Study Guide

René Girard Introduction

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René Girard Introduction

René Girard is not your celebrity theorist—in spite of being French, having remarkable intelligence, the ability to pontificate on a range of ideas from the death penalty and Original Sin to desire and evolution. He also has the essential Derrida-like mass of silvery hair to lend him extra cred.

So why isn't he a household name? In a word: religion. For good or ill, folks like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault may theorize up the wazoo about religion, but they sure don't see Christianity as an answer to the complexities of the human condition. It's just not popular in the academy to be religious.

Much of Girard's work, though, has been devoted to theorizing controversial religious ideas—like the idea that Christianity was the result of and a response to human violence. Theologians may really like old René, but he's not considered as hip and trendy as his contemporaries who talk about power, gender, phalluses, decentered language, and thrilling stuff like that.

Many scholars have pretty much assumed that if they aren't Christian, then Girard's philosophy isn't useful for them. We're here to say, "But wait, there's more!"

Girard's contribution to the grand stew of ideas is that people are by nature imitative creatures. We copy other people. We want what they want, and then we fight about who gets to have it (whatever "it" happens to be). Girard called this "mimetic desire." According to Girard, people have been squabbling over things (sometimes even getting violent!) since the beginning of time. Keeping up with the Joneses ain't nothin' new.

So if people are always fighting about who gets to have things, do they just keep on going at it like siblings on a long car ride? No, says Girard: they find someone to blame. That poor sap is called a scapegoat.

There's much more to this drama, so stay tuned. Point is: Girard was no Bible thumper. He had some compelling (and disturbing) insights to pass on about human behavior.

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