Sociology / Biography

Vol. 2, NO. 2 / May 2016

René Girard

Desire, Violence, and Religion

Jean-Pierre Dupuy

Letters to the Editors

In response to “Desire, Violence, and Religion

On November 4, 2015, René Girard, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, died in his house on the campus of Stanford University, where he had taught for many years. A growing number of people believe that he solved two of the most important enigmas regarding humankind and the societies they live in: first, the nature of desire as the prime mover of beliefs and actions and its intimate relationship with violence, and second, the nature of religion and its presence in all societies, and its roots in violence.

Girard’s memorial service took place on November 14, 2015, just a few hours after the second terrorist attack to strike Paris that year. Many have sought the causes of such violence, and Girard found a way to make sense of it, not through its causes but through its absence of reason. He found the key in scripture: “they hated me without reason.”1

Girard’s followers too often venerate his teachings. Others reject them without even trying to understand their complexities and subtleties. Few try to refute his hypotheses, not to debunk them, but in order to assess their strength.2

The preliminary step is a systematic and critical exposé.

Introducing René Girard

Girard was born in Avignon, France, on Christmas Day, 1923. Little of his biography is necessary to understand what follows, except this: in 1947, he left behind his country, his family, and his Catholic upbringing. He came to the United States, which he never left, and became a professor of literature. Perhaps uniquely in the world of literary criticism Girard considered literature at its best to be a source of genuine knowledge: “In the great novels,” he wrote, “aesthetics is not a separate area—it combines with ethics and metaphysics.”3 Through working on literary texts, he developed his theories, which in turn led to his return to Christianity.4

As early as 1961, in the original version of his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard discovered a pattern in the French novelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—mainly Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, and Marcel Proust—and in a variety of other major novelists as well, especially Miguel de Cervantes, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and James Joyce. He found this pattern perhaps first and foremost in William Shakespeare.

The key is this: desire is fundamentally mimetic. Our desires tend to follow those of models that we either consciously or unwittingly imitate. Girard termed such models mediators. Desire is not a single line of force running between the self and its object. The fundamental pattern of desire is a triangle; the vertices are the self, the object, and the mediator.

In 1939, Jean Paul Sartre, following Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, wrote:

[Husserl] has opened the space for a new treatise on the emotions with would take its inspiration from this truth which is so simple and so profoundly misunderstood by our sophisticates: if one loves a woman, it is because she is lovable. With this we are delivered from Proust.5

For the realist, then, one loves a woman because she is lovable. For the idealist, on the other hand, one loves a woman because one imagines her lovable. Girard, like so many others, tried to escape these sterile alternatives, by considering a third possibility. One loves a woman because she is loved by a third party. This is mimetic desire.

The triangularity of desire is a simple notion, but it has broad and complex implications. To begin with, it explains the obvious but otherwise perplexing fact that desire may not only cause rivalry, but also depend on it. Without rivalry, desire itself may languish.

Girard did not stop there. In the early 1970s, he put forward an ambitious anthropology of violence.6 Set within the tradition of Émil Durkheim’s sociology, it was a theory of the origin of religion and its relationship with violence.

Girard did not stop there either. In 1978, he published a book whose title sounded like a provocation. It was a quote from Matthew: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Girard now appeared as a Christian author; many of his former followers repudiated him.

We owe Girard—a Christian thinker—the first complete scientific deconstruction of religion. It is, seemingly, a paradox. But Christianity, for Girard, is not a religion. It is the religion that ends all religions.7

Mimetic Desire and Violence

As noted, the triangularity of desire leads automatically to rivalry. The desire of the mediator creates the value of the object and calls forth the subject’s desire. But the mediator stands between the subject and the object. The instigator of desire has automatically become the major obstacle to the fulfillment of desire. At this point the subject may wish to destroy the obstacle. But if he does so, he destroys the instigator of desire and therefore the value of the object.8 The object is required in order for imitation to generate conflict. But as the intensity of the rivalry grows, the importance of the object tends to dwindle. Mimetic desire explains why we so often find an object banal until it is transfigured by the appreciation of another observer.

Mediation can either be external or internal. External mediation does not lead to conflict, because the self and its model cannot be competitors; their fields of action do not overlap. Internal mediation, on the other hand, leads almost inevitably to conflict, because the self and its model are competitors within the same field of action.

