The following five-part video series provides a preliminary understanding of human culture from the perspective of mimetic theory, which was first developed by René Girard (1923-2015).
I made the first parts to give an overview of some basic cultural facts. The later parts of the video series deal with mimetic theory’s explanation of those facts, ending with the role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in making that type of explanation possible. The last part of the series (PART V) clarifies how the Judeo-Christian traditions result in either a radical atheism or a radically new understanding of “God”.
PART I – THE SPELL OF THE SACRED
PART II – THE DANCE OF THE SACRED (3 VIDEOS)
PART III – THE MYTHICAL REFLECTION OF THE AMBIGUOUS SACRED (3 VIDEOS)
PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS)
PART V – THE GOSPEL REVELATION OF THE MYTHICAL LIE (2 VIDEOS)
A FAMILIAR SCENE BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
“Why don’t you girls get along with June anymore?” Regina’s mother asked. Regina and her two friends, Gretchen and Eve, stared at her in bewilderment. They were about to go on a shopping spree. For weeks they had gone out without June. “She has changed so much,” Regina answered. “Yes, she spoils the whole atmosphere of the group,” Eve added. “Quite frankly, mother, June has become this ordinary slut,” Regina concluded. Now it was her mother’s turn to stare at the three girls in bewilderment. And off they went.
About a month later, Gretchen accidently ended up next to June in the bus to school. The silence between them was awkward enough to make them talk to each other. Gretchen learned that her pretty companion had been going steady with Lysander for several months. And then it dawned on her: Regina had been gossiping about June being a slut because June had run away with Regina’s big crush, Lysander!
As soon as she had the chance Gretchen confronted Regina. “I talked to June and she is still the same old friend I knew!” she exclaimed. “You’re just jealous of her, that is the truth! You two are the same, you want that Lysander guy as much as she does! June in no way is a slut!” At that moment Eve stepped in to defend Regina and claimed both of them would turn their back on Gretchen if the latter didn’t change her opinion on June.
All of a sudden the clique of three were arguing about who betrayed who and they accused each other of being delusional. Their internal peace at the expense of an outcast had been broken. One of them had shown love for their external enemy, and had thus created internal enmity, within their own household. A new expulsion seemed imminent. Or would they all eventually be able to reconcile themselves with their former enemy?
YUVAL NOAH HARARI VS RENÉ GIRARD ON MYTH
In his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (London, Vintage, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari points out the consequences of the so-called Cognitive Revolution in human evolution. Between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago new ways of thinking and communicating allowed our ancestors to share more information with each other, not in the least about dangerous animals. Predators regularly threatened bands of humans from the outside. On the other hand, members of the same group of humans could also threaten each other. Hence, as we are primarily social animals depending on cooperation for our survival, we need even more information about each other and about potential threats from the inside.
“Our language evolved as a way of gossiping,” Harari concludes (p. 25). “Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders (pp. 26-27).”
Harari paints a rather positive picture of gossip. He even refers to it as providing “reliable information about who [can] be trusted,” which allowed our ancestors to “develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation (p. 26).” René Girard (1923-2015) would agree that gossip is a way to unite people. As the story of the introduction makes clear, the bond between Regina and her friends is indeed strengthened by their exclusion of June. However, Girard would also include the more common understanding of gossip as providing questionable or untruthful information. According to this scenario, June can be characterized as a scapegoat. She is accused of things she is not responsible for and seems to be the victim of Regina’s own misjudged desires. It is a type of misjudgment that is already at play very early on in human life.
When a child notices a playmate’s interest in a toy that the child had forgotten about, the child’s desire for the toy will very often be re-awakened. Instead of enjoying whatever he was doing, the child most likely will reclaim the toy as being his and insist that he was “the first” to want it. More often than not the playmate will mirror the child’s behavior and will also claim being the first. In other words, both the child and his playmate imitate and thus reinforce each other’s desire for an object until they forget about it and end up fighting about their very “being”. The more they try to distinguish themselves from each other by pretending that their own desire is not mimetic (i.e. imitative), the more they do imitate each other and become doubles. That is the tragic comic paradox of mimetic rivalry.
While the fighting children both deny the mimetic nature of their desire and claim that their desire is primary, they also both claim that their own violence is secondary. Both children will justify their own violence as a “necessary defense” against a so-called “first aggression” of the other child. Peace is restored when one of the parties either surrenders, is banned, or is somehow eliminated. Of course, the one with the most allies often has a better chance at winning a fight.
Research has shown that we more easily commit violence in groups than on our own, and this is one way by which a sense of personal responsibility for violence evaporates. After all, we are social, mimetic creatures. The well-known bystander effect is but one example of the consequences of our imitative behavior. At the same time, we tend to understand our own violence as “acts of self-defense” against potential threats and rivals, like the above mentioned two fighting children. It allows us to interpret the victim of our violence as the primary cause of that violence. This is yet another way by which a feeling of personal responsibility for violence disappears.
History knows many examples of violence that is justified by the myth of self-defense, which often gives rise to a mimetic dynamic of revenge over different generations. Al-Qaeda, for instance, justified its attacks on 9/11 as acts of self-defense. On April 24, 2002, the Islamist organization released a document about the matter, which also contained the following statement regarding the attackers:
“The only motive these young men had was to defend the religion of Allah, their dignity, and their honor. […] It was a service to Islam in defense of its people, a pure act of their will, done submissively, not grudgingly.”
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US eventually decided to invade Iraq in 2003 and presented its move as a preemptive strike. The violence was justified as an act of self-defense against a regime that, according to the US, possessed weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found, but the aftermath of the war did create the conditions for the rise of ISIL… Violence begets violence.
The myth of self-defense indicates the flaws in Harari’s understanding of myth. Harari characterizes myths as merely fictional products of collective imagination, which allow people to develop complex networks of cooperation (pp. 30-31):
“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. […] States are rooted in common national myths. […] Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. […]
Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”
The myth of self-defense partly agrees with Harari’s line of thought. It is indeed a story that allows people to develop a large-scale cooperation towards a common goal: the establishment of a peaceful world by eliminating the (so-called) potential sources of violence. What Harari misses, however, is that myths are not merely interchangeable products of collective fiction which create new “imagined” realities, but that they are also interpretations of an already existing reality. As such, myths can be wrong, deceptive and mendacious.
The introductory story of this article already points this out. Regina and her friends justify their own behavior against June by believing the myth of their collective imagination: “June is a slut and we have to defend the group atmosphere by excluding her.” Although this kind of gossip tightens the bonds between Regina and her friends, it also turns out to perpetuate some blatant lies and unacknowledged desires: June is not the slutty girl she is accused of being, and as Regina fancies June’s boyfriend Lysander she is more like June than she likes to admit.
It is striking that Harari presents gossip as a means to provide “reliable information” about other people. It is even more striking that he separates myths – “imagined realities” – from lies (p. 35):
“An imagined reality is not a lie. […]
Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.”
René Girard is heir to a tradition that tries to understand the human mind, and its imaginative and rational powers, from within the context of the fears and the desires of the human animal. Our imagination, whether individual or collective, is often a distorted reflection of those dynamics, not just an innocent expression thereof.
Girard more generally understands myths as stories that cover up the complete picture of violent situations. Myths allow people to deny their own responsibility for violence. Hence, for instance, managers can say “it is the economic reality which forces the company to fire half of the employees.” The economic reality is, of course, a myth or – in the words of Harari – “an imagined reality”. From Girard’s point of view, Harari’s story about myths as mere products of collective imagination is itself a myth: his story once again obscures the violent reality (or, better still, the “violence against reality”) behind the cultural imagination.
In the case of the introductory story of this article, Gretchen’s final assessment of June could still be dishonestly presented as “a matter of opinion” equally valid to Eve’s and Regina’s assessment. In the context of, say, the Oedipus myth, it is unequivocally clear that the mythical interpretation of reality does contain lies.
Myths are, apart from fictions, also lies about reality that people believe in, used to justify sacrificial violence.
The Oedipus myth presents the plague in Thebes as the consequence of the behavior of Oedipus. The citizens of Thebes believe that they are violently punished with the plague by disgruntled gods because they tolerate Oedipus as their king – a man who killed his father and married his mother. They as well as Oedipus also believe that the plague will end if Oedipus is expelled from the city.
Just like other myths, the Oedipus myth deceptively deals with the reality of violence. There is no causal relationship between killing your father and marrying your mother on the one hand, and the eruption of the plague on the other. There also is no causal relationship between the expulsion of Oedipus and the potential ending of the plague. In reality Oedipus is a scapegoat, wrongfully held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not responsible for. Nevertheless, the community of Thebes justifies the sacrifice of Oedipus as a divine commandment to finish off the disaster of the plague. The violence of the plague is interpreted as a divine punishment.
In short, the Oedipus myth reveals the two faces of the sacred in archaic religious communities. On the one hand, everything that is considered sacred is taboo because it is associated with potentially uncontrollable chaotic violence. On the other hand, if the sacred is made present in a controlled, structured way through ritual, it is believed to have beneficial peaceful outcomes. Hence destructive epidemic violence is taboo, while the violence of ritual sacrifice is allowed. The latter is the vaccine of controlled violence that should defend communities from the wildfire of violent disasters.
