He passed away on the 4 November last month at the age of ninety one, his theories influencing disciplines across the board such as literary criticism, history, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, theology, psychology, even economics.
He was French-born US professor-René Girard-awarded a seat at the prestigious Académie Française-the highest honour for intellectuals of the humanities–bestowed on him by the country of his birth.
Well known in academic circles, not nearly well enough outside, he changed the way we view humanity-and the humanities based subjects-with his incisive insights.
Hailed as a Twentieth century intellectual giant–a living legend, one of the greatest philosophers of his generation- he was an enigma in many ways-a contradiction in terms-not initially part of the French intellectual establishment-he certainly never rose to prominence through its ranks- neither post-modernist nor post-structuralist in mode-though ironically recognised as one of its founders- as well as being a devout Catholic in the secularist domain of the humanities.
In short he was an-outside-of-the-box intellectual- difficult to pin down.
The author of an article for the week.com- describes Girard’s theory of mimetic desire as “like a flash of lightening on a dark summer night, suddenly illuminating everything in a strange new light” This is not flowery hyperbole- to appreciate the gist of the blogger’s remark its necessary to understand and connect the dots regarding Girard’s theory.
Mimetic theory rests on the premise that human conflict occurs because we are inherently the same, not because of differences- be they cultural or otherwise.
In fact we take our cue from others- hence the name mimetic – we literally imitate and personalize the desires of others by observation.
This default position creates rivalry through envy and resentment.
Exercising free will- although possible- is riskier and goes against the grain- being the road less travelled- following the group the path of least resistance.
Think of the hive-mind- set promoted by technology, in film and the media, which is envisioned as a type of utopian ideal.
The result of mimetic desire is guaranteed accelerated conflict- egalitarianism and democracy will not contain violence and curb rivalry – but rather fan its flames through greater resentments of the have-nots and have less’s –even if only perceived as so- another idea expounded on by Girard.
Girard maintains mimetic desire-which leads to conflict- requires a sacrifice in the form of persecution of a scapegoat- by focusing desire towards this end- this brings about a catharsis and temporary peace- until the next time tensions and conflict boils over.
Ancient societies’ persecution of scapegoats led to ritualistic human sacrifice evidenced by tales of antiquity.
Mimetic desire and scapegoating resulting in ritualistic human sacrifice is alive and well in the post- modern era albeit on a much larger scale in the form of wars, revolutions and genocide.
An interesting titbit was that Girard was an atheist until his academic studies led him toward Christianity- alongside his exploration of the Bible which showcased Jesus Christ as the ultimate scapegoat and sacrifice of all time, in addition to other examples of scapegoating- the story of Joseph as an example, which correlated with the Geek Myth Oedipus to a degree, the difference being that Joseph was innocent of all charges, Egypt avoided famine when he was vindicated, while Oedipus WAS guilty of incest and patricide, his killing resulted in the restored order of things.
Girard maintained his conversion was at first intellectual, his concept of mimesis stretched to its limits coming close to that of original sin.
But a brush with cancer in 1959 changed everything, his intellectual conversion was in his words; comfortable without demands or commitment, the aesthetic then gave way to the religious and he and his family were baptised.
Another unlikely Christian convert- ex atheist- who held a doctorate of Philosophy and was at the pinnacle of his academic career was CS Lewis.
The English edition of Girard’s book – Achever Clausewitz- Battling to the End; Politics, War and the Apocalypse caused a firestorm on its release in 2007.
His mimetic theory resonated with the stock market crash of 2008, with a former law school Professor describing the herd behaviour as the missing link in our financial models.
Girard called it imitative behaviour-based on the formation of a crowd- with modern media being the channel.
He noted that the modern world is constantly threatened by mob aspects.
Girard claimed that history is a test for mankind- one which they’re failing- with the Gospels and scripture predicting that failure- since it ends with eschatological themes which are literally the end of the world.
The author of the’week.com’ article finally sums up; we may still be wicked, but at least we’re not blind. And in a small part, this is also thanks to Rene Girard.