Monday, August 12, 2019

Doing What I Must

Maximus: Do you find it difficult to do your duty? 
Cicero: Sometimes I do what I want to do. The rest of the time, I do what I have to.

-          Gladiator

I had just finished writing the Appendix for the book when I came across this Jonathan Pageau video, “René Girard: Desire and Sacrifice - with Craig Stewart.”  Now, nothing Pageau posts I would describe as easy listening, so after listening to a few minutes of this video I felt overwhelmed and stopped – not thinking about if this was a permanent or temporary stop.  It was just too much for me after just finishing the book.

I then started going through a couple of the more involved emails I had received over the last weeks; I will reply promptly, but some are so involved that I am not always able to immediately get into them thoroughly.  One of these I received after writing the first couple of chapters of the book – the chapters on Plato, Aristotle, the Form of the Good, etc.  The email opened “Welcome to the Journey.”

I know, it sounds pretentious.  But it is one of the more sincere and thorough emails I have received.  Very long, packed with many links, and involving much deeper content than I could handle – not only because I was just starting the book, but because it is much deeper content than I could handle.

Well, I thought to casually read it – not yet willing to get into it.  Lo and behold, one of the sources mentioned in this email is René Girard!  Well, this now got my attention and moved me to go back to the video.  I have watched it several times, and still can only scratch the surface – but it is a topic worth discovering.  I will also draw from an essay about René Girard from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Girard was a twentieth century philosopher.  His fundamental concept is ‘mimetic desire’.  This is more than imitation.  Students of Plato understand that humans are the species most apt at imitation; per Girard, we also imitate desire and this can sometimes lead to conflict as we desire the same things.  My focus will specifically be his views on the scapegoat and the victim, and how this mechanism was used to reduce conflict in early societies and how this evolved via Christianity.

For those still confused about what any of this has to do with liberty, might I suggest that liberty has a chance to be sustained in a peaceful society; it stands no chance in a society consumed by conflict.  Property rights, let alone life, stand no chance against a societal mob.

When Girard first presented his work, the academy was ecstatic – in this work, we finally had a scientific, anthropological theory of religion.  Once he worked through the Bible and became a Christian apologist, the academy would reject him.

So, what of this work?  When it leads to conflict, this imitation of desire must be mediated.  How did communities overcome this internal strife?  From the essay:

Whereas the philosophers of the 18th century would have agreed that communal violence comes to an end due to a social contract, Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence.

I would often comment that a punch in the nose for the guy who insulted my wife might be the best mechanism to reduce the possibility of further, increased violence.  I know it is considered a violation of the non-aggression principle, but it might be useful in keeping the peace.

But this isn’t what Girard is getting at.  Instead, he sees this as communal violence aimed at a single individual – the scapegoat.  The entire community focuses its violence on one individual, and once the deed is done (the scapegoat is sacrificed), the community can move forward in peace. 

But the act must remain unconscious.  The victim cannot be considered by members of the community as a victim, innocent – rather he must be looked at as the monster; once purged, the community would again be clean.  Girard offers that, prior to Christianity, the idea of an innocent scapegoat was an oxymoron.  By definition, the individual was the source of the strife and therefore guilty.

This scapegoat mechanism was the foundation for the development of civilization and culture.  Through the repetition of the scapegoat cycle, societies reduced internal violence and conflict.  From the essay:

The murder of a victim brought forth communal peace, and this peace promoted the flourishing of the most basic cultural institutions.

These murders would be reenacted in rituals – the earliest form of religion – and these rituals were developed into myth.  The myth had to follow the narrative – the scapegoat is never a victim, but the cause of conflict.  Mythology was meant to legitimize violence against the scapegoat – stripping him of any victimhood.

Girard’s most often used example is that of Oedipus, expelled from Thebes for murdering his father and marrying his mother.  But, per Girard, the myth should be read with Oedipus as the scapegoat, accused of parricide and incest, and thus justifying his persecution.

This is all background to Girard’s Christian apologetics.  From the essay:

…whereas myths are caught under the dynamics of the scapegoat mechanism by telling the foundational stories from the perspective of the scapegoaters, the Bible contains plenty of stories that tell the story from the perspective of the victims.

