Rene Girard is the first philosopher to come along is a long time who has inspired me to look at the world in a new way.
Girard's thinking, including textual analysis, is a sweeping reading of human nature, human history and human destiny. His contention is controversial: Religion is not the cause of violence, as many suppose; it was, in archaic societies, a way of solving it.
Here's why: People are social creatures, and their behavior is based on imitation to a much greater degree than generally supposed. How else to explain why a generation decides at once to pierce their tongues, or why stocks rise and fall? How to explain how a child learns language? Even our desires are not our own; we learn them from others.
"We don't even know what our desire is. We ask other people to tell us our desires," he said during a lecture at Stanford's Old Union in February. "We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths—but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack."
Envy and resentment are the inevitable consequences of this drive toward mimesis. These emotions, in turn, fuel conflict; it occurs whenever two or more "mimetic rivals" want the same thing, which can go to only one. It might be a woman, a presidency or a research grant. Many religious prohibitions are meant to regulate and control such conflict.
"When we describe human relations, we lie," Girard said. "We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion."
In literature, such mimetic desire can create comic masterpieces: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a classic he frequently cites. Or it can inspire the novels of Balzac, in which the characters strive to outdo each other in snobbery and imitative social values. Such imitation can even be totally imaginary. Don Quixote wishes to be a knight errant, because he is imitating the heroes in the books he has read.
On a societal level, such conflict seeks a release, and the outlet is a scapegoat. A third party—often an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, someone who is disabled, the king or president—is blamed and demonized for having caused the conflict. Scapegoats are not seen as innocent victims; they are seen as the guilty cause of the disorder. The calls mount for the sacrificial victim, and the mob itself creates a sense of harmony.
"Joining the mob is the thing that people don't realize. They feel the unity but don't interpret it as joining the mob," Girard said.
The mob prevails. The victim is killed, exiled, pilloried or otherwise dispensed with. Rivals reconcile, and peace and unity are restored to the community.
"If you scapegoat someone, it's a third party that will be aware of it," he said. "It won't be you. Because you will believe you are doing the right thing. You will be either punishing someone who is guilty or fighting someone who is trying to kill you, but you are never the one who is scapegoating."
In a sleight of hand that unsettles Girard's critics, the fact that there is no proof is proof. It is not that the scapegoaters suppress the history of their scapegoating, he said, "scapegoating itself is the suppressing."
For this reason, tragedy and religion in ancient Greece are inextricably entwined. Take the story of Oedipus. A plague is destroying Thebes, and whom does the mysterious oracle find at fault? The outsider, the lame newcomer king, whose expulsion brings peace to the city-state. Euripides' The Bacchae is the same—disorder is tearing apart the society and the women are going crazy. Pentheus, the young leader, is at fault—his collective murder brings sanity and harmony to Thebes.
"The first culture which rebels against that system is the Jewish culture," Girard said. He explains that the Bible is actually counter-mythical. Over a period of centuries, the books of the Old Testament begin to catch on to mankind's scapegoating mechanism. While they describe and even celebrate violence, they gradually begin to question and fight it as well.
For example, many of the psalms "show a narrator who is surrounded by a crowd of good-for-nothings, who are trying to encircle him and turn him into a victim." The story of Job also is revealing: "It's a small community, but he's been the dictator for years. Everybody loves him, he does no one any harm," Girard said at the Old Union lecture. "One fine morning he wakes up, and everybody is against him. His three 'friends' are ready to explain how bad he is now. And everybody is ready to explain how bad he is at the same time. He has turned from the absolute hero to the scapegoat of the community. Job is like a long psalm and shows you what happens to communities. No myth will ever show you that."
The climactic victimization is with "the announcement of what we call the Passion."
"Jesus accepts to be the victim, and we don't really know why," he said. "There, what the Gospel said is that it is God himself who has allowed all this scapegoating, and says, 'You can forgive me, since now I am ready to become your victim myself.'"
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, René Girard discusses for the first time Christianity and the Bible. 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 — symbolic in this case — in the Eucharist.
The parallel 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.
The evangelical revelation contains the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, René Girard tells us.
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, he replies, since in order for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, and people do not change that quickly.
The gospel text has instead acted as a ferment that brings about the decomposition of the sacrificial order.