René Girard and the Rise of Victim Power

Geoff Shullenberger

Image for article: René Girard and the Rise of Victim Power
December 9, 2022
Photo: Daniel Simon / Getty

Globalization, we have been told, goes hand in hand with secularization. As commerce, profit, and technological improvement overtake older value systems, rituals and traditions fall away, and the sacred is assailed by the profane. Traditionalists may fight back, but they are fighting a rearguard battle against the inexorable march of progress. The political scientist Benjamin Barber memorably articulated this antagonism in the title of his 1995 book, Jihad vs. McWorld. Most observers in recent decades, whether they regard universal disenchantment as a spiritual catastrophe or an enabling condition of perpetual peace, have accepted this approximate framing.

But consider the following events that occurred a little more than two years ago. On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin held his knee down for nearly 10 minutes on the neck of an unemployed nightclub bouncer named George Floyd during the latter’s arrest, causing his death. This fatal encounter between two previously unknown men set off a vast wave of protests across the world; protesters took to the streets in countries where American racial politics had little obvious relevance—as if Floyd had come to stand in more broadly for all victims everywhere. In the space of just days, he went from an unknown middle-aged ex-convict struggling with addiction to a universally recognizable global icon of social justice. “Icon” is a precise term here: Murals of the man that rapidly proliferated around the world depicted him with a halo, wings, and other symbols associated with sainthood. Likewise, the location of his death, closed off to traffic, became the sort of place recognizable from many cultures as a pilgrimage site. To this day, a website promises visitors guided “pilgrimage journeys” to the shrine.

The George Floyd event, despite its gradual fading from public memory, points to an unsuspected synthesis: McWorld’s jihad—a spiritual crusade embraced across our deracinated planet—and promulgated by globalization’s dominant economic and political forces. The galvanizing effect of this event didn’t stop with the crowds it brought into the streets: It famously extended into the corporate boardrooms that have come to function as a shadow global government. As the World Economic Forum declared approvingly less than a month after Floyd died, companies including Pepsi, Visa, Verizon, Uber, and Bank of America had “donated billions to social-justice organizations and launched new initiatives to make their own workplaces more inclusive and equitable.”

One would look in vain to the prophets of globalization in the 1990s—Barber, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Friedman—for a prediction of this sort of global cultural and political occurrence: a violent and destructive upwelling from below, overtly driven by values held as sacred, also endorsed from the commanding heights of global power. But another observer of the first phase of globalization, less celebrated at the time, foretold it with remarkable accuracy.

That would be the late René Girard, a longtime professor of French literature at Stanford and a polymathic inquirer into religion and culture. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, published at the dawn of the new millennium, Girard wrote that one overriding value “dominates the total planetary culture in which we live,” far more so than technological progress or economic growth: “the concern for victims.” “Globalization,” he claimed, “is only secondarily an economic phenomenon”—more fundamentally, it is driven by what he calls “the rise of ‘victim power.’” The fact that global corporations almost instantly sought to drape themselves in Floyd’s sacred aura provides one of the most potent images to date of what this “victim power” looks like.

A world guided by the “concern for victims” might sound aspirational, especially to self-proclaimed progressives. Indeed, this is roughly what many seemed to believe the sanctification of George Floyd stood for: the emergence a world that would prioritize redressing the harms done not only to black Americans, but to a panoply of other identity groups historically subjected to discrimination and exclusion in cultures across the globe. Hence, the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” agenda aggressively promoted worldwide in the months and years after Floyd’s death didn’t stop with black victims of police violence. On the contrary, it has done little for impoverished black Americans with substance-abuse problems, but a great deal for career aspirants in elite fields with intersectional credentials—that is, a claim to victim status.

“The rise of victim power signals a genuine ... exhaustion of all other sources of authority.”

As Girard already perceived in 1999, we live under the reign of “victimism, which uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power.” But victimism isn’t merely a cynical smokescreen for power. Instead, the rise of victim power signals a genuine and troubling exhaustion of all other sources of authority and legitimacy. This points to the real problem with this new ideological regime: Beneath its benevolent rhetoric, its implications are apocalyptic, accelerating the collapse of any sustainable order.

