gabriel-garridoSaturday, February 23, 2008. Gabriel Garrido, a renowned conductor of Latin American baroque music, is about to begin an evening concert at Cité de la Musique, Paris. His equally famous Ensemble Elyma is ready, together with eleven members of the Belgian boy and men choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. All of a sudden, maestro Garrido turns around and addresses the audience:

“We are saddened to inform you that two days ago, on Thursday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs, the widely acclaimed conductor of the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino from Aalst, Belgium, passed away. We would like to dedicate this concert to his memory.”

Then he turns again and looks us straight in the eyes. We, the members of the Cantate Domino choir, all have a lump in the throat. We all try to hold back our tears. Finally, maestro Garrido raises his hands and off we go to sing Cantate Domino’s first concert after the death of its founder. We all know things will never be the same again (footage from the concert):

Only 5 months before, on October 8, 2007, on his 74th birthday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still remember it vividly, because we used to celebrate our birthdays together (mine is on October 6).

Michaël Ghijs conducts his choir one last time during Mass on Sunday, February 3, 2008, in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels. He is literally deathly sick at the time, no longer able to accompany his boys during the entrance procession, but still he manages to direct them for the remainder of the Mass. It is but one example of his tremendous willpower and passion. Of course, these personality traits make him stubborn at times. For instance, during a concert tour in Asia he asks me wether or not to include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for an afternoon programme. My answer is not to include it, because I have the impression that the young trebles don’t seem sure about themselves. From his reaction I immediately know I shouldn’t have said that. He starts rehearsal with the Choral Fantasy, saying that the sopranos will show everyone who doubts them what they are capable of. Eventually, he shows me wrong. He is, as always, proud of the achievements of his singers. It is no coincidence that many former members of Cantate Domino have a career in music.

philippe-herrewegheMichaël Ghijs is proud of and grateful for the hard work and successes of the people he works with, yet he is not driven by pride. Although he can be stubborn, he can also say that he is sorry and admit to making mistakes. It is characteristic of the way he leads the choir. Conflicts are possible, meaning that Michaël Ghijs is not just a commander-in-chief who expects blind obedience. On the other hand, great discipline is needed and established because he wants to perform the often difficult music the best he can. Not because he wants to make a career or because he chases some kind of success, but simply because he loves the (mostly religious) music and the message it contains. His love of music itself and his artistic motivations became clear, for instance, when he compared different recordings of the same work. I remember very vividly, during my first year in the choir, that he really disliked a recording of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. It’s the recording some of my friends and I had bought. He thought the overall interpretation didn’t serve the music nor the message. Also, after concerts, he could be very dissatisfied with our performance even when the crowd had given us a standing ovation.

I guess this is difficult to understand for people who are primarily driven by a desire to make a career and/or to become rich. True, eventually the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino works with famous conductors like Colin Davis, Laszlo Heltay, Ronald Zollman, Philippe Herreweghe, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Cao, Claudio Abbado, Alexander Rahbari, Johan Duijck, Rudolf Werthen and Dirk Brossé; with musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy, José van Dam and even Toots Thielemans; with ensembles like Capilla Flamenca and the above mentioned Ensemble Elyma – listen to an excerpt from the collaboration on the CD Corpus Christi à Cusco (K617, 2006):

The choir even participates in the movies Daens and In BrugesNothing of the choir’s impressive resume, however, has ever been a goal. It’s just been a consequence of passion and hard work (the trebles alone practice up to 15 hours a week!). Moreover, Cantate Domino has never been a merely artistic project.



Michaël Ghijs has a hard time refusing boys who can’t really sing. Those who persevere find a way of making themselves helpful in the practical organisation of the choir. They are welcome to join the choir on its concert tours. Regarding these tours, Michaël Ghijs also has a hard time refusing members who don’t really deserve to come along because of longer periods of absence. Sometimes the yearly concert tours are undertaken by a group of around eighty individuals, making them a financially challenging operation. Yet Reverend Ghijs often pays the entire trip out of his own pocket for members whose financial situation doesn’t otherwise allow them to travel. The choir indeed is open to people of all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. Reverend Ghijs also makes it a point to look after members and former members when they experience difficulties in their lives. For instance, he provides shelter for a young man who came out of the closet as a homosexual and whose parents threw him out because of that. Or he gives daily calls to a former member of the choir who is in the hospital for a treatment of meningitis. There are so many situations to mention… Perhaps it is in these social aspects that the priestly vocation of Ghijs is most apparent. The choir never is a money making machine. Singing at funerals and marriages, or performing in care homes, prisons, whatever: the choir often just receives enough to pay the bill of the bus (sometimes to the chagrin of the older members who are in charge of the finances).

diapason-cover-june-2005In any case, what Michaël Ghijs achieves with his choir, with boys who often don’t have any proper education in music, is nothing short of a miracle. One of his best qualities is his firm belief in the abilities of young people before they even believe in themselves. When some of us think we will never be able to properly perform Amen by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Michaël Ghijs pulls us through. He even wants us to sing it at the Belgian provincial choir tournaments, next to, among other music, Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the end he is right. Our perfomance places us, once again, in the highest division. In the same period an album is recorded by Capilla Flamenca together with some trebles of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. Ten years later, this CD is listed among “the 25 most beautiful recordings of boy choirs” by renowned French magazine Diapason (June, 2005):


Listen to an excerpt from the CD Missa Alleluia (Eufoda, 1996):

If anything, these things prove that Michaël Ghijs above all educated young people to enable them to shine and to share their talents with the world. Of course, there will always be cynical minds who regard the work of a priest with young boys and men with suspicion. I know Reverend Ghijs got called names sometimes by so-called rebellious teenagers when he crossed the street with his boy sopranos. The words are not worth repeating. Reverend Ghijs, unlike me, ignored them and always continued his work with the same energy, passion, eagerness to learn and genuine concern for what happened in the lives of his singers.

I’ve had the privilege to have known this man, a true friend and mentor, for almost twenty years. Like everyone else, he was a complex human being with flaws and weaknesses, with doubts and frustrations. He dared to be vulnerable. He kept reading and studying, knowing that he never knew enough. He questioned the personal assumptions of his Christian faith and developed his theology in a different direction over the years (in no small part because he discovered the work of James Alison). He loved the good life and could enjoy delicious food and drinks in good company.

Michaël Ghijs is missed by friends all over the world, from the Americas over Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and a range of other European countries to South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and many other places. In the course of his lifetime, Reverend Michaël Ghijs discovered his own limits and cultural boundaries, not as ends in themselves to separate himself from others, but, on the contrary, as means to encounter others. His legacy is a spirituality to be imitated and a work to be continued, in whatever context, in true friendship and in gratitude.

May God bless him.

My trip down memory lane, compiled from different tv performances, pictures and records – life in Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino:

Students of psychology would not be surprised by some of the key statements made by René Girard and his mimetic theory.

Indeed social psychology time and again shows how people’s social behavior and self-concepts are shaped by imitation processes and scapegoat mechanisms, as stressed by mimetic theory. For instance, Stanley Milgram’s obedience study and the Stanford Prison Experiment show how powerful individuals as well as socially established abstract norms of “role” models are easily obeyed (imitated). The attribution theory teaches how someone tends to “blame” circumstances to justify his or her own “bad” behavior, while, on the other hand, he or she tends to hold others personally responsible for their “loathsome” conduct. Apparently, others are not so easily excused and appear as convenient scapegoats. People who play the blame game consider their own behavior to be “very different” from similar behavior in others. Insights into social identities reveal how gaining an identity through conformity (again by imitating others, of course) leads to stereotyping of and competing with others (as common enemies and scapegoats of one’s group). Here also, there is a tendency to exaggerate differences between one’s own group and other groups. The conduct of one’s own group is easily justified, while similar conduct of a competing group is considered “unjust”. Achever Clausewitz (2007)The problem, of course, is that competing groups imitate this reasoning for their own particular group and thus reinforce the rivalry between each other (read René Girard’s Battling to the End in this regard, on mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale – highly recommended!).

These are all but some preliminary considerations regarding the relationship between mimetic theory and social psychology. There is much more to explore in this relationship. So without further ado, in order to know where to start, here is a short overview of some basic studies and concepts of social psychology which relate directly to mimetic theory.

1. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study (click for more information)

Stanley Milgram Obedience to AuthorityNot surprisingly, in light of mimetic theory, disobedience is more likely to occur:

  • when the experimenter leaves the room
  • when the orders are given by an “ordinary” man
  • when the subject works with peers who refuse to go on
  • [considering the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas]
    when the “learner” is in the same room

2. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo – click for more)

People adapt to the social norms of the role assigned to them. Prisoners become distressed, helpless and panicky. Guards become nice, or “tough but fair”, or tyrannical.

3. Social Cognition

Social cognition is an area of social psychology concerned with social influences on thought, memory, perception and all kinds of other cognitive processes. More specifically, researchers are interested in how people’s self-perception affects relationships, thoughts, beliefs and values. Here are some findings regarding attribution, factors in attitude change and conformity.

Attribution theory:

Attribution TheoryPeople are motivated to explain their own and others’ behavior by attributing its causes to situation or disposition. Again, not surprisingly in light of mimetic theory, people show the tendency to overestimate personality factors in explaining the behavior of others, while they underestimate situational influence. On the other hand, the concept of self-serving bias points to the fact that people often do the opposite when explaining their own behavior: people try to justify themselves.

Major factors in attitude change:

  • endorsement by an admired or attractive person
  • a leader who offers unconditional love, acceptance and attention
  • the creation of a new identity based on a group
  • repetition (imitation, indeed) of ideas and assertions; entrapment (justification of an escalating commitment); isolation from other sources of information

Conformity (click for more) (see also Solomon Asch, click here),

related to:

  • groupthink: in close-knit groups all members tend to think alike and suppress disagreement for the sake of harmony
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • bystander apathy
  • deindividuation (the loss of awareness of one’s own individuality in groups or crowds)
  • ethnocentrism
    (aids survival by making people feel attached to and willing to work for their own group)
  • group identity and social identity
    (a person’s self-concept based on an identification with a group, a nation or a culture, or with gender or other social roles)
  • Robbers Cave Experiment 1“us vs. them” social identities that are strengthened when groups compete (in-group vs. out-group; see Muzafer Sherif and his Robbers Cave experiment)
  • stereotypes that distort reality for they:
    exaggerate differences between groups and underestimate differences within groups; allow for disliking others so people feel closer to their own group and inflate self-worthRobbers Cave Experiment 2



Even before the terrorist shootings at Charlie Hebdo and later this year at other sites in Paris, quality labeled Belgian magazines and newspapers reported on the socially precarious situation in certain areas of Brussels, especially in Molenbeek. I’ve translated parts of an article that appeared in Knack magazine concerning the issue. Next to this article I’ve translated parts of other articles as well (from Knack magazine and De Standaard newspaper). These appeared in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I will use some findings of these articles to answer a few questions on the nature of the conflict we’re dealing with when we’re talking about “homegrown terrorism”.



Rachid Zegzaoui is a blogger of Moroccan descent living in Sint-Joost-ten-Node [another municipality of Brussels]. Rachid notices how many youngsters turn their back on the society they grew up in. “Second and third generation migrants no longer believe that a life of study, career and retirement is fit for them and consider their parents losers. They accuse their parents of being slaves to the West and the infidels. So it is a generational conflict as well, a revolt against their family. Parents are dead worried but no longer understand their offspring. They don’t know what their children are doing on the internet. In many Muslim families there is a complete sense of disunity. Young people reject the society in which they grew up. Religion guides their life, it is the meaning of their existence. But Islam as they understand it is not practiced here in Belgium.” […]

Call of Duty ISISZeguendi Khalil, editor in chief of Le Maroxellois, a magazine aimed at the Moroccan community, joins in. During one month and a half, Khalil listened to sermons with regard to the war in Syria in about twenty Mosques in Brussels. He concludes that imams warn their young audience against Jihad ideology and that imams sharply condemn ISIS terrorism. “However”, he says, “from our inquiry we know that members for Jihad are recruited through the internet nowadays, while this used to happen on the streets or in the near of Mosques.” Imported imams from Morocco or Turkey in Brussels don’t understand the young, Khalil explains. They don’t speak their language, nor know their culture and don’t have any clue whatsoever about Facebook or WhatsApp. “Imams fail. And so young Muslims, looking for meaning, construct their own version of Islam aided by Jihadist websites.”

We need positive role models, according to Khalil. Young Muslims who made it one way or the other should be put forward.

Young Islamologist Jessika Soors works as an official against radicalization in Vilvoorde. […] Although Jihadists justify their departure with the ideal of a holy war, many of them hardly knew anything about Islam and the Quran just before their sudden radicalization. “They’re religiously illiterate in many cases”, Soors says. […] ISIS appeals to vulnerable young people who are looking for a sense of self-worth and an all-encompassing identity.” […]

Young people who are bored here or who feel rejected, become members of ISIS in a quest for adventure. […] ISIS propaganda promises superstardom to those who feel lost in the West – all in the name of Allah.

MORE IN Knack, September 24, 2015, Voor Allah én het avontuur (p. 28-32), by Han Renard.


ANSWER TO THE FIRST QUESTION: NO. It is a clash within civilizations and cultures, not between them. Radicalized young Muslims seem to reject western society (although things like ISIS propaganda films borrow their look from western action movies and video games), but they also turn their back on the culture of their family and the imported imams from Morocco and Turkey. They create a new counter-culture which thrives on the internet. Their religion is mainly a consequence, not a cause of their violent tendencies. And the terror boys grow beards like hipsters (or was it the other way around?).



Ahmed El Khanouss (CDH) is a jurat in Molenbeek, an impoverished municipality of Brussels and home to many migrants. Most of them are of Moroccan descent. […]

Khanouss notices how radicalization of youngsters expresses itself in two ways. “Some of them totally change their attitude. All of a sudden they become very demanding towards the women in their family, particularly with regard to their clothing, and they rebel against their parents. Others show no sign of radicalization until the day they leave. They wear brands and behave themselves like any western kid.” […]

MORE IN Knack, September 24, 2015, Voor Allah én het avontuur (p. 28-32), by Han Renard.


“Porn-watching losers”. That’s how London mayor Boris Johnson described the Jihadists psychological profile. He claims paraphrasing a confidential report from intelligence service MI5. Jihadists don’t know how to approach women and feel rejected. To compensate for their lack of self-esteem they go to war. They could have equally become members of a youth gang. Johnson’s subtle analysis doesn’t get you very far in understanding a phenomenon like extremism, but he does point to another current topic: the fact that a sense of identity goes hand in hand with sexuality. And also the fact that many people feel lost when temptations and romantic feelings are the ultimate measure.

Radicalized young people are not capable of dealing with that kind of freedom. They look for a social framework with clearly established roles for men and women. They long for stable patterns. They loathe LGBT’s and women’s rights because they consider these to be disrupting. They want to go back to a clear definition of the masculine and the feminine. But the West has dismantled such definitions. It’s because of this context that any kind of extremism becomes attractive: it offers a simple solution, a clarity which leaves no room for doubt.

Loneliness and sexuality are also major themes in Michel Houellebecq’s “Soumission” (Submission), a novel displaying the advantages of a patriarchal society. The author considers the hypothesis that leftist parties in France form a coalition with an Islamic party led by Mohammed Ben Abbes. Ben Abbes thus becomes president of France in 2022. The paradox is that in the final round only rightwing conservative parties remain: Marine Le Pen (FN) is the opponent of Ben Abbes.Soumission Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq’s talent consists in capturing the spirit of the age like some contemporary Balzac or de Maupassant. His novel is about the difficult heritage of a free, libertarian consumerist society brought by May 1968. Islam plays an important part in resisting this new society. It fills an ideological void. France so eagerly destroyed part of its own tradition that neither Catholicism nor the proud Republican morality offer an alternative. Ben Abbes and his moderate Islam thus embody the possibility of a political conservatism, with more stable family relationships, law and order in the outskirts of the city and less unemployment: women stay at home. No more disruptions, no more failing romantic love affairs. Religion even answers the riddles of the universe.

Houellebecq suggests that many men would be prepared to get rid of feminism. Many of them don’t care about a postmodernist ideology that leaves every individual the possibility to define its own (sexual) identity. […]

MORE IN De Standaard, February 2, 2015, Over radicale jongeren en seks (Column Tinneke Beeckman).

male dominated cultures cartoon


ANSWER TO THE SECOND QUESTION: MAYBE. At least it seems part of it. Western society seems liberating for women but it has its own forms of sexism. The question whether or not a certain image of women is oppressive depends on the motivations that guide women to uphold that image. If women conduct themselves in a certain way to gain social recognition or because of a fear of social rejection, they actually don’t accept themselves and they will tend to look down on women who make other choices (forms of auto-aggression lead to forms of hetero-aggression).

More generally, from a patriarchal viewpoint, socially and sexually emancipated women (who make their own choices, in whatever direction – “chaste” or “not so chaste”) are often experienced as a threat. René Girard helps us understand why women are depicted as troublemakers and how they, more specifically (sexually) emancipated women, become scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for all kinds of evil in the world. The sexist reasoning often goes something like this. Emancipated women are no longer dependent on their husbands. This means that they can more easily divorce them. Divorces potentially trouble the mind of children and youngsters, who might lose the security of a “home”. Hence juvenile delinquency could increase as young people get together in gangs to create a sense of self-worth and identity. Thus the stability of society as a whole is threatened by women who refuse to remain faithful to the man they’re married off to. Moreover, sexually independent women can stir rivalry and violence between men, which once again destabilizes the internal cohesion of a community. Indeed, sex (eros) might lead to death (thanatos).

Stoning a Woman for Adultery (Qajar Era)To avoid these potential troubles patriarchal societies have the tendency to suppress the freedom of women. This means women have to pay for the potential rivalry between men and the potential lack of responsibility of other members of the society. Instead of taking responsibility for their rivalrous and even violent desires and instead of taking control of them, patriarchal men blame women for their own behavior. And instead of taking more responsibility as a parent, patriarchal men also blame women if their offspring ends up on the wrong track… Peace and order in society, according to the patriarchal system, can only be obtained by keeping women in check. In other words, women and their freedom are violently sacrificed in order to establish “peace and quiet”.

It is no surprise that emancipated women are targeted as “symbols” of a “decadent western society”. Radicalized young Muslims who grew up with the “great expectations” sold by the West’s consumerist society but who started resenting that very same society once they felt rejected, come to the same conclusions as some old white conservative fundamentalist Christians. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed “the gays and the lesbians and the feminists” for 9/11 (click here for more on this).

Apart from pointing to the West’s hypocritical stance towards the suffering of Muslims in the world, young radicalized Muslims justify their terrorist actions by pointing to the so-called decadence of western society’s tolerance for “the gays and the lesbians and the feminists”. Some fundamentalist Christians claim the West has to blame itself for the terrorist attacks it experiences, as some radicalized Muslims claim the West has to blame itself for the terrorist attacks it experiences. Once again, it is not “the Christian West” against “the Islamic East”, it is NOT A CLASH BETWEEN CIVILIZATIONS, but a clash within a globalizing consumerist world. Indeed, economic interests are often the key factors in international policymaking decisions, more than a concern for human rights – although the West always claims it defends “modern democracy”. This doesn’t mean that terrorists are justified in using this hypocrisy to violate human rights themselves, but the fact remains they do justify their actions in this way. Terrorists often don’t belong to “the poorest of the poor”, but also to relatively “wealthy” people who feel western society creates “injustices”. Of course a so-called “individualist” society is good for the economy (instead of selling one car to a family you sell three as a car dealer since Mum, Dad and Son or Daughter are all busy developing their very own “project” in life), but it also destabilizes “traditional” family relationships (Mum, Dad and Son or Daughter are doing “their own thing”). And more consumption might lead to more environmental issues. Hell, from the viewpoint of some twisted patriarchal minds, the emancipation of women and other individuals might even cause a catastrophic apocalyptic climate change!

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (Vasily Polenov)As for the Jesus Christ of the Gospels: he is a “destabilizer”. How about that, Pat Robertson? Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader and their God till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.

Peace I leave with youOpposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrination, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.

In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”



Ernst Kat, a convert, is active as an “Islamic psychologist” who treats lots of radicalized youngsters. […] “Part of the Jihadists have serious mental issues”, he says. “Many of them suffer from paranoia. They distrust others and they heavily engage in conspiracy theories. They feel rejected by society and have developed hypersensitivity. […] Their problems can also cause an enormous depression. They remain motionless, feel banned and are at a dead end. When recruiters approach these psychologically vulnerable young people and offer them an orderly model like Jihad this can be very attractive. It can cause a rapid radicalization. But most of them are not violent towards others. They become auto-aggressive.”

MORE IN Knack, January 14, 2015, Het monster zit vanbinnen (p. 36-37), by Chris Destoop.


Since a couple of years Marion Van San has been conducting a research into families of young people who went to war in Syria, implying that she is closely connected to about ninety such families. […]

Van San defends the idea that “the more young people are integrated, the more they are susceptible to radicalization”. Children and grandchildren of immigrants are born and raised here, and they want to be accepted. “The consequence is that their social expectations are higher than those of others and that they are often more sensitive about (supposed and real) discrimination”, Van San writes.

MORE IN De Standaard, February 2, 2015, Radicalisering dreigt vooral bij geïntegreerde jongeren (Politiek, p. 5).


ANSWER TO THE THIRD QUESTION: YES. It is a clash within and between human beings who feel rejected by and reject each other. Instead of discovering a Love that allows them to accept themselves even if they are rejected (or feel rejected) by their social environment, they develop forms of auto- and hetero-aggression to create a sense of “pride” and “social status”. To put things Biblically (and in the words of Bruce Springsteen), “Adam raised a Cain” (click to watch). John Steinbeck magnificently summarizes the universal meaning of the Cain and Abel story in his novel East of Eden.

Adam raised a Cain (Bruce Springsteen)

All of us are like Cain, one way or the other, but young radicalized ISIS terrorists commit the sin of murder and show the lack of neighborly love in the most gruesome way. As the Chinese butler Lee explains in Steinbeck’s novel in his comments on the meaning of the Cain and Abel story, the individual biography of many a young ISIS terrorist and the history of the world would have looked quite different without the feeling of rejection and with the acceptance of Love:

East of Eden John Steinbeck Cover“I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now – don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there – the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides the secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world – and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal. Now wait! Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul – the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”

Well, here’s my attempt at creating a “Girardian” image. René Girard constantly demonstrates how enemies have the tendency to imitate each other, although rather unwittingly. The more they resemble each other, the more they strive to differentiate themselves from each other, which tragically ends up in an even more undifferentiated monstrous cycle of mutual aversion and violence – a cycle of revenge…


True Islam is Violent Mimetic Defenders and Enemies

Enemies become “mimetic doubles”. Today’s fight over so-called “True Islam” as a religion that supposedly justifies violence is but one example of a mimetic (i.e. imitative) interdependence between “defenders” and “attackers”. I highly recommend René Girard’s Battling to the End in this regard (find an extensive review by clicking here).

A slightly different version of the same image:

True Islam is Violent (by Mimetic Doubles)

One more:

True Islam is Violent Mimetic Fight

“It’s because of his ADHD. It’s because of her ADD. It’s because of a difficult situation at home. It’s because he is highly intelligent: he is not challenged enough to study more thoroughly. It’s the teachers: they don’t explain things well enough, they’re boring. It’s because of the educators: they take aim at him and don’t give him any chances. It’s because of the break-up with her boyfriend. It’s because she hit puberty and goes through a difficult time. It’s because he is young and wants to experiment: that’s why he is not motivated to do school and that’s why he colors outside the lines sometimes. You have to understand. After all, it’s good that he’s somewhat a ‘rebel’ at school, isn’t it? It shows character and personality…”

culture of victimhood calvinWe’re all victims, right? If not of our hormones, then of a certain affection, or of ‘circumstances’ and other people. Well, first of all, it’s a good thing that people are acknowledged as victims of whatever it is that makes their life difficult or hurtful. If you’re lucky, then mommy and daddy will find their way to the right institutions to help you. If you’re lucky, your parents can pay for psychologists, psychiatrists, tutors, medicines, and leave you in the hands of professional educators (perhaps at a boarding school) or provide you with a secure and satisfying future at the family firm. In short, if you’re lucky you’ll find your way to people who will help you to overcome an all too comfortable self-definition by what haunts or victimizes you.

If you’re not that lucky, you might fall into the hands of people who confirm and magnify your victimhood, allowing you to accuse whatever ‘scapegoat’ (see René Girard) you can find to deny personal freedom and responsibility. And let’s face it: today’s culture often is a victimhood culture, where everybody plays the ‘blame game’ in order to protect a narcissistic self-image. Indeed, a reasoning like the following is quite common: “If I’d work harder, I’d be able to graduate as a doctor – I do possess the intrinsic qualities -, but my ADD and the fact that teachers don’t pay attention to my particular problem, destroy my motivation and cause me to fail.” This kind of narcissism is supported sometimes by parents as well, for they often do not like to acknowledge that, maybe, their kid has other talents.

Calvin and Hobbes

Every teacher or educator knows how difficult it can be to motivate certain students to work for school. Even in the best of circumstances, with every help possible, some students simply justify their negative attitude with every possible excuse. Rather than fully admit that their child acts as a ‘loon’ or a ‘brat’ in some cases, some parents even plead for a very soft treatment of their child’s misbehavior by pointing out that he or she is just ‘being young’ and ‘showing personality’. As if their child really is some kind of rebel hero. That’s why, in some classrooms, the brat can become a model that deserves imitation. Indeed, in some classrooms students feel ashamed, even guilty, of being a hardworking student. They would prefer making a laughing stock out of other hardworking students than admit being hardworking themselves. Self-denial and betraying (the relationship and affiliation with) others: the two sides of the coin that is the love for one’s self-image – a man-made, social ‘idol’, becoming the goal of one’s life.

Add to this cocktail of excuses the conviction that ‘society as a whole’ is ‘against you’, and you get the sort of victimhood mentality in places like Molenbeek, a district of Brussels known as a breeding ground for radical, young Muslims. Would you still study, as an adolescent in today’s distracting society, if you can convince yourself that ‘it doesn’t make any difference’, that you’re discriminated anyway (even if this isn’t true!)?

I often wonder about some of the students I teach: what would happen to those who are allowed to cultivate an attitude of victimhood, or worse, of heroism in not working for school if this was not happening in the best possible circumstances? What if they wouldn’t be ‘corrected’ by psychologists, tutors or educators (paid by the very parents who plead to go easy on their child’s misbehavior)? What if they would end up in unemployment without a graduation certificate, as a young Muslim? I’m sure they would continue the all too human narcissistic inclination to blame ‘others’ for their detrimental situation. And I’m also pretty sure that they could find comfort in the stories and propaganda of ISIS recruiters. After all, this propaganda confirms their idea of being victims, while it also provides them with a counter-culture that makes them heroic martyrs for God. This counter-culture is appealing to non-Muslims as well and attracts converts, as there are many people who no longer feel ‘at ease’ in today’s consumer and performance based society. All in all, considering the circumstances some young people grow up in, it may be a miracle that not more of them become Jihadists. There’s hope.

Young Muslim women stand hand-in-hand in front of the Oslo Synagogue during the "Ring of Peace" vigil, February 21, 2015. The vigil was organized by Muslim youth in solidarity with Norway's Jewish community following anti-Jewish attacks in Denmark and other parts of Europe.

In any case, there is no real difference between one loon and the next. It just so happens that one is characterized as an ‘adventurous youth’, making ‘youthful mistakes’ that are eventually rectified, while the other is perceived as someone who should blame himself for blowing his chances on a good education and social future. Only narcissist hypocrites will maintain that there is a difference between ‘my kid’ and ‘that kid’. The dress may be different (secular or religious), but we’re all human after all, experiencing similar challenges and temptations.

As hinted at earlier, the victimhood mentality often not only affects those young Muslims or ‘converts’ who are unemployed and indeed find it difficult to assert themselves in society, but it can also poison the minds of young Muslims or ‘converts’ with a rather prosperous life. Like the hardworking student who starts feeling ashamed of being a hardworking student in front of a ‘brat mentality’, the prosperous young Muslim might start feeling guilty or responsible for his supposedly discriminated friends or ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’. Sometimes this discrimination will be real, but in other cases it will be imagined.

ISIS propaganda will try to magnify the story of ‘oppressed Muslims’ and ‘the oppression of Islam’ in order to justify further terrorist acts and atrocities. So the worst we can do, here in the West, is to start discriminating Muslims in general and limit their freedom to practice their religion as fellow citizens (bound by the same laws and rights in a democratic nation, based on the separation between “church/religion/culture” and “state”). Discriminating Muslims would only add to the propaganda of ISIS and confirm its story that ‘Muslims are generally oppressed victims’. ISIS has already poisoned enough vulnerable minds with their propaganda. Why should we too believe that they are the only ‘true representatives of Islam’? Moreover, if we would make it difficult for Muslims to practice their religion publicly, and make it even harder for Muslims to enter into a social and political dialogue where Islam can be a point of debate as well as inspiration, violent versions of it will continue to flourish on the internet. You don’t take porn away nor perverted forms of sexuality on the internet if you make sex taboo. Also, you don’t create a breeding ground for rape and perverted forms of sexuality/(religion) when you enjoy and even “promote” healthy forms of cultivated sexuality/(religion). On the contrary.

Of course Islam lends itself to an interpretation that confirms people in their ideas of victimhood and heroism. Of course Islam lends itself to an interpretation that allows people to ‘heroically purify’ the world through mass killings. But it’s only one of the many possible ideologies to justify a contagious narcissism and self-denial on the one hand, and the sacrifice of others on the other. As history shows, people who feel victimized or threatened, or who long for a ‘heroic’ life, will always find a utopian, romantic story to justify their actions, whether that story be a secular political totalitarianism, a religious totalitarianism, or an individual totalitarianism like “I’m the rebel hero who challenges the educational system that oppresses me and my fellow students.”

Islam can equally be a source of true spirituality, i.e. a spirituality that is not ‘easily comforting’ and confirming a story of narcissistic victimhood and heroism, but a spirituality that allows people to look at themselves more honestly and truthfully. Ideologies, like friends, become dangerous and bad when they only confirm your self-image. Good friends are the ones who confront you with your drug addiction if you have one, with your anorexia if you’re developing this eating disorder, or with the cheap excuses you use to protect untruthful ideas about yourself. This might hurt at first, but eventually the truth can set you free. It might free you from all sorts of addictions, whether it be material goods, habits or illusions. And this is the condition to lovingly – which is not the same as ‘gently’ or ‘comfortingly’ – approach others as well.

The Greater Jihad - Do it Right

Instead of feeling ashamed of not participating in a so-called ‘heroic’ struggle against the so-called external ‘enemies of Islam’, the inner spiritual struggle – ‘the greater Jihad’ – allows Muslims to debunk romantic ideas of victimhood and to destroy the man-made idols of ‘violent, heroic martyrdom’. And when there is no such God, no such man-made idol or ideology, left to blame (as a justification), violent suicides and murders can be seen for what they are: as purely human actions for which humans carry responsibility. Only then can there be truly liberating tears of a different kind of shame and remorse: the regret one experiences for having sinned against the Love that connects people to themselves as well as others, contrary to the love for one’s socially constructed self-image which alienates people from themselves and others.

The transformation of the human heart… That would be the true miracle…

“In the end, she’s just a mere mortal, just like all the rest of us, just like me…” It’s something we hear quite often, explicitly or implicitly, when people talk about “the rich, the famous and/or the geniuses” of this world. Why is it that we often like to read what tabloid newspapers write about these people? Why is it that we often like to gossip about our local or global heroes or celebrities? What kind of desire is satisfied that we enjoy this kind of thing?

Well, for one thing, we’re living in a world of internal mediation (René Girard). Modern democracy got rid of a social hierarchy – in principle that is – and now everyone can take everyone else as a model or mediator for personal ambitions. Premodern societies would not allow “the lower ranks” to compare themselves to the higher-ups, thus trying to keep an internal order and stability. Today, however, everyone can rival the position of everyone else, based on the premise of equal rights and chances for all. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) sharply characterizes this situation and its potential destructive consequences in his work Leviathan, at the dawn of modernity:

“From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore, if any two men desire the same thing which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and, in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation and sometimes their delectation only, endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (XIII).

“Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war; because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other. Particularly, competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead, to these ascribing more than due, that they may obscure the glory of the other.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (XI).

StarsWe constantly receive the message that “everything is possible with hard work and perseverance”. On the other hand we also experience that some people seem “ahead of others”. These so-called “winners” are often admired, but in other circumstances they’re envied (also by some of their admirers!) as they seem to frustrate the ambitions they awaken in other people. One way to deal with the frustrations arising out of the comparison with “the people ahead of others” is to downplay their status or success by convincing ourselves that “they are just like us” – mere mortals, with flaws, everyday struggles and problems. Or by convincing ourselves that “they are even less like us, we’re superior to them” – in moral terms, for instance, by portraying them as “decadent” or “corrupt”. One could say that the sociological function of the tabloid newspaper or of gossip in general is precisely that. It helps us deal with the fact that we are not part of the world of “the rich, the famous and/or the geniuses” by comforting ourselves with the thought that those people are, at least, “just like us”.

they're not like usBy downplaying the status of “stars” we try to elevate our own position, we try to reach the status we desire. We try to surpass the status we initially (sometimes subconsciously) admired and idolized, then came to envy and eventually resented. In yet other words, the position of others we sometimes initially idolized is replaced by a feeling of superiority of ourselves. Instead of idolizing the image of others, we idolize a certain self-image. That’s why we quite easily distance ourselves from those others who are perceived as “marginal people” – be it criminals, poor people, crazy people, certain sick people, refugees, drug addicts, or “sinners”. Contrary to our often initial reaction to “the stars” in the tabloids, our first response to a confrontation with “the marginal people” is often the feeling that “they are not like us”.

In both instances our sense of identity and self-idolatry arise from our spontaneous tendency to compare ourselves to others (made possible by our mimetic – i.e. imitative – abilities). One of the main reasons why people are scandalized by Jesus of Nazareth is that he constantly challenges these narcissistic self-concepts. See, for instance, Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In short, the narcissist – like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus – distances himself from “the bad guys” (they’re not like me) while he downplays the geniuses around him (they’re like me), in order to idolize his self-image. Our ideologies and all sorts of so-called “spirituality” or “meditation” are often at the service of the untruthful, non-realistic ideas of ourselves. They make us “feel good” and “happy”, like some antidepressant pills we take, and they alienate us from ourselves and others. The ideology of a terrorist group like ISIS is but one extreme example of a false spirituality. “Snobbery” and the “bourgeois mentality” another. On the other hand, every true spirituality has to do with some kind of permanent crisis of the narcissistic self-concept or “Ego”. It shatters our self-righteousness and complacency, and makes us realize that we are never perfect, never complete, never finished.

While all of this might seem devastating at first, it is also liberating, especially when experienced in the realm of forgiveness. Once you realize that you are not that unique, that you are more like “the sinners” (the majority of mankind) than you would acknowledge previously, and that you are less like “the righteous” than you thought you were, you become less ashamed of yourself. If there is shame in this realization, then it is the shame of the hurt you brought to others while you were practicing the idolatry of a certain (self-)image. “To kill the idol of self-complacent narcissism” thus might be the beginning of a restoration of the love in and between ourselves and others.

René Girard explains how this realization in forgiveness  (that people are more like “sinners” than they would acknowledge) is at the core of the conversion experience of Peter, Paul and the other disciples of Jesus. What enables Peter, Paul and others to become “saints” thus precisely and paradoxically is their realization that they are not “saints” (i.e. that they are far from ever being “perfect”). This truly spiritual experience, which enables people to face reality, is also the experience that guided René Girard himself throughout his life. René Girard gets to the essence of what a conversion to Christ should be all about in his explanation of the denial of Peter (click to watch):

An anecdote of C.S. Lewis (who converted from atheism to Christianity, as is well-known) also illustrates quite nicely how the acknowledgement that we are more like the so-called “bad people who bring misery upon themselves” restores neighborly love – thus is the inspiration of Christ:

C S LewisOne day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road and came upon a street person who reached out to them for help. While his friend kept walking, Lewis stopped and proceeded to empty his wallet. When they resumed their journey, his friend asked, “What are you doing giving him your money like that? Don’t you know he’s just going to squander all that on ale (beer)?” Lewis paused and replied, “That’s all I was going to do with it.”

