An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

•March 12, 2011 • 14 Comments




I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 




The Two Cocks (J. de La Fontaine)

•November 15, 2014 • 3 Comments

Benoît Chantre, co-author of René Girard’s Achever Clausewitz (Battling to the End), made a reference to the fable of Les Deux Coqs (The Two Cocks) by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) at a conference in Paris. René Girard gave a lecture at the Centre Pompidou (March 30, 2005) a good week after he became one of the “immortals” of the Académie française (March 17, 2005). Benoît Chantre humorously and aptly ended the gathering by quoting some lines of the famous French poet, one of Girard’s predecessors in the Academy.

The fable is about mimetic rivalry between two men (“cocks”) over a woman (a “hen”) – indeed a rivalry that sparked more than one (“Trojan”) war in human history. Note that, at the end, La Fontaine suggests a new potential cycle of mimetic rivalry, this time of women over a man…

Deux Coqs vivaient en paix: une Poule survint,
Et voilà la guerre allumée.
Amour, tu perdis Troie; et c’est de toi que vint
Cette querelle envenimée,
Où du sang des Dieux même on vit le Xanthe teint.
Longtemps entre nos Coqs le combat se maintint:
Le bruit s’en répandit par tout le voisinage.
La gent qui porte crête au spectacle accourut.
Plus d’une Hélène au beau plumage
Fut le prix du vainqueur ; le vaincu disparut.
Il alla se cacher au fond de sa retraite,
Pleura sa gloire et ses amours,
Ses amours qu’un rival tout fier de sa défaite
Possédait à ses yeux. Il voyait tous les jours
Cet objet rallumer sa haine et son courage.
Il aiguisait son bec, battait l’air et ses flancs,
Et s’exerçant contre les vents
S’armait d’une jalouse rage.
Il n’en eut pas besoin. Son vainqueur sur les toits
S’alla percher, et chanter sa victoire.
Un Vautour entendit sa voix:
Adieu les amours et la gloire.
Tout cet orgueil périt sous l’ongle du Vautour.
Enfin par un fatal retour
Son rival autour de la Poule
S’en revint faire le coquet:
Je laisse à penser quel caquet,
Car il eut des femmes en foule.
La Fortune se plaît à faire de ces coups;
Tout vainqueur insolent à sa perte travaille.
Défions-nous du sort, et prenons garde à nous
Après le gain d’une bataille.

English translation:

Two cocks had lived in peace, till from afar
A hen came in, and kindled up a war.
          0 love! thou wert the curse of Troy;
By thee were troubled the abodes of joy,
Where strife arose, and god opposed to god,
Till Xanthus flowed with their celestial blood.
          Long time the cocks maintained the fight,
Les Deux Coqs (Gustave Doré)The noise of which spread everywhere around;
The crested tribes came flocking to the sight.
Many a Helen plumed the victor crowned;
          The vanquished hero blushing fled
          To his retreat to hide his head—
There wept his honour and his mistress lost;
          Hearing his happy rival boast
His mistress lost and in his rival’s power,
Which he must see and suffer every hour!
The sight his courage kindled into rage;
His beak and claws he whetted to engage,
          And flapped his sides, and fought the air,
          In his excess of wild despair,
          Burning with jealous wrath to bleed,
          For which at last there was no need.
          The victor cock sat perched on high,
          Proudly chanting victory.
          A vulture heard him as he crew—
          To all his gallantry adieu.
His pride was crushed beneath the vulture’s claws,
And thus by fortune’s unexpected laws,
          Behold, the rival cock again
          Come back to gallant with the hen.
          I leave to guess what tattling lives;
          For there he found a mob of wives.
          Thus Fortune lays the fatal snare:
          The haughty victor seeks to be undone.
Then Fate distrust—be humble, and take care
          After the victory is won.

Nederlandse vertaling:

Twee hanen leefden kalm; een hoentje kwam erbij
En plots was d’oorlog uitgebroken.
Gij, Liefde, hebt den fakkel ook ontstoken
Voor Troje’s brand; van u kwam deze razernij,
Die zelfs met godenbloed den Xanthus kleurde.
Lang duurde der twee hanen felle strijd.
Door gansch de buurt werd het rumoer verspreid,
En al wat kammen droeg, kwam kijken hoe ‘t gebeurde.
Ook menig Helena met fraai gevedert
Werd ‘s overwinnaars loon; de andre haan verdween,Les Deux Coqs (Jean-Jacques Grandville)
Hij hield zich schuil, verslagen en vernederd,
Treurde om zijn glorie en zijn lief, met droef geween,
‘t Lief, dat de medeminnaar voor zijn oogen
Trotsch op zijn overwinning, nu bezat.
Het daaglijksch schouwspel kwam zijn haat en kracht
Die hij voorheen te weinig had. [verhoogen,
Hij scherpte nu zijn bek, sloeg met de vleuglen,
Zich oefnend tegen ‘t windgeblaas,
In woede en jaloezie, niet te beteuglen.
Het was niet noodig. D’andre vechtersbaas
Vloog op het dak en kraaide er zijn victorie.
Een gier, die loerde, hoorde ‘t nauw,
Of uit was ‘t met zijn liefde en zijn glorie,

‘t Bleef alles in de scherpe gierenklauw.
Toen kwam, natuurlijk wisselspel,
Weer d’ander om het hoentje draaien;
Men kan begrijpen wat een kakelen en kraaien,
Want nu beviel hij haar en d’andre wijfjes wel.
Vaak heeft Fortuin dus wraak genomen,
Elk onbeschaamd verwinnaar komt ten val;
Voorzichtig dus; want na gewonnen spel vooral,
Is ‘t zaak, de fierheid in te toomen.

Klik hier voor pdf fabels van La Fontaine

Watch the fable, remade for children, here:


Satanic Arab Spring Circle?

•November 9, 2014 • 7 Comments

It seems that, in order to understand international politics today (or maybe “as always”?), we need to understand what is happening in the Middle East. Well, at least we’ll get a major part of “the bigger picture” from our attempts to come to terms with the contagion of violence in that region. French American philosopher René Girard and his mimetic theory prove to be very helpful in analyzing the current situation. Let’s start, in this post, with what seemed to be a hopeful sign for the Arab World a few years ago, the Arab Spring.

Arab Spring Deposed Elite Puppet

In 2011 several Arab countries experienced political turmoil that, because of its revolutionary character, would later be described as “the Arab Spring”. The world could observe two patterns in this tumultuous period. On the one hand, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, long term presidents were willing to give up their position, sometimes under pressure from the military. The free elections that followed were mostly won by Islamic political parties. The revolutions in Libya and Syria, on the other hand, turned violent because Muammar Gadaffi and Bashar al-Assad respectively refused to give up their presidency. NATO was willing and able to intervene in Libya and end Gadaffi’s leadership but could not undertake a similar action in Syria.

Arab Spring Egypt Rise of ExtremismDespite NATO intervention, Libya doesn’t seem to be much better off than earlier, under Gadaffi’s dictatorship. The West allowed the same mistake to be made in Libya as the US made in 2003, in Iraq. Military, police and intelligence services were disbanded because of their association with the former regime. It would destabilize Libya as it did Iraq, leaving the nation to be divided among rivaling tribal militias. Moreover, it made Libya one of the most important exporters of weapons in the region. The political chaos in Libya had a direct influence on the Egyptian situation, and this in turn contaminated the Arab world as a whole. Many thousands of islamists and jihadists escaped the Egyptian prison during the revolution of 2011, regrouping themselves in the Egyptian Sinai Desert, and buying weapons from the Libyans (among others).

Arab Spring Egypt Morsi Manipulated by MilitaryMeanwhile, the newly found political power of the Muslim Brotherhood (a movement with parties in different Arab countries) in Egypt came to an end. Egyptian army officials and generals seized power after the Muslim Brotherhood was held responsible for several terrorist attacks (although many of those attacks were claimed by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, an organization linked to al-Qaeda). President Morsi, himself a Muslim Brother who briefly took the place of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, was replaced by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared illegal – as it is in Syria. Anthropologist Mark Anspach predicted how the Arab Spring is, ultimately, indeed directed by the military in Egypt (read his very interesting article The Arab Rulers’ New Clothes by clicking here).

Arab Spring SicknessThe question in all this is “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Consecutive Egyptian leaders more or less allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to organize itself, using it as a buffer against more radical islamists and as a means to blackmail the West. If the West would not support the undemocratic, dictatorial regimes the only lurking alternative would be an extremist political Islam. That’s why the Arab Spring was also in general, in many respects, a movement carried out by religious forces against dictatorial regimes that were perceived as corrupted puppets from a decadent secularized West. It’s not what we, westerners, normally understand as democratization.

Arab Spring US PolicyThe dilemma between economically manipulable and manipulating dictatorships on the one hand, and political Islam on the other, is faced by the West again and again, to this day, in the Arab world. Bashar al-Assad knows this political tricky situation for the West too. He wanted to use the threat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) to seek new alliances with the West and its Arab allies. Apparently he secretly allowed the jihadists to somewhat organize themselves so he could manifest himself as potential “savior”. False messiahs are the ones who create the disease they allegedly want to save the world from, but in order to be able to keep on playing “the doctor” they keep the world sick. However, it doesn’t really seem to work for Bashar al-Assad. His enemies didn’t become his friends, but surely it was worth the try from his perspective…

Arab Spring Egypt Revolution CycleAnyway, the age-old enmity between dictators and so-called representatives of suppressed religious (and/or ethnic) groups provides each party with a reason of existence. As if life is not worth living if one doesn’t have an enemy… Moreover, both parties seem to remain blind to the fact that they resemble each other more and more as they tend to imitate each other’s violence and cruelty. René Girard speaks of mimetic doubles as rivals mimic each other in their (mutually imitated and thus enforced) desire to obtain the same position. It’s no wonder that al-Qaeda and IS rival each other, indeed because (and not “although”) they are so much alike.

Of course, as René Girard righfully points out, enmity between rivaling parties can easily end if they find a common enemy that reunites them. It seems “the West” and what it stands for – its consumerist, so-called “decadent” culture – is well on its way to provide the competing extremists with that “Big Enemy”. Moreover, our consumerist culture alienates many of our own children too. Some of them become depressed, commit suicide because the consumerist way of life leads to feelings of “emptiness” and “unfulfillment” – the market demands that its consumers are never satisfied, that their desires are continuously (mimetically) awakened (read Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets by Martin Lindstrom). Others find a new sense of identity and fulfillment in extreme political and/or religious groups. After the smoke clears, however, the satanic monster of violence coming from some of those groups is all that’s left, as humanity itself disappears in the process.