Double Mediation

If mimesis is universal, the triangle cannot be the originating figure. The mediator’s desire must itself be imitated. Whom does the mediator imitate? The simplest (and most complex!) case is when the mediator imitates the subject while the subject imitates the mediator.

Girard writes:

In the world of internal mediation, the contagion is so widespread that everyone can become his neighbor’s mediator without ever understanding the role he is playing. This person who is a mediator without realizing it may himself be incapable of spontaneous desire. Thus he will be tempted to copy the copy of his own desire. What was for him in the beginning only a whim is now transformed into a violent passion. We all know that every desire redoubles when it is seen to be shared. Two identical but opposite triangles are thus superimposed on each other. Desire circulates between the two rivals more and more quickly, and with every cycle it increases in intensity.9

For example, A and B imitate each other reciprocally. A is anxious about B’s desire, which alone can designate a target for his own desire. Some ephemeral and random sign makes him believe that B has designs on object O. By rushing to get there first, he signals the stakes of the rivalry. When B in turn imitates A’s desire, the initial illusion becomes reality. The first to imagine the other’s desire seems not to have been imagining at all; he now has the proof! It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The process begins because of a chance occurrence, which yet plays a crucial role: it determines the object.

Metaphysical Desire

Mimetic desire is only superficially a desire to have what the other has or wants. On a deeper level it is a desire to possess the other’s qualities—to be what he is. Girard’s term for this is metaphysical desire. “Imitative desire,” says Girard, “is always a desire to be another. There is only one metaphysical desire but the particular desires which instantiate this primordial desire are of infinite variety.”10

Objects seem attractive because one feels their possession might give one a greater degree of ontological sufficiency. Each person comes into the world an infant surrounded by adults, with a sense of deficiency. Throughout his life he comes across others who seem to have that adult sufficiency, and who arouse in him a desire to win it for himself. This feeling is aroused more forcefully by those who seem indifferent to us. Now and then, we encounter figures who seem to be sublimely beyond the mimetic hell. We want what they have because we feel that it makes them what they are.

Hence the appearance of the modern antihero on the stage of metaphysical desire. The ideal figure is no longer one who, like the early romantics, experiences and realizes intense desires, but rather his opposite, the one who seems to feel scarcely any desire at all.


Sigmund Freud believed that narcissism was a deviation of sexual libido, a sort of damming up of libido within the ego so that it cannot flow outward toward objects. Freud thought narcissism was most often found in children and in women—what he called the eternal feminine type—and he believed it added greatly to their appeal. But he offered no explanation for this power of attraction.

Girard’s critique here is cruelly ironic: “At no point does Freud admit that he might be dealing not with an essence but with a strategy, by which he himself has been taken in.”11

The strategy Girard believes is at work in narcissism is coquetry:

The coquette knows a lot more about desire than Freud does. She knows very well that desire attracts desire. So, in order to be desired, one must convince others that one desires oneself … If the narcissistic woman excites desire, this is because, when she pretends to desire herself and suggests to Freud a kind of circular desire that never gets outside itself, she offers an irresistible temptation to the mimetic desire of others. Freud misinterprets as an objective description the trap into which he has fallen. What he calls the self-sufficiency of the coquette, her blessed psychological state and her impregnable libidinal position, is in effect the metaphysical transformation of the condition of the model and rival. … The coquette seeks to be desired because she needs masculine desires, directed at her, to feed her coquetry and enable her to play her role as a coquette. She has no more self-sufficiency than the man who desires her, but the success of her strategy allows her to keep up the appearance of it, since it offers her a form of desire she can copy … To sum up: in just the same way as the admirer caught up in the trap of coquetry imitates the desire that he really believes to be narcissistic, so the flame of coquetry can only burn on the combustible material provided by the desires of others.12

It is a variant of double mediation. The coquette’s desire for herself is mediated by those she attracts, while their desire for her is mediated by what they think is her purely independent self-desire.

Coquetry thus falls under the category of pseudo-narcissism. An extreme case can be found in advanced stages of metaphysical desire, when the highest power of attraction resides in the other’s pure and simple apathy. A fundamental consequence is the impossibility of reciprocity.


In games of desire, victories are bound to become defeats. As we pursue the objects and relationships that seem to promise metaphysical fullness, we inevitably experience disappointment after disappointment. The more successful we are, the more frequent and bitter the disappointments.

