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René Girard
René Girard.jpg
Girard in 2007
René Noël Théophile Girard

(1923-12-25)25 December 1923
Avignon, France
Died 4 November 2015(2015-11-04) (aged 91)
Education École Nationale des Chartes (MA)
Indiana University (PhD)
Known for Fundamental anthropology
Mimetic theory
Mimetic desire
Mimetic double bind
Scapegoat mechanism as the origin of sacrifice and foundation of human culture
Girard's theory of group conflict
Spouse(s) Martha Girard
Children 3
Awards Académie française (Seat 37)
Knight of the Légion d’honneur
Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Scientific career
Institutions Duke University,
Bryn Mawr College,
Johns Hopkins University,
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Stanford University
Doctoral students Sandor Goodhart
Other notable students Andrew Feenberg
Influences Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ferdinand de Saussure, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Cervantes, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas,Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Edgar Morin, James George Frazer
Influenced Raymund Schwager, James Alison, Robert Barron, Peter Thiel, Timothy Snyder, Jean-Michel Oughourlian, Jacques Ellul
Signature René Girard.svg

René Noël Théophile Girard (/ʒɪəˈrɑːrd/; French: [ʒiʁaʁ]; 25 December 1923 – 4 November 2015) was a French polymath, historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of philosophical anthropology. Girard was the author of nearly thirty books, with his writings spanning many academic domains. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy.

Girard's main contribution to philosophy, and in turn to other disciplines, was in the psychology of desire. Girard claimed that human desire functions imitatively, or mimetically, rather than arising as the spontaneous byproduct of human individuality, as much of theoretical psychology had assumed. Girard found that human development proceeds triangularly from a model of desire who indicates some object of desire as desirable by desiring it themselves. We copy this desire for the object of the model and appropriate it as our own, most often without recognizing that the source of this desire comes from another apart from ourselves completing the triangle of mimetic desire. This process of appropriation of desire includes (but is not limited to) identity formation, the transmission of knowledge and social norms, and material aspirations which all have their origin in copying the desires of others who we take, consciously or unconsciously, as models for desire.

The second major discovery of the mimetic theory proceeds from considering the consequences of the mimetic nature of desire as it relates to human origins and anthropology. The mimetic nature of desire allows for the anthropological success of human beings through social learning, but is also laden with potential for violent escalation. If the subject desires an object simply because another subject desires it, then their desires are bound to converge on the same objects. If these objects cannot be easily shared (food, mates, territory, prestige and status, etc.), then the subjects are bound to come into mimetically intensifying conflict over these objects. The simplest solution to this problem of violence for early human communities was to polarize blame and hostility onto one member of the group who would be killed and interpreted as the source of conflict and hostility within the group. The transition from the violent conflict of all-against-all would be transformed into the unifying and pacifying violence of all-except-one whose death would reconcile the community together. The victim who was persecuted as the source of disorder would then become venerated as the source of order and meaning for the community and seen as a god. This process is called, within mimetic theory, the scapegoat mechanism.

Eventually the scapegoat mechanism would be exposed within the Biblical texts who categorically reorient the position of the Divinity to be on the side of the victim as opposed to that of the persecuting community. All other myths, such as Romulus and Remus, for example, are written and constructed from the point of view of the community whose legitimacy depends on the guilt of the victim in order to be brought together as a unified community. By exposing the relative innocence of the victim within the scapegoat mechanism it is no longer able to function as a vehicle for generating unity and peace.

Early life

Girard was born in Avignon on 25 December 1923. René Girard was the second son of historian Joseph Girard.

He studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, Paris, where the subject of his thesis was "Private life in Avignon in the second half of the 15th century" ("La vie privée à Avignon dans la seconde moitié du XVe siècle").

In 1947, Girard went to Indiana University on a one-year fellowship. He was to spend most of his career in the United States. He received his PhD in 1950 and stayed at Indiana University until 1953. The subject of his PhD at Indiana University was "American Opinion of France, 1940–1943". Although his research was in history, he was also assigned to teach French literature, the field in which he would first make his reputation as a literary critic by publishing influential essays on such authors as Albert Camus and Marcel Proust.


