Jeramy Townsley

Dec 2003

Rene Girard was born in France, where he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy, with an emphasis on medieval studies.  In 1947 he came to the United States where he obtained his PhD in history from Indiana University with the dissertation title “American Opinion of France, 1940-1943”.  After teaching language and literature at Duke, Johns Hopkins and SUNY Buffalo, he ended up at Stanford in 1981, as Professor of French Language, Literature and Civilization until he retired in 1995 (Williams 2001, 1).  His early peer acclaim came from his writings on literary theory and criticism.  However, despite his educational and teaching background in French and literature, his major contemporary influence is from his writings on the origins of violence.

Girard’s radical theory of violence is controversial in both the secular and religious communities.  His study of contemporary fictional texts and mythology led him to develop a theory of acquisitive mimesis and rivalry, from which originates all violence (Girard 1965), and the surrogate victim, from which originates ritual as the ameliorative factor for violence (Girard 1977).  He believes these social mechanisms are hidden within the great novels, myths and historical texts, especially “texts of persecution” and are finally revealed in the Christian Gospel (Girard 1965, 1986). 

The starting point for Girard’s theory is “acquisitive mimesis”.  Girard proposes that much of human behavior is based on “mimesis”, an all-encompassing expression of imitation, but focuses on acquisition and appropriation as the object of mimesis, contrary to most of the extant literature on imitative behavior (Girard 1979, 9). Girard describes a situation where two individuals desire the same object; as they both attempt to obtain this object, their behavior becomes conflictual, since there is only one object, but two people.  “Violence is generated by this process; or rather, violence is the process itself when two or more partners try to prevent one another from appropriating the object they all desire through physical or other means” (Girard 1979, 9). 

In this way, Girard takes issue with the dominant conflict models that focus on aggression or scarcity as the sources of conflict.  Such models propose that “many of our problems are the direct result of concentration of wealth and power” as well as “exploitation and colonialism” (Farley, p. 17-18).  While this perspective goes a long way in explaining various types of conflict that societies experience, Girard believes they are insufficient to explain the diversity of situations around which we find conflict.  He believes that these insufficiencies are avoided when conflict is, instead, modeled on acquisitive mimesis, or “appropriative mimicry” (Girard 1979, 10).  He sees aggression as part of the problem of conflict, not part of the cause.  Since conflict appears to be fairly ubiquitous, yet aggression is limited only to certain types of conflict, aggression may not be the correct model.  Similarly, scarcity, while also a potential cause of conflict, again is not the source of the issue according to Girard.  He does not believe that scarcity in the animal world would explain the violent challenges by lower males against dominant males.  Imitation, however, also common to both humans and animals, he believes has more explanatory power to describe the origin and perpetuation of violence (Girard 1979, 10).

An example from common experience involves two small children playing (Bailie 1995, 116-118).  One child notices a certain toy that had gone unnoticed by both children until that point.  But when the first child notices the toy and makes an effort to acquire the toy to play with it, the second child sees this process and mimesis compels this child also to desire the toy.  Conflict thereby results as both children desire the same object. 

Girard’s theory explains that had the first child not engaged in the initial acquisitive behaviors for the toy, the second child would most likely not have desired the toy and the conflict would never have evolved.  However, since all human life is based around necessary acquisitions (as well as unnecessary acquisitions), conflict must always occur since acquisitive mimesis is one of the core human traits, according to Girard.  Whenever one person sees another person attempting to acquire some object, those around him/her will also begin to desire that object and attempt to acquire it. 

One might criticize Girard's theory at this point because it proposes conflict and rivalry as a core interpersonal dynamic.  It is difficult to imagine that cooperation would ever be able to occur in such a situation.  Girard doesn't propose a mechanism that would account for general cooperativity found in communities and one might not expect as much since his purpose is specifically to elaborate mechanisms of conflict.  However, his theory does at least describe the phenomenon of cooperation, especially in relation to the community persecution of the scapegoat.  His explanation for this behavior he couches vaguely in terms of group psychology, without describing a specific mechanism (Girard 1986, 16-20). 

To help illustrate Girard’s theory, let us create an allegory focused on Dr. Arnold and his student, Sylvester.  In the process of desiring an object, Dr. Arnold is a "model" for the subsequent observer, Sylvester.  In desiring something, Dr. Arnold has the potential to invoke desire for that object in Sylvester.  Sylvester may not have ever considered wanting the object.  However, on witnessing Dr. Arnold wanting the object, regardless of its worth to Sylvester, an instinctual drive is triggered in him that causes him to mimic Arnold's desire.  That is the inherent nature of mimetic desire--it is a drive that is “provoked and defined by the pull of the acquisitive actions and intentions of the other" (Wallace 1994, 7).  In helping to explain the nature of Girard's idea of desire, Schwager contrasts Hegelian desire with Girardian desire:

[Consider] Hegel's idea that desire desires the desire of the other.  For Girard, however, desire is imitative and acquisitive: it does not desire the desire of the other as such but imitates the other's desire for an object.  (Wallace 1994, 7)

Girard's theory has many similarities to social learning theory (SLT).  Developed in the 1960's, SLT explored in its aggressiveness aspects by Bandura, "relies on role modeling, identification and human interactions" (Kaplan, Sadock, Grebb 1994, 169).  Competing theories of learning emphasize various other methods that humans and animals have developed to adapt to hostile environments.  Classical behaviorism, typified in its radical form by B. F. Skinner, emphasizes conditioning and training (Leahey, 275-285).  Cognitivists, such as Levi-Strauss or Maslow emphasize internal, abstract thinking processes and information processing models (325-340).  Psychoanalysts, like Freud, emphasize the internal competition between potentially destructive biological drives and social norms, together with psychological woundings caused by parental influences (80-105). 