We can either give up the chase or redouble our efforts. As Girard puts it:

The master has learned from his many different experiences that an object which can be possessed is valueless. So in the future he will be interested only in objects which are forbidden him by an implacable mediator. The master seeks an insurmountable obstacle and he almost always succeeds in finding one.13

The double bind at this stage takes the following form. First, I desire the being of the mediator, but he must be worthy; he must be strong and powerful. Second, the sign of his power is his victory—i.e., my defeat.

Seeking out increasingly resistant obstacles heightens the appearance of value in the mediator. As Girard puts it:

After changing its models into obstacles, mimetic desire … changes obstacles into models … Henceforth desire always hastens to wound itself on the sharpest of reefs and the most redoubtable of defenses. How can observers possibly not believe in the existence of something that they call masochism? But of course they are quite wrong to do so.14

The object of desire is to make oneself the focal point where desires converge. But at the same time, desire wants to rid itself of this object so that the other may possess it. Desire gives up possession of its object in order to satisfy itself. I want to possess the object of desire because it has value, but the object of desire only has value if I do not possess it. In winning it, I lose it.

Here, for the first time, we begin to see how Girard’s anthropology can shed a light on current forms of terrorism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau distinguished two opposing passions: amour-de-soi and amour-propre.

The primitive passions all aimed directly at our happiness and concerned us only with related objects. These passions have l’amour de soi as their only principle and are all essentially loving and tender; but when they are diverted from their objects by obstacles, these passions focus more on overturning the obstacles to happiness than on the actual possession of this happiness [emphasis added]. Then the primitive passions change in nature, becoming irascible and hateful. And this is how l’amour de soi, which is an absolutely good sentiment, becomes l’amour-propre, a relative sentiment by means of which we compare ourselves to others. It is a sentiment that requires preferences, and the pleasures that it affords are purely negative, being sought not in the satisfaction of our own well-being, but in the misfortune of others.15

It is possible to contend, in light of this profound but yet enigmatic distinction, that the 9/11 terrorists were by no means moved by anything resembling amour-de-soi, or self-interest, but by amour-propre, in the sense that they were more keen on overturning the obstacle that the towers represented than on the actual possession of anything that could be labeled good.

Violence and the Sacred

Girard belonged to the great Franco-German-British tradition of religious anthropology, which was brought to a premature halt in 1939 by decades of structuralism and post-structuralism. In particular, he belonged to the French sociological school, with the works of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, Durkheim, and Marcel Mauss, and to the British anthropological school, with James George Frazer, William Robertson-Smith, and the Belgo-British anthropologist Arthur Hocart. He had affinities as well with Friedrich Nietzsche and Freud, who gave these traditions new momentum. If Girard’s theory is right, Girard himself invented nothing; those “things hidden since the foundation of the world” have become an open secret.

Must not a science of mankind pose the question of the origin of religion? Must it not address the problem of what makes all non-modern societies refer the social bond to an entity radically exterior to the world of men, namely, the sacred? Must not a science of economy ponder the major historical coincidence of the modern world, i.e., the simultaneous retreat of religion and the apotheosis of market value? In posing these questions, Girard does no more than renew the great tradition of religious anthropology.

Religious anthropology, before its demise, reached the following conclusions:

  • All non-modern social and cultural institutions are rooted in the sacred.
  • Of the three dimensions of the sacred—myths, rituals, and prohibitions—the most fundamental is the ritual.
  • The most fundamental form of ritual is the sacrifice.

Sacrifice is the reenactment by the social group of a spontaneous primordial event, namely, a process of collective victimization, which resulted in the murder of a member of the community. Eliminating the victim reestablished peace and order.

Here lies the origin of the sacred. The victim is taken to be the cause or the active principle of both the violent crisis and its violent resolution. This principle unites within itself opposite predicates—infinite good and infinite evil—and thus can only be of a divine nature.

Christ’s death on the cross is but one case of the primordial event. As far as facts alone are concerned, there is no difference between primitive religions and Christianity. The difference lies in interpretation. Unusually, the story is told from the victim’s viewpoint, not that of the persecutors. The Gospels proclaim his innocence. Modern institutions embody a tension between the drive to scapegoat and the Christian anti-sacrificial drive.

