January 8, 4042 (the future)

A so-called new atheist and a fundamentalist walk into a bar discussing a passage from the fundamentalist’s new Bible on “Richard Dawkins, the one and only true Messiah, who lived about 2000 years ago (at the dawn of the 20th century)”.

Richard Dawkins, the Enlightened One sent by God, had been severely persecuted during his lifetime by “the unenlightened peoples of the world”, but eventually his Spirit lived on. The story of his life had been written down by some of his later followers. None of them, however, had known Dawkins personally. They were all dependent on what eye witnesses had told them. No accounts by Dawkins himself or his immediate followers, the first Dawkinsians, were known.

Richard Dawkins Cult

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “It says here that he navigated many dangerous waters in his lifetime. So he was a skipper. This Book comes from God, so I know this claim to be true!”

New Atheist: “Archaeological research reveals that the very first manuscripts of your so-called Holy Book originated in the middle of the desert, among a group of so-called second generation followers of Richard Dawkins. Today researchers generally assume that the movement around Dawkins and the supposed Dawkins himself barely saw any waters at all. So that claim about “navigating many dangerous waters” and Dawkins being a skipper is just bollocks! Moreover, many elements of the stories around Dawkins are present in stories about famous figures of the time as well, like that Moses guy. Some of those celebrities are even completely fictional characters, like Bart Simpson. The story about Richard Dawkins seems assembled from other stories. So if Richard Dawkins ever existed at all remains to be seen!”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “God’s Holy Book contains the true knowledge and science, He can’t be lying. It would be against God’s very own nature to deceive us! You’re an arrogant sinner not to accept the divine truth!”

New Atheist: “Go on then, you idiotic arrogant Dawkinstard, trust those ridiculous revelations! I’ll go with real scientific evidence, though!”

Richard Dawkins The Atheist Evangelist.jpg

In comes a Dawkinsian Biblical scholar.

Dawkinsian Biblical Scholar: “Hey you guys, 2000 years ago that expression in that context meant that Dawkins encountered many complicated situations during his lifetime. So it is a metaphorical way to express something about a historical experience. Your whole discussion about whether or not Dawkins was a skipper is off-topic. That’s what the science of historical critical research tells us. The writers used the idiom of their time and the stories people already knew.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re not a true believer, you sinful corrupted traitor! You’re heir to the Catholidical Church of Dawkins, which is the Church of the Devil!”

New Atheist: “You’re a rationalizing apologist, stupid enough to waste your time on fairy tale nonsense. No one read the Bible that way at the time!”

In comes an atheist Biblical scholar.

Atheist Biblical scholar: “I must say my colleague, the Dawkinsian Biblical scholar, is right. He presents the scholarly consensus.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re a sinner too, you arrogant know-it-all!”

New Atheist: “Well you’re kind of an arrogant prick to claim the truth, you corrupted pseudo-scientist! Of course you defend the scholarly consensus, your career depends on it!”

Ban AtheismAfter which the fundamentalist Dawkinsian and the new atheistBan Religion continued their mimetic battle. It gave meaning to their lives as it provided them with a sense of superiority over their “stupid, stubborn and evil enemies”. However, as mimetic doubles they eventually became each other’s idiots, hurling similar insults back and forth. It seems every human being becomes that idiot from time to time. They accused each other of being the source of many evils in the world, and therefore saw themselves justified to promote politics that would eliminate the other’s world view.

The Dawkinsian and atheist Biblical scholar, on the other hand, went for a beer together. Or so the story goes…

Mimetic Doubles Fundamentalism and New Atheism

 

 

I live in Belgium.

Belgium is a small country in continental Europe, internationally known for its beer, chocolate, waffles, currently world class soccer team, Brussels (the capital and “the capital of Europe”) and, well… French fries.

gueuze girardin

A lot of Belgians also pride themselves on having one of the most liberal legislations concerning moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and LGBTI-rights (Belgium was the second country in the world to allow for gay marriage, for instance).

Some legislations definitely emancipated people from oppression by what was often perceived as “Catholic morality”. For years certain clerics indeed claimed the moral high ground in Belgium. Nowadays, especially since the child abuse scandal broke out in the Catholic Church, the tables have turned. So-called liberals have the strongest voice in traditional media like newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and they define what is morally preferable.

male dominated cultures cartoonIn short, secular liberals took the place of Catholic clerics on moral issues. The problem with this is that morality often is not constructed in a positive way, but that it is, in practice, merely defined by a “being against” everything religious. Of course Islam is also targeted. Rather strangely perhaps, secularists on the left and the right sometimes become divided over the treatment and rights of Muslims, for instance over the right for women to wear a headscarf in public. Some (mostly socialists, on the left) claim to protect the rights of a threatened and suppressed minority as they are in favor of the right for Muslim women to wear the scarf. Others (mostly nationalists, on the right), by questioning the right to wear a headscarf, also claim to protect potential victims, namely women who might be discriminated against by certain cultural obligations and habits. So there is a rivalry going on here on the question of victimhood.

who's the real victim

The most extreme secularists, both on the left and the right, forget the ideological differences between them when they find themselves united against “the evil of religion”. They pursue their ideological battle against religion with religious fervor, actually imitating their religious counterparts (who are mostly fundamentalist extremists). Unwittingly and unwillingly (and therefore tragically), both parties resemble each other more and more. Extreme secularists do not dismiss a religious rationality regarding moral issues on rational grounds, but simply because it is labeled as “religious”. Likewise, fundamentalist extremists refuse to listen to “secular voices” simply because of the term “secular”, not considering the possibility that “a rationality of what’s good” (ethics) could reveal itself independently of one’s own (religious) cultural tradition.

Fundamentally, the mimetic (imitative) rivalry between extreme secularists and fundamentalist extremists is about the question how to define human nature. Paradoxically connected to this question is the question of human freedom. In both instances, “freedom” of individual human beings is understood as the result of having received the opportunity to realize one’s so-called “true nature”. Freedom, understood in these terms, thus indeed is paradoxical, since it is about obtaining the ability (the “freedom”) to fulfill the deepest desires (and urges?) one was born with (and did not freely choose). Apart from pedophiles and serial killers, the so-called individual true “nature” of human beings often seems allowed to have its way in our society…

Readers should please note that the idea of a so-called true identity one was born with, “from the beginning”, does not represent my own views on identity formation.

An example of the conviction that we have some hidden, “true nature” (from birth?):

find-your-true-nature-1

Both the extreme secularists and the fundamentalist extremists consider the other party as representing a decadent perversion or suppression of our “true” nature. Hence the different attitude regarding homosexuality by, for instance, certain Muslim fundamentalists who try to prohibit it and secular liberals who defend gay rights. Both groups claim to protect human nature and human freedom (those Muslims might argue that prohibiting homosexuality is like prohibiting alcohol – a drug that could turn people into addicts).

And so you get weird situations like the following (especially if you’re an alien visiting earth, more particularly a country like Belgium), to name but two…

  • MUTILATION OR LIBERATION?

The Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics regards ritual circumcision of boys on religious grounds as a custom that should be abandoned. It leaves open the possibility for this type of circumcision for grown-ups. The financial burden of such a circumcision should, according to the Committee, also not be carried by society.

