The World According to Rene Girard
A brief foray into Mimetic Desire, Scapegoating, and Christianity without Christ
Earlier we looked at the world according to Peter Thiel. This week we’ll look at the world according to one of his biggest philosophical inspirations, Rene Girard.
Prior to becoming a philosopher, Rene Girard was a literary critic. He identified common themes in literature which piqued an interest in anthropology. Around the same time, he converted to Christianity — and not just from a religious point of view, but from an intellectual point of view as well.
One of Girard’s core insights is called “mimetic desire.” He believes people don’t want things because they instinctively want them — they want things because other people have them. They feel if they could attain those things, or the status those things bring, they would attain some of the being they imagine the other person having.
Consider this example of two kids and two identical dolls. One child picks up one doll, and immediately the other child has the insatiable desire to take that doll away, ignoring the identical one right next to it. This is mimetic desire at work.
Girard claims all non-instinctual desire to be mimetic. Other animals imitate, but they don't imitate to the degree we do. We don't just imitate on a “monkey see/monkey do” level, we imitate on a perceptual level. We imitate what we perceive our neighbor's desires to be. We don't think first and then desire — we desire first and rationalize our desires second.
This may seem strange to some, but think about how many things you desire simply because someone else's desire for that thing has made it attractive. We desire not so much someone's car or house as we do the quality of being that seems to coincide with having those possessions. Desire is never just a straight line between a subject and an object; there’s always some other model at play. (Luke Burgis has a great summary of this phenomenon.)
Girard’s other core insight involves scapegoating and its relation to mimetic desire.
We want others to love what we love, admire what we admire, but when they do, we suddenly find that they’ve become competitors, leading to conflict.
Just like the dolls example, by focusing on the same object of desire, people start to copy each other — not only in desires but also in tactics to achieve their desires. The more similar they become, the more vicious the rivalry. Hence the sayings “The smaller the stakes, the bigger the fight” or “familiarity breeds contempt.”
Early societies dealt with the threat of runaway violence by transferring their violence to a surrogate victim, a scapegoat whose death/expulsion united the community and ended violence, per se. The antidote to chaos is the ritual scapegoating of a common enemy, Girard believes. (This is the idea behind "The Foundational Murder", or “The Noble Lie.”)
Girard was trying to transcend mob behavior. He identified that, when resources are scarce, or there’s chaos in a community, the crowd regains unity by ritually targeting candidates for sacrifice by scapegoating. When it comes to rivalrous goods, where not everyone can have a piece of the pie (if we’re thinking zero-sum), in competing along that dimension, people become more and more similar, and the cycle escalates. In order to restore order, the scapegoat mechanism kicks in, and they find someone to sacrifice.
There’s an interesting thing that then happens: because the community owes its entire order to its victim, the victim is worshipped as sacred. But at the same time, the victim is also believed to be guilty, and therefore deserving of the collective violence.
Scapegoating works in restoring order, so people keep doing it, albeit in new ways.
People need someone to blame to hide the fact that they’re angry about this vicious cycle of imitation and competition. They need a “safe space” to exert their violence. Indeed, scapegoating is the protection of the community against violence that it could not otherwise control.
In a way, ritualistic scapegoating addresses the threat of uncontrolled violence, which is endemic to human society because of runaway mimetic desire leading to conflict. Rituals of sacrifice averted this crisis by reconciling everyone around a sacrificial victim, as sort of a collective release.
That said, scapegoating preserves social peace only so long as the scapegoaters think their behavior is justified. That, after all, is the very definition of scapegoating: persecution of an innocent victim believed to be guilty.
How Christianity Inverts the Myth
Christianity, of course, inverts this myth of ritualistic scapegoating. Christ wasn’t guilty. He was violently murdered for no good reason. If you see the truth of that violence, suddenly that violence repels you — Jesus's cross, instead of ratifying his guilt, proclaims his innocence. Before the cross, every historic violent event was portrayed in literature as heroic. From this point forward, not anymore. Scapegoating became no longer sacred.
Jesus also goes after mimetic desire directly. Jesus says, “If you have to imitate someone, imitate me, because I won't imitate others and I won't become your rival. And imitate others who imitate me too.” Instead of eye for an eye, turn the other cheek. Instead of sanctifying sacrificial violence, sanctify love and mercy.
