Book Reviews, Charles, Christian History, Christian Theology, Classical History, Religion, Social Behavior
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I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (René Girard)

It has long been fashionable to regard Christianity as myth, no different in substance than many other ancient myths. Sometimes this is done to glibly dismiss Christ’s message; sometimes it is done in sorrow, viewing, as C. S. Lewis did before his conversion, Christianity as one of many lies, even if was “breathed through silver.” René Girard entirely rejects this idea, offering an anthropological, rather than spiritual, argument for Christianity being a true myth, and for the complete uniqueness of Christianity, as well for as its centrality to the human story. Girard’s appeal is that his framework explains the core of all human societies, and thus explains, at any moment, the present. Therefore, though he died in 2015, Girard says much about America in 2021.

Girard was a devout Roman Catholic, a Frenchman who spent much of his academic career in the United States. (He has gotten some extra attention from the fact that he taught Peter Thiel, who became a big admirer of Girard and who gave a eulogy at his funeral.) Girard first published his theory of mimetic contagion in 1978, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I was going to read that book, but was encouraged to start with the more recent, and much shorter, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. So here I started, although I glanced at Things Hidden from time to time, as well as at several other books Girard wrote. This edition of I See Satan Fall contains an excellent Foreword by James G. Williams, summarizing the basics of Girard’s thought on mimetic contagion, making it is doubly a good place for a novice to start.

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Girard begins by announcing his intent to explore and highlight, rather than minimize as most devout people do, the similarities and parallels between the Gospel and pagan myths, and for good measure his intention to dismantle Friedrich Nietzsche. He then outlines his theory of mimetic contagion, using as his frame the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet. . . .” “Covet” for Girard means not an untoward desire, but simply any desire for what others have. He identifies this not as God’s mere prohibition on greed, but rather, far more fundamentally, as a unique early attack on the internal cycle of violence that is the basis of all human societies.

One of Girard’s purposes has nothing to do with religion, and that is to explain how human societies began, namely in violence, a specific kind of violence with a specific kind of purpose. But as can be seen from his dissection of the Decalogue, his other purpose is to prove that Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) is unique among all human religions, able to release mankind from the prison into which the forms of violence the underpin all human societies have placed us. Christ’s death on the Cross was fully as meaningful as Christians would have it—even if Christ was not, in fact, as he claimed, the Son of God, his sacrifice upended the entire anthropological order of the world. He showed a path of redemption, both secular and divine (reflecting the hypostatic union) previously unknown to mankind.

Violence in human societies arises because we desire what our neighbor has, because our neighbor desiring it makes it desirable in our eyes. “Our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire.” That is to say, despite our own perception that our desires are internally generated, in most instances they arise by imitation; we desire what others desire, not what we independently want. (A related principle is well-known in the context of how wealthy people feel about their wealth, but Girard’s vision is far broader.) My neighbor, however, by his possession of what I desire, thwarts my desire, at the same time my desire, in a reflection of my own actions, perceived by my neighbor, intensifies my neighbor’s desire for what he already has. Girard calls this “double desire,” and the rivals are “mimetic doubles,” very similar to each other but perceiving unreal huge differences. (This insight is part of why Thiel admires Girard; it has obvious applications in many human realms, including business.) We perceive ourselves as autonomous, when in fact we are “enslaved to our mimetic models.”

This spiral of rivalry and its consequences Girard calls “scandal,” and he says this process inevitably engulfs entire societies through a process of “violent contagion,” citing Matthew 18:7, “Scandals . . . must come.” The original rivalries are often forgotten entirely as new ones arise with blinding speed, eventually converging on one society-wide scandal. This violent contagion convulses a society; it will tear itself apart in mass violence unless something is done. That something is to identify a single innocent on whom the concentrated fury of the accumulated rivalries can be directed, through the killing of the innocent by the society acting as a whole. This killing produces a superbly cathartic effect on the society, and peace is restored, for a time, as everyone in society congratulates himself on a job well done—even though this killing is invariably, in reality, utterly unjust. (Girard focuses on a “single victim,” but elsewhere suggests that the victim can be more than one individual, and just as easily a large identifiable group.)

Girard thus sees social conflict as normal, not accidental. It is inevitable in the nature of man. Not for Girard fantasies of peaceful societies of the distant past; he would not be surprised at the evisceration of such silliness by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization, and he would no doubt agree with Carl Schmitt’s thoughts on the friend-enemy distinction. But it is not any violence that is Girard’s focus, but this very specific kind of violence. At the same time, he sees mimetic desire, because it allows us to choose what we desire, as what makes us human, rather than animals driven purely by instinct, and therefore of itself intrinsically good. “Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.”

Girard then turns to the Passion of Christ, demonstrating that the behavior of the men surrounding Christ’s death, from Saint Peter to Pontius Pilate, and even the Jews who had so lately cheered Jesus, are examples of mimetic contagion, where the players are driven to give in to the rising violence even when that is not their intention, and in fact wholly contrary to their declared and actual intention. Neither Peter nor Pilate wants Christ crucified, yet they are swept up in the contagion. In this the death of Christ is entirely unexceptional, and it echoes a long list of similar episodes in the Bible, both of the persecution of various Old Testament prophets (and of the prefiguring Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah), and of, more recently in Biblical time, the death of John the Baptist.

From whence comes mimetic contagion? It comes from Satan. Now, it is never precisely clear, at least in this book, if Girard sees Satan as an individual and entity. It does, in fact, appear not; at one point, Girard refers to the Devil as “totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self” (italics in original). Yet as a devout Roman Catholic he probably did (my guess is this is addressed elsewhere, perhaps in the several books of interviews of Girard that have been published recently). Maybe this apparent confusion results from Girard’s stated intention to make his book wholly scientific, rather than theological, in focus. Regardless, Girard heaps contempt on modern attempts to write Satan out of the Bible and Christianity; in his view, Satan is the hinge around which our temporal world turns. Satan is responsible for mimetic crisis, by showing us what we desire and then blocking our acquisition of what we desire, thereby creating scandal. Girard cites the episode in Matthew 16 where Peter “invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire,” and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are a scandal to me.” Jesus instead demands we, like him, avoid mimetic rivalry by focusing our desire on the desires of the Father.