Circumcision

On the other hand, transgender surgery is partially paid back by the Belgian healthcare system. Moreover, treatment preparing possible transgender surgery is allowed for minors when puberty begins.  The Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics recommended the Belgian legislation concerning transsexuality.

In short, surgery as the result of the craving to establish a certain identity is considered “mutilating” by official standards in Belgium in the case of male circumcision. Even when adult (Jewish or Muslim) men would decide to have themselves circumcised, it is believed that the financial burden for this operation should not be carried by society. Moreover, an identity issue on religious grounds is often perceived as the result of a kind of “psychological illness” (people having been “brainwashed” and what not).

On the other hand, surgery as the result of the craving to establish a certain identity is considered “liberating” by official standards in Belgium in the case of sex reassignment surgery. It is believed that parts of the financial burden for this operation should be carried by society, and already minors can start a therapy with puberty blockers. Moreover, all kinds of action groups try to “stop trans pathologization”, and the influence of these groups is already visible in documents like the Ferrara Report on the Situation of Fundamental Rights in the European Union.

Again a little note to readers as to where I stand personally: I do not think that the financial burden for surgery as a result of mere “identity formation” (on religious grounds or otherwise) should be carried by society. I am also not in favor of non-medical circumcision of young boys, as I would question hormone therapy for non-medical reasons on a young age. The debate is open. If adults ask for tattoos, piercings, circumcision and the like, then they are themselves responsible to pay for it. Sex reassignment surgery as a consequence of a medical condition like “gender dysphoria” is something else, of course, although it is only one way of dealing with this condition. Other ways of dealing with it should also be considered. Belgium has an elaborate health care system that supports the treatment of any kind of medical condition. To the extent that a trans person does not suffer from a medical condition (I indeed agree to “stop trans pathologization”), it should be examined whether or not the health care system should intervene (and, to be consistent, it should not intervene).

We should at least acknowledge some inconsistencies in our assesment of the children depicted below (a Jewish Kid and a Trans Kid):

Jew Child

Trans Child

  • MADNESS OR RATIONALITY?

Nuns and monks of enclosed religious orders are often mocked for living a so-called alienated mad life (sober and in community), and are also accused of “not contributing anything useful to human society”.

Brother Michelangelo Best (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal)

Hipsters, who try to live ecologically responsible, often by embracing vegetarianism and by experimenting with new types of community housing, are hailed as “the dynamic, enlightened young future of human society”.

Hipster Travel Beard

However, the ecological footprint of the average hipster is presumably bigger than that of the enclosed nun or monk, as the hipster often feels the need to “travel the world” in order to “find him- or herself”. And yet the lifestyle of those nuns and monks is never praised as “an example to the world”…

Maybe it is time to ask ourselves the question what our ethics and legislations regarding certain moral issues are actually based upon, as well as our assessment of “religious life” in general. It should be something more than the “being against” as the result of the ever changing game of mimetic rivalry, no? Yes, often the protection of vulnerable life is a valid motivation, but are we sufficiently consistent in what does or does not protect that life?

Anyway, we do not escape the mimetic aspects of our nature, so we best learn to recognize and understand them…

quote-we-live-in-an-age-that-hath-more-need-of-good-example-than-precepts-george-herbert

Much has been written already about similarities and differences between the trials of Socrates and Jesus. This short sketch tries to understand how their sacrifices are interpreted in some key text fragments. It also tries to answer the question whether or not these sacrifices should be understood as vindications of a social order based on sacrifice or, on the contrary, as denunciations of such an order. In the process, this little inquiry also attempts to shed light on Socrates’ and Jesus’ own understanding of their sacrifice, according to the key texts. In the case of Socrates, the focus will lie on Plato’s Dialogue Crito. In the case of Jesus the texts of the canonical Gospels will be questioned, the Gospel of John especially. Readers should please note that the following considerations are merely suggestions for further reflection, as is evidenced by references to some scholarly articles in pdf (see the end).

In Crito, Socrates presents a justification of his death as he reasons from the perspective of an Athenian citizen whose duty it is to obey the Athenian laws. Socrates creates a dialogue between himself and the laws when he tries to convince his friend Crito that he, Socrates, should not escape from prison and accept his punishment. Socrates presents an argument that should be acceptable from Crito’s point of view. In Crito 50e-51c the laws say the following (Socrates impersonating the laws himself):

“Since you [Socrates] have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? Justice between you and your father, or your master if you happened to have one, was not based on equality, so that you could not do whatever you had suffered in return, neither speak back when crossed nor strike back when struck nor many other such things. Will you be allowed to do this to your homeland and the laws, so that, if we try to destroy you, thinking this to be just, you will then try to destroy us the laws and your homeland in return with as much power as you have and claim that you’re acting justly in doing so, the man who truly cares about virtue? Are you so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the courts and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland orders, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?”

And in Crito 51d:

“[…] and yet even so we pronounce that we have given the power to any Athenian who wishes, when he has been admitted as an adult and sees the affairs of the city and us the laws and is not pleased with us, to take his possessions and leave for wherever he wants.”

The Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David, 1787)

According to the speech of the laws, a citizen of Athens should act out of a spirit of obedience. An Athenian citizen is said to be “a slave [of the laws] from the beginning”. Moreover, an Athenian citizen should consider it a holy duty to accept execution and should be willing to sacrifice oneself when the homeland, structured and defined by the transcending order of the laws, demands it and when the citizen fails to convince the homeland otherwise “by appealing to what is naturally just”. Hence, “it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland”.

So, in the end, from this point of view, obeying the laws seems more important than “what is naturally just”. Moreover, as Crito 51d makes clear, those who refuse to accept the order of things in Athens are advised to ban themselves from the city.

This reasoning is crucially different from Jesus’ point of view in the canonical Gospels. According to Jesus, rules (in whatever way they are defined) should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole, not the other way around. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden by Jewish law on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27): “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Contrary to his general ideas on the opinion of the masses (as is clear from other Dialogues), Socrates, speaking from the position of an average Athenian citizen, also uses the desire for recognition by the many as a positive factor in the speech of the laws: “The homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your ancestors, and is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense.” It is difficult to consider such statements as representations of Socrates’ own views in light of other Dialogues. Jesus also criticizes a desire for recognition that becomes an end in itself (see, for instance, Matthew 6:1a: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”).

Another contrast between the Athenian laws and Jesus is perhaps highlighted by the following comparison. Socrates says (Crito 51c): “It is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland.” Compare this with the following words of Jesus (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.” Opposed 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 indoctrinations, 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 advocates it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says (Matthew 5:44). 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. Hence Jesus’ conclusion in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

The Athenian laws in Socrates’ speech justify a sacrificial order of things (a sacrificial peace) by demanding the death of Socrates. If Socrates would not accept his death, the laws suggest that he then is in a state of “trying to destroy the laws and his homeland”. Equally, the enemies of Jesus justify Jesus’ death by referring to a potential destruction of the nation. However, by effectively accepting his death, Socrates paradoxically demonstrates that the accusations he is charged with are fundamentally false, and by that he also demonstrates the injustice of his death sentence. Biblically speaking, Socrates “turns the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). In Crito, Socrates does not sacrifice the laws of Athens to establish his own rule. Instead, he accepts the legal verdict and, thus, resists a competition between his potential own sacrificial order of things and the actual one. In short, Socrates paradoxically “sacrifices himself against sacrifice”, much in the same vein as René Girard (1923-2015) describes the death of Jesus. It could be argued that, like the Gospels, Crito already reveals the scapegoat mechanism structuring communities, albeit in a slightly different way.

