René Girard (December 25, 1923 - November 4, 2015) was a world-renowned French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science. His work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. Much of his writing is devoted to developing the idea that human culture is based on a sacrifice as the way out of mimetic, or imitative, violence between rivals. His writing covers anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, cultural studies, critical theory, and literary criticism, as well as philosophy.
Girard's theoretical work began with his discovery of mimetic desire, the tendency of people to imitate the desire of other, personally and culturally significant figures. This mimetic desire is the basis of rivalry, which frequently ends in violence. Through his analysis of the cause and consequences of violence, Girard discovered the scapegoat mechanism. His final main theoretical contribution was his re-reading of The Bible, demonstrating that the biblical text reveals how the scapegoat mechanism works and is undone through the death of Jesus.
Girard's work was controversial due to his harsh criticisms of modern philosophy and his outspoken Christian views (such as his assertion that based on his analysis of both the anthropological evidence and religious texts, there is a clear distinction and superiority between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand, and primitive religion and mythology on the other).
René Girard was born in Avignon, France, on December 25, 1923. Between 1943 and 1947, he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, Paris. In 1947, Girard went to Indiana University on a one year fellowship, and the majority of his career has been pursued in the United States. He completed a PhD in history at Indiana University in 1950, but also began to teach literature, the field in which he would first make his reputation as a literary critic by publishing influential essays on such authors as Albert Camus and Marcel Proust. He taught at Duke University and at Bryn Mawr College before becoming professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Moving back and forth between Buffalo and Johns Hopkins, he finished his academic career at Stanford University where he taught between 1981 and his retirement in 1995.
On November 4, 2015, he died at his residence in Stanford, California, following a long illness.
After almost a decade of teaching French literature in the United States, Girard began to develop a new way of speaking about literary texts. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he tried to discover their common structural properties after noticing that characters in great fiction evolved in a system of relationships otherwise common to the wider generality of novels. But there was a distinction to be made:
Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is.
Girard's work uncovered the mechanism of the "psychological laws" to which Proust referred. Girard argued that these laws were a kind of revelation propagated by the world's great novelists, uncovering a mechanism that Girard called mimetic desire. This is the content of his first book, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque, translated as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961). (The translation fails to capture the opposition that Girard poses. Literally Romantic lying and novelistic truth, Girard opposes the Romantic notion of desire with those of the great novelists, who unveil the mechanism.)
Mimetic desire holds that despite the ideology of the culture of individualism, we borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the desire for an object is not autonomous within the desiring subject, and the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: There is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: It is in fact the model who is sought. René Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be," it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.
Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.
Through their characters, human behavior is displayed. Everyone holds firmly to the illusion of the authenticity of one's own desires; the novelists implacably expose all the diversity of lies, dissimulations, maneuvers, and the snobbery of the Proustian heroes; these are all but "tricks of desire," which prevent one from facing the truth: Envy and jealousy. These characters, desiring the being of the mediator, project upon him superhuman virtues while at the same time depreciating themselves, making him a god while making themselves slaves, in the measure that the mediator is an obstacle to them. Some, pursuing this logic, come to seek the failures that are the signs of the proximity of the ideal to which they aspire. This is masochism, which can turn into sadism.
This fundamental focus on mimetic desire would be pursued by René Girard throughout the rest of his career. It is interesting to note that the stress on imitation in humans was not a popular subject when Girard developed his theories. Girard later wrote about positive mimesis found in the Christian tradition of Imitatio Dei or Imitatio Christi.
Based on his insight into mimetic rivalry, Girard noted that the structure of mimetic rivalry for the object leads to a competition over objects, the most desired of which are in scarce supply. The structure is inherently violent; rivalry leads to a generalized struggle that can be characterized as contagious. Society is always threatened with an outbreak of violence, of the Hobbesian war of all against all. Girard himself says, "If there is a normal order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis." Turning his interest towards the anthropological domain, René Girard began to read all the anthropological literature and proposed his second great hypothesis: The victimization process, which is at the origin of archaic religion and which he sets forth in his second book, Violence and the Sacred (1972).
The phrase "scapegoat mechanism" was not coined by Girard himself; it had been used earlier by Kenneth Burke in Permanence and Change (1935) and A Grammar of Motives (1940). However, Girard took this concept from Burke and developed it much more extensively as an interpretation of human culture.
If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. A mechanism that leads to violence must be counterbalanced by a mechanism that helps to quell the violence and restore order. Since from the beginning the desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but since the real object of their desire was "metaphysical," that is, the desire of the desire of the other, the mechanism leads to a paroxysm of violence.
This mimetic contagion increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the scapegoat mechanism is triggered. At thus point one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat. Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. The keyword here is "content". Scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people.
The arbitrary victim is the one against whom a unanimous antipathy can, mimetically, grow. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis. This religious elaboration takes place gradually over the course of the repetition of the mimetic crises whose resolution brings only a temporary peace. The elaboration of the rites and of the taboos constitutes a kind of empirical knowledge about violence.
