One of today’s more popular philosophers, Alain de Botton, could easily have dubbed his TED-talk “A short history of human self-understanding in the West according to René Girard,” but settled for “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success” instead.
I accidently saw this talk on Belgian television (Canvas) and immediately suspected Girard’s influence. As it turns out, Alain de Botton rates Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure five stars out of five on goodreads. No coincidence there…
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Of course, both de Botton and Girard are intellectual omnivores, drawing from similar sources (for instance, de Botton mentions Émile Durkheim in his talk; according to Eric Gans, “In particular, Durkheim should be considered the principal theoretical ancestor of René Girard’s notion of the sacred”). Nevertheless, it’s easy to pinpoint the many parts in de Botton’s talk that correspond with Girard’s preoccupations, even on a structural level. Here’s a comparison…
1. GLOBAL SNOBBERY
One of René Girard’s main concepts is mimetic desire, i.e. desire based on the imitation (or mimesis) of the desire of others. Beyond instinctive needs and appetites, human desire is highly structured by mimetic interactions. We desire and attach importance to certain aspects of our environment because those others whom we experience as meaningful to our lives attach importance to these aspects, and we tend to imitate them. We gain a sense of identity as subjects by comparing ourselves to others who function as models (or mediators) for our desires and ambitions. So, from this angle, objects (or objectives) of desire are not intrinsically important. They gain value because of certain mediators they’re associated with, and because of the sense of being this association promises.
Due to our mimetic tendencies we are able to imagine others’ viewpoints, to mimic others and to pretend we are like them. It also enables us to discover what those others focus on and what they seem to consider important. Imitating and obtaining what others consider important gives us social recognition, which in turn indeed gives us a sense of identity. We often don’t want material goods per se, we only want them insofar as they evoke social recognition – in the shape of admiration or envy by others. Snobbery grows out of the triangular structure of desire (i.e. the mimetic interplay between subject, model and object). Consumed by envious vanity himself, the snob is someone who desires others to admire or envy (even hate) him. He is an imitator who secretly wants to present himself as a model. The snob is someone who desperately seeks social respectability, in whatever context (be it a sports club, a school, a law firm, a factory, a family, an opera house, a newspaper etc.). In a way, we’re all snobs. We do care about what ‘meaningful others’ think of us! René Girard puts it this way (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure – Translated by Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966; 24):
The triangular structure is no less obvious in social snobbism than it is in love-jealousy. The snob is also an imitator. He slavishly copies the person whose birth, fortune, or stylishness he envies. … The snob does not dare trust his own judgment, he desires only objects desired by others. That is why he is the slave of the fashionable. For the first time, moreover, we come across a term in current usage, ‘snobbism,’ which does not conceal the truth of triangular desire. Just to call a desire snobbish is enough to underscore its imitative character. The mediator is no longer hidden; the object is relegated to the background for the very reason that snobbism is not limited to a particular category of desires. One can be a snob in aesthetic pleasure, in intellectual life, in clothes, food etc.
COMPARE ALL THIS WITH Alain de Botton’s description of job snobbery and the main reason why we want certain material goods (indeed because we think they’ll reward us with social respectability):
Snobbery is a global phenomenon. … What is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. The dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, ‘What do you do?’ And according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses. … Most people make a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love – not romantic love, though that may be something – but love in general, respect, they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy.
And that’s a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers and indeed start caring so much about material goods. You know, we’re often told that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re all greedy people. I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want. It’s the rewards we want. And that’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari don’t think, ‘This is somebody who is greedy.’ Think, ‘This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.’ Feel sympathy, rather than contempt.
Alain de Botton also refers to mimetic mechanisms and mimetic desire:
The thing about a succesful life is, a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They are sucked in from other people…
And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.
