the imaginative conservative logo

René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, by Scott Cowdell (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2013)

René Girard

The work of René Girard would not seem all that relevant to Thomists. A French literary critic turned anthropologist and amateur scripture exegete, one who identifies ritual murder as the basis of all religion, culture, myth, and politics, construes human nature as essentially mimetic and cultural, not teleological and natural, and deems the Gospel’s primary importance its revelation of this murderous history, would not seem an essential intellectual figure to theologians and philosophers for whom grace builds upon an essentially God-directed nature, desire is grounded in a teleological human nature towards the good, and politics, even among the pagans, was a matter of the common good and the virtues. However, in my estimation, Girard’s thought is not just important for Thomists, it is indispensable. Scott Cowdell’s book is a persuasive and erudite argument for why this is this case. It is not only a masterful synthesis of Girard’s entire corpus and intellectual genealogy of his thought, but it is also itself a profound analysis of the genealogy and trajectory of secular modernity in the light of Girard’s work. It brings to bear upon this analysis numerous citations of Girardian scholars, the authors and works most influential upon Girard, and his own voice as an eminent Anglican theologian. Dr. Cowdell’s book is now the standard treatment of Girard’s thought on secular modernity.

There are several books that treat Girard’s thought in a comprehensive way, and many that approach it thematically, but Dr. Cowdell’s is the only one I know that examines his overall theory in its application to contemporary politics and culture, and this, to my mind, is Girard’s most important contribution and where his relevance to Thomistic philosophy and theology can best be seen. Since Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, violence, and religion, first expressed systematically in his groundbreaking 1979 Violence and the Sacredis well known to many, what will be discussed here is how Girard’s unique anthropological lens can help Thomists and Christian thinkers in general to see more clearly and deeply the true nature of secular modernity. In the remainder of this review, I would like mainly to add my own Girardian reflections on secular modernity. What follows is essentially a summary of the second half of Dr. Cowdell’s book (the first half is just a build up to it, providing background on Girard’s life and the development of his theory of mimetic desire, violence, and culture), by way of my own analysis of secular modernity, particularly, what I shall call modernity’s soteriology, as this term captures the heart of Girard’s thought.

In a recent work, Girard provides an outstanding summary of the entire gamut of his work, from his treatment of the origins of man, “hominisation,” to the apocalypse, which he considers a man-made event, as will be explained presently. Any summary from either Dr. Cowdell or me could not compare with the richness of this one, so please bear with its length:

My work has often been presented as an investigation of archaic religion, through the methodology of comparative anthropology. This approach aimed at elucidating what has been called the process of hominisation, this fascinating shift from animality to humanity that occurred so many thousands of years ago. My hypothesis is mimetic: it is because humans imitate each other more than animals that they had to find a way of overcoming a contagious similitude, prone to causing the complete annihilation of their society. This mechanism—which reintroduces difference at the very moment when everyone becomes similar to one another—is sacrifice. Man is born of sacrifice and is thus a child of religion. What I call, following Freud, the foundational murder—namely, the killing of a sacrificial victim, responsible for both the disorder and the restoration of order—has constantly been reenacted in rites and rituals, which are at the origin of our institutions. Millions of innocent victims have thus been sacrificed since the dawn of humanity to allow their fellow men to live together or, more precisely, to not destroy themselves. Such is the implacable logic of the sacred, which the myths dissimulate less and less as man becomes more self-aware. The decisive moment of this evolution is Christian revelation, a sort of divine expiation in which God in the person of his Son will ask man for forgiveness for having waited so long to reveal to him the mechanisms of his violence. The rites had slowly educated him; now he was ready to do without them. It is Christianity that demystifies religion, and this demystification, while good in the absolute, proved to be bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to receive it. We are not Christian enough. One can formulate this paradox in another manner and say that Christianity is the only religion that will have foreseen its own failure. This prescience is called the apocalypse.

What Girard means by the apocalypse is not the event of divine judgment and retribution at the end of the world before the Second Coming of Christ, though he does not dismiss this way of reading the event. Girard himself interprets it, as he does most things, anthropologically, as the ever-escalating, mimetic violence unto self-destruction that men ineluctably inflict upon themselves in their rejection of both the archaic, violence channeling, sacrificial scapegoating of the pagan city, and the violence destroying sacrifice of the Divine Scapegoat. Modernity is, for Girard, the graveyard of man’s futile attempts to control his own violence, attempts occasioned by his growing awareness of his inability to generate and preserve culture through violence. Instead, man has staved off the escalating violence by his own artifices: These are the katechons of the modern era: literally, “that which restrains,” such as the peace-making nation-state, the venedetta-canceling, impartial judiciary, the free market of victimless exchanges, and an endless supply of mass-produced consumer products and violence-and-sex-channeling entertainments.

