July 29, 2005


Ratzinger Is Right (NPQ, Summer 2005)

René Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book Violence and the Sacred, is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Recently NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with Girard at his home near the campus.

NPQ: When Pope Benedict XVI recently denounced what he saw as the "dictatorship of relativism," especially in European culture, it caused great controversy. Is the Pope right that we live in such a dictatorship?

René Girard: Yes, he is right. This formula—the dictatorship of relativism—is excellent. It is going to establish a new discourse in the same way that John Paul II’s idea of recovering "a culture of life" from the "culture of death" has framed a whole set of issues, from abortion to stem cell research, capital punishment and war.

It makes sense that this formula comes from a man—(the former) Cardinal Ratzinger—whose specialty is dogma and theory.

This reign of relativism which is so striking today is due, in part, to the necessities of our time. Societies are so mixed, with such plurality of peoples. You have to keep a balance between various creeds. You must not take sides. Every belief is supposed to be accorded equal value. Inevitably, even if you are not a relativist, you must sound like one if not act like one.

As a result, we have more and more relativism. And we have more and more people who hate any kind of faith. This is especially the case in the university. And it hurts intellectual life. Because all truths are treated as equal, since there is said to be no objective Truth, you are forced to be banal and superficial. You cannot be truly committed to anything, to be "for" something—even if only for the time being.

Like Ratzinger, however, I believe in commitment. After all, we are both convinced by the idea that responsibility demands we must be committed to one position and follow it through. [...]

NPQ: Just as there is clash within Islam between tradition and modernity, doesn’t Pope Benedict’s crusade against relativism also announce a clash within the West? But the issue in the West is not about accommodating faith with reason. It is about resisting a culture of materialism and disbelief by insisting on values, as the Pope has put it, beyond "egoism and desire." Figuratively, the conflict is between the Pope and Madonna (the pop singer).

Girard: It is a culture war, yes. I agree. But it is not Ratzinger who has somehow changed and suddenly become reactionary and conservative. It is the secular culture that has drifted beyond the pale.

Remember, Ratzinger was a supporter of the Vatican II Council that reformed the Church in the 1960s. He opposed the idea that the Church should stand still in a modernizing world. For him, to be a Roman Catholic is to accept that the Church has something to learn from the world. At the same time, there is a Truth that doesn’t change the Gospel. Today, he is just reaffirming his position. He is just standing his ground.

Ratzinger is an intelligent conservative. He wants to avoid the fundamentalism of some Muslims and Christians—no change at all—but also avoid this idea that whatever is new is better than what is old. He wants to resist this dissolving of the Church in whichever direction the world goes. In this sense, I am pro-Ratzinger.

It's funny to watch the interviewer here who thinks it will be brilliant to trick Mr. Girard into saying that the clash within the West is similar to the one between Islam and the West when that's simply a truism. Secular rational Europe is no longer Western and so is a de facto enemy of the Judeo-Christian West just as surely as it is of Islam.

Violence and the Sacred (Scott McLemee, 7/28/05, Inside Higher Ed)

Beginning in the late 1950s, Girard published a series of analyses of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust (among others) that foregrounded their preoccupation with desire, envy, and imitation. He found that there was a recurrent structure in their work: a scenario of what he called “triangular” or “mimetic” desire. Don Quixote offers a fairly simple example. The would-be knight feels no particular longing for Dulcinea. Rather, he has thrown himself into a passionate imitation of certain models of what a knight must do — and she’s as close to a damsel as circumstances allow.

Girard argued that, at some deep level, all of human desire is like that. We learn by imitation — and one of the things we learn is what, and how, to desire. (Hence, I didn’t so much want that book in the window for its own sake, but as a means to triumph in the struggle for the position my wife calls “Ma’s favorite son-in-law.")