This, for Girard, is because the social order is originally built on sacrifice: that is, on the killing of living beings as a means of purging conflict and instilling harmony. In a sense, then, George Floyd’s transfiguration resembled many others stretching into the ancient past. From the sacrificial killings whose victims, myth, legend, and archaeology tell us, lie beneath the cornerstones of buildings and foundations of cities, to the martyrdoms that littered the Old World with pilgrimage sites, the sacred, and with it, society, have been born and reborn out of the blood of victims. In this respect, the gap between the premodern world dominated by religion and today’s world, between jihad and McWorld, isn’t as great as we are often led to believe.

But something fundamental also separates us from the sacrificial rites of the ancient world. That thing, according to Girard, is Christian revelation, which he understands as the major moral and intellectual inflection point in human history. In earlier eras, he argues, sacred violence that tends to horrify us today, including human sacrifice, had a concrete function: It enabled the consolidation and renewal of community through an expulsion of internal conflict and a symbolic coalescence around the deified figure of the victim. But the social and cultural effect of Christianity was to slowly discredit these sacrificial processes and thereby attenuate their effects.

Hence, while Floyd’s death had something of the same galvanizing effect, this was for the opposite reason: not because his killing was seen as an acceptable sacrifice, but because it was seen as unjust. The result may bring people together not so much in peaceful unity but in recrimination against enemies—who in turn are polarized against them and find their own martyrs to line up behind. Simulacra of the old rituals may be acted out, even on a global scale, but rather than ensuring social reconsolidation, they heighten divisions.

Girard developed the arguments just summarized in a series of books written between 1972 and 2007—a period when the dominant procedures of academic research couldn’t have been more hostile to the type of approach he put into practice. At a time when universal truth claims and sweeping historical narratives were viewed with suspicion, and when the local, the minor, and the marginal were increasingly in fashion, Girard dealt what his countryman and contemporary Jean-François Lyotard called grands récits—rendered in English as “grand narratives.” This was the mode of analysis characteristic of such pioneering modern thinkers as Marx and Freud: overarching accounts of humanity grounded in a single explanatory principle. In his influential 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard argued that such theories had ceased to convince and were fragmenting into smaller, more localized theoretical accounts.

In his own books—notably the comprehensive Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, which appeared just a year before The Postmodern Condition—Girard pushed in the opposite direction, constructing a theoretical apparatus that overtly vied not only to supplant those of Marx and Freud, but to do for culture what Darwin had done for nature. He acknowledged the emergent “postmodern” tendencies towards skepticism and fragmentation noted by Lyotard, but saw in such observations a crucial blind spot: “True enough, the old absolutes have collapsed,” as he wrote in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning—but there was still one exception: the “concern for victims.” Those who believe they have overcome universalism fail to see their adherence to this principle. This is no insignificant blind spot; in it, for Girard, lies the key to all mythologies.

René Girard was born in 1923 in Avignon, where his father was the head curator of the Palais des Papes, the papal residence dating back to the period in the late Middle Ages when the popes were in prolonged exile from Rome. Initially, René seemed set to pursue the same career as his father, and he attended the École des Chartes in Paris, the nation’s premier institution for the training of archivists. His years in the French capital coincided with darkest years of the Nazi occupation of the city and the chaos and privations of its aftermath. The experience left him eager to set out for foreign shores, and he did, taking a position teaching French at Indiana University that launched his career in the United States, where he would remain for the rest of his academic career.

Girard went on to complete a doctorate in history at Indiana on a contemporary subject—American opinion on France during World War II—but was hired to teach French language literature at Duke, Bryn Mawr, and eventually Johns Hopkins. After receiving tenure at Hopkins, he began to range across far broader territory, publishing studies in the 1970s and ’80s covering subjects from ancient Greek tragedy and the Bible to comparative mythology and Shakespeare. These ambitious and pathbreaking projects earned him enough academic celebrity to be hired away from Hopkins. He was ultimately rewarded with an endowed chair at Stanford, where he spent the final decades of his career.

Upon arriving in America in 1913 to proselytize psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud remarked to Carl Jung something like: “They don’t know we’re bringing them the plague.” Girard would retrospectively reach a similar conclusion about his role in organizing the legendary 1966 Johns Hopkins symposium “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” This pivotal event, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, showcased the work of a who’s who of established European luminaries—Freud’s self-appointed successor Jacques Lacan, the philosopher Jean Hyppolite, the critic Roland Barthes—but also young upstarts, including Girard himself and the 36-year-old Jacques Derrida, whose name would later become nearly synonymous with “French theory.”