The Gospel of John perhaps more elaborately reveals how the scapegoat mechanism is at the origin of human culture (and sacrificial ritual).

It is noteworthy that Jesus does not believe in a God who wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”. That’s why he says, when he is questioned by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Jesus does not want to start a civil war. He does not want to establish a rule based on the sacrifice of a previous order. In other words, Jesus refuses “mimetic rivalry” (for more, click here). He does not want to abolish the law, but wants to put it at the service of neighborly love (which was the intention of the Jewish law all along).

In the Gospel of John, the devil is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism (which means that an innocent individual or group is wrongfully accused). Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies.

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Christ on the Cross (Jacques-Louis David, 1782)

René Girard comments on how the Gospels, in principle, destroy the devil or “Satan” as the endless violent cycle of mimetic rivalry and scapegoat mechanisms ruling the human world (in I see Satan Fall like Lightning, Orbis Books, New York, 2002, p.142):

“By depriving the victim mechanism of the darkness that must conceal it so it can continue to control human culture, the Cross shakes up the world… Satan is no longer able to limit his capacity for destruction. Satan will destroy his kingdom, and he will destroy himself.”

In yet other words (Col 2:15):

“Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In what way Socrates also made a “public spectacle” of “the powers and principalities” as a kindred spirit to Christ, is open to further debate. An important difference is the fact that Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), while Christ radically refused violence (see Matthew 26:52).

Some scholars have argued that the speech of the laws actually represents Socrates’ own view – see, for instance: Socrates Misinterpreted and Misapplied: An Analysis of the Constructed Contradiction between the Apology and the Crito (by Masha Marchevsky, Macalester College). Others understand the speech as an attempt to persuade Crito and indeed reveal something fundamental about the nature of politics – see, for instance: Law, Philosophy, and Civil Disobedience: The Laws’ Speech in Plato’s Crito (by Steven Thomason, Ouachita Baptist University).

As for now, I tend to side with those who consider the speech of the laws as not representing the views of Socrates himself. On a personal note, I should thank my friend George Dunn, who, after a lively and sharp Facebook discussion, forced me to reconsider my initial position and made possible the above reflection.

René Girard devotes six chapters to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in A Theater of Envy, his book on William Shakespeare (for references I use the edition of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2004 – originally this title was edited by Oxford University Press, 1991). I’ve tried to rework some of Girard’s insights by using the diagrams I’ve developed (for more information, click here for “Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism”). But first things first: a plot summary.

1. PLOT OF A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

A Midsummer Night's Dream by MukilteoCasualtie

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, portrays some strange events surrounding the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The play consists of three plots, interconnected by the noble marriage.

First there is the story of four young Athenian lovers who are invited to the celebration. Fair Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to submit to her father Egeus’ demand that she wed Demetrius. Meanwhile, her childhood friend Helena desperately falls for Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander escape to an enchanted forest outside Athens. Informed by the still desperate Helena, Demetrius follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena chases Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia, but he rejects her offer with cruel insults.

Oberon, king of the fairies and at that time in an envious quarrel over a changeling with his wife and queen Titania, observes the cruelty of Demetrius. This second plot about the fairies intervenes with the first one when Oberon asks his servant, Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, to apply a magical juice to the eyelids of the sleeping Demetrius. The juice is derived from a flower called “love-in-idleness” and causes awakening persons to fall in love with the first creature they see. Oberon hopes to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena. However, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and Lysander falls in love with Helena. Oberon is able to correct Puck’s mistake and uses the magic to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena as well. Rivaling Lysander and Demetrius then end up seeking a place to duel each other, leaving Hermia enraged and desperate as she accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. Puck, following Oberon’s orders, prevents the duel from happening and removes the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius now loves Helena.

The four young lovers return to Athens to witness the celebration of Theseus’ wedding. A group of six amateur actors performs “Pyramus and Thisbe”. These six craftsmen (among them a guy named Bottom who is eager to play nearly every role) prepared themselves in the enchanted forest and went through some upheaval as well. Like the tale of the four lovers, this third plot again is connected to the world of the fairies by Puck’s magical love potion. Oberon lets his wife fall in love with Bottom so he can blackmail her and claim her changeling. He succeeds and after removing the spell from his wife he goes to Athens with her to bless the house of Theseus. All’s well that ends well, so it seems…

2. MIMETIC INTERPLAYS IN THE TALE OF THE FOUR LOVERS

O hell to choose love by another's eyes (Shakespeare quote A Midsummer Night's Dream)I will focus on the subplot of the four young Athenian lovers. René Girard, in the aforementioned book A Theater of Envy, interprets the love shenanigans during the fairy night as consequences of the mimetic nature of the young lovers’ desires. Surprise, surprise. Each individual competes with another one for the recognition or love of a third party. Girard argues that this kind of competition is eventually based on mimetic (i.e. imitative) interplays, and he demonstrates how Shakespeare, throughout his works, developed fundamental insights in this essential human interaction. The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t compete with each other because they accidentally desire the same person, but they desire the same person because they imitate one another. They are led by mimetic desire. Ever more rapidly during the play they all take another person as model or mediator for their desire. This results in self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and divinization of their model on the one hand, or in self-aggrandizement and loathing (a form of hetero-aggression) of their model on the other. In the words of Hermia, which summarize the guiding mimetic principles of the play (in Act I, Scene 1):

O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

Of course, no one is eager to admit that his or her desire is not his or her own. Although the play at first glance lends itself to a romantic interpretation of the ties between the four lovers, Shakespeare comically undermines the belief in “true love” and “true love’s desire” (understood as “unmediated desire”). In the words of René Girard (A Theater of Envy, p.34-35 & p.36-37):

The history of the night continues its prehistory with different characters in the various mimetic roles. Before the midsummer night began, in other words, it had already begun. First Demetrius was unfaithful to Helena, then Hermia was unfaithful to Demetrius, then Lysander to Hermia, and finally Demetrius to Hermia. The four infidelities are arranged in such a way that the minimum number of incidents illustrates the maximum amount of mimetic theory.

It is important to observe that the love juice cannot be invoked as an excuse for the infidelities that occur before the midsummer night. Everything can and must be explained mimetically, that is, rationally. If we had only the infidelities that occur before our eyes, the examples would be too few to lead us unquestionably to the mimetic law, but the addition of the prehistory and the history is sufficient to the purpose. So instead of a single triangular conflict that remains unchanged until the conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests a kaleidoscope, a number of combinations that generate one another at an accelerating pace. Shakespeare gives several objects in succession to the same mimetic rivals for a comic demonstration of the mediator’s predominance in the triangle of mimetic desire.

[…]

A Theater of Envy (1991)Shakespeare satirizes a society of would-be individualists completely enslaved to one another. He is mocking a desire that always seeks to differentiate and distinguish itself through the imitation of someone else but always achieves the opposite result: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an early triumph of unisex and uni-everything else. It involves a process of increasing symmetry among all characters, yet not so obviously perfect a one that the demonstration becomes heavy-handed.