“To kill the idol of self-complacent narcissism” also opens up the possibility of further personal growth (contrary to the situation of the self-complacent person who thinks he “has arrived”) and a more truthful connection to reality as a whole. Indeed, our mimetic ability might stir some frustrations as we compare ourselves to others and find that we cannot achieve what they achieved, but it also allows us to discover the other as “other” than ourselves. Instead of reducing the other to a mere idol or puppet at the service of non-realistic ideas of ourselves (be it ideas of unworthiness or superiority, or both), we then also might discover the other as a source of inspiration. Once we find ourselves loved for who we are, we can enjoy the talents of others without feeling threatened, or without the tendency to downplay the unique gift they bring to the table. Instead of bowing to the false (because untruthful) transcendence of narcissistic self-concepts, we can then be inspired by the other who is not like us – and in that sense truly transcends us. The paradox is that this kind of relationship allows the other and ourselves to be uniquely “our own”. To put it simply: I don’t have to be the next Lionel Messi in soccer to be inspired by the dedication he brings to his craft. I can imitate his kind of dedication in my own “field” without becoming him, or rivaling him. On the contrary, loyal to my own unique “vocation” I can take his genius as a model, becoming more “who I am” than before. In short, next to all the variants of idolatry and detestation in our relationship to others, there is the attitude of inspiration and being inspired. The first find their source in love for one’s self-image, the second in love for oneself and others.

So yes, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Blaise Pascal, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis of Assisi, Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha are geniuses. They are “not like us”, they are “not like me”. And yes, they are “mortals” one way or the other, but they also gave something to the world from a realm “that lasts”. To be inspired by them is to be inspired to a life of an often demanding and difficult, but also enduring and eventually fulfilling love. A love that allows us “to find our own voice and genius” and enables us “to add something that lasts, even if it’s not directly visible or measurable”.

René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), his person and his work, testified to Love in unique and humble ways. He will be among the sources of inspiration, together with “all God’s children” – the meek and lowly in heart.

Modern democracy makes it possible for each individual citizen to hold, express and exercise ‘own’ opinions and ethical principles, ‘own’ religious views and ‘own’ cultural preferences as long as they do not go against the democratically established laws of a particular state. A society of such individuals should, by its very nature, become ‘multicultural’ and ‘multi-religious’. And yet, what often happens is that many people insist on having their very ‘own’ opinion while the specific content of that opinion is the same as nearly everyone else’s. So the paradox is that a mono-culture arises of citizens who all understand themselves in the same way: as being autonomous individuals who make their own choices and pursue their own projects. This is the cultural mantra of the West. The very idea of having ‘own ideas’ is more important than really having them.

down with conformity

In reality, ‘diversity’ is often not defined in terms of specific values or belief systems (be it theist or atheist convictions and opinions), but in terms of economic value. Hence ‘culture’ becomes a matter of ‘taste’ and ‘lifestyle’ more than anything else. The more people believe that they have their own individuality to construct or to express, the more manufacturers and producers can launch something ‘original’ to satisfy the self-concept of potential consumers.

Be like all your friends and express your individualityConformity Homogeneous Originality

cultural conformity cartoon

It should be noted that producers want to make money. They want to launch ‘the next trend’ rather than satisfy the supposedly very specific demands of one very unique individual. In other words, the illusion that we are autonomous individuals (mensonge romantique in the words of René Girard) who constantly have to make own choices keeps us at the marketplace where we are offered competing choices by different producers. [Moreover, we wouldn’t experience the desire to be original if we were.] Commercials make use of powerful models to guide these choices and that’s how, eventually and again paradoxically, new types of conformity are established (as people imitate those powerful models and each other – for more on this, read La Mode(rnity), a previous post).


It is remarkable how some people, who are convinced that they have very own individual opinions and views, all of a sudden make reference to something like “our culture, our values, our convictions and our habits” when they are confronted with “strangers”. Some voices in Europe consider the refugees as a threat to their particular state, both economically and culturally. Moreover, it is often the so-called ‘cultural difference’ that is presented as one of the main obstacles to social and economic integration of refugees. Multiculturalism Tolerance CartoonOnce again, as so many times in the history of mankind, it is the perception of a common threat or enemy that structures a common identity – past internal differences that, in light of that common threat, eventually don’t seem very fundamental. See, for instance, how the German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859-1941) begins his speech at the outbreak of the first world war (Source: Kriegs-Rundschau I, p. 43 – Original German text reprinted in Wolfdieter Bihl, ed. Deutsche Quellen zur Geschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges [German Sources on the History of the First World War]. Darmstadt, 1991, p. 49; Translation: Jeffrey Verhey) – Berlin, August 1, 1914:

“I thank all of you for the love and loyalty that you have shown me these past days. These were serious days, like seldom before. Should it now come to a battle, then there will be no more political parties. I, too, was attacked by the one or the other party. That was in peace. I forgive you now from the depths of my heart. I no longer recognize any parties or any confessions; today we are all German brothers and only German brothers. If our neighbors want it no other way, if our neighbors do not grant us peace, then I hope to God that our good German sword will see us through to victory in these difficult battles.”

Let us hope that we Europeans, faced with the refugees coming to Europe, do acknowledge our internal cultural diversity so that we might discover in a new light our shared humanity as living out the possibility that the other may be truly ‘other’.

It is often said that René Girard is like “the Einstein or Darwin of the social sciences or the humanities”. According to Girard, however, the social sciences as such as they came to flourish in the West’s modern age, and his own contributions are only possible because of a “superior” knowledge revealed in Judeo-Christian tradition. Jean-Pierre Dupuy puts Girard’s claim this way in his book The Mark of the Sacred – which is in many ways a further development of Girard’s main ideas:

Only a madman or a crackpot, disregarding all the conventions of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, could make the following outrageous claims today: That the history of humanity, considered in its entirety, and in spite – or rather because – of its sound and fury, has a meaning. That this meaning is accessible to us, and although a science of mankind now exists, it is not mankind that has made it. [And] that this science was given to mankind by divine revelation. That the truth of mankind is religious in nature…

That madman is René Girard.

In this post I will try to give a glimpse of the way mimetic theory is able to foster a fruitful dialogue between different strands of thought in the humanities and how this dialogue indeed seems the result of Judeo-Christian influence in the Western world. I try to show that mimetic theory is a good starting point, able to connect and sometimes “correct” (or “ground” more fundamentally) basic insights of people like Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Otto, Jean Piaget, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas and even a sociologist like Niklas Luhmann – among many others. But first I’ll give “the outcome” of my explorations, in a diagram (that was conceived for my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll).

From EROS (a mimetically mediated desire for recognition / a love for one’s self-image) to THANATOS (mental and/or physical “death”):

two potential destructive reactions following the confrontation with an (always mimetically) experienced difference between oneself and another (as an individual or collective entity).



Diagram Interdividual Psychology (Erik Buys)



Here are some text fragments from books I have been reading that led me to an even better understanding of my own diagram :). Three books are involved: Totalité et infini by Emmanuel Levinas, For René Girard edited by Sandor Goodhart et al., and When These Things Begin by René Girard. I have to mention especially that, apart from Emmanuel Levinas and René Girard, I was very inspired by the texts of Eugene Webb, Wolfgang Palaver and Michael Hardin in For René Girard. After the quote from Levinas, I also give some personal comments as a guideline to somewhat connect the different text fragments. [For more on Girard and Levinas, click here].

