The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 3

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.
Detail from the painting "The Sacrificial Lamb" by Josefa de Ayala, ca. 1670-1684. (Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode54:00
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 11 & 17.

René Girard explains how to break a cycle of imitative or "mimetic" violence 0:57

In a series of books published over 40 years, Girard deftly roamed intellectual territory ranging from psychology to anthropology, from greek tragedy to the modern novel, from Shakespeare to the Bible.  

One of his books, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, was an interpretation of the New Testament, and a further development of ideas he first presented in two earlier works: The Scapegoat, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

René Girard wrote as a Christian, but what he put forward was neither theology nor spiritual testimony.  He believed that the Gospel is an intellectual breakthrough, that it offers exactly what Jesus says it does: the key to knowledge.

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

In this episode, Girard explains why he believed that the thing "hidden since the foundation of the world" is the violence that is built-in and fundamental to all cultures.  And what the significance of this revelation is. 

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:


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