Mythos, Logos, and the Lamb of God: René Girard on the Scapegoat Mechanism

Introduction

On another occasion, I employed Hesiod’s contradictory characterizations of Saturn in the Theogony and Works and Days to inquire into the seeming paradox of a filicidal tyrant simultaneously ruling over the fabled Golden Age of the world. Hesiod’s account served as a representative of the concurrent narratives of decadence and progress that often confront us in myth.[1] “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne in his well-known meditation,[2] and neither is a myth, nor is myth as such. Indeed, myth represents, through imagery, structures of meaning that are ultimately homogeneous with the human psyche and the world at large. Research into myth, therefore, is also research into the researcher. In some ways, this tension between Hesdiod’s paradoxical accounts must indeed be expected by anyone who attends to the more intimate levels of his own experience. All around us, order is continually perishing into oblivion, while at the same time, new forms are continually springing forth. Each instant is both the tomb of what came before and the womb of tomorrow. Creation, like the Phoenix, is at once going up in flames and taking birth from its own ashes. The seasons exchange and also interpenetrate: “Hades is Dionysius.”[3] Lift a lifeless autumn leaf and discover next year’s embryo. Silence is both the death and the womb of speech. Each step we trod bears us closer to our own graves, the way lit before us by the golden light of childhood. And yet, in our steady march towards death, all the while we evolve new abilities and articulate new dimensions of ourselves. As a result, we die both less and more. We construct the temple of history and discard all unused potential—all the roads not traveled. But the stone which we rejected as builders may become the cornerstone of the temple to come. This was indeed something of a conclusion for the last inquiry into this subject. The wind which once wove through ancient groves and oracles to fill the lungs of prophets with poetic inspiration, though it can still be heard to blow, has since grown barren of its divine power:

Silence has come upon some and utter desolation upon others.[4]

But in the Palestine of the heart, the Saviour has been born. In the desert, the tomb is empty. With the same steps that lead us from the Garden, we also draw ever nearer to the Heavenly City. These stories put a mirror before our own souls, and if we fail to behold our likenesses, then it is not because we have been denied the sign.

I quoted Owen Barfield in the piece from several years ago, and his words seems as apt today as they did then:

In the course of the earth’s history, something like a Divine Word (Lógos) has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created—so that what was first spoken by God may eventually be respoken by man.[5]

Barfield points to an “inwardization,” or a simultaneous intensification and consolidation of subjectivity, that has transpired over the evolution of humanity and whose results characterize the structure of our souls today. In fact, just because of this represents what is normal to us, we hardly notice it, having no foil to set it off. I attempted to show in the last piece both the immense significance that any number of traditional mythologies bear within them as well as the fact that they can reveal the singularity of the Christian one in sharp relief directly they are arrayed before us for consideration. On that occasion, I attempted to present this difference diachronically: as an evolution through history such that the warlord ethos of the Greek gods in the theogony was overcome by Jesus on the Cross, and simultaneously, the entire multitude of conflicting gods and goddesses are brought under and single rule, but in a way that was antithetical to the manner by which Zeus achieved his provisional regency by vanquishing his father. This is the theme I wish to develop in the exploration to follow, but from a different angle.

I am not the first to suggest that the Christian mythos is unique and even antithetical to all others. Barfield, together with his fellow Inklings J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, suggested that the Gospels presented a mythos that distinguished itself from all others in that it was also historically true. Rudolf Steiner dedicated a substantial part of his work towards investigating and explicating this interpenetration of the archetypal and the historical worlds in Christ: “Christianity as mystical fact” is how Steiner expressed it in the title of his collection of seminal lectures on the subject in 1908.

Another thinker who revealed a particularly striking manner in which this is true, and whose work has largely kindled the inspiration for the present chapter, was René Girard. I will attempt a brief outline of Girard’s theories of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism and try to show how they illuminate further dimensions of the paradox that I indicated in the prior chapter. On that occasion, this paradox of simultaneous progress and regress was the question I posed and “the unreliable narrator” was the answer that I proposed in an attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction in Saturn being both a filicidal tyrant and also the ruler of the Golden Age. I do not feel the need to reject this proposition with the present exploration, but I do hope to deepen it.

In fact, the proposition that the myth of Saturn and Jupiter should be recounted by an “unreliable narrator” at once affirms too little and too much. It should really be affirmed that, relative to conventional expectations, all myth is “unreliable.” But this is less of an indictment of myth than of our naïve belief in the “objectivity” of our contemporary views, which are largely framed in the language of science. Neither Homer nor Hesiod, for instance, believed to be offering “view-from-nowhere” accounts that are the conceit of contemporary cosmologies. This would have been inconceivable to an oral culture, for which a narration was never encountered in abstraction from a narrator. The inspired bard was an aperture to the internal structure of the world; a well from which cosmic revelation poured forth in the form of speech and song. “You are the music/While the music lasts,” as Eliot put it.[6] At the same time, the unreliable narrator charge is not a fair one because the bards did not pretend to do what this accusation presumes. Their accounts are more truthful than any of our interpretations that begin with false premises about them can ever be. To rectify these premises, it will be necessary not to assume the anatomised and detached outlook of modern people. Myth cannot be read in the language of abstraction. For this reason, our first task will be to attune our interpretation to the language of myth, and elaborate theories that do not leave us deaf to it. I believe that a number of Girard’s theories can prove immensely fruitful in this respect so it is to his work that this exploration will now turn.

