On a recent podcast, Stefan Molyneux had a suggestion for people who complained that his YouTube videos are too long: read longer works that require critical thinking over extended periods of time.
In that spirit, Rod Dreher has begun reading Rene Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the Earth. Dreher correctly describes it as “a difficult book”, but it provides Girard’s extensive discussion on his theory of mimetic behavior. Dreher actually does a pretty good job summarizing Girard’s theory:
Girard says that Plato made a basic mistake, and that mistake has been repeated throughout the whole of Western thought. He characterized mimesis as representation — that is, simply copying what other people do. Girard believes there is another dimension to mimesis, what he calls “possessive mimesis,” or “acquisitive mimesis.” We not only want to do what others do, but we want to have what others have. This is the source of conflict within groups; Girard calls it “mimetic rivalry,” and he said in our distant past, we devised ways to deal with it to keep the group from tearing itself apart. This, for Girard (who was a believing Catholic Christian), is the origin of religion.
Primitive societies have a clearer understanding of the role mimesis plays in violence than we moderns do, for “any mimetic reproduction suggests violence or is seen as a possible cause of violence.” Some tribes have taboos against using mirrors or taking photographs, which are absurd, but Girard says that no matter how superstitious they may be, those taboos are based on a sound insight about human nature. …
There are two ways societies regulate mimetic rivalry to keep the violence inherent to community in check. The first is through prohibitions, through Thou Shalt Nots. (Remember that in Philip Rieff’s theory of culture, prohibitions — he calls them “remissions” — are what define a culture by setting out its boundaries.) Says Girard, “Prohibitions are intended to keep distant or to remove anything that threatens the community.”
The second way societies deal with mimetic rivalry is through ritual. Girard observes that primitive religions usually conclude their rituals with a sacrifice. The sacrifice is enormously important, because it is the process through which the community’s members confront their own division, offload the aspects of themselves that cause the division onto the sacrificial victim, and then reaffirm themselves as united. The victim is sacrificed for the sake of the community. The victim is “the final act of violence, its last word.”
So, in Girard’s theory, societies first try to suppress mimetic rivalry through prohibition, and when those fail, they turn to ritual “to channel it in a direction that would lead to resolution, which means a reconciliation of the community at the expense of what one must suppose to be an arbitrary victim.” The victim is considered to be sacred because in the eyes of the community, it sacramentally bears the sins of the collective and the resolution of the conflicts that led to the moment of crisis.
The timing of Dreher reading Girard’s work is particularly apt, given the overly-emotional and irrational times in which we in the West currently live. (It’s not for nothing Dreher’s blog post is entitled, “Reading Rene Girard at the End of the World”.) While one can debate Dreher’s takeaways from what he has read thus far, I commend him from engaging with Girard’s work in the first place.
We find ourselves in extremely challenging times. Given the political, economic, and cultural issues that we face, they will not get easier anytime soon. If anything, it’s reasonable to expect rough times ahead for the forseeable future.
Those of us who have the capacity to read great and challenging works ought to do so. Not only do we personally benefit from doing so; we might be in a better position to help our communities address increasingly complex problems that, but for these works’ sage advice, would be at a loss to resolve.