top of page
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.

June 27 Rene Girard - Mimetic Desire & the Scapegoat

year 2008 and travel to St Andrews in Scotland were the French polymath, Rene Girard was given honorary degree at St Andrews. Beginning his academic career as a literary theorist, Girard developed a theory of ‘Mimetic Rivalry’ which he first used to interpret literature, but became a theoretical tool to understand the development of human culture and particularly the role of religion. His influence in different academic fields as varied as anthropology, economics, sociology and theology has been quite profound and is growing. As his thinking matured it became more focused on religion and particularly on the Judeo-Christian story, and the influential American Bishop and theologian, Robert Barron has remarked that Girard will be appreciated as a 21st-Century Church Father in the future.

His central idea was that human motivation is based on desire and that we seek things in life based on what other people want. Our copying of others desires, he termed mimesis, and it beings very early in life, as we develop observing how other humans act. Through this process of observational mimicry, we watch and learn to copy adult behaviour. This plants deep within us the desire to have or be something that others are – which he calls mimetic desire. This mimetic desire becomes mimetic rivalry as we become more and more conscious of belonging to a larger and more complex group, whether it be family, then school and then society. As that wider consciousness emerges, we also become more aware of inequalities within the group, in terms of gifts and talents but also in terms of material possessions and security. According to Girard, all conflict, competition and rivalry originate in mimetic desire and this can escalate into conflict between individuals and wider groups. In order to control this violence, we have to repress it and society is required to blame someone or something in order to defuse conflict. This is what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism. A concept which he borrowed from the American literary theorist Kenneth Burke.

In 1972 building on his research into desire, he published a book called Violence and the Sacred theorising that religion and mythology were necessary steps in human evolution to control the violence that arises from mimetic rivalry and unequal distribution of desirable things. Religion directed the scapegoat impulse onto concepts, such as Satan or demons. Without the scapegoating mechanism we would see an increase in human conflict, according to Girard. Following with another book, In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, he discovered that Biblical Stories were therefore an essential instrument of cohesion. The primary purpose of sacred texts was to end the practice of human sacrifice through replacing the behaviour triggered by scapegoat mechanism with ritual. The Gospels give an account of a victim-God condemned by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — for Catholics and Orthodox, a material re-presentation in the Eucharist.

The "good news" of the Gospels, clearly affirms the innocence of the Victim, thus becoming, according to Girard, the beginning of the destruction of the sacrificial order on which rests the equilibrium of societies. The true God is far removed from violence, whereas false gods that sanction violence are idols. By revealing how human violence works, Girard claims, the Bible reveals that this violence does not come from God; rather, God sympathizes with victims. God is incarnate in the person of Jesus, in order to become himself a victim. This is predicted by Old Testament where the Hebrews were conscious of the uniqueness of their religious tradition. Girard draws special attention to passages in the book of Isaiah, which describe the suffering of the Servant of Yahweh at the hands of the entire community, emphasizing his innocence.

The evangelical revelation, therefore, contains the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, Girard tells us. However in face of this truth, has it put an end to the sacrificial order based on violence in the society that has claimed the gospel text as its own religious text? No, says Girard, since in order for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, and people do not change that quickly. The religious violence of medieval times would indicate that and wars continue but end with no clear resolutions and International rivalries still escalate toward uncertain ends. Nuclear Weapons make stakes are higher than ever today: but the worst violence of the 20th century where caused by the pagan and atheist ideologies of Nazism and Communism. However, according to Girard, the Judeo-Christian texts are unique in revealing the innocence of the scapegoat, thus destabilizing the mechanism that allowed the victim to be both criminal and redeemer. There has been a recent move amongst historians however to show how deeply Christianity has shaped Western Culture and modernity in a more peaceful way, such as the work Dominion by Tom Holland. Although the atheist writer, Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined gives alternative explanations as to why this has occurred with increased literacy and communication and a rise in a rational problem-solving orientation as possible causes of this decline in violence. He does not seem interested in how Christianity has shaped these trends.

Girard’s scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. He overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert. He also surprisingly gives credence to St Augustine’s idea of Original Sin. Under Girard’s interpretation, there is a twofold sense of original sin: 1) human beings are born with the propensity to imitate each other and, eventually, be led to violence; 2) human culture was laid upon the foundations of violence. Thus, human nature is tainted by an original sin, but it can be saved through repentance and the withdrawal from violence.

Girard was not a Christian for the early part of his life, but through his work as a humanist, that is researching the humanities, it eventually lead him to Christianity. Moving from France he spent the latter part of his life working as an academic in America and received honorary degrees and awards from many different universities and academic institutions and was elected in 2005 to the prestigious Académie Française. His work has proven to have had a growing influence, even in the most unusual places. Peter Andreas Thiel the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, was the first outside investor in Facebook. Thiel, said that he was a student at Stanford when he first encountered Professor Girard’s work, and that it later inspired him to quit an unfulfilling law career in New York and go to Silicon Valley. He gave Facebook its first $100,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media. “Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic, Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.” The investment made Mr. Thiel a billionaire.


bottom of page