To gain entrance into the myths, it will be necessary to offer up before the gates a number of our usual theoretical appurtenances. The same theories in which the myths appear as mere fantasy will be ill-suited to reveal the truth that they contain. It is no longer possible to grasp the truth of something which I have already determined to be false. Furthermore, it will also be necessary that we refrain from projecting contemporary concepts and scientific paradigmata onto ancient people. Today we assume a conception of the world that is constituted by categorical divisions between society and nature, mind and world, psyche and cosmos, etc. with such naturalness that only rarely do we question whether our paradigms are not the same thing as brute facts. Science itself is often billed as the arbiter of such facts, and its history as a steady and progressive march of discovery. The domains that our sciences have so neatly parsed, and which we imagine to exist in independence and in isolation from one another and to offer themselves conveniently for our research, were experienced in an entirely different way before modern times. For the ancients, these seemingly separate spheres of life were part of an integral and homogeneous experience.

Perhaps an example will serve to make this clearer. René Girard describes the manner in which the to our eyes grotesque connection can be drawn between the arrival of a figure like Oedipus in Thebes and the sudden outbreak of violence, plagues, and famines in the city. The relation must indeed appear improbable because it appears to relate the moral failure of Oedipus with collective strife of both social and natural kind. The most intelligent thinkers of today would waste no time in identifying it as an example of the “naturalistic fallacy” and summarily dismiss it as anything that warrants further consideration outside of serving as a mere literary artifice. But Girard shows that the connection between the moral and the natural will at once reveal its eminent rationality if we are able to supplement what is explicit in such stories with what is merely assumed in a tacit way and therefore usually overlooked. To achieve insight into this connection, it will be necessary briefly to review Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, its immediate corollary of mimetic violence, and the theory of the scapegoat mechanism as the panacea for societies on the verge of self-destruction. Girard’s thought is infinitely richer and more subtle than this brief survey can represent, and the interested reader is encouraged to engage with Girard’s work directly.

Mimetic desire, mimetic violence, and the scapegoat mechanism

As a groundwork for understanding the crux of Girard’s work, it is necessary first to come to terms with his theory of mimetic desire. In brief, this is the theory that desire is not a function of value or of scarcity, as contemporary economists are wont to affirm. Instead, Girard identifies desire as a function of imitation. Our tacit assumptions remain to this day largely shaped by the beliefs of such philosophers as John Locke and Adam Smith. As a result, most of us, if pressed, would likely affirm value to be a something like a function of (a) a combination of time and intensity of labour with (b) scarcity of the resource on which that labour is exerted. Value, in turn, serves to attract our desire in this view, which is the basis of the liberal and laissez-faire philosophies that largely inform the outlook of contemporary society. But Girard shows that, despite constituting a plausible theory, this conception of desire fails to sustain itself with a solid evidential foundation. Indeed, the theory of desire grounded in labor and scarcity succumbs to the characteristic source of error for so many of the doctrines of the liberal philosophers: namely, it assumes as its point of departure a concept of human nature that has very little to do with human nature as it is actually found. In this case, as in so many others, the liberal theory of desire and value entirely neglects the fact that “the sovereign individual” is an abstraction from concrete reality, in which our social relations are also constitutive of us as individuals and not mere accidents to our existence. We know this because we use language and language is essentially social. Thus, pace Locke and Smith, value is not merely a function of labour and scarcity. Instead, as Girard argues, we confer value on things according to whether our peers and role-models—those whom we wish to imitate—place value on those things. Desire, therefore, is not something that we calculate, but something we learn, and we learn it by imitating others. Thus, desire is mimetic.

Advertisers know this, and it is only theoreticians who imagine otherwise. For instance, it is comparatively useless for marketing purposes for a brand to emphasize how many hours of labour go into creating and refining their product, etc. and it is also comparatively ineffective to indicate the scarcity of the raw materials that are its ingredients. Instead, an effective marketer must simulate the desire for that product in other people with whom the consumer feels some affinity and will thus be inclined to regard as peers or models. All liquor advertisements confirm this theory to the letter. The history of the diamond industry also provides an exemplary demonstration of mimetic desire in action. In order to create a demand for diamonds amongst consumers, it was not sufficient merely to feign the scarcity of this comparatively common gem. Instead it was necessary to create the illusion that other women desired diamond rings from their fiancés. The artifice was quickly imitated by reality following the operation of mimetic desire as Girard described it.

An immediate conclusion can be inferred from the theory of mimetic desire, and Girard shows that it is a theory that is born out by the wealth of anthropological evidence. Namely, if we learn desire by imitating other people, success in the first thing will place us in competition with the second. Thus, rivalry follows as a matter of course from mimetic desire because imitation leads to the convergence of many people around a single object of desire. Consequently, the theory of mimetic desire has as its immediate corollary the theory of mimetic violence. Phrased in a more accurate and more figurative way: mimetic desire tends to generate friction. A single spark from the latter will at once set off a concatenation of violence and retaliation that threatens to consume the entire society in a conflagration of mimetic violence. Social harmony is extremely precarious. Its stability is an illusion and the reality is that few things are more volatile than the passions of a mob.