Unlike the skeptical Puck, who mocks the lovers because he understands everything, Oberon is full of reverence for “true love,” but his language plays occasional tricks upon him and suggests the very reverse of what he intends to say. After Puck has picked the wrong man for his dispensations of love juice, Oberon sounds indignant, as if the difference between “true” and “false” love were so huge that Puck’s mistaking the two were unforgivable. His actual words suggest the very reverse [from Act III, Scene 2]:

What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight:
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turn’d and not a false turn’d true.

Who will tell the difference between some “true love turned” and “a false turned true”? It all sounds the same, and the distinction upon which the pious Oberon insists is humorously undermined. The supposed discrepancy between “true love” and its mimetic counterfeit echoes the inferiority of the copy versus the original in traditional aesthetics. The problem is that no original is available: everything is imitation.

The cacophonic circularity of “true love turned” and “false turned true” ironically suggests the paradoxical contribution of differential and individualistic ideologies to the growing mimetic uniformity; differentialism is the ideology of the mimetic urge at its most comically self-defeating. All this amazingly resembles our own contemporary world.

THE AUTO-AGGRESSION OF HELENA

The first mimetic triangle we encounter in the play structures itself from Helena’s perspective. Helena compares herself to Hermia and this reinforces her desire to obtain (the recognition of) Demetrius – the object of her desire [the left side of the diagram]. All this eventually results in Helena’s self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and the divinization of her “model”, Hermia – Helena wants to erase (the confrontation with) the difference between herself and Hermia, she wants to be Hermia [the right side of the diagram]. The desire for Hermia’s being – the mediator – turns out to be more important than the desire for Demetrius.

 

MND Autoaggression of Helena

Again, in the words of Girard himself (ibid., p.43-44):

Being is what mimetic desire is really after, and Helena says so explicitly.

Helena wants to be “translated” to Hermia.

[…]

Helena is desperately in love with Demetrius, but he is hardly mentioned; gigantic in the absence of Hermia, his stature shrinks to almost nothing in her presence. Thus the real priorities of mimetic desire are revealed: however desirable the object may be, it pales in comparison with the model who gives it its value.

Hermia and Helena (Washington Allston 1818)A remarkable aspect of our text is its sensuousness. Helena wants to catch Hermia’s “favour” as she would a disease, contagiously, through physical contact. She wants every part of her body to match Hermia’s corresponding part. She wants the whole body of Hermia. The homosexual connotations of this text are not “unconscious” but deliberate, and it is difficult to see what kind of help psychoanalysis could provide. Shakespeare portrays the tendency of unsuccessful desire to focus more and more on the cause of its failure and to turn the mediator into a second erotic object – necessarily homosexual, if the original desire is heterosexual; the erotic rival is an individual of the same sex as the subject. The homosexual connotations are inseparable from the growing emphasis on the mediator.

Helena will show a little later that she has not forgotten Demetrius; her behavior with him is more “masochistically” erotic during the night than that of any other character.

[…]

What Helena is going through is part of her “midsummer night.” Many adolescents experience an intense fascination for successful school friends, and it may or it may not affect them permanently.

Girard explores the love/hate – dynamics generated by the mimetic interactions between the four lovers more extensively further on (ibid., p.50-51):

We must examine a striking feature in the amorous language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the proliferation of animal images. In order to express her self-abasement, Helena compares herself to various beasts. In opposition to these metaphors of lowliness, images of sublimity and divinity express the transcendence of the inaccessible object, Demetrius, and of the triumphant mediator, Hermia.

[…]

In all intensely mimetic relations, the subject tries to combat the self-contempt that necessarily accompanies the overvaluation of the mediator. Helena reveres her mediator but also hates her as a rival, and vainly tries to regain the upper hand in a relationship that has become completely unbalanced. The more divine Hermia and Demetrius seem to Helena, the more beastly she herself feels. The animal images are a privileged means of expressing the self-abasement that mimetic desire generates. Instead of rising to the near-divinity that they perceive in their models, the subjects of desire sink to the level of animality.

It’s time to put Girard’s analysis to the test and to take a look at how The Bard himself portrays Helena’s self-loathing in relation to Hermia and Demetrius.

From Act I, Scene I

HERMIA
God speed fair Helena! whither away?

HELENA
Call you me fair? that fair again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!
Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.

HERMIA
I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.

HELENA
O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!

HERMIA
I give him curses, yet he gives me love.

HELENA
O that my prayers could such affection move!

HERMIA
The more I hate, the more he follows me.

HELENA
The more I love, the more he hateth me.

HERMIA
His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.

HELENA
None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!

Hermia and Lysander (John Simmons 1870)HERMIA
Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;
Lysander and myself will fly this place.
Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seem’d Athens as a paradise to me:
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn’d a heaven unto a hell!

From Act II, Scene I

DEMETRIUS
I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

HELENA
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

DEMETRIUS
Do I entice you? do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?

HELENA
And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,–
And yet a place of high respect with me,–
Than to be used as you use your dog?

One of the strongest arguments for the kind of interpretation of the play we’ve been exploring, i.e. in terms of mimetic interactions, is Girard’s reference to what happened before the play begins. The prehistory of the midsummer night is summarized in the very first scene of the play. Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

In the beginning Helena was in love with Demetrius and Demetrius with her. This happy state of affairs did not last. The gentle Helena explains in a soliloquy that her love affair was destroyed by Hermia:

For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

Why should Hermia attempt to seduce Demetrius away from her best friend? Since Hermia now wants to marry the other boy, Lysander, she could not be motivated by genuine “true love.” What else could it be? Do we have to ask? The mimetic nature of the enterprise is suggested by the close similarity […] with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hermia and Helena are the same type of friends as Valentine and Proteus: they have lived together since infancy; they have been educated together; they always act, think, feel, and desire alike.

In our prehistory we have a first mimetic triangle. […]

Demetrius is still very much in love with Hermia because she is the one who jilted him, just as Demetrius himself had jilted Helena a little before. The enterprising Hermia first stole the lover of her best friend and then lost interest in him, thus making two people hysterically unhappy instead of one. If Hermia lived in our time, she would probably claim that a bright, modern, independent young woman like herself needs “more challenging friends” than Demetrius and Helena. Demetrius and Helena seem insufficiently challenging to Hermia because she found it too easy to dominate them. First, she roundly defeated Helena in the battle for Demetrius, which destroyed the prestige of this friend as a mediator. Being no longer transfigured by the power of mimetic rivalry, Demetrius too lost his prestige and did not seem desirable any longer. Whenever an imitator successfully appropriates the object designated by his or her model, the transfiguration machine ceases to function. With no threatening rival in sight, Hermia found Demetrius uninspiring and turned to the more exotic Lysander.

This explanation is also valid for Demetrius, our first example of infidelity. He yielded to Hermia’s blandishments because Helena was too gentle and loving; she did not make things difficult enough for her lover. When mimetic desire is thwarted, it intensifies and, when it succeeds, it withers away. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the play in which these two aspects are discreetly but systematically exploited. The two together make up the dynamics of the midsummer night.

