Violence and the Sacred by René Girard

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Violence and the Sacred Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

René Girard begins Violence and the Sacred by looking at works of literature such as El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) by Miguel de Cervantes, Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898) by Stendahl, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596) by William Shakespeare, and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) by Fyodor Dostoevski. In all of these, Girard says, the same concept of desire and an impulse toward violence prevail. We tend to want what other people want; in other words, desires are mimetic, primarily stirred by the desires of others rather than internal forces. Rivalry and violence are thus created by exposure to other human beings. Mimetic desire is not an entirely bad thing; it can be a constructive force, if our shared desires move us toward something that is good and can be shared. However, more often than not, it is a source of jealousy, anger, and violence.

Girard turns this concept outward to look at how it plays out with a larger social group. In early human history, small groups of hunter-gatherers wandered across the land and seas, rarely encountering each other. However, as time passed, the groups became larger stationary communities, and as the amount of daily interaction with other humans increased, rivalries leading to violence increased.

According to Girard, violence is mimetic. People witnessing it tend to act violently in turn, and more and more are drawn into the mimetic frenzy. Mimesis is not the issue, but the direction in which it leads people is. The only way to stop the wave of violence and keep societies from destroying themselves is through a sacrifice.

A sacrifice is a surrogate victim, animal or human, that acts as a scapegoat and dispels the violence. The scapegoat must have certain qualities. First it must be both part of the community yet somehow apart from it. Second, it must be similar to the target of rivalry that started the mimetic violence. Third, it must be a victim that can be sacrificed without fear of retribution.

Moreover, the ones enacting the sacrifice, the sacrificers, cannot be aware that they are making a scapegoat out of the victim. So that the sacrificers can perform the act without recognizing it for what it is, a misunderstanding must arise. Therefore, Girard argues, religion was invented in the form of a supernatural being demanding the sacrifice. In most societies, animal sacrifice became a substitute for human sacrifice. However, if the catharsis of animal sacrifice was not enough to maintain a society, then human sacrifice was employed. The culture that arises from this religious impulse will have sacrificial ritual, myth, and prohibitions.

In looking at mythology, Girard finds myth after myth acknowledging its violent origins while trying to cover them up, with deity after deity creating the world through its own dismemberment. Common prohibitions reflect the same mimetic crises, because often the most available and accessible objects are prohibited. As the most likely to provoke mimetic rivalries among members of the group, these objects are strictly regulated or forbidden. Societal hierarchies also work to lessen mimetic crises: When a desired object is not attainable because of class, the feeling of rivalry is reduced.

If, Girard asks, the solution to societal crises requires a social act whose meaning must be concealed, how can society see the truth of sacrificial violence and abolish it? For a way out of this dilemma, Girard turns to the Hebrew Bible, which records a slow transition away from the mechanism of sacrifice. In the Bible, the victim is given a voice for the first time: The blood of Abel, for instance, “cries from the ground.” Joseph, the target of collective violence by his brothers, becomes an agent of reconciliation. In the story of David, Jonathan rejects the mimetic...

(The entire section is 1,150 words.)