Girard occupied positions at Duke University and Bryn Mawr College from 1953 to 1957, after which he moved to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, where he became a full professor in 1961. In that year, he also published his first book: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 1966). For several years, he moved back and forth between the State University of New York at Buffalo and Johns Hopkins University. Books he published in this period include La Violence et le sacré (1972; Violence and the Sacred, 1977) and Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1987).

In 1966, as the Chair of the Romance Languages Department at Johns Hopkins, Girard helped Richard A. Macksey, the Director of the newly founded Humanities Center, to organize a colloquium on French thought. The event was titled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" and was held from 18–21 October 1966. Featuring prominent French academics such as Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, it is often credited with having launched the post-structuralist movement.

In 1981, Girard became Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1995. During this period, he published Le Bouc émissaire (1982), La route antique des hommes pervers (1985), A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991) and Quand ces choses commenceront ... (1994).

In 1985, he received his first honorary degree from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands; several others followed.

In 1990, a group of scholars founded the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) with a goal to "explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture." This organization organizes a yearly conference devoted to topics related to mimetic theory, scapegoating, violence, and religion. Girard was Honorary Chair of COV&R. Co-founder and first president of the COV&R was the Roman Catholic theologian Raymund Schwager.

René Girard's work has inspired interdisciplinary research projects and experimental research such as the Mimetic Theory project sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

On 17 March 2005, Girard was elected to the Académie française.

Girard's thought

Mimetic desire

After almost a decade of teaching French literature in the United States, Girard began to develop a new way of speaking about literary texts. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he looked for their common structural properties, having observed that characters in great fiction evolved in a system of relationships otherwise common to the wider generality of novels. But there was a distinction to be made:

So there did indeed exist "psychological laws" as Proust calls them. These laws and this system are the consequences of a fundamental reality grasped by the novelists, which Girard called mimetic desire, "the mimetic character of desire." This is the content of his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961). We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object, what Girard calls the mediator, is not direct: but unrolls within a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model.

In fact, it is the model, the mediator who is sought. This search is called "mediation."

Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be", it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.

Mediation is called "external" when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic.

Mediation is called "internal" when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as rivalry grows.

This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

This fundamental focus on mimetic desire would be pursued by Girard throughout the rest of his career. The stress on imitation in humans was not a popular subject when Girard developed his theories, but today there is independent support for his claims coming from empirical research in psychology and neuroscience (see below). Farneti (2013) also discusses the role of mimetic desire in intractable conflicts, using the case study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and referencing Girard's theory. He posits that intensified conflict is a product of the imitative behaviors of Israelis and Palestinians, entitling them "Siamese twins".

The idea that desire to possess endless material wealth was harmful to society was not new. From the New Testament verses about the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, to Hegelian and Marxist critique that saw material wealth and capital as the mechanism of alienation of the human being both from their own humanity and their community, to Bertrand Russell's famous speech on accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, desire has been understood as a destructive force in all of literature - with the theft of Helen by Paris a frequent topic of discussion by Girard.

What Girard contributed to this concept is the idea that what is desired fundamentally is not the object itself, but the ontological state of the subject which possesses it, where mimicry is the aim of the competition. What Paris wanted, then, was not Helen, but to be a great king like Agamemnon.

A person who desires seeks to be like the subject he imitates, through the medium of the object that is possessed by the person he imitates. Girard claims: This was, and remains, a pessimistic view of human life, as it posits a paradox in the very act of seeking to unify and have peace, since the erasure of differences between people through mimicry is what creates conflict, not the differentiation itself.

Fundamental anthropology

Since the mimetic rivalry that develops from the struggle for the possession of the objects is contagious, it leads to the threat of violence. Girard himself says, "If there is a normal order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis." Turning his interest towards the anthropological domain, Girard began to study anthropological literature and proposed his second great hypothesis: the scapegoat mechanism, which is at the origin of archaic religion and which he sets forth in his second book Violence and the Sacred (1972), a work on fundamental anthropology.

If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy.