If explorers and anthropologists have not been able to witness events similar to these, which go back to the earliest times, indirect proofs for them abound, such as the universality of ritual sacrifice in all human communities and the innumerable myths that have been collected from the most varied peoples. If Girard's theory is true, then people will find in myths the culpability of the victim-god, depictions of the selection of the victim, and his power to beget the order that governs the group. And René Girard found these elements in numerous myths, beginning with that of Oedipus, which he analyzed in this and later books. On this question he opposes Claude Lévi-Strauss.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard develops the implications of this discovery. The victimary process is the missing link to the boundary between the animal world and the human world, the principle that explains the humanization of the primates. It allows one to understand the need for sacrificial victims, which in turn explains the hunt which is primitively ritual, and the domestication of animals as a fortuitous result of the acclimatization of a reserve of victims, or agriculture. It shows that at the beginning of all culture is archaic religion, which Durkheim had sensed. The elaboration of the rites and taboos by proto-human or human groups would take infinitely varied forms while obeying a rigorous practical sense that we can detect: The prevention of the return of the mimetic crisis. So one can find in archaic religion the origin of all political or cultural institutions.
According to Girard, just as the theory of natural selection of species is the rational principle that explains the immense diversity of forms of life, the victimary process is the rational principle that explains the origin of the infinite diversity of cultural forms. The analogy with Darwin also extends to the scientific status of the theory, as each of these presents itself as a hypothesis that is not capable of being proven experimentally, given the extreme amounts of time necessary to the production of the phenomena in question, but which imposes itself by its great explanatory power.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, René Girard for the first time discusses Christianity and the Bible. According to Girardian thought, but counter the conventional theological claims of the Church, the Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice—symbolically rather than through finding another victim in this case—in the Eucharist. This difference is fundamental for Girard. The parallel with ritual sacrifice is perfect except for one detail: The truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer. The mythical account is usually built on the lie of the guilt of the victim inasmuch as it is an account of the event seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous lynchers. This ignorance is indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial violence. The evangelical "good news" clearly affirms the innocence of the victim, thus becoming, by attacking ignorance, the germ of the destruction of the sacrificial order on which rests the equilibrium of societies. This difference disrupts the need for violence as the whole community can ritually re-enact it while acknowledging the innocence of the victim.
Already the Old Testament shows this turning inside-out of the mythic accounts with regard to the innocence of the victims (Abel, Joseph, Job, and so on), and the Hebrews were conscious of the uniqueness of their religious tradition. With the Gospels, it is with full clarity that these "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35) are unveiled, the foundation of the order of the world on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion. This revelation is even clearer because the text is a work on desire and violence, from the serpent setting alight the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter during the Passion. Girard reinterprets certain biblical expressions in light of his theories; for instance, he sees "scandal" as signifying mimetic rivalry. No one escapes responsibility, neither the envious nor the envied: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matthew 18:7).
The evangelical revelation exposes the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, but it has yet to put an end to the sacrificial order based on violence in the (Christian) society that has claimed the gospel text as its own religious text. Girard argues paradoxically that for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, but human nature does not change that quickly. The gospel text has instead acted as a ferment that brings about the decomposition of the sacrificial order. While medieval Europe showed the face of a sacrificial society that still knew very well how to despise and ignore its victims, nonetheless the efficacy of sacrificial violence has never stopped decreasing, in the measure that ignorance receded. Here René Girard sees the principle of the uniqueness and of the transformations of the Western society whose destiny today is one with that of human society as a whole. The retreat of the sacrificial order does not mean less violence; rather, it deprives modern societies of most of the capacity of sacrificial violence to establish temporary order. The "innocence" of the time of the ignorance is no more. The justification for the violence of the social order changes with the rise of the modern criminal justice system with its emphasis first on justice, later on rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, Christianity, following the example of Judaism, has desacralized the world, making possible a utilitarian relationship with nature. Increasingly threatened by the resurgence of mimetic crises on a grand scale, the contemporary world is on one hand more quickly caught up by its guilt, and on the other hand has developed such a great technical power of destruction that it is condemned to both more and more responsibility and less and less innocence. So, for example, while empathy for victims manifests progress in the moral conscience of society, it nonetheless also takes the form of a competition among victims that threatens an escalation of violence.
Some critics claim that Girard dedicates almost no attention to the frequently violent character of YHWH in the Hebrew Bible and immediately disregards any non-violent aspect of non-Christian religions. However, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World he claims he is not ashamed of Old Testament texts that mystify violence and analyzes many of the more important books of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is very important for his theory. One should also add that Girard does not disregard the non-violent aspects of non-Christian religions. His defense of Christianity has nothing to do with the idea of "non-violence." Girard stresses that Christianity does not promise peace but promises truth. According to Girard, it de-mystifies the "peace of the world." All religions, he says, even the most violent ones, are aimed toward peace. Archaic societies ritually repeat the scapegoat solution to make peace.