Those findings were far-reaching, but there were serious contradictions.

Robertson-Smith likened the sacrificial ritual to an offering, a kind of exchange between the god and the offerer, as if some kind of reciprocity could exist between the divine and the human levels. The objection was obvious: why would God expect anything from humans?

Durkheim solved this enigma elegantly. For him, the divinity is society conceived symbolically, and the totem in particular is a symbolic, religious representation of the community, at once the symbol of the god and of the society. Religion, then, is a set of beliefs and practices by which society represents itself to itself. If we feel dependent on God, it is because of our dependence on society, which in turn depends on us, the individuals. If society were not embodied in the individuals and their mental representations, it would amount to nothing. It is a reciprocity of sorts. Durkheim’s account, however, had its own shortcomings, which were exposed by British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard.

For Durkheim, the social whole is transcendent in relation to its individual constituents, but he accounted for this transcendence in two opposing ways. First of all, we are the products of our cultures, institutions, languages, symbols, etc.; they make us, we do not make them. At the same time, during a ritual or a festivity like a carnival, for example, the individual fuses with the crowd. Religion emerges from this cauldron, generated by the collectivity. The transcendence of the collective is brought about first by social order and then by social disorder.

Girard was able to unravel this paradox.

A process of social totalization appears at times infinitely close to a process of social decomposition, as if social order contained social disorder, in the two senses of the word “contain.”

It is now fashionable in the humanities to dismiss out of hand any theory that purports to explain everything, all the more so if it offers a simple explanation for the complexity of the world. Freudians and Marxists, for instance, lost a lot of ground partly because they went too far. Every dream became something of a sexual nature. Every relationship among people was based on a materialistic dialectic. It might be tempting to reject Girard for similar reasons. But the all-embracing aspect of Girard’s thesis is a consequence of its being a generative hypothesis, focusing on the point of hominization and the events that differentiated between animal hierarchies of difference based on physical dominance, and human hierarchies of difference based on human cultures.16

At the heart of Girard’s hypothesis is the proposition that the sacred is nothing other than the violence of men. At the paroxysm of the sacrificial crisis, in the contagious murderous frenzy where every enmity converges upon an arbitrary member of the collective, putting that individual to death abruptly restores peace.

This action has three results. First, mythology: the victim is interpreted as a supernatural being, capable at once of introducing disorder and of creating order. Next, ritual: it initially mimes the violent decomposition of the group in order to stage the re-establishment of order through killing the surrogate victim. Last, the system of prohibitions and obligations: these are meant to prevent a new eruption of conflict.

The sacred is fundamentally ambivalent. It uses violence to hold back violence. It contains violence. The sacrificial gesture restores order, but it is still a murder. The ambivalence applies equally to the system of prohibitions and obligations. The social structures which usually unify the community are precisely the same ones that, in times of crisis, tear it apart. Girard believed that this ambivalence damaged irreparably the machine for making the sacred. As this machine functions less and less well, it produces more and more violence, and this violence has lost the power to impose order on itself.

Such is the modern world, in a low-gear mimetic crisis, “without catastrophic escalation or resolution of any kind.”17


In the animal kingdom, there are mechanisms preventing rivalries from destroying the group. Patterns of dominance are established, where weaker, subordinate animals imitate dominant ones without acquisitiveness. Humans, on the other hand, press rivalries to the point where the desired object disappears and the rivalry becomes metaphysical, and murderous. Hominization occurs with the disappearance of the contested objects and the spontaneous emergence of the surrogate victim. In Girard’s terms, this is when acquisitive mimesis becomes conflictual mimesis.18 The struggle becomes one for pure prestige.

Unanimous victimization thus plays the same role in human community as the surrender of the weaker animals plays in the establishment of dominance patterns among the higher animals.

Gazing at the victim’s corpse, the mob’s stupefaction turns to awe, as it realizes that it has just experienced its first, miraculous, moment of unanimity. The mob, however, has misidentified the cause of unanimity. They think it is the victim, but it is in fact mimetic rivalry and the surrogate victim mechanism. The victim is but a catalyst—a passive object. The mob obscures its own violence from itself.

The first illusion makes the victim a god, placing him above the group as the transcendent source of order and disorder. This is an original act of collective bad faith or social self-deception.

