René Girard’s Answer to Emptiness
When people ask me why I became Catholic, I usually answer, a la G.K. Chesterton, “to have my sins forgiven.” If I have time for a longer conversation I talk about the ideas of René Girard.
If you’re looking for a 10,000-foot view of his work, I usually recommend David Cayley’s 5-part series called “The Scapegoat,” which originally aired on the CBC’s Ideas radio program in 2001. I find it to be the best primer on Girard’s mimetic theory and his scapegoating hypothesis of the origins of religion, so I recently republished the transcripts as The Ideas of René Girard: An Anthropology of Violence and Religion.
Before I could approach the Gospels with an open mind, my intellectual pride needed to be breached. This is what Girard’s writings accomplished for me — sewing the seeds that would later blossom into an on-going religious conversion. Girard was not a theologian, but a social scientist — an anthropologist. His writings laid bare the truth about my all-too-human desires, and this truth has allowed me to fill a certain emptiness in my life with greater and greater meaning.
There are two kinds of truth.
The first is knowledge about the world, comprising instrumental rationality and falsifiable science. It is responsible for the rise of modern technology, and the philosophical systems that underpin our growing understanding of the cosmos — including psychology and the social sciences.
Yet our growing knowledge in this first realm has eclipsed deeper truths of the second kind, which must be discovered by each individual about himself and his place in the world. This is the realm of religious truth, and the untruth in our lives that we must each work to overcome.
When I first discovered Girard’s ideas, my life was verging on an abyss of meaninglessness. I had recently graduated from college with no clear career plan, and was clinging to a hope that sustained me throughout my college years — “seasteading,” or homesteading on the ocean.
Seasteading was the brainchild of two of my main intellectual influences: Patri Friedman (son of David Friedman, and grandson of the libertarian economist Milton Friedman), and Paypal entrepreneur and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel.
Googling Thiel’s writings, I learned that he had been influenced by a professor at Stanford who held that human desire was fundamentally imitative, or “mimetic.” That professor was René Girard.
Thiel used Girard’s insights on mimetic desire to hook new users in the early days of PayPal, using a generous referral system. It later it gave him the confidence to become the first outside investor in a small but rapidly-growing social network called The Face Book (perhaps you’ve heard of it?).
Mimetic theory holds that people are excellent copy-cats.
This makes us capable of building on what our ancestors have done, but also makes us prone to certain kinds of group-think. The same herd mentality that enables social technologies like Facebook also drives lynch mobs.
My libertarian leanings already made me suspicious of crowds. Seasteading seemed like the ultimate escape from the mob-mentality that turns democracies into tyrannies of the majority. I had grown to resent society and the collective. My response to a perceived impending debt-collapse was to live in my own privately-constructed reality — a combination of delusions of grandeur (fueled by various addictions), and ambitions to build the “Machinery of Freedom” on the high seas.
Still, I felt a profound emptiness in the daily striving and constant comparisons of my achievements — or lack thereof — with those around me working for the hottest startups in the Bay Area.
Girard’s ideas penetrated the fog of my alternating delusions and disillusionment. The theory of mimetic desire revealed that my desire for wealth and status was “borrowed” from others. I had merely grafted it onto my own peculiar passion of seasteading. Following Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich strategies, I meditated on a Post-It note stuck to my mirror every morning that stated my intention to become the world’s first seasteading millionaire by 2016 (so much for that).
Our mimetic nature also leads to conflict, which makes for good stories.
For Girard, the insight about mimetic desire had come early in his academic career as a professor of literature, reading giants like Cervantes, Proust, and Shakespeare. These writers incorporated an advanced understanding of mimetic theory into their works. Great books, he says, are distinguished by their author’s realization about their own imitative desires; their “conversions” allowed them to re-write their masterpieces equipped with this essential understanding of human nature.
The young literary theorist next turned his attention to the great myths and religious texts of the world, and discovered that creation stories also shared certain features. They didn’t share the awareness of our mimetic desire and the resulting rivalries that make Shakespeare’s plays so tragically real. Instead, archaic myths all seemed to be founded on a sort of scapegoating ruse. In them, a powerful deity or monster would be depicted as guilty of bringing chaos to the community. The deity is then expelled, and peace is suddenly restored.