But, in the words of Mark 3:23, Satan can cast out Satan. He initiates the cycle of mimetic violence, and also, through the catharsis that follows the killing of the scapegoat, restores order and harmony to society, a feeling of having been purified. This is the key to his being the prince of this world, for if he merely brought chaos and anarchy, he would have no power. Yet he continuously plays both sides of the game, thereby maintaining his power. The Crucifixion is an exemplar of this process; “[w]hat makes the mimetic cycle of Jesus’s suffering unique is, not the violence, but the fact that the victim is the Son of God.” His sacrifice ended the rule of Satan—because it broke the cycle of mimetic violence that was the formation of all human societies prior to Christianity, founding an entirely new anthropology. Jesus is wholly different, because he invited his disciples to desire what he desired, however that desire was not a mimetic rivalry, but the desire to imitate the Father in all things. If accepted, this protects us from mimetic rivalries entirely, and is thus an upgrade to the Tenth Commandment.

After outlining this cycle, Girard proceeds to contrast myth and Christianity, what he calls a study in comparative religion. He does this by analyzing the hagiographical Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, a militant pagan. (Apollonius was a wonderworking guru of the first century A.D., a great favorite of shallow-thinking New Atheists, such as Matthew Ridley in his execrable The Evolution of Everything, who think that the parallels to Christ in the supposed life of Apollonius disprove the existence of Christ.) Girard discusses at length how Apollonius ended a plague in Ephesus by egging on the pagan Ephesians to stone to death a crippled beggar, overcoming their hesitation by enticing them to throw the first stone, whereupon the dead beggar was revealed to have been a demon, and the plague ended, with the intervention of the god Heracles. Girard believes this was a real episode, though certainly no demon was revealed and no god intervened, but the plague, one not of disease but scandal resulting from mimetic rivalries engulfing the city, was still by this blood sacrifice cured. Moreover, contrasting Christ’s defusing of the proposed stoning of the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Girard notes that even the process of killing itself is the result of mimetic contagion—it is difficult to get the stoning started, but once it begins, it becomes unstoppable.

From this jumping-off place Girard moves backward, to earlier myths, such as those of Oedipus and those surrounding the cult of Dionysus. Girard interprets various founding myths that involve a murder followed by the divinization of the object of the murder, often in a form of resurrection, as evidence of the universal pattern of mimetic contagion resulting in a crisis existentially tearing at the social fabric and its cure through the single victim mechanism. (His book The Scapegoat analyzes many more examples.) Through this mechanism false gods are often created, because it seems divine how the victim can bring society together, and these new gods underpin the creation of human societies. This is the “founding murder”; the story of Cain and Abel is one, as is that of Romulus and Remus. Girard takes these myths as representative of multiple cycles of mimetic violence surrounding the formation of societies and ensuring their stability. Religion forms the core of every social system; it is essential to humanity, not a parasite upon the real mechanisms of societal formation. Girard has no truck with theories of social contract, and no doubt thinks equally little of other theories of societal formation, such as Francis Fukuyama’s.

Turning back to Christianity, Girard analyzes passages from the New Testament that suggest the Gospel writers recognized, for the first time in human history, the “powers and principalities,” that is, Satan, as complicit in this process of societal formation. A key point of Girard is that Gospel passages that seem opaque or obvious are often nothing of the sort, but rather encapsulate enormous insights we typically miss. His book is filled with passages from both the Old and New Testaments that could be seen as banal but into which Girard breathes life. The passages Girard cites are often read as superstitious or magical thinking, but he rather interprets them as deeply insightful into human nature and conduct, and what is more, aware of how Jesus, true man and true god, upended this age-old human mechanism.

It is to this last point that Girard devotes the final third of his book. He directly attacks the view that the Gospels are just another myth. Anti-Christian apologists have long tried to show that the Gospels differ only in the particulars of myth; the broad themes are just the same as all other myths. In a jujitsu move, however, Girard entirely agrees with these critics—the Gospels are substantially identical in their form to other myths, because both the myths and the Gospel are part of a larger, essential truth, that of the cycle of mimetic violence. The difference of the Gospels is that that Christ completely inverts, and thereby utterly destroys, the universal pattern that existed before his sacrifice.

To demonstrate this, Girard steps back to the story of Joseph, comparing it to the story of Oedipus. There are a great many broad similarities—but the crucial difference, in which the ancient Jews prefigured Christ, is that Oedipus was guilty of the crimes for which he was punished, and Joseph innocent. In the Bible, the guilty are the accusers—that is, Satan; in the Greek myth, the righteous are the accusers. In other words, the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is unique, because it, even before Christ, attacks the standard mythic narrative. “The story of Joseph is a refusal of the religious illusions of paganism.” Similarly, the Psalms “are the first [texts] in human history to allow those who would simply become silent victims in the world of myth to voice their complaint as hysterical crowds besiege them.” And Job “not only resists totalitarian contagion but wrests the deity out of the process of persecution to envision him as the God of victims, not of persecutors.” “No one and no tradition before the Bible were capable of calling into question the guilt of victims whom their communities unanimously condemned.” Judaism was the first religion to reject the mimetic contagion and the divinization of victims.

So what then of Christianity, which does indeed divinize the victim? It merely appears to follow the form of myth; but in fact is a complete inversion of myth. Girard here explicitly rejects Marcionism, the ancient heresy that the God of the Old Testament is a mere demiurge and entirely distinct from the God of the New Testament. Rather, the Old and New Testaments are not in any way in contradiction. Not only is Christ innocent, as Joseph was, but there is no violent unanimity in the community as to his death (though due to the process of mimetic contagion, unanimity is near complete at the moment of the Passion), and thus Christ’s death does not bring harmony—it brings not peace, but a sword. The Gospel therefore reveals truths hidden since the foundation of the world, a crucial anthropological reality. “The Gospels reveal everything that human beings need to understand their moral responsibility with regard to the whole spectrum of violence in human history and to all the false religions.” In fact, Christ himself repeatedly cites passages from the Psalms revealing this reality, further showing the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. By the Cross, mankind escapes Satan, and thus the Eastern Orthodox view (largely disappeared in the West) that Christ by his sacrifice on the Cross duped Satan to his irretrievable detriment contains great insight and truth (although, Girard notes, it is perhaps less trick than simply “the inability of the prince of this world to understand the divine love”). Christ thereby subverts mimetic contagion, releases us from its hold, and redeems mankind.