In the pre- or non-Biblical myths, the victim (the scapegoat) is presented as guilty and one whose execution is just; in the Bible, the victim is often portrayed as innocent.  In other words, the point of view of the entire narrative is turned on its head.  The Bible is unique in its defense of victims; the Old Testament begins this shift, but doesn’t fully complete it.  From the essay:

For example, Girard contrasts the story of Cain and Abel with the myth of Remus and Romulus. In both stories, there is rivalry between the brothers. In both stories, there is a murder. But, in the Roman myth, Romulus is justified in killing Remus, as the latter transgressed the territorial limits they had earlier agreed upon. In the Biblical story, Cain is never justified in killing Abel.

The New Testament fully completes the transition.  From the essay:

The Passion story is central in the New Testament, and it is the complete reversal of traditional myth’s structure. Amidst a huge social crisis, a victim (Jesus) is persecuted, blamed of some fault, and executed. Even the apostles succumb to the collective pressure and abandon Jesus, tacitly becoming part of the scapegoating crowd. This is emblematic in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus.

But what “myth” developed.  Even the power of the empire of the time (Rome) and of the Jewish religious leaders could not turn Jesus into a scapegoat.  The “myth” (you understand my meaning) that came out of this was Jesus as the innocent victim and not Jesus as the source of conflict.  For goodness’ sake, God Himself was the victim – totally innocent.

The apostles, as evangelists, adhered to Jesus’s innocence and spread the Good News – many becoming victims themselves – and here again, we look back on them as innocent – not mythologizing them as deserving of their fate.

There was no concept of scapegoating before Christianity – the scapegoat today (when he is recognized as such) is seen as a victim.  This wasn’t true prior to Christianity, when the scapegoat was seen as a monster.  The Bible, and especially Jesus, makes scapegoating inoperative.  From the essay:

Once scapegoats are recognized for what they truly are, the scapegoating mechanism no longer works. Thus, the Bible is a remarkably subversive text, inasmuch as it shatters the scapegoating foundations of culture.

In the culture of today – one without the Christian message – scapegoating (at least without the literal sacrificial component) has returned with a vengeance, something Girard apparently predicted.  Yet the scapegoating is not yet effective at reducing communal conflict – it is increasing it. 

As Stewart puts it, without the Christian message all prohibitions are available to man’s desire – what we can have, can’t have, shouldn’t have if we want to reduce conflict.  The recent example is offered – people licking ice cream and putting it back on the shelf, breaking a prohibition to cause a scandal to get attention – this is all that is left to us.  This, of course, is the most innocent example.  Extend desire to the most extreme and absurd, as without the Christian message there is nothing culturally or ethically that prohibits this.

We are in a new era: scapegoating (at least extending to ritual sacrifice) has not permeated every aspect of society (although we see it extended to “the other,” in war, in the unborn child) and is not effective in reducing conflict, yet the Christian message is also gone.

Absent Christianity and in the negation of Christianity, all that is left is anti-Christ.  This gives us persecution in the name of the victims: communism was for the proletariat victims and therefore sacrificed the millions of bourgeoisie (and millions of others, of course).  Modern ideologies deny the humanity of whoever they will victimize. 

This can be seen today with the social justice warriors – an immense persecution machine.  Pageau cannot think of examples in mythology of persecution on the side of the victim, where victim status offers some kind of power to use against the oppressor.  It existed in stories of slave revolts, but this was done in order to no longer remain a victim.  Today’s victims must hold their victim status or they lose their power.

The victims are born completely free of sin and the victimizers are born in complete sin, thereby legitimizing all persecution and hostility.  This gives freedom to the scapegoating mobs, seen at virtually every event connected to a traditional, Christian, Western message.  They scapegoat, but they can’t see it as scapegoating else it destroys their cause – it would undermine the efficacy of what they are doing.

Many Christians have become disarmed by today’s victimhood narrative, according to Pageau.  They don’t know how to deal with it, so they compromise their moral values by not judging and by retreating.  Of course, it appears to me that many Christians also embrace this victimhood narrative.

This brings Girard to matters of Apocalypse and contemporary culture.  I certainly don’t mean to get into interpreting end-times theology, merely to examine the anthropological / philosophical analysis of Girard and what might be learned from this.  In any case, there are multiple methods by which the Bible can be read and understood.

