René Girard

René Girard

René Girard (born December 25, 1923, Avignon, France) is a world-renowned French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science. His work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. He is the author of several books (see below), developing the idea that human culture is based on a sacrifice as the way out of mimetic, or imitative, violence between rivals. His writing covers anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, cultural studies, critical theory, and literary criticism, as well as philosophy. His work is also attracting increasing interest from empirical researchers investigating human imitation (among them Andrew Meltzoff and Vittorio Gallese). Girard's views on imitation (developed decades before empirical research prompted a resurgence of interest in the matter) resonate with the most recent findings. Although regarded as having important contributions, Girard's work also tends to be very controversial due to his harsh criticisms of modern philosophy and his outspoken Christian views (i.e. He claims that the anthropological evidence, from looking at religious texts, shows a clear distinction between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand, and primitive religion and mythology on the other.) Girard focuses on three main ideas:

# mimetic desire,
# the scapegoat mechanism,
# how the Bible presents revelations concerning 1 and 2.

Recently, empirical studies into the mechanism of desire have suggested some intriguing correlations with Girard's theory on the subject. For instance, Dr. Scott Garrels mentions that "the parallels between Girard’s insights and the only recent conclusions made by empirical researchers concerning imitation (in both development and the evolution of species) are extraordinary." (Garrels, 2006).

Life and career

René Girard was born in Avignon, France, on December 25, 1923. Between 1943 and 1947, he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, Paris. In 1947, Girard went to Indiana University on a one-year fellowship, and the majority of his career has been pursued in the United States. He completed a PhD in history at Indiana University in 1950, but also began to teach literature, the field in which he would first make his reputation as a literary critic by publishing influential essays on such authors as Albert Camus and Marcel Proust. He taught at Duke University and at Bryn Mawr College before becoming professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Moving back and forth between Buffalo and Johns Hopkins, he finished his academic career at Stanford University where he taught between 1981 and his retirement in 1995.

He is Honorary Chair of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion and was elected to the Académie française, the highest rank for French intellectuals, on March 17, 2005.

On Friday June 25 2008 he was made a Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from St Andrews University, Scotland.

The work of René Girard has been extended into numerous academic disciplines. Perhaps the best source for tracking the continued scholarship that operates within a Girardean framework is through the website maintained by the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (

One of the most recent interdisciplinary research projects on the work of René Girard and experimental research can be tracked here:

Girard's thought

Mimetic desire

After almost a decade of teaching French literature in the United States, Girard began to develop a new way of speaking about literary texts. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he tried to discover their common structural properties after noticing that characters in great fiction evolved in a system of relationships otherwise common to the wider generality of novels. But there was a distinction to be made:

"Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is." ["Entretien avec Marie-Louise Martinez" ]

So there did indeed exist "psychological laws" as Proust calls them. These laws and this system are the consequences of a fundamental reality grasped by the novelists, which Girard called the mimetic character of desire. This is the content of his first book, "Deceit, Desire and the Novel" (1961). We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person — the model — for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. René Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be" ["Quand ces choses commenceront, p28"] , it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.

Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

Through their characters, our own behavior is displayed. Everyone holds firmly to the illusion of the authenticity of one's own desires; the novelists implacably expose all the diversity of lies, dissimulations, maneuvers, and the snobbery of the Proustian heroes; these are all but "tricks of desire", which prevent one from facing the truth: envy and jealousy. These characters, desiring the being of the mediator, project upon him superhuman virtues while at the same time depreciating themselves, making him a god while making themselves slaves, in the measure that the mediator is an obstacle to them. Some, pursuing this logic, come to seek the failures that are the signs of the proximity of the ideal to which they aspire. This is masochism, which can turn into sadism.

This fundamental focus on mimetic desire would be pursued by René Girard throughout the rest of his career. It is interesting to note that the stress on imitation in humans was not a popular subject when Girard developed his theories, but today there is independent support for his claims coming from empirical research. As Scott Garrels (Fuller’s School of Psychology) wrote:

'The parallels between Girard's insights and the only recent conclusions made by empirical researchers concerning imitation (in both development and the evolution of species) are extraordinary. What makes Girard's insights so remarkable is that he not only discovered and developed the primordial role of psychological mimesis during a time when imitation was quite out of fashion, but he did so through investigation in literature, cultural anthropology, history,' (Garrels, 2004, p. 29) [Garrels, S. "imitation, mirror neurons and mimetic desire"] .

