René Girard

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René Girard, 1923-2015

Unconsciously we want what others want. We do not choose our desires ‘freely’. We absorb especially the desires of those we admire – the ‘models’ or ‘influencers’ we secretly want to be.

This is René Girard’s key insight, the foundation of his mimetic theory.

I knew nothing of René until 1998.  As a teacher of history and current affairs 1966-96  – with admin duties also in my school – I had too little time to read deeply of ongoing intellectual currents.

However, by 1998 I had already noted the degree to which the conflicting forces in Northern Ireland needed one another – to justify their policies and actions.  The strongly Unionist Ian Paisley had justified his opposition to the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s by declaring the latter a ‘front’ for the IRA, the spectre of militant Irish Republicanism.  That spirit of negative reaction was clearly evident in opposition to moderate Unionist reform, proposed by the government of Terence O’Neill.  In turn that opposition led to the outbreak of both loyalist and nationalist violence in 1969, with the provisional IRA then emerging.  Nothing could have better served the political rise of Paisley in the decades that followed – while the loyalist paramilitarism  that he helped to inspire served perfectly the interests of the provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin.  This dynamic mutual dependence and fascination of the extremes of Irish nationalism and Ulster British loyalism continues to the present.

This is Rivalry. Rivals are always trapped in competing desire for something they cannot share, and are therefore bound together in a dance that merges, necessarily, into conflict

It was only my retirement from teaching in 1996 that allowed me to raise my head from the school curriculum then in use to look for other sources of insight.  By now convinced that what drives us centrally is our need to seek honour and avoid shame (both of which we tend to see as socially mediated), I was alerted in 1998 to the work of René Girard by a reference in a work by Richard Rohr, the US Franciscan spiritual teacher.  I began by reading Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled. I was immediately captured by the insight that Girard had himself unveiled: that our dominant desires are not self-chosen but chosen for us by our cultural context. I came immediately to the conclusion that Girard had brought the secular Enlightenment back to its starting point in Christianity, and I expressed this view in Scattering the Proud (1999), in the chapter ‘Futile Desire‘.

The articles that follow below are centrally an attempt to alert my own society to the importance of Girard in helping us to understand and respond to the advance of a secularism driven mainly in the West by resentment of the residual influence of Christian clergy. It was Christendom – the state’s nominal Christianity – that led to the emergence of a secularism that desired the intellectual monopoly that Christian clergy had once held, but the elusiveness of equality, fraternity and liberty needs to be squarely faced by secularising intellectuals also.  How I wish that we could all be discussing this together, in an atmosphere of mutual respect – now that Christendom has almost vanished in Ireland also!

The articles below are ordered according to their dates of publication, with the most recent article at the top.

  • René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World
    Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023
    How René Girard's take on the Creed and on history can help combat digital imperialism and algorithm enslavement in the era of the Internet.

  • Catholic Education and the Future: Insights from René Girard
    The Furrow Nov 2018
    To become truly counter-cultural Christian educators need to understand the inevitable role of unconscious imitation in all aspects of culture and history - and especially in the origins of violence.

  • What underlies René Girard’s ‘Mimetic Desire
    Contagion Feb 2018
    How the fear of what others think - our Status Anxiety - especially in our early years - impacts upon our desires - as explored especially by Charles Dickens.

  • The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?
    ACI Website Sep 2017
    A review of an article (by Anthony Lusvardi SJ) that argues strongly against opposing the idea of the Mass as Sacrifice to the 'communal meal' aspect. When Christian sacrifice is understood as self-giving - following René Girard - the apparent dissonance of these ideas disappears.

  • ‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale
    Author House 2015
    Do we adults overcomplicate the explanations we give in school for such problems as over-consumption, theft, fraud, environmental crisis and violence? Believing that we definitely do - and that their school curriculum needs a re-think - the young characters of 'The Chain that Binds the Earth' run into the settled prejudices of a senior teacher, and are faced with a life-critical choice.

  • New Light on the Problem of Atonement
    ACI Website May 2015
    René Girard's insights into the origins of violence and over-consumption help to explain how the Crucifixion reconciles us humans to God.

  • Jesus and Violence: The importance of René Girard II
    ACI Website Mar 2015
    René Girard argues that by revealing the injustice of 'scapegoating' - i.e. punishing one person to save the community from greater internal conflict - Jesus obliges us to find another way to deal with our violence (by repentance and forgiveness). Failure to do that leads to the persistent unpredictable violence of these times.

  • Mimetic Desire: The Importance of René Girard I
    ACP Website May 2013
    As we are so obviously imitative in our desires, why is that issue never addressed by Catholic homilists - and why do we lack, in common use, a term for this 'imitative desire'? The American French academic René Girard calls it 'mimetic desire'. Arguing that biblical 'covetousness' is the same thing, he believes that this human tendency lies at the root of all violence.

  • The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire
    © Reality Mar 2007
    Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why, in summary, is desire so contagious - and why do we therefore need to re-learn the meaning of the critical verb 'to covet'?

  • The Lost Sin
    The Furrow 2003
    As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquired scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?” However, if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard, the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness - wanting what seems to give our neighbour greater dignity. Why is it that the obvious human tendency to imitate the desires of others has so long escaped the attention of Christian moralists, including Catholic bishops?

  • Rethinking Freedom
    Spirituality 2002
    Freedom - along with equality and brotherhood - were promised by the 18th century Enlightenment, so why are we still trapped in conflict, want and fear over two centuries later? Could it be that we are mostly simply unconscious of our tendency to model our desires on those of someone else, and then to compete for what cannot be shared - the 'winner's' supremacy? Do we need to re-learn what is meant by 'the imitation of Christ' if we are to be truly free?

  • Is God Dead?
    Doctrine and Life Oct 2001
    Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God is dead - but also explicitly justified sacrificial murder. In 'I See Satan Fall Like Lightning' René Girard argued that the archetypal modern scapegoating murder, the Holocaust, was a result of Nietsche's 'superman' programme , and that had Hitler won World War II the Nietzschean programme of undoing the compassion for victims established by the gospels could have been attempted on a vast scale. A re-learning of the Gospel's message - as a revelation of the roots of scapegoating - shows God to be fully alive in our own time.

  • Rehabilitating Satan
    The Furrow 2001
    The name 'Satan' originally meant 'the accuser' - and there is indeed a 'spirit of accusation' at work in all human conflict, a power that is clearly greater than any individual person. The danger of deriding and banishing 'Satan' from human discourse is that we humans then become even more inclined to blame and accuse one another. As René Girard argued in 'I See Satan Fall Like Lightning', the Bible is in the end much kinder to us than the Enlightenment - by blaming Satan rather than humankind for the evils we suffer.

Other Sources on Girard

Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled (NY, Crossroad) 1995 is still a good introduction to Girard’s understanding of the role of archaic religion in trying to contain the violence that mimetic desire (covetousness) makes likely.  However, the best account of Girard’s theory and how it relates to the western philosophical tradition is René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver (Michigan State University Press) 2013. That is expensive for a paperback, unfortunately, so a good introductory compromise might be Discovering Girard by Michael Kirwan (Darton, Longman and Todd) 2004 – at less than half the price of Palaver’s book.

In 2018 Cynthia Haven’s intellectual biography of Girard appeared: Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. It was named by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the top books of 2018

These websites are also dedicated to the ideas of Girard and his collaborators:

The Colloquium on Violence and Religion 
The Raven Foundation
The Girardian Lectionary