Social learning theorists fall into a cognitive behaviorist camp, combining strengths of both fields into a theory that locates the actor in a community of other actors.  SLT proposes that

Persons learn by observing others, intentionally or accidentally; that process is known as modeling or learning through imitation.  The person's choice of a model is influenced by a variety of factors, such as age, sex, status, and similarity to oneself.  If the chosen model reflects healthy norms and values, the person develops self-efficacy, the capacity to adapt to normal everyday life and to threatening situations.  It is possible to eliminate negative behavior patterns by having a person learn alternative techniques from other role models.  (Kaplan, Sadock, Grebb 1994, 169)

Girard, in a similar line of thought, radicalizes this proposition, proposing that "all human behavior is learned and all learning is based on imitation" (Wallace 1994, 8).  The primary surface distinction between SLT and Girardian learning theory is that SLT typically maintains that cognitive factors weigh into the learning process.  So the learning response is partly dependent on classical behaviorist factors such as rewards and reinforcement that are important to increase and maintain the imitative behavior.  Despite this caveat, the similarities between Girardian mimesis and SLT are striking.  Girard, using primarily anthropological data and analyses of fictional narratives to support his theory, rarely points to the mass of data from social psychology that supports his mimetic theory.  But such data is important and relevant, explored later in this paper. 

Thus far in the allegory, there are two actors, Dr. Arnold and Sylvester, who desire an object.  Dr. Arnold has been mentoring Sylvester in becoming the best professor he can be.  In the process, Dr. Arnold has been attempting to write a grant for a Lilly Endowment for his teaching project.  Sylvester, seeing this process, realizes his need for this same grant.  On his journey to a difficult market of tenure, Sylvester becomes aware that he needs what Dr. Arnold is seeking--a prestigious grant.  He has learned what he is to desire from his model, who is also called “the mediator”, since Sylvester's desire for the grant is mediated through Dr. Arnold's modeling and can only be attained by Sylvester learning the process of acquisition from Dr. Arnold. 

At this point, we have "acquisitive mimesis", because currently they both desire only the grant—Sylvester imitates Dr. Arnold’s desire to acquire the grant.  This stage is also known as "external mediation" because Sylvester has expressed desire is for the external object of the grant (Girard 1965, 9).  As their desires intensify, their actions toward achieving the object of their desires similarly intensify.  Their desires intensify because desire is mimetic.  Dr. Arnold sees that Sylvester desires the grant, thus affirming for Dr. Arnold that it is something worth desiring.  Dr. Arnold knows Sylvester's high competency, so values his opinion, just as Sylvester values Dr. Arnold's opinion.  As our two actors increase their efforts to get the grant, they begin to focus on each other and their focus is shifted away from the grant itself.  This becomes an "internally mediated" event, because Sylvester is now hiding the true focus of his desires--to beat Dr. Arnold. 

This shift represents the ability to create a metaphysical desire for desire's sake, not simply the desire for the object itself (Wallace 1994, 6).  They both become the model and obstacle for the other person and their desire is no longer simply for the object, but for the prestige of winning over the other person.  The situation has now progressed into "conflictual mimesis", since they are no longer focused on acquiring the grant but on competing with each other.  They become "doubles" for each other as they both continue to mimic the rising intensity of the other. 

The triangular nature of this process, between model/mediator and disciple at the base of the triangle, and the object of desire at the apex, is explored by Girard in Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1965).  Here Girard describes the competition that develops, as well as the consequences of the mimetic model. 

The impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator; in internal mediation this impulse is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or perhaps possesses, the object.  Fascinated by his model, the disciple inevitably sees, in the mechanical obstacle which he puts in his way, proof of the ill will borne him.  Far from declaring himself a faithful vassal, he thinks only of repudiating the bonds of mediation.  But these bonds arc stronger than ever, for the mediator's apparent hostility does not diminish his prestige but instead augments it.  ...  The subject is torn between two opposite feelings toward his model--the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice.  This is the passion we call hatred. 

Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us is truly an object of hatred.  The person who hates first hates himself for the secret admiration concealed by his hatred (Girard 1965, 10-11)

As Arnold and Sylvester compete with each other for the grant, their attention shifts to blocking the other from achieving the goal.  Sylvester, once the good student, now finds himself hating his mentor in the heat of desire, not simply for the object, but to be the victor.  But by this point the disciple is not simply the disciple and the model is no longer simply the model.  Once this level of intensity is experienced by both Sylvester and Dr. Arnold, Dr. Arnold sees Sylvester as becoming an equal, who now is transformed into a rival, as well as a double of himself.  Both are struggling with the internal conflict of loving and hating the other.  This dissonance they also want to dissolve, which they believe they can ameliorate by eliminating the other.  Both Sylvester and Dr. Arnold are now contemplating the destruction of their doubles, thus at the same time, the destruction of themselves.  Once the level of conflictual mimesis or internal mediation, is reached, because of the process just described, violence may erupt between model and rival.  However, because they are "mutually intimidated and identical", they rediscover the object of their original desire and "deflect their destructive energy from one another onto a substitute" (Wallace 1994, 10). 

This becomes the second important step in Girard's theory: bringing into existence a scapegoat, which is necessary due to the increasing cycle of violence that occurs between the doubles.  Their anger and hostility must be vigorously dispersed or vented, as opposed to being a process open to transformation by introspection or meditation (i.e., something like a psychoanalytic or spiritual approach).  Girard seems to accept a Western, scientific model of anger as a physically aroused state in the human being. 

...  the physiology of violence varies little from one individual to another, even from one culture to another.  ... 

Once aroused, the urge to violence triggers certain physical changes that prepare men's bodies for battle.  This set toward violence lingers on; it should not be regarded as a simple reflex that ceases with the removal of the initial stimulus.  Story remarks that it is more difficult to quell an impulse toward violence than to rouse it, especially within the normal framework of social behavior.  (Girard 1977, 1-2)

Because of Girard's view of the salient nature of emotions that stir humans to violence, a dramatic and cathartic event must occur.  In many cases violence against each other results.  We see this commonly in our every day experiences.  One person becomes angry at another and lashes out, verbally or physically assaulting the other.  So, as opposed to a process whereby conflict might be resolved by mediation and compromise, Girard's purpose is to point to the types and intensities of conflicts that result in violence.  A critique might be lodged against Girard by proposing that all conflict might be potentially resolvable by means of mediation and compromise rather than violence.  Girard and other Girardians hint at a response, by noting that such a resolution to conflict is ideal, and would rely on a wide-scale social relearning of methods used to resolve conflict, thus initiating processes of pacific mimesis (Alison 1998, 13).