Not that mankind often takes the opportunity to accept the redemption that Christ offers. Yes, Christianity has spread widely, and mimetic contagion is no longer the core of societies, or at least of Christian societies (though the entire world is influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the Cross). We still scapegoat, but we are ashamed of it, and try to hide our participation in any mimetic contagion in which we become involved. We accuse others of scapegoating in order to criticize them, in particular to stigmatize perceived discrimination. This leads to the modern phenomenon of victimology. “Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was.” Yet we often tell ourselves that we are inadequately compassionate and we must do more. What is this? Merely another instance of mimetic contagion. “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about victims for whom they hold us responsible.” Nonetheless, Girard ascribes the modern concern with human rights “to a formerly unthinkable effort to control uncontrollable processes of mimetic snowballing.” This is the result of Christianity, of course, even though moderns frequently, in a bizarre error, scapegoat Christianity as the cause of victimization.

Finally, and crucially, Girard examines modern trends of thought that reject Christianity’s view of the victim as innocent, and attempt to reintroduce the pagan view of the victim as the justified target of mimetic violence—justified both by his supposed actual crime, and by the benefit to society that results, both cathartically and instrumentally, from his death. He ascribes to Nietzsche the rediscovery that pagan violent unanimity was an identical process to that taking place in the Passion. But Nietzsche falsely concluded from this insight that the pagan view was superior, and, famously, Christianity a “slave religion,” born of resentment, that hampers human flourishing by excessive concern for the victim, when in fact Christianity is “heroic resistance to violent contagion.” Nietzsche exalts Dionysus over Christ; this is a regression, not an advance.

Here, and really only here in the book, Girard enters choppy waters. He makes several claims that either make little sense or have been disproved. In the first category, he ascribes to the concern for victims “colonial conquests, abuses of power, the murderous wars of the twentieth century, the pillage of the planet, etc.” It is unclear how such a causal mechanism would work and he does not explain. In the second category, he denies that the West is decadent or (spiritually) aging; rather, it “seems to have extraordinary longevity, due to renewal and perpetual enhancement of its leadership and institutions.” No comment is necessary, although this book was published in 1999, so Girard’s apparent optimism is more understandable.

Regardless, Girard did foresee the logical consequence of excessive focus on victimization. “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. . . . The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite. . . . We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.” Yet at the same time Nietzschean influence grows, in part because Christianity is made the common scapegoat. Those on the Right can see the Nietzschean strain rising in reaction to the Left’s advances, most notably recently in the work of Bronze Age Pervert. Girard would not be a BAP fan.

But this rising Nietzschean influence is not the real threat; those ideologies that reject the concern for victims, especially National Socialism, never got much traction. The real threat, “the most powerful anti-Christian movement,” “is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it,” which “presents itself as the liberator of humanity . . . in place of Christ,” but is actually a mimetic rival of Christ. This ideology has brought back Satan, because it both creates mimetic contagion by “borrow[ing] the language of victims” and offers the age-old solution to contagion, violence against the innocent who are seen to oppose social justice. In other words, the modern Left (though Girard does not use that term, or identify this tendency by name) is literally Satan, the prince of this world, the accuser of the innocent, the tempter from the beginning, Antichrist.

Yet Antichrist is not an entity but something “banal and prosaic,” by which Girard means not inefficacious at creating evil, but something existing since the foundation of the world. “The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc. . . . . Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.” This is not surprising. Christ did not imprison Satan when he defeated him; he fell like lightning, and he fell to earth, “where he will not remain inactive.” Yes, Christ showed us how to resist him, but we have, more often than not, failed. The katechon, the power that holds back the Antichrist Saint Paul mentions in Second Thessalonians (and a key focus of Carl Schmitt), only holds back Satan in part. Christianity can redeem the whole history of man, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (whose name in Greek, parakletos, means “defender of the accused”), but we must choose, for God gave us free will. And our record is not good.

Girard does not say what must be done, but it is obvious. We must break this renewed cycle of mimetic violence brought to us by modern neopagan philosophies, by our restoring the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, refusing to participate in mimetic scapegoating and rejecting concern for false victims. This is easy enough to apply to 2021 America. To take only one example (there are many), Girard would see clearly that George Floyd was no victim; he is just a tool in a massive ongoing scheme of mimetic scapegoating by the Left/Satan. The real victims, the focus of the violent unanimity of Burn-Loot-Murder joined with a constellation of other powerful groups, are white people as a group, especially those who refuse to deny their supposed “whiteness” and join their persecutors, and most of all devout Christian white people. They are demonized by the Left as it inflates a Girardian scandal.

You only have to glance at the vocabulary of critical race theory with its core ideology of demanding the violent elimination of white people to see the truth of this. As I have been saying for some time, the result is likely to be violence when a leader arises to defend, and to focus the mimetic rivalry of, whites. This social situation is, shall we say, extremely unfortunate, but Girard would not be surprised—white people are simply today’s Ephesian beggar, but with a lot more guns. This will not end well, but it will be their fault, not ours. Girard would ask, with Rodney King, that we all “just get along,” yet he would know that against this type of action of Satan, such a plea is unlikely to work—unless a society adopts the true vision of Christ, thereby breaking the mimetic rivalry. I’m not hopeful that’s about to happen, because as Girard says, the Left is an ideology, a satanic one, and ideologies can only be broken by force. Maybe after that’s finished, we can try again to master the cycle.


