wants something, the more we want it ourselves, and the more we want it, the more that other person wants it too, then other people are drawn in to wanting it as well. Eventually the object of desire can fall away completely, leaving just intense and unstable rivalry, which all too easily breaks out into violent conflict. For Girard it is fundamental that mankind is “ethologically violent”, and all human social groups have an inherent tendency to consume themselves in rivalrous violence borne out of mimetic contagion.
Girard’s second big idea is that religion emerges in the form of rituals and myths around sacrificial scapegoating in order to reconcile violent rivalries and re-bond a community around the ‘othering’ of a victim. Girard talks of this as a great human discovery, or rather ‘stumbling upon’ without understanding it, such that societies that did not find it made themselves extinct from internecine violence: “The invention of the ritual sacrifice is based on a previous observation of the ethological effectiveness of shared aggression and violence and the bonding ‘elation’ which results from it.” But, fundamentally, for this scapegoating to work as a stable myth, the victim must be perceived as guilty and deserving of their victimisation. A narrative is created among the persecutors wherein their persecution is just and which they are unable to see as falsely self-serving. Girard uses the French word ‘méconaissance’, or ‘misreading’, to denote this unconscious mythmaking in which the arbitrariness and innocence of the scapegoated victim is denied.
Girard, like Hobbes, sees social order as emerging as a resolution of crisis, which for him takes place explicitly in the form of religious myths and rituals of scapegoating and victimisation. Religious rules and prohibitions also develop which are primarily oriented at limiting the scope for mimetic escalation and contagion, typically by tightly prescribing roles, stations and practices, effectively limiting what things can be legitimately desired by whom. Any residual mimetic fluidity always risks a re-eruption of intra-communal violence, hence the scapegoating myths and rituals need to be continuously reinforced by repetition. For Girard, it is this practice which is elemental in maintaining communal peace and cohesion, and he is dismissive of efforts by political philosophers who argue to the contrary: “The community knows from its own experience that it is incapable of overcoming its divisions by its own means, incapable of patching together its own ‘social contract’. It thus turns once more to its scapegoat.” The startling claim that Girard develops, and one which brings him sharply up to date with contemporary philosophical concerns, is that there is a hermetic, fishbowl-like quality to cultural understanding which necessarily creates a discourse of ‘othering’ to bind society together, which those on the inside can only see in terms of being necessary or just, and were it not to be seen as such would render it ineffective. According to Girard, therefore, a necessary and unperceivable narrative falsehood lies at the heart of all cultures and the maintenance of the social order.
The anti-Enlightenment, post-modern currents in Girard’s thinking are no accident. Girard was part of the intellectual circles in France and the USA where ideas like phenomenology and post-modernism flourished, although he was soon enough an outsider (“When Freud came to the USA he said of psychoanalysis ‘I am bringing the plague to them.’ He was wrong, but in 1966 we really brought the plague, with Lacan and deconstruction”). Girard does not believe in ‘truth’ where cultural narratives are concerned. But while religions may not be ‘true’, nor are they mere superstitions or “abracadabaras of cunning priests”: “rituals aren’t mere pantomimes of reconciliation, a sort of harmless ‘happening’ by which the group’s members give recognition to one another and strengthen their feelings of belonging. We’re talking about human culture at its strongest and most powerful.”
While for Girard religions are not ‘true’, they perform a very real function, and effectively make society and culture possible. But they are intrinsically bound up with the scapegoating and ‘othering’ that is necessary to contain social violence. The turn that Girard then made, and which accounts for his niche status and effective expulsion from mainstream academic discourse, was to assert that the message of the Christian gospel, with its insistence on the innocence of the victim, represents a unique piercing of the veil of the persecutory myth-making of culture. The Passion of Christ is an acting out of the scapegoating mechanism, but with the overwhelming assertion of the ‘truth’ that the victim is innocent.
Girard’s readings of Biblical texts are richly suggestive for his theory: “The true cause of Peter’s denial, of Pilate’s behaviour, of the bad thief’s attitude, is their imitation of the crowd, the collective mimetism, the violent contagion. Jesus is innocent. But everything relies on a mimetic unity, which is fallacious.” Girard’s discussion of the story of Jesus saving the adulterous woman from being stoned is worth quoting at length because it elucidates several themes central to his ideas. Stoning is “a ritual model of unanimous violence”, and in the story Jesus is suspected of having contempt for the law, and the men who question Jesus “want to push the mimetic escalation that they have triggered from the scandal of adultery to its fatal conclusion.” Jesus bends down, “so as not to look the challengers in the eye, to avoid giving the slightest hint of provocation”. “And finally he speaks: ‘Let the one who among you is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her!’ Why the first stone? Because it is the key. The one who throws it has nobody to imitate. There’s nothing easier than imitating an example that’s already been provided. Jesus gives the best among those in the crowd the time to examine themselves. The crowd precedes the individual. Only he who escapes violent unanimity by detaching himself from the crowd truly becomes an individual. Those who are capable detach themselves first, and in doing so, prevent the stoning. Jesus’ words dissolve the crowd. Once it is initiated, the initial decision becomes pure contagion. Rushing pell-mell in the direction already chosen by their models, the ‘mimic-men’ congratulate themselves on their decisive and independent frame of mind.”