Girard believes that the apocalyptic teachings to be found in the New Testament are a warning about future human violence.  Once victims are recognized as innocent, scapegoating can no longer work to restore order.  Through Jesus’s work, we no longer have the traditional low-violent means to put an end to violence.  But what to do about the Enlightenment’s post-Christian world?  From the essay:

The ‘signs’ of apocalypse are not numerical clues such as 666, but rather, signs that humanity has not found an efficient way to put an end to violence, and unless the Christian message of repentance and withdrawal from violence is assumed, we are headed towards doomsday; not a Final Judgment brought forth by a punishing God, but rather, a doomsday brought about by our own human violence.

We don’t have Jesus, and we don’t have a low-violence method of defusing violence.  So, Stewart offers, it is just Christ versus the anti-Christ until the end of the story.  How did Girard view the Last Judgement?  He saw apocalyptic violence as what humanity will do to each other, not what God will do to humanity.  (Girard is not calling for pacifism, but this is beyond my scope here.) 

Christianity forced the issue: choose non-violence (properly understood) or bring on Armageddon. 


The root cause of the violence is pride, and after pride came envy and then violence.  This is the story of the fall in the Garden – leading, ultimately, to Cain and Abel.  Without recourse to the sacrifice of the scapegoat, all that is left is the Gospel – until the end of time, we are at a crossroads: repent or parish.  We can choose the Gospel, or we can choose pride, envy and violence.

In other words, we can choose the Gospel or we can face the loss of liberty…and the loss of so much more.


There are perhaps a dozen other links and references mentioned in the aforementioned email.  It will take me months to work through these, assuming I find the journey fruitful and it rises to my focus for reading and writing – nothing is certain in this regard. 

But, if so, perhaps there will be a second book!


  1. Scapegoating can be found in Genesis 3, and as M. Scott Peck stated is the origin of human evil. Eve blames the serpent, Adam blames Eve and neither of them are accountable to God for what he instructed them to do.

  2. Fascinating stuff.

    I ran into the work of Rene Girard a while back when I was going through a phase trying to sort out the views of some of the major psycho-analysts in history, of which I knew nothing about.

    Here's what I learned. To Freud everything is about sex, so he's pretty much a worthless degenerate; Nietzsche saw the state in the proper context ("coldest of cold monsters") and recognized the need for a civilization to have a moral basis, so some good in him (but plenty bad as well); Jung was a bit of a mystic weirdo, but his book, "The Undiscovered Self" is fairly good as far as it diagnoses the problem humanity faces in the modern 'secular' age, though I believe he was incorrect in thinking Christianity must evolve into a completely metaphorical understanding of Christ in order to see a revival. (On the contrary, Rodney Stark sees that Christianity has always been increasing, even today, among the populous beneath the ruling classes. So today it's not that we have a secular culture, just secular leadership. Though, as you've pointed out, many Christians are hopelessly confused over even the most basic concerns of morality regarding public policy. Another interesting finding of Stark's is that Christianity often sees revivals when it takes principled stands against the tide, not when it caves to pop culture and floats with the stream)

    Jung is of course the intellectual forebearer of Jordan Peterson, so in so far as Peterson has some true and good things to say, so did Jung. Jung was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but like so many others who rejected Christ, he got a bit lost in his own pride.

    Rene's theory of the scapegoat is very interesting, especially how it relates to the modern social disease you've identified: victim power politics. It is also interesting that it was the Jewish folks who inaugurated both the original and healthy victim-centric culture (i.e. recognizing actual victims as such, sympathizing with them, glorifying them as martyrs and saints) and the modern degenerated and poisonous victim-centric culture (where victimhood is invented to obtain political power). In the former case it was the ancient Jews of the Old Testament or the Torah, and in the latter it was the 'cultural marxists' of the Frankfort School that immigrated to America (centered at Columbia U.) from Germany.

    Maybe it is just another example of 'corruptio optimi pessima' (the corruption of the best is the worst). The original Christians inherited their principled stance against abortion from the Jews. Now, Jews condone abortion (in America at least) "in most cases" to the tune of around 95%.

    1. ATL,

      "Christianity often sees revivals when it takes principled stands against the tide, not when it caves to pop culture and floats with the stream..."

      I know that some of the mega-churches will lose membership, but people are longing for an honest message. All we have in Western culture is liars, all around us and on every subject.

      People are tired of it. They are dropping out of the many churches just as they are dropping out of political involvement and dropping out of any meaningful conversation out of fear.

      This is one reason Trump was elected (whatever his actual beliefs in whatever he said). He question 911, the Iraq war, the Fed, etc.

