The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 2

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 10, 11 & 17.

Paul Kennedy and scholar Sandor Goodhart on René Girard's intellectual importance 0:46

René Girard was known first as literary critic. The book that made his name in that field, Deceit Desire & the Novel, is still read and studied fifty years after its publication.  

His next major work, Violence & the Sacred, ventured into anthropology, where Girard examined the crucial role played by scapegoating in the formation of cultures.  

Then came Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, in which he revealed the importance of the Bible in unlocking the secret of culture and in disclosing the innocence of all scapegoats. Subsequent books expanded on this theme.  

René Girard died in the fall of 2015, leaving behind disciples and readers still working through his subtle insights and arguments.

David Cayley explores the whole range of Girard's thought, starting with his insights about the problem of violence in human societies, and how religion controls violence through sacrifice.  


Reading list:

Rene 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:


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