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Book Review: Violence and the Sacred

Published: April 24, 2021
Last Updated: April 25, 2021

Violence and The Sacred, by Rene Girard, is probably the most ambitious book that I have ever read. Written by somebody with no shortage of accolades, the book takes on the ultimate role of religion and ritual in the world. Through a comparative analysis of myth and tragedy, Girard displays his theory on the founding mechanism of culture.

Claiming to have found what Girard ultimately argues to be a “universal” mechanism which reveals the common nature of ritual across culture is quite a large claim. To back it up, Girard takes the time to demonstrate the inner workings of mimetic theory, here, more or less called the “surrogate victim theory,” and shows how it fully illuminates the nature of ritual and sacrifice. By applying his theory to myth and tragedy Girard shows how it reveals the hidden founding mechanism that leads to ritual and the sacred.

Girard’s theory is that an original murder committed by a community saves the community from itself. Through the murder of a scapegoat, or, surrogate victim, the community experiences a catharsis of sorts, freeing itself from the destructive reciprocal violence which had threatened its continued existence.

This “founding murder” is purported to be such a powerful event because before this murder the community had been engulfed in a storm of violence which threatened its very survival. The murder’s cathartic character for the community resolves the crisis, restoring peace and order.

Early in the book Girard shows that violence never goes unanswered, and that the only thing that successfully answers violence is more violence. The natural growth of violence directed by members of the community towards each other continues to grow and eventually there are two potential outcomes. Either the violence ultimately destroys the community it had enveloped, or, through the process of a unanimous murder, an event which directs the reciprocal violence towards a scapegoat, the community is saved from destroying itself. This scapegoat bears all of the ills of the society, and being unable to reciprocate, the escalation of violence goes into remission.

The founding murder is then repeated through ritualistic sacrifice, as the community in question seeks to keep the “all against all” violence that had threatened it previously at bay. By attempting to recreate the event, which the people attribute to saving them, the birth of ritual and order is brought into the community. And it is by this process that the scapegoat becomes the sacred. All at once, the scapegoat has been identified as both the communities monster and also its savior. This duality, of being the source of all the community’s ills while also being the one who saved the community from destruction makes the scapegoat, in effect, sacred.

This mechanism of the “founding murder” is claimed by Girard to be the origin of ritual by which primitive people are able to cast out the “impure” violence by the “pure” violence of sacrifice. Girard goes so far as to draw a line from this mechanism all the way to modern society and it’s current method of warding off violence – the judiciary.

The theory is built up and demonstrated by an examination of myth, tragedy, and ethnological studies which reveal the function of sacrifice. Girard draws heavily on Greek tragedy, both Oedipus, and The Bacchae, in revealing the inner workings of the surrogate victim and something he calls the “sacrificial crisis.” The most in depth demonstration of the surrogate victim is taken from these plays, however, Girard also relates the same mechanism to other cultures and myths throughout the book.

The Oedipus plays are used as the prime example in the text. From these plays, and also The Bacchae, Girard demonstrates how the poets succeed in “demystifying” myth by revealing the symmetrical quality of tragedy, and the nature of reciprocal violence. Girard develops and displays the notion of a “sacrificial crisis,” wherein the rituals no longer function in warding off escalating violence, before then displaying how a unanimous action of violence towards a surrogate victim bring order back to the community.

After developing the core of his theory he contrasts it with modern ideas. It’s in this comparison that Girard is able to show how the theory of the surrogate victim is able to explain the origins of culture more fully than other theories, such as Freud’s Oedipus Complex.

Two chapters in the book compare and contrast Freud’s theorizing with mimetic theory and mimetic desire. Girard’s theory, mimetic theory, although not clearly called this in the book, draws heavily on the concept of mimesis and desire.

Freud, according to Girard, however, stopped short at uncovering the mimetic aspect of desire. This leads to the rift in the theories. Freud’s object based desire, where the analysis is rooted in an object, instead of a mediator, leads Girard to proclaim and identify the shortcomings of Freud’s Oedipus complex.

And again, in the next chapter where Girard discusses Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Girard again shows Freud being “almost right.” While in his text Freud even talks about an original murder, he misses the function of the surrogate victim.

The strongest portrayal of the accuracy of Girard’s mimetic theory, in my opinion, is when he clearly portrays it’s function in myth and studies of primitive cultures which he brings into the book.

The jump Girard makes from the primitive culture’s ritual to modern society both being based upon the function of sacrifice is harder, at least for me, to grasp. However, this is the leap that Girard makes, claiming also that the modern structures of society, such as the law and institution, and more modern forms of ritual, all descend from the same origins. He does back this leap up with example and analysis, but not as thoroughly as he does with primitive culture. Tracing the link through ritual in this book does not seem to be it’s primary aim, although with his comparisons of Freud and also kinship and marriage structures, Girard makes it possible to continue in this vain.

The functional aspect of mimetic theory is that through the sacrifice of a surrogate victim, the violence which threatens to engulf a society is warded off. By this mechanism, where society attempts to shut down the reciprocal nature of “bad” violence by “good” violence, society is able maintain its social order. The core function of ritual sacrifice for primitive man is to control violence and maintain order.

Modern society, of course, has other means to ward off reciprocal violence. The judicial system gives society the means of preventing retribution from spreading too far as it has a monopoly on the use of violence. Although for Girard the function of the judiciary is in essence the same as sacrifice in a way, that is, by preventing violence from growing, it is hard to clearly link the progression from ritual sacrifice to the judiciary. For me it is anyway.

However, Girard makes an excellent case throughout the book that modern society itself is derived from the mechanism of the surrogate victim. Later in the book he discusses the “unity of all rites” and shows how the maintenance of social order, or, the necessity of difference among people, is critical in the functioning of society. This, to modern society, according to Girard, is hard to grasp. In modern society it is more common to play down differences. The modern person is less likely to fear the unknown, or the similar, and Girard attributes this to the judiciary and state power. Modern society, while nowhere near immune to violence, is less aware and fearful of it than the primitive.

From the beginning of the book:

Because the victim is sacred, it is criminal to kill him – but the victim is sacred only because he is to be killed.

Girard posits that myth and sacrifice must and indeed do stem from a real original event – a founding murder that saves the community from the violence that engulfs it. The community then seeks through reproducing this event in the form of ritual sacrifice to ward off “impure” violence – a violence which in the eyes of the community comes from outside it. Through sacrifice the community seeks to appease the gods.

Girard shows that a primary concern of primitive man is violence, and how to prevent it from spreading. He calls out the fact that violence, once stirred up, must find an outlet. Even if the outlet isn’t in fact the original source that instigated it. Through this, the surrogate victim mechanism is discovered, the founding murder is committed, and the ritual of sacrifice is born.

Violence is the only mechanism which can end violence, and the ability of a community to prevent violence through sacrifice results in the ritual and culture which develop in primitive groups. This ritual eventually loses sight of the original murder it was founded upon, containing only vestiges of its founding mechanism.

The book, Violence and The Sacred, of course, goes much further than I have in this review in explaining how all of this works, and the implications it has upon the founding of culture.

It is an immensely interesting read, and written convincingly in a way that kept me following along and even highlighting and taking notes. Girard makes an excellent case for his theory, both in this book, and in other books of his.

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© Copyright 2021, Tyler Rhodes