Jesus introduced a new spirit of self-awareness & self-criticism. More so than anytime in history, we're aware of our faults. Probably too much actually: the West is the only place where we self-flagellate our own culture to gain status.
Ironically, this is Christianity without Christ: it’s the values Christianity delivered to us without the belief that Jesus is the son of god, and all that jazz. Today, we see the violence of Christianity, but we don't see the violence Christianity has prevented all through history. Indeed: Christianity didn't invent violence, but it did contribute to curbing it. Where did we get our sensitivity to violence, after all? Certainly wasn't Oedipus Rex.
Many rationalists will claim reason and science, but Girard has an interesting counter. We didn't stop burning witches because of the scientific method, he says; we got the scientific method because we stopped burning witches. For example: if, say, people’s crops were dying, and they burned a "witch", and then suddenly crops grew, they kept burning witches. When they stopped burning witches out of moral reasons, they were then free to evaluate other reasons (ahem, science!)
“Eye for an eye” today seems primitive, but at the time it was revolutionary. It advocated for reciprocal violence instead of escalation, which used to be the norm. Because we don’t want to renounce scapegoating, we keep attempting sacrificial violence, but it no longer binds us.
Remember, the importance of sacred sacrificial violence in the primordial past was that it bound us together. It prevented us from contagiously envying one another to the point where we’re obsessed with destroying each other rather than just getting on with life.
Ironically, as society became both more egalitarian and meritocratic, and hierarchies were less rigid, mimetic competition skyrocketed. Where previously people were only competing with their own caste, now they are competing with everyone in the world, and expected to win.
Nietzsche knew that Christianity was the reason resentment was building to such a deep level. Once we killed the idea of a God that kept hierarchies stable, he knew mimetic mayhem would ensue. Nietzsche actually used the French spelling “Resentiment” to describe begrudging those who you perceive to have things that you desire.
People will always find scapegoats. As Francis Fukuyama points out in his book The End of History and the Last Man, "Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation....They will struggle, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle."
Today it's a game of guilt — a hot potato of sorts — where we're becoming more increasingly haunted by our guilt in collective violence. Today we're constantly trying to throw the hot potato onto somebody else.
Indeed: Scapegoating used to literally mean the transferring of sins to the goats, or killing them in other words. Now, though we see killing as primitive, we still scapegoat people — but instead of muder, in civilized societies, we imprison or “cancel”.
We are so quick to judge our ancestors and say we would have acted differently, but it’s unlikely we would have if given the chance.
Girard notes that Jesus tried to redirect mimetic desire — to channel that mob energy elsewhere. Perhaps Jesus was a true atheist who deconstructed what religion really was before Christianity — the binding together over the violent expulsion of the other. Jesus came along and said, “if you must scapegoat someone, scapegoat me. If you must mimic someone, mimic me.”
Jesus also inverted status, uplifting the needy over the strong. When you think about it, our secular (and even atheist) world is more Christian than we think. Take theater as an example today: the best seat in the house is for the disabled. “The first shall be last, the last shall be first.”
In a way, we’re half Christian. We’re thoroughly within the fishbowl of Christianity, but we’re only half Christian in the sense that we’re aware of victimization, but we don’t want to fully recognize how it affects what we do today, and so we justify violence in the name of victimization.
Today, we have new problems. Jesus popped the scapegoat bubble and told us to imitate him, but we don't want to anymore. Mob frenzies and scapegoating are society trying to purge itself of its own demons.
And so if your sense of self identity and morality is all wrapped up in that, then any differential success you or other people may achieve is evidence of some evil. And so the source of that evil must be identified and eliminated.
The cycle will repeat until either every possible scapegoat is dead or the movement burns itself out. And though we all have the motivation to purge our sense of collective sin (independent of the guilt or innocence of the subject), paired with the overpowering need to participate, scapegoating becomes quite a powerful force.
In a post-modern world, what are the structures that prevent us from eating each other? Liberalism. Free speech. Tolerance. Due process. Reason.
Thanks to Luke Burgis and Zach Davidson for reviewing this.
Read of the week: Antonio Garcia Martinez on Christianity without Christ
Watch of the week: King Los Freestyling (oldie but goodie).
Listen of the week: Paul Skallas and Marc Andreessen
Big Ideas guests this week: Anduril cofounders on Tuesday night, Ross Douthat on Wednesday night, and Rod Dreher on Thursday night, all 730 PM PST.
Until next week,