Tunisia remains a small beacon of hope amidst all these storms. The Muslim Brothers there were prepared to accept political concessions, the army did not intervene in the political process, and Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was able to manifest himself as a “father of the people” instead of as a leader of one political or tribal party. The Tunisian example demands imitation more than ever, as we are confronted with the new face of horrific violence, the terror of IS. In many ways the war against IS shows how the West is fighting itself, the Arab world is fighting itself, and humanity as a whole, in this globalized world, is fighting itself.

Walead Farwana wrote a compelling article, The History of the Islamic State, on the IS movement. It is possible to shed some Girardian light on his writings by using the types of the scapegoat mechanism identified in previous posts.

Ukuthula (Peace)

•August 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Sint-Theresiakapel Middelkerke Geert BourgeoisA while ago (May 2, 2014) Incensum, a vocal ensemble I am part of, sang some songs for the occasion of a newly restored chapel – the Sint-Theresiakapel in Middelkerke. The reopening of this art deco building was done by Flemish Minister Geert Bourgeois and Jozef De Kesel, Bishop of Bruges. It was first built in 1933, after a design by architect Albert Victor Fobert.

We mostly sang Renaissance songs, but we also included Ukuthula, a traditional South African Zulu song that we hold very dearly because of special ties between our ensemble and our South African friends. It is no coincidence that we sang at a memorial for Nelson Mandela in Brussels (click here for more on this - it’s about a “mimesis of peaceful behavior” by taking Mandela as a model).

I’ve selected two songs from that day in Middelkerke, for your listening pleasure. The aforementioned Ukuthula and If ye love me (Gospel of John 14:15-16) by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). These two prayers are well worth discovering (find the texts below).

One note, however, on the text of Ukuthula: “Peace in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja.” It is tempting to understand the death of Jesus as a classic sacrifice, as though the Christian God “needs” sacrifices to be benevolent towards this world, as though the Christian God, like the traditional gods of archaic religion, needs sacrifices to bring about peace and order in the universe. Jesus, however, is very clear about how he imagines the desires of his “Abba of Love” (Matthew 9:13): I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

Peace I leave with youThe Gospels show that it’s the world, our human world, which desires sacrifice, while – again according to the Gospels – God desires mercy. In the Gospel of John it is Caiaphas who says what the leaders of our human world desire, time and again (John 11:50): You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” As René Girard, Raymund Schwager, James Alison and others have demonstrated, the tales of the resurrection of Jesus open up a new way of imagining peace. No longer a peace built on sacrifice (like the peace in totalitarian regimes – the “Pax Romana”), but a peace coming from the restored presence of our former or potential Victim(s). So that we no longer are – like Cain – “persecutors”, but that we experience ourselves as “forgiven persecutors” who gracefully receive a radically other opportunity to build human relationships.

In the resurrection event as tentatively told by the Gospels, God gives himself back as the forgiving Victim of what human beings understood as “divine wrath” but that is actually “all too human wrath”. In the event of the resurrection our worldly order which desires sacrifice is revealed as a sinful order, actually going against God. The resurrection makes clear that God does not want the death of Jesus, it is we – human beings – who wanted his death.

So how to pray with the text of Ukuthula considering these theological perspectives? Well, on the one hand the text of the song actually mourns the fact that our world is indeed a world of sin that desires the blood of a Victim to bring about peace and order. On the other hand, since our world is recognized as a world of sin, the song also implicitly refers to “a world liberated from sin” that would no longer demand sacrifices. The kingdom of Christ’s God indeed is “not of this world.” Jesus did not ask his followers to fight for him or to start a civil war (John 18:36, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”). One can say, in a paradoxical sense, that Jesus sacrifices the desire to build a world on sacrifices and that “his blood” thus opens up the “eschatological imagination” (James Alison) for “a new kind of peace in this world of sin.”

An interesting short, introductory piece by Tony Jones on all this appeared at Patheos, (click the title) A Better Atonement: The Last Scapegoat.

(Videos by Maaike Depuydt).

Ukuthula kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyeneyz’
Peace in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja

Usindiso kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyeneyz’
Peace Human HandsRedemption in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja

Ukubonga kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyeneyz’
Praise in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja

Ukukholwa kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyeneyz’
Faith in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja

Ukunqoba kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyeneyz’
Victory in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja

Induduzo kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyeneyz’
Comfort in this world of sin the blood of Jesus brings, Halleluja

If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may bide with you for ever. (John 14:15-16).

C.S. Lewis Account of Mimetic Desire

•August 14, 2014 • 8 Comments

C S LewisC.S. Lewis (1898-1963), a former atheist who converted to Christianity, became well-known for his series of seven fantasy novels The Chronicles of Narnia, but the fame of this series sometimes overshadows other work by this fascinating author. And that’s a shame because, up to this day, Lewis remains a surprisingly fresh Christian thinker.

