Maximus: Do you find it difficult to do your duty?
Cicero: Sometimes I do what I want to do. The rest of the time, I do what I have to.
I had just finished writing the Appendix for the book when I came across this Jonathan Pageau video, “René Girard: Desire and Sacrifice – with Craig Stewart.” Now, nothing Pageau posts I would describe as easy listening, so after listening to a few minutes of this video I felt overwhelmed and stopped – not thinking about if this was a permanent or temporary stop. It was just too much for me after just finishing the book.
I then started going through a couple of the more involved emails I had received over the last weeks; I will reply promptly, but some are so involved that I am not always able to immediately get into them thoroughly. One of these I received after writing the first couple of chapters of the book – the chapters on Plato, Aristotle, the Form of the Good, etc. The email opened “Welcome to the Journey.”
I know, it sounds pretentious. But it is one of the more sincere and thorough emails I have received. Very long, packed with many links, and involving much deeper content than I could handle – not only because I was just starting the book, but because it is much deeper content than I could handle.
Well, I thought to casually read it – not yet willing to get into it. Lo and behold, one of the sources mentioned in this email is René Girard! Well, this now got my attention and moved me to go back to the video. I have watched it several times, and still can only scratch the surface – but it is a topic worth discovering. I will also draw from an essay about René Girard from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Girard was a twentieth century philosopher. His fundamental concept is ‘mimetic desire’. This is more than imitation. Students of Plato understand that humans are the species most apt at imitation; per Girard, we also imitate desire and this can sometimes lead to conflict as we desire the same things. My focus will specifically be his views on the scapegoat and the victim, and how this mechanism was used to reduce conflict in early societies and how this evolved via Christianity.
For those still confused about what any of this has to do with liberty, might I suggest that liberty has a chance to be sustained in a peaceful society; it stands no chance in a society consumed by conflict. Property rights, let alone life, stand no chance against a societal mob.
When Girard first presented his work, the academy was ecstatic – in this work, we finally had a scientific, anthropological theory of religion. Once he worked through the Bible and became a Christian apologist, the academy would reject him.
So, what of this work? When it leads to conflict, this imitation of desire must be mediated. How did communities overcome this internal strife? From the essay:
Whereas the philosophers of the 18th century would have agreed that communal violence comes to an end due to a social contract, Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence.
I would often comment that a punch in the nose for the guy who insulted my wife might be the best mechanism to reduce the possibility of further, increased violence. I know it is considered a violation of the non-aggression principle, but it might be useful in keeping the peace.
But this isn’t what Girard is getting at. Instead, he sees this as communal violence aimed at a single individual – the scapegoat. The entire community focuses its violence on one individual, and once the deed is done (the scapegoat is sacrificed), the community can move forward in peace.
But the act must remain unconscious. The victim cannot be considered by members of the community as a victim, innocent – rather he must be looked at as the monster; once purged, the community would again be clean. Girard offers that, prior to Christianity, the idea of an innocent scapegoat was an oxymoron. By definition, the individual was the source of the strife and therefore guilty.
This scapegoat mechanism was the foundation for the development of civilization and culture. Through the repetition of the scapegoat cycle, societies reduced internal violence and conflict. From the essay:
The murder of a victim brought forth communal peace, and this peace promoted the flourishing of the most basic cultural institutions.
These murders would be reenacted in rituals – the earliest form of religion – and these rituals were developed into myth. The myth had to follow the narrative – the scapegoat is never a victim, but the cause of conflict. Mythology was meant to legitimize violence against the scapegoat – stripping him of any victimhood.
Girard’s most often used example is that of Oedipus, expelled from Thebes for murdering his father and marrying his mother. But, per Girard, the myth should be read with Oedipus as the scapegoat, accused of parricide and incest, and thus justifying his persecution.
This is all background to Girard’s Christian apologetics. From the essay:
…whereas myths are caught under the dynamics of the scapegoat mechanism by telling the foundational stories from the perspective of the scapegoaters, the Bible contains plenty of stories that tell the story from the perspective of the victims.
In the pre- or non-Biblical myths, the victim (the scapegoat) is presented as guilty and one whose execution is just; in the Bible, the victim is often portrayed as innocent. In other words, the point of view of the entire narrative is turned on its head. The Bible is unique in its defense of victims; the Old Testament begins this shift, but doesn’t fully complete it. From the essay:
For example, Girard contrasts the story of Cain and Abel with the myth of Remus and Romulus. In both stories, there is rivalry between the brothers. In both stories, there is a murder. But, in the Roman myth, Romulus is justified in killing Remus, as the latter transgressed the territorial limits they had earlier agreed upon. In the Biblical story, Cain is never justified in killing Abel.
The New Testament fully completes the transition. From the essay:
The Passion story is central in the New Testament, and it is the complete reversal of traditional myth’s structure. Amidst a huge social crisis, a victim (Jesus) is persecuted, blamed of some fault, and executed. Even the apostles succumb to the collective pressure and abandon Jesus, tacitly becoming part of the scapegoating crowd. This is emblematic in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus.
