Myth: The Invisibility of the Founding Murder

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

Rene Girard

Girard develops a global theory of culture through the paradox of violence and exclusion serving a social function.

(Consider reading Chapter 4 Myth: The Invisibility of the Founding Murder which concerns an act of murder which founds a civilization and its culture, e.g. the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible).

Professor René Girard of Stanford University discusses themes of sacrifice, violence and the sacred

RENÉ GIRARD (1923-2015) was a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. He wrote from the perspective of a wide variety of disciplines, including literary criticism, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, biblical hermeneutics and theology. Girard is best known for his “mimetic theory” in which he elaborated a sweeping anthropology of religion. Set out in his first major work, DECEIT, DESIRE AND THE NOVEL (1961), the theory holds that human beings learn by imitating those around them, wanting to have what others have. His fundamental ideas, which were developed throughout his career, were that all desire is mimetic (i.e., borrowed from other people); that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry) which operates pervasively in all cultures, fomenting envy and rivalry; that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry; and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism. In VIOLENCE AND THE SACRED (1972), Girard showed how once scapegoats are sacrificed, often ritually, and peace returns, such sacrificial victims often become seen as “founding figures” of a society or religion, owing to the powerful mix of guilt and shame that remains in the collective memory. Girard described sacrificial violence as “the dark secret underpinning all human cultures” and the basis for many works of fiction and drama. In recent history this has been played out in the horrors of communism and fascism – and Islamist terrorism, a phenomenon Girard once described as “mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale”. He saw religion not as the cause of violence, but as an often desperate attempt to resolve it, with biblical texts representing the development of a new consciousness which rejected scapegoating as an answer to society’s ills. In THE SCAPEGOAT (1982), Girard developed the idea that the Christian scriptures inaugurated a long process of questioning this founding violence. Jesus’s sacrifice is presented not as a means of appeasing an offended deity, but as an example of a loving God offering human beings liberation from this destructive cycle. The resurrection of the forgiving victim offers human life new foundations.



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