The difference between victim and mob is the beginning of all differentiation. Structuralist topology demands two signs at the beginning; signs only signify with reference to each other. Here the one stands out from the many. What controls behavior is not what happened but the (mis)interpretation of what happened.

Here Girard is fully indebted to Nietzsche.

The Sacred

Many today view religion as a response to the experience of the sacred, where the sacred is ontologically prior to the individual or society. They, like Claude Lévi-Strauss, see myth as the essence of religion.

Against this, Girard argues, with Durkheim, that the sacred is one with human culture and society. The group generates the sacred through the transference of both violence and peace onto the victim; the sacred in turn mandates prohibition, ritual, and myth.

For Girard, the sacred is not an invention of the pre-scientific mind to provide explanations of natural phenomena, nor a mysterious presence apprehended in the religious attitude, nor a plot set up by a group of self-appointed high priests to secure their power.

The sacred is a mendacious representation of human violence.

The first two imperatives of the sacred are curiously contradictory, and have represented an enigma for anthropology. Prohibition means that one should not repeat any aspect of the original crisis. Ritual requires that one repeat the whole thing with great care.

The Girardian explanation is straightforward. Prohibition corresponds to mimetic rivalry, while ritual corresponds to the surrogate victim. Prohibition focuses on the negative side of the process, while ritual focuses on the positive side. The myth is the story told from the viewpoint of the perpetrators of the original collective murder.


If Girard is right, the first, primary form of ritual must be human blood sacrifice. The fundamental element in sacrifice is the deflection ruse by which we transfer violence from one target to another. The fundamental function of sacrifice is to repeat the first killing and so renew the ordering effect of unanimous violence.

Take the kingship rituals studied by anthropologist Arthur Hocart.19 The victim had to come from outside the group to avoid an infinite cycle of retaliations, but also be identified with it long enough to become its representative. Kings probably began as victims, but at some point acquired so much prestige, or power, that the community could no longer kill them.

More generally, every king is both victim and god; he is an institution for the processing of violence. Kingship rituals often include the king’s transgression of especially strong taboos. By his enthronement, ritual chaos is reduced to order.

One of the most nagging paradoxes is the elusive difference between sacrifice and crime. As Girard puts it:

In many rituals the sacrificial act assumes two opposing aspects, appearing at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at grave peril [order], at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity [disorder]. … If sacrifice resembles criminal violence, we may say that there is, inversely, hardly any form of violence that cannot be described in terms of sacrifice—as Greek tragedy clearly reveals: … sacrifice and murder would not lend themselves to this game of reciprocal substitution if they were not in some way related.20

Kosovo, spring 1999: a group of Serbian police officers rush into a Kosovar house. The family there—a man, his wife and their seventeen-year-old son—are celebrating the festival of Eid, which commemorates the non-sacrifice of his son by Abraham; for Muslims, this son is not Isaac but Ishmael, Abraham’s child from his servant Hagar. A sheep is slain in memory of the animal that the angel, at the last minute, substituted for the human victim. The Serbian policemen ask the family whether they have performed the sacrificial act. No, they are told, we are too poor for that. The police officers grab the son and cut his throat before his parents’ eyes, saying, “He is fat enough for sacrifice.”21

Two opposite attitudes to this atrocious act are common. For some, religion inevitably leads to acts of violence because religion implies intolerance, bigotry, irrationality, and the like. For others, even if a crime is committed in the name of religion, religion per se has nothing to do with it; Christianity is not guilty of the crimes committed by the Spanish inquisition.22 In Girard’s sacrificial theory, the answer might be that religion contains violence, in the two senses of the word; it has violence within itself, and, simultaneously, keeps it in check. Ishmael’s or, for that matter, Isaac’s non-sacrifice represents an exceptional moment in the history of sacrificial substitutions: it is when animal sacrifice is substituted for human sacrifice. In donning the bloody robe of the sacrificial priest, the Serbian police officers enacted a twofold regression: first, the regression from animal sacrifice to human sacrifice, and second, the regression from sacrifice to crime. They enacted the puzzling and troubling proximity between violence and the sacred.

Religious thought has always striven to conceal the kinship between sacrifice and murder. But the brutal manner of the Serbian police officers also does not make sacrifice and murder identical. There is a difference between them, and it is in this difference that the source of civilization can be found.