THE HETERO- (AND AUTO-) AGGRESSION OF HERMIA

Indeed, from the observations about the prehistory of the midsummer night it is plausible to consider the alternative love triangle at the climax of the midsummer night as a consequence of (Shakespeare’s insight into) mimetic logic. Puck’s love potion hardly conceals Shakespeare’s deconstruction of the “true love” illusion. The reality of mimetic desire brings any stable “forever and ever” romanticism to an end. Once again, René Girard (ibid., p.51):

god dogAs the end approaches, the metaphysical absolute shifts from character to character and the mimetic relation loses all stability. When the two boys abandon Hermia and turn to Helena, the entire configuration is reorganized on the basis of the same polarities but with a new distribution of roles. A formerly despised member of the group has become its idol, and a former idol has lost all prestige; in the language of our metaphoric polarity, it really means that a beast has turned into a god and, reciprocally, a god has turned into a beast. Up is down and down is up. When Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, it is Hermia’s turn to feel like a dog.

The diagram from the perspective of Hermia thus looks like this:

 

MND Heteroaggression of Hermia

Helena cannot believe that the two boys now rival each other to obtain her (all the while, of course, mimetically reinforcing each other’s desire). Of course Hermia is not happy with this turn of events. At the same time as she “masochistically” loathes her own “dwarfish stature”, she loathes Helena. Hermia, comparing herself with Helena, is even prepared to fight her friend. The Bard:

From Act III, Scene II

HELENA
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you were civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.

[…]

HERMIA
What, can you do me greater harm than hate?
Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me:
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?

LYSANDER
Ay, by my life;
And never did desire to see thee more.
Therefore be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.

HERMIA
O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom!
You thief of love! what, have you come by night
And stolen my love’s heart from him?

HELENA
Fine, i’faith!
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!

HERMIA
Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.

THE HETERO-AGGRESSION OF DEMETRIUS

Finally, the mimetic logic is also at work in the behavior of the two boys. René Girard (ibid., p.32-33):

The first thing to observe is that, even though the two boys are never in love with any girl for very long, both of them at any given time are always in love with the same girl. We can also observe great similarities in their two discourses, which remain unchanged when both of them shift from one girl to the other, except, of course, for the minor adjustments required by the fact that Helena is a tall blonde, whereas Hermia is short and dark-haired.

[…]

[Demetrius] imitates Lysander because Lysander took Hermia away from him, and like all defeated rivals, he is horribly mediated by his victorious opponent. His desire for Hermia remains intense as long as Lysander provides it with a model; as soon as Lysander shifts to Helena, Demetrius also shifts. This perfect parrot is a more comic version of Proteus [from The Two Gentlemen of Verona]. Imitation is so compulsive with him that, were there a third girl in the group, he would certainly fall in love with her, but not before Lysander did.

In short, Demetrius compares himself to Lysander, and this reinforces his desire for Hermia [the left side of the diagram]. All this results in Demetrius’ desire to erase (the confrontation with the difference between him and) Lysander [the right side of the diagram]. Hence the full diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Demetrius

In the words of The Bard:

From Act II, Scene I

DEMETRIUS
I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

HELENA
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

THE HETERO-AGGRESSION OF LYSANDER

Lysander at first seems more independent than Demetrius, but we should not be fooled. René Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

What about Lysander himself? When he shifts to Helena, he has no possible model, since no one is in love with the poor girl. Does that mean that his desire is truly spontaneous?

[…]

the chase is better than the catchIn The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare emphasized the strength and stability of unfulfilled desire. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this emphasis remains, but it is supplemented by an equal emphasis on the instability of fulfilled desire. We can now understand why Lysander abandons Hermia, for all desertions are rooted in the disenchantment of peaceful possession. Lysander has triumphed over his mimetic rival Demetrius. Hermia truly belongs to him, so he lacks the indispensable stimulus of mimetic rivalry. Helena must seem attractive at this point because she has given no indication of being interested in Lysander; besides, there is no one else to turn to.

In other words, Lysander compares himself to Demetrius and reinforces his desire for (the recognition of) Helena, to the point where he wants to get rid of Demetrius. Hence the diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Lysander

From Act II, Scene II

HELENA
O, I am out of breath in this fond chase!
The more my prayer, the lesser is my grace.
Happy is Hermia, wheresoe’er she lies;
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears:
If so, my eyes are oftener wash’d than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear;
For beasts that meet me run away for fear:
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster fly my presence thus.
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne?
But who is here? Lysander! on the ground!
Dead? or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander if you live, good sir, awake.

LYSANDER
[Awaking] And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!

HELENA
Do not say so, Lysander; say not so
What though he love your Hermia? Lord, what though?
Yet Hermia still loves you: then be content.

LYSANDER
Content with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason sway’d;
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will
And leads me to your eyes, where I o’erlook
Love’s stories written in love’s richest book.

3. MIMESIS AND EROS

Without further ado, René Girard’s main conclusion on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ibid., p.64):

The symmetry of the two human subplots suggests that aesthetic imitation and the mimetic Eros are two modalities of the same principle. Bottom’s desire for mimesis spreads as contagiously among the craftsmen as erotic desire among the lovers and has the same disruptive effects upon the two groups; it produces the same mythology [the midsummer night’s dream].

In his theatrical subplot, Shakespeare reinjects the ingredient that the aestheticians always leave out – competitive desire. In the lovers’ subplot he reinjects the ingredient that the students of desire never take into account – imitation. This double restitution turns the two subplots into faithful mirrors of each other, the two complementary halves of a single challenge against the Western philosophical and anthropological tradition.

[…]

The enormous force of Shakespeare comes from his ability to rid himself of two bad abstractions simultaneously: solipsistic desire and the bland, disembodied imitation of the aestheticians. The love of mimesis that sustains the aesthetic enterprise is one and the same with mimetic desire. This is the real message of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Western philosophical and scientific tradition is based on the opposite principle. Mimesis and Eros are seen as separate. The myth of their mutual independence goes back to Plato, who never associates the two concepts, even though his frantic fear of mimetic contagion and his distrust of art, more particularly of the theater, points to the unity that his formal system repudiates.

[…]

Shakespeare’s spectacular marriage of mimesis and desire is the unity of the three subplots and the unity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Lord What Fools these Mortals be

The play ends with Puck addressing the audience. It seems he tries to reassure us that “true love” can only be disturbed by a magical dream. As if a certain configuration of relationships is true and “real” and an alternative one can only be false and “dreamlike appearance”. We don’t like to admit that our desires are subject to mimetic antics. We would like to escape the realization that our desires are guided by emotions like envy and jealousy, or pride. And yet, Puck ironically reveals that there indeed is a “serpent’s tongue” (i.e. the principle of mimetic comparing, as the serpent refers to the creature that seduces Adam and Eve to compare themselves to God in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden). Thus Puck is the liar (“merely a character in a play”) who tells the truth. And so he gets the last laugh…

From Act V, Scene I

PuckPUCK
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

CLICK HERE FOR A PDF-FILE OF THE DIAGRAMS

Here are some previous posts concerning the same issues:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Achever… the Social Sciences (click to read)

Some of us working on mimetic theory would like to develop some material that could be useful in high school curricula, in different disciplines. I’ll be posting some ideas and present some possible content in the months to come. This is how an introduction to a high school course on mimetic theory could look like. Any suggestions are welcome!

