The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 1

According to French thinker René Girard, culture begins when people spontaneously unite against a single victim and the war of each against each becomes the unity of all against one, the principle of the scapegoat. And out of the corpse of the scapegoat victim grows the sacrificial cult which is the origin of every society. Girard's ideas influenced social scientists over his long career as a writer and teacher, until his death in the fall of 2015. In this classic IDEAS series, David Cayley explores the thought of René Girard.
French-born historian, literary critic and social sciencist René Girard is shown in Paris in this 1990 file photo. (Derrick Ceyrac/AFP/Getty Images)

According to French thinker René Girard, human beings copy each other's desires and are in perpetual conflict with one another over the objects of our desire. In early human communities, this conflict created a permanent threat of violence and forced our ancestors to find a way to unify themselves. They chose a victim, a scapegoat against whom the community could unite. Biblical religion, according to Girard, has attempted to overcome this historic plight. From the unjust murder of Abel by his brother Cain to the crucifixion of Christ, the Bible reveals the innocence of the victim. It is on this revelation that modern society unquietly rests. 

Girard's ideas influenced social scientists over his long career as a writer and teacher, until his death in the fall of 2015. In this classic IDEAS series, David Cayley explores the thought of René Girard. The series continues on March 4, 10, 11 & 17.

Featured VideoPaul Kennedy and scholar Sandor Goodhart on René Girard's intellectual importance

"Religion is the means through which the order created, the peace created by the first murder, turns gradually into a cultural system.  Humanity is the child of religion, in a way religion is like the placenta which protects the new-born and gets discarded when he's really born." -- René Girard


René Girard's ideas fit no academic niche but they've attracted many followers during his long career as a teacher and writer.  A large annual conference called The Colloquium on Violence & Religion is devoted entirely to his ideas, as is a journal called Contagion.  Many of those who take part believe that Girard's insights are an intellectual breakthrough. 

René Girard was born in the southern French city of Avignon in 1923, and emigrated to the United States in 1947.  He taught throughout his career at American universities, retiring from Stanford in 1995.  The first of his nine books, Deceit Desire & the Novel, was published in 1961.

Reading list:

René Girard's books were generally written originally in French and later translated into English.  Publication dates are for the English versions. These are only a few of his books

  • Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 1966
  • Violence and The Sacred, 1977
  • The Scapegoat, 1986
  • Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1987
  • Job, The Victim of His People, 1987
  • The Girard Reader, 1996
  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 2001

Related websites: 

René Girard, from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Colloquium on Violence and Religion

Uncommon Knowledge: a video interview with René Girard

René Girard's obituary

Listen to other episodes in the series: