Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

René Girard, 1923-2015

Remembering one of the great intellectuals of our time

A great man has passed: René Girard, one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century, died Wednesday at home in Palo Alto. He was 91. From Cynthia Haven’s obit:

In particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.

According to author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford, Girard’s legacy was “not just to his own autonomous field – but to a continuing human truth.”

“I’ve said this for years: The best analogy for what René represents in anthropology and sociology is Heinrich Schliemann, who took Homer under his arm and discovered Troy,” said Harrison, recalling that Girard formed many of his controversial conclusions by a close reading of literary, historical and other texts. “René had the same blind faith that the literary text held the literal truth. Like Schliemann, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth.”

Girard was always a striking and immediately recognizable presence on the Stanford campus, with his deep-set eyes, leonine head and shock of silver hair. His effect on others could be galvanizing. William Johnsen, editor of a series of books by and about Girard from Michigan State University Press, once described his first encounter with Girard as “a 110-volt appliance being plugged into a 220-volt outlet.”

Girard’s first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961 in French; 1965 in English), used Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky as case studies to develop his theory of mimesis. The Guardianrecently compared the book to “putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”

The work had an even bigger impact on Girard himself: He underwent a conversion, akin to the protagonists in the books he had cited. “People are against my theory, because it is at the same time an avant-garde and a Christian theory,” he said in 2009. “The avant-garde people are anti-Christian, and many of the Christians are anti-avant-garde. Even the Christians have been very distrustful of me.”

Girard took the criticism in stride: “Theories are expendable,” he said in 1981. “They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, ‘I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.'”

In 1972, he spurred international controversy with Violence and the Sacred (1977 in English), which explored the role of archaic religions in suppressing social violence through scapegoating and sacrifice.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French; 1987 in English), according to its publisher, Stanford University Press, was “the single fullest summation of Girard’s ideas to date, the book by which they will stand or fall.” He offered Christianity as a solution to mimetic rivalry, and challenged Freud’s Totem and Taboo.

One of the great disappointments of my life was the time I had dinner with Girard in 2002 at Peter Robinson’s house at Stanford. He sat right across the table from me, and was perfectly congenial. I did not know who he was, though, and missed the opportunity to speak with him about his work, and to learn from him. He was quiet and humble that night. It was only later, when I discovered that I had shared a table with one of the towering intellects of the 20th century, that I realized what a fool I had been.

Here is a good piece from Touchstone about Girard and the meaning of his work. It includes an interview. The writer and interviewer is Brian McDonald. Excerpts:

InViolence and the Sacred(1972), he moved from the realm of literature to that of culture itself, and added to his concept of mimetic desire that of scapegoating. This analysis of the way religion, mythology, and culture are built upon an unrecognized foundation of mimetically caused violence and scapegoating brought him considerable acclaim when it was published.

However,Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World(1979), though a best-seller in France, lost him much of that acclaim, for in this latter work Girard dared to assert that the shackles of sacrificial religion were broken for a large portion of mankind by the force of the biblical story in which a number of narratives reversed the classical mythological pattern byexoneratingthe scapegoat and showing thecommunityto be guilty of gratuitous murder.

What most offended his secular audience was that he saw in the culmination of the biblical witness, the passion of Christ, a permanent exposé of the “the things hidden from the foundation of the world”—that both the order and disorder of human life are founded on the clashes of mimetic desire relieved by the lie of the scapegoat mechanism.

Hence, Girard identifies the foundational principle of culture as “Satan,” since it mirrors perfectly Christ’s description of “the Prince of this world,” who was moved by envy and was “a liar and a murderer from the first.” By laying down his life to expose and overthrow this kingdom built on violence and untruth, Christ also introduced the world to another kingdom, one “not of this world,” whose fundamental principles are repentance for sins instead of the catharsis of scapegoating and love of God and neighbor rather than the warfare of mimetic desire.

The death of Christ and its effects move Girard’s theory from “naturalism” to Christian affirmation, since he is convinced that the mindset of natural humanity is so wholly immersed in the “intervidual” psychology of sacrificial religion that only a divine revelation could break us free of it—or even make usrecognizethe suppressed lie at the basis of our existence. Hence, the very appearance of the Christ, and his successful exposure of the lies at the base of human life and culture, is a proof of his divinity, since “no human is able to reveal the scapegoat mechanism.”

Girard’s belief about the death of Christ may be no less controversial among Christians than his allegiance to Christ is scandalous to the secular world. Against the view of Christ’s death that would see him as a propitiatory sacrifice offered to the Father, Girard would argue that Christ’s death was intended to overthrow in its entirety the religion of propitiatory sacrifice, since he sees that religion as of the very essence of fallen man.

Here is a 2009 profile of Girard and his work in the Stanford alumni magazine, a piece that talks briefly about the circumstances of his conversion — or reversion — to Catholicism:

Published in 1961, Deceit, Desire and the Novel was important to Girard not just for the mimetic theory, but also for the powerful personal epiphany it brought the author. Girard discussed it with James Williams in an interview included in The Girard Reader. “I started working on that book very much in the pure demystification mode: cynical, destructive, very much in the spirit of the atheistic intellectuals of the time. I was engaged in debunking, and of course recognizing mimesis is a great debunking tool because it deprives us moderns of the one thing we still have left, our individual desire.”

He described his eventual realization this way: “The author’s first draft is a self-justification.” It may either focus on a wicked hero, the writer’s scapegoat, who will be unmasked by the end of the novel; or it may have a good hero, the author’s alter ego, who will be vindicated at novel’s end. If the writer is a good one, he will see “the trashiness of it all” by the time he finishes his first draft—that it’s a “put-up job.” The experience, said Girard, shatters the vanity and pride of the writer. “And this existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible,” Girard said. The work is no longer a self-justification, and the characters he creates are more than good guys or bad guys.

“The debunking that actually occurs in this first book is probably one of the reasons why my concept of mimesis is still viewed as destructive,” he added. “Yet I like to think that if you take this notion as far as you possibly can, you go through the ceiling, as it were, and discover what amounts to original sin.” The experience, “if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.”

Indeed, that awakening returned Girard to an orthodox view of the Bible as revelation—the revelation of the nature of mimetic desire and what it would lead to, which became the subject of subsequent books. This was his “intellectual conversion,” which he describes as “comfortable,” without demands or commitment. But a brush with cancer in 1959 changed everything. “Now this conversion was transformed into something really serious in which the aesthetic gave way to the religious.” He had his children baptized, and he and his wife, Martha, were remarried by a priest.


In a spellbinding lecture last year, Girard pointed out that we have reached a point in history where we can no longer blame scapegoats. The mechanism of scapegoating is too well known, so the ritual murder no longer expiates the society. War no longer works to resolve conflict—indeed, wars no longer have clear beginnings, endings or aims. Moreover, as weapons have escalated, war could destroy us all.

The weapons of war are less and less distinguishable from forces of nature, echoing apocalyptic texts of the New Testament. “Before the invention of apocalyptic weapons, we couldn’t see how realistic these texts were,” Girard said. “But today we are in a situation where we can see that, and we should be extremely impressed by that.”

Man is creating “more and more violence in a world that is practically without God, if you look at the way nations behave with each other and the way people behave with each other,” he said. “History, you might say, is a test for mankind. But we know very well that mankind is failing that test. In some ways, the Gospels and scriptures are predicting that failure since it ends with eschatological themes, which are literally the end of the world.”

His conclusion: “We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.”


René Girard, rest in peace.



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