Surprisingly, Girard claims that the real possibility of apocalyptic violence was occasioned by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Son of God, for he defeated the ancient model of channeling violence, but gave no quarter to any other mimetic model but Himself. And this apocalyptic possibility has been actualizing itself ever since, to an exponential degree in late modernity. Modernity’s soteriology is thus twofold, depending on one’s perspective: for those who reject the Divine Scapegoat, modernity, with its programmatic rejection of all religious violence and its relentless, even fanatical, ideological concern for victims, is precisely what saves us from the apocalypse; for those who accept His non-violent atonement (and on this Girard insists), modernity is nothing else but the apocalypse’s inevitability.

In spite of modernity’s katechons having performed their restraining function for hundreds of years, there is still much mimetic violence in today’s world, indeed, more than ever before. But to the true believers in these katechons, any violence done by, on the one hand, the devotees of modernity, can only be the result of a deficient application of these katechons: a not-free-enough market, a not-centralized-and-powerful-enough state, too-many-hierarchical-and-morally-absolutist institutions. The contemporary violence enacted by the enemies of modernity, on the other hand, such as the September 11, 2001 attacks, can only be explained as the result of those few, surd elements of what should now be an entirely extinct, archaic-religious scapegoating culture. These violent religious dinosaurs simply have not yet been fully modernized by the peace-making influence of the secular state, the globalist economy, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, the United Nations, democratic nation building (through “peace-making” violence, if need be), or the blandishments of consumerism. As the modern, secular, anti-scapegoating state and the modern, victim-concerned culture it embodies have become more pervasive and influential, religious violence has indeed radically decreased, modernity’s devotees insist, and terrorist attacks such as 911 are merely the last gasps of a terminally ill, pre-modern model that only persists due to the West’s anemic tolerance of and complacency towards the futile resistance of those fundamentalists and fanatics who are not yet resigned to modernity’s inevitable triumph.

The democratic nation-state, the free market, international law and transnational organizations, a commercialist, non-violent, bourgeois culture, life-enhancing technology, medicine, science, the depoliticization of religious belief and practice, the declaration of and enforcement of human rights and the dignity of every human, the universal concern for victims institutionalized in law and government—in other words, secularization—all of these katechons, according to modernity’s soteriology, prove modernity’s moral superiority, even its more perfectly Christian character, for these institutions and practices require no scapegoats: no human sacrifices, on the one hand, no suppression of religious freedom, on the other—and they have brought about an unprecedented material prosperity to boot! Girard maintains that these mechanisms, constituting the secularization of modern life, are indeed the result of the Gospel, as Dr. Cowdell points out, for they have produced undeniably good temporal effects; as Jacques Maritain argued, whatever good there is in modernity’s practices and institutions are due to the Incarnation’s historical fructification in western culture due to the sacralization of the image of God in every human. Differing from Maritain (and, generally from Thomists), Girard would say the good of modernity is primarily its refusal to resurrect the violent archaic sacred, a refusal caused by, as well as the cause of, its universal concern for victims; and he would attribute this refusal and concern to Christ’s unmasking and thus dismantling of the scapegoating murder and cover-up at the heart of human culture. The dynamic that this Christ-inspired secularization has set forth in the West requires the eradication of all dehumanizing hierarchies, repressions, taboos, and proscriptions; such is the good of modernity vis-à-vis medieval and ancient culture.

But what is the upshot of these Gospel-influenced mechanisms when belief in and submission to Christ is either absent or rendered private, subjective, and politically and culturally sterile? The answer to this is precisely where Girard’s thought is essential for a Thomistic theory of culture. What could be integrated into the latter is the understanding of modern culture and politics as essentially hidden scapegoating, the prolongation and escalation of archaic violence, but now, millions upon millions of human sacrificial victims—the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the poor and middle class in the first world, the vast majority in the third world, religiously, culturally, and intellectually starved souls, brave-new-world soma addicts, the so-called collateral damage in perpetual, epic-scale wars.