It is no coincidence that Oedipus pays for the wrath of the gods. After all, he is perceived as an embodiment of violence whose presence threatens the stability within the community. He did not honor the hierarchical position of the king. He violated the taboo against killing the king in an unlawful way. He also violated the taboo against desiring the wife of another. Moreover, he violated the taboo against sexuality in a ritually inappropriate way by unlawfully marrying his mother. By violating these sacred taboos, however unwittingly, Oedipus is perceived as having unleashed the violent wrath of the gods and as someone who needs to be sacrificed.
The justification of sacrificial violence is an essential component of mythic storytelling, which is not just “a figment of the imagination” but a deceptive interpretation of reality. The gossip of Regina and her friends reflects a deceptive understanding of themselves and June, which is used to justify the expulsion of June. The fighting child and his playmate have a deceptive understanding of themselves and each other, which is at work in their attempts to expel each other. The religious myth of Al-Qaeda reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and the US, which is used to justify the suicide of its members and the killing of US citizens on 9/11. The nationalist myth of the US reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and wrongfully accuses the former Iraqi regime of having weapons of mass destruction, which is used in 2003 to justify the destruction of that regime. The myth of a so-called inevitable economic reality is used to justify social and ecological sacrifices. The religious myth of the Theban community reflects a deceptive understanding of natural disasters, which is used to justify the expulsion of Oedipus. And so on. The list of stories that represent the deceptive myth of redemptive sacrificial violence is endless.
And yet Yuval Harari separates myths from lies and barely mentions sacrifice in his exploration of the religious and cultural imagination. He refers to sacrifice explicitly only twice. René Girard, on the other hand, remains much closer to today’s common parlance about myth as a story that is basically not true. His mimetic theory explains how our religious and cultural imaginations continue to develop from mimetic origins which are easily misjudged and which lead to the justification of sacrificial institutions.
It is not difficult to imagine how distorted perceptions of mimetic mechanisms underly the mythical imagination of the human animal, from the very beginning until now. Already in early human communities, mimetic rivalry over food, women, social status, power or territory could easily escalate until one of the fighting parties was overwhelmed by a group of opposing allies.
The transformation of a chaotic fight of “all against all” into an orderly unity of “all against one” has an astounding restorative effect, which is not only observable in bands of fellow humans but also in our ape cousins.
As illustrated earlier by the fight between a child and his playmate over a toy, mimetic doubles tend to blame their rival for the violence they experience. When one rival overcomes his enemy by banding together with some allies, his sense of responsibility for the violence will disappear even more. After all, humans feel less personally responsible when they are part of a group whose members imitate each other.
Hence, the phenomenon of victim blaming must have occurred regularly in early human communities as the result of restorative group violence. The rival who becomes the victim of collective deadly violence is perceived as the troublemaker. As long as he was alive, the community experienced violence. After killing him, the community experiences a renewed peace.
Instead of acknowledging its own share in the violence, the community will consider its victim as the exclusive cause of the violence, according to the two mechanisms described above. At the same time, the victim is perceived as the one who restores order in his presence as a dead creature. In other words, the victim is a scapegoat. He is exclusively held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not exclusively responsible for. He is at once villain and hero, horrifying monster and admirable savior (“mysterium tremendum et fascinans”).
On the basis of that deceitful scapegoat mechanism, violence and its victim get an ambiguous meaning. An outbreak of violence is perceived as a return of the “troublemaker” in the community. However, that victim is not visible anymore (in reality, he is dead). Nevertheless, violence more and more becomes associated with those kinds of “invisible persons” – later called ghosts, gods or forces.
Gradually, human communities will consider sacred everything they associate with violence. Insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with destructive violence resulting in disorder, they are taboo. On the other hand, insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with order, ritual allows for a controlled violation of taboos.
René Girard accurately characterizes myths as representing the taboos and the deceptive idea of “redemptive violence” by which communities maintain themselves. Myths are essentially stories that make a distinction between so-called “good” and “bad” violence in any given community.
The so-called good violence of ritual sacrifice is presented as a necessary, often sacred demand that preserves the taboo on uncontrollable violence (of sacred wrath). In terms of the introductory story, the “ritual” expulsion of June is deemed necessary to preserve the peaceful atmosphere within Regina’s group of friends. In terms of the Oedipus myth, the “ritual” expulsion of Oedipus is deemed a necessary divine commandment to restore peace and order. What these myths obscure, time and again, is the community’s own responsibility for violence. In this sense, the cultural order, in whatever guise it appears, continues to imitate the lie concerning the first victims of collective violence: every sacrificial expulsion that is justified by a myth of redemptive violence is actually a “re-presentation” of the scapegoat mechanism at the origin of human culture.
Some stories, however, challenge the ever-present myth of redemptive violence in the world of the human animal. The Gospel in particular tells the story of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who consciously runs the risk of being sacrificed. After all, he constantly sides with the ones who are sacrificed (expelled or eliminated) on the basis of the myths of redemptive violence by their respective communities. This makes him suspect. Jesus is subversive to the extent that he reveals the lies behind every sacrificial structure. He thus challenges the core of the cultural order, as that order relies on sacrifice time and again.
Jesus of Nazareth calls people to love the external enemy of their particular groups and thus creates animosity in one’s own “household”. In this sense, he brings an end to the violent peace of the sacrificial order and creates the peace of non-violent conflict – internal debates, for instance.
To come back to the introductory story, Gretchen is a type of Jesus. She reveals that June is not that different from Regina. She reveals that June is not the monster she is called out to be. She reveals the sameness between June and Regina, which is a scandal in the context of the myth about June that Regina tries to defend.
The outcome of this revelation is not sure. Regina and Eve might restore their sacrificial order by expelling Gretchen as well, or they eventually might have a conversion and acknowledge the sameness between themselves and their former enemies.
The latter choice, acknowledging that sameness, paradoxically creates the possibility of accepting the other as other… and not just as a figment of one’s own imagination.
P.S. Find highly recommended further reading here (pdf): Evolution and Conversion, by René Girard.
Mimetic theory as it was first developed by René Girard explains how the universal mythological structure that is described by Joseph Campbell (among others) is based on a mistake or even lie regarding victims of group violence in early human communities.
MIMETIC THEORY (RENÉ GIRARD) – FIVE-PART VIDEO SERIES
The following five-part video series provides a preliminary understanding of human culture from the perspective of mimetic theory, which was first developed by René Girard (1923-2015).
I made the first parts to give an overview of some basic cultural facts. The later parts of the video series deal with mimetic theory’s explanation of those facts, ending with the role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in making that type of explanation possible. The last part of the series (PART V) clarifies how the Judeo-Christian traditions result in either a radical atheism or a radically new understanding of “God”.
An older, three-part video series on mimetic theory is also available below.
PART I – THE SPELL OF THE SACRED
PART II – THE DANCE OF THE SACRED (3 VIDEOS)
PART III – THE MYTHICAL REFLECTION OF THE AMBIGUOUS SACRED (3 VIDEOS)
PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS)
PART V – THE GOSPEL REVELATION OF THE MYTHICAL LIE (2 VIDEOS)
The Power of Myth (and its blindspots)
Joseph Campbell, a well-known scholar in the field of comparative mythology, became quite famous when his works inspired film director George Lucas to create the Star Wars saga (click here for more on this). Shortly before his death in 1987, Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers at Skywalker Ranch (home of Lucas, indeed). These conversations served as the basis for a six part PBS documentary series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The series was originally broadcast on television in 1988. It remains one of the most popular documentary series in the history of American public television.
This article will summarize Campbell’s main ideas by taking a closer look at Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Each episode is made available below, with Dutch subtitles (thanks to an anonymous translator). At the same time this article will highlight the main parallells next to some striking differences between Joseph Campbell’s analysis of myth and the analysis of René Girard.
Episode 1: The Hero’s Adventure (first broadcast June 21, 1988 on PBS)
Joseph Campbell mainly considers myths as “metaphors for the experience of life”. Myths symbolically describe fundamental experiences everyone has to deal with, especially the so-called “hero myths”. They recount “the hero’s journey”, which is a universal pattern visible in a myriad of situations.
Hero myths are expressions of external (physical) and/or internal (psychological) struggles. They represent a transition in one’s identity. Faced with new challenges, the hero leaves home to undergo a series of ordeals, in the process sacrificing his old identity. As the hero learns some lessons from the ordeals, he gradually adopts a new identity until he finally returns home with his treasure (of new experiences) and the ability to renew his world order. Thus hero myths can also be considered as “death and resurrection” stories. In these myths self-sacrifice is a morally justified necessity to achieve a new, more fulfilling life.
One example of a hero’s journey in life is being a student. Students are exempt from regular society life. They are granted time and space to undergo a series of tests while entering their respective fields of inquiry (unknown worlds to them, at first). As they go along, students achieve certain skills and knowledge until they finally adopt a new, more mature identity. This allows them to take up some kind of responsibility in their society. In other words, the student dies to his adolescent self and, returning to society, resurrects as a more fully equipped adult.
All of the above in the words of the man himself:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There is a certain typical hero sequence of actions, which can be detected in stories from all over the world, and from many, many periods of history. And I think it’s essentially, you might say, the one deed done by many, many different people.
There are two types of deed. One is the physical deed; the hero who has performed a war act or a physical act of heroism. Saving a life, that’s a hero act. Giving himself, sacrificing himself to another. And the other kind is the spiritual hero, who has learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and has then come back and communicated it. It’s a cycle. It’s a going and a return that the hero cycle represents.