Girard describes the teaching of Jesus as being “aimed entirely against mimetic contagion, against violent escalation”. “Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are not masochistic, they are not excessive. They are simply realistic, taking into account our almost irresistible tendency to retaliate.” Girard argues that the Satan of the Gospels is the social order itself, and that Christ’s message is that people should imitate Him in standing against the persecution and victimisation latent in that order. “Satan is the whole mimetic system. Satan is temptation, Satan is rivalry that turns against itself. The mimetic system, in its eternal return, enslaves humanity.” The grand-ness of Girard’s central claim is no less than the following: “The Gospels become the hermeneutical key that allows us to rethink both mythology and ancient texts as the progressive coming-to-terms of humanity with the violent matrix of the cultural order.” His thinking marks an anti-Enlightenment ‘return’ to the Christianity that gave the Enlightenment birth : “the principle goal of philosophy, of humanism, is to hide the founding murder. To be Christian is to unveil it.”
Girard was fascinated by Nietzsche, and in a sense his entire project sets out to be a refutation of Nietzsche, of whom Girard says that “he is so wrong that he is right” and that “he is always talking about the right subjects.” Nietzsche too was dismissive of the claims the Enlightenment made for itself, and understood how deeply Christianity was embedded in Western culture, and that it could not simply be detached from it. But whereas for Nietzsche Christianity represented a slave morality, an excessive and de-based sensitivity to victims which constrained the true dionysian potential in man, for Girard, in a diametric reversal, Christianity represents the emergence of the individual in the form of heroic exception to the dionysiac spirit of the crowd. By turning back against the Christian opening towards the victim, Nietzsche, for Girard, was advocating no less than a neo-paganism, a glorifying of the myth-making of 'othering'. Girard says in no uncertain words "Nietzsche is the only true, and the only, Nazi thinker".
Christianity plays a double role for Girard, which makes him a far from straightforward Christian apologist, despite his avowed Catholicism. While on the one hand the Gospel message of the innocence of the victim is a “hermeneutic key” for unlocking the victimary principle behind the cultural order, as a dominant cultural force the Christian religion itself played a role of legitimising victimary exclusion. The Christian religion does not itself embody ‘revelation’, but rather “Christ’s message is what transforms the world, not in a sudden and abrupt way, but gradually, through a progressive assimilation of his message.” As Nietzsche also saw, the Christian message undermines Christianity itself, first with Enlightenment philosophy, then with atheism, which, for Girard, are “above all a protestation against the sacrificial elements of religion.” But there is a deeply uncomfortable idea here, and Girard again echoes Nietzsche when he says that “you can’t get rid of the sacrificial principle just by flicking it away as if it were a piece of dust”. The uncomfortable idea at the heart of Girard’s thought is that the progressive assimilation of Christ’s message undermines the cultural narratives that have maintained social order. The ‘uncovering’ of the victimary principle is highly socially destabilising and threatens to open up the culture to waves of unrestrained mimetic escalation.
Girard’s profound, difficult but elegantly consistent answer is to stress the importance of ‘conversion’, which is not only to “become aware that we are persecutors”, but also “it means choosing Christ or a Christlike individual as a model for our desires.” Conversion for Girard is the assumption of ‘heroic exception’, of a true individualism that stands against what he quotes from Proust: “the instinct of imitation and the absence of courage” which “govern society and the mob alike.” Conversion is “the discovery that we have always, without being aware of it, been imitating the wrong kind of models who lead us into the vicious circle of scandals and perpetual frustration.” There is an important opening here into existential concerns of authenticity and ‘true’ individuality, and while Girard rejects Heidegger, among other things for his insistent refusal of Christianity, he shares with him a deep questioning of how the self asserts itself against the insistent examples and demands of the culture into which it is born, and he agrees with him that “the idea about the loss of Being, the forgetting of Being, and the forgetting of forgetting, is essential to the modern age.”
Much of Girard’s published thought is in the form of dialogues, in which he is often pressed firmly by his interlocutors, and an issue which they press him on is the key question of whether Girard believes that the Christian message is ‘true’ rather than merely metaphorical or philosophical. Girard states definitively: “I am in favour of an ontological understanding of God. However, this is a God with a pedagogical strategy, so to speak, starting from archaic religion and moving towards the Christian revelation.” He states also “I’m Catholic because I think that Catholicism is in possession of the truth about dogma. The dogmas, to me, are not metaphors. I feel like I have real life experience of the central dogmas.” And while he disagrees with some Catholic dogma “it’s really a matter of bearing witness. You can’t say you accept such and such a law of the Republic and not the other.” Perhaps most fundamentally, given his characterisation of God has having a pedagogical strategy, he says “the basis of Christianity is scripture. That’s why orthodoxy is very important despite its flaws and even if it doesn’t know what it’s doing, because at least it holds onto the text and doesn’t let go.”