One remedy against the constant threat of mimetic holocaust has been the establishment of social hierarchy. Such ramparts of propriety function like firewalls. Thus, the spread of mimetic violence may be staunched by the barrier of various forms of stratification. But firewalls often prove ineffective in practice and it is the same with the subject of this comparison. In fact, stratification is merely a specific form of social differentiation. Differentiation itself is the polar antithesis to violence. Put another way, violence consists in precisely the eradication of difference. Violence against another is to transgress the integrity of his person, and the archetypal event of murder is a fortiori a quintessential transgression of this sort. Penetrating to the essential core of violence as such reveals its strange and inverted identity with sex and just as the erradication of difference in general bears an important affinity with love. Suffice it here to note this connection, to establish that it is not a proper identity, and then to move on to explore the theme at hand because a great deal more could be written on this topic than can be contained within the scope of the present study.

Clearly, differentiation and social hierarchy alone are insufficient to staunch the spread of mimetic violence. As long as mimetic desire constitutes an essential element of the human psyche, the cause of such an outbreak is continually present. The best that such measures can offer is a temporary reprieve. They must be thought of as palliatives and not as salvation. The quest for more effective palliatives to remedy this constant threat has led all societies around the globe to converge on a single one. Indeed, it might be hypothesized that any society that did not discover this remedy did not manage to survive the outbreak of violence and therefore left posterity no evidence of its existence. The Sphinx posed a riddle at the gates of evolution and any culture that failed to provide the single answer was devoured where it stood. The commonality of a single answer across such a diversity of cultures is difficult to discern because of the myriad ways in which setting and circumstance inflect its essential form. The genius of Girard was to articulate the theory that can now allow us to recognize it in any of its instances. This is infinitely easier than attempting to arrive at the principle by way of its instances, since it is only in light of the principle that we are able to recognize the instances for what they are. When I mentioned the one remedy above, I was, of course, referring to the scapegoat mechanism.

To understand the efficacy of the scapegoat mechanism, we must first picture a society in the throes of mimetic violence, in which all differences have been transgressed and all hierarchy abolished. On may invoke the image that begin Shakepseare’s Romeo and Juliet as an illustration. Ordinarily, a man may have a handful of enemies, but social differentiation, stratification, and hierarchy ensure that his desires will not converge on the same object as everyone else and as a result, he need not consider every other person as a potential rival. But whenever the pot of mimetic desire boils over into mimetic violence, the integrity of these differences are at once put to the test, and invariably they will be found wanting. In Romeo and Juliet, the feud between the Montagues and the Capuletes has not yet managed to transgress all social ramparts and, as a result, the Prince is able to at once restore order with his presence since none of the parties to the havoc is able to view him as their peer. If this bulwark against violence is breached, however, and the surge of mimetic violence is allowed to abolish these hierarchical differences, a war of all against all will ensue, and utter holocaust will be the inevitable result. The only way for a society to arrest this tendency to self-annihilation is to polarize all of the violence upon a single victim. This polarization has the effect of transmuting total animosity into unanimity. The scapegoat provides the only escape, and his blood “purifies” the society of all of its bad blood. Girard pursues these notions of “blood” and “purity” in extensive depth to reveal how all of the rituals, taboos, and proscriptions that appear as mere superstition before our eyes actually stem from this inexorable logic of the ineluctability of mimetic violence and its only known remedy.

Of course, it is not feasible to enumerate all of Girard’s arguments and evidence on this occasion. Suffice it to analyse one particularly egregious example of such apparent superstition to expose this underlying logic. Let us consider the pervasive notion of sacrifice to the gods to appease them so that they will bestow their blessings in the form of crop-yield and fertility. First, we must take care not to be led astray by false conceptions we might entertain of gods. It can often be shown that a god of one day was a mortal of the day before. As a result, it might be imagined that folk religions are sacrificing to memories of a distant ancestor. This would represent a genetic fallacy, however, unless the ancestor is understood to be the image or symbol of a cosmological power, in which case, the significance would deserve our attention and not the medium by which it is signified. The happy isolationism of the god of the Deists is entirely foreign to all traditional thought. To the unprejudiced eye looking on the natural world, nothing could be less obvious than the modernist conviction that it operates according to a plan of abstract mathematical laws universal over space and laid down on the first day of Creation. Rather, nature appears everywhere alive and multitudinous, which every element striving to realize itself against all others. No sooner has the blossom emerged than it begins to decay. The crests of order rise and fall again into the sea of chaos. These terms are already shadowy abstractions. Instead, we can see in the world the same mix of predictability and apparent capriciousness that characterizes the average inter and intra-personal relations. Indeed, nothing could be more straightforward than to adopt the prima facie assumption that the world and the human beings that indwell it are homogeneous in a basic sense, and therefore to conceptualize natural processes by analogy with human ones should strike us as a very rational approach. When it fails to do this, it may be because we no longer derive our theories from real life but from theoretical abstraction, pace modern scientific types who profess to be “evidence-based.”

