The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 4

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 seriesDavid Cayley explores the thought of René Girard. The series continues on March 17.

René Girard explains why scapegoating depends on ignoring innocence 0:53

"We are the one society in the world which has the vocation of self-criticism.  But critique always embodies an element of the same violence it is criticizing.  So ultimately the critique has to be criticized.  When we judge we are always in a psychic space which is circular."

Even though he died in the fall of 2015, René Girard is regarded by readers and admirers as one of those thinkers who fundamentally changes the way people look at the world.  

One academic said that Girard completely altered the landscape in the social sciences.  Another said that Girard provided an "Archimedean Point" from which all knowledge can potentially be rethought.  And a British theologian said that when he first read Girard's book, Things Hidden Since The Foundation of the World, it clarified his own deepest concerns so completely that he felt as if the book were reading him.  

These accolades refer to what René Girard called the 'mimetic theory,' a theory whose full sweep takes in the nature of emotions, the roots of violence, the history of religions, and the distinctiveness of the modern world.  

At its centre is the idea that human societies organize themselves around scapegoats as a way of containing their inherent violence.  

Girard analyzed the Christian New Testament, and believed it exposes scapegoating by definitively revealing the innocence of the victim.  On this episode, Girard talks about how this revelation of innocence affected the world.  

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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