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32 Comments

  1. Altitude Zero says

    There’s something I’m not following here. “Mimetic desire” is intrinsically good, but “Mimetic contagion” is of the Devil? Are these not the same thing, or at least so similar that one inevitably leads to the other? Not being sarcastic, I’m genuinely confused here. Also, isn’t it a bit suspect that, despite the fact that it has had the attention of literally the best minds in the highest civilization mankind has ever produced, Girard seems to be finding new meanings in the Bible? I mean, really? Nobody REALLY understood what “Thou shalt Not Covet” meant until Girard came along? Color me skeptical, although it sounds like Girard has some interesting things to say.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Mimetic desire is for Girard intrinsically good, but not an unalloyed good. Hence the quote about “ransom of our freedoms.” Satan would, of course, have no relevance if Man had no free will; he uses the structures inherent to God’s creation to his own ends.

      Yes, that’s basically Girard’s claim. It may be in his longer books he points out predecessor thought along the same lines; I don’t know.

      • Altitude Zero says

        “Yes, that’s basically Girard’s claim.”

        Wow, that’s a pretty big claim, sounds like it walks right up to Gnosticism. If he’s claiming to be the first (or, possibly, one of the few) people to really understand the Bible, and the true meaning of Christianity, that makes Girard either 1) The greatest biblical scholar since, well, EVER; or 2) Kind of a loon, despite having some interesting and sensible things to say on some issues. With all due respect (and I mean that, he’s obviously an interesting guy) I know what’s more likely…

        • Charles Haywood says

          Maybe. It’d be more accurate to say he claims to have discovered the anthropological meaning of the Bible, and of all human societies. This book, at least, is explicitly non-spiritual.

    • Jared says

      (I’m a little hamstrung in my commenting because I don’t have any copies of my Girard texts with me; I’m going on memory and my own understanding, so imagine many “if I recall correctly..” statements peppered throughout my responses.)

      I wouldn’t characterise mimetic desire as intrinsically good; it is itself a neutral property of human behaviour, and is intrinsically good only insomuch as the object of desire is good. Thus, Christ invites us to imitate Him (i.e., goodness itself, or, per Aquinas, “the good of every good”), and this is, for obvious reasons, good. But as for those who act so “that they may be seen of men,” well, “they have their reward.”

      I believe Girard explicitly denies that he is in possession of Gnostic wisdom regarding any of this stuff. IIRC, in Things Hidden.. he explicitly states that nothing he says is new; it is simply the most recent analysis of an ancient understanding, pre-dating Christianity but perfected in it, which has perhaps waxed and waned in intellectual prevalence over time. The things that were hidden were unveiled by Christ, not Girard.

      As a cue to the antiquity of this knowledge, you can find Aristotle in his Poetics citing Hesiod, who wrote the following (the different forms of mimetic desire, good and bad, will be obvious):

      So then, the genos of the Erides was not a single one, but on Earth there are two of them. One is to be praised when a person takes note in his noos, but the other is to be blamed. They have the opposite kinds of thūmos. One of them promotes evil war and strife, the wretched one! No mortal loves this one, but, by necessity, in accord with the will of the immortals, humans give tīmē to this burdensome Eris.

      As for the other one, she was the first of the two to be born of dark Night. And Zeus, seated on high, abiding in the aether, made her to be far better for men, rooted in Earth as she is. She rouses even the resourceless person to work. For when one man who needs work looks at another man who is rich, who strives to plow, to plant, to keep his household in order, then it is that neighbour envies neighbour, as the rich man is striving for his wealth. This Eris is good for mortals. Potter envies potter, carpenter envies carpenter. Beggar envies beggar, singer envies singer.

      You, Perses, must place these things in your thūmos. Do not let the Eris who rejoices at others’ misfortunes keep your thūmos away from work, as you skulk about looking and listening for occasions of neikea in the agorā.

      (Aristotle’s quotation is bolded.)

      Or we can go back even further, to Egyptian wisdom literature in the Maxims of Ptah-hotep:

      If thou desire that thine actions may be good, save thyself from all malice, and beware of the quality of covetousness, which is a grievous inner malady. Let it not chance that thou fall thereinto. It setteth at variance fathers-in-law and the kinsmen of the daughter-in-law; it sundereth the wife and the husband. It gathereth unto itself all evils; it is the girdle of all wickedness.

      But the man that is just flourisheth; truth goeth in his footsteps, and he maketh habitations therein, not in the dwelling of covetousness.

      Moreover, as pointed out by Girard, much of what St. Paul wrote is, per Charles, banal or mysterious unless interpreted in this same kind of light. Some of this thought is similarly retained in the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s Conquering of Hell, which, again, as pointed out in the review, Girard laments that the Roman Church has lost.

      (N.b., it is useful to point out that the earlier Greek and Egyptian understandings of the problems of covetousness are entirely material; “don’t covet, become materially rich; covet, become materially poor” sorts of things. IMO Girard falls too much into this style of thinking as well when he interprets les recompenses du salut eternel that Christ has won for humanity with an excessive focus on violence, rather than truth.)

      In any case, I am, to say the least, not an expert in how Christian thought has changed over the ages, so I’m unable to speak much further on the issue. I can’t say with certainty that something like this understanding was formerly more widespread, but I believe that to be true. In my opinion, many Christian concepts or biblical excerpts simply don’t make sense unless interpreted under some kind of understanding of covetousness that could be called Girardian.

      • Altitude Zero says

        “The things that were hidden were unveiled by Christ, not Girard.”

        True, enough, but if Girard is the first (or one of the few) to REALLY understand them, then it’s pretty much the same thing. I know that he claims he’s not, and that this has been an understanding that has waxed and waned over time, but given what I know about the history of religion, Girard’s understanding of mimetic rivalry as a key concept in the formation of civilizations and of the deeper meaning of Christianity, is pretty unique. Besides, gnostics harking back to other gnostic interpretations of the Bible doesn’t really disprove the charge, does it? As I said above, I don’t think that Girard is flat-out a gnostic or a Marcionite, but there are most certainly elements of this in his work, and I’m not the only one to see them. This of course does not make them evil or worthless, but I do think that some caution is necessary. I will repeat, I am skeptical of anyone who finds things in the Bible that Aquinas or Augustine or Balthasar or Luther or Calvin didn’t.