This can be seen also in the simple initiation ritual, where a child has to give up his childhood and become an adult, has to die, you might say, to his infantile personality and psyche and come back as a self-responsible adult. It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo. We’re in our childhood for at least 14 years, and to get out of that posture of dependency, psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection. And that is the basic motif of the hero journey, leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.
Otto Rank, in his wonderful, very short book called The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, says that everyone is a hero in his birth. He has undergone a tremendous transformation from a little, you might say, water creature. Living in a realm of the amniotic fluid and so forth, then coming out, becoming an air-breathing mammal that ultimately will be self-standing and so forth, is an enormous transformation and it is a heroic act. And it’s a heroic act on the mother’s part to bring it about. It’s the primary hero form, you might say.
Heroes and their myths function as models for our own way of life. They inspire us to imitate their behavior and deeds. Joseph Campbell, when asked about the potential of movies to provide new hero myths, opens up about some of his own role models:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I had a hero figure who meant something to me, and he served as a kind of model for myself in my physical character, and that was Douglas Fairbanks. I wanted to be a synthesis of Douglas Fairbanks and Leonardo da Vinci, that was my idea. But those were models, were roles, that came to me.
Campbell seems to acknowledge the importance of role models and mimesis, but he also insists on the hero being a true outsider, a maverick, someone who goes against the grain (important observations, especially relevant to René Girard’s mimetic theory – see below). Not surprisingly, Campbell considers the hero myth mainly to be a metaphor for an inner, psychological struggle that liberates us from a life in service of an often alienating social system. A contradiction seems to arise when he also considers initiation rituals as typical examples of the hero’s journey (see above). Indeed, through initiation rituals adolescents learn to acquire an identity that will sustain the social order of their community, sacrificing whatever inner or outer obstacle in the process.
At some point in the conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell compares the hero Siegfried (a figure from Norse and German mythology) to the villain Darth Vader (a figure from the Star Wars mythology). What Campbell apparently fails to notice, is the unchanged sacrificial nature of both stories. Although Siegfried is used, in contrast to Darth Vader, as an example of someone who refuses to submit himself to a human world in the service of a technocratic system, he does submit himself to the powers of nature (the natural system or order).
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The first stage in the hero adventure, when he starts off on the adventure, is leaving the realm of light, which he controls and knows about, and moving toward the threshold. And it’s at the threshold that the monster of the abyss comes to meet him. And then there are two or three results: one, the hero is cut to pieces and descends into the abyss in fragments, to be resurrected; or he may kill the dragon power, as Siegfried does when he kills the dragon. But then he tastes the dragon blood, that is to say, he has to assimilate that power. And when Siegfried has killed the dragon and tasted the blood, he hears the song of nature; he has transcended his humanity, you know, and reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, from which our mind removes us.
You see, this thing up here, this consciousness, thinks it’s running the shop. It’s a secondary organ; it’s a secondary organ of a total human being, and it must not put itself in control. It must submit and serve the humanity of the body.
When it does put itself in control, you get this [Darth] Vader, the man who’s gone over to the intellectual side.
[Darth Vader] isn’t thinking or living in terms of humanity, he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives; we all face it, we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?
Siegfried sacrifices whatever gets in the way of acquiring a new, higher identity in correspondence with the forces of nature, while Darth Vader sacrifices whatever gets in the way of acquiring a new, higher identity in correspondence with the forces of technology. Campbell prefers one order or system over the other. From René Girard’s viewpoint, however, both systems (and the heroes who sustain them) are essentially the same. They imitate each other’s behavior and thereby resemble each other more and more. Both Siegfried’s and Darth Vader’s identity exist at the expense of sacrifice. Siegfried is the representative of a cultural identity that places technology in the service of nature, whereas Darth Vader is the representative of a cultural identity that places nature in the service of technology. In the real world, the advocates of those cultural identities rival each other, imitating each other’s sacrificial behavior: they become mimetic doubles.
Moreover, both Siegfried and Darth Vader are loners or “chosen ones” who are willing to perform sacrifices or sacrifice themselves to establish a certain order. As such, they paradoxically become cultural role models whose acts of (self-)sacrifice will be imitated and repeated in order to preserve, renew or save the social order that lives by their respective stories. In the words of the conversation between Moyers and Campbell:
BILL MOYERS: Unlike the classical heroes, we’re not going on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And in doing that, you save the world. I mean, you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive, and the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is, and be alive yourself, it seems to me.
According to Joseph Campbell, if you save yourself you save the world. In other words, we are part of a bigger whole and we should acknowledge and accept that. Moreover, eventually it’s the whole that counts. Campbell is very holistic and nature-oriented in his thoughts, even to the point where nature becomes something sacred, permeated by a larger consciousness. Again, from the conversation between Moyers and Campbell:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Jean and I are living in Hawaii, and we’re living right by the ocean. And we have a little lanai, a little porch, and there’s a coconut tree that grows up through the porch and it goes on up. And there’s a kind of vine, plant, big powerful thing with leaves like this, that has grown up the coconut tree. Now, that plant sends forth little feelers to go out and clutch the plant, and it knows where the plant is and what to do– where the tree is, and it grows up like this, and it opens a leaf, and that leaf immediately turns to where the sun is. Now, you can’t tell me that leaf doesn’t know where the sun is going to be. All of the leaves go just like that, what’s called heliotropism, turning toward where the sun is. That’s a form of consciousness. There is a plant consciousness, there is an animal consciousness. We share all of these things. You eat certain foods, and the bile knows whether there’s something there for it to go to work on. I mean, the whole thing is consciousness. I begin to feel more and more that the whole world is conscious; certainly the vegetable world is conscious, and when you live in the woods, as I did as a kid, you can see all these different consciousnesses relating to themselves.
BILL MOYERS: Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There you are, the whole planet as an organism.
BILL MOYERS: Mother Earth.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And you see, if you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than as being thrown in here from somewhere else, you know, thrown out of the earth, we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth, and this is the voice of the earth. What else?
Episode 2: The Message of the Myth (first broadcast June 22, 1988 on PBS)
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Episode 3: The First Storytellers (first broadcast June 23, 1988 on PBS)
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Episode 4: Sacrifice and Bliss (first broadcast June 24, 1988 on PBS)
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Episode 5: Love and the Goddess (first broadcast June 25, 1988 on PBS)
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Episode 6: Masks of Eternity (first broadcast June 26, 1988 on PBS)
[TO BE CONTINUED]
The following interview with René Girard by Patrick Perquy was last broadcast on Belgian national television April 23, 2000 (Braambos). The interview was recorded on the occasion of an honorary doctorate from the University of Antwerp (Universiteit Antwerpen) for Girard in 1995. It’s in French with Dutch subtitles. The two men talk about Shakespeare, Greek Tragedy and the Bible among other things. Be prepared for some sharp insights. Enjoy this interesting conversation:
The door bell rings. I open the door. In front of me are two of Jehovah’s witnesses. I invite them in. It’s a force of habit, enhanced by the fact that I’m a teacher and student of religion. I always jump at the opportunity to ask them a few questions.
Actually, I’m really curious about their views on the evolution vs creationism debate. They assure me that Jehovah’s witnesses don’t accept creationism because some statements of creationism reject credible scientific evidence. No kidding. Thus I assume that Jehovah’s witnesses accept the theory of evolution. Which, I learn, they don’t either.
As the conversation continues, I come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to be labeled as creationists because it puts them in the same basket with Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals. From an outsider’s perspective, Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelicals have a lot in common. However, as is often the case, it’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own terrain than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:
By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…
Competition and rivalry indeed often increase because of similarities. Two tennis players with similar talents and competences will make for a good game. Another example is the feud between biker gangs Hell’s Angels and Outlaws, or the rivalry that existed at first between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. And most of the time, foreigners and their customs don’t bother us until, of course, they become refugees who seem to invade “our country” and might take “our jobs”.
The desire to differentiate yourself from an adversary increases as differences are actually disappearing. The tragic and ironic thing is, the more you then try differentiate yourself from your opponent, the more you become (like) your opponent. For instance, after the Second World War many Germans and German speaking citizens in Europe were brutally raped, tortured and murdered in a horrific frenzy of vengeful violence. This genocide truly became a mimesis of the holocaust, although the vast majority of perpetrators never had to stand trial for what they did. History is written by the victors, and they create the stories (which is, in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, the function of classical mythology) to cover up violence or to decide whose violence is justified and whose is not.
Back to my visitors, the Jehovah’s witnesses. Like their ideological kinsfolk and rivals, the Evangelicals, they reject the theory of evolution. They claim that the Evangelicals’ representation of God as Creator is not scientific enough, meaning that, in their view, it is just partly in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.
As strange as this may sound, both the religious movement of Jehovah’s witnesses and of Evangelicals are heir to modernity. They are not harking back to the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Christian humanists and reformers started protesting some of the (medieval, premodern) Catholic Church’s teachings (hence the name Protestantism). The protests eventually led to the second major Schism in the history of Christianity, the first being the Great Schism of 1054 (the separation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches).