Girard has recently written about positive mimesis found in the Christian tradition of Imitatio Dei or Imitatio Christi.

Violence and the Sacred

Since the mimetic rivalry that develops from the struggle for the possession of the objects is contagious, it leads to the threat of violence. René Girard himself says, "If there is a normal order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis." ["Quand ces choses commenceront p29"] Turning his interest towards the anthropological domain, René Girard began to read all the anthropological literature and proposed his second great hypothesis: the victimization process, which is at the origin of archaic religion and which he sets forth in his second book "Violence and the Sacred" (1972).

If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning the desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. René Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis. This religious elaboration takes place gradually over the course of the repetition of the mimetic crises whose resolution brings only a temporary peace. The elaboration of the rites and of the taboos constitutes a kind of empirical knowledge about violence.

If explorers and anthropologists have not been able to witness events similar to these, which go back to the earliest times, indirect proofs for them abound, such as the universality of ritual sacrifice in all human communities and the innumerable myths that have been collected from the most varied peoples. If Girard's theory is true, then we will find in myths the culpability of the victim-god, depictions of the selection of the victim, and his power to beget the order that governs the group. And René Girard found these elements in numerous myths, beginning with that of Oedipus, which he analyzed in this and later books. On this question he opposes Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World" (1978), Girard develops the implications of this discovery. The victimary process is the missing link to the boundary between the animal world and the human world, the principle that explains the humanization of the primates. It allows us to understand the need for sacrificial victims, which in turn explains the hunt which is primitively ritual, and the domestication of animals as a fortuitous result of the acclimatization of a reserve of victims, or agriculture. It shows that at the beginning of all culture is archaic religion, which Durkheim had sensed. The elaboration of the rites and taboos by proto-human or human groups would take infinitely varied forms while obeying a rigorous practical sense that we can detect: the prevention of the return of the mimetic crisis. So we can find in archaic religion the origin of all political or cultural institutions.

According to Girard, just as the theory of natural selection of species is the rational principle that explains the immense diversity of forms of life, the victimary process is the rational principle that explains the origin of the infinite diversity of cultural forms. The analogy with Darwin also extends to the scientific status of the theory, as each of these presents itself as a hypothesis that is not capable of being proven experimentally, given the extreme amounts of time necessary to the production of the phenomena in question, but which imposes itself by its great explanatory power.

The "Dark Box" of the Origin of Language

For Camille Tarot the "Dark Box" [Camille Tarot, "Le symbolique et le sacré", La Découverte, Paris, 2008, p.860] of the theory of Girard is the difficulty to understand how the process of representation (symbolicity, language...), actually occurs . Against Eric Gans, Girard doesn't think that there is an original scene and during it "a sudden shift from non-representation to representation" [Markus Müller, "Interview with René Girard", Anthropoetics II, no. 1 (June 1996) [] consulted in september 2008] , or a sudden shift from animality to humanity. After the first victim, after the murder of the first scapegoat, there were the first prohibitions and rituals, but before the representation and the language, before culture. And that means that "people" (perhaps not human being) "will not start fighting again" [Ibidem] . Girard declares:

If mimetic disruption comes back, our instinct will tell us to do again what the sacred has done to save us, which is to kill the scapegoat. Therefore it would be the force of substitution of immolating another victim instead of the first. But the relationship of this process with representation is not one that can be defined in a clear-cut way. This process would be one that moves towards representation of the sacred, towards definition of the ritual as ritual and prohibition as prohibition. But this process would already begin prior the representation, you see, because it is directly produced by the experience of the misunderstood scapegoat. [ Ibidem]