  2. Karen Bradford says

    What is the relevance of technology in our present victimology and scapegoating compared to historical events?

    • Charles Haywood says

      A great question; not that I’m qualified to answer, but I do have some thoughts. Technology greatly expands the opportunities and ability to scapegoat, both in identifying targets and in coordinating actions against them. (We have seen this over and over recently, obviously.) It also greatly expands the speed of the mimetic cycle; flash mobs for scapegoating are possible. Thus, one would expect the cycle of mimetic violence to become faster and faster, and with greater amplitude.

      On the other hand, we haven’t seen that much actual violence. Perhaps that’s also a function of technology—in the past, you stoned people, now you try to starve them by denying them a living. Less risky—but probably far less cathartic, and therefore a poor substitute. Which perhaps explains the constant search for new targets, often based on the latest insane cause.

      Of course, there were the Floyd/BLM riots, and from them, many attacks on white people as whites. This may signal movement into widespread mimetic violence—and it will not remain one-sided. You can attack white people where you own the justice system. That’s not going to work well outside Soros-captured districts. And it’ll eventually fail to work even there.

      So I am curious to see whether this summer will be violent. If not, perhaps the Girardian cycle will not execute itself fully. If yes, well, there we are. Let’s get it on.

  3. Troilus says

    Simple question, and perhaps criticism of Girard: why is our neighbor the model for our desires? In other words, what is man, or what is the nature of man as Girard conceives of him? I freely grant that men desire those things which authoritative opinion – the neighbor – calls good. And in that sense these memetic desires are not internally generated. However, it seems to me, that there is an internally generated desire to be looked upon well by one’s neighbors. If in any given polity some goods are considered desirable, then the man who is able to out-do his neighbors in attaining those goods is considered a better man. He is thereby special and his fleeting life is made meaningful. So even if the goods desired are more or less conventional or external, there is a fundamental desire which is primary, internal, and natural.

    But, if my objection is true, this would mean that there is no complete solution to human problems. Even if everyone is persuaded to desire what the Father desires, the desire to be the one who fulfills the Father’s desire most, who is most Christian, would create instability – or dynamism – in the system. Hence heresies and religious wars would enter the scene. “Listen to me, concern yourselves with me, for I have the true theological understanding, and all those other men have been corrupted by the Devil.”

    On your understanding does Girard give a convincing answer to the above?

    • Charles Haywood says

      Not in this book—but he wrote a lot. I don’t think Girard would distinguish between “conventional” goods and “status” goods, though. And he would not be surprised that the desire to compete in desiring what the Father wants reintroduces mimetic rivalry—for Satan, again, is on earth, not imprisoned. So neither of these seems to me a strong contradiction to Girard’s claims.

    • Jared says

      why is our neighbor the model for our desires?

      This struck me as a limitation of Girardian theory when I first read him, and to be honest, I’m not sure Girard ever resolved it to my satisfaction. I resolved it myself to my own satisfaction, though.

      The key concept that makes this sensible, for me, is status. I.e., the organic temporal ranking of humans, inexorably, in hierarchies. Status is power, and leads to mates, goods, and other riches; even at a biological level there is a capable selective explanation in terms of why it should be desirable to humans. Or one can just look at the world and trivially observe it to be true.

      (Aristotle has a sharp quote on the merits of just doing the latter, but alas, I don’t have my copy of his Physics with me.)

      Status is always desirable, but it is finite. The whole world can’t be cool. Furthermore, everyone can identify status; I can observe any coherent group of humans for fifteen minutes and come to a reasonable understanding of what its status hierarchy is. Thus: if I am lower status, and I am able to identify those with higher status, then a good strategy for me to attempt to gain status is to imitate those with higher status. Et voilà, that is all that is needed to explain mimetic desire.

      (To explain mimetic rivalry, one only needs to imagine the higher-status individual’s reaction to being imitated.)

      • Jared says

        Just to expand on this, as well: the neighbour is who we engage in mimetic rivalry with because he is the one present in our immediate status hierarchy, i.e. the one with whom we are competing for status.

        I may imitate Brad Pitt’s character in Fury with my haircut, for example, but Brad Pitt remains the model of my mimetic behaviour, not a rival, since he’s not in my immediate status hierarchy — i.e., not my neighbour.

        (And lucky for him that he’s not, am I right??)

  4. I think that I understand mimetic desire. In my own words:

    Mr BaseCase desires shoes. Mr One doesn’t have his own desires, but he does have the common human instinct for copying other peoples desires. He copies Mr BaseCase and also desires shoes. Mr Two is similar to Mr One in that he lacks his own intrinsic desires. And Mr Two becomes more similar to Mr One when he copies Mr Ones desire for shoes. Similarly Mr Three, Four, etc.

    We can forgot about Mr BaseCase, he was only in the story to get it started. We contemplate a world in which young men kill each other to steal their sneakers, and in which the intense desire to possess the sneakers grows in strength. Each young man desires sneakers with an ardor that is proportional to the number of other young men desiring sneakers. As the contagion spreads it intensifies. Eventually something has to give.

    That is the end of my understanding. Girard goes further. Somehow the violence ends up with a scapegoat, an innocent victim. I’m not seeing it. Is the scapegoat some-one who goes barefoot? Makes his own sneakers? Wears Wellington Boots? I’m lost and probably thinking about this the wrong way.

    Maybe the scapegoat is the person who owns the factory where the sneakers are manufactured. Once he is beaten to death then something or other. Or could it be the celebrity, say Michael Jordan, gets MeToo-ed or Cancelled.

    The first gap in my understanding is the scapegoat business. I’ve no feel for how this arises from the conflict. Presumably there is come kind of deep connection to mimesis. Does all conflict lead to scapegoating? Would a conflict over food in a famine (each person is intrinsically hungry with their own personal hunger, not copied hunger) lead to scapegoating. I guess that the theory says “No.”; the scapegoating is specific to copied desire. I’ve no idea how this works.

