René Girard’s Legacy

By Mark Anspach

Sometimes the greatest ideas appear to be simple ones. The famed critic and cultural theorist René Girard, who passed away at his Stanford home on November 4, 2015, gave the world a set of deceptively simple ideas that have changed the way we think about desire, violence, religion, and human nature itself.

What do people really want? Why do they fight? What is religion all about? And how did human culture get started in the first place? Girard tackled such bedrock questions head-on, offering boldly original answers expressed in admirably clear language. The last of the Grand Theorists, he was a sophisticated Continental thinker who always kept his feet planted firmly on the ground. His ideas are never purely theoretical. They help make sense of everyday life.

Take the familiar plight of a teenage girl who falls for her best friend's boyfriend. She doesn't mean to hurt her friend, but there's just something about this boy that draws her to him irresistibly. Can she help it if he happens to be so much more desirable than all the other boys?

Situations of that type crop up again and again. They are a staple of classic literature as well as high school melodrama. Are they produced by bad luck or fate? Girard suggests that something else is involved: what he calls mimetic desire.

A mimetic desire is a desire imitated from a person who serves as a model. If two girls are best friends, they probably imitate each other's taste in clothes and music. Why wouldn't they end up sharing the same taste in boys? Alas, some things are more easily shared than others. Singing along to the same pop song makes for harmony, but not lusting after the same guy.

What do people want? The great secret is that, at the deepest level, none of us truly knows what to want. Human nature is not fixed. Our desires are open-ended and malleable. That is why we so often resort to following the lead of those around us. More than any other animal, humans learn through imitation. Girard shows what happens when imitation extends to the realm of desire.

Mimetic desire leads pell-mell to rivalry. “Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash,” Girard writes. Here the seemingly simple idea of an imitated desire produces an unexpected result. Rather than bringing people together, convergence gives rise to hostility. Conflict is less a result of differences than of a fateful lack of difference. Why do people fight? Because, Girard says, we are so much alike.

René Girard's vision is at once optimistic and tragic. Optimistic, in that violence is not chalked up to innate aggressive or antisocial impulses. Humans aren't violent by nature. Our nature is social. We rely on others to show us how to live. Yet the same social impulses put us on a collision course when each wants what the other wants. The tragedy is that, even without deliberate evil on anyone's part, our social nature constantly pits us against each other.

The earliest human groups could not have survived without some means of keeping rivalry in check. Before any authorities existed to maintain order, how was violence controlled? Girard sought an answer to this riddle in Greek tragedy and the myths and rituals of pre-state societies. For a scholar who had built his reputation on a study of desire in the European novel, it was an audacious move. It soon led him to a revolutionary hypothesis: human culture began with religion, and religion arose from our species' need to master its own violence.

The key to Girard's anthropological theory is what he calls the scapegoat mechanism. Just as desires tend to converge on the same object, violence tends to converge on the same victim. The violence of all against all gives way to the violence of all against one. When the crowd vents its violence on a common scapegoat, unity is restored. Sacrificial rites the world over are rooted in this mechanism.

One big idea is enough to insure any thinker's place in history. With mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism, René Girard had come up with two. Then he went for three by proposing a radical new interpretation of the Bible.

The Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels break with previous religions, he argued, by progressively demystifying and rejecting the scapegoat mechanism. Joseph triumphs over attempts to persecute or slander him. Job refuses to accept blame for his own suffering. Jesus stops the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. His crucifixion stands as the ultimate symbol of the murder of innocent victims.

Girard's Biblical turn won him new followers while alienating some old ones. In the peculiar intellectual climate of our time, it would have been safer to proclaim the virtues of paganism. The reflexive defense of the Other, a uniquely Western phenomenon, is itself a product of the resistance to scapegoating that Girard sees as distinguishing our culture. Not that scapegoating has gone away–it just takes on new forms.

Though his books sometimes hit bestseller lists in France, Girard has always exercised his influence from the margins. He was never a fashionable thinker, but he lived long enough to see his ideas come into their own. Archeologists have been finding ever earlier evidence for the role of religion and sacrifice in prehistory. Developmental psychologists have been proving the importance of imitation in newborn infants. Economists are studying the way technology multiplies the effects of imitation on financial markets. Writers for the Harvard Business Review have even called this the Age of Imitation.

René Girard was always ahead of his time. The world has just started catching up to him.