The religious history of humankind is the evolution of sacrificial systems; civilization leaps forward at each significant substitution of victims. Animals are substituted for humans, then plants take the place of animals, and ultimately abstract entities, such as money, become the sacrificial victims.23 The history of civilization is a history of symbolization, and the difference between sacrifice and crime is symbolic.


Lévi-Strauss understood that myths of expulsion serve to clarify a congested field of perception in order to make space for differential thought. But why is the myth so frequently represented by violence? If the expulsion is for the purpose of clarifying a mental field, what is expelled must come from within that field. If this is so, why does the mythological victim so often come from both within and without that field?

Girard interprets myth as the misrepresentation of a real event; it represents the founding murder from the viewpoint of the murderers.24

For Lévi-Strauss and most anthropologists, myths do not refer to any reality beyond the human mind and the prison of language, but the story told is taken to be true within the myth. For Girard, myths refer to real events, but the story told is partly false. It is very likely that a crippled foreigner who became the king of a Greek city was accused of killing his father and marrying his mother when a plague struck. The story is false only when it claims that the plague struck because Oedipus committed those crimes.

Prohibitions and Obligations

The law first emerged as a prohibition against mimetic violence, sanctioned by the vengeance of the gods. The mimetic nature of vengeance is obvious. Vengeance is reciprocal. Reciprocity, however, is normally understood as positive in either economic or legal terms. It is a form of fair exchange for mutual benefit. By contrast, vengeance is a reciprocity of loss. It is also the basis of retributive justice. Vengeance is mimetic violence transformed into retributive justice.

Prohibitions exist to prevent mimetic rivalry. They generally pertain to objects that the community cannot divide peacefully: food, weapons, the best places to live, women, and children. In the game of mimetic rivalry, the value of such objects is constituted not by scarcity but by prestige.

The first prohibition is attached to the place where the victim serves a god-like function, and elicits the difference between the victim and the group, and so between the sacred and the profane. The victim has united the group by symbolically prohibiting anything that can disrupt its unity. Hence the laws guarding the sacred precinct: laws of priestly purity, protocols governing the offering of sacrifice. Contravention of the rules causes pollution and the polluting agent is violence.

Law is the ordering of good violence, concealing its origin in sacred violence. It is ritually-controlled vengeance. With the emergence of a judiciary, it becomes rationally-controlled vengeance. In principle, the state has a monopoly on violence, and so there is no longer the threat of its spiraling out of control. The criminal pays for his crime, and the agency inflicting the punishment is the state, which is neither a private citizen nor a relative of the deceased. Reciprocal violence is impossible.

Notions such as the human subject, personal responsibility, rights of man, and the like, appear modern and secular, but they are intimately rooted in the religious life and its transformations.


For Girard, this knowledge was revealed to us by the passion of the Christ. By telling the story from the point of view of the victim, the Bible has shaped the unprecedented and unparalleled progress of Western civilization away from ritual and myth.

Look at the newspapers, listen to the radio, watch television. Each day, scapegoats are invoked to justify political, ethnic, religious, social, and racial discrimination. It is true. Scapegoats multiply wherever human groups seek to lock themselves into a given identity.

Modern rituals of scapegoating are quite different from the rituals described in Leviticus (16:10). For us, a scapegoat designates three different things: first, the victim of the ritual described in Leviticus; second, victims of similar rituals in archaic societies, called rituals of expulsion; and finally, phenomena of non-ritualized collective transference. The first two involve rituals; the third, in contrast, a spontaneous and often quite violent event.

Girard’s arguments are based on the insight that shapes the modern, popular sense of a scapegoat. It is richer than all the concepts that anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have invented, which do not address the religious foundations of the problems that besiege our society. Girard uses the modern notion to explain the archaic rituals, while at the same time using the anthropological insight to explain modern phenomena.

Modern society has an extraordinary number of victims. A comic variant on this perverse turn-about is furnished by American-style political correctness. The more signs of victim-status that you accumulate, the more assured you are of access to privilege. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.”25

It is essential to understand why it is so often said that Christianity marks the end of religion. It means that Christian precepts slowly corrode sacrificial institutions. The mechanism for manufacturing sacredness in the world has become irreparably disabled by the body of Christian knowledge. Instead, it produces more and more violence, and this violence can no longer externalize or contain itself. Thus Jesus’s enigmatic words take on unsuspected meaning: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”26

The Economy and the Sacred

Any secular (scientific) perspective on the sacred, like the one proposed by Girard, inevitably comes across the figure of self-transcendence. Human societies make gods who they believe make them. The radical originality of Girard’s anthropology is that it ascribes this capacity to violence itself.