Derrida’s work was later seen as emblematic, for skeptical observers, of the postmodern turn towards nihilism, relativism, alienating wordplay, and other malign tendencies that reduced the public stature of the academic humanities in America. But “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” as the second half of the event title hints, originally aimed at something else: It sought to introduce to humanistic and social research a formal and even sometimes even mathematical rigor that would accord them the respectability of the hard sciences.

At the time, French intellectual life was dominated by structuralism, the intellectual progeny of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who beginning in the 1930s had endeavored to import the techniques of linguistics to the study of culture more broadly. For instance, he approached cultural prohibitions against incest and certain foods in the way a linguist might approach grammatical rules: as formal constraints that enabled the functioning of a closed system. Later structuralists extended this methodology to the study of literature and other cultural expression.

In the end, the event that was to facilitate structuralism’s arrival in America turned out to be its eclipse. What cast a shadow over it at the Hopkins symposium was the dazzling intervention of the young Derrida, which aimed to show that the whole edifice of structuralism was built on unstable ground, and contained within itself the tools for its own dismantling. The structures it hypothesized were anchored in concepts taken as fixed and unquestionable; once the arbitrariness of the privilege accorded to these terms was revealed, the structures collapsed. After Derrida delivered his paper, structuralism’s fate was sealed: It was passé, overtaken by his own “deconstruction.”

“The intellectual milieu in which Girard launched his career was being reshaped by … paradigm shifts.”

Having played a key role in the initial US reception of “French theory,” Girard later stayed aloof from it as subsequent waves of intellectual influence swept across the Atlantic, carrying in their wake not only Derrida but Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others. Girard pursued a distinct path. While never exactly a structuralist, he continued to be animated by the system-building imperative characteristic of that movement, even as many of his colleagues turned to deconstructing systems (à la Derrida) and eschewing grand narratives (à la Lyotard).

The intellectual milieu in which Girard launched his career was being reshaped by what the historian of science Thomas Kuhn, writing in 1962, designated “paradigm shifts.” As American research universities grew in size and prestige, they rewarded ambitious thinkers who could usher in new paradigms that might redefine a field of research. Girard benefited from these opportunities—as did Derrida, who would spend some of his later career at Yale and then Irvine, and Foucault, who ended up lecturing in Berkeley around the same time Girard took up his professorship across the San Francisco Bay at Stanford. Girard’s proposed paradigm proved less influential than the anti-paradigms purveyed by these contemporaries—which rather than facilitating the production of new knowledge, aimed to call that very possibility into question.

Girard’s first major contribution—and the one he remains best-known for—was the concept of “mimetic desire.” It’s a simple enough idea that Girard summed up as follows: “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” To grasp this claim, though, we must be clear on what he means by “desire”: a human sort of want that goes beyond the fulfillment of needs. We all need food, but what makes some of us willing to spend thousands of dollars on a paltry but beautifully arranged meal prepared by a famous chef? We may need companionship, but what makes a literary figure like Juliet or young Werther commit suicide, short-circuiting the survival instinct, when denied the companionship of a particular individual? Here, we are in the realm of desire, which transcends and may even override our more base-level instinctual needs.

So far, Girard’s observations don’t depart drastically from those of earlier social critics. Take the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who coined terms like “pecuniary emulation” and “conspicuous consumption” to describe people’s tendency to acquire goods in imitation of their social competitors. But Girard, who claimed his ideas were more influenced by the novelists he wrote on—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Dostoevsky—than by prior social theorists, took this line of analysis further. He wasn’t content merely to skewer the superficiality of fads and trends. For him, the mimetic model forces us to rethink modern assumptions about the autonomy of the self.

The initial formulation of Girard’s argument, found in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961) is historically situated in the period roughly beginning with the French Revolution and extending to the outbreak of the First World War, and built on a series of readings of novels written in that timespan (plus one written earlier: Don Quijote). In most accounts, this is the era in which the individual came to prominence in Western society and culture: liberated from irrational authority of the church and the monarchy, endowed with rights, individuals enjoyed the autonomy to define and direct their own lives—so the story goes—for the very first time in history.