Girard speculated that this pattern represented the lynching of a convenient scapegoat, who was later associated with all of the previous chaos and given a new identity as a god. In reality, the crisis was a result of mimetic rivalries — conflicts based on our desires for the same objects — creating too much tension for the society to bear. While it seemed to come from a transcendental force, peace actually came from the all-against-one lynching that temporarily overpowered whatever tensions existed among the various members of the tribe/society/collective.
But it was always a temporary peace.
Group selection theory affirms that the societies that tend to survive are the ones that develop advantageous norms for cooperation. The most successful civilizations were those which instated various rituals (like human or animal sacrifice) to re-enact the resolution the crisis. These myths and rituals would be used to uphold various prohibitions and taboos to contain future rivalries.
The lie at the foundation of these myths was the guilt of the scapegoat.
Girard expected to find this same pattern in the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament but was surprised to discover that instead of perpetuating the myth of the guilt of the scapegoat, the Bible inverts the typical mythological structure and tells the story from the perspective of the victim.
By the time of Christ, the Jewish people had already become aware of the innocence of its victims — first replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice (a major evolutionary leap for monotheistic religion, recorded in the story of Abraham and Isaac), and later discovering that the God who led Moses and their ancestors through the wilderness wanted a contrite and humble spirit more than burnt offerings. This left them more vulnerable to the outbreak of a mimetic crisis, especially during a time of internal divisions between different sects and externals threats from Roman occupiers.
Girard shows how Jesus subverted the religion of his time and our notion of “the Sacred,” i.e., ordered violence used to contain more chaotic forms of violence and lawlessness. He did this by revealing the matrix of ritual sacrifice, prohibitions, and taboos that humans create to bring about order — replacing them with a new commandment (to love God and neighbor) and new instruction (to follow him).
Is Christianity a religion?
In ways, yes, in ways no. Christianity has been steadily eroding our old dependence on the Sacred, which was always tied up with scapegoating rituals.
Without sacrificial religion to bind us together, we are in something of a predicament. Religious violence functions to contain more chaotic forms of violence, but it can only do so violently.
David Cayley does an expert job drawing these threads out of Girard’s work to explain how the Bible’s counter-narrative gave rise to secular modernity, with its ample concern for victims but lack of awareness of where this concern comes from.
Without the old religious mechanisms to contain violence through selective violence against innocent victims (scapegoats), we have to diffuse our rivalries through other means, such as the Golden Rule. The alternative is the escalation to extremes, both in our personal lives and globally.
Girard and Cayley grapple openly with the idea of Apocalypse, which just means “revealing.” Girard’s interpretation of scripture helps resolve the paradox of a loving God who would seem to visit wrath upon his creatures. When we really study scripture, it becomes apparent that the wrath and violence are not from God.
The violence belongs to us — religious people and secular humanists alike.
René Girard passed away in 2015, on the same day as the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan night club in Paris. Today the threat of terrorism is a manifestation of the apocalyptic violence that is unleashed by a return to more primitive notions of the Sacred. Meanwhile, secular culture has lost its compass and uproots all stable foundations for creating meaningful lives.
Girard was once asked at a seminar how we can solve the genuinely apocalyptic violence facing a human race that no longer believes in the power or justification of the Sacred. He responded that the answer lay in personal sanctity. In other words, be a saint! This is a stark contrast to the technological solutionism so rampant in the Bay Area, which positions the entrepreneur as the hero and savior of humanity through Promethean effort, or the political solutionism emanating from power centers around the world.
Politicians focus on containing violence globally, but often forego the more important work of individual conversion — the process of acquiring self-knowledge.
As a Stanford professor and public intellectual, René Girard hovered over the conversation taking place in the halls of power and likely made an impact there, but his more profound impact has been in the social sciences and the many scholars he has personally touched with his ideas and contagious spirit of generosity. The Ideas book features just a handful of these followers, including Gil Bailie, James Alison, Paul Dumouchel, Sandor Goodhart, and the late Robert Hamerton-Kelly.
You can buy the book here, or email me for a sample chapter that explains how secular society is an outworking of the apocalyptic message embedded in the Christian Gospels. I promise, it’s still good news!
He who has ears to hear, let him.