2. MODERN EGALITARIANISM AND THE SPIRIT OF ENVY
One of the main problems in the course of human history has been the potential destructive outcome of mimetic desire. If a mediator is at a great distance, the risks of (violent) rivalry between subject and model are not that big. There will often be a sense of admiration (idolatry) from the part of the subject towards its model. René Girard calls this kind of mimetic interplay external mediation. However, if the mediator is a close neighbor, relative or friend, risks of conflict grow increasingly. This so-called internal mediation makes the model of desire also an obstacle. When two (or more) people mutually enforce each other’s desire for certain objects (by way of imitation the model also becomes the imitator of his imitator, his double), envious rivalry emerges.
Premodern societies developed systems of taboos and (sacrificial) rituals to guide mimetic interactions and to prevent mimetic rivalry (and everything it’s associated with) from destabilizing communities. Moreover, there was a hierarchy in society as a matter of principle. One could not just aspire to the positon of a king when one was not of noble birth. This type of hierarchy was eventually justified by reference to ‘higher powers’ – fate, fortune, the gods… Myths were basically tales that defended the way societies structured themselves. People were ultimately not responsible for ‘the way of the world’ and for their own and others’ lives. God (or Fate) was to be thanked or to be blamed for whatever happened. God was the convenient scapegoat. People could not imitate the position of their king because God wouldn’t allow it. Respecting the social hierarchy (enforced by divine, ‘natural’ law) was a way to prevent mimetic rivalry and violent conflict. The French and other revolutions basically destroyed premodern hierarchical principles and their justifications in the western world, making way for modern democracy.
Wolfgang Palaver points to the potential dangers of modern equality in his book on René Girard’s mimetic theory (René Girard’s Mimetic Theory – Translated by Gabriel Borrud, Michigan State University Press, 2013; 61-62):
Girard’s insight into the potential for conflict that accompanies internal mediation can help us better understand our modern, increasingly egalitarian world. As the metaphysical distance between desiring subject and model diminishes – the key component of internal mediation – the potential for rivalry and violence increases. The more negligible this distance becomes, the more probable it is that mimesis will end in rivalry and violence. The ancient proverbial truth found in mythical texts, primitive practices, and even the Bible, that brothers or sisters are much more prone to rivalry and conflict than others, can be easily understood with the help of Girard’s insight.
The development of mimetic desire from Cervantes to Dostoyevsky reflects the emergence of the modern world, one in which the spread of democracy and equality have meant the vanishing of rigid hierarchical differences. The limits on mimesis have essentially disappeared, as internal mediation increasingly takes the place of external mediation. The modern world has in turn seen a surge in competition, envy, and rivalry. In Girard’s eyes, this development is described most precisely by the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America:
‘When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes, renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, which it gives freer scope to their desires. … They have swept away the privilege of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition.’
Tocqueville is cognizant of the dangers posed by the modern phenomenon of equality. The strength of his analysis lies merely at the political level, however, in that he avoids pursuing the deeper anthropological roots of modern egalitarianism and the dangers it poses to society. Girard’s insight into the effects of mimetic desire allows one to understand why the phenomenon of equality – or the disappearance of social differences – poses these dangers. Reactionary or anti-egalitarian movements, in their attempt to maintain social differences, are aware of the conflictual potential of equality.
One gains a sense of this from the contemporary struggle between the sexes, and the phenomenon of democracy. On the one hand, the equality of the sexes and political equality enhance moral quality in human relations, but, on the other hand, they also increase the possibility of rivalry, competition, and violence. Antje Vollmer, for one, points out in her book Heisser Frieden [Hot Peace] that modern equality is one of the major factors responsible for this increase in social violence.
The workings of mimetic desire, meanwhile, explain the problematic consequences of equality. We will see in the following sections that Girard’s theory of mimetic desire only offers an initial and preliminary answer to modern social dynamics. In his eyes, social differences are not God-given or a product of nature – as Aristotle and his conservative followers contend – but rather a product of mimesis. Just as Heraclitus saw social differences as a product of war – ‘the father and king of all, … some it makes gods, others men; some slaves, and others free’ – Girard also maintains that these distinctions result from the violence of mimetic rivalry.