In Mere Christianity Lewis identifies “the great sin” of humanity as Pride. From his account it is clear that pride rests on what René Girard has called mimetic desire – i.e. a desire based on the imitation of what others desire. Mimetic desire can easily become competitive and lead to mimetic rivalry if people cannot or do not want to share the objects of their mutually enforced desire. The “proud man” derives his pride from the supposition that other people desire what he possesses. In a sense he needs competition (competitive desire) to affirm his prestigious aura, all the while of course not suspecting that his own desire is also based on the imitation of the desires of others… Of course, following the nuances of Lewis himself about pride, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of some achievement. To be proud of some recognition we receive from others might be a consequence of something that we have done. The proud man, on the other hand, is guided by his pride as the ultimate goal of his existence.

But enough introductory talk. Here’s what Lewis has to say on Pride – people acquainted with René Girard’s further developed mimetic theory will surely recognize some familiar themes ;) [For more on this, click here].

I now come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

C.S. Lewis quote on Pride gets no pleasure out ofDoes this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature – while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. The sexual impulse may drive two men into competition if they both want the same girl. But that is only by accident; they might just as likely have wanted two different girls. But a proud man will take your girl from you, not because he wants her, but just to prove to himself that he is a better man than you. Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.

Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with £ 10,000 a year anxious to get £ 20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. £ 10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride – the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.

C.S. Lewis quote on pride The Christians are rightThe Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

C.S. Lewis quote on Pride is spiritual cancerIt is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity – that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride – just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Before leaving this subject I must guard against some possible misunderstandings:

(1) Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’ The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals – or my artistic conscience – or the traditions of my family – or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’ In this way real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.

(2) We say in English that a man is ‘proud’ of his son, or his father, or his school, or regiment, and it may be asked whether ‘pride’ in this sense is a sin. I think it depends on what, exactly, we mean by ‘proud of’. Very often, in such sentences, the phrase ‘is proud of’ means ‘has a warm-hearted admiration for’. Such an admiration is, of course, very far from being a sin. But it might, perhaps, mean that the person in question gives himself airs on the ground of his distinguished father, or because he belongs to a famous regiment. This would, clearly, be a fault; but even then, it would be better than being proud simply of himself. To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step a way from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.

(3) We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity – as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off – getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.

C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity(4) Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

Taken from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (Collins, C.S. Lewis Signature Classics Edition 2012; p.121-128).

C.S. Lewis Stained Glass Window St George Episcopal Church Dayton Ohio

Achever… the Social Sciences?

•August 10, 2014 • 2 Comments

It is often said that René Girard is like “the Einstein or Darwin of the social sciences or the humanities.” According to Girard, however, the social sciences as such as they came to flourish in the West’s modern age, and his own contributions are only possible because of a “superior” knowledge revealed in Judeo-Christian tradition. Jean-Pierre Dupuy puts Girard’s claim this way in his book The Mark of the Sacred - which is in many ways a further development of Girard’s main ideas:

Only a madman or a crackpot, disregarding all the conventions of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, could make the following outrageous claims today: That the history of humanity, considered in its entirety, and in spite – or rather because – of its sound and fury, has a meaning. That this meaning is accessible to us, and although a science of mankind now exists, it is not mankind that has made it. [And] that this science was given to mankind by divine revelation. That the truth of mankind is religious in nature…

That madman is René Girard.

In this post I will try to give a glimpse of the way mimetic theory is able to foster a fruitful dialogue between different strands of thought in the humanities and how this dialogue indeed seems the result of Judeo-Christian influence in the Western world. I try to show that mimetic theory is a good starting point, able to connect and sometimes “correct” (or “ground” more fundamentally) basic insights of people like Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Otto, Jean Piaget, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas and even a sociologist like Niklas Luhmann – among many others. But first I’ll give “the outcome” of my explorations, in a diagram (that was conceived for my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-’n-roll).

From EROS (a mimetically mediated desire for recognition / a love for one’s self-image) to THANATOS (mental and/or physical “death”):

two potential destructive reactions following the confrontation with an (always mimetically) experienced difference between oneself and another (as an individual or collective entity).



Diagram Interdividual Psychology (Erik Buys)



Here are some text fragments from books I have been reading that led me to an even better understanding of my own diagram :). Three books are involved: Totalité et infini by Emmanuel Levinas, For René Girard edited by Sandor Goodhart et al., and When These Things Begin by René Girard. I have to mention especially that, apart from Emmanuel Levinas and René Girard, I was very inspired by the texts of Eugene Webb, Wolfgang Palaver and Michael Hardin in For René Girard. After the quote from Levinas, I also give some personal comments as a guideline to somewhat connect the different text fragments. [For more on Girard and Levinas, click here].

Emmanuel Levinas:

La philosophie occidentale a été le plus souvent une ontologie: une réduction de l’Autre au Même, par l’entremise d’un terme moyen et neutre qui assure l’intelligence de l’être.

Translation: Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being.

(Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, Kluwer Academic, p.33-34).