Protestants are convinced that individuals can make up their own mind on what the Bible teaches. Therefore protestants attach great importance to the availability of the Bible in your mother tongue. According to them, you shouldn’t accept any dogma on the basis of clerical authority or Church tradition, which is a modern idea indeed. They are convinced that the Holy Spirit guides every reader to reach a correct interpretation of the Bible. The idea that every human being principally has access to some kind of transcendent, universal rationality as a criterion to determine what’s true, independent of the truth claims made by so-called authorities and historically, culturally situated traditions is, again, a focus of modernity.
However, Protestantism not only meant a separation of new churches from the Catholic Church, it also almost immediately became internally divided. Apparently, what the Holy Spirit teaches is not so easily agreed upon. Hence, today, there are a myriad Protestant denominations. Moreover, the history of Reformation and Counter-Reformation eventually brought an end to the central position of (the Christian) religion in Western Europe.
For centuries, the Christian religion had been a unifying, stabilizing factor in Europe’s society, important for the establishment of peace between people with different cultural backgrounds. The Christianization of pagan habits brought the nations of Western Europe under one and the same religious umbrella.
The internal peace and identity of a Christian Europe was enhanced by military expeditions against an external Islamic enemy during the Crusades. In contrast, the violence and the wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation meant that religion was no longer experienced as a factor for peace. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – many philosophers stressed the priority of the so-called transcendent, universally valid (and thus divine) Reason to determine truth, values and moral behavior.
In premodern thinking, reason and science had been servants of the so-called revealed truths in Christian religion. The clerical authorities, their interpretation of the Bible and the traditions of the Church set the agenda for reason and science. Someone like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) turns the tables. Sapere aude, he writes, which is Latin and translates to Dare to be wise or Dare to think. By that he means an individual should think independently of any religious dogma (whether it comes from scripture, tradition or authority). Religious dogma should stand the test of Reason, and not the other way around.
The Enlightenment thinkers are convinced that every human being is principally capable of reaching the universal (and therefore, for many of them, divine) truth by developing his or her reason. According to Kant, you shouldn’t accept any truth claim on the basis of authority and tradition, nor on the basis of an uncritical “own opinion”, but on the basis of the so-called transcendent Reason. Eventually, the modern secular State became the institution that at first seemed to provide its citizens the means to discover the so-called universal truth. Sadly, however, some of the modern states became totalitarian, claiming to own truth and morality, and violently suppressing any type of “otherness” that was considered a potential threat to the government’s policy. Hitler and Stalin were two leaders of infamous totalitarian states in their respective countries.
In short, after the historical period of the Church defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence, Europe gradually accepted the secular State defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence. One of the main features of modernity indeed is the State’s monopoly on the use of violence. Both the Church and the State were experienced as totalitarian institutions at certain points in their history. The use of their force was not always experienced as something that provided safety, but as a source of terror.
In 1948 the world received The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumas of violence motivated by religious ideologies in the 16th and 17th centuries and of violence motivated by secular ideologies in the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church (hence “freedom of speech”) or the State (hence “freedom of religion”). The secular violence in the 20th century also meant that we do not automatically believe anymore in reason and science as factors for the progress of humanity. Scientific progress and technological developments also made possible weapons of mass destruction, which caused violence at an unprecedented scale during the two world wars. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also started an era of increasing social and environmental issues.
Anyway, a totalitarianism of the Church was replaced by a totalitarianism of the State, and is now replaced by a totalitarianism of the Individual. There used to be a time when educated citizens referred to the Church’s teachings as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life, followed by a time when they referred to the State’s program as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life. Today, in our postmodern world, individuals refer to themselves as the ultimate measure of all things, very often unaware of the influences shaping their perspective (that’s why reflection, philosophy – the art of asking questions, also about yourself – is so important to gain some freedom!).
Is it really surprising that someone like Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world? We are indeed living in a world where there seems to be no truth more important than one’s own opinion, and everyone, including Trump, produces his own narcissistic self-validating bubble by ignoring certain facts and advocating others. It seems the most powerful individuals have the means to impose their bubble on others. When research on climate change is not favorable for his policy, president Donald Trump simply bans Environmental Protection Agency staff from talking to the press (as this happened on January 24, 2017).
I think about my visitors of the Jehovah’s witnesses again. They also had a “Trump Reflex”. When I confronted them with all the data, all the scientific research and all the logic supporting the theory of evolution, they simply replied: “It is just a theory.” In other words, confronted with reason and science questioning their own opinions, they reduced that reason and science to something like “mere opinion”. And then you get conversations like this one (from The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 1, The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation):
This dynamic, the Trump Reflex, is visible in all quarters, not only in religious circles. Anti-theists, for instance, when confronted with the fact that a modern, fundamentalist reading of the Bible is not the most plausible one from a scientific point of view (including historical and literary critical research), will also often speak of “just a theory” to uphold their views on the “stupidity” and “irrationality” of biblical narratives.
Belgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, the famous physicist and founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, is a good example of someone who clearly distinguishes the questions of modern natural science from the questions the Bible is concerned with. In doing so, he criticizes both creationists and anti-theistic atheists regarding, for instance, their reading of the creation myths in the biblical book of Genesis. Both groups approach these texts with the same expectations, only to come to different conclusions. Creationists believe that the Bible and science tell the same story on the origin of the universe and of life, while anti-theists are convinced that, although the Bible tries to answer the same questions as science according to them, science actually contradicts the Genesis stories. Lemaître, on the other hand, sees no agreement nor disagreement between the Bible and modern science, simply because they are concerned with different questions. Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position on the relationship between modern science and the Bible:
Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.
The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.
The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.
As for the so-called mimetic theory on the origin and further development of culture, some people almost immediately, without really knowing what they are talking about, discard it as “just a theory” also. Even when solid scientific research that is in no way informed by this particular theory comes to very similar, if not the same conclusions (click here for more)!
Anyway, Donald Trump is each and every one of us when we refuse to question our so-called “own” opinions by scientifically obtained facts and reasonable, scientifically supported theories. Of course, no one owns the complete, total truth, but some theories will be more plausible than others.
The day we started believing that our entitlement to own opinion was more important than a quest for truth and for understanding reality was the day we paved the way for the Donald.
I’m wondering… When was the last time you’ve measured the hertz of the joy you felt while gaining a new insight?
I’m wondering… Have you recently written down the mass density of your deepest friendships or the miles of your biggest loves?
I’m wondering… How many pounds of beauty have you experienced already this week?
Agreed, these are strange questions about truth, goodness and beauty, impossible to answer. Maybe that tells us something. Let’s take a look at the facts first.
FIRST CLUSTER OF FACTS
Human beings are gifted with a rational ability to discover truth.
We did not create this ability ourselves. Already in this sense, truth and the rational ability to discover it transcend us.
Although knowledge can be useful, truth does not necessarily answer to our needs or demands. Thus truth cannot be reduced to a merely human construct at the service of, for instance, our survival instinct. Also in this sense, the revelation of truth before our rational minds transcends us.
Science might explain how our rational ability came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where truth can be found. Once again, truth and the ability to find it transcend us.
SECOND CLUSTER OF FACTS
Human beings are gifted with the ability to develop goodness – respect, friendship and love for fellow human beings.
We did not create this ability ourselves. It transcends us.
Although relationships can be useful, goodness does not necessarily answer to our needs or demands. Happiness or sadness because of the happiness or sadness of others are possible consequences of the loving connection we can make with others. As with goodness itself, the others we meet cannot be reduced to mere means at the service of our needs and desires, nor to products of our imagination. Again, goodness, respecting others, transcends us.
Science might explain how our ability to develop goodness came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where goodness can be found and developed. Once again, goodness and the ability to develop it transcend us.
THIRD CLUSTER OF FACTS
Human beings are gifted with the ability to experience beauty.
We did not create this ability ourselves. It transcends us.
Although there can be cultural differences concerning the things that trigger the experience of beauty, the ability itself to experience beauty cannot be reduced to an individual or particular cultural taste or style. Again, the ability to experience beauty precedes and transcends our eventually developed preferences or cultural needs.
Science might explain how our ability to experience beauty came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where beauty can be experienced. Indeed, once again, beauty and the ability to experience it transcend us.
A REFLECTION FROM RENÉ GIRARD’S MIMETIC THEORY
We can be the most destructive of beings, as our mimetic faculty can move us beyond the things we need from a merely biological point of view. For instance, we can develop eating disorders like anorexia. Or we can go so far as to kill ourselves while (mimetically) competing with others, because of a so-called heroic cause. Every time we do such a thing we of course picture ourselves in a certain way. This ability to picture ourselves in a certain way, to be self-conscious, is nothing else than the ability to duplicate ourselves, which rests on our highly mimetic faculties (a duplication is a form of mimesis, a form of imitation).
On the other hand, we can also be the most creative of beings, as, well yes, our mimetic faculty can move us beyond the things we need from a merely biological point of view. It allows us to develop an interest in or love for the world (which leads to the experience of truth), our fellow human beings (which leads to the experience of goodness), and the value of life (which is the experience of beauty).
Although our love for the world, our fellow human beings, and the value of life is itself invisible and immeasurable (we indeed cannot measure its “hertz, mass density, miles or pounds”), it is nevertheless very real. It is a reality that can be noticed indirectly. The love that carries us and inspires us may be invisible, its effects are not. Love for the world becomes visible, for instance, in the work of scientists who discover gravitational waves. Love for others might become visible in kind words, a warm embrace, a tender kiss. Finally, the creation and experience of beauty in nature, culture and art are visible expressions of the grateful realization that life is valuable, so valuable it’s priceless.