Returning then to the scene of a society on the brink of mimetic holocaust: it is, to begin with, no wonder that crops would cease to produce if everyone is at each other’s throats. Moreover, it is understood that our understanding selects for and conditions which phenomena we regard as evidence—“all observation is theory-laden.” Thus, to a people caught up in a frenzy of mimetic violence, those natural events which “fit their mood,” so to speak, will be granted salience while those which do not will simply be passed over as “noise” that is disregarded for the sake of the “signal.” The one in anguish will notice the fact of the thunderstorm and not its resolution, as it were. Each perspective is both true and false so it is impertinent to evaluate perceptions of this sort according to whether we agree with them. The ability of a society to set up a lightning rod of sorts that can channel all of the divine wroth to a single point will divert this destructive impulse from swallowing up the society itself.

If we can draw together all of these ideas in a sort of synoptic vision, then it will strike us with great force that the scapegoat mechanism accomplishes just this. By placing all of the blame onto a single being, all of the people could become unanimous. As a result, they can begin again to cooperate in the sowing, in the hunt, and in the harvest and so on. Their perceptual bias shifts towards optimistic portents (again this is not a question of correctness but of facts about the nature of perception; modern science is just as one-sided). The rainbow receives salience and not the tempest. The sacrifice was accepted and the gods are pleased.

Girard argues that, though such sacrifices may assume an infinite variety of outer forms, they all represent ritualistic elaborations of the original human scapegoat, who was the victim of collective murder. The only criteria for selecting a suitable victim of sacrifice were that (a) he be capable of magnetizing all violence to himself and (b) that he be incapable of retaliation. The first was the necessary condition to achieve the condition of unanimity, which, albeit temporary, represents the restoration of social harmony following an outbreak of mimetic violence. The second was necessary because retaliation is precisely the way by which one act of violence compounds and propagates itself so that a single insult can threaten to engulf the entire community in bloodshed. The scapegoat’s lack of ability to retaliate was necessary to ensure that his own death would indeed mark the end of that particular cycle. If the scapegoat was capable of retaliation—for instance, if his close relatives or clan members failed to participate in the spirit of unanimity behind his death—then the cycle of violence would only immediately be reignited.

It is my hope that this section has successfully outlined some of the essential elements of the scapegoat mechanism as articulated by René Girard. In the next section, I will attempt to show how Girard, like Barfield, Steiner, and others, saw the Crucifixion of Christ as the final and universal sacrifice, after which further scapegoating must be seen as retrogressive. Thus, while the scapegoat mechanism was a palliative for mimetic violence, Christ was the ultimate scapegoat and his sacrifice, therefore, was our salvation and deliverance from the sins of our fathers, which otherwise we only propagate down the generations. In respect to Girard’s theories, Christ was everywhere at once the limiting case and the reconciliation of all opposites. The violence is extreme, the innocence of the victim is absolute, and his divine forgiveness washes away all threat of retaliation. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Developing this thesis will be my task in the next and final section of this study.*

The Passion of Christ as the consummation of, and deliverance from, the scapegoat mechanism

Hitherto, I have attempted to sketch an outline of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, its ineluctable progression to collective violence, and its traditional and universal palliative in the application of the scapegoat mechanism. To recapitulate, human beings are relational by nature and therefore, we do not form our desire in abstracto from the people and culture around us. In fact, quite on the contrary, we are educated in our desires by imitating those people. Because desire is mimetic in this way, the desire of any group will always tend to converge on a single object. As a result, relations of imitation will everywhere threaten to devolve into relations of rivalry. A model of today is an adversary of tomorrow. From this condition, the slightest offence is sufficient to engulf a society in an inferno of reciprocal and collective violence. Girard marshals anthropological evidence from the myths of dozens of traditions around the world to uncover the panacea for this constant threat. To stave off imminent destruction by collective violence, it was expedient to channel all animosity towards a single victim. This was accomplished by construing the latter as the sole culprit for all of the conflict. In other words, some iteration of the scapegoat mechanism was present in all of the cultures that Girard surveyed, despite its true nature often being concealed behind a veneer of ritual and mythological imagination.

Indeed, Girard notes that the effectiveness of the scapegoat mechanism depends on the ability to sustain the illusion that the victim is in fact guilty of the charges that are laid upon him. In other words, the scapegoat mechanism depends on a subversion of truth for it to function. Thus, the blame for all ills that beset a community—plagues, strife, famines, wars, deaths, etc.—are periodically ascribed to the sins of a single individual, who is then unanimously sacrificed. It is precisely the spirit of unanimity that is the crucial achievement of the scapegoat mechanism. As I noted in the last section, this can be difficult for the reader of modern sensibility to perceive. After all, how could the Thebans be so gullible as to believe that Oedipus’ moral lapses were to account for the plagues and natural disasters that afflicted their city? Girard, in his usual fashion, addresses this concern with admirable clarity:

Admittedly, scapegoats cure neither real epidemics nor droughts nor floods. But the main dimension of every crisis is the way in which it affects human relations. A process of bad reciprocity is its own initiator; it gains nourishment from itself and has no need of external causes in order to continue. As long as external causes exist, such as an epidemic of plague for example, scapegoats will have no efficacy. On the other hand, when these causes no longer exist, the first scapegoat to appear will bring an end to the crisis by eliminating all the interpersonal repercussions in the concentration of all evildoing in the person of one victim. The scapegoat is only effective when human relations have broken down in crisis, but he gives the impression of effecting external causes as well, such as plagues, droughts, and other objective calamities.[7]

Plutarch, in his biography of Romulus, offers a very suggestive account of the scapegoat mechanism in action:

Then a plague fell on the land, bringing unexpected death to people without sickness, also infecting the crops with barrenness and making the cattle stop reproducing. Drops of blood rained on the city too which added great superstition to the compulsory suffering.

