The core of René Girard’s thought seems to center around the fundamental conviction that mimetic desire is the desire for God…

In a recent essay in this journal, Dr. Thaddeus Kozinski makes the bold claim that “the work of René Girard would not seem all that relevant to Thomists…. However, in my estimation, Girard’s thought is not just important for Thomists, it is indispensable.”[1] I wholeheartedly agree with this claim and, in general, support the rapprochement between St. Thomas and Girard.

In order to further this course of study, I contest one of the ideas presented in another of Dr. Kozinski’s recent essay, extrapolating Girard’s thought for modernity. In a recent essay on his site, “Sancrucensis,” Fr. Edmund Waldstein suggests that, “unlike most thinkers who make use of Girard, Kozinski recognizes the limits [of] Girard’s thought that come from a lack of an understanding of the common good.”[2] Here he quotes a footnote from Dr. Kozinski: “It must be said that Girard’s understanding of the nature of political order, as well as the relationship between nature and grace, is not Thomistic. Indeed, in its implicit denial of the political order’s inherent telos to the human good, it is contradictory not to just Thomism but to the entire philosophia perennis.”[3]

In contrast, I argue that Girard’s understanding of the political order is largely in line with Thomistic thinking on the common good. In following Girard in his extrapolations of the Ten Commandments in light of the common good, we can find immediate parallels between the mimetic theory and Thomistic political thought.

In his 2001 text, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard tries to use the Sacred Scriptures as a means for unfolding the principles of mimetic desire, rivalry, and violence along with his historical understanding of the religious and cultural effects of the scapegoat mechanism and its demythologization by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the first chapter, Girard shows that the primary principles of his thought are encoded, in a sense, in the Ten Commandments. He goes on to say that the lawgiver of the commandmentsby the time he reaches the last commandment (thou shalt not covet)seems to be trying to put his finger on the source of conflict itself: desire for the neighbor’s goods. Thus, he must be aware that this is, in a sense, the fundamental human desire: mimetic desire.

But Girard does not rest here with an examination of the tenth commandment. Rather, he pursues its inner meaning beyond his own goals of establishing the centrality of mimetic desire (which is the cornerstone of his work). He explains that “the commandment that prohibits desiring the goods of one’s neighbor attempts to resolve the number one problem of every human community: internal violence.”[4] The teleological dimension of this explication of the law is unmistakable: The tenth commandment “attempts” to stop violence.

Is this a fluke? Not at all. As Girard explains, the entire second half of the Decalogue follows this pattern. “If the Decalogue devotes its final commandment to prohibiting desire for whatever belongs to the neighbor, it is because it lucidly recognizes in that desire the key to the violence prohibited in the four commandments that precede it. If we ceased to desire the goods of our neighbor, we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness.”[5] And so, in fact, Girard sees the second half of the Ten Commandments as ultimately being ordered towards preventing violence. In a discussion of Christian redemption slightly later on in the text, he sums this up perfectly: “The goal of the Law is peace among humankind.” The goal of the law… what could be more teleological than that?

In the midst of this chapter, Girard gives a brief synopsis of the core principles of his reading of archaic religious prohibitions, a reading that he deftly expounds in Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the Worldand The Scapegoat. He explains that, “if we examine the prohibitions of archaic societies in the light of the tenth commandment, we find that although they are not as lucid as the latter, they attempt likewise to prohibit mimetic desire and its rivalries…they are based on an intuition analogous to that of the Decalogue, but they are subject to all sorts of confusions.”[6] What Girard means by this statement is that the vast cultural webs of ritual and prohibition throughout the ancient world are always ultimately ordered by the same fundamental telos: preventing internal violence. Nevertheless, the prohibitions in particular are sometimes subject to strange elements that nineteenth century ethnologists might have called “primitive.”

Girard gives his favorite example: the twins. Readers of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart know of the awful infanticide that Nigerian tribes practiced on twins. This type of ritual-prohibition was not uncommon in the ancient world. Why did cultures do this? For Girard, these cultures misapprehended the various cases of founding collective violence and understood only imperfectly how mimetic crises developed and ended. Mistaking the appearance of twins for the reality of mimetic doubles in the crises of undifferentiation, cultures developed prohibitions and rituals designed to expel actual twins from their midst (for they were seen as harbingers of violence). In Girard’s view, these archaic peoples were not savages or primitive; rather, they used common sense based on the anthropological knowledge available to them at the time. Whether one accepts Girard’s interpretation of the twin-prohibition, one must admit that his own reading of this law is that it, too, was ordered to the common good of peace among the clan. It, too, sought to solve “the number one problem of every human community: internal violence.”