MEANINGLESS OR MEANINGFUL FACTS? A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION
Some atheists might interpret the fact that we live in a universe that allows for the ability to discover and develop truth, goodness and beauty as something meaningless.
I don’t know. Maybe our notions of truth, goodness and beauty are gateways to an awareness of a more complete Reality of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Maybe our notions of truth, goodness and beauty are ever incomplete and anticipating mimetic models of an eventually fulfilling Understanding, Love and Joy. Just maybe.
In any case, we are living this great mystery (‘magnum mysterium’) of a reality that gracefully allows for the experience of truth, goodness and beauty. And sometimes, just sometimes, all the distracting noise disappears, and we find ourselves in tune with those transcending forces which connect us to an immensely fertile ‘cosmos’… and to ourselves. In the words of Tom, a treble from the world-famous choir of King’s College, Cambridge:
“When I sing in the choir, sometimes, there are moments when everything seems to go away, and you’re just there, which is an amazing feeling…”
Enjoy these particles of the spiritual life. From a documentary on Carols from King’s:
O Magnum Mysterium (Morten Lauridsen):
“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”
Freeman John Dyson (born 1923).
The annual and 26th conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) coincided with the 6th annual conference of the Australian Girard Seminar. It was the first meeting of its kind after the passing of René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), whose groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and eventually developed mimetic theory is further explored by an ever growing number of scholars on these occasions. Certainly and sadly in this day and age, the theme of the conference couldn’t have been more appropriate: Violence in the Name of Religion. The academic yet also cordial gathering was held at the campus of ACU (Australian Catholic University) from Wednesday 13 July until Sunday 17 July 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
As is always the case, also at this COV&R the participants gave each other lots of inspiration. In the coming months I will probably share some explorations I felt invited to on this blog. For now I’d like to highlight some of the ideas I thought were quite inspiring (at least to me).
WEDNESDAY, 13 JULY
Prof. William T. Cavanaugh started off the event by giving the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture. AS PEOPLE USED TO BELIEVE IN THE GODS – Girard and the Myth of Religious Violence was the provocative title of his contribution, which essentially stated that violence is not a religious problem but a universally human reality (as Dr. Petra Steinmair-Pösel succinctly pointed out in her response to the lecture).
Cavanaugh summarized the myth many people believe in nowadays as follows:
- There is a trans-historical and transcultural essence of religion that distinguishes it from essentially secular phenomena like reason, or politics and economics: religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism [Cavanaugh was aware that some people might not call Buddhism a religion] are essentially different from secular phenomena like nationalism, consumerism, and Marxism.
- Religion has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena.
- Therefore, religion should be marginalized from public power and secularism should be encouraged.
He then went on to debunk this myth by pointing out how the religious/secular dichotomy originated as a typically western phenomenon. In the words of Cavanaugh:
The religious/secular distinction is not trans-historical and transcultural: it is a contingent product of the modern West. What counts as religious and what counts as secular in any given circumstance depends on the political purposes of the one making the distinction. The distinction is commonly used to endorse as rational and peacemaking certain beliefs and practices, labeled secular, and to condemn others, labeled religious, as essentially irrational and prone to violence. The distinction does not simply describe the way the world is, but rather tells us about how the West distributes power.
The creation of the sovereign state meant that the ambit of ecclesiastical authorities would gradually be confined to religion – the realm of belief – while the civil authorities would take charge of the political. The religious/secular and religion/politics distinctions helped eventually to create the expectation that the natural place of the church was the private sphere.
Some more explanation might be in place here for some readers. Following René Girard, the possibility itself of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be considered as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of the lie at the heart of archaic religious systems, namely the scapegoat mechanism. As such the Judeo-Christian tradition is, in principle, responsible for the gradual loss of belief in the effectiveness of ancient ritual sacrifices (even if these were sometimes revived in so-called Christian societies; criticism of these practices comes from the Gospel itself, for instance by Erasmus, “Prince of the Humanists”). Ritual sacrifices contained violence in a twofold sense (see also Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy): they were themselves of course a form of bloody violence, but they were also believed to control the possibility of greater violent (natural and/or social) disasters understood as “the wrath of the gods” (= violence transferred to a sacred or transcendent realm).
While secularism no longer endorses the belief that potentially violent gods should be appeased by bloody sacrifices to establish an eventually peaceful world order, it does try to locate potential sources of violence or disorder that should be eliminated (“sacrificed” in a sense). It is no accident that Dr. Steinmair-Pösel, in her response to the lecture, spoke of secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” in that it “scapegoats the scapegoaters”. In this sense it goes against the heart of Christianity as a call for forgiveness (from the part of the victim) and conversion (to neighborly love that is, from the part of the perpetrator). The imitation of the “kenotic movement of Christ” should result in attitudes refraining from revenge. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized human community, people often rival each other’s claim to be “victims” and as such feel entitled to sometimes violently prosecute others who are considered “perpetrators”. While we’re at it, Prof. Wolfgang Palaver would later on, in his own lecture, rightly point to the fact that many of today’s terrorists legitimize themselves as victims or defenders of victims (from groups like ISIS to Aum Shinrikyo and people like Anders Breivik). Secularism thus is, in certain circumstances, but one of several contemporary ideological systems that can legitimize marginalization and even (violent) discrimination of certain groups in the name of victims. Mosques have been set to fire after ISIS attacks, for instance. As a means of victimizing others in turn, however, secularism tragically adds to the problem of violent extremism: it makes it more easy for organizations like ISIS to claim that “their people” are indeed “victims” or that they are being “marginalized”. And so the vicious circle goes on and on. In short, by labeling religion in general and its believers as “often dangerously irrational”, “potentially violent” and therefore “better if gone, eliminated or destroyed”, secularism ironically becomes a religious system itself. A religious system is understood then as a social order arising out of so-called necessary sacrifices to prevent potentially violent mayhem. All of this, again, in the words of Prof. Cavanaugh:
The point is not only that people are just as likely to kill for secular things like Marxism and capitalism [remember the Gulag or the Cold War] as they are for religious things like Islam and Hinduism. The point is that the religious/secular distinction is itself an act of power that labels certain things “religious” and therefore essentially irrational and potentially dangerous, while authorizing as “secular” other belief systems and practices whose violence is accepted as rational and peacemaking.
[Cavanaugh eventually quotes Girard on religion and religion in the secular, and provides further explanation (I took the picture on the right from the core of the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney):]
Religion, in this sense, is not a sui generis phenomenon that can be separated out from culture, reason, politics, economics, or society.
Girard uses religion in a narrow sense to refer to the archaic (mis)representation of sacrificial violence, and in a broader sense to refer to the ways that all societies – even modern secular ones – employ the same mechanisms to legitimate and control violence. In good Durkheimian fashion, Girard uses the term “religion” to name the way that any society – including any “secular” society – represents itself to itself. As Girard writes “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist.”
[From Girard’s anthropological perspective on secularism and anti-religion, the religious/secular dichotomy indeed becomes part of one of today’s most important myths (the discourse that establishes a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence). Cavanaugh continues and concludes:]
The religious/secular dichotomy is itself part of the apparatus whereby violence is concealed. Girard’s goal is to reveal it, and thereby undermine the religious/secular dichotomy.
As Girard says, the Christian “Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naïve illusion that we are finished with it… Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting.”
During the remainder of my time in Australia, about a week after the conference, I discovered that the myth of secularism is alive and well on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, Sydney:
Secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” (see higher, Dr. Steinmair-Pösel) thus contains a warning for Christians themselves (and for all who try to develop a spiritual attitude that goes beyond the convenient and comfortable dualism of “good versus evil”, be it for instance “good secularism versus evil religion”): Jesus never attempted to completely abolish the existing cultural (religious) traditions and social systems, he merely tried to transform his own Jewish religion, whenever and wherever needed, in light of neighborly love. In their covert and overt attempts to completely remove religion from the public sphere, certain secularists attain the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish: they continue an essentially sacrificial (“religious”) system. As Dr. Steinmair-Pösel concluded in her response to the first plenary session, the difference between so-called archaic religion and Judeo-Christian tradition (or religion and “secularism” for that matter) therefore can never result in a complete “separation” with one destroying the other, but should be thought of as a distinction. In other words and as I understand it, the ultimate human possibility of a humanitarian ethos, materializing in whatever cultural form, ceases to exist whenever one culture establishes itself at the expense of another (for sure, the colonial history of certain so-called Christians implied the disappearance of humanitarianism).
Well, one thing became clear on the first evening of the conference. The organizers not only provided the participants with a great reception and dinner, they indeed also promised copious food for thought.
THURSDAY, 14 JULY
The high expectations for the rest of the conference were already met on the second day. Religion and Violence in Girard’s Mimetic Theory, the second plenary session, saw Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dr. Sarah Bachelard and Dr. Chris Fleming engage in a discussion with Girard’s thought to approach modern politics and contemporary social phenomena.