When similar things happened to the people in Laeurentum, it seemed obvious to everyone that it was the crime against justice over Tatius and the murdered ambassadors which drove divine rage against the cities. Once the murderers were surrendered and punished on both sides, the horrors clearly ebbed. Romulus also cleansed the city with purificatory rites which people allege are still celebrated in our time at the Ferentine gate.

XXIV. Ἐκ τούτου λοιμὸς ἐμπίπτει, θανάτους μὲν αἰφνιδίους ἀνθρώποις ἄνευ νόσων ἐπιφέρων, ἁπτόμενος δὲ καὶ καρπῶν ἀφορίαις καὶ θρεμμάτων ἀγονίαις. ὕσθη δὲ καὶ σταγόσιν αἵματος ἡ πόλις, ὥστε πολλὴν προσγενέσθαι τοῖς ἀναγκαίοις πάθεσι δεισιδαιμονίαν. ἐπεὶ δὲ καὶ τοῖς τὸ Λαύρεντον οἰκοῦσιν ὅμοια συνέβαινεν, ἤδη παντάπασιν ἐδόκει τῶν ἐπὶ Τατίῳ συγκεχυμένων δικαίων ἐπί τε τοῖς πρέσβεσι φονευθεῖσι μήνιμα δαιμόνιον ἀμφοτέρας ἐλαύνειν τὰς πόλεις. ἐκδοθέντων δὲ τῶν φονέων καὶ κολασθέντων παρ᾿ ἀμφοτέροις, ἐλώφησεν ἐπιδήλως τὰ δεινά· καὶ καθαρμοῖς ὁ Ῥωμύλος ἥγνισε τὰς πόλεις, οὓς ἔτι νῦν ἱστοροῦσιν ἐπὶ τῆς Φερεντίνης πύλης συντελεῖσθαι.

Because of its efficacy, we will always fall back on the scapegoat mechanism as long as we can sustain the pretense that the victim is guilty as charged. We must allow ourselves to entertain the specious belief in a single solution to complex problems, and offing a scapegoat promises a “quick-fix” to resolve all discord. Traditional narratives are designed to fortify this illusion. In other words, their function is to propagate the spirit of unanimity that the murder of the scapegoat achieved by concealing the actual source of this unanimity. Often this suppression of the scapegoat mechanism is undertaken with the same unconscious conviction that polarizes a crowd to condemn an innocent victim in the first place. But that it goes unnoticed does not negate its existence. Indeed, it may be all the more operative as it is less noted: “A text in which there is little mention of the scapegoat effect is more likely to be dominated by it, since it is less capable of identifying its controlling principle,” as Girard observes.[8] In an earlier study, I suggested that there is something incredible about the account that Hesiod offers about generational succession of gods in the Theogony. In fact, the account he gives in Theogony explicitly contradicts the one he appears to give in Works and Days. I suggested that a theory to explain this discrepancy is to read those accounts from the perspective that the narrator is “unreliable.” Obviously, the real fantasy is not in the myths but in the notion that any narrator could be “reliable” in the naïve conception of that term. I think this conception is best characterized as a narration in a “view-from-nowhere” perspective, which could not be more alien to traditional oral cultures. One need only picture the actual concrete performance of any of these stories that we inherit from the yonder side of history’s horizon, and it will be unremittingly clear that there could be no speech without a speaker. In this way, the myths are truer than modern cosmological theories because they do not pretend to offer the kind of account for which they are not capable. Modern scientific conceits, by contrast, encourage us to leave ourselves out of our theories in the name of objectivity. Nevertheless, these scientific theories remain transcendentally beholden to the very subjects that they seek to exclude and thus they must always remain incomplete. Just as Girard has offered us a theory in whose light the truth of the myths can be disclosed, so researchers of the future will have to look on this “disappearing act” at the heart of modern science as the key to unlock the “anti-myths” of that institution. The concealment of the scapegoat mechanism is the hidden logic of traditional myths and the erasure of the theorist is the crux around which the theories of science constellate. This is evidently a separate topic and therefore it must suffice to note it in passing for the purpose of revealing the nature of myth in sharper relief. Returning to Hesiod’s Theogony: it is to be expected that the characterization of Kronos-Saturn as a depraved devourer of his own offspring is a sociological device that serves the function of prolonging the social cohesion that followed his collective murder. If mythos is regarded with the proper logos, it is true.