So, a paroxysm of violence will then focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim will reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group, suddenly appeased and calm. The victim becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back.

The phrase "scapegoat mechanism" was not coined by Girard himself; it had been used earlier by Kenneth Burke in Permanence and Change (1935) and A Grammar of Motives (1940). However, Girard took this concept from Burke and developed it much more extensively as an interpretation of human culture.

Origin of language

According to Girard, the origin of language is also related to scapegoating. After the first victim, there were the first prohibitions and rituals, but these came into being before representation and language, hence before culture. And that means that "people" (perhaps not human beings) "will not start fighting again."

Judeo-Christian scriptures

Biblical text as a science of man

In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard discusses for the first time Christianity and the Bible. The Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-God murdered by a unanimous crowd. The parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the Victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer.

Girard draws special attention to passages in the Book of Isaiah, which describe the suffering of the Servant of the Lord God at the hands of the entire community who emphasize his innocence (Isaiah 53, 2–9).In the Gospels, the "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35) are unveiled with full clarity: the foundation of social order on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion.

This revelation is even clearer because the whole text is a work on desire and violence, from the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter Pesach (Mark 14: 66–72; Luke 22:54–62).

Christian society

The evangelical revelation contains the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, Girard tells us. Has it put an end to the sacrificial order based on violence in the society that has claimed the gospel text as its own religious text? No, he replies, since in order for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, and people do not change that quickly. The gospel text has instead acted as a ferment that brings about the decomposition of the sacrificial order. While medieval Europe showed the face of a sacrificial society that still knew very well how to despise and ignore its victims, nonetheless the efficacy of sacrificial violence has never stopped decreasing, in the measure that ignorance receded. Here Girard sees the principle of the uniqueness and of the transformations of the Western society whose destiny today is one with that of human society as a whole.

Does the retreat of the sacrificial order mean less violence? Not at all; rather, it deprives modern societies of most of the capacity of sacrificial violence to establish temporary order. Increasingly threatened by the resurgence of mimetic crises on a grand scale, the contemporary world is on one hand more quickly caught up by its guilt, and on the other hand has developed such a great technical power of destruction that it is condemned to both more and more responsibility and less and less innocence. So, for example, while empathy for victims manifests progress in the moral conscience of society, it nonetheless also takes the form of a competition among victims that threatens an escalation of violence. Girard is critical of the optimism of humanist observers, who believe in the natural goodness of man and the progressive improvement of his historical conditions (views themselves based in a misunderstanding of the Christian revelation). Rather, the current nuclear stalemate between the great powers reveals that man's capacity for violence is greater than ever before, and peace is only a product of this possibility to unleash apocalyptic destruction.


Economics and globalization

The mimetic theory has also been applied in the study of economics, most notably in La violence de la monnaie (1982) by Michel Aglietta and André Orléan. Orléan was also a contributor to the volume René Girard in Les cahiers de l'Herne ("Pour une approche girardienne de l'homo oeconomicus").

In an interview with the Unesco Courier, anthropologist and social theorist Mark Anspach (editor of the René Girard issue of Les Cahiers de l'Herne) explains that Aglietta and Orléan (who were very critical of economic rationality) see the classical theory of economics as a myth. According to Anspach, the vicious circle of violence and vengeance generated by mimetic rivalry gives rise to the gift economy, as a means to overcome it and achieve a peaceful reciprocity: "Instead of waiting for your neighbour to come steal your yams, you offer them to him today, and it is up to him to do the same for you tomorrow. Once you have made a gift, he is obliged to make a return gift. Now you have set in motion a positive circularity."


Girard's influence extends beyond philosophy and social science, and includes the literary realm. A prominent example of a fiction writer influenced by Girard is J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Critics have noted that mimetic desire and scapegoating are recurring themes in Coetzee's novels Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace. In the latter work, the book's protagonist also gives a speech about the history of scapegoating with noticeable similarities to Girard's view of the same subject. Coetzee has also frequently cited Girard in his non-fiction essays, on subjects ranging from advertising to the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


Theologians who describe themselves as indebted to Girard include James Alison (who focuses on mimetic desire's implications for the doctrine of original sin), Raymund Schwager (who builds a dramatic narrative around both the scapegoat mechanism and the theo-drama of fellow Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar), and Bishop Robert Barron (who has remarked that Girard will be appreciated as a 21st-Century Church Father in the future.)