From the lectures of Prof. Dupuy and Dr. Bachelard I became more aware of the difference between the terror of today’s violent extremism on the one hand, and the terror of “the fear of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction)” by a nuclear war during the Cold War on the other. During the Cold War, the threat of total annihilation served as a third party, a non-human entity (an exteriorization of violence) to which both the US and the USSR bowed. A “cold war” thus resulted in a “hot peace” (a nuclear peace). Today’s suicidal terrorists, however, don’t fear annihilation in any way. So the threat of annihilation as a means to establish an ever precarious peace doesn’t work. This means that we are challenged to look for other attempts to create peace which don’t alienate us from “the best of ourselves”.
Prof. Dupuy also made an intriguing remark on the relationship between “victim” and “crowd”. While the old sacred is based on the gathering of an undifferentiated crowd around a sacrificial victim (or a series of victims), today’s violent extremism basically consists of one or more murderous suicidal subjects who attack and disperse an undifferentiated crowd. Dupuy therefore considers modern terrorism as a sham or simulacrum of the foundational event (of the old sacred). The UNANIMITY of the crowd is swapped for the ANONIMITY of the crowd. Instead of containing violence, the self-sacrifice of the suicide terrorist implies not contained violence. In one of the concurrent sessions I attended, The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions, Prof. Thomas Ryba pointed to the difference between the dynamic of Christ and its “satanic” reversal, which joins the thought of Dupuy from a Christian perspective. Jesus is one who is willing to die for all (because he refuses the sacrifice of others to save himself), while a suicide terrorist wants all to die for one (for the purpose of his self-aggrandizement).
Dr. Fleming concluded the second plenary session by pointing to an interesting (mimetically opposing) parallel between the political left and right when it comes to interpreting violent extremism. Depending on the external features of the violent extremists in question, both the political left and right easily replace structural theories with theories of agency in explaining human behavior. For instance, the right tends to explain the violence of a Muslim shooter from the ideological structure that is Islam, while the left in this case generally claims that the problem lies in the individual and not in Islam. The reverse will happen in the case of a white (Christian) shooter, for instance. In other words, from a certain political left, Islam structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by scapegoating an individual agent, i.e. the Muslim shooter. On the other hand, from a certain political right, Christianity structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by, once again, scapegoating an individual agent, this time a Christian shooter. Contenders on both sides would try to generalize the disposition of one agent to a collective disposition of THE Muslim or THE Christian, or even THE believer (if certain atheists were to be believed). If you belong to a certain group and you want to protect the image of purity of that group, you might attribute the terrorist behavior of one of your own to specific circumstances explaining the erratic behavior of that individual. So there are different levels of attribution (see attribution theory in social psychology, click here) in all these cases.
In any case, it seems that violent extremists try to escape the limits of human existence by committing “non-negotiable” acts which make them feel like gods. In the words of Fleming, “gods don’t need politics.” Which made me suddenly think about the saying, “All’s fair in love and war…” A reflection that is to be continued, for sure.
The third plenary session, on the evening of the second day, was a lecture by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths. She gave a challenging assessment of the relationship between Islam and violence, stressing the point that poor religious education and a very limited understanding of Islam facilitate the connection between Islam and violence. Once again, removing a religion like Islam from serious public and academic debate and leaving it to the hands of self-declared imams on the worldwide web seems like a very bad idea. I can only highly recommend the work of Prof. Afsaruddin to clear some important misconceptions.
FRIDAY, 15 JULY
The first plenary session on Friday morning started with some turmoil. Prof. Wolfgang Palaver, Prof. Greg Barton and Dr. Julian Droogan eventually talked about Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam. Their session, sadly enough, was all the more topical since news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day had just arrived. Prof. Greg Barton came in a bit late because he was asked, being a counter-terrorist expert, about his first thoughts on the attack for Australian TV.
Dr. Droogan began his lecture by describing the main conceptual problems with “radicalization” as an explanatory tool for violent extremism. Again, also in this lecture, some common assumptions were challenged:
- The assumption that violent extremism is caused by radical beliefs is not born out by research that suggests that violent extremism is more often supported by social dynamics and perceptions of identity.
- By assuming that it is radical ideas that primarily lead people to violent extremism, an easy assumption is made linking religious or political concepts as the primary drivers of violence.
- De-radicalization? It is a difficult and sensitive task to convince an individual to make changes to cognitive beliefs especially when these are tied to a person’s identity / reinforced through social networks.
So de-radicalization programs which merely focus on “ideas” won’t work, since violent extremism has more to do with building an identity than with ideology as such.
No wonder then that violent extremists like ISIS find their most ardent supporters in youth groups, traditionally groups in the midst of developing their identity. As Droogan pointed out, a 2014 ICM poll revealed that more than 25 % of French youth (of all religions and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 24) had a favorable attitude towards ISIS.
The man who killed 84 people in Nice by driving a lorry through a crowd, 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues as well. Dr. Droogan presented the profile of an ISIS fighter in the western diaspora, containing characteristics that would prove to be true for this terrorist too (inserted information about the Nice killer comes from BBC News, in italics):
Young – grew up in the post 9/11 world of counter terrorism and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric.
75 % joined Al Qaeda or ISIS through friends – social networks.
Almost 25 % joined through family or acquaintances.
Speak of the importance of finding meaning in their lives – a search for meaning and identity.
Very rare that parents were at all aware of their children’s desire; international affairs, foreign policy or terrorism not discussed at home.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel last visited Tunisia four years ago, people in his hometown Msaken told the BBC’s Rana Jawad. They said many people knew his family and were shocked by his actions. “We remember him as a normal person from a wealthy family,” a town resident told her.
Mostly youth in transitional stages of their lives:
Police say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married with three children, although he no longer lived with his wife. She was detained for questioning by police on 15 July but has since been released. A woman who knows the family told the BBC Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been thrown out of their home in the Le Ray area of Nice more than a year ago after allegedly beating his wife.
Left or about to leave their family
Looking for new family or friends or community of like-minded passionate idealists
Mostly youth who are deeply concerned with finding meaning, value and significance in their lives, and have a commitment to action
Examinations of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s browsing history showed he had carried out research for his attack. On 1 July he searched for details of the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice as well as videos showing “terrible” fatal traffic accidents. He had also read about recent attacks in Orlando, where a man proclaiming allegiance to IS shot 49 people in a gay nightclub, Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers, and Magnanville near Paris, where a French jihadist stabbed two police officials to death. In the days before the attack, he twice drove to the Promenade des Anglais in his rented lorry, sold his van and attempted to withdraw money, Mr Molins said. This showed that his act was “premeditated and deliberate”, he said. He reserved the 19-tonne refrigeration lorry on 4 July and collected it on 11 July in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, just west of Nice. During his reconnaissance trips, he sent a selfie photo from the driver’s cabin. Just minutes before launching his attack, he sent text messages asking accomplices to give him more weapons and boasting about having obtained a pistol. He fired that pistol at police during his rampage, before police shot him dead. “Bring more weapons, bring five to C,” one of the messages said. Police are trying to identify who the message was sent to.
No traditional religious education
The Nice killer lived a life “far from religion”, eating pork, taking drugs and indulging in a “wild” sex life, French prosecutor François Molins said.
Some “born again” or “conversion” experience
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Nice killer had apparently been radicalized very quickly. From 1 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel made more or less daily internet searches for verses of the Koran and “nasheeds” – jihadist propaganda chants. He also researched the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Investigators found photos of dead bodies and images linked to radical Islamism on his computer, including the flag of so-called Islamic State, the cover of an issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – attacked by gunmen in January 2015 – and photos of Osama bin Laden and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In the eight days leading up to the attack, he grew a beard and told friends this was for “religious reasons”. He also told them he did not understand why IS could not hold territory and showed them a video of a beheading on his mobile phone. In response to their shock, he said he was “used to it”. However, there was no evidence that he had pledged allegiance to any radical groups or had contact with known Islamists.
Those who do practice religious ritual may have been expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs
As is also clear from the research conducted by Prof. Barton, many of the recent terrorists have a history of violence and petty crime.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with police between 2010 and 2016 for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. In March, a court in Nice convicted him of assaulting a motorist with an improvised weapon – a wooden pallet – during an altercation. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to contact police once a week, which he did. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “never flagged for signs of radicalization”, officials say, and he was not on France’s “Fiche S” high-security watch list. The majority of attacks carried out in the country since January 2015 have been staged by men designated “Fiche S”, and also linked to IS. In 2014, IS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in an audio message: “If you can’t detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself… run them over with your car.” Many of France’s jihadist killers, starting with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, also began their journey towards militant Islam as petty criminals.
Dr. Droogan concluded that groups like ISIS capitalize on youth rebelliousness and the search for significance and glory. It should be stressed that the Nice killer, for instance, not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, the Nice killer apparently had mental issues as well. Add this to the equation and you might get a very explosive, dangerous mindset.
A psychiatrist, Chamseddine Hamouda, carried out a mental assessment of the killer a few years ago after his father became concerned about his “troubling behaviour of a psychotic nature”. “He was a stranger to himself,” Mr Hamouda said. “I advised his parents that he needed treatment. At the time he exhibited violent behaviour towards his family… I’m sure that in the past 12 years something else happened that perhaps influenced how he thought.”
In short, ISIS is one of possible organizations, and a popular one at that, which provide an outlet for people who became extremely violent. These violent tendencies mainly have other causes than some twisted ideology. The allegiance with a twisted ideology should be understood more as a consequence of the obsession to achieve significance, attention or recognition through a highly publicized act of violence.
