René Girard’s writings spanning the disciplines of literary theory, anthropology, and sociology are among the handful of breakthroughs in twentieth-century social science. Like many great anthropologists, he writes with the eye of a Martian observing human beings for the first time. He notices and documents those habits and patterns that the rest of us have grown inured to.
According to Girard, the thing an alien would first notice about humans is what he calls “mimetic desire”: We mimic the desire of others; we want what they want. As soon as a child is mature enough to speak, he is mature enough to say “Mine!” No parent must teach little Johnny to grab toys from his sister or to throw a fit because he cannot have his neighbor’s cookie; he was born with that habit. My parents tell the story of David and Jon, sons born to their best friends. David and Jon lay in separate rooms for their afternoon nap. From his crib, David heard Jon say, “Mine, all mine.” David screamed, “NO! Mine!” without even knowing what his brother had. That is mimetic desire, pure and simple.
Mimetic desire does not disappear once a child leaves the sandbox. A friend of mine once sold refrigerators to wealthy housewives in Atlanta. Her boss’s advice: “Don’t sell them on the features—tell them their neighbors own one.”
The above example notwithstanding, adults are rarely so bald-faced in pursuit of their mimetic desires. We cloak what we want under the accumulated tricks of adulthood. Let us suppose that Matt desires his boss’s power and salary. Matt, being an adult, does not merely grab for his boss’s office the way a child does a toy. Instead, he pursues it delicately while chatting around the water cooler. He subtly undermines his boss’s decisions, gently suggests he would have done better, and shrugs sheepishly when a coworker suggests he deserves his boss’s job.
This inborn habit to desire the desire of others is not, to Girard, unilaterally negative. People can mimic both bad and good desires. But even though mimetic desire is morally neutral, it lies at the root of human scandal and conflict because we are such insatiable creatures. We must acquire the power, prestige, or affection given to others. And when we do not get it, one of three things happens: 1) we stop wanting it, 2) our desires fester until we get what we want, or 3) we “let off steam.”
The Boston Tea Party is a classic example of a group letting off steam, but it is relatively mild in the overall history of high-stakes desire. Often, thwarted groups turn their frustration against a victim who is (rightly or wrongly) blamed as the cause of the scandal. Think of Socrates in the aftermath of Athens losing the Peloponnesian War. Or Louis XVI being beheaded during the French Revolution.
We call these victims “scapegoats.” And Girard’s mind is whetted by scapegoat stories in mythical literature. Mythological literature, he says, is replete with examples of individuals being blamed for the frustrations of a group. As an example, Girard tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a celebrated guru of the second century. When a plague struck the city of Ephesus the people called to Apollonius for help. In “the blink of an eye” (according to the ancient writer Philostratus), Apollonius appeared to them and said, “Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease.” Then he led them into the theater where an old beggar was stumbling about aimlessly. Apollonius pointed to the beggar and said, “Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.” The Ephesians were shocked at the suggestion, but Apollonius insisted. So they threw a few stones at him. The beggar’s sudden glance at them showed that his eyes were “full of fire,” and the Ephesians, “recognizing he was a demon,” hurled stones and destroyed him.
Girard sees in this and other ancient myths a mixture of truth and untruth. Yes, he says, this story is a myth; but it is too rich in concrete details to be completely invented. What fascinates Girard is the pattern of the ancient mythologizing. First, false accusations spread mimetically throughout a disturbed human community; next, the community polarizes against the single scapegoat; next, the death/ostracism of the scapegoat reunites the community.
After reading a few of these scapegoating myths, one recognizes how similar they are to Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Jesus, who looks like a rabble-rouser, is an obstruction to the Jewish and Roman authorities. Crowds follow him; there is talk of crowning him king of the Jews; he disturbs the temple, and so forth. Then, like the beggar myth, the frustrated crowd turns on Jesus, and he is killed to keep peace in the city.
The similarity between the Gospel story and the ancient myths is not lost on Girard. But upon deeper inspection, says Girard, the similarity should not be counted as evidence that the gospels are just another myth. In fact, just the opposite:
The Cross is incomparable insofar as its victim is the Son of God, but in every other respect it is a human event. If we take the dogma of the Incarnation seriously, an exploration of the anthropological aspects of the Passion…utterly discredits the notion that Christianity is in any sense mythological. The world’s myths do not reveal a way to interpret the Gospels, but exactly the reverse: the Gospels reveal to us the way to interpret myth. (Girard, René. “Are the Gospels Mythical?” First Things magazine, April 1996: 27-31.)
Unlike the myths, the biblical point of view is decidedly with the victim. And this pattern is not merely found in the gospels. Joseph’s brothers desire their father Isaac’s favor; thwarted, they turn against Joseph and sell him into slavery. But the biblical account always maintains Joseph’s innocence and his brothers’ guilt. The book of Psalms shares this perspective. In it are contained the first sustained outcries in world literature of a single victim persecuted by his enemies.
I do not know if René Girard calls himself a Christian. And I do not know if he believes that the Christian gospels are true or just “supra-mythological.” But his observations should give pause to anyone who thinks the gospels are merely another ancient myth.