Thus, it is simply false to claim that Girard has no sense of “telos to the human good.” On the contrary, he has a viable hermeneutic to guide a proper reading of how archaic societies do, in fact, follow the principles laid down by Aquinas and others in “perennial philosophy.” With Girard, we can see that, even the most bizarre rituals and prohibitions of the ancient worldeven human sacrifice and cannibalismare based on human reason’s attempt to solve the problem of internal violence.

Is this understanding of ritual-prohibition law similar to Aquinas’s understanding of the “ordinance of reason for the common good promulgated by him who has care for the community?” [7] Let us examine Aquinas’ own description of the Ten Commandments in the Summa Theologica. He explains that the primary principle behind what is normally called the “Second Half of the Decalogue” is the principle of “do no harm” to one’s neighbor. The Saint writes: “to his neighbors a man behaves himself well… by doing harm to none, either by or by word, or by thought. By deed, harm is done to one’s neighborsometimes in his person, i.e. as to his personal existence and this is forbidden by the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill’: sometimes in a person united to him, as to the propagation of offspring; and this is prohibited by the words, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’: sometimes in his possessions, which are directed to both the aforesaid; and with this regard to this it is said, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Harm done by word is forbidden when it is said, ‘Thou shalt not bear witness against thy neighbor’: harm done by thought is forbidden in the words, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’”[8] Thus, the primary commandments from murder to coveting are fundamentally about doing no harm to the neighbor.

Aquinas, to be sure, does not develop in this space a sense of the overall communal effects of harming one’s neighbor, but the link between harm-to-one’s-neighbor and harming the common good is certainly not opposed to principles he sets forth. The law is necessarily ordered to the “common good” by Aquinas’s own definition of law.[9] Moreover, he argues in the article particularly devoted to linking law to the common good that “the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness. Moreover, since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must needs regard properly the relationship to universal happiness.”[10] Quoting Aristotle, he then states that just laws are “adapted to produce and preserve happiness and its parts for the body politic.” Thus, laws preventing harm to neighbor are intrinsically ordered toward preserving happiness for self, other, and the body politic. Furthermore, since “every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature,”[11] we can assume that Aquinas understands the primary precepts of the natural law to be fundamentally geared toward the self-preservation of the body politicits common good (whose most virulent threat is internal violence).

A perhaps surprisingly relevant confirmation of the claim that Thomistic political philosophy is linked to peace and compatible with Girardian principles is found in the Pius XI encyclical, Studiorum ducem. After listing multiple accolades of the Angelic Doctor, he explains the following about the Thomistic moral philosophy:

[St. Thomas] also composed a substantial moral theology, capable of directing all human acts in accordance with the supernatural last end of man. And as he is, as We have said, the perfect theologian, so he gives infallible rules and precepts of life not only for individuals, but also for civil and domestic society which is the object also of moral science, both economic and politic. Hence those superb chapters in the second part of the Summa Theologica on paternal or domestic government, the lawful power of the State or the nation, natural and international law, peace and war, justice and property, laws and the obedience they command, the duty of helping individual citizens in their need and co-operating with all to secure the prosperity of the State, both in the natural and the supernatural order. If these precepts were religiously and inviolably observed in private life and public affairs, and in the duties of mutual obligation between nations, nothing else would be required to secure mankind that ‘peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ’ which the world so ardently longs for. It is therefore to be wished that the teachings of Aquinas, more particularly his exposition of international law and the laws governing the mutual relations of peoples, became more and more studied, for it contains the foundations of a genuine ‘League of Nations’ (SD 20).

Thus, the Magisterial voice of neo-Thomism confirms that the end of the law is peace among menexactly in line with Girard’s take on law.

Perhaps the area that seems incongruous between Thomas and Girard on law is the area in which virtuous living plays a role. For the Thomist, prohibition is only one small aspect of the law. The law aims to make men virtuous. But it is not fair to say that such an ideal is foreign to Girard’s understanding of the political body. For Girard, prohibition and ritual first open the door for man to avoid the most devastating consequences of mimetic rivalry. This opening carves a path to authentic happiness, wherein men live alongside one another without the crises of mimetic entanglement. Moreover, in following Christ they can imitate the “detached generosity of God” and thus avoid mimetic rivalry all together.[12] Far from being foreign to virtue, Girard understands that human laws and political bodies of the ancient world have always sought to liberate men from the mimetic problems that kill happiness. These laws and political orders are fulfilled in Christ whose proclaimed Kingdom opens the door to a happiness beyond all worldly frameworks: it is truly free from stumbling blocks that kill eudaemonia.