Returning to Dr. Arnold and Sylvester, as opposed to following through with their subconscious impulses to destroy each other, they refocus their conflict outward.  The reidentification of their original desire to acquire the grant mobilizes them as a unit to lash out against a new, fourth component of this scenario.  Creating a pole off of the apex of the "triangle of mimetic desire",[1] Arnold and Sylvester look past the grant and now see what they perceive to be the "real" cause of their violent obsessions (perhaps even some violent outbursts): the scapegoat. 

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.  (Girard 1987, 26)

As stated above, the process by which collaboration and unification occurs is not elaborated by Girard, nor does he elaborate on its inevitability.  Presumably, it is inevitable only to the extent that if it does not occur, then community violence will continue to increase until the community self-destructs or until unification finally occurs. 

This scapegoat is, according to Girard, an arbitrary victim: "The creature that excited [their] fury [,the grant,] is abruptly replaced by another, chosen only because it is vulnerable and close at hand" (Girard 1977, 2).  Arnold and Sylvester have become focused on a single goal, which is to eliminate the violence that has developed between them.  Since it is inappropriate for them to kill each other, and would possibly jeopardize their careers to start maligning each other to the rest of the faculty, they choose someone else to attack.  There happens to be, in this particular department, an Iraqi woman, Joan, hired just this semester to teach Muslim studies.  Joan is herself Muslim, a recent immigrant to the United States, "claiming" to be seeking refuge from Hussein's oppressive regime.  However, Dr. Arnold and Sylvester know better (though they have only their intuition and “common-sense” to support their beliefs).  They know/believe that she is a spy sent to undermine the University, the minds of their students and the safety of the American people.  They realize the impending threat of this woman and immediately decide that she must be given over to her ultimate and deserved fate... 

For Girard, there are several conditions for the choosing of the scapegoat.  First, the scapegoat is, by definition, an arbitrary victim, at least to the degree that the victim has, in reality, no direct bearing on the problems that are causing the community disturbance.  However, the victim is not arbitrary to the extent that most scapegoats tend to have similar cultural traits that allow Girard to classify them as a group.  Normally they are an outsider, but on the border of the community, not fully alien to the community.  This victim belongs to the community, but has traits that separate him/her from the community.  Several common victims are elucidated by Shea, summarizing Girard's list in The Scapegoat (1986): children, old people, those with physical abnormalities, women, members of ethnic or racial minorities, the poor, and '`those whose natural endowments (beauty, intelligence, charm) or status (wealth, position) mark them as exceptional" (Wallace 1994, 253). 

A critique of Girardian theory might be proposed regarding this classificatory schema, based on the breadth and diversity of people that can fall into this group.  It could be said that any person could be placed into this category on hindsight, after they have been scapegoated.  It certainly would not be difficult to find at least one of these characteristics in any given person.  However, the difficulty arises when trying to use this schema to predict what person or group might be scapegoated prior to the event of scapegoating itself.  Because of the general language used to describe the cultural specificities of the scapegoat, such distinctions might, in the end, prove to be unhelpful and unfalsifiable, thereby degrading the credibility of Girard's theory. 

Such members of the community stand out, so are more easily seen in situations of high arousal and general chaos.  They tend to be more vulnerable, and therefore more easily persecutable.  But these classes aren't arbitrarily chosen as victims simply because they stand out and are vulnerable.  They are chosen to be the victims of persecution "because they bear the signs of victims" (Girard 1986, 21).  Because of the vulnerability and uniqueness of the victims, the aggressors (the "majority") more readily perceive them as people who should be victimized, since humans consistently seem to assign guilt to people who are different or differently-abled.  Just as the Disciples asked of Jesus in John 9 regarding the man born blind, "Why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?" (The Book paraphrase), history is filled with communities who accuse the sick, gifted, disabled, etc, of being the propagators of evil (Alison 2001, 3-15). 

Girard looks again to narratives and history to explain the violence that ensues from the crescendo of dissonance that has appeared between the model/rival, which are now doubles.  After they unify in their purpose, dynamized by their physiological arousal and having now found a victim whom they believe has caused the preceding violence, destruction and chaos, they follow along the only logical course--they begin down the path of destroying the cause of the problem, in this case the scapegoat/victim. 

The destruction of the victim is continuous with the mimetic cycle.  As one of the "doubles" realizes that this particular person, the victim, is the cause for all of their problems, the other person in the double also sees it and mimetically follows along with the partner to complete the cycle of alleviating the stress of the situation.  From both an historical, and a psycho-social perspective, it is typically necessary for entire communities to concur on the destruction of a victim.  The process, however, isn't orderly and logical, as the sacrificers believe.  While they believe the victim is obviously the cause of social disorder and their course of action unquestionable, their determination of the victim is, as described above, arbitrary.  However, as the first sacrificers begin the process, mimesis spreads rapidly through the community and coherence is achieved (again, in a manner unspecified by Girard). 

With all of the community focused and in agreement on one goal, the destruction of the victim, they act in accordance with their plan and the victim is murdered.  This pattern is elucidated in many different situations in history and mythology by Girard (The Scapegoat, 1986).  The recurrences and similarities of the pattern are so striking to Girard that the mechanism became the foundation of his theory of violence between members of society, of the development of ritual in culture and of the dissolution of post-sacrificial violence. 

For example, Girard describes the process by which Jews were blamed for the presence of bubonic plague in many medieval cities who subsequently massacred their Jewish populations based on those beliefs (Girard 1986, 1-5).  Girard also describes the commonality of various witch trials, also in the medieval cities, where women were blamed for ills in the community and executed as witches (7-9).  He uses historical texts from the time that these atrocities occurred in an attempt to hear the voice of the persecutors (since the "winners" write the history).  In using these medieval documents, Girard elucidates the persecutors' rationale for perpetrating these acts of violence on the victims.[2]

Part of the power of Girard's theory is that his analysis of the texts and of history are difficult to refute, primarily because the commonalties as he describes them makes them seem quite evident, at least as they pertain to localized, intra-community violence.  While his deeper analysis of the events might be contested, the fact remains, as Girard points out, that large communities, supposedly filled with rational, normally tolerant human beings, somehow transform into murderous, irrational communities capable of unthinkable atrocities.  This pattern has baffled, discouraged and disgusted readers of history, both casual and scholarly.  How can humans treat each other so viciously?