For the most part, we are blind to the mediated nature of desire. But the great writers, according to Girard, are more lucid about this. They reveal the inner logic of desire, including its tendency to spread — and, in spreading, to generate conflict. When several hands reach for the same object, some of them are bound to end up making fists. So begins a cycle of terror and retaliation; for violence, too, is mimetic.

By the 1970s, Girard had turned all of this into a grand theory of human culture. He described a process in which the contagion-like spread of mimetic desire and violence leads to the threat of utter social disintegration. At which point, something important happens: the scapegoat emerges. All of the free-floating violence is discharged in an act of murder against an innocent person or group which is treated (amidst the delirium of impending collapse) as the source of the conflict.

A kind of order takes shape around this moment of sacrificial violence. Myths and rituals are part of the commemoration of the act by which mimetic desire and its terrible consequences were subdued. But they aren’t subdued forever. The potential for a return of this contagion is built into the very core of what makes us human.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 29, 2005 9:53 AM

Hmm. Perhaps we can make a provisional alliance with Iran, Pakistan et al. to invade secular Europe a la D-Day?

Posted by: Al Cornpone at July 29, 2005 10:13 AM

We're de facto allies with Iran, but against Pakistan as well as Europe.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 12:15 PM

The Muslim shock troops have already done the hard work of eating away their secularism from within. I guess the same applies to Musharraf's regime. All they need is a little push and those rotten structures will collapse.

How many divisions does the pope have again? Surely he can spare a couple.

Posted by: Al Cornpone at July 29, 2005 12:27 PM

An important tonic, to one of the abiding numbskull fantasies on the right: the idea that humanities academics march in rigid ideological lockstep. Girard is one of the heroes of literary theory, along with the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Derrida. And the fact that he is a conservative has not kept him from being embraced.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at July 29, 2005 1:37 PM

If he thinks all desire is mimetic then he's not conservative, he's progressive.

Posted by: Dread Pirate Roberts at July 29, 2005 1:53 PM

Sorry, that last was me. The idea that all our desires are imitation is just another variant of the blank slate, Rick.

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 29, 2005 1:58 PM

You guys are never at your weirdest then when you take sides with Islam against Europe.

Posted by: AML at July 29, 2005 2:18 PM


Mankind will endure all Muslim, it won't all secular.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 3:10 PM

Fortunately, there is no chance whatsoever that all of humanity might find itself under the Muslim yoke.

It's rather more likely that all of humanity will become the slaves of space aliens, than that we will become universally Muslim.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at July 30, 2005 2:09 AM

Girard's theory of the transference of hatred to the sacrificial scapegoat sounds a lot like Christianity.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 30, 2005 2:22 PM

rd: who, or which group, plays the role of sacrificial scapegoat in Christianity ?

Posted by: cjm at July 30, 2005 4:10 PM


Posted by: oj at July 30, 2005 5:02 PM

Christ was sacrificed by the Hebrews, unless you are saying Christians view their savior as a scapegoat. I am curious who RD thinks the Christians treat as scapegoats.

Lynchings in the South seem to fit this theory pretty nicely, as does the Inquisition.

Posted by: cjm at July 30, 2005 5:20 PM


Yes, Christ was the scapegoat:


Posted by: oj at July 30, 2005 5:33 PM

Christ was the scapegoat, because noone else was good enough to be it. Tell me how that makes sense.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 31, 2005 1:52 PM

Jews were and still are the scapegoats.

However, if we are talking about sacrifice and violence, it isn't necessary to hire a postmodern intellectual. Violence in religion is its own justification, is it not?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 1, 2005 10:15 PM


Only God could justify Man to God.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2005 11:17 PM


Violence can't be its own justification, but it's often justified.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2005 11:18 PM

I didn't say violence is its own justification. I said religion was.

Violence in religion is its own justification...

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 2, 2005 2:35 AM

Both what you said first and what you say now are wrong. Religion can't be justified by itself, only by its truth. That's why the First Amendment doesn't protect religion generically, only the Abrahamic faiths.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 7:58 AM