A Philosophy of Violence and Sacrifice

A wise man with a provocative theory of violence may help us understand and save ourselves.

I just returned from a meeting in Paris (alright, a meeting followed by a marvelous three-day vacation) at which, along with some very pleasant wining and dining, I spent several days talking about imitation and violence. What do these two seemingly separate things have in common? According to René Girard, everything.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in a blog about the naturalness of violence, Girard has spent many years analyzing the relationship between bloodshed and religious ideas and rituals. Violence and the Sacred is the title of his best-known book and it, along with other works like Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, Girard developed a theory that has captured the interest of anthropologists, philosophers, literary critics, theologians, psychologists, and today even neuroscientists.

Girard has to have been the éminence grise at the meeting, except that several others present were also gray and eminent. But we were all there to do him homage, gain further insight from him while we can (he'll turn 85 this Christmas), and try to extend the interdisciplinary conversation he began long ago.

Anthropologist Mark Anspach, based in Paris and Bologna, was almost anointed by Girard as one disciple who truly understands the theory, and Anspach helped some of us greatly by writing a précis of it, abstracted from Girard's books and papers produced over a lifetime. At the core of it is an evolutionary model, which goes something like this.

We all desire things, and according to Girard we get those desires from others–first from our elders as we grow in our particular culture, then from our peers and rivals. This is called mimetic desire, because it is a kind of want or need derived from others by imitation or mimicry. It leads to more rivalry and ultimately to violence.

But that is just the beginning. Violence brings reprisals, which lead to more rivalry and an endless cycle of vendetta. The community degenerates into something like what Thomas Hobbes called "the war of all against all"–which clearly would have been incompatible with our survival and continued evolution.

Fortunately (according to the model) the violent actors in this early human community were so subject to imitation that the violence settled–spontaneously and unconsciously–on a single victim. The general release of tension in this act could pacify the community, ending the general violence at least temporarily.

This in time became a pattern of ritualized sacrifice in many primitive and ancient societies, and according to Girard led to the development of religious ideas around the rituals, and ultimately to civilization. During this evolution, or hominization, our ancestors substituted a variety of sacrificial victims for the initial one–enemy captives, children, animals—and in killing these scapegoats we unburdened ourselves of our sins, but especially of the greatest sin: uncontrolled violence.

Do I believe the theory? Not in this exact form. But I am deeply stimulated by it, and I am trying to think through what seem to me to be many parallels with the evolutionary model of violence I have held for many years. Few behavioral and social scientists have focused on violence as Girard has, but those who have done so have found out some very disturbing things.

For example, there is the chimpanzee pattern in which a group of males get excited, go out, find a victim from a neighboring group, and beat him or her to death. There are widespread patterns of ongoing vendetta in human groups, some of which lose a third of adult males to homicide by ambush raiding. There is headhunting for formal ritual purposes, sometimes described as a way of dealing with grief.

And then of course there are things we are most familiar with in our own "advanced" society: witch hunts, lynchings, scapegoating of the weak and helpless among us, and finally genocide. Despite pervasive violence, most behavioral scientists have ignored it or deemed it an anomaly in a normally harmonious way of life; I reject this view.

Outside our hotel window was the Panthéon, an imposing architectural masterpiece dedicated "to the Great Men, from a grateful nation." A number of these great men were military leaders who devoted themselves to violence. And in the square before it, as in many places throughout Paris, an alert observer will find plaques memorializing more ordinary soldiers, who fell at the spot defending the city from the Germans or driving Hitler's army away from their homes and out of their lives.

You can stay in denial, or you can accept the simple fact that we humans are quite violent creatures. I am not sure yet exactly how, but I feel strongly that Girard's theory will ultimately help me to understand all this, as I continue to sift through the concrete evidence provided by primate studies, fossil hunts, ethnography, archeology, and history.

Meanwhile I am grateful to Girard for inventing the theory, to Mark Anspach for helping me to understand it more clearly, and to Scott Garrels, who organized the series of conferences that led us all last week to Paris, where in a beautiful and ancient city we talked for three days about imitation, desire, and what Girard long ago recognized as "the violence at the heart of human life."



  1. Ono No Komachi says:

    I’m still confused.

    I have serious doubts about the claim that most people (as opposed to some academics) do not accept that humans have the capacity for violence, and a lot of it. Is there any hard data supporting this claim?