One of the main sources of criticism of Girard's work comes from intellectuals who claim that his comparison of Judeo-Christian texts vis-a-vis other religions leaves something to be desired. Many Bible scholars have criticized Girard's interpretation of the Bible, finding no evidence that the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures expose what Girard considers to be the true nature of myth. Robert Price argues that if Girard's hermeneutic is applied consistently, it becomes apparent that the gospels are also myth (and not in the unique, positive sense that Girard sometimes ascribes to it).
Another major source of contention is Girard's seeming to have left no role for beneficial imitation. Rebecca Adams notes that because Girard's theories fixate on violence, he creates a "scapegoat" himself with his own theory–the scapegoat of positive mimesis. Adams proposes a reassessment of Girard's theory that includes an account of loving mimesis or, as she prefers to call it, creative mimesis.
The work of René Girard has been extended into numerous academic disciplines. There has developed a "Girardian school" of thought that has influenced the work and careers of numerous academics. A convert to Catholicism, his work interested the Vatican, and he received an audience with Pope John Paul II.
In 1990, a group of scholars founded the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) with a goal to "explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture." This organization organizes a yearly conference devoted to topics related to mimetic theory, scapegoating, violence, and religion. Co-founder and first president of the COV&R was the Roman Catholic theologian Raymund Schwager.
Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in his book A mime named desire (Un mime nommé désir - Grasset 1982) used Girard's theories in psychopathology. Hysteria and obsession are explained through mimetic rivalry and the priority of desire.
Girard's work also attracted interest from empirical researchers investigating human imitation (among them Andrew Meltzoff and Vittorio Gallese). Empirical studies into the mechanism of desire have suggested some intriguing correlations with Girard's theory on the subject:
What makes Girard's insights so remarkable is that he not only discovered and developed the primordial role of psychological mimesis (...) during a time when imitation was quite out of fashion, but he did so through investigation in literature, cultural anthropology, history, and ultimately returning to religious texts for further evidence of mimetic phenomena. The parallels between Girard's insights and the only recent conclusions made by empirical researchers concerning imitation (in both development and the evolution of species) are extraordinary.
The mimetic theory has also been applied in the study of economics, most notably in La violence de la monnaie (1982) by Michel Aglietta and André Orléan:
In La violence de la monnaie, Aglietta and Orléan follow Girard in suggesting that the basic relation of exchange can be interpreted as a conflict of 'doubles', each mediating the desire of the Other. Like Lucien Goldmann, they see a connection between Girard's theory of mimetic desire and the Marxian theory of commodity fetishism. In their theory, the market takes the place of the sacred in modern life as the chief institutional mechanism stabilizing the otherwise explosive conflicts of desiring subjects.
In an interview with the Unesco Courier, anthropologist and social theorist Mark Anspach (editor of the René Girard issue of Les Cahiers de l'Herne) explained that Aglietta and Orléan (who were very critical of economic rationality) see the classical theory of economics as a myth. According to Anspach, the vicious circle of violence and vengeance generated by mimetic rivalry gives rise to the gift economy, as a means to overcome it and achieve a peaceful reciprocity: "Instead of waiting for your neighbour to come steal your yams, you offer them to him today, and it is up to him to do the same for you tomorrow. Once you have made a gift, he is obliged to make a return gift. Now you have set in motion a positive circularity." Since the gift may be so large as to be humiliating, a second stage of development—"economic rationality"—is required: this liberates the seller and the buyer of any other obligations than to give money. Thus reciprocal violence is eliminated by the sacrifice, obligations of vengeance by the gift, and finally the possibly dangerous gift by "economic rationality." This rationality, however, creates new victims, as globalization is increasingly revealing.
Girard's influence extends beyond philosophy and social science, and includes the literary realm. A prominent example of a fiction writer influenced by Girard is J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Critics have noted that mimetic desire and scapegoating are recurring themes in Coetzee's novels Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace. In the latter work, the book's protagonist also gives a speech about the history of scapegoating with noticeable similarities to Girard's view of the same subject. Coetzee has also frequently cited Girard in his non-fiction essays, on subjects ranging from advertising to the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Girard received a number of significant honors and awards, including being elected to the Académie française, the highest rank for French intellectuals, on March 17, 2005. He was a Guggenheim Fellow (1959 and 1966) He also received the Prix Médicis essai for Shakespeare, les feux de l'envie (A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare, 1991), the prix Aujourd'hui for Les origines de la culture (2004), was awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen (2006), and the Order of Isabella the Catholic, Commander by Number, by the Spanish head of state, H.M. King Juan Carlos.
Honorary degrees were awarded to Girard by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (the Netherlands, 1985), UFSIA in Antwerp (Belgium, 1995), the Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy, 2001, honorary degree in "Arts"), the faculty of theology at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), the Université de Montréal (Canada, 2004), and the University of St Andrews (UK, 2008).
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