CLICK HERE TO READ A PDF VERSION

A.      HUMAN BEINGS AS CRISIS MANAGERS

We all have to deal with crisis situations. A crisis happens when we are challenged to renew or change the order of things as we know it. Therefore it is always a threat, big or small, to the systems that bring stability to our lives. A crisis is a time to make decisions in order to preserve a given system of stability or to create a new one. As such it is not just an event which forces us to adjust to its course, but also an opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world. A crisis is violent when it is primarily experienced as an assault on our personal integrity and our socially defined identity. On the other hand, a crisis might contain the promise of a better protected personal integrity and an enhanced social identity when it is experienced as an assault on systems of stability that actually suppress us. In short, the crisis situations that befall us and subvert the world as we know it are experienced either as a curse or a blessing, either as doom or chance.

Confronted with crisis situations, every human being is able to ask three clusters of questions, one scientific and two philosophical. Here’s what the crisis manager named human might think about:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How can a crisis situation be explained? What are its causes and consequences? How do we, people, deal with it and what explains our behavior?

To use a business analogy:

How do people behave within the company and what problems arise out of this behavior?

  • A FIRST SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

Where do we want to go from here, confronted with this crisis? What is the ultimate goal of what we are trying to do? What are we hoping for?

To use the business analogy:

What does this company stand for? What goals does it hope to accomplish?

  • A SECOND SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave ourselves if we want to accomplish our goal, dealing with this crisis? Should we deal with the crisis situation like we normally do, or should we change our behavior?

To use the business analogy:

How should people behave within the company in order to accomplish its goals?

Once the two sets of philosophical questions are answered, science of course functions as a means to make the fulfillment possible of thought-through goals which transcend (and therefore guide) the merely scientific endeavor.

B.      MIMETIC THEORY – INSPIRATIONAL THINKING IN TIMES OF CRISIS

I.                    CONSIDERING “CRISIS MANAGEMENT” QUESTIONS

As long as we are alive and well as human beings, we are mimetically connected to each other. It is because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that we are social creatures. Mimetic theory, as it was initially developed by René Girard, tries to understand and explain the possibilities and pitfalls of human social behavior by studying its mimetic interactions. It attempts to answer the three clusters of questions, identified previously, concerning “crisis management” as the condition humaine:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How do crisis situations in human life arise out of mimetic interactions? How are these mimetic interactions influenced by conditions of the natural environment? Or, on the other hand, how do mimetic interactions construct patterns of human behavior that influence the natural environment in negative or positive ways? How do we normally deal with crisis situations arising out of mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

What goals are desirable for human life, considering the mimetic nature of human beings? What are we trying to accomplish by studying mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave if we want to accomplish our goals? Should we deal with crisis situations, arising out of mimetic interactions, like we normally do – like our ancestors did, for instance? Should we accept certain morals (of which the origins can be scientifically explained)? Or should we try to change our behavior?

II.                  OUTLINE FOR A COURSE USING MIMETIC THEORY

  • MIMESIS AND EMPATHY

Any course using mimetic theory starts with a simple observation: the way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)

Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

double mediation

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. As it happens though, the recognition we get from one social group might be of more importance to us than that of another. We might empathize more with the members of the San Francisco symphony orchestra we’re part of than with the homeless of that same city. Or we might feel so close to our favorite football team that we become really hostile to its adversaries.

So our ability to empathize with others turns out to be a two-edged sword. It connects us with and disconnects us from others at the same time. It can connect us to the members of a group we want to be part of against a common enemy. Even more so, it can stir rivalry between members of the same group or the same social environment. That might be surprising, but on second view it will turn out to be quite logical. Our mimetic ability allows us to take other people as models for our behavior. It allows us to learn from them in all sorts of ways, but it also plays a significant role in structuring our desires and ambitions. For instance, there’s more than one twelve year old soccer player walking around with a shirt of Lionel Messi or some other soccer idol, secretly dreaming of being the next soccer sensation.

  • MIMESIS AND RIVALRY – THE PROBLEM OF MIMETIC DESIRE

There seems to be no harm in identifying with someone you admire and take as an inspiration for your own desires and ambitions in life. At first glance, that is. As long as the model you imitate belongs to quite another world than your own, as long as there is a significant distance between yourself and your model – in space, in time, or both –, chances of a conflictual relationship with the model are reduced. On the other hand, when that distance is no longer experienced, things might turn ugly, both for yourself and your model. As a twelve year old forward in a soccer team, it’s fairly easy to admire Lionel Messi, but it might be a hell of a lot harder to appreciate the talents of the new teammate who comes in and takes your spot. Identifying yourself as being the forward (or even “the Messi of the team”) immediately complicates your relationship with this newcomer, as he arouses the desire for your former status and the recognition it is supposed to bring. You might, for instance, try to get rid of the new guy by locking him out. Good coaches, though, know how to deal with these types of situations, even strengthening their team in the process. When two or more forwards imitate and thereby reinforce each other’s desire to be the best player on their position, it indeed can make them all better players in a consequently better team.

Mimetic Rivalry

Good coaches and managers are able to use mimetic rivalry in constructive ways, allowing their employees to recognize and respect that “the best has won.” However, all management efforts aside, mimetic rivalry remains a tricky thing. It is literally rivalry based on the imitation of desires for certain material and/or immaterial objects (e.g. a trophy, some sort of social recognition or status, power within a company, wealth, etc.).

Envy Pride Mimetic Desire

Human desire is, beyond instinctive needs and wants, highly mimetic (i.e. based on imitation). True, we’re all born with certain physical needs (for food, water, oxygen, etc.). But no one is born with the desire to become, say, a culinary chef. That is a socially (and therefore mimetically) mediated ambition that gets different cultural expressions. Mimetic desire and mimetically mediated ambition can easily lead to frustrations and destructive conflicts between people who take each other as model.

Mimetic Desire

When two or more people, consciously or more often rather unwittingly, imitate each other’s desire, they become each other’s annoying obstacle when they cannot or do not want to share the object of their desire. In short, they become antagonists because of mimetic desire. Paradoxically, it is because people are close to each other and can imagine what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, that they can become each other’s archrivals in the context of a mutually shared desire. As said, our mimetic ability connects and disconnects.

  • THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AS RESPONSE TO MIMETIC CRISES

The mimetic building blocks of our psychosocial fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, unjustly blamed for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

Scapegoat Team Building

  • GOALS OF THIS COURSE

Because of the widespread presence of the scapegoat mechanism and the sacrifices that go along with it in the preservation of social order and peace, it is a real challenge to imagine other ways of building human communities. The question is how to create communities where differences between people don’t lead to escalating rivalries that tend to leave no difference at all – except for the violently established difference between a group and its scapegoat or sacrificial victim. In other words, are there ways to create a social order and peace that leaves room for non-violent, creative conflicts that originate in the irreducible yet fascinating differences between ourselves and other human beings?

The goal of this course is, first, to become more aware of the psychological and social mechanisms this introduction already briefly touched upon. Among others, it will present three ways by which mimetic connections between ourselves and other human beings might become mentally and/or physically violent and destructive. Some stories, old and new and from different media, will function as mirrors that reveal some of those important aspects of who we are as human beings. It will allow participants to analyze actual events and to reflect upon their own life. For those interested, extracurricular background information is given, including some scientific and philosophical material. Secondly, this course invites participants to actively grow into a way of being that prospers non-sacrificial peace and a way of life that is giving and joyous.

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.

alain-de-botton-on-rene-girardI 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…

CLICK TO WATCH:

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

blog snobberyOne 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.

social-media-snobbery-venn-diagramDue 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):

beer snob“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

Envy between the DeadOne 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.’

James on EnvyTocqueville 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.”