In economics, the point is expressed differently. It is not evil that transcends and contains itself, but good that contains evil even while using it very much in keeping with the classical pattern of theodicy.27 The model of general economic equilibrium inherited from Léon Walras duplicates the pattern. It is this model that is criticized today whenever someone states that the European crisis has shattered the myth of markets being self-regulating. In a previous era, under the influence of Marxism, this critique might have been couched in terms of the people’s alienation in market society, or how the autonomy of the commodity system is contrary to democratic principles. But the market, and more broadly the economy, is in fact always capable of organizing itself. The market organizes itself even when there is a panic. It shares this essential property with all complex systems where cause and effect feed on each other. The market generates forces that seem to dominate individual actors, but actually result from the synergy of their actions. The expectations of producers, as John Maynard Keynes understood perfectly, affect the distribution of income and shape consumer demand.

Economic analysts often multiply a frivolous opposition between a real economy with a finance economy, the regulated market and the speculative market, and good speculation and short-selling.

These hasty dichotomies are merely a form of scapegoating. Speculation consists in buying a good because one counts on selling it to someone who desires it more. In the world of finance, the good in question is most often something written in a book: a security, a stock, a bond, a title, a currency. But the so-called real economy, even if it concerns goods or services whose material existence is beyond doubt, is to a large extent subject to the same logic. We desire an object because the desire of another designates it as desirable.

This is mimetic desire applied to the economy.