Personal comments (also to the texts mentioned below):

It is important to note that Levinas speaks of a “reduction”. Whenever traditional Western philosophy thinks of what the kosmos is essentially made of, it always posits an “ideal”. The whole of reality then should be understood as a striving towards the manifestation of that ideal (Aristotle‘s entelechy), or at least as an attempt to manifestly distinguish the “eternal, ever-present ideal essence of reality” from “what reality sometimes seems to be but is not” (Plato‘s or Socrates‘s maieutics). The ideal essence of reality brings about an order (out of “chaos”) that actually is sacrificial, a “peace” that rests on the oppression of what seems to contradict the ideal. Hence one could say, together with Levinas, that the ideal – whatever features it gets in a particular philosophical system – reduces everything that is other than itself to itself. However, what enables this reduction precisely is the fact that there indeed really is something “other” to reduce to begin with! So one could say that whenever some ideal is postulated as “the essence” or “the being itself” of reality, the “fuller” or “more true” being of reality is “forgotten.” Being is reduced to a goal oriented movement from an incomplete world (the subject of movement) toward a “perfect” world (the object of movement).

Martin Heidegger identified the subject-object dichotomy as the Seinsvergessenheit (forgetting of being) of traditional Western metaphysics. He tried to “go back”, beyond the order of clearly defined dichotomies (the law of non-contradiction of course being one of them) towards a thinking inspired by the poets – who remain much closer to the unresolvable ambiguities of reality. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, by leaving the unavoidably sacrificial peace of a so-called ideal world order and philosophy behind, Heidegger’s philosophy at first could not resist the temptation of glorifying and unleashing the powers of violence as part of the “revelation of truth” (see his interpretation of the Greek aletheia). In a profound sense he continued the philosophical project begun by Friedrich Nietzsche, without however “moralizing” his ontology (in a renewed sacrificial hero-cult) – which might have, unlike Nietzsche, saved Heidegger from insanity.

As far as I interpret and try to understand both Heidegger and Levinas, Heidegger considers violence (understood as the “struggle or concern for being”) as the basic answer to the ever-present possibility of death, while Levinas points to another possibility as far as human beings are concerned: the encounter with the Other (my fellow human being, my neighbor). In encountering the Other I discover my own struggle for being (against the fearful possibility of death) as a potential threat to the life of the Other. In other words, I get to know my own being as a potentially violent being. It is the “disinterested connection” to the Other – in other words “love without ulterior motives” – that both limits and opens up my struggle for being to a “being for the Other.”

Speaking with René Girard, it’s our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that connects us to the Other and that also allows us to discover the irreducible nature of the Other. True, it’s our mimetic ability that allows us to empathize with the Other, to “feel one” with the Other (to be able to “pretend” that we are the Other and to imagine what he feels, expects or desires we have to be able to imitate him). But on the other hand, the process of mimesis is only possible because of a distance, an insurmountable gap between myself and the Other, that is discovered precisely in the act itself of mimesis!

Because we are mimetically connected to each other, we are able to adapt ourselves to an image that we think would answer to the expectations of the other. When this becomes our main preoccupation, we reduce each other to mere means to fulfill a mimetically generated desire for recognition. Let me try to explain this a little better.

The originally disinterested connection to the Other (upon which all “interested” connections are – “parasitically, satanically” – dependent) might be corrupted when we imitate each other’s desires. It’s because you are (mimetically) able to identify yourself with the desires of others that you, first, might discover yourself as an object of (their) desire and, second, that you might discover someone else as well as object of (their) desire. Because your desire imitates (and is thus engendered by) the desires of others, your desire towards yourself as the object of the desires of others will generate admiration or envy towards that other who seems to be also desired by others. You’re not only mimetically able to identify with the desires of others to discover yourself as an object of desire, but you’re also able to mimetically identify yourself with an other who seems to posses the desire (and thus recognition) of others. What happens, time and again, is that we develop a desire to be like an admired / envied other. This implies that we cannot love ourselves anymore, but it also implies that we can no longer love the other. We often desire recognition, not for ourselves, but for the prestige we have constructed in jealously comparing ourselves – not to others, but to what we imagine about others. We, as human beings, don’t just want what we need, we want what seems desirable by others as well (the BMW instead of…), and this grants us prestige.

GoetheSee this insightful quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his The Sorrows of Young Werther: We are so constituted by nature, that we are ever prone to compare ourselves with others; and our happiness or misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude: there our imagination, always disposed to rise, taking a new flight on the wings of fancy, pictures to us a chain of beings of whom we seem the most inferior. All things appear greater than they really are, and all seem superior to us. This operation of the mind is quite natural: we so continually feel our own imperfections, and fancy we perceive in others the qualities we do not possess, attributing to them also all (those talents) that we enjoy ourselves, that by this process we form the idea of a perfect, happy man, — a man, however, who only exists in our own imagination.

The Sorrows of Young Werther Goethe quote

As René Girard shows in discussing the presence of mimetic desire in groups of primitive humans, the mutually (mimetically) enforced competitive desire for prestige – mimetic desire, in short – might spread throughout individuals of the same group in such a way that the group finds itself in a veritable crisis wherein all differences disappear and each rival resembles the others more and more. The solution to this crisis might be the mimetic unification against one rival. Indeed, my (or another’s) rival might become the enemy of all if everyone imitates my enmity against that rival. The war of all against all becomes the war of all against one, and a new difference - a new foundation for further differences and order - is established. When the common enemy is banned from the group or even beaten to death, the scapegoat mechanism sets in. The group experienced turmoil as long as their victim was around, while, on the other hand, it experiences a renewed stability when the victim is no longer around or alive – the victim is present as dead. According to Girard, groups of primitive humans gradually projected their own violence unto the victims of group violence, wrongfully experiencing these victims as responsible both for crisis and the resolution of crisis.