Some critics have pointed out that while Girard may be the first to have suggested that all desire is mimetic, he is by no means the first to have noticed that some desire is mimetic – Gabriel Tarde's book Les lois de l'imitation (The Laws of Imitation) appeared in 1890. Building on Tarde, crowd psychology, Nietzsche, and more generally on a modernist tradition of the "mimetic unconscious" that had hypnosis as its via regia, Nidesh Lawtoo argued that for the modernists not only desire but all affects turn out to be contagious and mimetic. René Pommier mentions La Rochefoucauld, a seventeenth-century thinker who already wrote that "Nothing is so infectious as example" and that "There are some who never would have loved if they never had heard it spoken of."

Stéphane Vinolo sees Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes as important precursors. Hobbes: "if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies." Spinoza: "By the very fact that we conceive a thing, which is like ourselves, and which we have not regarded with any emotion, to be affected with any emotion, we are ourselves affected with a like emotion. Proof… If we conceive anyone similar to ourselves as affected by any emotion, this conception will express a modification of our body similar to that emotion."

Wolfgang Palaver (de) adds Alexis de Tocqueville to the list. "Two hundred years after Hobbes, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned the dangers coming along with equality, too. Like Hobbes, he refers to the increase of mimetic desire coming along with equality." Palaver has in mind passages like this one, from Tocqueville's Democracy in America: "They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position."

Maurizio Meloni highlights the similarities between Girard, Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Meloni claims that these similarities arise because the projects undertaken by the three men—namely, to understand the role of mythology in structuring the human psyche and culture—were very similar. What is more, both Girard and Lacan read these myths through the lens of structural anthropology so it is not surprising that their intellectual systems came to resemble one another so strongly. Meloni writes that Girard and Lacan were "moved by similar preoccupations and are fascinated by and attracted to the same kind of issues: the constituent character of the other in the structure of desire, the role of jealousy and rivalry in the construction of the social bond, the proliferation of triangles within apparently dual relations, doubles and mirrors, imitation and the Imaginary, and the crisis of modern society within which the 'rite of Oedipus' is situated."

At times, Girard acknowledges his indebtedness to such precursors, including Tocqueville. At other times, however, Girard makes stronger claims to originality, as when he says that mimetic rivalry "is responsible for the frequency and intensity of human conflicts, but strangely, no one ever speaks of it."

Use of evidence

Girard has presented his view as being scientifically grounded: "Our theory should be approached, then, as one approaches any scientific hypothesis." René Pommier has written a book about Girard with the ironic title Girard Ablaze Rather Than Enlightened in which he asserts that Girard's readings of myths and Bible stories—the basis of some of his most important claims—are often tendentious. Girard notes, for example, that the disciples actively turn against Jesus. Since Peter warms himself by a fire, and fires always create community, and communities breed mimetic desire, this means that Peter becomes actively hostile to Jesus, seeking his death. According to Pommier, Girard claims that the Gospels present the Crucifixion as a purely human affair, with no indication of Christ dying for the sins of mankind, a claim contradicted by Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28.

The same goes for readings of literary texts, says Pommier. For example, Molière's Don Juan only pursues one love object for mediated reasons, not all of them, as Girard claims. Or again, Sancho Panza wants an island not because he is catching the bug of romanticism from Don Quixote, but because he has been promised one. And Pavel Pavlovitch, in Dostoevsky's Eternal Husband, has been married for ten years before Veltchaninov becomes his rival, so Veltchaninov is not in fact essential to Pavel's desire.

Accordingly, a number of scholars have suggested that Girard's writings are metaphysics rather than science. Theorist of history Hayden White did so in an article titled "Ethnological 'Lie' and Mystical 'Truth'"; Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch made a similar claim in his piece "L'Evangile selon Saint-Girard" ("The Gospel according to Saint Girard"); and Jean Greisch sees Girard's thought as more or less a kind of Gnosis.

