The late French anthropologist René Girard's criticism of the civilization rings true with new urgency
“History, you might say, is a test for mankind. But we know very well that mankind is failing that test.”
After the worst attacks to hit France since World War II, this prophetic warning from the late French anthropologist René Girard leaps off the page with new urgency. For many, the attacks in Paris were a wake-up call about information security, the refugee crisis, Islam or religion in general. But this wizened professor would’ve understood Paris as a very different kind of wake-up call, one about a universal phenomenon at the heart of all human society.
It seems impossible not to turn to Girard after what happened. Born in Avignon and educated in Paris, Girard wrote his doctoral thesis on “American Opinion of France” and went on to teach French language and literature at Stanford. He then rose to prominence in the ’70s with a sweeping cross-disciplinary theory about the origins of religion and violence. In his later years he applied his theory to the pressurized, apocalyptic tenor of Islamic terrorism. If that wasn’t enough, Girard passed away just nine days before the attacks in his home country and was buried in his final resting place the day after.
Girard’s great insight was that the origin of human violence is a system of scapegoating propped up by mimesis, or imitation. Archaic competitors, whipped up into a frenzy about some desired object, would target an outcast in the community to absorb the destructive forces of the rivalry. The collective murder of this “guilty” scapegoat maintained social order, and ancient religions of sacrifice (first of humans and later animals) reenacted and ritualized this impulse, shielding humanity from its own violence.
What does all this have to do with the attacks? On the face of it, not much. We don’t see entrenched systems of ritual scapegoating; we see random and heinous acts of violence on one side, a river of innocent blood on the other and a yawning abyss between them where we struggle to make sense of a tragedy.
But Girard saw this kind of “global escalation to extremes” as confirming his second great insight: that the Crucifixion was the omega point of human scapegoating. “The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, that of all analogous victims,” he wrote. “Christ came to take the victim’s place. He placed himself at the heart of the system to reveal its hidden workings.”
From an anthropological perspective, the loved archetype of some “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” loaded down with opprobrium—think of John Merrick, Elizabeth Proctor, Tom Robinson, Justin McLeod, John Coffey, Jemmy, Piggy, etc.—wasn’t inevitable. When we see a pregnant woman dangling from a window because of the West’s decadence, or an orphaned refugee cast out for his oppressors’ sins, and we instantly rush to protect and defend them, we’re reflecting the demystification of scapegoats in a concrete time and place in history.
“And yet,” Girard noted, “demystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences.”
Despite this omega point the universe still swarms with scapegoats. “It would appear that everyone participates in this phenomenon,” Girard quipped, “except each one of us.” Our own scapegoats, by definition, are hidden from view. We saw them in Paris; we see them on our own shores; but in our own shadow, nothing.
What’s never far from view is the reality of our own violence. “Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion,” Girard observed. In the wake of the Passion, violence finds no other ground but itself, leading to the school shootings, suicide bombings, and nuclear threats that we accept as routine in our postmodern world.
Why are the kinds of events we saw in Paris so common? Why, as Girard saw it, are we failing the test of history? His politically incorrect answer was as much an anthropologist’s lament as a Catholic convert’s zeal: “We are not Christian enough.”
“Humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ,” Girard wrote. “Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes … renounce our own violence.”
Can we? Will we?
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.