Envy the Sin No One ConfessesGirard 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?”

Envy indeed often is 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.

Invidia (Envy) by Hieronymus BoschThere 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.

meritocracyEverybody, 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)

hero or villainOur 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.”

stand up comedian jesterIf 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.

Tragedy and Comedy MasksRobert 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.

tabloid heroYou 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

The Envious (quote by Baltasar Gracian SJ)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 still 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’…

There is no saint without a past (Augustine of Hippo)

“I hate all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo! It just doesn’t make any sense!”

I’ve experienced reactions like these from my students quite often while trying to teach them some philosophy. They express the normal frustration people get when they just don’t seem to succeed in mastering the issues they’re facing. To be honest, I more than once imitated their feelings of despair by getting frustrated and impatient myself about their inability to understand what I was trying to say. The story of students blaming teachers for not explaining things well enough, and of teachers responding that their students just don’t try hard enough, is all too familiar. But, at the end of the day, having worked through some negative emotions, I somehow always manage to sit down at my desk and try to improve upon my part of communicating. I can only hope it stays that way.

The writings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas are not always easy to understand, let alone agree with. Roger Burggraeve, one of my professors at the University of Leuven, has proven to be an excellent guide to introduce me to the philosophy of Levinas (click here for an excellent summary by Burggraeve). But explanations at an academic level are not always easily transferable to a high school level. Regarding Levinas I’m faced with the challenge to explain something about his thoughts on “the Other” and “the Other’s face”. Although Levinas’ musings often appear to be highly abstract for someone who didn’t receive any proper philosophical training, his thinking springs from very “earthly”, even dark realities and experiences – especially the experience of the Holocaust. Levinas’ response to the threat of totalitarianism is actually very down to earth, but because it wants to be “fundamental”, I can imagine it indeed sometimes comes across as mumbo-jumbo to sixteen year olds.

Luckily enough for me, as a teacher, an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (season 3, episode 12 The Cold War) can help to make clear what “the encounter with the Other” could be like in a particular situation. Moreover, it also serves as a good way to connect René Girard’s mimetic theory with some of Levinas’ main insights. Here’s the story:

Will and his nephew Carlton have a crush on the same girl, Paula. Carlton had been the first to date Paula, but after introducing her to Will, she also becomes Will’s object of interest. Will imitates the desire of Carlton and, upon noticing this, Carlton in turn reinforces his desire for Paula by imitating his new rival Will. This is a prime and archetypal example of what Girard has labeled mimetic (or imitative) desire, which potentially leads to mimetic rivalry. Will and Carlton become each other’s obstacles in the pursuit of an object (in this case a person, Paula) they point to each other as desirable. They become jealous of each other and try to out compete one another. They both fear the other as a threat to their self-esteem and independency. Ironically however, as they try to differ themselves from each other by unwittingly imitating each other’s desire, they resemble each other more and more. In fact, their sense of “being” becomes truly dependent on the other they despise. They end up dueling each other in a pillow fight, trying to settle the score.

At one moment, near the end of Will and Carlton’s fight, something happens which indeed illustrates what Levinas means with “response to the Other’s face” (click here for some excerpts from Levinas’ Ethics as First Philosophy). Will pretends to be severely injured (“My eye!”), whereon Carlton totally withdraws from the fight. Carlton finds himself confronted with Will’s vulnerability, and is genuinely concerned for his nephew’s well-being. The Other he was fighting turns out to be more than his rival, more than the product of his (worst) imaginations. Indeed, before being a rival the Other “is simply there“, not reducible to any of our concerns, desires or anxieties. Carlton is not concerned for his own sake: he doesn’t seem to fear any punishment, nor does he seem to desire any reward while showing his care for Will. He abandons all actions of self-interest “in the wink of an eye”.

This is an ethical moment, as Levinas understands it. It goes beyond utilitarianism which, as it turns out, justifies itself as being “good” by arguing that self-interest (i.e. what proves useful for one’s own well-being) eventually serves the interest (well-being) of others as well. Putting forward the effect on the well-being of others as justification for utilitarianism is telling, and shows that utilitarianism in itself doesn’t seem to be “enough” as a foundation for ethics. Moreover, utilitarianism serves the interests of “the majority”, which threatens to overlook what happens to minorities “other than” that majority. Sometimes sacrificing a minority might seem “logical” from this point of view. By contrast, in what is “the ethical moment” according to Levinas, one fears being a murderer more than one’s own death. In other words, provoked by the Other’s “nakedness” and “vulnerability” (the Other’s face which lies beyond our visible descriptions and labeling of the Other), OUR FEAR OF THE OTHER IS TRANSFORMED IN FEAR FOR THE OTHER. The mimetic rivalry between Will and Carlton is thus interrupted until, of course, Will reveals he was only joking about his injury… and the pillow fight continues.

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Eventually, Will and Carlton quit fighting and start confessing their wrongdoings towards one another. They no longer imitate each other’s desire to assert themselves over against one another, but they imitate each other in being vulnerable and forgiving, recognizing “each Other”. They imitate each other’s withdrawal from mimetically converging desire and rivalry. It is by becoming “Other” to one another that they paradoxically gain a new sense of “self”, as an unexpected consequence…

Enjoy that grand twist of humor in Will Smith’s unexpected philosophy class…

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In 2005 I had the chance to visit World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne, Germany, as a participant and mentor of the Jesuit Magis program. It was an enriching experience, to say the least. I met some good souls there…

Today, August 15th 2011, the youth from all over the world is once again invited to celebrate LIFE in a gathering that will last for a couple of days, this time in Madrid, Spain. “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith…” (cf. Col.2:7) has become the theme phrase of this event.

It’s always been a challenge to have faith. Youngsters are called to keep hope alive for a globalized world which faces many problems (ranging from the issue of increased violence against our natural resources to violence amongst ourselves as human beings). WYD symbolically takes the shape of a little pilgrimage, as it is especially designed for adolescents on the brink of making some fundamental choices in life. Will they be able to make authentic choices for themselves, keeping faith in their own unique gifts, walk the path ahead of them? Or will they base their choices on fear and insecurity, imitating others in a rivaling quest for status, power and wealth – wasting their god-given talents and losing themselves in the process? With these youngsters, we are challenged to listen to others that ‘show us the way’ to freedom and love. One of those others is Jesus of Nazareth, who is called ‘the Christ’ because of his liberating preoccupation and association with victims: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?” (Luke 9:24-25).

West Side Story (the well known American musical on a script by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) surely portrays some of the dangers our youth is confronted with today: the temptation to seek recognition from peers in a violent way on the streets (because security appears to be insufficient in traditional surroundings like family), the pressure to stop dreaming of a better future in an increasingly cynical world, and the increasing opposition between representatives of ‘the law’ and ever more frustrated youngsters (just think of the recent upheaval in London).