For Girard, the discovery of mimetic desire is fatal to this enduringly influential narrative of individual liberation. If human beings “do not know what to desire,” they cannot be autonomous: They must turn to models to find any direction at all. In the more delimited worlds of premodernity, where an individual’s life was circumscribed by social class, hereditary line, family, guild, and other hierarchical structures, the apprenticeship of desire was predetermined: One’s models were provided in advance. The modern world, in liberating the individual from these hierarchies, in fact simply gives him greater leeway in choosing whom to serve. This may look like freedom, but it gives rise to new forms of servitude: enslavement to fashion, to public opinion, to those other individuals in our social milieu we may arbitrarily elevate to the status of a lodestar. This, in Girard’s telling, furnished the subject matter for the greatest modern social novels.

Don Quijote, the inaugural modern novel, is the first book discussed in Deceit, Desire and the Novel not only because it prefigured this entire predicament, but because it has been misread in a way that reveals the “Romantic Lie” of individualism. For the Romantic writers who worshiped Cervantes’s hero two centuries after the novel’s publication, Don Quijote embodied the modern individual: the dreamer and nonconformist who rejects mundane reality and strikes out on his own path—convention be damned. As Girard noted, there was just one problem: This supposed individualist is a rigid devotee of the conventions of chivalric literature and the fictional models he finds there. His superficial individualism is a cover for a lack of autonomy even more drastic than that of the conformists who surround him. The same, in Girard’s analysis, applies to another iconic alienated outsider of modern literature, Emma Bovary: Disgusted with her drab surroundings and stultifying role she is assigned, she trades these in for what she believes is autonomy—but is in fact an abject imitation of the heroines of the pulp novels she reads.

“The era of the individual … is in fact the era of what Girard called the mediator.”

The era of the individual, in other words, is, in fact, the era of what Girard called the mediator: those we designate to “choose the objects of our own desire” on our behalf. Things look dire enough for those like Don Quijote and Emma Bovary, whose mediators are confined to fictional realms. A worse fate awaits those who select their mediators from their own social milieus—those who, in Girard’s term, are enmeshed in internal rather than external mediation.

In internal mediation, my mediator occupies the same social realm as me, and we end up competing over the same objects of desire. When he models my desire, he does so in the act of acquiring or possessing that which I also want by virtue of my self-imposed apprenticeship to him: For instance, he obtains the adulation of the other members of my literary salon, or the affection of the woman whose hand I seek. In this case, he becomes my rival, and his existence comes to torment me, since he is both the source of my sense of self and the obstacle to my fulfillment. Furthermore, my pursuit of my mediator’s objects of desire may infect him with the same rivalrous relation to me, a scenario Girard calls “double mediation.” Such escalation of envy and resentment, Girard shows, is precisely what drives many of the perverse personalities who populate the novels of Dostoevsky and Proust to bizarre acts and psychotic breakdowns.

These ideas have made something of a comeback in recent years for a reason Girard couldn’t have anticipated: They are as apt a framework for describing internet culture in the 2010s as for making sense of the arcane rivalries and petty jealousies of Proustian literary salons of the early 1900s. When we go on any social-media platform, we are led to believe we are expressing our individual identity, but, in fact, we are searching for mediators—and then instantly entering into competition with them over the immaterial rewards offered up by the gamified site: likes, retweets, shares, and so on. Before long, this drives many users to extremes of behavior not dissimilar to the outré perversities and ideological contortions charted by Dostoevsky.

If Girard had stopped with Deceit, Desire, and the Novel or written more books of literary criticism in this vein, “mimetic desire” might be an even more influential concept today. The book was perhaps his best received among academics upon its release, because it pursued a path more amenable to the concerns of his contemporaries than his later work. Debunking modern myths like individualism and autonomy was viewed as nicely aligned in some respects with the deconstructive critiques developed by rising enfants terribles like Derrida.

But there was another side to Girard’s project that made it less in line with this fashionable skepticism. In his examination of novels from Cervantes to Dostoevsky, he discovered a pattern in which the protagonist undergoes a conversion, often but not always explicitly religious. This conversion amounts to a rejection of the false gods he has idolized—that is, the mediators he has modeled his desire after—and a turn away from this “deviated transcendence” toward the real transcendence of Christian faith. Mimetic desire is an illness afflicting modern societies that have lost any transcendent horizon, such that “men become gods in the eyes of each other.” The only remedy found by the novelists who most powerfully document this predicament, according to Girard, is a religious one. Decisively, around the time he wrote his first book, Girard himself underwent such a conversion, becoming a practicing Roman Catholic after decades of agnosticism—a personal turning point that radically reoriented his intellectual life.

