"René Girard and Mimetic Theory" by Mark Anspach
—René Girard (photo credit: Elizabeth Bailie)
René Girard (1923-2015) is recognized worldwide for his theory of human behavior and human culture. In 2005 he was inducted into the Académie française, and in 2008 he received the Modern Language Association's award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement. He was Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.
Back more than 50 years ago, René Girard started teaching French literature because he needed a job. He hadn't even read many of the books he was assigned to teach. Then, as he studied the classic novels of Stendhal and Proust with a fresh mind, staying one step ahead of his students, he was struck by a series of similarities from novel to novel. Unbound by any narrow research agenda, Girard discovered a simple but powerful pattern that had eluded sophisticated critics before him: imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior.
Stories thrive on conflict between characters. By reading the great writers against the grain of conventional wisdom, Girard realized that people don't fight over their differences. They fight because they are the same, and they want the same things. Not because they need the same things (food, sex, scarce material goods), but because they want what will earn others' envy. Humans, with a planning intelligence that sets them apart from all other animals, are free to choose. With freedom comes risk and uncertainty: humans don't know in advance what to choose, so they look to others for cues. People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too: that is the meaning of Girard's concept of "mimetic desire." Since people tend toward the same objects of desire, jealousy and rivalry are inevitable sources of social tension -- and perfect themes for the great novelists.
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.
— René Girard
After his successful writings on modern literature, curious to find out how well his "mimetic theory" of imitative behavior might explain the human past, Girard studied anthropology and myths from around the world. He was struck by another series of similarities: myth after myth told a story of collective violence. Only one man can be king, the most enviable individual, but everyone can share in the persecution of a victim. Societies unify themselves by focusing their imitative desires on the destruction of a scapegoat. Girard hypothesized that the violent persecution of scapegoats is at the origin of the ubiquitous human institution of ritual sacrifice, the foundation of archaic religions.
Girard then turned to the relationship between rituals of sacrifice and the many acts of violence recorded in the founding documents of the religions of the modern West (including the secular religion known as the Enlightenment): the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. Girard interpreted the Bible as a gradual revelation of the injustice of human violence. The culmination, Jesus's crucifixion, is unprecedented not because it pays a debt humans owe to God, but because it reveals the truth of all sacrifice: the victim of a mob is always innocent, and collective violence is unjust.
An outsider in every field, René Girard has changed scholars' thinking in literature, anthropology, and religion. But you don't have to be a scholar or an insider of mimetic theory to understand it. Imitation is constant, scapegoating is an ever-present temptation, and violence is wrong. These simple insights have unlocked the meaning of modern novels, ancient myths, religious traditions, and the behavior of each and every one of us in our daily lives.
Today a global community of scholars is building on Girard's work to better understand our world. Imitatio is a non-profit program devoted to aiding in this ongoing development and critique of René Girard's mimetic theory. Here at the Imitatio web site, you can read Girard's writings, peruse scholars' work, learn about upcoming events and watch video from past events. Sign up for our email newsletter to stay current with news, events, publications, and discussions in mimetic theory from São Paulo to Paris, Tokyo to San Francisco.