    Humans can be peaceful in some circumstances and violent in others. I cannot see any logical basis for believing that violence is a more central part of human nature than peacefulness. I see no evidence that violence is any more at the heart of human life than eating.

    Truthfully, violence isan anomaly in a normally harmonious life for those of us lucky enough middle or upper class in the United States or Western Europe (although not for those living in Oakland, CA or Iraq).

    I’m far too stupid to understand Mr Girard’s theory. My own personal opinion is that humans evolved the capacity for violence via some combination of sexual selection and competition over resources. I give full credit for those views to Charles Darwin.

  2. pw says:

    written by pw, December 16, 2008
    Does this theory (by Girard) imply that inspiration (and similar adjectives) are just some form of mimetic desire ? This sounds a bit cynical, or may be I have oversimplified things.

  3. Ono: I have tried to answer some of your important questions in a new blog. You are anything but stupid. I share your “personal opinion is that humans evolved the capacity for violence via some combination of sexual selection and competition over resources. I give full credit for those views to Charles Darwin.” However, Darwin didn’t figure out everything we need to know.

    pw: I would guess that Girard’s answer would be yes, inspiration is a form of mimetic desire. This would also be consistent with Harold Bloom’s theory of literature in “The Anxiety of Influence” and other works. For me, there are impulses and inclinations given by our biology, but mimetic desire and other social and cultural processes help give shape to them.

    Thanks for your comments, Mel

  4. Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein says:

    A Biblical perspective

    I doubt that the Hebrew Bible can serve as a textbook for evolution. But it does deal with similar questions and has its own views on the origin of violence and peace. We all know these stories. They might even feed our thinking. I thought it might be interesting, maybe even bring us a smile or two, to follow the Biblical story and make conscious the origin of our own thinking.
    Genesis 4 tells us the following story: After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Eve had Cain; then she had Abel. Cain was a farmer, living off agricultural products. Cain lived off his cattle. The two fought, maybe over resources; and maybe, as the Bible says and Girard would agree, over jealousy. BIG violence – Cain killed Abel. What then?
    Cain’s story looks surprisingly (or not) much like that of Adam. He settled down east of Eden. With his wife he had a son, Enoch. Enoch was neither a shepherd nor a farmer. He built a city. After four generations, his descendant Lamech had two wives. Adah had two sons. Jabal, like Abel, raised cattle. And then (for Ono) Jubal became “the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.” Finally peace and harmony? Not so simple. The half brother of Jabal and Jubal, Tubal-Cain, “forged every tool of copper and iron.” Not necessarily for weapon, but not just for stained glass, I am afraid.
    Lessons: (i) Make children (ii) Diversify. Have farms, tents and cattle, and cities. (iii) Some of it will bring violence. (iv) But the survivors after a few generations will get refined and make music. (v) Technology will be in the service of both.
    Story is not over yet. Lamech shared a poem with his wives: “Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.
    If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.” Did violence get the upper hand? No! Mom and Dad, even though we are at least five generations later, came to the rescue. “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew. And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh.”
    Enosh in Hebrew is the singular of Anashim – people. I wonder if we should consider Enosh rather than Adam as the first human. The Bible says, “It was then that the name of the Lord was first invoked.”

  5. Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein says:

    pw, Here is a Jewish version of inspirational mimetic: An old Jewish saying, attributed to our ancient Sages, says “The jealousy among writers increases wisodm.”

  6. Shlomit, I had the exceptional privilege of meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain in his London home yesterday, and talked with him (among other things) about his recent speech to the European Parliament (http://www.chiefrabbi.org/spee…191108.mp3). In it he observes that there is an untranslatable sentence in Genesis 4 about Cain and Abel, which is paraphrased rather than translated in most English versions: “Vayomer Cayin el Hevel achiv vayehi beyotam basadeh vayacam Cayin el Hevel achiv v’yahargayhu.” Literally, “And Cain said to Abel his brother and behold they were in the field and Cain set upon Abel and killed him.” So “Cain said to Abel his brother…” but what did he say? According to Rabbi Sacks, the meaning is clear: the broken sentence reflects a broken dialog, and when dialog is broken, violence ensues. The Rabbi goes on to call upon the European Parliament to pursue dialog as long as it takes, and to make a new “covenant of hope.”

    2009 is an hour away in my time zone. Happy New Year to one and all!

Leave a Reply