In Girard’s second major book, Violence and the Sacred (1972), he expanded the scope of the explanatory framework developed in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and extended its application far back in historical time. He also took up a series of questions largely abandoned by modern thinkers prior to his intervention—which also may seem initially unrelated to his prior interests: What is the origin of religion? What explains the remarkable parallels in myth and ritual across genetically unrelated cultures? What accounts for the prevalence of sacrifice—including human sacrifice—across a wide array of societies? But why, by that token, was sacrifice ultimately abandoned and repudiated in so many societies—not merely modern Western ones?

These questions had driven a great deal of anthropological inquiry in the 18th and 19th centuries, only to be largely abandoned in the 20th century, with a few exceptions. Freud had been perhaps the last major thinker to take them up, but the books in which he did so—Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism—were among his least appreciated. Lévi-Strauss had engaged in the comparison of myth across cultures, but imposed a prohibition on inquiring after the origins of myth, ritual, religion, or culture. The aim of structuralism, as noted before, was to understand the internal workings of cultural systems, not to explain how such systems came into being in the first place. To revisit these grand questions precisely at the moment when the fashion was toward fragmentation and deconstruction was to go against the grain of Girard’s academic milieu.

From Freud, Girard drew two scandalous ideas—and crucially revised them. The first is the Oedipus Complex, which posits sexual rivalry over the mother between father and child as the matrix of all social relationships; the second is the notion of a collective murder as the foundational act of a community, elaborated by Freud late in his career. For Freud, these frameworks have a specific content: The original rivalry is always within the family unit, between father and child; the collective murder is an extension of this theory to the larger social group, where the victim is the “primal father” who monopolizes access to women, and is violently brought down by younger male rivals. Girard evacuated the content of these ideas, retaining only the basic structures: The topic he previously investigated in 19th- and 20th-century literature, mimetic rivalry—the convergence on objects of desire—became a universal of social life and the primary source of its instability; the collective murder—not carried out, as with Freud, against any particular victim but a semi-arbitrary one—enables the temporary resolution of such conflict.

It is here that Girard, while not a structuralist, learned from them: He found in Freud’s work broadly applicable structural models. From Lévi-Strauss, meanwhile, he took the idea that societies, like languages, are governed by complex and often arbitrary-seeming systems of prohibition that often operate unconsciously on their inhabitants, and that myths and rituals are entry points into the deep logic underlying the cultures that give rise to them.

“Because humans are mimetic, conflict spreads contagiously across societies.”

Putting all of this together, we may extract the central thread of Violence and the Sacred. Because human beings are oriented in the world by mimetic desire—because we want what others want or have—conflict inevitably arises when desires converge on the same objects. Further, because humans are mimetic, conflict spreads contagiously across societies. As a result, societies face the very real threat of “war of all against all” and collective immolation. But there is another possibility: Just as division has reached its limit, the community’s violence may instead be channeled toward a single victim, who is murdered or expelled, thereby enabling a cathartic release and a return to unity. This is the scapegoat mechanism or “surrogate-victim mechanism”—after mimetic desire, Girard’s second major contribution to modern thought.

There is an intuitive dimension to this idea: We are all familiar with the notion that “scapegoating” means collectively persecuting an arbitrary victim to fortify in-group solidarity, or the notion of a “fall guy” who is sacrificed to save an organization. The fact that we recognize all this, Girard argued, is the result of a particular historical process. But the crucial point in Violence and the Sacred is that this mechanism is what generates everything we place under the heading of “religion.” The logic for this claim is as follows: In premodern societies, the risk of collapse into envy, rivalry, and internecine conflict was omnipresent and severe (Girard’s references are more remote, but we might think here of how Sicily is represented as constantly decimated by blood vendettas in The Godfather). When the scapegoat mechanism achieves its pacifying effect, this is experienced as a miracle. The victim, who must initially be regarded with disgust to justify the collective murder, is subsequently transfigured into godhood. From this arise myths, which cloak the origin of the god in a mystical aura; rituals, especially sacrifice, which reenact the miraculous resolution; and prohibitions, such as the incest taboo, which aim to forestall the reemergence of social conflict by limiting access to certain objects of desire.