After establishing the logos of mythos, Girard notes the exceptions to it. These he finds almost exclusively amongst the Jewish and Christian narratives. Thus, he is able to present a polarity of two basic principles that function antagonistically amongst traditional stories. The first is the “mythologizing” impulse and the second, the “anti-mythologizing” or “revelatory” one. The first is defined by its being an account from the perspective of the perpetrators, the second from by their victim. It will be clear, for instance, that the myth of Theogony falls roundly in the first hole, while the Gospels represent the quintessential revelatory text. For Girard, the distinction between myth and revelation is tantamount to a polarity between dissemblance for the sake of social or political expediency and testament to the truth irrespective of the consequences.

It is often forgotten that for the evangelists to proclaim the gospels did not ingratiate them to any established worldly powers or religious traditions. There was nothing “expedient” about it in any traditional sense of that term. Quite on the contrary, to preach the gospel was to risk one’s life for the sake of bearing witness against the lie of scapegoating, as the etymology and connotation of the word “martyr” suggests.[9] Thus, revelatory speech is always subversive to a political order that is founded on its suppression. Girard notes that Caiaphas, chief priest of the Sanhedrin, whose members were responsible for apprehending Jesus on false charges, appears to vindicate Girard’s own theories when the priest exclaims in the famous passage from John 11: “Ye know nothing at all! Ye do not realize that it is expedient that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”[10] Girard comments:

Caiaphas is stating the same political reason we have given for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible but to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician. [11]

Girard argues that the function of collective mythology was to vindicate collective murder by presenting it as something else. In other words, myth functions contrary to revelation because the first is told from the perspective of the victors. When we recall the phrase “the victors write the history,” it will be clear that Girard’s theories are by no means irrelevant to the contemporary world. In fact, I hope to have shown and will attempt to continue to show why just the opposite is true.

It might be objected that just because a person is collectively murdered does not mean that that person was innocent. Perhaps the victim entirely deserved his plight. Clearly, this is quite a hypothetical objection and establishing its pertinence would depend on an investigation into the concrete case in question. But the objection offers an opportunity to underscore something about the nature of theory as such, which is crucial to bear in mind if our theorizing is to lead us towards truth and not away from it. To wit, the purpose of theory is to offer insight into concrete situations, and not to substitute for them. So unless it were certain that Baldr enjoyed the “game” of having every different kind of object upon the earth hurled at him to prove his invulnerability as much as all of the other Norse gods appeared to do, then we should read that story with a critical eye and be open to any insights that Girard’s theories may provide.

Girard notes that, historically speaking, the narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition are sui generis in their anti-mythological or revelatory nature. In other words, while the stories of every other culture serve to fortify the position of the persecutors and thereby legitimize a given social order, the stories of the Jewish bible are singular in that they are always taking the side of the scapegoat against the mob and thus appear to subvert that order. Girard notes the striking departure of the Psalms from the Greek tradition, for instance, in which Oedipus, as a representative scapegoat, “has the good taste to join in the wonderful classical harmony. See with what art and delicacy, at the given moment, he denounces himself!”[12] Girard wryly compares Oedipus’ righteous self-incrimination to “the enthusiasm of the psychoanalytic patient on his couch or the old Bolshevist in the time of Stalin.”[13] He acknowledges that “The victim of the Psalms is disturbing, it is true, and even annoying compared with an Oedipus.” He continues:

The victim who speaks in the Psalms seems not in the least “moral;” not evangelic enough for the good apostles of modern times. The sensibilities of our humanists are shocked. Usually, the unfortunate victim turns to hate those who hate him. The “display of violence and resentment so characteristic of the Old Testament” is deplored, and is seen as a particularly clear indication of the famous malice of the God of lsrael. Ever since Nietzsche people have seen in the Psalms the invention of all the bad feeling infectious, humiliation, and resentment. We are offered in contrast to the venomous Psalms the beautiful serenity of mythologies, particularly Greek and German. Strong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled.[14]

Girard argues that the true significance of all of the instances of allusion and quotation of the Old Testament in the New—perhaps most iconic of which is when Jesus quotes the 22nd Psalm as his dying words on Good Friday[15]—is that the Crucifixion was the fruition of the anti-mythologizing impulse that had been gestating and slowly developing through all the stories of the Jewish bible.

Having thus outlined a theoretical polarity between mythological and revelatory texts and having established the biblical narratives as amongst the sole representatives of the latter category, Girard puts forth an intriguing explanation for the cathartic power of the tragedy. Namely, Girard suggests that it is born from the tension of the concealed truth that is everywhere threatening to break the beautiful symmetry of myth and shatter the veneer of righteous persecution, and which, yet never quite manages to do so. In his words:

That the tragedy seems to move in conflicting directions is indicative of its internal struggle; it can neither adhere to the myth nor reject it in the way the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospels reject it. It is this internal contradiction which tears it apart, violently, rather than the impossible coexistence of the guilty son and the innocent scapegoat in the false aesthetic harmony of humanist beatitudes, that gives the tragedy its beauty. [16]

