Girard’s Mimetic Theory Summary

A great overview of Mimetic Theory, by Wolfgang Palaver. In a systematic careful synthesis of Girard’s thought, Palaver summarizes the mimetic insights that were derived from authors such as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Flaubert, and Proust. And finally, he shows the precise stories of the Old and New Testament that confirm Girard’s thesis. What is Girard’s thesis?

Man is fundamentally mimetic, he imitates the desires of others ( models). If the models are internal (within his social sphere), he may reach a point of conflict with his model because they are both competing for the same desire. If the model is external (outside his social sphere), then there will be no conflict, since there will be no rivalry. Because man is more mimetic than any other animal, he has the capacity to imitate abstractly. But the ability for abstract imitation was only earned after the discovery of the first instance of language, the first symbol.

When did this discovery occur? With the origin of culture. Like Freud, Girard agrees that the beginning of culture occurred as a result of a murder. Freud thought that this murder was patricidal. Girard did not think that was necessarily true. Instead, Girard tells us that in the beginning, before society and language developed, when man found himself competing for resources with other men, in a state of all-against-all, a miraculous development occurred.

Man was able to, for a moment, to see beyond the physical reality that he was part of, he was able to think abstractly. This occurred precisely when, by accident, the conflict of all-against-all turned to a conflict between all-against-one. The first scapegoat, according to Girard, was the birthplace of language and consequently, society. The survivors of the conflict realized that when the scapegoat was murdered, there was momentary peace in the community. When this phenomenon was repeated across time, it became embedded as an abstract symbol. And because it was a symbol that represented a momentary break from conflict, it became sacred. This first symbol was the cause of man’s cognitive development, and eventually, because man became capable of abstraction, language was possible, and this led to the creation of society.

That is a very rough sketch of mimetic theory as it pertains to the origin of society. But the other part of mimetic theory is what happens after the founding of society. And according to Girard, the social mechanism that led to momentary peace, the scapegoat, was in fact, based on a lie. It was based on the presumed guilt of the victim. For the scapegoat mechanism to work, all members of the community must believe that the victim is indeed guilty. When the victim is killed, scapegoated, then the perception is that the evil in the community has been purged. And this brings peace, but the peace will only last until conflict once again arises.

This phenomenon became inscribed in mythology, and was celebrated. Using ancient texts such as Sophocles (Oedipus the king), Girard demonstrated that sacred and archaic religion is based on the scapegoat mechanism.

A crucial point should be made. It is not that Girard was saying that all myths included the scapegoat, but that of the myths that did include the scapegoat, they all shared a common feature, and that was the belief that the scapegoat was indeed guilty. This continued for millennia, until it was interrupted by Christianity. The Christian story subverted the mythological mechanism by diffusing its most important feature (the unawareness of the perpetrators with regards to the innocence of the victim).

At the heart of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, a book Girard published in 1999, one finds a comparative analysis of religious myths and Judeo-Christian revelation. In Girard’s eyes, it is precisely the difference between these two forms of religion that displays the truth of Christianity

In Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Palazer cites numerous examples from the Bible, such as the Book of Job, Cain and Abel, King Solomon and the Two Harlots, and the story of Jesus Christ, to show that in each case, there was a clear rejection of mimesis. There was a rejection both of scapegoating and of man’s imitation of man.

Since Girard was originally a literary scholar, before he became a Christian, his discovery of mimesis came from literary works, and these are also cited in the book.

From the beginning, René Girard’s mimetic theory was independent of the influence of traditional theories of secularization. This was because he was more interested in theoretical approaches that assumed a maverick role with regard to the question of religion and, in great contrast to the secularist theories dominating the humanities, did not foresee any impending end to religion.

In his early work, Girard makes numerous references to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Denis de Rougemont, two thinkers who explicitly rejected the modern secularization thesis. Tocqueville stresses in his studies of American democracy that the religious nature of man will not only survive modern democratization, but also will show its true meaning in the age of increasing egalitarianism

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