All of this sounds abstract, but it is grounded in a series of interpretations of texts that, for Girard, disclose these social truths. In particular, he drew from the myths of a wide array of societies documented in ancient sources and modern ethnographies, as well as the Bible and ancient Greek tragedy, both of which in his reading document the gradual turning away of their societies from the sacred as generated through purgative scapegoating. From this point on, although he periodically revisited the modern novels that shaped his mimetic hypothesis, particularly Proust, much of his writing would be similarly concerned with ancient texts, mythology, and anthropological literature. However, his guiding question would shift from what generated the sacred in primitive cultures to what has enabled its erosion in the modern world, such that practices like sacrifice are regarded with horror.

The title of Girard’s third major work, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and at the center of the book is a remarkable reassessment of the historical, sociological, and cultural meaning of the Bible. The “things hidden,” in short, are the bodies of victims on which all cultures, since the “foundation of the world,” have been erected. Just as Girard located the source of his insights into mimetic desire in the novels of writers like Stendhal and Proust, in Things Hidden he credited the biblical text with uncovering the nature and function of the “surrogate-victim mechanism” that forms the basis of all human cultures.

In announcing this orientation, Girard discovered the one remaining intellectual taboo: taking Christianity seriously. The great French intellectuals of the 20th century, almost all of them on the left, had drawn heavily from the card-carrying Nazi Martin Heidegger as well as Nietzsche, whose work was tainted by association with fascism; they had excused Stalin’s show trials and fervently admired Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to no damage to their reputations. One thing they hadn’t done, however, was treat the Jewish and Christian scriptures as the height of human intellectual and moral achievement. This is what Girard did in a series of books beginning with Things Hidden, and it produced bewilderment and dismissal from intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, including some who had previously regarded him as a brilliant thinker.

“Girard made plain the scientific ambition of his project.”

Just as damagingly to his reputation in an era when science’s claim to objectivity was being recast as oppressive in fashionable precincts of the academy, Girard made plain the scientific ambition of his project—recall, again, the influence of structuralism and the aspiration to “human sciences” on display at the Johns Hopkins symposium. He stated at the outset of the book that “an ‘Origin of Religions’ would play the same decisive role in the human and social sciences that Darwin’s [On the Origin of Species] has played in the life sciences.” The starting point of the argument is thus evolutionary: How do humans go from creatures of nature, organized by brute dominance hierarchies, to creatures of culture, organized through ritual, myth, and symbolism? The answer, again, is the emergence of the surrogate-victim mechanism as an ad hoc means of resolving internal conflicts, which becomes the point of origin of all religion and culture.

This simultaneous appreciation of the truth claims of revealed religion and modern science may seem surprising, but it proceeds from Girard’s account of how modern scientific knowledge became possible: by a process that passed through Christian revelation. This is because Christianity eroded the entire edifice of human culture that preceded it, which had been built on the periodic sacrificial immolation of surrogate victims. For most of human history, natural disasters—drought, famine, flood, plague—and social turmoil were not seen as distinct, and were met with the same solution: the sacrifice of the surrogate victim. The archaeological record is littered with the corpses of victims immolated to bring relief from famine and pestilence. Only when the surrogate-victim mechanism was deconstructed could new modes of knowledge arise that sought to identify natural causes for natural events, rather than seeing them as proxies for moral judgment.

For Girard, it is only the gradual unveiling of the scapegoat mechanism in the Jewish and Christian scriptures that enables its full dismantling. The result is that it can no longer facilitate the same pacifying social effects, which relied first on the victim’s assumption of guilt for the ills afflicting the society, and then his transfiguration into a beneficent deity on the basis of his having relieved those ills. When the victim is seen as innocent—as are a series of biblical victims from Abel to Joseph to the martyred prophets, culminating in Jesus himself—the operation is demystified and short-circuited. “They know not what they do,” declares Jesus on the cross—but with his revelation complete, scapegoaters no longer have this excuse.

It’s because we now “know what we do” when we scapegoat that it ceases to work as intended. Girard found the evidence for the gradual penetration of Christian advocacy for victims not only in the ubiquity of the modern “concern for victims,” but in common linguistic usages. Consider the word “scapegoat” itself: When we use this term, it signals our intuitive knowledge of the process by which arbitrary, innocent victims are singled out to resolve conflicts. A culture in which the scapegoat mechanism was still effective in resolving conflicts would be blind to this.

