René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Until his death in 2015, René Girard was one of France’s most illustrious philosophers, whose works encompassed topics as varied as economics and mythology, literary criticism and anthropology, sociology and theology. He was a two-time winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship, a recipient of numerous honorary degrees from universities across the Western world, and in 2005 the Académie Française named him one of their distinguished “Les Immortals” members. He is best known today for developing the “mimetic theory of desire,” according to which human beings do not necessarily possess autonomous desires but “learn” to desire based on the wants of other people. This mutual desire gives way to inevitable conflict, because too many people coveting too few objects leads inevitably to rivalries and, ultimately, violence. This violence can only be avoided or ended by the designation of a scapegoat, someone who comes to bear the collective burden of the community’s wrath, and must be killed or driven off to put an end to the conflict.

Girard claims to have arrived at his theory through both a study of mythology and the great works of world literature – Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are frequent touchstones – but he regards the Bible as being a radical break from mythology in this regard, for it did not merely represent mimetic desire, as he claims all prior mythologies do, but successfully unmasked it as being the underlying cause of “all against all” violence. In Girard’s lifetime, the vogue approach to the Bible involved demonstrating its debt to mythology, pointing out the similarities between pagan myths and Christian dogma, and thereby treating the Bible as of a piece with human mythology more generally. Girard radically broke with his contemporaries in emphasizing, not the similarities between the Bible and mythology, but the differences. The Biblical tradition, he claims, “punctures a universal delusion and reveals a truth never revealed before, the innocence not only of Jesus but of all similar victims.” In Girard’s vocabulary, the Bible upends the usual victim mechanism, finding fault not with the scapegoat but his accusers. He points out that the Greek word for the “Spirit of God” used in the Bible is “Paraclete,” which translates literally to “advocate” or “helper,” but which also signifies “the lawyer for the defense,” whereas Satan is “the accuser.”

In the chapter entitled “The Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana,” Girard makes the contrast between pagan mythology and Biblical philosophy obvious by comparing a celebrated pagan myth, recounted in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, and the instructions of Jesus. In the pagan myth, a plague epidemic has swept through the city of Ephesus, and the helpless citizenry, having exhausted all the natural remedies they know, turn to the philosopher-mystic Apollonius, who leads them to a local temple and points to a blind beggar, “clad in rags and squalid of countenance.” Apollonius then instructs the citizenry to pick up stones and hurl them at “this enemy of the gods,” even as the old man begs for mercy. With Apollonius’ encouragement, some initial stones are thrown, and the beggar seems to change before the eyes of the crowd, so that “his eyes were full of fire.” As more and more of the crowd join in, the beggar is transformed into a demon, and they stone him until his body is broken and covered in stones. Finally, Apollonius instructs them to remove the stones, whereupon they discover not the body of a beggar but a “wild animal,” a hound or dog “but in size the equal of the largest lion.” For the pagan worshippers of Apollonius, this was a miracle, but for Girard it is nothing of the kind, merely the uniting of the group against the individual, and a temporary relief from anarchic violence at the expense of an innocent life. The plague of Ephesus, Girard tells us, “is not necessarily bacterial. It is an epidemic of mimetic rivalries, an interweaving of scandals, a war of all against all, which, thanks to the victim selected by the diabolical cleverness of Apollonius, is transformed ‘miraculously’ into a reconciliation of all against one.” Compare this myth to John 8:3-11, which I will quote in full:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman taken in adultery. Placing her in view of everyone, they said to Jesus, “Master, this woman was surprised in the act of adultery. Moses commanded us in the Law to stone such women. Now what do you say about it?” They said this to set a trap for him, in order to be able to accuse him. But Jesus, bending down, started writing with his finger on the ground. As they were insistent, he drew up and said to them: “Let whoever is without sin among you cast the first stone at her!” And, bending down again, he once more began to write on the ground. When he said this, they withdrew one by one, beginning with the oldest. Jesus remained, alone with the woman, who was still there. Then, standing up again, he said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord,” she answered. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said. “Go, and sin no more.”

We scarcely need Girard to point out the differences, they leap out at us so: the first is the story of a stoning; the second the story of a stoning averted. In the first myth, the prophet plays the role of instigator, motivating an unmoved crowd to commit murder; in the Biblical account, Jesus is met with a hostile crowd, and defuses their anger by denying them the right to murder. Girard even focuses our attention on the murder weapon, not a stone or all the stones, but the first stone, the one that would give the crowd permission to indulge in scapegoating. “Jesus explicitly mentions the first stone. In fact, he emphasizes it as much as he can since he places it at the very end of his one-sentence intervention, prolonging its echo as long as possible, one might say, in the memory of his hearers.” According to Girard’s mimetic theory, the first person to cast a stone would be a model, someone whose behaviour can and should be emulated, and by preventing the casting of the first stone, Jesus “prevents the violent contagion from getting started.” The crowd is left to disperse and contemplate their own sins.

For Girard, the Bible is not unique because it shares a representation of mimetic violence with the myths of the pagan past; it is unique because it exposes the immoral mechanisms undergirding pagan mythology, and offers, in the mimetic model of Jesus, a better alternative: a victim so obviously blameless that his murder is an indictment of all humanity, and his resurrection the promise of our possible redemption – provided we follow his example. As a work of moral philosophy, even to my secular mind, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning was insightful, even paradigm-shifting, but it was its final chapter, “The Modern Concern for Victims,” that cemented my respect for Girard as a modern thinker. Contemporary politics, not to mention journalism and academia, is positively obsessed with victims and victimization, but Girard dares to notice two aspects of this modern mania that have largely gone unremarked upon: first, that “our concern for victims is the secular mask of Christian love,” a continuation of religious sentiment without the religious recourse to absolution; and second, that “the victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors.” Both Left and Right today are devolving into competing victim narratives, and the result of their continued descent down this path will be, as Girard terms it, a war of all against all. In his analysis of the Bible and the example of Christ, Girard has discovered a profound truth about the nature of violence – one that may yet save us.