The rejection that Girard speaks of is, of course, the rejection of propaganda on behalf of the perpetrators in an effort to justify the murder of a single scapegoat for the sake of maintaining the peace of a society: “ it is expedient that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Thus, the revelatory texts are refusing to engage in pretense and instead putting the truth on display. And the Crucifixion is, of course, the exaltation or apotheosis of this impulse. Jesus is the scapegoat of scapegoats. Rather, he is called “the Lamb of God” to preclude any possibility for equivocation that the symbol of the goat may invite. Jesus is without guile. And he is also entirely free of the resentment and fantasies of revenge that characterize the speaker in the Psalms. Jesus does not even answer the charges against him: “Thou sayest it,” he responds when he is questioned by Pilate as to whether he has proclaimed himself King of the Jews.[17] And just because of his supreme innocence and supreme impassibility and unwillingness to participate in any way by intervening for or against himself—just because of this, the hypocrisy of the unanimous crowd is exposed beyond all doubt. The truth is on display and it is proclaimed by the evangelists: “they that have ears, let them hear.”

A well-known theory in the history of ideas is that Christianity represented the marriage of the Greek and the Jewish impulses. Pace Tertullian, Athens had thenceforth joined herself inextricably with Jerusalem.[18] Like any theory, it threatens to lead interpreters into abstractions as vacuous as they are sweeping if it is regarded as a historical fact instead of a manner of organising and disclosing patterns amongst historical facts. Nevertheless, it offers a valuable illumination provided it is used in the right way. Greek thinkers tended to view moral failure as a consequence of imperfect knowledge. Thus, to do what is bad is the result of having mistakenly believed what is bad to be what is good. Put another way, moral imperfection means doing what seems good rather than what is good.[19] For Plato, the will was essentially ordered to the good and sin could only express a lack of understanding. The Jewish prophets, by contrast, enjoined the Israelites to abide by the Mosaic Law. Their aspiration was to practice or doxa and not to knowledge or episteme. In essence, the former exalts knowledge and the other will; the Greeks await a demonstration and the Jews await a sign to act. Again we see the manner in which Christ synthesizes these two cultures and at the same time transcends them. In Jesus’s Crucifixion, the truth has been revealed, and in the Gospels it has been proclaimed. And yet no one is compelled to believe it. Rather, everyone must assent through his will by his own decision. In this way, Christ joins knowledge and will and raises their conjunction to the principle of freedom. This is to say that each of us must make the decision on our own behalf and not on the behalf of others. Indeed, to attempt to make this decision on behalf of others would be to reenter the unconscious cycle of scapegoating and collective violence from which it was Christ’s mission to deliver us. After Christ, the only sacrifice that will be accepted is the one we make of our own selves: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”[20] Nobody takes this decision on behalf of someone else. Freedom is an account we settle with ourselves.

Girard comes to the same conclusion and warns of the constant threat of deception:

Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats. The illusion of persecution is as rampant as ever…Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere.”[21]

“Hypocrite reader, my similar, my brother….” Ghandi famously said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and he was, of course, paraphrasing Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ deeds in the Stations of the Cross. By allowing all violence to be polarized to himself without protest or condemnation and allowing the disciples to bear witness to the truth, Jesus offered the doorway by which humanity may exit the inferno of collective violence and cyclical scapegoating. It befalls us to take Christ as our model so as not to fall back into it.

But the notion of imitatio Christi may immediately raise doubts in the mind of the one who has assimilated Girard’s theories either from the prior section of the present study (or from another source, or best of all, from Girard himself). It might be wondered: does not the imitation of Christ merely initiate yet another cycle of the same mimetic desire that will turn peers into rivals and can ultimately end only in collective violence? Girard’s response is supremely illuminating. He offers it by way of an explanation for the surprising and disconcerting occasion in which Jesus rebukes Peter with the phrase:

“Get behind me, Satan. Thou art a stumbling block to me, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”[22]

Noting that the passage itself has become something of a “stumbling block” to interpreters, Girard proceeds to offer the following explanation:

The traditional English translation of stumbling block is far superior to timid recent translations, for the Greek skandalon designates an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive (as well as repulsive) each time we stumble against it. The first time Jesus predicts his violent death (Matthew 16:21–23), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. If two friends imitate each other’s desire, they both desire the same object. And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance. Had Jesus imitated Peter’s ambition, the two thereby would have begun competing for the leadership of some politicized “Jesus movement.” Sensing the danger, Jesus vehemently interrupts Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me.”[23]

“…for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Thus, imitating Jesus is in fact at once the sublimation of mimetic desire and a foreclosure of the collective violence and the scapegoat mechanism that inevitably follow for the very reason that it might have been supposed that it were only another instance of the same. Precisely because Jesus is without sin, because he does not protest the injustice of his own persecution, and because he seeks no glory for himself, but only that the Father’s name should be glorified in him,[24] victory over the cycle of violence is finally at hand. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”[25] “The world” is a technical term to refer to the lattice of social relations that provide the foundation for mimetic desire and violence.