Girard believes he has discovered the rationale behind this pattern.  The mechanism of these vicious patterns is mimesis.  The foundation for this mechanism is the belief is that humans will follow like sheep when aroused.  Girard uses his analyses of various historical narratives to show that this pattern appears to be ubiquitous and inevitable.  He seems to allow for very little variation from this trend.  Girard notes that those individuals who did break from popular opinion, whether heroes or rogues, tended to be the victims of scapegoating if social problems arose within a community that forced the scapegoating mechanism to become activated (Girard 1986, 20-22).  Girard's methodology for supporting his belief about the behavior of humans in groups is rooted in his historical analysis and he does not utilize contemporary psychological or sociological literature for additional support, nor does he provide a metaphysical foundation to justify his beliefs. 

Regardless of Girard's failure to utilize the social sciences, Social Learning Theory and the study of group dynamics appear to confirm at least this one part of Girard's theory.  Many studies have been done with counter-intuitive results, describing what humans believe about ourselves as rational, moral, autonomous beings.  Most such studies describe the phenomenon of individuals who, in groups or under pressure from authority figures, act, differently from how that person believed his/her ethical ideals dictated. 

Girard believes he is creating a mimetic theory explaining such behavior, which is not incompatible with other theories of the phenomenon of the evil actions of groups, such as Hannah Arendt's theory of the banality of evil as described in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt's proposal, that a lack of critical thinking and reflection allows for the propagation of evil acts, could be incorporated as a cognitive mechanism for the processes that allow for the community effects seen at the level that Girard describes.  As described later in this essay, studies of group psychology frequently show processes like a lack of critical thinking and reflection involved in otherwise inexplicable and harmful behaviors of groups.  The level at which Girard poses his theory is at a behavioral level—expressions of desire causes a mimesis of those same desires, and irrational and aggressive behaviors cause a mimesis of those same behaviors.  Group psychology and Arendt’s proposal describe a cognitive mechanism that underlies Girard’s behavioral description.

One of the most well-known of the Social Learning Theory studies was performed by Milgram on a series of individuals who were told by experimenters to deliver a series of fake shocks to other participants, the "learners", by explaining they were trying to use behavioral mediation to increase performance on memory tests.  Every time the learners made a mistake during testing, those who had control of the “shocking” mechanism (the actual subjects of the study), were told to deliver a shock of increasing strength to the learners.  The researchers delivered a test voltage to the subject so they knew what it felt like and that the voltages they were delivering to the learners were potentially very painful.  The researchers were investigating the statements of Nazi soldiers claiming they were "only following orders" by setting up a similar type of experiment on "civilized and professional” Americans. 

Milgram was surprised to find that 87% of the participants continued to shock the learner after he kicked loudly on the wall of the room where he was strapped into the electric chair and stopped answering any of the teacher's questions.  Two-thirds delivered 450 volts, the highest level of shock.  (Vadum 1998, 164). 

As a means of clarification, the label the subjects saw on the electric shock board had eight settings ranging from "slight"(setting 1) to "intense" (setting 5) to "danger" (setting 7) to "XXX: 450 volts" (setting 8) (Baron, Byrne 1987, 253).  The subjects were not in visual contact with the learners and for all the subjects knew, the learner's failure to respond to the questions meant the learner had become unconscious. 

Milgram's experiment demonstrates that rational people can be convinced very easily to do great harm to other people, based on nothing more than the instruction of a person of nominal authority.  Other studies have shown similar cycles of behavior: command or observation followed by obedience or imitation of an irrational, dangerous or cruel behavior.  Social learning theory has provided ample evidence that especially in group dynamics (mobs, various types of "crowd" behaviors, cohesive groups, etc), moral reasoning, rational thinking and behavioral processes are often overturned (Forsyth 1990; Gilbert, Fiske and Lindzey 1998).

Various theories have been developed to try to explain the irrationality and cruelty exhibited by mobs.  One of the closest theories to Girard's theory is Blumer's "circular reactions” theory, which Blumer contrasts with “interpretative reactions", the former of which has more explanatory power in situations where groups of people, together as a unit, make apparently irrational choices.  Forsyth summarizes this perspective well:

During interpretative interactions, group members carefully reflect on the meaning of others' behavior and try to formulate valid interpretations before making any kind of comment or embarking on a line of action.  During circular reactions, however, the group's members fail to examine the meaning of others' actions cautiously and carefully and therefore tend to misunderstand the situation.  When they act on the basis of such misunderstandings, the others in the group also begin to interpret the situation incorrectly, and a circular process is thus initiated that eventually culminates in full-blown behavioral contagion.  (Forsyth 1990, 438)

Blumer himself describes further characteristics of groups that are similar to the phenomenon that Girard describes. 

One can detect the character of this "collective" factor along [several] lines.  First, it arises as a sense of transcending power when one identifies himself with a large group or participates wittingly in a large group enterprise.  This sense of the "collective" serves to support, reinforce, influence, inhibit or suppress the individual participant in his activity.  This sense of the collective enters into the control of individual activity. …

[Second], the shift in the larger enterprise from personal confrontation and from the dialogue pattern opens the door to new and different forms of interaction.  Some of these are the uncontrolled circular reaction, such as occurs in the psychological crowd.... 

