Theater of Cruelty

Mimetic desire and violence

PSYCHOLOGY / How has a thoroughly pessimistic view of humanity arisen? That man must be fundamentally sinful is a cornerstone of Western thinking. Or?


The Clash of the Civilizations – political polarization and war. These phenomena are usually referred to as that differences between people leads to conflict. René Girard (1923–2015), on the other hand, believed that similarities are the root of conflict. The word rival originally denoted people who live on opposite sides of the same river and fight over it. The parties must compete since they desire the same object, but the object is often limited in number or quantity. This is how conflict arises between friends, lovers, groups and nations.

Girard has recently gained increased popularity. His main work The scapegoat (1982) was translated into Norwegian in 2020, and Lena Lindgren won the Brage prize in 2021 for Ekko – an essay on algorithms and desire, where Girard's influence on technology investor Peter Thiel was a key element. Thiel was a student of Girard and is said to have been inspired by his mimetic theory to his financial success.

This publication constitutes another step towards the popularization of Girard. Many of the texts in the edition have not previously been translated into English, and they have been selected to give the widest possible impression of Girard's artwork. The publication also brings out more personal aspects of the thinker, such as his conversion to Christianity and his megalomaniacal personality.

© Eduardo Moreno. See also Orientering

The other desires

Girard sees himself as an extension of thinkers such as Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. For all these thinkers, the truth about human actions and motives was reducible to a few, exhaustive variables. For Marx, social conditions were understood through an under-
search for who had control over the means of production. For Freud, man's conscious life and thinking can be understood in the interaction between the conscious and the subconscious. And Nietzsche thought that all things are motivated by a 'will to power'. In contrast, Girard thought he had found something more fundamental to explain conflicts, relationships and psychopathologies: mimetic desire.

Mimetic desire denotes the way in which human affects, desires and thoughts originate in imitation, mimesis. We learn to desire through what others desire. We desire an object or an experience because we observe that others desire them. That is to say, according to Girard, we do not have an inherent, natural desire, such as Freud, among others, envisioned with the sex drive, libido. Rather, we learn to desire from our parents and the communities we are a part of.

We desire an object or an experience because we observe that others desire them.

Girard's theory is therefore largely an attack on the romantic and neoliberal idea of ​​the individual as a self-sufficient and independent monad with natural desires. We are constantly being shaped and helping to shape each other. To believe that we can be disconnected from mimesis, he calls "the romantic lie".

Nevertheless, Girard does not claim that one should abandon any concept of individuality. His criticism is primarily directed at the notion of the individual as a self-sufficient, original quantity. Against this, Girard proposes that the original size is society and the mass, while the individual first takes shape when he separates himself from the mass. Girard believes that very few people are capable of this, since we often feel the strongest convictions when we are most under the influence of others.

Christianity and the outcasts

These are not Girard's own claims, but something he believes that Jesus himself was crucified for. Jesus accused the masses of their mimetic lust and sought to defend the outcasts. Girard also wants to highlight society's and cultures' violence against the innocent. Defending the innocent from the violence of the masses is the central Christian project according to Girard, since Jesus himself – and therefore possibly anyone – can be such an innocent. Girard therefore considers himself a Christian thinker who builds on insights from Paul and Augustine. He has even been called 'the Hegel of Christianity'.

Jesus accused the masses of their mimetic lust and sought to defend the outcasts.

Girard converted to Christianity while writing his first book. In the current edition, he writes that he did not become a Christian by reading the Bible, but by reading Proust, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Stendhal. From these authors, Girard learned that desire leads to death, which constitutes a religious experience—a conversion.


Through the texts, Girard maintains the significance of the Judeo-Christian opposition to desire's mimetic origins and violent consequences. Instead of returning violence with violence, Christ preaches that one should let one's rival have his way (a not so popular thing to say apropos Ukraine...). Nevertheless, Girard notes today's contradictory situation: We live in a world that is far more peaceful than before, but much of this is thanks to our unprecedented ability to destroy it with weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, the world often requires us to engage in a form of 'Satan's game', where violence is kept at bay through violence to preserve peace.

Girard nevertheless maintains an insistent skepticism against all forms of self-justifying violence. This aspect presented in the book – while absolutely fundamental – is also often overlooked in popular accounts of Girard, including that done by Lindgren and others in recent times.

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