Again it might be imagined that the above represents the abstract conclusion from the application of Girard’s theories to the Gospel, or worse, that it represents some kind of revisionist theology. But I hope that the reader who has accompanied me through the three parts of this study will sense the pertinence of these questions to the most fundamental aspects of our lives. The point is to change our way of seeing so we are looking for the truth and not trying to find ways to weaponize it for the sake of obtaining the objects of our desires. Often this means taking uncomfortable burdens of accountability on ourselves which we would much rather pass on to one scapegoat or another. Because the second impulse is natural—even Darwinithe first requires something of a “turning about” of our ordinary ways. Surely this was the meaning of John the Baptist’s injunction of “metanoeite!”[26] which is rendered as “repent” in most English translations, but is literally calling for an inversion, reversal, or “going beyond of the mind.” We would much rather cast the blame on someone. But we should not believe our inclinations when they promise an escape from personal accountability. We will always find it expedient to let the Corona spinarum pass from our own heads than to bear it ourselves without protest.

But again, as Girard observed in a passage quoted above, “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat.” Thus, the question is for me to settle with myself. If I refuse to do this, a scapegoat will be forced to settle it on my behalf. Jesus’ words on this subject (as is so often the case) penetrate to the very heart of the question while at the same time gathering up all others from the four corners of the earth and imbuing them all with transcendent import: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”[27] If we think the world is made of facts and matter, we might imagine that these are the words of a distant prophet in some forgotten village in Palestine and that they can be entertained or discounted as we see fit. But if we think the world is made of meaning[28] (which certainly must be our departure point if we wish to ground our ability to make sense of our so-called “facts”), then we will hear in Jesus’ words the voice of that same who first spoke Creation into being as such: “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.”[29]

I will allow Jesus’ words to conclude this exploration of Girard’s theories of the scapegoat together with the insights that they provide into myth and into the Gospels. It is my hope that readers have found something meaningful in them during the week of Easter and in the midst of the Corona-pandemic phenomenon.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, circa 1430.

* Parts of this essay were originally composed just after the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and the following paragraph was excised in subsequent edits. I have reproduced it here, however, for its relevance if not its distinct timeliness:

Before I conclude the present one, however, I am moved to offer a brief comment about the current Corona-pandemic that has defined the last months and shows little sign of relenting its influence any time soon. In the light of the scapegoat theory, it is not difficult to discern the way in which people are unconsciously seeking a token cause upon which they can pin all culpability for the current crisis. This is an unconscious hope to achieve a spirit of unanimity through the polarization of all animosity toward a single object. Whether this be “wet-markets in China,” “the Trump administration’s lack of preparation,” “the COVID-19 itself,” “the installation of 5G cell towers that disrupt normal physiology,” “globalization,” or anything else: these are all scapegoats. They are ways to affix all blame to a single cause as a pretext to avoid assuming responsibility ourselves. Globalization is not a fact outside of “people,” which is us. 5G towers do not erect themselves. Instead, they are a response to our own demands and desires. COVID-19 is not itself anything close to a sufficient condition for a pandemic—let alone the “pandemic phenomenon”—that we are currently experiencing. If I was so certain the Trump administration was inadequately prepared for an imminent pandemic, I would have taken it upon myself to undertake everything in my power to ensure that the preparation was attempted by other means. And so on. The point is not to pass the Crown of Thorns onto someone else. Girard is adamant that the only true salvation means accepting that Christ was the last scapegoat. By extension, the only deliverance from mimetic violence is in imitatio Christi. In the most fundamental way, we must cease to imitate the desires of our friends, because then we quickly turn them into rivals and they become our enemies. Instead, we must aspire to the model that Christ set for us. A wise person once observed, “Christ died for his friends.” I, thinking myself wise, responded, “He also died for his enemies.” “No,” she said, “Christ had no enemies.”


[1] And in politics: Conservatives siding with Saturn and liberals with Jupiter, or “rebel Jove,” to borrow Keat’s turn of phrase from his unfinished fragment Hyperion.

[2] Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

[3] Kerényi, Dionysos, 239-40.

[4] Plutarch, “The Obsolescence of Oracles,” http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_defectu_oraculorum*

[5] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 127.

[6] Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” No.3 of Four Quartets, 44.

[7] Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986)

[8] Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[9] Greek μάρτυς, “witness.”

[10] Cf. John 11:50, 18:14.

[11]  Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[12] Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[13] Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[14] Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[15] Cf. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

[16]  Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[17] Cf. Luke 23:3.

[18] Tertullian famously denied this affinity: “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

[19] Cf. Plato’s Meno: “Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be goods they really desire goods?”

[20] Luke 9:24.

[21] Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[22]  Matthew 16:23.

[23] Girard, “Are the Gospels Mythical?” First Things No. 62 (April 1996): 27-31.

[24] Cf. John 14.

[25] John 16:33.

[26] Μετανοεῖτε, Cf. Matthew 3:2.

[27] Matthew 16:24.

[28] Cf. John 1:1.

[29] John 14:10.

Works Cited:

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. Wesleyan Press, 1957, p. 127.

Donne, John. “Meditation #17.” Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1623. Available at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:John_Donne#Devotions_upon_Emergent_Occasions

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Four quartets. United Kingdom: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Girard, Rene. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. 1986.

Kerényi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Plutarch, Moralia, Volume V Loeb Classical Library “The Obsolescence of Oracles.” 1936. The Greek text and the English translation (by F. C. Babbitt). Available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_defectu_oraculorum*

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