  1. Psalm 69:4; John 15:25. 
  2. That is what I have been doing since I discovered Girard’s work, in particular in three books: Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Paul Dumouchel, L’Enfer des choses: René Girard et la logique de l’économie (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mark of the Sacred, trans. Malcolm DeBevoise (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014); Jean-Pierre Dupuy, La Jalousie (Paris: Seuil, 2016). 
  3. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1965) p. 145–6. 
  4. Girard developed his theory of human psychology on reading literature, and developed his anthropological theory on reading world mythology and the Bible. Most anthropologists, however, consider that myths are manifestations of properties of the human mind and have nothing to do with real events. 
  5. Une idée fondamentale de la phénoménologie de Husserl: l’intentionalité.” (“A Fundamental Idea in Husserl’s Phenomenology: Intentionality”) Reprinted in Jean Paul Sartre, Situations I (Paris: Gallimard, 2010). 
  6. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1972). 
  7. Girard’s oeuvre is abundant. I will draw mainly on his first major works: René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965); René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); and René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987). Girard’s last book came out in English under the title Battling to the End (trans. Mary Baker, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2010). It is a meditation on Clausewitz’s classic On War
  8. One of the strongest illustrations of this mechanism is to be found in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Eternal Husband. Its sad hero, the eager cuckold, depends on the proximity of his defunct wife’s lovers to keep his own desire for women alive. How and why the model automatically becomes an obstacle, a rival, is beautifully fleshed out by Girard in a long passage of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel:
    Veltchaninov, riche célibataire, est un Don Juan d’âge mûr que la lassitude et l’ennui commencent à gagner. Depuis quelques jours il est obsédé par les apparitions fugitives d’un homme à la fois mystérieux et familier, inquiétant et falot. L’identité du personnage est bientôt révélée. Il s’agit d’un certain Pavel Pavlovitch Troussotzki dont la femme, une ancienne maîtresse de Veltchaninov, vient à peine de mourir. Pavel Pavlovitch a quitté sa province pour rejoindre, à Saint-Pétersbourg, les amants de la défunte. L’un de ceux-ci meurt à son tour et Pavel Pavlovitch, en grand deuil, suit le convoi funèbre. Reste Veltchaninov qu’il accable des attentions les plus grotesques et excède de ses assiduités. Le mari trompé tient sur le passé les propos les plus étranges. Il rend visite à son rival en pleine nuit, boit à sa santé, l’embrasse sur la bouche, le torture savamment à l’aide d’une malheureuse fillette dont on ne saura jamais qui est le père... La femme est morte et l’amant demeure. Il n’y a plus d’objet mais le médiateur, Veltchaninov, n’en exerce pas moins une attirance invincible. Ce médiateur est un narrateur idéal car il est au centre de l’action mais il n’y participe qu’à peine. Il décrit les événements avec d’autant plus de soin qu’il ne parvient pas toujours à les interpréter et craint de négliger un détail important. Pavel Pavlovitch médite un second mariage. Une fois de plus cet être fasciné se rend chez l’amant de sa première femme; il lui demande de l’aider à choisir un cadeau pour la nouvelle élue; il le prie de l’accompagner chez celle-ci. Veltchaninov résiste mais Pavel Pavlovitch insiste, supplie et finit par obtenir gain de cause. Les deux «amis» sont fort bien accueillis chez la jeune fille. Veltchaninov parle bien, joue du piano. Son aisance mondaine fait merveille: toute la famille s’empresse autour de lui, y compris la jeune fille que Pavel Pavlovitch considère déjà comme sa fiancée. Le prétendant bafoué fait de vains efforts pour se rendre séduisant. Personne ne le prend au sérieux. Il contemple ce nouveau désastre, tremblant d’angoisse et de désir… Quelques années plus tard, Veltchaninov rencontre à nouveau Pavel Pavlovitch dans une gare de chemin de fer. L’éternel mari n’est pas seul, une charmante femme, son épouse, l’accompagne, ainsi qu’un jeune et fringant militaire….
    René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, (France: Grasset, 1961), 45–46. 
  9. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 99. 
  10. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 83. 
  11. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 370. 
  12. René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 370–71. 
  13. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 176. 
  14. René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 327. 
  15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dialogues, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques
  16. Girard is a Christian thinker, and some have wrongly concluded that his obsession with sacrifice merely reflects the Christian theme of God’s sacrificing Himself for mankind, of redemptive suffering, and the gift of the self. (Certain anthropologists go so far as to assert that the very category of sacrifice only reflects traditional Christian domination in the discipline.) But where Girard is concerned, they could not be further from the truth; he first proposed an interpretation of Christianity that was radically anti-sacrificial, though he turned away from it at a later stage. 
  17. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, “Detour and Sacrifice: Ivan Illich and René Girard,” in The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection, ed. Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham (New York: State University of New York Press, 2002), 200. 
  18. “If acquisitive mimesis divides by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same object with a view to appropriating it, conflictual mimesis will inevitably unify by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same adversary that all wish to strike down.” René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 26. 
  19. Arthur Hocart, Social Origins (London: Watts & Co., 1954). 
  20. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 1. 
  21. Bernard Lempert, Critique de la pensée sacrificielle (Paris: Seuil, 2000), 231–32. The details of the atrocity were reported by a French television channel on Friday, April 16, 1999. 
  22. Since French republicanism has been ever since the revolution a form of religion of the state, one could also contend that when the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis and sent out 40,000 Jews to the Nazi gas chambers in Germany, it was not the French state but a bunch of usurpers who did it. By constitution, in a similar vein to the Pope as far as the dogma is concerned, the French state is always right (see Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the general will). It cannot err. 
  23. See Chapter I of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital on “Commodities”—the very chapter that Louis Althusser prohibited his students from reading! 
  24. A full Girardian account of the structure of myth has the following features: the theme of undifferentiation (the plague), accusations (incest, parricide), collective violence (expulsion of Oedipus), the founding or re-founding of culture, and the accusation against the mythic hero taken as an incontestable fact. 
  25. G. K. Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought” in Orthodoxy (1908). 
  26. Matthew 10:34. 
  27. Theodicy, or divine justice, is the vexed problem of reconciling the presumptive benevolence and omnipotence of the creator with the inescapable fact of the existence of evil on earth. Gottfried Leibniz’s solution is well known for having been ridiculed by Voltaire: the world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds. What appears to us as evil seems to be so because we have only a finite, individual view of the world. But if we could have a view of the totality—if we could look at the world from the divine point of view—we would see that what appears to us as evil is a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of the totality. Had evil not been permitted to intervene, our world would not have been the best of all possible worlds. French anthropologist and indianist Louis Dumont was led to characterize the essence of theodicy by the phrase: “Good must contain evil while still being its contrary.” Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980). 

Jean-Pierre Dupuy is Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

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