Prof. Wolfgang Palaver’s contribution for this plenary session was all the more challenging as it highlighted the inspiration Islamic tradition itself could provide to create a more peaceful world. Prof. Palaver situated Islam within the Abrahamic tradition’s potential to criticize “sacred” phenomena born from bloody sacrifices. In the words of René Girard, “The peoples of the world do not invent their gods, they deify their victims.” This could be said of the way ISIS glorifies its suicide terrorists as well. In this context Palaver distinguished between the sacred and the holy, the first basically being the false transcendence of idolatry (as in ISIS claimed suicide attacks), while the latter points to the mysterious transcendence of a “God” who is other than the human projections of power. Seems like a grace needed in this ever broken world…
SATURDAY, 16 JULY
The final plenary session again was packed with impulses for further explorations. Prof. Frank Brennan SJ, Assoc. Prof. Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier & Ms Naomi Wolfe formed the panel for Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History.
One realization in particular struck me. When white people first came to Australia, they asked themselves whether aboriginals were actually “real human beings”, and tried to think of aboriginals as somewhat being in an animal stage instead. Similarly, however, aboriginals too asked themselves whether white people were actually “real human beings”, thinking of white people as ghosts instead.
I guess there is no greater challenge in human relationships than to think of the other as “other” without, however, situating that “otherness” in “something less” or “something more” than oneself. Idolatry of one’s self-image as “better than others” or of others as “better than myself” only leads to alienation, narcissistic illusions, hypodermic frustrations, self-loathing, hatred of others and eventually violence.
We are limited human beings, and as such we’re always called to the never-ending exploration and acceptance of the mystery we are to ourselves and to each other. Us is a life sizzling with creativity.
This COV&R has only been the third I went to (the first two I attended were in the US – Cedar Falls, 2013 & Saint Louis, 2015), but I must say that I always feel charged with energy when coming back. For this I’m very grateful. I’d like to end this report by explicitly thanking the organizers of all COV&R conferences, on this occasion the organizers of the 2016 COV&R.
So thank you:
ACU (Australian Catholic University)
Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University)
THE RAVEN FOUNDATION (Suzanne & Keith Ross)
THE AUSTRALIAN GIRARD SEMINAR (especially Prof. Scott Cowdell, Dr. Chris Fleming, Dr. Joel Hodge, Dr. Carly Osborn, Wojtek Kaftanski)
I’d also like to congratulate Yevgen Galona, Lukasz Mudrak and Elizabeth Culhane for winning the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize (place one to three, respectively).
I’d like to thank the lecturers of the concurrent sessions I went to (they were all delightful): Jonathan Cole (The Jihadist Current and the West: The Clash of Conceptuality), Susan Wright (Rekindling a Sacrificial Crisis in the Eucharist: John’s Midrashic Reversal of the ‘Manna’ Metaphors), Chloé Collier (American Presidents and Apocalyptic Discourse: Justifying Violent Foreign Policies in Times of Crisis), Suzanne Ross (Acquisitive Desire in Early Childhood: Rethinking Rivalry in the Playroom), Mathias Moosbrugger (Ignatius of Loyola and Mimetic Theory: Is it a Thing?), Wojtek Kaftanski (Mimesis as the Problem and the Cure: Kierkegaard and Girard on Human Autonomy and Authenticity), Scott Cowdell (A Five-Act Girardian Theo-Drama), David Gore (The Call to Follow Jesus), Thomas Ryba (The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions), Jeremiah Alberg (Forbidding What We Desire; Desiring What We Are Forbidden – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue *), Diego Bubbio (The Self in Crisis: A Mimetic Theory of Mad Men), Paul Dumouchel (About Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing).
* In his presentation on Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Prof. Jeremiah Alberg mentioned that the co-scenarist for these groundbreaking movies, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, declared that his ideas are based on the books of René Girard. Something to look at more thoroughly in the future. For more on this, click here: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Jeux interdits – Essai sur le Décalogue de Kieslowski (extrait), Yves Vaillancourt (pdf).
Finally, I’d like to thank every single participant for making this a warm, loving gathering as well, with an ever present spirit of kindness and friendship. I’m already looking forward to the COV&R of 2017, in Madrid.
I can’t help but quote the following article by Philip Ball in its entirety. It summarizes an interesting paper that appeared in Nature by Joseph Watts, Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies – Nature 532, 228–231 (14 April 2016). For those of us who are familiar with the work of René Girard and mimetic theory, it offers some great factual perspectives. I’ve highlighted sentences that are especially remarkable from a Girardian point of view in purple.
How human sacrifice propped up the social order
Understanding the role of state-sanctioned killing does more than illuminate the social evolution of “pre-modern” cultures.
Philip Ball (04 April 2016)
James Frazer’s classic anthropological study The Golden Bough1 contains a harrowing chapter on human sacrifice in rituals of crop fertility and harvest among historical cultures around the world. Frazer describes sacrificial victims being crushed under huge toppling stones, slow-roasted over fires and dismembered alive.
Frazer’s methods of analysis wouldn’t all pass muster among anthropologists today (his work was first published in 1890), but it is hard not to conclude from his descriptions that what industrialized societies today would regard as the most extreme psychopathy has in the past been seen as normal — and indeed sacred — behaviour.
In almost all societies, killing within a tribe or clan has been strongly taboo; exemption is granted only to those with great authority. Anthropologists have suspected that ritual human sacrifice serves to cement power structures — that is, it signifies who sits at the top of the social hierarchy.
Sacrifice for social order
The idea makes intuitive sense, but until now there has been no clear evidence to support it. In a study published in Nature2, Joseph Watts, a specialist in cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and his colleagues have analysed 93 traditional cultures in Austronesia (the region that loosely embraces the many small and island states in the Pacific and Indonesia) as they were before they were influenced by colonization and major world religions (generally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
By delving into ethnographic records, the researchers tried to tease out the relationship between human sacrifice and social hierarchy. They find that the prevalence of sacrifice increased with the degree of social stratification: it occurred in 25% of cultures with little or no stratification, 37% of those with moderately stratified societies, and 67% of those that had a pronounced hierarchy.
And by mapping the evolutionary relationships between cultures, the team suggests that human sacrifice and social hierarchy co-evolved. Although societies can become more or less stratified over time, societies that practised sacrifice were less apt to revert to milder degrees of stratification.
In other words, human sacrifice seems to bolster stratification: it helped to stabilize hierarchy, and conceivably, therefore, had a common role in the development of highly stratified societies that generally persist even today.
Human sacrifice seems to have been largely the privilege of priests or others who claimed religious authority. Watts and colleagues say that their results therefore disclose a “dark side” to the social role of religion. (They have previously shown that belief in supernatural punishing agencies in Austronesian cultures encouraged moral observance, and thereby promoted the emergence of stratified and complex social structures3).
There’s a danger of overgeneralization from any study of this kind. Human sacrifice is no more likely than, for instance, music to have had a single role in early societies. In the third century bc, for example, Chinese administrator Li Bing eliminated the sacrifice of young maidens to a river god during the conquest of Sichuan by the First Emperor. Some have suggested that he called the bluff of a local racket in which families rid themselves of unwanted daughters while getting rich on the compensation they received. Whether or not that is true, it’s easy to imagine how rituals could be abused for prosaic gain.
And even in Austronesia, add Watts’s team, sacrifice wasn’t always conducted for purely religious reasons. It could have other motivations, including to punish taboo violations, demoralize underclasses, mark class boundaries and instil fear of social elites, all of which aim at building and maintaining social control. For this reason, says Michael Winkelman, an anthropologist now retired from Arizona State University in Tempe, “I suspect that Watts et al. are assessing some general notion of social legitimated killing.”
Such considerations complicate any interpretation of Watts’s results, but it also gives them considerably more contemporary resonance.
By today’s standards, human sacrifice scarcely seems to fall within the norms of good morality. But one doesn’t need to be a moral relativist to accept that the connections between human sacrifice, obedience to authority and stable governance persist. To perceive a link between ancient, “savage” human sacrifices and the death penalty in some modern societies isn’t to exaggerate or indulge in melodrama, as Winkelman’s remarks testify.
Certainly the suggestion could seem glib, and the parallels cannot be taken too far. Unlike today’s death penalties, traditional ritual sacrifice was generally for religious purposes and it tended to exhibit no bloodlust or contempt for the victims. Often they were seen as godlike, and before their sacrifice, they might be treated with reverence and affection, and perhaps fed well like the biblical fatted calf. The remains of the dead body — it’s not even clear whether the word “victim” is appropriate — were imbued with power. If the flesh was chopped up, it was to share out this potent relic among the tribe.
Yet a contemporary state’s arrogation of the right to slaughter through the death penalty — breaking an otherwise rigid prohibition — still serves as, among other things, a demonstration of authority and a ritual of appeasement, whether towards supposed religious strictures or public opinion.
To future anthropologists, whatever explanations or justifications states offer today for imposing capital punishment may seem less revealing than the broader view of how such sanctified killing reinforces the social order. We can expect time’s retrospective gaze to lay bare the real reasons why we, no less than the ancient Aztecs or Samoans, valorize murder.
- The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1890).
- Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature17159 (2016). , , , &
- Proc. R. Soc. B 282, 20142556 (2015). et al.
