small essay called Mimesis and Violence and in an interview with John Williams.3 Girard’s theory of human motivation can be described as encompassing four primary concepts: mimesis, sacrifice, the scapegoat mechanism, and ressentiment. For Girard, these are the root causes of human violence, and understanding them is a crucial part of learning how to act non-violently.
Mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry, and mimesis are interchangeable terms for Girard. Human beings are the sorts of beings that are bound to imitate one another, and mimesis is “a kind of nonconscious imitation of others.” However, the imitative act must be linked, according to Girard, to the act of appropriation or acquisition (1996, 290). If A tries to appropriate an object and B imitates A, then B must reach for the same object. In this way, “They become rivals for that object” (1996, 9). Because this tendency is present in both A and B, they will push back and forth against each other in an attempt to gain the object, but now they must try to remove each other because they have become obstacles in one another’s path to the desired object. Girard explains, “our predicament—is that of trying to beat one’s rival at his own game” (1996, 268). Mimesis now generates violence as A, the subject, and B, his rival, endeavors to keep each other from appropriating the desired object by resorting to physical means.
As Girard continues his analysis, he takes into account the role of sacrifice. He notes that if mimesis were allowed to run unchecked, chaos would reign in human communities. Rivalries would engender other rivalries and lead to a downward spiral of violence. In archaic societies, religious rituals, taboos, and cosmological myths provided an outlet for mimesis, an outlet for rivalry. He writes, “Rituals confirm, I believe, that primitive societies are obsessed with the undifferentiation or conflictual reciprocity that must result from the spread of mimetic rivalry” (1996, 10). Moreover, the chaotic state, with which many creation myths begin, provides an outlet for mimesis. Girard observes that the conclusions of many rituals and myths contain a sacrifice. He writes, “Sacrifice stands in the same relationship to the ritual crisis that precedes it as the death or expulsion of the hero to the undifferentiated chaos that prevails at the beginning of many myths” (1996, 11). Sacrifice is also a collective, communal action that brings about a sense of wholeness at the expense of the sacrificial victim. It reunifies the community because it thereby frees itself of the contagion of mimetic rivalry. As Girard explains, “Sacrifice is the resolution and conclusion of ritual because a collective murder or expulsion resolves the mimetic crisis that ritual mimics” (1996, 11).
This periodic action of sacrifice is what Girard refers to as “the scapegoat effect.” He describes this as the process “through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party who appears guilty or responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoaters” (1996, 12). The old adage that “nothing unifies like a common enemy” clarifies his meaning. Through the sacrifice, the peace and tranquility of the community has been purchased, at least for a time. Girard’s great insight, however, is that now the community is hooked on sacrifice. Since the sacrifice has successfully transferred mimesis, the community now has “a single purpose, which is to prevent the scapegoat from harming them, by expelling and destroying him” (1996, 12). Scapegoating, in effect, substitutes for mimesis, and now the community must keep itself supplied with victims to expel. A further reason that scapegoating can substitute for mimesis so well is because “scapegoat effects are mimetic effects; they are generated by mimetic rivalry itself, when it reaches a certain degree of intensity” (1996, 12). As Girard makes clear, the initial mimetic feud between two rivals for an object induces other members of the community to join in and desire the same object; they thereby transform themselves into a mob. In this way, the scapegoat becomes the object of desire for the mob, and this heightened sense of mimetic rivalry can only be expelled by the death of the scapegoat.
3 Mimesis and Violence, which is a helpful summary of his thought, can be found in René Girard, The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad, 1996), p. 290. Williams’ interview, “The Anthropology of the Cross,” is also found there. Henceforth cited parenthetically in text by date and page number.