According to Girard, the substitution of immolating another victim instead of the first, is "the very first symbolic sign created by the hominids" [René Girard, "Les origines de la culture", Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 2004, p.157 ISBN 2-220-05355-5. We translate the French sentence le "premier signe symbolique jamais inventé par les hominidés": "jamais" in the context means "absolutely the first"] . Girard says also it is the first time that a thing is at the place of an other one, thus the beginning of the culture, of the symbolicity, of the language, wich the sacrifice, the rituals, the religion are the foundation. But the process is very long and we must imagine that there are also kinds of rituals among the animals: "It is the originary scapegoating which prolongs itself in a process which can be infintely long in moving from, how should I say, from instinctive ritualization, instinctive prohibition, instinctive separation of the antagonists, which you already find to a certain extent in animals, towards representation." [Interview with Girard, op. cit.] The shift from animality to humanity is not a sudden shift and that is the "Dark Box" of C.Tarot. In concrete terms:

"One great characteristic of man is what they" [the authors of the modern theory of evolution] "call neoteny, the fact that the human infant is born premature, with an open skull, no hair and a total inability to fend for himself. To keep it alive, therefore, there must be some form of cultural protection, because in the world of mammals, such infants would not survive, they would be destroyed. Therefore there is a reason to believe that in the later stages of human evolution, culture and nature are in constant interaction. The first stages of this interaction must occur prior to language, but they must include forms of sacrifice and prohibition that create a space of non-violence around the mother and the children which make it possible to reach still higher stages of human development. You can postulate as many such stages as are needed. Thus, you can have a transition between ethology and anthropology which removes, I think, all philosophical postulates. The discontinuities would never be of such a nature as to demand some kind of sudden intellectual illumination." [Interview with Girard, op. cit.]

Judeo-Christian scriptures

Biblical text as a science of man

In "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World", René Girard discusses for the first time Christianity and the Bible. The Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — symbolic in this case — in the Eucharist. The parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer. The mythical account is usually built on the lie of the guilt of the victim inasmuch as it is an account of the event seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous lynchers. This ignorance is indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial violence. The evangelical "good news" clearly affirms the innocence of the victim, thus becoming, by attacking ignorance, the germ of the destruction of the sacrificial order on which rests the equilibrium of societies. Already the Old Testament shows this turning inside-out of the mythic accounts with regard to the innocence of the victims (Abel, Joseph, Job, ..), and the Hebrews were conscious of the uniqueness of their religious tradition. With the Gospels, it is with full clarity that are unveiled these "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35), the foundation of the order of the world on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion. This revelation is even clearer because the text is a work on desire and violence, from the serpent setting alight the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter during the Passion. Girard reinterprets certain biblical expressions in light of his theories; for instance, he sees "scandal" as signifying mimetic rivalry. No one escapes responsibility, neither the envious nor the envied: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matthew 18:7).

Christian society

The evangelical revelation contains the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, René Girard tells us. Has it put an end to the sacrificial order based on violence in the society that has claimed the gospel text as its own religious text? No, he replies, since in order for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, and people do not change that quickly. The gospel text has instead acted as a ferment that brings about the decomposition of the sacrificial order. While medieval Europe showed the face of a sacrificial society that still knew very well how to despise and ignore its victims, nonetheless the efficacy of sacrificial violence has never stopped decreasing, in the measure that ignorance receded. Here René Girard sees the principle of the uniqueness and of the transformations of the Western society whose destiny today is one with that of human society as a whole. Does not the retreat of the sacrificial order mean less violence? Not at all; rather, it deprives modern societies of most of the capacity of sacrificial violence to establish temporary order. The "innocence" of the time of the ignorance is no more. On the other hand, Christianity, following the example of Judaism, has desacralized the world, making possible a utilitarian relationship with nature. Increasingly threatened by the resurgence of mimetic crises on a grand scale, the contemporary world is on one hand more quickly caught up by its guilt, and on the other hand has developed such a great technical power of destruction that it is condemned to both more and more responsibility and less and less innocence. So, for example, while empathy for victims manifests progress in the moral conscience of society, it nonetheless also takes the form of a competition among victims that threatens an escalation of violence.