In other words, as Dr. Cowdell points out in the last chapter of the book, “War, Terror, Apocalypse,” scapegoating in the modern world has not just continued since the onset of modernity, but has escalated beyond control, and in the ultimate, satanic perversion of the Gospel, it is now executed out of concern for and in the name of victims. The politically correct on the left persecute those they deem the persecutors in the name of the persecuted. The war-on-terror terrorists of the right terrorize those they deem terrorists in the name of the victims of terror that they themselves, to a certain extent, have created and sustained. What is particularly apocalyptic about this new, secular, post-Christian scapegoating violence is that we are in denial—we know not what we do—with each individual person and state-actor insisting upon the cosmic righteousness of his use of violence and the demonic depravity of his “enemies”—all in the name of victims.

In sum, as is the upshot of Dr. Cowdell’s comprehensive and trenchant analysis of Girard’s thought on modernity, especially as it is encapsulated in his 2009 work Battling to the End, an analysis of the work of the nineteenth-century general and combat theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, modernity can best be identified as the birth-pangs of the apocalypse—conceived, as it were, two-thousand years ago through the Gospel’s revelation of the scapegoat mechanism as the original sin of all cultures, a revelation accepted by the Church and embodied in medieval Catholic culture, but still tainted with the religious violence it was supposed to eradicate. This revelation was relegated to a private opinion among others by modernity, and then replaced by an officially established, gospel-inspired anti-gospel of secularized victim-concern, with the Divine Victim, the only effective means to avoid the apocalypse of scapegoating violence, Himself having been scapegoated. What ensued was the unleashing of, in St Paul’s words, “the man of lawlessness,” now in his full fury—the uncontrollable, escalating mimetic desire of undifferentiated and equal, autonomous, relativistic persons in a secularized, mechanistic, individualized, immanentized culture bereft of any authoritative, corporate, transcendent meaning and purpose, and now without the safety valve of the archaic mechanism of religiously authorized human sacrifice. In the end, René Girard identifies modernity’s soteriology, if it be not converted through the Gospel’s, with satanic, world-destroying violence.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
7 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Girard believed that man’s essence is that he is a mimetic being? That appears to be such a flat, almost unidimensional vision of anthropology. It seems to me that to believe this, one has to ignore so much about the intellect, imagination and will. This theory cannot explain man’s grandeur as evidenced in great works of art (e.g. Chartres or the Divine Comedy) or culture (e.g. Americans being the most generous of peoples), nor does it adequately explain man’s atrocities to man (e.g. the holocaust). All of these achievements bear a more personal mark than Mr. Girard seems to credit. Though he may describe well the current landscape of escalating violence, his explanation is not satisfying. It is not surprising, though, since he begins in unreality.

  2. Paul: I am not sure what theory could explain “Americans being the most generous of peoples,” for theories are meant to explain facts, not myths. Girard’s anthropology is anything but flat and unidimensional, but the same can’t be denied of your interpretation of Girard.

  3. For those unfamiliar with Girard I recommend his Deceit, Desire and the Novel, then reading the great authors that work was influenced by, among them Dostoyevsky and Proust. Also Girard’s text on Shakespeare, Theater of Deceit.

    What you learn is that man’s mimetic nature is deceptively complex in its effects, like the equation that describes a fractal. And drawing as it does from much of the anthropology of Augustine’s confessions, which is largely a biography of a man’s search for God by way of ever more ascendant mediators, Girard’s ideas have implications vertically (transcendent) as well as horizontally (social).

    It is my opinion that the 21st century will essentially validate Girard’s rather tragic account of human nature without religious restraint. But his ideas aren’t reductive, if anything they are quite fecund.

    Every thoughtful (and imaginative?) conservative should read him.

  4. Girard’s theory is rather simple yet often there is much headscratching surrounding its exposition. The difficulty in comprehension is a result of our inability to perceive the connection between culture and the sacred victim. This inability to perceive is due to the fact that the very tools of exposition (i.e. words) are the direct result of the founding murder: the Word made flesh. Girard’s hermeneutic clarified so much about the Bible that had confounded me for many years, namely, the sacrificial reading of Scripture and the inadequacy of our understanding of the Logos. I agree with Bishop Robert Barron when he said that in the future Girard will be be regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century.

Leave a Reply