    The second gap in my understanding is how the destruction of the scapegoat solves the conflict. Michael Jordan has been burned to death on a pyre of Air Jordans. Now what? I imagine that young men go back to murdering each other to steal their sneakers. I’m not seeing what the destruction of the scapegoat does.

    An obvious idea is to buy Rene Girard’s books and read them. But I’ve been burned by this kind of thing before; I read the book and it contains no answers (and not even the right questions). I’m particularly put off in this case because all the reviews I’ve read skip right over my concerns. I get the impression that they do not indicate the answers to my questions because Girard’s books neither ask nor answer them.

    • Troilus says

      Alan,

      Mr. Base still needs to be accounted for in this telling. No man is born into the world that he wants, or springs forth fully grown from the head of Zeus. Before he is grown and rational and can “choose” his desires, he adopts the desires (idols) of his neighbors. So how is it Mr. Base independently comes up with the desire for sneakers? Is the scapegoat related to Mr. Base? That is, in a society of sneaker-seekers, does he independently desire something else, and is therefore suspect? If so, we need an account of why and how some are not fully determined by their neighbors. Why is there dynamic change in peoples and regimes?

      Girard has an insight into the way authoritative opinions shape the souls of men – the mimetic desire. But I struggle to see how Girard’s paradigm brings greater clarity on the what is man question than the Greek insight into nature versus convention. The position that all desires are mimetic, by the by, seems identical to the sophists’ and the historicists’ or relativists’ that everything is determined by convention. He simply prefers one convention over another.

      Another way to put my last observation: in Girard’s system what makes the pagan system bad and the Christian good? If he says the victimized minority, the scape goat, now has argument against the community, and will not be treated unjustly; then, we might ask him from whence he draws his notion of justice? I suspect Girard is smuggling in principles from outside his system. Yes, to know for sure we ought to read his work, but if Charles has given a faithful account, why not BAP-Nietzsche or Marx-Hegel?

      • Jared says

        Another way to put my last observation: in Girard’s system what makes the pagan system bad and the Christian good? If he says the victimized minority, the scape goat, now has argument against the community, and will not be treated unjustly; then, we might ask him from whence he draws his notion of justice?

        To me, this is best resolved on the metaphysical level, i.e. via the framework of truth rather than worldly justice. That is: Christ’s Passion revealed to men the workings of Satan, the prince of this world, and thus the innocence of the scapegoats across all time and space. It is the truth of this innocence that is important — metaphysical justice, in a sense.

        By way of the Passion, Satan, who had remained “hidden since the foundation of the world,” is revealed, along with his workings, for all to see. That Christ is God is the only thing that makes this true — otherwise we would “merely” have another martyred saint, à la Socrates.

        Charles detailed some of Girard’s thoughts on the worldly effects of the Passion, but here I think Girard is somewhat weaker. Scripture, for example, seems to better-support the metaphysical interpretation: “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.”

        • Troilus says

          Thank you for your thoughtful replies Jared. I hope that you, and any person that reads my comments, take them in the spirit of Socratic dialectic in which they are meant. That is, I am not trying to win the argument, merely trying to get to a fuller truth. And apologies if I misunderstand your argument.

          I think you are correct Jared that the metaphysical level is where Girard would attempt to resolve the problem I posed. But Charles told us that Girard was attempting a non-theistic or non-Christian analysis. The truth of the innocence of the scapegoat seems to depend on notions of the dignity or sacred character of each human being, as being somehow made in the image of God, as some little piece of Divinity or the Divine plan. But this is to introduce “facts” not in evidence. If we already assume the existence of God, then sure, everything else Girard has to say may well be true, but in a work of political philosophy that is a great big If.

          I will also reply to your replies to my comments, which I do for the sake of convenience but also because I think I can relate it to what I’ve just written. Your resolution to the question I posed as to why our neighbor is the model for our desires is precisely the way I conceived of the resolution as well. Status, or if we want to point to another thinker who seems to have thought longer about the insight we are discussing, recognition. Reading Charles’ report of Girard, the latter seemed to me to be a kind of right-Hegelian. I’ve always thought, however, that Hegel’s struggle for recognition was too reductive of the human phenomena. And I find mimesis to be similarly reductive. Which is why in my reply to Alan I asked from whence do wholly (or perhaps holy?) new (that is non-memetic desires) arise?

          It seems to me that there is in man a deep and fundamental desire or need for eternity. In many or most cases this desire is mixed with or understood as the desires of the body. Most people, or we might say the many, derive their satisfaction from their family, their children, which is their way of communing with eternity. A little piece of them continues on. In others, or the ambitious few, the desire for eternity becomes the desire for fame and glory or recognition. They will be remembered by their peoples, or in the case of our globalist elite, they hope to be remembered by the world as great benefactors to the human race. And in the very rarest, in those whom the passions least mix with this fundamental desire, their satisfaction derives from contemplating and grasping to the extent that they are able, the cosmos, the whole, or Being, whatever formulation you’d prefer. Now if this observation is true, that all men desire somehow to commune with the eternal, from whence does this desire spring? I don’t see a straight-forward or satisfying Darwinistic explanation, and so it always struck me that this desire for eternity (or for salvation) was the strongest argument for the existence of God. More so than the beauty of the world, the natural order we perceive in it, or even the desire for justice. To conclude, I think Girard would have been well-served had his analysis accounted for such longings, both such that his analysis would have been less reductive, and also because it would have been an argument that would have justified what you and I, Jared, see in Girard as his metaphysical position.

          P.S.

          Charles, in my travels across the interwebs today, I came across this discussion between Curtis Yarvin and Michael Anton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrC0jWF42CI&t=1706s

          Yarvin argues (and Anton agrees to the possibility) that what will follow our current political circumstances is going to be a South-American style re-barbarization. That is, we turn into a kind Mexico or Brazil. But an American Mexico or Mexican America won’t be able to maintain the global order. Mexico or Brazil are able to subsist as states today because the global order, the Pax Americana, keeps them running. But without that kind of America to take the mantle and maintain the global, we will be a Mexico with even less central control or governance. And cartel-warlords will rule over a multiplicity of territories that once made up America. I wonder, Charles, how this notion squares with your understanding or your project?