The importance of crowd behavior lies along two lines.  First, the crowd has profound possibilities of dissolving individual organization, freeing individuals from the arresting hold of given group values and thus preparing them to disregard, attack or undermine the values in given areas of the established social order.  Second, the crowd is a means of energizing group action by arousing strong collective feelings as in the case of enthusiasm, courage, and glee.  Latent with strong destructive and constructive potentialities the crowd is an important collectivity, particularly in societies undergoing transformation.  (Blumer, 129-131)

Another potential mechanism to this process is called "deindividuation":

[Deindividuation] describe[s] how individuals can become so 'submerged in the group' that they feel as though they no longer stand out as individuals.  This feeling.., could create a 'reduction of inner restraints' and, in the extreme, atypical actions.  (Forsyth 1990, 442)

Several factors are known to lead up to deindividuation, and several reproducible outcomes result from this condition.  The factors increasing the probability of deindividuation in a group are: increased anonymity, decreased responsibility, a feeling of group membership, large group sizes and physiological arousal (Forsyth 1990, 443-450).  Deindividuation, like the effects of social learning theory, can produce either positive or negative results, depending on the context.  The primary force of deindividuation is shown in people being much more susceptible to suggestion, being much more willing to act outside of their normal behaviors, and even to act contrary to their convictions of morality. 

Such studies provide support for Girard's theory of mimetic conflict and sacrifice in that they act as empirical support for several components of the process of community violence.  Girard describes, at a behavioral level, what he has discerned as patterns in history, mythology and classical works: when communities face great stressors, they have the potential to collaborate as if having one mind, in believing that one individual or group of people are the cause of their problems.  Despite having no rational evidence of guilt the community frequently proceeds to victimize the individual or group as scapegoats.  Arendt, and the theories of group psychology provide a mechanism for the behavior that Girard describes.  Girard adds to the theories of group psychology by proposing that group unrest frequently ends with the victimization of the scapegoat.

He further proposes that the peace achieved by the scapegoating process is not lasting, nor is it ethical.  He believes that the process itself only lays the seeds for future violence and embeds patterns of violence within the framework of a community’s ritualized processes.  Meta-analyses of social learning theory support the aphorism that "violence begets violence" (Pratt and Cullen 2000).  Both in historical narratives of persecution and in scientific literature, the evidence supports the hypothesis that in certain circumstances, people often act in ways that do not accord with our general expectations of rational and benevolent behavior between neighbors.  In light of this, Girard's leap from a system in conflict to the sacrifice of a vulnerable individual to become the scapegoat does not seem nearly such a big leap. 

Returning to Dr. Arnold, Sylvester and Joan, we find the three in an intense situation.  Arnold and Sylvester have "discovered" that Joan is a dangerous spy.  While they have no evidence to support their claims, they stand up in a departmental meeting and accuse Joan of espionage, theft of departmental technology, poisoning the minds of the undergraduates entrusted to the protective care of this beloved institution, and causing disunity among the faculty by sabotaging their grant-writing efforts and spreading gossip.  There had, in fact, been thefts of computers from the department.  In addition, there had been a recent increase in the number of students attending Islamic informational meetings on campus.  Finally, the FBI had recently sent an officer to review Joan's employment record and asked about her performance. 

The faculty, enraged to suddenly have discovered a terrorist in their midst, arose with a clamor and carried poor Joan into the courtyard.  Prior to the departmental meeting, Dr. Arnold and Sylvester had already whipped up a few dedicated students to create a pyre, `'just in case the worst were to happen"--how fortunate for the faculty, this lucky mob of righteous and oppressed victims of Joan's betrayal.  Joan herself made little attempt to dissuade her colleagues.  She denied having stolen the computers, but she believed that it was possible that the student's increased attendance at Islamic meetings was probably due to her influence, and one never knows what information her Iraqi government might be gleaning from her communications to her family back home. 

So with the intensity of the department faculty's fervor and the student body to cheer them on, they tossed Joan onto the pyre and sacrificed her to the gods of Jingoism and National Security.  As quickly as it started, the uproar was over, the computer thefts ended, the FBI failed to return, the Islamic informational group never met again and the faculty returned to a peaceful state of pitch-ins, "Philosophy on Tap", and grant-writing.  In the years to follow, they often told the story of Saint Joan, who swept in from Iraq to cause havoc in her post-Iraqi confusion, yet in the end gave her life in a miraculous display of power and self-sacrifice to burst into a flame of hope, love and grant-writing inspiration to save the University from the evil power known as "The Logarithmically-Expanding Military Budget".  In honor of the Saint, the pyre is lit every year while the community rejoices in a marvelous festival dedicated to the memory of their salvation. 

The conclusion to this allegory demonstrates several other features of Girard's theory.  First, the sacrificers have chosen an arbitrary victim because of her vulnerability and "difference".  She was in the community, but at the same time on the border of the community as a minority and a new member.  Second, malicious events, or even innocuous events that are reinterpreted to be malicious, are blamed on this victim.  Such phenomena are described by Girard in regards to the Jews often being blamed for plagues that struck medieval communities (Girard 1986). 

Third, the victim often does not disagree with the charges laid against him/her, and the scapegoaters themselves believe the charges.  Part of the nature of the scapegoating mechanism is that, not only do the scapegoaters not know that they are scapegoating, but often the scapegoat believes the charges to be true.  For example, during the medieval witch trials, "the accused may well believe herself to be a witch, and may well have tried to harm her neighbors by magical proceedings" (Girard 1986, 9-10).  However, Girard continues by explaining that, as modern readers, we know that magic does not exist, so the methods allegedly used by the "witches", and the beliefs of harm from magic by the villagers, is nonsense.  Despite agreement by both accusers and accused,

we still do not consider that she deserves the death sentence.  We do not believe that magic is effective.  We have no difficulty in accepting that the victim shares her torturers' ridiculous belief in the efficacy of witchcraft but this belief does not affect us; our skepticism is not shaken. 

...  not only the judges and witnesses but also the accused are not in agreement with our interpretations of their own texts.  This unanimity fails to influence us.  The authors of these documents were there and we were not.... 

And yet, several centuries later, one single historian or even the first person to read the text feels he has the right to dispute the sentence pronounced on the victims.  (Girard 1986, 8)

The crucial point to understand is that for this mechanism to ultimately work, to dispel the violence, the scapegoaters must not know that they are scapegoating (Girard 1979, 15).  The community that is saved by the sacrifice must never realize that the scapegoat is actually an arbitrarily chosen, innocent victim.  If they did realize this, then the dispersal of the violence that has built up in the community would not occur.  The functioning of the mechanism depends entirely on the covertness of the mechanism's functioning.  However, as Hamerton-Kelley points out, as post-structuralists, we as contemporary readers can look beyond the words and the history of the text to see perhaps a deeper psychology and process (Wallace 1994, 4).  We can perhaps elucidate, as Girard believes he has, a covert mechanism of scapegoating that has historically dispersed the build-up of community violence. 