Some critics claim that Girard dedicates almost no attention to the frequently violent character of YHWH in the Hebrew Bible and immediately disregards any non-violent aspect of non-Christian religions. However, in "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World" he claims he is not ashamed of Old Testament texts that mystify violence and analyzes many of the more important books of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is very important for his theory. One should also add that Girard does not disregard the non-violent aspects of non-Christian religions. His defence of Christianity has nothing to do with the idea of "non-violence". Girard stresses that Christianity does not promise peace but promises truth. According to Girard, it de-mystifies the "peace of the world". All religions, he says, even the most violent ones, are aimed toward peace. Archaic societies ritually repeat the scapegoat solution to make peace.

One of the main sources of criticism of Girard's work comes from intellectuals who claim that his comparison of Judeo-Christian texts vis-a-vis other religions leaves something to desire. [Price, Robert M. "Deconstructing Jesus". Amherst: Prometheus Books. 2000. p. 176.] Many Bible scholars have criticized Girard's interpretation of the Bible, finding no evidence that the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures expose what Girard considers to be the true nature of myth. [Price, Robert M. "Deconstructing Jesus". Amherst: Prometheus Books. 2000. p. 177.] Robert Price argues that if Girard's hermeneutic is applied consistently, it becomes apparent that the gospels are also myth (and not in the unique, positive sense that Girard sometimes ascribes to it).

Another major source of contention is Girard's seeming to have left no role for beneficial imitation. Rebecca Adams notes that because Girard's theories fixate on violence, he creates a 'scapegoat' himself with his own theory -- the scapegoat of positive mimesis. Adams proposes a reassessment of Girard's theory that includes an account of loving mimesis or, as she prefers to call it, creative mimesis. [cite web | url = | title = Loving Mimesis and Girard's "Scapegoat of the Text": A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire | accessdate = 2008-07-09 | author = Rebecca Adams | coauthors = | date = 2000 | format = PDF | work = | publisher = Pandora Press U.S.] But there is also a good mimesis in the thought of Girard, for instance the imitation of Jesus-Christ. There is also the imitation of the "external mediation" when the model is "far" from me as, for instance, Amadis in Cervantès. In this last case, it is not a "good" imitation, but there are some disciples of Girard who are pointing out the good mimesis of the external mediation. Jean-Michel Oughourlian takes the example of the imitation of a politician: "The imitation can be totally peacefull and beneficial; I don't believe that I am the other, I don't want to take his place [...]  This imitation can lead me to become sensitiv to the social and political problems..." [Jean-Michel Oughourlian, "Genèse du désir", Carnetsnord, Paris 2007, ISBN 978-2-35536-009-9. The French sentence is "L'imitation peut alors demeurer entièrement paisible et bénéfique; je ne me prends pas pour l'autre, je ne veux pas prendre sa place [...] Cette imitation [...] me conduira peut-être à me sensibiliser aux problèmes sociaux et politiques...] It is possible also to quote this sentence of a simple presentation of Girard " (...) The young children imitate with more close their teachers, one even encourages them there, but inside a educationnal frame which maintains a certain distance between subject and model, prohibiting confusion. If many little girls want to become schoolmistress, it is later, and all is in this "later"." []

Notes and references

Ref. required for Garret's article.