          • Charles Haywood says

            I am going to watch that Anton/Yarvin piece. My quick-read response is that such a future is unlikely for America, because there are far greater reservoirs of virtue (even if debilitated) left in our culture than has ever been true south of the border.

    • Jared says

      The first gap in my understanding is the scapegoat business. I’ve no feel for how this arises from the conflict. Presumably there is come kind of deep connection to mimesis.

      Surely you’ve observed how “the Left eats its own.” I think scapegoating is best understood via that modern, observable phenomenon, though it’s certainly not exclusive to the modern, Western Left.

      The Left, to me, can be properly understood as the collection of those who are embroiled in a particular form of mimetic contagion (perhaps “those who adopt a certain fashion in pursuit of worldly gain,” something I just thought up on the spot). At the stage of mimetic crisis, when things are at fever pitch, everyone is imitating everyone else in the attempt to boost his own worldly gain (which, per one of my other comments, is his status), and what is inevitably being imitated here is adherence to the particular fashion.

      So at this point, “everybody is cool,” which means it’s difficult to boost one’s status via imitation alone (this is Girard’s “double bind”). Instead, an easy way to distinguish oneself and attempt to boost his status is to just get rid of the rival — initially the object of mimetic desire, but who has now become an obstacle. Since everyone is imitating everyone else, this manifests in the phenomenon of tous contre un, i.e., scapegoating. The scapegoat is accused of not adhering to the intellectual fashion, i.e. of being “bad,” and is purged.

      • I have indeed observed the left eating its own, but it is poor fit to my understanding of Girard’s ideas.

        I imagine a bunch of people, some vaguely left-wing, some vaguely right-wing. The left wing don’t really know whether the want the end of work and unrestrained freedom or whether they are really after a strong leader who will make things work without capitalist exploitation, by telling people what to do. Meanwhile the right, kinda want free markets so that they can do their own thing, but if capital is allocated by the big banks according to government mandates, and they can just go with the flow, that is good too.

        Somehow authoritarianism starts seeming cool and it snowballs, with people copying each other and deciding that they desire an authoritarian government because other people do. Eventually nearly every-one is rooting for authoritarian rule, but there is conflict, with some wanting central planning by the Ministry of Labour and others wanting something similar from the Central Bank issuing guidance to the four big,, nominally private banks.

        The crisis is resolved when Libertarians are made the scapegoat. A dozen libertarians are taken out and shot and their copies of *Atlas Shrugged* are burned. This ends the violence and ushers in twenty years of awkward and shamefaced cooperation between the Ministry of Labour and the big banks.

        I see the left eating its own and it looks like a rather different story. They don’t eat one scapegoat and stop. The strife keeps going. And it is not across party lines, it is within one party.

        The game theory seems to be wrong. I think that many on the left desire to say “Transwomen are men.” but they actually say “Transwomen are women.”. They are afraid to be the first person to say what they want to say, “Tranwomen are men.”, because dynamic deterrence works well. But it is very different to mimesis.

  5. Altitude Zero says

    All,
    Here’s a critique of Girard, regarding his outlook as one of Gnosticism. It’s really over-wrought, because Girard mentioned Jews and Judaism in a slightly less than hagiographic light, and we all know that gets all the usual suspects riled up, but he makes some good points, from both the anthropological and spiritual aspects. Like Girard himself, not sure that I buy it, but some interesting arguments.
    https://www.academia.edu/3777353/Is_Rene_Girards_Things_Hidden_Since_the_Foundation_of_the_World_a_Gnostic_Theology

    • demosthenes1d says

      Girard makes a number of claims some of which are more novel, and possibly less sound, than others. To me, the best of his work is where he is formalizing ideas that are present in a more inchoate form in the Christian imagination. I’m far from a Girard expert, though I am an enthusiast, but I will list what I see (or at least can remember!) as some of his most important ideas and their historical provenance below:

      1. Mimesis is central to desire/triangular desire. I believe Girard claims to have come to this realization by reviewing the best of literature and realizing they always center around shared objects of desire and mimetic doubles. This is a pretty obvious concept, but Girard provides rich terminology, examples, etc. that help his readers see it in action in the world.
      2. Scapegoating can (temporarily) unite communities, drive out turmoil and strife. Again, I think this is/has been known, but Girard does a good job of tying together historical and mythological examples. He is also skilled at picking out those odd phrases in scripture and providing what seems to be sound exegesis. Like Luke 23:12 for example.
      3. Christianity damages the scapegoating effect by insisting that the victim is innocent. Throughout the old testament there are stories of those who are falsely accused and persecuted by their communities – think Joseph, Job, and Mordecai – and the text refuses to accept them as the cause. And of course the cross is the final repudiation (with Stephen, Paul, and others following in his steps). The Christian care for and attention to victims, which Tom Holland admirably shows is a uniquely Christian/Western phenomena, grows directly out of this effect. Of course scapegoating remained in place, but it gradually lost its power.

      Now for some that I find interesting, but less well supported, and which seem to be less prevalent in the history of Christian thought. These mostly fall under the rubric of fundamental anthropology.

      4. The scapegoating mechanism is somehow triggered by a “mimetic snowball” which incites a “ware of all against all.” I have always felt there were some missing pieces in Girard’s chain of logic here. Some of his historical examples are compelling, but I’m still skeptical.
      5. The divinization of the scapegoating victim. Same as above, there are some interesting historical examples, but many scapegoated victims are certainly not considered divine. I’m skeptical of this as the fount of all of the various cults around the world.
      6. All sacrifice, of people, animals and even agricultural goods, is cultural memory or play acting the scapegoating mechanism. Again, this is interesting and thought provoking, but I’m not convinced. Seems like a partial explanation rather than THE ONE CAUSE.

