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Making Sense of Girard
I attended a Girard-themed conference today, and in prep I read his classic Violence and the Sacred. He is a hard read for me, as he is often arrogant, repetitive, opaque, and exaggerates. Even so, this is to his great credit: he stays focused on important issues.
As I recently spent a year studying the sacred, the word “sacred” in his title motivated my reading. But alas to him “sacred” mainly just means “things we aren’t very self-aware or honest about”. Yes, I can include that in my list of reported correlates of the sacred, but that doesn’t add much insight.
Some of Girard’s claims seem quite plausible if not especially novel. Such as that we are prone to imitate each other’s desires, which tends to cause conflicts. Or that we fear “feud” spirals of increasing destructive retaliations causing social collapse. Or that during such collapse our usual social categories get less relevant. Or that we often try to blame our problems on innocent scapegoats. Or that we are often unaware and even misled re the social function of our behaviors.
But Girard makes one big claim that is both surprising and thought-provoking. In very ancient worlds, law was often not strong enough to reliably prevent feuds leading to community collapse. Girard’s claim is that, in such cases, an entire community would often together blame and kill a sacrificial innocent scapegoat, after which the feud would end. This scapegoat would be someone within the community, but not on one of the sides in the feud.
Men would not be able to shake loose the violence between them, to make of it a separate entity both sovereign and redemptory, without the surrogate victim. Also, violence itself offers a sort of respite, the fresh beginning of a cycle of ritual after a cycle of violence. Violence will come to an end only after it has had the last word and that word has been accepted as divine. The meaning of this word must remain hidden, the mechanism of unanimity remain concealed. For religion protects man as long as its ultimate foundations are not revealed. (more)
This claim seemed surprising to me, and most of my Twitter/X followers agree:
Though I guess I should take the fact that a substantial minority find it plausible as somewhat supporting evidence.
Girard doesn’t say much about why murdering an innocent third party would tend to end feuds, and I can’t find much of an explanation in Girard commentary. But I’ve given it some thought, and here’s my best shot.
In the ancient world, war winners would often kill all the men and take their women as wives. And as it wouldn’t go well if such wives remained visibly sullen and resentful for the rest of their lives, they’d need a capacity to blame their prior men for losing the war, and see the new winners as deserving of their prizes. Similarly, today when one side wins a factional political battle within a firm, the low level employees who once favored the losing side would benefit from a capacity to sincerely change their minds and see the new winners as legitimate firm leaders.
That is, humans have long needed ways to see power-battle winners as deserving to win, regardless of what they did to win. A capacity to see that win as just and appropriate, even if they might easily have come to an opposite judgement given a distant description of this situation re other people. In such cases, people would be vaguely aware that they are more vulnerable to criticism regarding their stance. And so they’d be more inclined to close ranks to ensure that they agreed on their position and supporting stories, and would warily watch the reactions of outsiders, to see if their story has been accepted.
And it is these tendencies that might plausibly get them to end their feud. That is, people might plausibly be bonded together and distracted from their feud by the efforts required to overpower and kill a scapegoat, to find and agree on stories to justify this, and then to manage their social neighbors reactions to this move.
So I guess maybe Girard’s theory isn’t obviously crazy. But that doesn’t mean I’m convinced of it yet.