Girard also refers to Max Scheler in describing the dominant feelings that arise from the idea that anyone can achieve as much as everybody else, and the confrontation with the reality that this is practically impossible: ressentiment and envy. René Girard in his own words (A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, New York: Oxford UP, 1991; 4):
We often brag that no word can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?
Often envy indeed remains a big taboo, and Girard also further explains why we might be ashamed to admit that we are jealous:
Envy subordinates a desired something to the someone who enjoys a privileged relationship with it. Envy covets the superior being that neither the someone nor the something alone, but the conjunction of the two, seems to possess. Envy involuntarily testifies to a lack of being that puts the envious to shame… That is why envy is the hardest sin to acknowledge.
COMPARE ALL THIS WITH the way Alain de Botton tackles these issues:
There are other reasons why it’s perhaps harder now to feel calm than ever before. One of these, and it’s paradoxical because it’s linked to something that’s rather nice, is the hope we all have for our careers. Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined kind of hierarchies.
There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she is much richer than any of you are. And she’s got a very large house. The reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. She’s simply too strange. We can’t relate to her. She speaks in a funny way. She comes from an odd place. So we can’t relate to her. And when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them.
The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy – which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion – because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same. And yet, they’re not. So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities. Which makes for a very – can make for a very stressful situation.
It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage, you too could start a major thing.
3. WHO’S TO BLAME?
FROM BAD FORTUNE TO FAILURE: THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM’S NEW CLOTHES
According to René Girard, but also atheists like French historian Marcel Gauchet, the Judeo-Christian traditions are highly responsible for the process of secularization in the West. Girard claims that the biblical writings gradually reveal the scapegoat mechanism as the cornerstone of archaic religion and culture, thereby potentially destroying faith in the gods who are considered responsible for the way the human world ‘works’ – with its different systems of taboos and rituals, and its periodic justification of certain sacrifices and victimary mechanisms. I’ll repeat what I’ve stated before:
Premodern societies developed systems of taboos and (sacrificial) rituals to guide mimetic interactions and to prevent mimetic rivalry (and everything it’s associated with) from destabilizing communities. Moreover, there was a hierarchy in society as a matter of principle. One could not just aspire to the positon of a king when one was not of noble birth. This type of hierarchy was eventually justified by reference to ‘higher powers’ – fate, fortune, the gods… Myths were basically tales that defended the way societies structured themselves. People were ultimately not responsible for ‘the way of the world’ and for their own and others’ lives. God (or Fate) was to be thanked or to be blamed for whatever happened. God was the convenient scapegoat. People could not imitate the position of their king because God wouldn’t allow it. Respecting the social hierarchy (enforced by divine, ‘natural’ law) was a way to prevent mimetic rivalry and violent conflict.
Due to the Judeo-Christian influence secularized societies no longer have an automatic access to the god(s) of archaic religion. Historically, sometimes this god was identified as the Christian God, although theologically one could argue – together with Girard and others – that Christ’s God fundamentally criticizes the mechanisms which produce the archaic sacred. Although the realm of the traditional sacred seems to have vanished in secularized societies, the mimetic and sacrificial mechanisms that lie behind it are still at work – alive as ever in human life. We simply bow to other idols. Often that’ll be the image that we have learned to desire for ourselves, the image which seems to give us social recognition…
One of the main sources of psychological problems nowadays is the idea that we are masters of our own lives, that we are fully responsible for our lives. So, secularized human beings no longer blame the gods for the bad things they encounter, they tend to blame themselves. They become their own scapegoat, their own sacrifice. People in secularized societies more and more sacrifice themselves (in all sorts of auto-aggressive behavior, from automutilation to suicide) if they’re not able to attain the image of ‘winner’ they secretly desire for themselves.
COMPARE ALL THIS WITH the following part of Alain de Botton’s talk:
There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious, about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it is, again, linked to something nice, and that nice thing is called meritocracy.
Everybody, all politicians on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words, what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.
You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an ‘unfortunate’ – literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a ‘loser.’ There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat.
That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success. But they also own their failure.