Which leads to the final steps of Girard's mechanism.  The fourth step is the actual sacrifice of the scapegoat, or the expulsion of the scapegoat from the community.  Fifth, there is an immediate alleviation of the violence that has oppressed the community.  And finally, a mythology develops that imposes a double mediation for the scapegoat.  First, the scapegoat is said to have been the cause of all of the community's problems.  Second, the scapegoat is said to have been godlike in power, since the sacrifice of the scapegoat brought salvation to the community, which had faced imminent destruction, at least according to the mythology.  The actual history of the events must necessarily be forever lost.  Further, rituals develop around the mythology to re-enact the "history" and the ritual itself acts as an innoculant to re-purge violence once again from the community.  (Williams 1996)

In Girard's theory, when this victim is murdered, the violence in the community seems to '`magically" cease.  The compelling element to Girard's theory is that, as he presents his survey of the data, this process can be observed throughout history in the world's great literature, in mythology and in history itself.  When violence escalates in a community, if there is a ritual sacrifice of an innocent victim, the violence in the community immediately ceases.  The process that ensues ties Girard's theory to the origin of religion.  One critique at this stage is the question of the accuracy of Girard's wide purview.  His training in history and literary criticism provide him a certain level of competence in those fields.  However, he branches out to a very wide scope of history, as well as a range of literary genres.  His exportation of the data he derives from history and literature to the fields of anthropology, religion and mythology make his conclusions questionable if one doubts his competence in these unrelated fields

Because the process of the cessation of violence seems to occur magically, the community idealizes the situation and recreates their memories of the events that led up to the cessation of violence.  Within this process, the victim that was murdered is now remembered as the cause of the society's problems.  Such would be self-evident since, now that that person is dead, all of the community's problems have also died.  Therefore that person was obviously the cause of all of the violence.  Paradoxically, this victim is often deified.  Not only was the victim the cause of the violence, but, since this victim was sacrificed, s/he also becomes the salvation of the community, since sacrificing the victim becomes the method of ending the violence.  So the victim is surrogate because s/he was sacrificed instead of the entire community being sacrificed. 

Once this process is established, it becomes mythologized.  The immediate memory reconfiguration becomes woven into the oral history of the people.  This figure that was sacrificed was the deity who saved the community from destruction.  Since the pattern started with the cessation of violence by the original human sacrifice, the continuation of that pattern is understandable.  But as culture progressed, and specifically with the introduction of the Jewish religion into the world's culture, symbols--animal sacrifices and sacred rituals--were used in place of human sacrifices.  Thus Girard claims the origin of religion is rooted in violence.

The violent practices in many religious traditions (sacrifice, inquisitions, crusades, self-mutilation) are self-evident.  However, like many other thinkers who propose metanarratives (e.g., Freud, Jung, Hegel), Girard bases his theory on historical analysis and subconscious mechanisms.  Thus, the links that Girard makes between the origin of religion and violence can be critiqued based solely on this leap, since it may ultimately leave it open to the charge of unfalsifiability.  While such paradigms can provide rich material for research and academic discussion, it would seem that a scientific criterion of proof for such a theory may therefore always prove elusive. 

Girard's subversive explanation of the origin of religion puts him in a tradition of modern theories seeking to provide a rational basis for the supernatural.  While Girard has no stated goal of subverting religion (just the opposite, in fact), he, like Freud, Nietzsche, and others, use dark and unconscious motivations regarding the origins of religion, but unlike them, he affirms the benefit of certain types of religious beliefs--specifically, the Christian emphasis on the God of the victims.  Girard's unique perspective as a post-structuralist who affirms religion, despite its violent and deceptive ontology, separates him from many of the other analysts of religion from the earlier 1900’s. 

Expanding on Girard's theory of acquisitive mimesis and the surrogate victim, it can be applied to other situations that we would normally not consider "religious", but nonetheless represent social ritualizations.  Not only are victims/symbols sacrificed/ritualized in religions ceremonies, but communities themselves have developed ways to engage in generative mimetic scapegoating mechanisms (GMSM) to ameliorate violence.  Potentially, things like war (Bailie 1995), capital punishment (McBride 1995) and many cases of violence can be traced back to some form of GMSM.  Where violence is not ameliorated by the victimization of the scapegoat, the cause is attributed to a failure of the GMSM.  Girard attributes this failure to the subversion of the subconscious component of the mechanism. 

In fact, Girard believes that the GMSM process has been radically subverted on a global scale by the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (JCS), which he claims reveal the subconscious process of the GMSM.  This importance of the JCS in Girard’s theory represents another point of controversy for him.  His theory explains why there seems to be an increasing amount of violence in the contemporary culture--the cessation of violence no longer seems to be as susceptible to the scapegoating process and that the duration of the resulting peace has become shorter (Girard 1987, Bailie 1995).  He explains that the JCS represent anti-mythology, in the sense that they counter the general pattern of other historical accounts of religious history (such as Greek and Roman mythology), all of which exhibit the GMSM and then cloak it in the developed narrative of the myth (Watson 1998, 316-318; Hobson 1999, 36).  Traditional myth tells the story from the side of the saved community, vilifying but also deifying the scapegoat, hiding the murder and GMSM.  "The JCS are anti-mythological in that the history of the JCS exhibits the trait of siding with the victim, clearly portraying the murder and eventual failure of the sacrifice to bring lasting peace.  This can be shown in both the Jewish and the Christian texts, in most of the narratives found therein.[3]

Girard interprets this special nature of the JCS as divine revelation, culminating in the sacrificing of Jesus on the cross.  Opposing substitutionary atonement theories of Jewish sacrifice as well as Jesus' death, Girard proposes the idea that sacrifice was never meant to atone, to reconcile humans with God.  Rather, he claims that sacrifice was always part of the human attempt to eliminate violence.  Jesus' death wasn't a sacrificial atonement, but God revealing once and for all the fallacy of the GMSM and revealing to us the roots of human violence and the ultimate failure of all of our methods, specifically the GMSM to eradicate that violence (Agnew 1987; Placher 1999; Schwager 1985; Schwager 1999; Hunsinger 1998).  In fact, the method we have always used to eliminate violence, the GMSM (sacrifice and ritual), is shown, according to Girard's interpretation, to be an affront to God and only perpetuates violence, since the peace that is established can only be short-lived--the GMSM process embeds violence into the very structure of the society that uses it. 