Just as ‘conversion’ for Girard does not consist in merely metaphysical belief but in a sincere ‘heroic exceptionalism’ which involves a refusal of the crowd and of mimetic desire, so too his eschatology is anything but comforting. He insists on human freedom to choose, and that he has “never posited the process as purely linear, evolving without interruption once the revelation was out in the open. On the contrary, it is a highly complex process, because man is free to choose his own path. And quite frankly he has fairly consistently opted for violence, and today more than ever.” “Christianity says only that a global Revelation is at work in the world, the effects of which may be either beneficial or negative, as a result not of sacred caprice but of the use to which we put our freedom.” Girard sees future no less than past human sociohistorical development as subject to continuous oscillations and paradoxes. Consistent with the seriousness with which he takes Biblical texts, he is far from dismissive of the apocalyptic forebodings contained in the Gospels. “After the Christian revelation the system cannot be pulled back by any form of pharmacological resolution, and the virus of mimetic violence can spread freely. This is the reason Jesus says: ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ Consequently, the Gospel does not provide a happy ending to our history.”
The Christian revelation of the innocence of the victim for Girard is the unique ‘truth’ in human history, and that it developed in the West means that Western culture has a special sociohistorical status. Girard claims that it was not accidental that Christian culture gave birth to science, because by “desacralising the real” it freed people from magical causalities. By the end of the middle ages the “universally human” belief in witchcraft was dying out among the population, which presaged widespread scientific enquiry. He claims that Christianity’s loosening of ritual constraints and consequent “descacralisation of the social” gave birth to individualism. And as it is Christianity that destroys religions aligned with the sacrificial order, our post-religious contemporary world is precisely a Christian creation. And now “the victimary principle or the defence of victims has become holy: ‘it is the absolute’.” Girard sees the West as unique in its ability to criticise itself and constantly question its own legitimacy, but is perplexed at those who “deny its uniqueness out of the desire not to offend dead cultures!”
As already alluded to, this ‘triumph’ of Christianity does not provide Girard with much comfort. Mimetic emulations will continue to hold sway, and Girard was perspicacious as to how the ‘religion’ of defence of victims would soon enough develop sacrificial mechanisms: “very often Christian principles are prevailing in a caricaturist form, whereby the defence of the victim entails new persecutions! One can persecute today only in the name of being against persecution. One can only persecute the persecutors.” “In its extreme forms the omnipotence of the victim in our world is becoming such that we may be slipping toward the brink of a new totalitarianism.”
Similarly to defence of the victim, Girard argues that individualism, which grew out of desacralisation of the social, the call to self-examination, conversion, and resistance of the crowd, “like all great Christian innovations, is vulnerable to terrifying distortions and perversions. The modern individual is what remains of the person when romantic ideologies have finished with it, an idolatry of self-sufficiency that is necessarily deceptive, a philosophy of the will that immediately causes a re-doubling of imitation, an ever more complete submission to the group, ever more subject to the futile pull of fashion, and thus always exposed to totalitarian temptations.” And moreover “the gradual erosion of every ‘dharma’, of every rigid social hierarchy and division based on sacral norms, has plunged the modern individual into mimetic social flux, deep into ever more extreme oscillations of desire and resentment.”
It would be wrong, however, to characterise Girard as a determined pessimist, and indeed, contrary to marxist-influenced academics, he is not afraid to defend the capitalist system. He sees the repetitive demands of economic activity as “nothing but the secularised from of religious ritual. I think that, ultimately, there is no conflict between economic life and religion, and the dialectical contraposition between the two is excessively emphasised.” The organisation of labour provides ‘dharmic’ obstacles to constrain liquid mimetic rivalry and as such “is particularly relevant for the stability of North American society.”
The great danger, though, is the challenge to institutions and narratives hitherto foundational to civilization and prosperity whose efficacy has been based on ‘othering’ as the uncovering of the victimological principle continues its progression, and Girard is clear that “modern society is facing a new experimental phase”. The nation state is clearly among the most important of these institutions and is already beginning to face ideological pressure from an open-borders narrative that challenges global inequalities. According to Girard, throughout human history ‘othering’ has always come back to re-establish order, often delivering an ‘elation’ of peaceful release in the wake of cataclysmic upheaval. Girard observed no more or less that the future will be fascinating and unpredictable. “Ours is a world in which there is a paradox created by the co-presence of great improvement and a great deal of disintegration, and many other paradoxes that become more fascinating as they keep on intensifying.” “The ‘remaining time’ is going to be more of the same increasing complexity, but there will be dialectical turns so astonishing that they are going to take everybody by surprise. There must be things in store.”
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