Also gradually, primitive communities will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were, in other words, scapegoats. [For more on Girard's account on the origin of religion, click here].

Girard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred. The ambiguity of the erstwhile victims of group violence also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad… Good aspects of the gods can be allowed in rituals, while bad aspects of the gods are forbidden and taboo. For instance, sacrifice is a form of ‘good’ (controlled) sacred violence to be distinguished from ‘bad’ sacred violence, which is to be avoided and is taboo…

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations, albeit in varying forms (human sacrifice becoming animal sacrifice, for instance). The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus. Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

The image or model for the cultural order in a particular society – with its particular taboos and rituals that have to be respected – rests on the wrongful perception of the victims of group violence. Human culture can be understood as the continuous attempt to justify the violent death (murder or suicide) of one (monstrous and/or heroic) member for the salvation of (the order in) a whole group. Christianity, however, undermines this justification. Christ is a victim of the same sacrificial system which grounds human culture, but he is said to be innocent! This allows human beings to discover the true origin of violence and crisis. It is not something “alien” that comes from the gods and is demanded or justified by them, it’s something that comes from (mimetic) interactions between human beings themselves. Hence the possibility of a “true” psychology, sociology and anthropology. The Christ event also allows human beings to (re)discover their own responsibility before each “Other” and to part ways with the justification of a sacrificial order – whether expressed in mythology or philosophy. In a paradoxical way, Christ invites us to imitate him and to sacrifice our sacrificial identity. Instead of just imitating and accepting a given order, we should ask ourselves at what (or better, who’s) expense we continue this order.

One final remark. The abandonment of sacrifice to ground a given order is, as Girard has shown following Judeo-Christian revelation, deeply ambiguous: it allows for new types of competition, rivalry and even violence between human beings as it also allows for “Love born out of freedom” for each Other (true Love that is, not out of fear of not having an admirable “self-image”).

In short, the image of an ideal world - in whatever context of human life – results from mimetically mediated desires between human beings, and is, as we have said already above, essentially sacrificial. It does not only “forget” the “otherness” of the Other, but also the “otherness” of myself. To escape this mimetically generated tendency to (mentally and/or physically) “kill” myself and the Other in favor of the idol of “an ideal”, we should redirect our mimetic faculties to their origin: the mysterious, disinterested connection to the Other – Love. Historically, the Christ event unleashes the possibility of this redirection in a fundamental way.

Emmanuel Levinas Qote on Faith

Eugene Webb:

Lacan proceeded more directly from the tradition of Freud than did Girard, and he uses the imagery of sacrifice in a more positive way, but both can be interpreted as revisionist figures in the Freudian tradition. For both, desire tends to have a mimetic character, in that it is closely tied up with the perceived or presumed desires of others. Also for both, desire tends to be metaphysical, in that it generates a falsely conceived self. For Lacan, the false self is any object (a person or an image) in which the ego tends to lose itself through identification, but it is especially the objectified image of a self that forms in what Lacan termed “the mirror stage” of development, the child’s “jubilant assumption of his specular image.” Out of this enchantment by one’s own objectified image evolves what Lacan called l’imaginaire: a fundamentally narcissistic fascination that tends to draw all relationships into an unrealistic and futile striving for identification with an objectified “other” – one’s own self-image, or the mother, or some other object – in a sort of “fusional cannibalism.” In this process, the individual confuses his and the other’s desires, seeking to see himself as the object of the other’s desire and, by imaginative identification with that other, to desire himself with that same desire, so as to believe in his own reality as an object. Put concisely, the fundamental human temptation is to avoid the risk of being an actual subject by becoming an imaginary object. [...] Despite Girard’s distrust of the language of sacrifice, there is a sense in which the transcendence Girard seeks of the self generated by mimetic desire could also be described as something like the sacrifice of a false self for the sake of discovering a new, true life animated by the spirit that was in Christ.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.151).

Wolfgang Palaver:

It was Eric Voegelin‘s comparison of Hobbes and Augustine that… opened my eyes and made me realize how far Hobbes had departed from Christian tradition. Voegelin’s insight – that Hobbes’s description of human nature is nothing but a description of pride, a “passion aggravated by comparison” – helped me to connect this departure with mimetic theory. Whereas Augustine distinguished the love of self (amor sui) from the love of God (amor Dei), Hobbes “threw out the amor Dei and relied for his psychology on the amor sui, in his language the self-conceit or pride of the individual, alone.” Christianity, in accordance with the biblical Revelation, always emphasized the human orientation primarily toward eternal or heavenly transcendent goods – especially the love of God – to avoid the lethal trap of mimetic rivalry following the soul’s longing for temporal goods. Both Augustine and Hobbes were aware how much human violence is rooted in mimetic rivalry. But it was only the Church Father who realized that there is a way out of this deadlock – namely, by searching first for the kingdom of God. This is the same insight that is expressed in the Ten Commandments. We are only able to follow the tenth commandment – the rule against mimetic rivalry – if we obey the first commandment and overcome idolatry.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.192-193).

