René Girard is one of the great intellectuals of the 20th Century. He can perhaps best be called a theoretical anthropologist, but he is a true multi-disciplinary thinker. In addition to anthropology, his work crosses into such fields as literary criticism, philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology.
His many books include Violence and the Sacred, The Scapegoat, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, and Battling to the End. In my search for understanding, I feel privileged to have encountered his genius.
He sees myth and anthropology as one and the same, and both as vital to understanding humanity.
Girard’s concept of Mimetic Desire is a revelation that explains humanity on both a micro and a macro level. His basic insight is that imitation, and in particular imitated desire, is the foundation of human relationships.
One person desires an object and designates it to another as desirable. The imitated individual is confirmed as correct in his desire when he sees the other also moving toward the same object.
Whether food, water, or a desirable mate, truly desirable objects are always limited in number. This causes conflict as multiple individuals move toward the same scarce objects.
The Scapegoat and Archaic Religion
This natural state of conflict should have prevented humans from gathering in permanent groups, save the scapegoat mechanism.
The scapegoat allowed the group to unite against a victim and quelled conflict within the group. In allowing the group to unite and society to form, the victim was god-like in allowing humanity to progress.
Girard thus sees scapegoating, as codified by ritual sacrifice in archaic religions, as being critical to the evolution of human society.
He sees evidence of this in the fact that there is a universal foundational myth of the periodic sacrifice of a sacred king who dies and is resurrected.
Girard and the Christian Deviation
Girard sees Christianity as a sea change for humanity. For the first time it is revealed that the victim is innocent.
Whether or not you are a Christian, it is fascinating to consider the story of Christ in light of Mimetic Theory and the universal foundational myth.
Girard sees Christianity as potentially destroying the power of scapegoating and the archaic sacred to solve problems by revealing the truth about its foundational lie, that the victim was innocent.
In this way, Christianity paved the way for rational, scientific inquiry to explain the world. In Girard’s formulation, we didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science, we invented science because we stopped burning witches.
History is a Test that Humanity is Failing
As the superstitions of the old order no longer restrain human behavior, humanity increasingly also rejects Christianity’s message of peace and refusal of violence. Human destructive potential has grown as we have lost our moral bearings.
Girard sees these as truly apocalyptic times as our capacity to destroy each other and our world seemingly dwarfs our inclination to move beyond the old, primitive order of envy, conflict, and the search for scapegoats.
So Girard sees imitation of behavior as key to understanding humans and humanity. Not just imitation of desire, but imitation of conflict, imitation of rivalry, and other behaviors. This goes a long way toward explaining herding and boom/bust cycles in markets.
Imitated desire plus scarcity means envy is key to understanding human behavior. Envy better describes human nature than greed.
Imitation and envy together explain rivalry between friends and peers as well as sports, capitalism, and war.
Imitation, scarcity, envy, and scapegoating are powerful and omnipresent factors in human behavior, many times subconscious. There are many profound lessons here for politics, business, investing, and life.
Looking at things through a Girardian lens has altered my understanding of myself and the world.
“It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.” — Warren Buffett
René Girard CBC interview part 1 of 5 (audio only)
René Girard CBC interview part 2 of 5
René Girard CBC interview part 3 of 5
René Girard CBC interview part 4 of 5
René Girard CBC interview part 5 of 5