Professor Girard's central idea was that human motivation is based on desire. People are free, he believed, but seek things in life based on what other people want. Their imitation of those desires, which he termed mimesis, is imitated by others in turn, leading to escalating and often destructive competition.
Sometimes the greatest ideas appear to be simple ones. The famed critic and cultural theorist René Girard, who passed away at his Stanford home on November 4, 2015, gave the world a set of deceptively simple ideas that have changed the way we think about desire, violence, religion, and human nature itself.
Professor Girard was making points about contemporary society as well, said Cynthia Haven, the author of a coming biography of him.
Mr. Thiel, of PayPal, said that he was a student at Stanford when he first encountered Professor Girard's work, and that it later inspired him to quit an unfulfilling law career in New York and go to Silicon Valley.
Peter Thiel gave Facebook its first $100,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard's theories being validated in the concept of social media.
What do people want? The great secret is that, at the deepest level, none of us truly knows what to want. Human nature is not fixed. Our desires are open-ended and malleable. That is why we so often resort to following the lead of those around us. More than any other animal, humans learn through imitation. Girard shows what happens when imitation extends to the realm of desire.
Mimetic desire leads pell-mell to rivalry. "Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash," Girard writes. Here the seemingly simple idea of an imitated desire produces an unexpected result. Rather than bringing people together, convergence gives rise to hostility. Conflict is less a result of differences than of a fateful lack of difference. Why do people fight? Because, Girard says, we are so much alike.
The key to Girard's anthropological theory is what he calls the scapegoat mechanism. Just as desires tend to converge on the same object, violence tends to converge on the same victim. The violence of all against all gives way to the violence of all against one. When the crowd vents its violence on a common scapegoat, unity is restored. Sacrificial rites the world over are rooted in this mechanism.
One big idea is enough to insure any thinker's place in history. With mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism, René Girard had come up with two. Then he went for three by proposing a radical new interpretation of the Bible.
Girard's Achever Clausewitz, published last year in France by Editions Carnets Nord, will be published in English by Michigan State University Press this winter.
His final work, published in 2007, posited that the mimetic competition among nations would lead to an apocalyptic confrontation unless nations could learn to renounce retaliation.
The Christian influence on his work was most apparent in "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World," written in 1978 and published in English in 1987.
Published in French in 1972 and in English in 1977 as "Violence and the Sacred," the book argued that a scapegoat's death can foster social order.
His first work, published in French in 1961 and in English in 1965 as "Deceit, Desire, and the Novel," introduced this idea through readings of classic novels.
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