Other examples could be given to show the Thomism inherent in Girard’s thinking. Is there a Thomistic distinction between nature and grace in Girard’s thought? This is not always clear. However, key passages in Girard suggest that this distinction is finally necessary for understanding his work. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, he claims to work only in the bounds of natural reason, not revealed truth. He argues that it is “a Gospel-inspired breakthrough in the field of social science, not of theology…. At no point do I attempt to demonstrate the undemonstratable, the scientific truth of our religious faith.”[13] Here, reason and faith are clearly distinguished. Moreover, at the conclusion of the work, Girard finally concedes that he must discuss the resurrection of Christ in light of the unveiling of the scapegoat mechanism: “Until now I have always been able to find plausible responses to the questions posed in this book within a purely commonsensical and ‘anthropological’ context. This time, however, it is impossible. To break the power of mimetic unanimity, we must postulate a power superior to violent contagion. If we have learned one thing in this study, it is that none exists on earth.”[14] Only in these final statements about the resurrection does he point to an inability to remain in a scientific mode separated from divine intervention. The distinction between nature and grace is clear here. Man’s knowledge of the scapegoat mechanism and capacity to follow the Cross free of mimetic entanglements is clearly the work of grace (in Girard’s view). In fact, he seems to say just this in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: Jesus “has managed to inscribe in the gospel text the reception that mankind in its slavery to violence was obliged to offer hima reception that amounted to driving him out. If we go beyond this point, we would become involved in questions of faith and grace, which our anthropological perspective is not competent to address.”[15] The mimetic theory is, thus, an examination of human nature and the consequences of its fallen nature, but it understands that a separate order (faith and grace) exists for understanding the fullness of human life, history, and teleology.

What about the “perennial philosophy”? To be sure, Girard’s use of the term “mimesis” does not seem to align exactly with either Plato’s notion of the forms or Aristotle’s intellectual representations. Nevertheless, the term mimesis is meant to root the whole mimetic theory in the original Greek study of the concept. Girardian thought is, in one sense, an extension of the primary observation of the Poetics: man is the most mimetic of the animals.[16] In many respects, Girard’s work is an attempt to apply reason to this principle, understanding that, if desire itself is mimetic, then conflict will ensue… How is this way of thinking anything other than common sense?

Another area might be the albeit-admittedly-Hegelian language of his first work, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, wherein Girard posits that mimetic desire is desire for the Being of the Other.[17] Nevertheless, this principlea transcendental definition of human desire ordered to the infinite Beingis certainly Thomistic. Although at times Girard will make desire sound goal-less and unprincipled, the core of his thought seems to center around the fundamental conviction that mimetic desire is the desire for God. This is definitely in line with Aquinas… and the heart of Christianity.

In conclusion, perhaps it is somewhat quixotic to try to bridge too much of Girard and Aquinas. The world of Medieval differentiation is very different from the crisis of undifferentiation of modernity. Nevertheless, to help advance Dr. Kozinski’s claim that Thomists need to study Girard, it is helpful to continue to try to build bridges between the Medieval realist Aquinas and the modern realist Girard.

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[1] Kozinski, “René Girard and Secular Modernity,” The Imaginative Conservative.

[2]From Kozinski, “René Girard and Modernity’s Apocalypse“.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Girard, Rene. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James G. Williams (NY: Orbis, 2001), 9.

[5] Girard, I See Satan, 11-12.

[6] Girard, I See Satan, 12.

[7] Cf Aquinas, ST I-II q.90 a.4

[8] ST I-II q.100 a.5

[9] “the definition of law may be gathered; and it is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated” (ST I-II q.90 a.4).

[10] ST I-II q.90 a.2

[11] ST I-II q.94 a.2

[12] Girard, I See Satan, 14.

[13] Girard, I See Satan, 3.

[14] Girard, I See Satan, 189.

[15] Girard, Rene. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978), 216.

[16] Aristotle, Poetics I:4.

[17] See Girard, Rene. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966).

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