Or take the phrase “witch hunt,” which refers to a similar social process. When we refer to something as a witch hunt, the implication is that the accused “witch” is innocent. Cultures that regularly practiced witch hunts had no such presupposition. What distinguishes Christian civilization, for Girard, isn’t that it has engaged in a great deal of scapegoating—of Jews, of accused witches—at points in its history, but that it underwent a process of gradual demystification, enabled by the founding insights of scripture. What’s notable, for instance, is not that 17th-century Christians burned witches, but that barely two centuries later, this act was looked back at with horror and incomprehension. For most, this is the work of the Enlightenment. For Girard, it is Christianity that dissolves the moral basis of the surrogate victim mechanism, and by doing so makes possible the modern world’s achievements.

Unfortunately, none of this means that scapegoating and related forms of violence cease to occur. Instead, the opposite may happen. Because they fail to produce the desired cathartic effect due to the bad conscience they inspire, we may engage in them with greater and greater intensity. This, in any case, is one way to think about “cancel culture,” a social dynamic that has no endpoint, because each cancelation, far from bringing about resolution, occasions a bloodthirsty demand for more sacrifice—like ancient cultures that, when their sacrifices failed to appease the angry gods, responded by multiplying the number of slaughtered victims to an industrial scale.

There is another loophole by which scapegoating may be re-legitimated under the sign of the post-Christian “concern for the victim.” Paradoxically, the best alibi for scapegoating someone is to accuse them of scapegoating others; hence, the targets of cancel culture tend to be pilloried for sins against the victim class, which, in turn, legitimates their own victimization. In other words, as Girard said in a late interview, combine the modern concern for victims and the continued addiction to scapegoating, and you end up with “a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.” This machine, for him, was the image of the Antichrist.

At the outset of the cycle of myths that make up Aschylus’s Oresteia, Agamemnon ritually sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, to calm the winds hindering his army’s advance to Troy. The trick initially works—but it also leads to his own murder by his wife, Clytemnestra, which triggers a spiraling tit-for-tat vendetta that nearly consumes the entire family. This episode offers an illustration of what Girard called a “sacrificial crisis”: a point at which sacrifice not only fails to reconsolidate social peace but exacerbates conflict. The victim, rather than assuming the community’s violence and enabling its transcendence, becomes another trigger for retaliatory violence. The cycle may continue until an adequate victim is found.

But the Oresteia reveals another possibility that corresponds to the social evolution of ancient Greek society: The goddess Athena, embodying the Athenian justice system, intervenes to save Agamemnon’s matricidal son, Oresetes, from the vengeful Furies, bringing the cycle of mimetic violence to a close. This resolution allegorizes the emergence of forms of conflict resolution dependent not on sacrificial violence, but on neutral arbitration and the rule of law. Although for Girard, Chistianity is unique in its debunking the scapegoat mechanism underlying sacrifice, he argued that various other societies, including Greece, had moved towards non-sacrificial modes of maintaining social peace.

“Girard diverges sharply from the social-contract theory of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.”

Girard diverges sharply from the social-contract theory of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau that has informed a great deal of modern thought, according to which social order is forged by the rational deliberation of individuals. The “war of all against all” is indeed a real threat that hovers over all societies, but for much of human history it was resolved not by a social contract, but by the shift to the “war of all against one” enabled by sacrificial violence. The erosion of the sacrificial order set in motion by Christianity, he argued, ensured the widespread embrace of other modes of conflict resolution of the sort pioneered in ancient Athens: notably, the modern legal system, with its protections for the accused.

Accordingly, Girard’s work cautions against an embrace of antagonism unmediated by procedure and the rule of law—even if there are reasons to treat claims of procedural neutrality as suspect—because the dynamics of mimetic conflict are so dangerous. These institutions and processes are flawed, but his work suggests that because of the irreversible discrediting of sacrifice, they are the only alternative social technologies we possess to protect us against our violence. At the same time, though, they are fragile, subject to erosion on the basis of the concern for the victim: Witness the recent reframing of the criminal-justice system, an imperfect set of mechanisms for preserving social order, as a pure instrument of racial persecution.

The only further alternative, beyond the abyss of spiraling mimetic conflict, is the example provided by Jesus: to categorically renounce our violence. But Girard was a believing Catholic, not a political utopian: Achieving the Kingdom of God requires the apocalyptic completion of the Christian revelation. In his last book, Battling to the End (2007), he found a surprising guide to the apocalypse in the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who at the dawn of the modern era glimpsed the inevitability of mimetic polarization on a global scale in the absence of restraining institutions. “More than ever,” Girard remarked there, “I am convinced that history has meaning—and that its meaning is terrifying.” René Girard’s body of work offers immense insight, but little comfort.