But what “myth” developed. Even the power of the empire of the time (Rome) and of the Jewish religious leaders could not turn Jesus into a scapegoat. The “myth” (you understand my meaning) that came out of this was Jesus as the innocent victim and not Jesus as the source of conflict. For goodness’ sake, God Himself was the victim – totally innocent.
The apostles, as evangelists, adhered to Jesus’s innocence and spread the Good News – many becoming victims themselves – and here again, we look back on them as innocent – not mythologizing them as deserving of their fate.
There was no concept of scapegoating before Christianity – the scapegoat today (when he is recognized as such) is seen as a victim. This wasn’t true prior to Christianity, when the scapegoat was seen as a monster. The Bible, and especially Jesus, makes scapegoating inoperative. From the essay:
Once scapegoats are recognized for what they truly are, the scapegoating mechanism no longer works. Thus, the Bible is a remarkably subversive text, inasmuch as it shatters the scapegoating foundations of culture.
In the culture of today – one without the Christian message – scapegoating (at least without the literal sacrificial component) has returned with a vengeance, something Girard apparently predicted. Yet the scapegoating is not yet effective at reducing communal conflict – it is increasing it.
As Stewart puts it, without the Christian message all prohibitions are available to man’s desire – what we can have, can’t have, shouldn’t have if we want to reduce conflict. The recent example is offered – people licking ice cream and putting it back on the shelf, breaking a prohibition to cause a scandal to get attention – this is all that is left to us. This, of course, is the most innocent example. Extend desire to the most extreme and absurd, as without the Christian message there is nothing culturally or ethically that prohibits this.
We are in a new era: scapegoating (at least extending to ritual sacrifice) has not permeated every aspect of society (although we see it extended to “the other,” in war, in the unborn child) and is not effective in reducing conflict, yet the Christian message is also gone.
Absent Christianity and in the negation of Christianity, all that is left is anti-Christ. This gives us persecution in the name of the victims: communism was for the proletariat victims and therefore sacrificed the millions of bourgeoisie (and millions of others, of course). Modern ideologies deny the humanity of whoever they will victimize.
This can be seen today with the social justice warriors – an immense persecution machine. Pageau cannot think of examples in mythology of persecution on the side of the victim, where victim status offers some kind of power to use against the oppressor. It existed in stories of slave revolts, but this was done in order to no longer remain a victim. Today’s victims must hold their victim status or they lose their power.
The victims are born completely free of sin and the victimizers are born in complete sin, thereby legitimizing all persecution and hostility. This gives freedom to the scapegoating mobs, seen at virtually every event connected to a traditional, Christian, Western message. They scapegoat, but they can’t see it as scapegoating else it destroys their cause – it would undermine the efficacy of what they are doing.
Many Christians have become disarmed by today’s victimhood narrative, according to Pageau. They don’t know how to deal with it, so they compromise their moral values by not judging and by retreating. Of course, it appears to me that many Christians also embrace this victimhood narrative.
This brings Girard to matters of Apocalypse and contemporary culture. I certainly don’t mean to get into interpreting end-times theology, merely to examine the anthropological / philosophical analysis of Girard and what might be learned from this. In any case, there are multiple methods by which the Bible can be read and understood.
Girard believes that the apocalyptic teachings to be found in the New Testament are a warning about future human violence. Once victims are recognized as innocent, scapegoating can no longer work to restore order. Through Jesus’s work, we no longer have the traditional low-violent means to put an end to violence. But what to do about the Enlightenment’s post-Christian world? From the essay:
The ‘signs’ of apocalypse are not numerical clues such as 666, but rather, signs that humanity has not found an efficient way to put an end to violence, and unless the Christian message of repentance and withdrawal from violence is assumed, we are headed towards doomsday; not a Final Judgment brought forth by a punishing God, but rather, a doomsday brought about by our own human violence.
We don’t have Jesus, and we don’t have a low-violence method of defusing violence. So, Stewart offers, it is just Christ versus the anti-Christ until the end of the story. How did Girard view the Last Judgement? He saw apocalyptic violence as what humanity will do to each other, not what God will do to humanity. (Girard is not calling for pacifism, but this is beyond my scope here.)
Christianity forced the issue: choose non-violence (properly understood) or bring on Armageddon.
The root cause of the violence is pride, and after pride came envy and then violence. This is the story of the fall in the Garden – leading, ultimately, to Cain and Abel. Without recourse to the sacrifice of the scapegoat, all that is left is the Gospel – until the end of time, we are at a crossroads: repent or parish. We can choose the Gospel, or we can choose pride, envy and violence.
In other words, we can choose the Gospel or we can face the loss of liberty…and the loss of so much more.
There are perhaps a dozen other links and references mentioned in the aforementioned email. It will take me months to work through these, assuming I find the journey fruitful and it rises to my focus for reading and writing – nothing is certain in this regard.
But, if so, perhaps there will be a second book!
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.