Desire, violence and the Bible

Desire, violence and the Bible Rene Girard, the philosopher at his ease.

All Desire is a Desire for Being, Essential writings of René Girard selected by Cynthia L. Haven (Penguin Classics, £12.99pb/€15.50pb)

Frank Litton

We cannot get away from the ubiquity of violence in human affairs. The wars in Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan – the list goes on and on. The slaughter of Jews during the Second World War stands out in this dire history. It displays two modes of violence.

On the one hand we find the state-sponsored, logistically complicated, well planned, methodical murder of Jews in concentration camps: civil servants deploying their administrative skills supported by the latest technology. The functionaries who staffed the apparatus were ‘obeying orders’.

Think of the train drivers who delivered the victims in cattle trucks to the doors of the gas chambers. They knew what they were doing; being small cogs in a large machine, they distanced themselves from responsibility, closing their eyes as they collected their wages, thoughtlessly inhabiting a culture where the unity of ‘the good’ was based on hatred of ‘the evil’.

On the other hand, the historian reminds us, “in most of Eastern Europe, the Holocaust was a matter of direct violence, face to face murder, in the presence of scores of witnesses and neighbours.” (Jacob Mikanowski Goodbye Eastern Europe p.220)


Closer to home, we had the ‘troubles’. Nor should we forget the violence, apparently increasing, in homes. In Ireland 244 women have been murdered since 1996, the majority killed by their husbands or partners.

We might expect then that the study of violence would be high on the list of priorities in studies of the human condition. Not so, when we turn to the obvious disciplines – sociology, psychology, history – we find little illumination.

René Girard (1923-2015) who has made by far the largest contribution to our understanding of violence is difficult to pigeon hole.

He graduated as archivist/librarian from the École Nationale de Chartes in Paris, travelled to the United States, completed a PhD in history, got a job lecturing in French, ending up as a professor in Stanford University.

The foundations of his understanding of violence were laid in his literary studies. He examined the play of desire among the protagonists in the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky. Their fictions, he showed, revealed the truth behind the dynamics of human desire.

The desires that shape our behaviour are ‘mimetic’. We desire objects, individuals, not because of a direct connection between them and our needs but because of their relationship to another. Look at children playing: one picks up a neglected toy, the others drop what they have been playing with and converge on it.

Remember that advertisement for that mediocre soft drink. The scene is in black and white, the youngsters stand in isolation. Someone opens a can of the stuff; the scene is transformed into bright colours and couples whirl around in delighted dance. The drink does not offer to quench your thirst. It promises to transport you into a world where others enjoy a happiness denied to you. Recall how often you have heard of old friends breaking up as one goes off with the other’s girlfriend. That relationship does not last.


These are simple examples. The novelists studied by Girard account for more complicated examples where more is at stake. The contexts of the novels differ, but the same dynamic is at work. While Girard illuminates the psychology of desire, his analysis of how it plays out in the different social and political circumstances of the novels, adds a sociological dimension.

Violence is inherent in mimetic desire. I desire this object, individual, because you have it. Because you have it; I cannot. The source of my desire is an obstacle to its attainment. Thanks to mimetic desire, envy, jealousy and hatred are abiding components of human motivation. It is no surprise that violence tears societies apart. What is surprising is that violence can be contained and peace prevail.

Girard’s second great contribution explains why this is so. He draws our attention to scapegoating. A group is torn apart by violence. Suddenly the crowd turn on one individual. They unite in his pursuit. The peace and common purpose they find in their shared animosity is evidence enough that it is justified: ‘the proof of the pudding is in its eating’.

From the dramas of the school playground, to the world of organising and onto the level of society, evidence of the malign logic of scapegoating is plentiful. It lurks in the background shaping the boundaries that define belonging. We find it at its most awful in the persecution of Jews.

We find sacrifice embedded in the sacred again and again in societies. Girard surveys the anthropological evidence to conclude that sacrificial rituals, in all their diversity, have one thing in common: they are all re-enactments of scapegoating. We think of politics as the solution to violence, replacing ‘war, war, with jaw, jaw’.


Not so says Girard politics is rooted in the violence of scapegoating. Girard supplements his enquiries with an examination of the myths that embody communities’ self-understandings. These, he finds, rehearse scapegoating.

There is one important exception. He reports examples of resistance to scapegoating logic in the Old Testament. And the New Testament ends in its most complete repudiation in its account of a scapegoating from the perspective of the victim.

Girard enters the territory of theology. The imitation of Christ delivers us from the worst consequences of mimetic desire. His crucifixion, death and resurrection grounds a communion in which scapegoating plays no role.

I hope that this brief survey is sufficient to indicate that Girard is one of the most important thinkers of our time. We owe a depth of gratitude to Cynthia L. Haven who has done so much ‘to spread the word’. In 2018 she gave us a widely-acclaimed biography Evolution of desire. A biography of Rene Girard, and in 2020 Conversations with Rene Girard a collection of interviews. Now we have a selection of his writings, some of which have not been published or available in English, that she has assembled for Penguin Classics.

It is a valuable resource and a useful introduction: self-recommending. Of particular interest is ‘A method, a life, a man’. In this interview with Michel Treguer, Girard discusses the path he has followed in his discoveries and its interweaving with his life. He gives an account of his conversion to Catholicism.