The importance of Girard's theory to the issue of non-violence is not immediately clear.  Certainly, if true, it provides a powerful explanatory framework for understanding the roots of violence.  However, there is little in Girard's theory to lend itself to the amelioration of violence.  In fact, according the theory itself, now that Girard has (purportedly) exposed the origins of violence and religion for what they are, violence can only increase since the GMSM is hinged to it's being unconscious.  As the theory predicted, now that the JCS has exposed the mechanism and society is seeing GMSM for what it is, there remains no way to prevent the violence that GMSM for centuries had prevented (Bailie 1995).  Some writers, like Bater have picked up on an apocalypticism in Girard's writings and feel he may believe that there is no alternative to this cycle than the complete mutual destruction of humanity (Wallace 1994, 287-304)

However, several Girardians, including Girard himself, have proposed methods of utilizing Girard's theories to apply to the process of reconciliation and non-violent response.  While mimesis has become the root of violence, Jesus calls us to "mimese" Him (Swartley 2000 218-245; Watson 1998, 318; Girard 1993, 22-23).  Rather than imitating our neighbors and falling into the trap of desiring what they desire, we should imitate Christ, who imitates God.  Several world religions point to diverting our normal human desires to supernatural spheres, rather than on material things.  Another application of mimesis is that rather than following an acquisitive mimesis, theorists have proposed that we capitalize on the Social Learning Theories and try to divert mimesis to positive ends, like consciously modeling constructive and reconciliatory behaviors (Swartley, ed.  Violence Renounced: Rene Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking, 2000; Hunsinger 1998).

With the Girardian framework, the motivation behind communities and individuals engaging in this new cooperative behavior is the revelation of the GMSM.  Because of the inherently destructive nature of the GMSM and the idea that Girard has "exposed" this mechanism to the world, we cannot behave blindly anymore, relying on violence to end violence.  Since we recognize that violence has always propagated violence and that minorities and women are always the first to be scapegoated, a conscientious effort to rectify the problem might greatly benefit the future of humanity.  This is not incompatible with many theories of violence and reconciliation.  Girard's perspective on the scapegoat particularly emphasizes the role of the victim in society. 

One of the criticisms lodged against Girard's work is that he is simply a Christian apologist trying to give the Christian texts credibility to the academy and to evangelize in the name of Christ.  While he has stated as much in interviews (Williams 1996, 286-288), that doesn't mean that Girard's work must necessarily be interpreted using his own hermeneutic and agenda (Mack 1985, 160).  It is possible to maintain a view that the JCS are a unique exposition of this mechanism, without becoming a Christian, just as one can use, value and believe many fundamental ideas of science, without necessarily buying into a theory of “scientism”.

Further, Girard himself does not espouse a particular brand of Christianity that must be used as an hermeneutical framework through which to see his theory.  In fact, Girard seems to radically overturn traditional ideas about the meaning of Christ's death on the cross, by rejecting the idea of an atoning blood sacrifice as the reason for Christ's crucifixion.  Girard redefines Christ's death as a self-sacrifice by Jesus to allow the world to see the scapegoating mechanism as a futile effort to end violence.  This, in opposition to the contemporary view of the crucifixion as a necessary requirement of a wrathful God who must have a blood sacrifice to avenge God’s justice and goodness.  In this way  Girard’s reinterpretation represents a contribution to the socially rejuvenating path out of substitutionary atonement theory.[4]

Despite the explanatory power that Girard seeks with this theory, criticism has been lodged against him at many levels, some of which has already been described, such as the question of what is the core nature of the human person.  Girard seems to propose that it is based in conflict and rivalry.  He does not attempt to ground this proposal in a larger metaphysical framework, but instead relies on a particularistic interpretation of history and of a gleaning of certain novels as evidence for this construction.  Then he seems to propose that all conflict can only be resolved by means of violence and scapegoating, which clearly is not the case, since daily conflicts occur on an interpersonal level, yet are resolved by compromise and other, less volatile processes, such as the legal system.  Girard's treatment and incorporation of a wide variety of fields has been questioned.  Like the criticisms lodged against Foucault in his historical inaccuracies, specialists in the fields that Girard subsumes may discredit the very substance of what Girard uses to propose his theory.  Finally, Girard's entire project of constructing a metanarrative is suspect by any post-structuralist, who questions the validity of such systems. 

Nonetheless, Girard's work has provided a wealth of material for discussion in many fields.  His work has spawned numerous books, anthologies and journal articles, the distinction of which belongs to a small sub-group of academics.  Whether or not one accepts the validity of Girard's work, he has made an impact in the way many academics think about religion and violence.  Such a contribution may last another decade and dissipate, or it may spawn continued research that will validate his perspective.  Regardless, for the time being, Girard's influence is still being felt and will continue, for the time being, to be discussed, whether reviled or praised. 


Agnew, Mary Barbara.  "A Transformation of Sacrifice: An Application of Rene Girard's Theory of Culture and Religion.”  Worship 61 (1987): 493-509.

Alison, James.  Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay.  New York: Crossroad Pub Co, 2001. 

_____.  The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes.  New York: Crossroad Publishing Co, 1998.

Bailie, Gil Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroad New York: Crossroad Pub Co, 1995. 

Baron, Robert A.  and Donn Byrne.  Social Psychology: Understanding Human Interaction.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc, 1987. 

Blumer, Herbert.  "Collective Behavior.”  Review of Sociology: Analysis of a Decade.  Joseph Gittler.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1957. 

Erickson, Millard J.  Christian Theology.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

Farley, John E.  American Social Problems: An Institutional Analysis.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.  1987. 