      In summary, I think Girard’s best insights are reformulation and reifications of existing thought. His more speculative stuff is interesting and suggestive, but in my mind he likely overstates his case. Girard is the proverbial man with a hammer, everything appears to be a nail; but in his case the hammer is a really interesting meta-theory, so he’s well worth attending to.

      One final note- Charles notes that Girard is an devout Catholic. I have no reason to question his faith, and certainly won’t do so here; I expect to see Girard in glory. But his theory of atonement, view of Satan, view of the historicity of scripture, and probably other things, are at odds with historic orthodoxy.

      Thank you, Charles for the very fine summary of this very fine book.

      • Charles Haywood says

        You are welcome! (I have nothing more to add on Girard, others, including you, being more up on it than me. But you make excellent points here.)

  6. E. J. Freeman says

    After his conversion, C. S. Lewis also made arguments that used Christ’s similarity to other myths as part of an argument for Christianity, rather than against it. It would be interesting to hear some of your thoughts on Lewis, particularly “The Abolition of Man”, which is very short but brilliant as a defence of traditional values. Mere Christianity is good too, if you ignore the bit where he says a Christian economic system would be leftist. It would certainly involve a lot of concern for the deserving poor (and for the undeserving poor too, but not like today where that concern involves tolerating and lauding self-destructive behavior), but probably not implemented through large bureacracies at the behest of virtue-signalling politicians who have no instincts about unintended consequences.

    If the Anglican church which Lewis was part of resembled its former self, I would choose to worship there. I wonder if Andrew Klavan, who attends an Anglican church in Montecito near Santa Barbara, has misgivings about his denomination and its well-documented capitulation to modernity.

    • Altitude Zero says

      “Mere Christianity is good too, if you ignore the bit where he says a Christian economic system would be leftist.”

      Lewis was a great Christian apologist, but he was also a man of his time, and the shortcomings of socialism were not as well understood in the 1930’s and 40’s. “The Road to Serfdom” would not be published until 1944. Also, in “Screwtape proposes a Toast” published in 1959, it can be seen that Lewis had cooled significantly with regard to the regulatory state.

    • Charles Haywood says

      I tend not to offer thoughts on Lewis, since his writing is easily accessible and easy to read, and I don’t think I’d add much. Not that I dislike him. I may do some more on him at some point, though . . . .

  7. Jared says

    One thing I’ve found is that once one has acquired a Girardian understanding of mimesis, scapegoating, and so on, one sees it everywhere. There’s the anthropological phenomenon, of course, which is in everyone’s face, but also the distinction between a work of pre/non-Christian tradition and one of Christian tradition proper becomes automatic.

    For example, I recently reread a famous Irish myth from the Ulster Cycle, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, and while I regrettably don’t have my copy with me and can’t recall the finer details (ah, the inconveniences of the cosmopolitan life — they are made more inconvenient again by a malignant global public health bureaucracy, but I persist with it nonetheless!), it is immediately seen as pagan in precisely the same sense as the Oedipus myth. In the pagan myths one identifies the inevitable — and, specifically, divine — punishment that is set upon the protagonist as a result of his guilt. Oedipus kills Laius and marries Jocasta; Conaire violates his geasa, his taboos, and meets his end in turn (though these taboos are.. uh, somewhat harder to appreciate).

    Contrast that to the Lord of the Rings, which I last watched to kill the time on some lengthy flight or other. It is immediately identified as Christian. Sauron entices others to desire the ring, promising them worldly power; but that is a ruse, and the very mechanism of his control over the world. One of the final scenes literally depicts Gollum and Frodo — increasingly-similar rivals, doubly-bound, each an obstacle to the other — each struggling physically to wrest the ring from the other’s control. Gollum eventually falls to his death, destroying the ring, and with it Sauron’s influence on the world. But Gollum, disfigured and hideous, is never portrayed as being wholly guilty for his actions; rather it is clear that he is Sauron’s victim. Oedipus and Conaire Mór are punished — by the gods, at that — for their guilt, but Gollum suffers no such divine punishment (his end is due to his own actions, under Sauron’s influence), and some quality of his innocence is preserved.

    I have always been very impressed by the seeming accuracy of Girard’s claim, originally made in Things Hidden.., that there exists nowhere outside the historical Western tradition a depiction of the innocent victim scapegoated by the insane mob. I would love for someone to provide a strong counterexample, just for interest’s sake. It seems a little too strong a claim, but hey, I’m still waiting to see it refuted..

    (An excellent review, of course. And see, I was right not to tackle it myself: I would be denying the people a proper Charlesian treatment!)

    • Altitude Zero says

      I’ve stuck my oar in enough on this, so I’ll just close by saying that, religious and scholarly objections aside ( and there are plenty, IMHO), I believe that the history of the last 150 years has taught us that we need to be very careful of “Theories of Everything”, scholarly works of great erudition that claim to have found the hidden mainspring of history, whether that mainspring is dialectical materialism, or selfish genes, or Oedipal complexes, or mimetic contagion. This doesn’t mean that Marx, and Darwin, or Freud, or Girard are not worth reading, or that the do not contain some truth; but they should be read with a skeptical eye. And I’ll bet that Girard would agree.

      • Jared says

        I don’t disagree, and in particular I don’t want to come off as a Girardian maximalist (I’m not, and have in my comments here referenced some criticisms I have of Girard’s thought). To quote Dávila (and I would choose to be identified as more of a Dávilan maximalist, if anything), “every idea is too simple.”

        I like to refute arguments ad Socratesum. I.e., whenever anyone tries to define the Good, one can refute his argument by merely saying “if that were true, Socrates would have figured it out.” The same is true with reference to Girard, specifically his soteriological focus on violence, rather than grace or truth. The Good is not found in a lack of violence, mimetic or otherwise.

  8. E. J. Freeman says

    Great to see Jared dropping all his Girard knowledge in the comment thread. It almost makes up for his vaporware reviews. 😉

    • Charles Haywood says

      It is! I am not adding anything, because I have nothing more to add. But it’s a great pleasure to see such interesting exchanges.

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