René Girard: Why Do We Fight? How Do We Stop?

December 27, 2018

"I don't deal with theology. I deal with the anthropology of religion.” –René Girard

In an era of social, political, and even personal conflict, we look for new ways to reconcile old divides. Why do we fight? How do we stop? Does religion make everything better – or worse?

Stanford professor René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era and one of the immortels of the Académie Française, addressed these questions with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, but are “mimetic.” As social creatures, we learn what to want from each other. From that starting point, he went on to write about imitation, envy, competition, violence, scapegoating, rituals, sacrifice, and warfare.

At the end of his life, when Martin Heidegger was asked how we could re-humanize the world, he famously responded, “Only a god can save us.” Girard replied: “And what, precisely, the modern world is not going to produce is a new god.” The answer instead, he said, is the refusal to retaliate and escalate hostilities. “In spite of all the bad aspects of the world, our world is the best we have ever known in many ways. Therefore, it's this world which must be saved. And it can be saved, by human beings getting along together.” For Girard, who died in 2015, humanity now stands at a crossroads.

“Girard is one of the Titans of 20th-century thought,” said Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison. “And I believe that the 21st century will vindicate the cogency of his theories in a clamorous way.”

In 2005, Girard met with Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison for a two-part interview. This is the final interview. You can find the first here.


“The real unconscious, the real defense mechanism: the rejection of an awareness of our own violence.” –René Girard


French theorist René Girard was born in 1923, in the southern French city of Avignon on Christmas day. He studied at the École des Chartres in Paris, an institution for the training of archivists and historians, where he specialized in medieval history. In 1947 he went to Indiana University on a year’s fellowship and eventually made his career in the United States. He completed a Ph.D. in history at Indiana University in 1950 but also began to teach literature, the field in which he would first make his reputation.

He taught at Duke University and at Bryn Mawr before becoming a professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. In 1971 he went to the State University of New York at Buffalo for five years, then returned to Johns Hopkins. He arrived at Stanford in 1981, as the inaugural Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization.

Girard was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and twice a Guggenheim Fellow. He was elected to the Académie Française in 2005.

Girard’s first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961 in French; 1965 in English), considered  Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky as case studies to develop his theory of mimesis. The Guardian compared the book to “putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”

In 1972, he spurred international controversy with Violence and the Sacred (1977 in English), which explored the role of archaic religions in suppressing social violence through scapegoating and sacrifice.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French; 1987 in English), according to its publisher, Stanford University Press, was “the single fullest summation of Girard’s ideas to date, the book by which they will stand or fall.” He offered Christianity as a solution to mimetic rivalry, and challenged Freud’s Totem and Taboo.

He was the author of nearly 30 books, which have been widely translated, including The Scapegoat, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, To Double Business Bound, Oedipus Unbound, and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare.

His last major work was 2007’s Achever Clausewitz (published in English as Battling to the End: Politics, War, and Apocalypse). The book, which takes as its point of departure the Prussian military historian and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, had implications that placed Girard firmly in the 21st century.

Girard died on November 4, 2015.