*1961. "Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque". Paris: Grasset. (Trans. "Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1966)
*1962. "Proust: A Collection of Critical Essays". Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
*1963. "Dostoïevski, du double à l'unité". Paris: Plon. (Trans. "Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky". Crossroad Publishing Company. 1997)
*1972. "La violence et le Sacré". Paris: Grasset. (Trans. "Violence and the Sacred". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977)
*1976. "Critique dans un souterrain". Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme.
*1978. "To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
*1978. "Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde". Paris: Grasset. (Trans. "Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: Research undertaken in collaboration with J.-M. Oughourlian and G. Lefort". Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987)
*1982. "Le Bouc émissaire". Paris: Grasset. (Trans. "The Scapegoat". Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)
*1985. "La route antique des hommes pervers". Paris: Grasset. (Trans. "Job, the Victim of His People". Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987)
*1991. "A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare". New York: Oxford University Press.
*1994. "Quand ces choses commenceront ... Entretiens avec Michel Treguer". Paris: arléa.
*1996. "The Girard Reader". Ed. by. James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad.
*1999. "Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclair". Paris: Grasset. (Trans. "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning". Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001)
*2000. "Um Longo Argumento do princípio ao Fim: Diálogos com João Cezar de Castro Rocha e Pierpaolo Antonello". (Trans: "One long argument from the beginning to the end" Rio de Janeiro, Topbooks)
*2001. "Celui par qui le scandale arrive". Paris: Desclée de Brouwer.
*2003. "Le sacrifice". Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France.
*2004. "Les origines de la culture". Entretiens avec Pierpaolo Antonello et João Cezar de Castro Rocha. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer.
*2004. "Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire". Ed. by Mark R. Anspach. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
*2006 "Verità o fede debole. Dialogo su cristianesimo e relativismo" (Trans. "Truth or Weak Faith. Dialogue about Christianity and Relativism". With Gianni Vattimo. A cura di P. Antonello, Transeuropa Edizioni, Massa.
*2007. "Achever Clausewitz". (Entretiens avec Benoît Chantre) Ed. by Carnets Nord. Paris. ISBN : 978-2-35536-002-2, 365p.
*2008. "Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005". Ed. by Robert Doran. Stanford: Stanford University Press. [] []

Books about Girard

*Bailie, Gil (1995). "Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads". Introduction by René Girard. New York: Crossroad. ISBN 0824516451.
*Bellinger, Charles (2001). "The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil". New York: Oxford. ISBN 0195134982.
*Dumouchel, Paul (Ed.; 1988). "Violence and Truth: On the Work of René Girard". Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804713383.
*Fleming, Chris (2004). "René Girard: Violence and Mimesis". Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0745629482.
*Heim, Mark (2006). "Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross". Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. ISBN 0802832156
*Kirwan, Michael (2004). "Discovering Girard". London: Darton, Longman & Todd. ISBN 0232525269.
*Livingston, Paisley (1992). "Models of Desire: René Girard and the Psychology of Mimesis". Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
*Swartley, William M. (Ed.; 2000). "Violence Renounced: Rene Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking". Telford: Pandora Press. ISBN 0966502159.
*Camille Tarot, "Le symbolique et le sacré", La Découverte, Paris, 2008 (910 pages) ISBN 978-2-7071-5428-6


* [ Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary]
* [ On René Girard]
* [ René Girard's Stanford University faculty webpage]
* [ Homepage of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion]
* [ Reception speech of René Girard]

External links

* [ Girard lecture, on Violence, Victims and Christianity (Oxford 1997)]
* [ Apocalyptic Thinking after 9/11. Interview with Girard (2007).] Interview with Robert Doran (special issue of [ "SubStance"] )
* [ L'Académie française]
* [ Are the Gospels Mythical?] by René Girard (First Things); [ Follow-up correspondence]
* [ The Mimetic Desire]
* [ Was Christ Just Another ‘Scapegoat’?]
* [ Interview with Girard] regarding Pope Benedict XVI and relativism (New Perspectives Quarterly)
* [ Interview with Girard] on mimetic desire by Robert P. Harrison
* [ Interview with Girard] The "J'Accuse" of Rene Girard- The Audacious ideas of a great thinker (Translation from "Il Foglio" by F.R. Hittinger IV)
* [ Violence & the Lamb Slain] - a short, accessible introduction to Girardian thought, plus an interview with Girard (Touchstone)
* [ How To Scapegoat the Leader] - an introduction to Girard
* [ Girard among the Girardians] (First Things)
* [ The René Girard Bibliography]
* [ Mimetic Theory and Hermeneutics] by Paolo Diego Bubbio - Essay about the relationship between Girard and Hermeneutics in the journal "Colloquy"
* [,22097,en.html St Andrews University] the awarding of Honorary Degrees, June 2008
* [ National Communication Assocation Annual Meeting November 20-23, 1997 ] A short and clear explanation of the thought of Girard (principally) among other similar thoughts about people, violence and society.

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