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."