4. THE COMFORT OF TRAGEDY (AND COMEDY)
Our heroes, our idols, our ‘gods’ – the ones we have a love-hate relationship with -, function, in the words of René Girard, as model/obstacle. On the one hand, we tend to imitate them and to model our desires and ambitions on their desires and ambitions. However, when we can’t seem to achieve what we’ve learned to hope for our own lives, the comparison with the ‘winners’ in society – the rich, the bright, the famous etc. – might turn ugly. Admiration can be the forerunner of envy, whereby we experience our models simultaneously as obstacles to our own success. You know, “Why should they have all the glory?” That’s why we like to read, hear and see stories of ‘fallen heroes’ from time to time. The little and big scandals that surround the ‘happy few’ comfort the great lot of us with the thought that “they’re not that fabulous after all.”
If we see that they’re human beings just like ourselves, they might evoke pity, and empathizing with their fate might help us to cope with the trials and tribulations in our own lives. If we perceive them as villains or even ‘monsters’, following the downfall of a former ‘winner’ might be a form of retribution or even ‘revenge’ for the fact that most of us don’t belong to that special caste of ‘high society’. Indeed, we’re part of the masses instead. In short, tragic stories of fallen heroes often comfort us with the idea that we are spared the fate of having to submit to the judgment of ‘public opinion’. Stand-up comedians are the jesters of the day, ventilating this opinion. Their presence is all the more important in a society like ours, in the West, where we need to ridicule all those seemingly important famous people we secretly envy… The more hidden and suppressed envy, the more need for today’s jesters, laughing at our contemporary ‘kings’ and ‘queens’. The comic is but the other side of the coin of comfort to which also the tragic belongs.
So, basically, there are two types of tragic stories: the scandalous or ‘mythical’ one that tends to present former heroes as ‘monsters’ (or vice versa!), and the actual tragedy which aims more at telling the story of the fallen hero in such a way that it enables the compassion of an audience.
Anyway, the periodic sacrifice of our (monstrous) idols, told and retold in our myths and tragedies, saves and restores our sense of identity and self-worth. It’s no surprise then that former villains can become heroes again after they’ve died, as they are experienced as saviours. They often generate a cult following, which reminds us of the cleansing and structuring effect mythologized heroes/villains like Billy the Kid bestow on ever new generations.
Robert Hamerton-Kelly very succinctly points to the origin of Greek tragedy in a presentation of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It explains how tragic stories function and help take away conflictual tensions and frustrations in our human society, to this day:
Greek tragedy originated as a religious ritual that facilitated self-cleansing and emotional renewal…
COMPARE ALL THIS WITH Alain de Botton’s words on tragedy:
There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.
You know, the number one organ of ridicule nowadays, is the newspaper. And if you open the newspaper any day of the week, it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person. They’ve taken the wrong substance. They’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is. And then are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed. And they are described as ‘losers.’ Now is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy.
Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this, and I went to see ‘The Sunday Sport’, a tabloid newspaper that I don’t recommend you to start reading if you’re not familiar with it already. I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.
So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it. And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello. They came up with ‘Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter’ splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote ‘Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud.’ And then my favorite. They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys. My favorite is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King: ‘Sex With Mum Was Blinding.’
In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got tragedy and tragic art, and I suppose I’m arguing that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it’s so very, very important, I think.
5. A GLIMPSE OF JUDEO-CHRISTIAN REVELATION
I’d like to end this post with a final quote from Alain de Botton, when he refers to Saint Augustine. It comes from the core of Judeo-Christian revelation, and it’s no coincidence – and this becomes even clearer if you’re familiar with René Girard’s rephrasing of the Christian tradition:
I’m drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in ‘The City of God,’ where he says, ‘It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.’ In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to dependent on their business card. It’s not the post that should count. According to St. Augustine, it’s only God who can really put everybody in their place. … In other words, hold your horses when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them. And we shouldn’t behave as though it is known.
In yet other words: it’s a sin to waste your life merely as a snob…
Theologically speaking, we’re not just children or ‘products’ of our social surroundings. We’re also “children of God…”