Although the scapegoat mechanism was in place for primitive societies, Girard observes that today very few modern societies actually engage in communal sacrifice. Yet, mimetic rivalry still prevails. How do we deal with it then? Anticipating Girard, both Nietzsche and Scheler wrote influential commentaries on a human malady that they labeled “ressentiment.” As Dean Brackley has pointed out, ressentiment is “the sublimated spirit of revenge, the masked and muted desire to prevail over one’s stronger rival.”4 For Girard, when our rival blocks our path and presents an obstacle in the way of the object we desire, the only response is that of hatred. Because we cannot defeat the stronger rival, the hatred recoils back upon us in the form of ressentiment.5 The result is a prevailing, yet impotent, emotion that we have no choice but to experience each time we are forced to acknowledge the victory of our more powerful rival. In ressentiment the emotion continuously recurs, not dissipating, even getting stronger, as it feeds upon itself.6 Nietzsche traced ressentiment to Judaism and Christianity. He believed that they fostered a slave-morality by celebrating the victory of the vanquished at the expense of the more powerful. Girard disagrees, claiming that the true message of the Gospels is perverted by ressentiment. He writes, “Ressentiment is the manner in which the spirit of vengeance survives the impact of Christianity and turns the Gospels to its own use” (252). If the Gospels are properly understood, they provide the antidote to ressentiment. It is by risking an interpretation of the scriptural text that Girard identifies a way beyond both mimesis and ressentiment.
In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard demonstrates how several myths perpetuate the structure of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating while the Scripture rejects this structure. Girard uses the term “myth” quite widely, and it seems to encompass any text from antiquity that is not Scriptural. Girard compares the story of Oedipus Rex to the story of Joseph and his brothers. Briefly, the story of Oedipus begins with a crisis that results in his expulsion. The oracle predicts that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. Consequently, his parents abandon him. Though he barely escapes death, Oedipus later fulfills this prediction and is expelled once again in order to placate the gods who have sent a plague to punish Thebes.7 Similarly, Joseph’s eleven brothers unite around the project of ridding themselves of a common enemy, their father Jacob’s most favored son. They trap him in a pit and sell him into slavery in Egypt. He is expelled from the family. Next, Joseph is sent to prison because he rebuffs the amorous advances of the wife of his master, a highly ranked Egyptian official named Potifar. This is a second expulsion. Girard writes “In the parallel beginnings we recognize what we expected to find, a mimetic crisis and a single victim mechanism. In both instances a community gathers unanimously against one of its members and violently expels him” (2001, 107).
It is important to clarify the brothers’ motives in wanting to kill Joseph. According to Girard, there are two reasons for their envy: the fact that Jacob seems to favor him and that Joseph seems to be superior to them. Below both of these, however, Girard sees “mimetic rivalry” (2001, 111-112). The story of Joseph moves towards its climax when, due to famine, his brothers are forced to journey into Egypt to buy food. By this time, Joseph has risen to a post of great authority and has charge of the food supply there. During the first journey, the brothers do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. While concealing his own identity, he charges them with spying and has them imprisoned. After he releases them, he provides them with much grain and even returns their money
Dean Brackley, S.J., “Expanding the Shrunken Soul,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, 34, no. 4 (2002): 11.
Girard, “Triangular Desire,” in The Girard Reader, 40.
René Girard, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, N.Y.:
Orbis, 2001), 107-08.
Henceforth cited parenthetically in text by date and page number. Girard also treats this topic in Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).