Rene Girard, philosopher, obituary

81382461_FRANCE---_3495967bRené Girard, the French-born philosopher and anthropologist, who has died aged 91, was once described as the “most compelling Catholic thinker of the age”; he was best known for his “mimetic theory” in which he elaborated a sweeping anthropology of religion.

Set out in his first major work, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1966), the theory holds that human beings learn by imitating those around them , wanting to have what others have. This “mimetic desire” operates pervasively in all cultures, at once reinforcing social ties, but also fomenting envy, rivalry and conflict. “Mimesis,” Girard wrote, “is an unconscious form of imitation that invariably leads to competition, and desire is the most virulent mimetic pathogen.”

The idea was hardly new , but Girard went on to examine how societies at different times had sought to accommodate this destructive urge, while keeping the community together.

Primitive societies, wrote Girard, were rife with rivals struggling to outdo each other in terms of status and material possessions. This often produced tribal antagonisms that fostered cycles of revenge lasting many generations. But our ancestors also sought to maintain order through the occasional sacrifice of a collectively identified “scapegoat” or scapegoats – chosen, perhaps, because they looked different or thought differently from others.

The scapegoat would become the focus of communal hostility and would be sacrificed, often ritually, to rid the community of its fears. “There is an irresistible urge in human communities from time to time to purge themselves by choosing an innocent victim from among their ranks, on whom to blame all of their own faults and vileness,” Girard wrote.

In Violence and the Sacred (1972), however, Girard showed how once they are killed and peace returns, such sacrificial victims often become seen as “founding figures” of a society or religion, owing to the powerful mix of guilt and shame that remains in the collective memory: “The victim of a mob is always innocent, and collective violence is unjust.”

Girard described sacrificial violence as “the dark secret underpinning all human cultures” and the basis for many works of fiction and drama. In recent history this has been played out in the horrors of communism and fascism – and Islamist terrorism, a phenomenon Girard described as “mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale”.

Girard at work in Paris in 1979Girard at work in Paris in 1979  Photo: Gamma-Rapho

But democratic societies, too, have their scapegoats – with elections often serving as a communal purgative. It is at least notable that the two British prime ministers who have acquired almost mythic status in the past century, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, were both victims of political “sacrifice” – Churchill in his 1945 election defeat and Margaret Thatcher in her deposition by her own party in 1990.

Girard saw religion not as the cause of violence , but as an often desperate attempt to resolve it, with biblical texts representing the development of a new consciousness which rejected scapegoating as an answer to society’s ills. Guided by their mimetic desires into rivalry with God, Adam and Eve set humanity on the path leading to Cain’s murder of Abel.

But the tenth commandment tells us not to “covet”, and in the story of Abraham and Isaac, an animal replaces the human sacrificial victim. In The Scapegoat (1982), Girard developed the idea that the Christian scriptures inaugurated a long process of questioning this founding violence. Jesus’s sacrifice is presented not as a means of appeasing an offended deity, but as an example of a loving God offering human beings liberation from this destructive cycle. The resurrection of the forgiving victim offers human life new foundations.

René Noël Théophile Girard was born in Avignon on Christmas Day 1923. His father was curator of the city’s Musée Calvet and later its Palais des Papes.

Following his father, Girard was educated at l’École des Chartres, a training school for archivists and librarians, writing his dissertation on marriage and private life in 15th-century Avignon. After graduation in 1947 he and a friend organised an exhibition of paintings at the Palais des Papes, which eventually turned into the annual Avignon Festival.

The same year, Girard moved to the United States to do a PhD at Indiana University, Bloomington, on “American Opinion on France, 1940-43”. He remained in America for the rest of his life, publishing more than a dozen books in French while teaching at American universities, most recently Stanford, where he became a professor.

A striking-looking man with deep-set blue eyes and a mane of grey hair, Girard wrote some 30 books, was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was elected to the Académie Française in 2005. He was also a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.

Girard is survived by his wife, Martha, and three children.

René Girard, born December 25 1923, died November 4 2015

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