AGAINST THE CROWD MENTALITY, REVIEW OF RENE GIRARD, I SEE SATAN FALL LIKE LIGHTNING (NOVALIS, 2001)
Catholic New Times, 16 December 2001; on the web by permission, September 2002
This book quotes and reflects an insight of Simone Weil, that the Gospels are first a theory of man, an anthropology, and only on this foundation a theory of God, a theology. Girard does not write as a believer but more humbly, with fewer assumptions, as a student of history and myth. What light do Bible stories shed, he asks, on human nature, on who we are? How do these stories differ from stories outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition?
Such an approach squares with how Girard has made his career: less in Catholic circles than in the public, academic world. Born in France, he has studied and taught mainly in the United States. He retired in 1996 as Hammond Professor of Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford.
Years ago I tried but failed to get through his foundational work, Violence and the Sacred (1972). I did not find it a plainspoken book. Was I too immature a scholar? Was the translation poor? It may also be that over time, Girard's thinking has crystallized, clarified, acquired the sparkle of simplicity. His 1982 book, The Scapegoat, is easier to make sense of than earlier ones. This latest book is not at all obscure, and it is prefaced by a succinct overview of Girard's thought by the translator, James G. Williams. For the uninitiated, this book is a good place to start.
Monkey see, monkey do. This is the basis of Girard's anthropology. I observe another wanting something, and so develop a craving for it myself. Desire, Girard says, is imitative, mimetic. Hence the crowd, the herd, indeed society.
Girard says more. What the Bible, in contrast to other ancient stories, informs us is that in following mimetic desire, monkey often does harm. I observe another accused of sin, and so point my accusing finger with the rest. With our desire to punish mutually reinforced, we form ourselves into a mob, collectively destroy another, making of him or her a sacrifice to social solidarity. The threat of a war of all against all is eased by a war of all against one.
Pagans, Girard argues, generally approve. Their myths take the side of the crowd, assume that scapegoating is just how things go. When Ephesus is struck by plague, so the Greek Philostratus writes, Apollonius the miracle-worker arrives to restore the city to health. He points to a beggar and invites the Ephesians to stone him as an enemy of the gods. The beggar cries for mercy. The Ephesians hesitate. Apollonius eggs them on. When at last they fall upon the beggar, his eyes become fire, his demonic nature is revealed, they beat him to a pulp, and the city is saved.
Against this story Girard juxtaposes John's account of how Jesus handled the crowd that was about to stone a woman caught in adultery: "Let whoever is without sin among you cast the first stone at her." Girard cites the talmudic principle, "that if everyone is in agreement to condemn someone accused, release him, for he must be innocent." Apollonius would never understand.
Girard confesses his Christian faith at the end, but this book's power lies in its (almost) disinterested historical scholarship. Chapter titles name the chief arguments: "The Uniqueness of the Bible," "The Uniqueness of the Gospels," "The Triumph of the Cross." To understand why Christianity has transformed the world, Girard suggests, no appeal to religious faith is required. We need only understand how its anthropology differs from pagan ones, how it has turned upside-down the classic priority of collective over individual, crowd over scapegoat.
Of particular value in this book are the implications Girard draws from his theorizing for the issues of our time, in particular the culture wars on and off our campuses. Because Christian civilization understands oppression and persecution, Girard argues, it has by now universalized compassion and implemented cultural and legal safeguards against victimization. Yet human nature is intransigent. The persecutory unconscious reasserts itself in a new level of cunning. We now practice a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. "Our society's obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty."
For my own research on workplace mobbing, I have gained more insight from this book than from any I have read. Belatedly, I see that my enthusiasm is shared. The Colloquium on Violence and Religion, formed to extend Girard's work, has been meeting at least annually since 1991, and hosts a stimulating web-site. The related annual journal, Contagion, has been published since 1994. This year, David Cayley introduced the Canadian public to Girard's work on CBC Ideas.
Following the crowd that has formed to celebrate Girard's work would run counter to the ethic he sets forth. I urge you instead to read this book critically and independently, and draw your own conclusions.
As for the title, so Girard informs us, Satan means the accuser. The Paraclete, on the other hand, is the defender of the accused.