Michael Hardin:

At the Cross, our god concepts die. The New Testament writers and early Church Fathers called this death of the god concepts the conquering of the satanic powers, the powers that rule human life. In the Cross of Jesus, the horizon of the kingdom of God’s love and forgiveness is opened and our self-understanding is transformed, as we relate no longer to the gods of this world but to the Creator of heaven and earth. [...] We become those who no longer imitate the desires of the world, the kosmos structured on a dysfunctional logos (1 John 2:15ff), but instead, like Jesus, become those who seek God and God’s rule with a singular focus. This transformation does not remove us from the world but enables us to be active agents of the transforming character of the love of God in all our relationships. [...] The New Testament writers perceived the great power behind the imitation of the love of God expressed in Jesus. To desire as Jesus desired is to desire the transcendent in the immanent neighbor, to recognize that love of God and love of neighbor form a unity that cannot be broken. Rather than separating theology and ethics, mimetic theory grounds each in the other in the redemptive event of the Cross.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.267-268).

René Girard in conversation with Michel Treguer:

MT: What do you think of the famous “death drive” introduced by Freud?

RG: It’s a good example of pointless complication. In my view, the death drive exists, but it is entirely linked to mimetic rivalry. Mimetic desire makes you into the rival of your model: you fight with him over the object that he himself pointed out to you. This situation reinforces desire and increases the prestige of the obstacle as such. And the supreme obstacle, of course, is death, it’s what can kill you. The death drive is the logical outcome of this mechanism. But Freud is unable to link this paradoxically narcissistic desire for a biological, inanimate state to the other phases of the process; nor even, to use his own concepts, to link it to the Oedipus complex, for example, even though he’s perfectly aware of the latter’s mimetic nature. He contents himself in some sense with adding an extra drive. This motley assemblage inspires awe in the credulous, but if it can be simplified, we have to simplify it.

MT: This is the question that comes to mind as I listen to you: “death drive” or “drive to murder”?

RG: [A pause] It’s the same thing! And eroticism tends toward both. Just think about the symmetry of the processes at play. Take Romeo and Juliet, who are defined perfectly by Friar Lawrence: “These violent delights have violent ends” (Romeo and Juliet, II, vi, 9). It’s always forgotten that Shakespeare starts by showing us the young Romeo madly in love with a woman who wants nothing to do with him. Shakespeare’s plays always contain things that contradict in specular fashion the conventional – and stubbornly romantic – image that, in spite of everything, we have of them. The cult of the obstacle drives human beings from their human condition toward what is most against them, toward what hurts them the most, toward the non-human, toward the inert, toward the mineral, toward death… toward everything that goes against love, against spirit. The skandalon that the Gospels speak of in relation to covetousness is the obstacle that is increasingly attractive the more it pushes you away. You want it because it rejects you. This seesawing back and forth between attraction and repulsion cannot fail to be mutually destructive and destabilizing at first, before leading to utter annihilation. Refusing God is the same thing because God is the opposite of the skandalon. God died for human beings. Remaining blind to God while going for the first super model who comes along – that’s what human beings do.

(René Girard, When These Things Begin, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2014, p.106-107).

René Girard on Apostrophes

•July 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

There was a time when a literary talk show could attract around 6 million regular viewers on a weekly basis. Apostrophes was one such prime-time show on French television, every Friday night (on the channel France 2 or “Antenne 2”). It was born out of the daring mind of Bernard Pivot, who also hosted the show as long as it ran (for fifteen years that is, from January 10, 1975 to June 22, 1990).

Guests included writers like Georges Simenon, Milan Kundera, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov, Susan Sontag, Marguerite Yourcenar, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Le Carré and Charles Bukowski. All types of intellectuals (from historians to sociologists) came by as well, like Pierre Bourdieu and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Political figures like François Mitterand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing didn’t pass the invitation. Even the Dalai Lama was a welcome guest.

René Girard appeared on the show twice, a first time on June 6, 1978 (episode 150 of the show) presenting his seminal book Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World), and a second time together with Michel Serres in the special episode Deux Philosophes Français aux Etats Unis (July 21, 1989).


The Grace of Prostitutes

•June 19, 2014 • 1 Comment

“… the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

[translated from a part in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-’n-roll]

What a disturbing figure. Jesus openly declares that tax collectors and prostitutes – quintessential sinners – are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and the elders of the people of Israel. Go figure.

The chief priests and the elders think highly of themselves. They get recognition from the common people. Or so they think. They have a religious and social status worthy even of some recognition from “the One” Himself. Or so they presume. In comes Jesus. He basically tells them they are high on some grand illusion. He tells them what’s real. And he knows that they know what’s real, deep down inside. Let’s have a closer look at how Jesus proclaims the truth.

Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus said, “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Intervention (Jesus is my homeboy)Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

As he often does, Jesus tells a story to get his point across. This time it’s about a father and two sons. Basically, the second son is a hypocrite and the first son falls victim to the hypocrisy of his brother. Of course the father will think that the second son is the one who worked in the vineyard and appreciate him for it, while it’s his other son who did all the work. In other words, the second son will get the recognition that should actually be given to the first son.

Apart from the story of Cain and Abel, there’s another Old Testament story about two brothers that resonates throughout this parable of Jesus, namely the Genesis story of Jacob who deceitfully takes a blessing from his father Isaac. This particular blessing was normally reserved for his brother Esau, the firstborn. In the Genesis story (Genesis 27:1-46), Jacob (“he grasps the heel”, a Hebrew idiom for “he takes advantage of” or “he deceives”) is the one who gets protection. As is known, Jacob later becomes “Israel”, ancestor of the Jewish people.

