The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 5

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.
René Girard (ERRICK CEYRAC/AFP/Getty Images)
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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. 

Asked about human violence, René Girard answers that Jesus never promised immediate peace 0:44

It's often said that we live today in a secular society, a society that is neither defined nor dominated by religion.  But this is largely imaginary, according to French thinker René Girard. 

There is no society without religion, René Girard wrote in his book Violence and the Sacred, because without religion, society cannot exist. What we're actually living in today, he argued, is a form of Christianity which we've become unable to recognize.  

Girard's writings ranged over literary criticism, anthropology, the history of religions, and the interpretation of the Bible.  

In this final episode of this series, Girard talks about how Christianity has shaped our world, and why this shaping influence is invisible to so many.

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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