Forsyth, Donelson R.  Group Dynamics.  Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co, 1990. 

Gilbert, Daniel T., Susan T.  Fiske and Gardner Lindzey.  The Handbook of Social Psychology, Volume II.  Boston: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.  1998. 

Girard, Rene.  "Mimesis and Violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism.”  Berkshire Review 14 (1979): 9-19. 

_____.  Deceit, Desire , and the Novel.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. 

_____.  The Scapegoat.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. 

_____.  Things Hidden since the Foundation of he World.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

_____.  Violence and the Sacred.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. 

_____.  “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with Rene Girard.”  Religion and Literature 25 (1993): 9-33.

Hobson.  Theo.  "Faith and Rhetorical Violence: A Response to Girard.”  Modern Believing 40 (1999): 34-41. 

Hunsinger, George.  "The Politics of the Nonviolent God: Reflections on Rene Girard and Karl Barth.”  Scottish Journal of Theology 58(1998): 61-85. 

Kaplan, Harold I, Benjamin Sadock, Jack Grebb.  Synopsis of Psychiatry.  Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1994. 

Leahey, Thomas H.  A History of Modern Psychology.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Levine, Baruch.  "Rene Girard on Job: the Question of the Scapegoat.”  Semeia 33 (1985): 125-133. 

Mack, Burton L.  "The Innocent Transgressor: Jesus in Early Christian Myth and History.”  Semeia 33 (1985): 135-165. 

McBride, James.  "Capital Punishment as the Unconstitutional Establishment of Religion: A Girardian Reading of the Death Penalty.”  Journal of Church and State 37 (1995): 263-287. 

North, Robert S.J.  "Violence and the Bible: The Girard Connection.”  The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 1-27

Placher,  William C.  "Christ Takes Our Place.”  Interpretation 31 (1999): 5-20

Pratt, Travis C.  and Francis T.  Cullen.  "The Empirical Status of Gottfredson and Hirschi's General Theory of Crime: A Meta-Analysis.”  Criminology 38 (2000): 931-964

Schwager, Raymund.  "Christ's Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice.”  Semeia 33 (1985): 109-123

_____.  Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Theology of Redemption.  New York: Crossroad Pub Co, 1998

Swartley, Willard, ed.  Violence Renounced: Rene Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking.  Telford: Pandora Press, 2000

Vadum, Arlene C, and Neil 0.  Rankin.  Psychological Research: Methods for Discovery and Validation.  Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998. 

Wallace, Mark I., and Theophus H. Smith, ed.  Curing Violence.  Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1994

Watson, P.  J.  "Girard and Integration: Desire, Violence and the Mimesis of Christ as Foundation for Postmodernity.”  Journal of Psychology and Theology 26 (1998): 311- 321. 

Williams, James G.  The Girard Reader.  New York: Crossroad Pub Co, 1996. 

[1] Girard proposes a metaphor based on a geometrical triangle.  The two angles at the base of the triangle are represented by the two doubles—the model/mediator and the subject.  The apex of the triangle is the object of desire.   When the angles at the base of the triangle are large, the distance between the subject and mediator is also large, representing a state of “external mediation” (described earlier in this paper).  Conversely, when the angles are small and the distance between the doubles are small, this represents the state of “internal mediation”.  As the model/mediator approaches the plane of the subject-object, the model becomes an obstacle and the result is conflict.  (Wallace 1994, 6)

[2] It is important to recognize different modalities of mimesis described by Girard.  Acquisitive mimesis is specifically the modality that describes the triangular description of mediator-subject-object, and the process by which the focus of the conflict is on acquiring the object.  Conflictual mimesis, or antagonistic mimesis, is the modality that describes the process whereby the doubles, or any given community, looks past the object of desire, or the communal problem that initiated the generalized chaos, to an arbitrary object they can expel, the scapegoat, to bring peace back to the rivals or the community (Alison 1998, 13).  Conflictual mimesis frequently follows acquisitive mimesis to eventually result in the scapegoating process.  However, it can also generate spontaneously without the need for an initial object of desire when enough chaos or tension develops in a community or between any two people.  Thus, in the situation where the Jews became scapegoats during the medieval plagues, there did not need to be an original object of desire, unless perhaps it was a desire for the generalized health and flourishing of the community.

[3] Girard and the Girardians give frequent examples of this.  Girard himself does not claim to be the first to have noticed the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the victim.  He cites Weber (Ancient Judeaism) and Nietzsche (The Anti-Christ) , who also saw the Bible’s tendency to take the side of the victim (Williams 1996, 149).    For example, the whole history of the Israelites represents a history of victims.  The texts do not show them as conquering heroes who overcame great opposition of their own power.  The Jewish Scriptures consistently portray them as overcoming their foes only by the miraculous hands of God, if God allows them victory at all—much of Scripture describes the oppression of the Jews, whether by the Egyptians, Babylonians or Assyrians.  Even when they do overcome their enemies, their victory is rarely complete, and does not bring a lasting peace, but tends only to propagate further unrest and violence.  The martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7) represents the execution of a man who was causing public unrest and teaching heretical doctrines.  However, the story portrays him as the victim of an unjust system who intended his death to bring order to the community.  Even those Christian texts that seem to vilify a group, such as the Pharisees, is often reinterpreted by Girardians to have a deeper meaning--to cause us to put ourselves into the place of the vilified group and see ourselves as victimizers (Alison 2001, 3-26). 

[4] Contemporary atonement theory, rooted historically on Anselm’s (1033-1109) doctrine of “satisfaction” for sin, has long been the dominant view held by the church and many authors see hints of this theory in Augustine and Gregory the Great (Erickson1985, 796-798).   However, it is neither the most ancient view, nor necessarily the best understanding of the crucifixion.  Gustaf Aulen’s survey of atonement theories in Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Ideas of the Atonement (trans, AG Herbert.  New York: Macmillan, 1931),  proposes a return the what he sees as the original view of the atonement, best described by Irenaeus, a form of the “ransom theory”.  Anthony Bartlett, in Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg: Trinity Press Int, 2001) describes an history of atonement theory and specifically elaborates a Girardian interpretation of the crucifixion.   

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