Emmanuel Levinas:

La philosophie occidentale a été le plus souvent une ontologie: une réduction de l’Autre au Même, par l’entremise d’un terme moyen et neutre qui assure l’intelligence de l’être.

Translation: Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being.

(Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, Kluwer Academic, p.33-34).

Personal comments (also to the texts mentioned below):

It is important to note that Levinas speaks of a “reduction”. Whenever traditional Western philosophy thinks of what the kosmos is essentially made of, it always posits an “ideal”. The whole of reality then should be understood as a striving towards the manifestation of that ideal (Aristotle‘s entelechy), or at least as an attempt to manifestly distinguish the “eternal, ever-present ideal essence of reality” from “what reality sometimes seems to be but is not” (Plato‘s or Socrates‘s maieutics). The ideal essence of reality brings about an order (out of “chaos”) that actually is sacrificial, a “peace” that rests on the oppression of what seems to contradict the ideal. Hence one could say, together with Levinas, that the ideal – whatever features it gets in a particular philosophical system – reduces everything that is other than itself to itself. However, what enables this reduction precisely is the fact that there indeed really is something “other” to reduce to begin with! So one could say that whenever some ideal is postulated as “the essence” or “the being itself” of reality, the “fuller” or “more true” being of reality is “forgotten.” Being is reduced to a goal oriented movement from an incomplete world (the subject of movement) toward a “perfect” world (the object of movement).

Martin Heidegger identified the subject-object dichotomy as the Seinsvergessenheit (forgetting of being) of traditional Western metaphysics. He tried to “go back”, beyond the order of clearly defined dichotomies (the law of non-contradiction of course being one of them) towards a thinking inspired by the poets – who remain much closer to the unresolvable ambiguities of reality. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, by leaving the unavoidably sacrificial peace of a so-called ideal world order and philosophy behind, Heidegger’s philosophy at first could not resist the temptation of glorifying and unleashing the powers of violence as part of the “revelation of truth” (see his interpretation of the Greek aletheia). In a profound sense he continued the philosophical project begun by Friedrich Nietzsche, without however “moralizing” his ontology (in a renewed sacrificial hero-cult).

As far as I interpret and try to understand both Heidegger and Levinas, Heidegger considers violence (understood as the “struggle or concern for being”) as the basic answer to the ever-present possibility of death, while Levinas points to another possibility as far as human beings are concerned: the encounter with the Other (my fellow human being, my neighbor). In encountering the Other I discover my own struggle for being (against the fearful possibility of death) as a potential threat to the life of the Other. In other words, I get to know my own being as a potentially violent being. It is the “disinterested connection” to the Other – in other words “love without ulterior motives” – that both limits and opens up my struggle for being to a “being for the Other.”

Speaking with René Girard, it’s our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that connects us to the Other and that also allows us to discover the irreducible nature of the Other. True, it’s our mimetic ability that allows us to empathize with the Other, to “feel one” with the Other (to be able to “pretend” that we are the Other and to imagine what he feels, expects or desires we have to be able to imitate him). But on the other hand, the process of mimesis is only possible because of a distance, an insurmountable gap between myself and the Other, that is discovered precisely in the act itself of mimesis!

Because we are mimetically connected to each other, we are able to adapt ourselves to an image that we think would answer to the expectations of the other. When this becomes our main preoccupation, we reduce each other to mere means to fulfill a mimetically generated desire for recognition. Let me try to explain this a little better.

The originally disinterested connection to the Other (upon which all “interested” connections are – “parasitically, satanically” – dependent) might be corrupted when we imitate each other’s desires. It’s because you are (mimetically) able to identify yourself with the desires of others that you, first, might discover yourself as an object of (their) desire and, second, that you might discover someone else as well as object of (their) desire. Because your desire imitates (and is thus engendered by) the desires of others, your desire towards yourself as the object of the desires of others will generate admiration or envy towards that other who seems to be also desired by others. You’re not only mimetically able to identify with the desires of others to discover yourself as an object of desire, but you’re also able to mimetically identify yourself with an other who seems to posses the desire (and thus recognition) of others. What happens, time and again, is that we develop a desire to be like an admired / envied other. This implies that we cannot love ourselves anymore, but it also implies that we can no longer love the other. We often desire recognition, not for ourselves, but for the prestige we have constructed in jealously comparing ourselves – not to others, but to what we imagine about others. We, as human beings, don’t just want what we need, we want what seems desirable by others as well (the BMW instead of…), and this grants us prestige.

GoetheSee this insightful quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his The Sorrows of Young Werther: We are so constituted by nature, that we are ever prone to compare ourselves with others; and our happiness or misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude: there our imagination, always disposed to rise, taking a new flight on the wings of fancy, pictures to us a chain of beings of whom we seem the most inferior. All things appear greater than they really are, and all seem superior to us. This operation of the mind is quite natural: we so continually feel our own imperfections, and fancy we perceive in others the qualities we do not possess, attributing to them also all (those talents) that we enjoy ourselves, that by this process we form the idea of a perfect, happy man, — a man, however, who only exists in our own imagination.

The Sorrows of Young Werther Goethe quote

As René Girard shows in discussing the presence of mimetic desire in groups of primitive humans, the mutually (mimetically) enforced competitive desire for prestige – mimetic desire, in short – might spread throughout individuals of the same group in such a way that the group finds itself in a veritable crisis wherein all differences disappear and each rival resembles the others more and more. The solution to this crisis might be the mimetic unification against one rival. Indeed, my (or another’s) rival might become the enemy of all if everyone imitates my enmity against that rival. The war of all against all becomes the war of all against one, and a new difference – a new foundation for further differences and order – is established. When the common enemy is banned from the group or even beaten to death, the scapegoat mechanism sets in. The group experienced turmoil as long as their victim was around, while, on the other hand, it experiences a renewed stability when the victim is no longer around or alive – the victim is present as dead. According to Girard, groups of primitive humans gradually projected their own violence unto the victims of group violence, wrongfully experiencing these victims as responsible both for crisis and the resolution of crisis.

Also gradually, primitive communities will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were, in other words, scapegoats. [For more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion, click here].

Girard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred. The ambiguity of the erstwhile victims of group violence also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad… Good aspects of the gods can be allowed in rituals, while bad aspects of the gods are forbidden and taboo. For instance, sacrifice is a form of ‘good’ (controlled) sacred violence to be distinguished from ‘bad’ sacred violence, which is to be avoided and is taboo…

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations, albeit in varying forms (human sacrifice becoming animal sacrifice, for instance). The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus. Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

The image or model for the cultural order in a particular society – with its particular taboos and rituals that have to be respected – rests on the wrongful perception of the victims of group violence. Human culture can be understood as the continuous attempt to justify the violent death (murder or suicide) of one (monstrous and/or heroic) member for the salvation of (the order in) a whole group. Christianity, however, undermines this justification. Christ is a victim of the same sacrificial system which grounds human culture, but he is said to be innocent! This allows human beings to discover the true origin of violence and crisis. It is not something “alien” that comes from the gods and is demanded or justified by them, it’s something that comes from (mimetic) interactions between human beings themselves. Hence the possibility of a “true” psychology, sociology and anthropology. The Christ event also allows human beings to (re)discover their own responsibility before each “Other” and to part ways with the justification of a sacrificial order – whether expressed in mythology or philosophy. In a paradoxical way, Christ invites us to imitate him and to sacrifice our sacrificial identity. Instead of just imitating and accepting a given order, we should ask ourselves at what (or better, whose) expense we continue this order.