Non-mimetic desires

René Pommier has pointed out a number of problems with the Girardian claim that all desire is mimetic. First, it is very hard to explain the existence of taboo desires, such as homosexuality in repressive societies, on that basis. Second, every situation presents large numbers of potential mediators, which means that the individual has to make a choice among them; either authentic choice is possible, then, or else the theory leads to a regress. Third, Girard leaves no room for innovation: Surely somebody has to be the first to desire a new object, even if everyone else follows that trend-setter.

One might also argue that the last objection ignores the influence of an original sin from which all others follow, which Girard clearly affirms. However, original sin, according to Girard's interpretation, explains only our propensity to imitate, not the specific content of our imitated desires. Thus, the doctrine of original sin does not solve the problem of how the original model first acquires the desire that is subsequently imitated by others.

Beneficial imitation

In the early part of Girard's career, there seemed no place for beneficial imitation. Jean-Michel Oughourlian objected that "imitation can be totally peaceful and beneficial; I don't believe that I am the other, I don't want to take his place. …This imitation can lead me to become sensitive to social and political problems." Rebecca Adams argued that because Girard's theories fixated on violence, he was creating a "scapegoat" himself with his own theory: the scapegoat of positive mimesis. Adams proposed a reassessment of Girard's theory that includes an account of loving mimesis or, as she preferred to call it, creative mimesis.

More recently, Girard has made room for positive imitation. But as Adams implies, it is not clear how the revised theory accords with earlier claims about the origin of culture. If beneficial imitation is possible, then it is no longer necessary for cultures to be born by means of scapegoating; they could just as well be born through healthy emulation. Nidesh Lawtoo further develops the healthy side of mimetic contagion by drawing on a Nietzschean philosophical tradition that privileges "laughter" and other gay forms of "sovereign communication" in the formation of "community."


Various anthropologists have contested Girard's claims. Elizabeth Traube, for example, reminds us that there are other ways of making sense of the data that Girard borrows from Evans-Pritchard and company—ways that are more consistent with the practices of the given culture. By applying a one-size-fits-all approach, Girard "loses … the ability to tell us anything about cultural products themselves, for the simple reason that he has annihilated the cultures which produced them."


One of the main sources of criticism of Girard's work comes from intellectuals who claim that his comparison of Judeo-Christian texts vis-à-vis other religions leaves something to be desired. There are also those who find the interpretation of the Christ event—as a purely human event, having nothing to do with redemption from sin—an unconvincing one, given what the Gospels themselves say. Yet, Roger Scruton notes, Girard's account has a divine Jesus: "that Jesus was the first scapegoat to understand the need for his death and to forgive those who inflicted it … Girard argues, Jesus gave the best evidence … of his divine nature."

Personal life

René Girard's wife, Martha née McCullough, was American; they were married from 1952 until his death. They had two sons, Martin Girard (b. 1955) and Daniel Girard (b. 1957), and a daughter, Mary Brown-Girard (b. 1960).

Girard converted to the Catholic Church. Prior to publishing his first book, Girard was a self-declared agnostic. However, after embracing Catholicism, "Girard has been a committed and practicing Roman Catholic."

On 4 November 2015, Girard died at his residence in Stanford, California, at the age of 91.

Honours and awards

  • Honorary degrees at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (the Netherlands, 1985), UFSIA in Antwerp (Belgium, 1995), the Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy, 2001, honorary degree in "Arts"), the faculty of theology at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), the Université de Montréal (Canada, 2004), and the University of St Andrews (UK, 2008)
  • The Prix Médicis essai for Shakespeare, les feux de l'envie (A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare, 1991)
  • The prix Aujourd'hui for Les origines de la culture (2004)
  • Guggenheim Fellow (1959 and 1966)
  • Election to the Académie française (2005)
  • Awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen (2006)
  • Awarded the Order of Isabella the Catholic, Commander by Number, by the Spanish head of state, H.M. King Juan Carlos

See also

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