By referring to the story of its ancestor Jacob, Jesus implicitly criticizes how Israel tends to build its identity and structure its society. Jesus criticizes social systems that rely on the exclusion of others through rivalry and hypocrisy. This criticism is at once general and personal. Jesus suggests in his parable that the chief priests and the elders are like the second son. In other words, he tells them that they are hypocrites! He also implies that the tax collectors and prostitutes are like the first son; they fall victim to the hypocrisy of the chief priests and the elders.

HookerOf course the elders and chief priests deal with the tax collectors, but to protect their image they will deny any affiliation with “those collaborators of the Roman Empire who take money from their fellow Jews, in the process also fraudulently, deceitfully enriching themselves…” The reality of the situation is not that black and white though. It is no surprise that some of the chief priests and elders turn out to be as corrupt (or even more) as the tax collectors themselves. There is low life in high places. [AUDIO SONG TIP: Low Life in High Places by Thunder].

As for the prostitutes, Jesus suggests that they too suffer from hypocrisy. Indeed, when they meet a client in public, their client will deny any affiliation with them. Their client, be it a chief priest or an elder or someone else, might say “I don’t know the woman!”, and protect his reputation among the common people. And the prostitute, well, she has no choice but to forgive the hypocrisy of her clients beforehand. It’s part of the game she is forced to play. Otherwise she would lose all her clients. She plays forgiveness. [AUDIO SONG TIP: When You Were Young by The Killers].

Now we might understand a little better why Jesus claims that the tax collectors and prostitutes are “closer to the kingdom of God” and to the righteousness proclaimed by John the Baptist. They experience firsthand how mechanisms of social exclusion allow societies to structure themselves. They understand the injustice of many social systems. They know that acting against that injustice has to do with taking sides with the outcasts. To repent thus means to acknowledge that you yourself are part of a social game that’s played at the expense of others and to do something about it. It means “losing a life that is directed at a socially acceptable image/status/reputation/power” for the sake of “the excluded other”, the consequence being that you “gain your life” (as you no longer idolatrously lose yourself to an image).

Jesus himself always takes sides with the excluded others, and deeply understands the hidden truth behind our socially mediated identities. That’s why he says, after yet another parable (of the tenants) in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:

Jesus RockJesus Rejected Cornerstone‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’

(Matthew 21:42)

Because he is willing to take the position of the social outcast, Jesus is right when he proclaims the paradox of the Gospel (Matthew 16:25-26):

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Jesus lives out (of) the Love of “the One” who is “Other than human” and therefore his identity and self-concept is not dependent on the socially mediated idolatries of this world. His self-respect is not dependent on the respect he gains from other people and therefore he is able to stand up for the outcasts in society.

Of course, when you imitate Jesus and take sides with the socially excluded, there are two possibilities: or other people will show mercy, or they will sacrifice you as well. Jesus is willing to run this risk because the love for his neighbor is stronger than the fear of becoming a victim himself. He refuses to sacrifice himself to a socially acceptable self-image at the expense of others. He is in no ways a masochist. Jesus believes that his Father – Love – “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). That’s why he indeed can save others but cannot save himself when he is arrested and crucified (Matthew 27:39-41). If he would start a civil war others would be sacrificed because of him, and he thus would no longer obey to the call of Love.

As we know, Peter at first does not imitate Jesus. Peter succumbs to the fear of becoming a social outcast when Jesus is arrested (see below, excerpts from Matthew 26). He denies any affiliation with Jesus because he fears becoming a victim himself. If, on the other hand, he would have taken sides with Jesus, he would have chosen for himself more fully (as he would not have chosen for his image or reputation).

However, like the clients of the prostitutes might say “I don’t know the woman (the prostitute)!” to protect their reputation, Peter says “I don’t know the man (Jesus)” to protect his position in society. Peter wants to secure himself.

At the same time, like the prostitutes forgive the hypocrisy of their clients, Jesus forgives Peter’s hypocrisy beforehand. But unlike the prostitutes, Jesus does have the choice not to forgive Peter, which makes his actual forgiveness more fully an act of grace.

Nevertheless, Matthew makes clear that the grace of Jesus indeed has to do with the grace of “prostitutes”. The Evangelist deliberately constructs a genealogy of Jesus (in the first chapter of his Gospel) wherein he mentions four Old Testament women who had a questionable reputation. Tamar and Rahab are known as prostitutes, Ruth is a seductress and Bathsheba, “Uriah’s wife”, is known as an adulteress…

Maybe one of the first steps towards the righteousness of “the kingdom of Love” has to do with the acknowledgment that our identities exist by receiving grace from those we tend to despise… To realize this might imply the tears that begin to wash our sins away, tears of true metanoia… as we follow in Peter’s footsteps.

Matthew 26:31-35

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

The_Denial_of_Saint_Peter by Caravaggio_(1610)Matthew 26:69-75

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

This post follows the suggestions for a high school course on mimetic theory. The aforementioned situations are examples of the third type of the scapegoat mechanism (this time about SHAME and not ressentiment).







Here are the previous posts:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)

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