West Side Story in fact is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the upper west side of New York City. The rivaling families of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the house of Montague and the house of Capulet, are replaced in the musical by two competing teenage street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white working-class Jets. Sharks and Jets are tied to each other by what René Girard calls ‘mimetic rivalry’: the violence they inflict on each other is always an imitation (mimesis) of the violence by ‘the other party’. In other words, the two groups are guided by revengefulness. As in the story of Romeo and Juliet, the feud (and the play) eventually ends at the expense of victims (and this rings a bell for ‘Girardians’, of course…). The house of Montague and the house of Capulet make peace when they find their children, the lovers Romeo and Juliet, dead in each other’s arms. In West Side Story the Sharks and the Jets quit fighting when Tony, belonging to the Jets, is killed. His body is held by Maria, his lover who belongs to the Sharks and who calls for an end to the violence… In this sense, she lives up to the life-bearing properties ascribed to a biblical counterpart of hers with the same name, Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In a love song for Maria, early on in the play, the character of Tony makes reference to ‘the Holy Mother’, whom Christians traditionally pray to a lot, by uttering the following words:

“Maria! Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”

For your listening pleasure I’ve added the song in a special performance by Les Contre-Ténors (The Countertenors), Andreas Scholl, Dominique Visse and Pascal Bertin. These three men are among the top male altos in the world. Listen by clicking here (you won’t be disappointed)

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In a world consumed by rivalry and violence, the character of Maria represents today’s youth who faces the challenge of finding new ways to mould the future. Perhaps not coincidentally she carries the name of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary is the biblical figure who gives birth to a ‘Child’ incarnating the hope for a future where people can be vulnerable as children towards each other. Would that be possible, a world where we are no longer guided by the temptation to assert ourselves in exploiting the other’s so-called weaknesses?

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary, the traditional story of the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her life. According to this story, the apostle Thomas was the only witness of the assumption of Mary. During the event Thomas is said to have received Mary’s girdle. In this way, Mary helps him to convince the other apostles, who were skeptical at first, that his account of Mary’s assumption is indeed truthful. So, in the Assumption story Mary becomes a cornerstone of faith, transforming the once doubtful apostle Thomas who couldn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection (see John 20) in a person who enables others to ‘have faith’.

By imitating biblical and other stories of faith in the Christian tradition, WYD 2011 aims to support and inspire youngsters in their quest for a peaceful future that’s not built by sacrificing other human beings. The story of Christ indeed ultimately is the story of a Victim who ‘returns’ to ‘turn the other cheek’, so the age-old mechanism of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence might end before it only provisionally comes to a halt at the expense of more victims.

To end this post, I’d like to dedicate a prayer to the young Maria’s of West Side and other dangerous places, to these ‘mothers of tomorrow’ who carry life and hope within them. They will have to guide us with their girdles, like some Ariadne, out of the labyrinths of our trials and tribulations. I chose a prayer from the famous Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a 14th century collection of songs and prayers, kept in the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria of Montserrat (near Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain). The songs are especially fit for pilgrims, even the contemporary ones at WYD. This becomes clear by what the anonymous compiler himself writes on why he made the manuscript:

Quia interdum peregrini quando vigilant in ecclesia Beate Marie de Monte Serrato volunt cantare et trepudiare, et etiam in platea de die, et ibi non debeant nisi honestas ac devotas cantilenas cantare, idcirco superius et inferius alique sunt scripte. Et de hoc uti debent honeste et parce, ne perturbent perseverantes in orationibus et devotis contemplationibus.

Translation:

“Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.”

Maybe the prayer Mariam Matrem Virginem can bring pilgrims together, even closing the gap between those belonging to ‘the house of Barcelona’ and the traditional rivals of ‘the house of Madrid’. It definitely wants to convey the spirit behind the ‘Black Madonna’, a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary (probably from the late 12th century). In 1522, Ignatius of Loyola laid down his arms for her and began a new life, turning away from his ‘violent ways’. As is known, he eventually became the founder of the Jesuit order… So, for those of you in search of magis (‘more’), a new life of faith, hope and life giving grace, I added the Mariam Matrem Virginem. To see the score, click here (pdf). To read the lyrics with translation, click here (pdf). To listen to the song in a performance by Hespèrion XXI under the direction of Jordi Savall, click the following

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Just recently I stumbled upon quite a fun BBC documentary about monkeys. Fragments can be watched below.

Of particular interest to anyone who’s concerned with mimetic theory are the following observations, eminently shown in the documentary:

Besides getting smarter, monkeys living in larger groups also become more competitive, even aggressive and violent. From the point of view of mimetic theory this comes as no surprise, since an increased learning capacity is based on the same principle as an increased tendency for a certain type of rivalry: imitation or ‘mimesis’. Monkeys learn through imitation, but they can also become rivals through imitation. The latter happens when they imitate each other’s desire for a certain object – be it a female, a piece of food or some favorable territory. It is from this mimetic interplay that a craving for ‘status’ and ‘power’ emerges, as well as a certain ‘greed’.

Individual rivaling monkeys tend to gather allies to compete with each other. Again, the engine behind these forms of empathetic bonding seems to be mimesis by which monkeys are able to ‘project’ themselves in other members of the group. They might even ‘imagine’ what others are up to and make plans for themselves. The so-called mirror neurons in the brain play a tremendous role in this regard.

Normally, rivaling groups balance each other and keep their violent tendencies in check. However, sometimes an individual monkey becomes the victim of a whole group. The documentary shows what happens when this victim dies. His former attackers – actually the ones who murdered him! – gather around the dead body, unusually calm. [WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FROM 4:23!]

René Girard considers this type of event foundational to the way human culture eventually originated and to the way it developed sacrificial rites. Already the BBC documentary states that more monkeys are victim to other monkeys than to predators. Girard claims that the intra-violence of mob lynching must have occurred even more in primitive ape-man societies, since rivalries must have been more intense there due to an ever stronger mimetic ability. Gradually, our primitive ancestors might have made associations during their experience of killing a common ‘enemy’ that account for the emergence of sacrifice. Aggression, rivalry and turmoil within the group seem to persist for as long as the common enemy lives. From the moment he is dead, contention ceases. ‘Chaos’ no longer reigns. ‘Order’ is restored.

The sacrificial rites of our ancestors suggest that they indeed gave meaning to victims of ‘mob lynching’. According to René Girard, the significance these victims and the mob lynching eventually received, creates the dividing line between animals and humans, and has two aspects:

1. Chaotic situations or crises within a community can be controlled by killing someone – hence the rise of what is eventually called ‘sacrifice’.

2. Chaotic situations are associated with the resurgence of a victim that is held responsible for previous chaotic situations. Indeed chaos reigned for as long as some victim was alive. That victim, therefore, is perceived as ‘being’ chaos – what seems to be beyond the control of the community, as a ‘transcendent’ or ‘sacred’ force. This violent force – i.e. the now divinized and ‘invisible’ victim – can be stopped, as experience seems to show our ancestors, by killing a new victim. So together with sacrifice the potentially violent gods originate who demand that sacrifice.

Very important to understand Girard’s mimetic theory is the observation that the victims of this type of collective violence are scapegoats, meaning: held responsible for something they’re not really responsible for (even when they are, in fact, considered ‘bad’ individuals). The real source for certain types of rivalry, tensions, conflicts and chaotic situations within communities are all sorts of ‘mimetic’ interactions. This is something the first human communities don’t realize, and that’s why, according to Girard, religion and human culture as a whole developed in all kinds of directions from sacrificial origins. Some of these origins can still be observed in groups of our actual ‘family members’, the monkeys and the apes, who, more than ever, seem to mirror fundamental aspects of ourselves.

‘Know thyself’ the Temple of Apollo at Delphi read. Start this quest by watching the fragments from the documentary Clever Monkeys

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