One of the oldest written religious texts, the Rig-Veda (the oldest of the four Vedas of Hindu religion), contains a creation myth that tells about the sacrifice of the giant Purusha. This sacrifice serves as the basis for the Indian caste system. Once again, in light of mimetic theory and the above mentioned scientific research, the existence of such stories comes as no surprise.
From the Rig-Veda
Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it.
Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food.
Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven.
With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not.
From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.
When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.
The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers].
From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.
From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep.
When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called?
His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born.
The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.
From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds.
Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim.
With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.
Source: The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.
Dirk Draulans, biologist and science journalist for Belgian Knack magazine, wrote an interesting article on the question of violence in human life (Violence is deeply rooted in us – The biology of terror; PDF: Het geweld zit diep in ons – De biologie van terreur). He drew from several recent findings concerning the ongoing struggle with violence between and within human communities since prehistoric times. Perhaps not surprisingly, he came across questions as well as insights that are at the core of René Girard’s mimetic theory and its explanation of human culture. So I can only advice Draulans to read the work of René Girard and other scholars of mimetic theory. As I’ll try to show, it may resolve some of the ambiguities and dilemmas he touches upon in his article. I’ve translated parts of the article from Dutch, emphasizing certain sentences, before commenting from a Girardian point of view.
First of all, Draulans points to the importance of imitation or mimesis in the origin and maintenance of human culture:
Our culture is not in our genes, but is transmitted by copying and learning behavior.
In this context Draulans refers to a thought experiment conducted by scientists who specialize in the emergence of culture. More specifically, he refers to an article in New Scientist, Island of wild children: Would they learn to be human? (Christopher Kemp, June 3, 2015) that contains the experiment:
100 babies. No adults. One island. Without language, culture or tools, what would they become and how would their own children evolve?
Or, as Draulans puts it:
This led to the key question whether we humans are born violent.
Here’s how Draulans continues:
Quite a few scientists who participated in the thought experiment assumed that there soon would be tensions within the group, especially when food is scarce. Indeed, biologically speaking, violence is deeply rooted in us. Chimpanzees, who are models for the ape-men who were our ancestors, are ‘naturally’ violent. The world of chimpanzees is organized around the members of their own group, and neighboring groups are by definition enemies to be fought. Last year, Biological Reviews published an analysis of the skulls of australopithecines, chimpanzee-like ancestors of man who lived several million years ago. The results show that their hands were so evolved that they could easily make fists, not only for handling equipment but also to commit violence. Some skulls, especially of men, were hardened to better absorb punches. Yet in the course of our evolution we gradually became more gentle. We had to, if we wanted to survive in a world with ever more people, many of them we didn’t know. […] An average person would find groups of 150 people or more difficult to handle, for he wouldn’t know everyone personally.
Although culture and morality became very powerful in the course of our history, they could never prevent the resurgence of extreme violence. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of a 7,000 year old mass grave in Germany. It showed that dozens of people, including children, were brutally maimed and killed. It is not the only mass grave from that period. The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another, without any further information about the groups in question.
Scientists are struggling with the difficult balance between our propensity to violence on the one hand and our ability to cooperate on the other. This is shown by two books published last year. In A Talent for Friendship an American ethnographer develops the idea that so-called primitive tribes are not as violent as we were led to believe for a long time. On the contrary, they would have had systems to learn to accept strangers as friends […]. They would even have had ‘ritual battlefields’ to turn hostility into friendship. In another book, Virtuous Violence (CLICK HERE FOR A PRESENTATION IN SLIDES), both an American anthropologist and psychologist defend the surprising statement that violence often is not the result of a diminished moral sense, but rather the reverse: people sometimes use violence because they believe that it’s the best thing to do. They often feel ‘morally obliged’ to be violent.
‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern. It should be possible with our culture, though. But unfortunately it is not always as powerful as it should be.
In a video compilation I made (on the origin of cultures) as an introduction to mimetic theory (click here), anthropologist David Watts filmed an event that normally doesn’t happen within groups of chimpanzees. True, chimpanzees often collectively inflict extreme violence on individual members of an outside community, but they would not do this to a member of their own community. And yet, that’s what Watts witnessed. It happened in the largest group that was ever observed in the wild, with over a 150 chimpanzees. Indeed, as Draulans writes, groups of 150 people or more become difficult to handle, and people no longer know each member of the group well. It is no surprise that chimpanzees experience similar problems in such a large group: tensions rise, and feelings of empathy are not as strong for every member. Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari also stresses the critical threshold of 150 members in his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (Part One, Chapter 2 The Tree of Knowledge – The Legend of Peugeot):
“In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number.”
What Draulans only partly emphasizes in his article is the fact that violent tensions within and between groups of primates may also occur when ‘survival’ (of the individual or of the group as a ‘species’) is not exactly the issue. In groups of chimpanzees, males constantly vie for dominance and form frequently changing alliances in order to move up the hierarchy. This has to do with an increased mimetic ability. In many circumstances a group benefits from mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as survival and other skills are more easily passed on from one member of the group to others, but in the context of mutually imitated desires the mimetic ability often leads to violent conflict. Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (for an example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Collective violence of chimpanzees against individual members of an outside community thus also has a social function: it reunites normally competing males of the same group against a common enemy. This behavior forms the basis for the scapegoat mechanism in (primitive) human communities as it is described by René Girard.
It should come as no surprise that the rare event of collective violence against a member of one’s own group precisely occurred in an exceptional group of chimpanzees with over 150 members. Indeed: the bigger the group, the bigger the tensions, and the more individual members may fall outside ‘circles of empathy’, thus running the chance of becoming the victim of a ‘reuniting collective violence’. According to Girard, events of collective violence, releasing tensions within one’s own group, would have happened more in primitive human communities (as those became larger and as humans have even more mimetic ability and thus potentially destructive mimetic desires than other primates). This, again according to Girard, eventually resulted in rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture: ritual sacrifices (for more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion and ‘the sacred’, click here). These rituals try to distinguish so-called ‘good’, ‘justified’ or ‘regenerating’ violence from ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ violence. For instance, in the Andes of Bolivia descendants of the Inca stage a festival called Tinku to receive a good harvest from ‘the mountain spirits’ (this is also shown in the video compilation, on the origin of cultures – click here for more). Almost every year someone dies during this ritual battle, that nevertheless still often ends in an embrace of the fighters. Indeed, this ritual sacrifice of human blood wants to turn potential destructive enmity over scarcity of food into the maintenance of peace because of a good harvest. Honoring the spirits in maintaining certain taboos and sacrifices prevents their wrath (perceived as some sort of supernatural punishment by the contagious disease of destructive violence). A recent study in Science (click here pdf) claims that beliefs like these were necessary to make societies socially and politically more complex: indeed, the establishment of periodic ritual sacrifices would release tensions in a more controlled, structured way.
As said, all these observations from mimetic theory may resolve some of the dilemmas in the article of Dirk Draulans as well as nuance some of his statements. Summarized:
1) Humans are not ‘naturally violent’. We don’t automatically feel nor need to suppress the urge to attack others. What is the case is that we are ‘naturally mimetic’ and that mimetic tendencies in the context of desire might lead to violent conflict (read also pdf The Two Sides of Mimesis by Vittorio Gallese). As Draulans observes, commenting on the study of a prehistoric mass grave:
The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another…
Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (again for the aforementioned example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Humans sometimes even suppress instinctual needs and desires because of mimetically enhanced ambitions. Germany, for instance, entered the first world war as one of the most powerful nations in the world. It had no shortage of consumer products, let alone of basic food supplies and water. It mainly wanted to express its supremacy. Of course, tragically, Germany came out of the war as a broken nation (for more, click here). On an individual level, things like anorexia would not be possible if humans were mainly guided by their ‘natural needs’. Moreover, a recent study once again reveals what happens when mimetic desire is not kept in check by certain beliefs (“I have to accept my social position because of karma”) or taboos (“I cannot question the authority of my king because god will punish me if I do so”). The article of this study, in Nature (October 15, 2015), Conspicuous wealth undermines cooperation, concludes:
Wealth inequality and wealth visibility can both potentially affect levels of cooperation in a society and overall levels of economic success. Akihiro Nishi et al. use an online game to test how the two factors interact. Surprisingly, wealth inequality by itself did not damage cooperation or overall wealth as long as players do not know about the wealth of others. But when players’ wealth was visible to others, inequality had a detrimental effect.
2) Human culture (and morality – Draulans seems to use this term as a synonym) arises both as an attempt to suppress violence and as an attempt to justify so-called ‘necessary’ violence. Draulans refers to the ambiguity of ‘ritual battlefields’, which is in itself a way out of the dilemma of ‘cooperation vs violence’. Following René Girard and mimetic theory, basic cultural religious institutions such as ritual (sacrifices) allow for a fundamental distinction between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence and provide individual members of human communities with the collective means to justify the violence they inflict on others. This justification is part of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. As it provides ‘distinctions’, ‘definitions’ and ‘(psychological and social) identity’ against the threat of undifferentiated, ‘contagious’ violence, the scapegoat mechanism also forms the basis of human culture according to Girard. It might shed more light on this quote by Draulans:
‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern.
I guess ‘reason’ alone doesn’t make us human. There are ‘matters of the heart’ too, guiding us to use our brains not to build weapons of mass destruction but to build ‘bridges of solidarity’…
Anyway, Dirk, read René Girard!