One final remark. The abandonment of sacrifice to ground a given order is, as Girard has shown following Judeo-Christian revelation, deeply ambiguous: it allows for new types of competition, rivalry and even violence between human beings as it also allows for “Love born out of freedom” for each Other (true Love that is, not out of fear of not having an admirable “self-image”).

In short, the image of an ideal world – in whatever context of human life – results from mimetically mediated desires between human beings, and is, as we have said already above, essentially sacrificial. It does not only “forget” the “otherness” of the Other, but also the “otherness” of myself. To escape this mimetically generated tendency to (mentally and/or physically) “kill” myself and the Other in favor of the idol of “an ideal”, we should redirect our mimetic faculties to their origin: the mysterious, disinterested connection to the Other – Love. Historically, the Christ event unleashes the possibility of this redirection in a fundamental way.

Emmanuel Levinas Qote on Faith

Eugene Webb:

Lacan proceeded more directly from the tradition of Freud than did Girard, and he uses the imagery of sacrifice in a more positive way, but both can be interpreted as revisionist figures in the Freudian tradition. For both, desire tends to have a mimetic character, in that it is closely tied up with the perceived or presumed desires of others. Also for both, desire tends to be metaphysical, in that it generates a falsely conceived self. For Lacan, the false self is any object (a person or an image) in which the ego tends to lose itself through identification, but it is especially the objectified image of a self that forms in what Lacan termed “the mirror stage” of development, the child’s “jubilant assumption of his specular image.” Out of this enchantment by one’s own objectified image evolves what Lacan called l’imaginaire: a fundamentally narcissistic fascination that tends to draw all relationships into an unrealistic and futile striving for identification with an objectified “other” – one’s own self-image, or the mother, or some other object – in a sort of “fusional cannibalism.” In this process, the individual confuses his and the other’s desires, seeking to see himself as the object of the other’s desire and, by imaginative identification with that other, to desire himself with that same desire, so as to believe in his own reality as an object. Put concisely, the fundamental human temptation is to avoid the risk of being an actual subject by becoming an imaginary object. […] Despite Girard’s distrust of the language of sacrifice, there is a sense in which the transcendence Girard seeks of the self generated by mimetic desire could also be described as something like the sacrifice of a false self for the sake of discovering a new, true life animated by the spirit that was in Christ.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.151).

Wolfgang Palaver:

It was Eric Voegelin‘s comparison of Hobbes and Augustine that… opened my eyes and made me realize how far Hobbes had departed from Christian tradition. Voegelin’s insight – that Hobbes’s description of human nature is nothing but a description of pride, a “passion aggravated by comparison” – helped me to connect this departure with mimetic theory. Whereas Augustine distinguished the love of self (amor sui) from the love of God (amor Dei), Hobbes “threw out the amor Dei and relied for his psychology on the amor sui, in his language the self-conceit or pride of the individual, alone.” Christianity, in accordance with the biblical Revelation, always emphasized the human orientation primarily toward eternal or heavenly transcendent goods – especially the love of God – to avoid the lethal trap of mimetic rivalry following the soul’s longing for temporal goods. Both Augustine and Hobbes were aware how much human violence is rooted in mimetic rivalry. But it was only the Church Father who realized that there is a way out of this deadlock – namely, by searching first for the kingdom of God. This is the same insight that is expressed in the Ten Commandments. We are only able to follow the tenth commandment – the rule against mimetic rivalry – if we obey the first commandment and overcome idolatry.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.192-193).

Michael Hardin:

At the Cross, our god concepts die. The New Testament writers and early Church Fathers called this death of the god concepts the conquering of the satanic powers, the powers that rule human life. In the Cross of Jesus, the horizon of the kingdom of God’s love and forgiveness is opened and our self-understanding is transformed, as we relate no longer to the gods of this world but to the Creator of heaven and earth. […] We become those who no longer imitate the desires of the world, the kosmos structured on a dysfunctional logos (1 John 2:15ff), but instead, like Jesus, become those who seek God and God’s rule with a singular focus. This transformation does not remove us from the world but enables us to be active agents of the transforming character of the love of God in all our relationships. […] The New Testament writers perceived the great power behind the imitation of the love of God expressed in Jesus. To desire as Jesus desired is to desire the transcendent in the immanent neighbor, to recognize that love of God and love of neighbor form a unity that cannot be broken. Rather than separating theology and ethics, mimetic theory grounds each in the other in the redemptive event of the Cross.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.267-268).

René Girard in conversation with Michel Treguer:

MT: What do you think of the famous “death drive” introduced by Freud?

RG: It’s a good example of pointless complication. In my view, the death drive exists, but it is entirely linked to mimetic rivalry. Mimetic desire makes you into the rival of your model: you fight with him over the object that he himself pointed out to you. This situation reinforces desire and increases the prestige of the obstacle as such. And the supreme obstacle, of course, is death, it’s what can kill you. The death drive is the logical outcome of this mechanism. But Freud is unable to link this paradoxically narcissistic desire for a biological, inanimate state to the other phases of the process; nor even, to use his own concepts, to link it to the Oedipus complex, for example, even though he’s perfectly aware of the latter’s mimetic nature. He contents himself in some sense with adding an extra drive. This motley assemblage inspires awe in the credulous, but if it can be simplified, we have to simplify it.

MT: This is the question that comes to mind as I listen to you: “death drive” or “drive to murder”?

RG: [A pause] It’s the same thing! And eroticism tends toward both. Just think about the symmetry of the processes at play. Take Romeo and Juliet, who are defined perfectly by Friar Lawrence: “These violent delights have violent ends” (Romeo and Juliet, II, vi, 9). It’s always forgotten that Shakespeare starts by showing us the young Romeo madly in love with a woman who wants nothing to do with him. Shakespeare’s plays always contain things that contradict in specular fashion the conventional – and stubbornly romantic – image that, in spite of everything, we have of them. The cult of the obstacle drives human beings from their human condition toward what is most against them, toward what hurts them the most, toward the non-human, toward the inert, toward the mineral, toward death… toward everything that goes against love, against spirit. The skandalon that the Gospels speak of in relation to covetousness is the obstacle that is increasingly attractive the more it pushes you away. You want it because it rejects you. This seesawing back and forth between attraction and repulsion cannot fail to be mutually destructive and destabilizing at first, before leading to utter annihilation. Refusing God is the same thing because God is the opposite of the skandalon. God died for human beings. Remaining blind to God while going for the first super model who comes along – that’s what human beings do.

(René Girard, When These Things Begin, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2014, p.106-107).

On a lighter note: there must be a reason why I like this beer so much… True, I liked it before I became a “Girardian” :), but since I got to know René Girard’s work I like it even better! Apparently, Girard’s name functions as a mediator that increases my desire for this beer. It sends out good associations, good vibrations…

gueuze girardin

To my fellow Girardians, I really hope you’ll get to taste this wonderful Belgian beer!


Dan wil je eens even niet bezig zijn met de onderwerpen van de mimetische theorie, stuurt Arno Couwenbergh – een kersverse oudleerling – dit artikel op uit Knack. Waarvoor dank :)!


Wie nog meer wil weten over Het empathische brein kan hier terecht.Keysers-Het empatische brein@7.indd

To my English reading friends: The Empathic Brain first appeared in English. It might be enlightening to read it together with Mimesis and Science – click here for more information on that book.

It is important to notice that empathy (developed through mimetic ability) is a two-edged sword. For more, click here.The Empathic Brain