      It is one reason Jordan Peterson has caught on - who would have ever thought that 2.5 hour lectures on Genesis would attract millions of views.

      The lowest rung will be for the "Christian" shepherds who have led their flocks to hell (or on mission trips to AIPAC).

      Matthew 23: 13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

      15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

    2. Agreed 100%. People naturally crave honesty. Maybe there are hard truths they don't want to hear, and maybe they wittingly or not shield themselves from these information sources, but overall, people crave the truth. I think God hard-wired that into us (though I suppose that would make sense from an evolutionary perspective as well).

      Although with the left wing of the West trying so hard to make up down and down up, I wonder if their master stroke would be to 'engineer' people (via K-12 ed., college, social media and entertainment) to crave dishonesty? Imagine how lost would be a society that yearns to be lied to, so long as the lie is sweet - that longs to be deceived if only the deceit is pleasant. Hell, maybe we're already there in a lot of respects.

      Also, to the point I was making about Stark and Christian revival, I left out an important bit. It wasn't just about a church making a stand against pop culture; it was about the level of dedication required of its members. Stark said that it wasn't the churches who relax their requirements for membership and 'liberalize' that see explosions in membership (these see declining attendance), it is rather those that ask the most of their congregation, those that are the most demanding of their flock, those that don't want to be just an accessory to your life like a new piece of clothing but ask rather to be the most important institution in your life - the one shepherding you toward a good result come judgement day.

    3. ATL, truth will eventually win out - I think we both agree it must.

      To your last point, I hear anecdotally of the increase in attendance at Catholic churches that hold Mass in Latin...and the decrease elsewhere.

      People want authentic, as the West offers very little of it.

  3. "In other words, we can choose the Gospel or we can face the loss of liberty…and the loss of so much more."

    There really is no other choice. You are doing what you must do.

  4. "Absent Christianity and in the negation of Christianity, all that is left is anti-Christ. This gives us persecution in the name of the victims: communism was for the proletariat victims and therefore sacrificed the millions of bourgeoisie (and millions of others, of course). Modern ideologies deny the humanity of whoever they will victimize."

    For more on this read The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. I don't agree with all his analysis and logic. I think he misunderstands Jesus. But I think he has a good grasp of Bolshevism and Nazism.

    Also Nazism scapegoated the Jew and also the Proletariat. It was a reactionary movement of the middle class in fear of Bolshevism.

  5. "And the people shall lay their transgressions upon the scapegoat who shall be driven into the wilderness for a sin offering."
    Leviticus 16: 21-22

    In a number of hour-long, true crime TV episodes, the prosecution's job is to console and bring closure to the victim's loved ones by convicting the perp or, if they can't truly be sure of the perp, the one who could've been or might've been the perp. Judges go along with this as their role, as agents of the state, is primarily to ratify the prosecution for the sake of the grieving loved ones who've often suffered the loss of a beloved child to the horror or rape and murder. How could members of a jury, decent people all, look the family in the face and say "not guilty" when the prosecution, the family's advocate and champion, has presented them with the villain?

  6. I tried to follow this argument, but got stuck with Christ as the scapegoat. If we look at the scapegoat (Heb. "Azazzel"), on Yom Kippur, he is set free, not sacrificed. Christ doesn't take the role of the scapegoat in the passion narratives, Barabbas does.

  7. The scapegoat is banished from society to remove the sin from the people. Jesus was led out of the city for crucifuxion. The Pascal lamb was sacrificed in the city, in the temple. So both lamb and goat represent different aspects of Jesus death. Also the goat died when banished.

  8. If one looks at the events depicted on the Day of Atonement. There are two goats, one is sacrificed and one is led into the wilderness. When we look at the passion narratives, we see Christ who is sacrificed and we see Barabbas who is set free. It is a perfect picture of the Day of Atonement. It also agrees with the theology. The sin of the world rightly belong on Satan's head, not Christ's. Christ is slain, and then the high priest, which personifies Christ sacrificing himself, then returns to place the sin where it rightly belongs which is on "Azazzel". The name sounds evil for a reason.

    1. I think you're trying to show that the scapegoating ritual has continued on through the death of Christ and in Christianity, but Rene Girard posited that Jesus broke with this ancient tradition, and turned it on its head. The hated and cursed scapegoat became the loved and blessed Son of God.

      I agree with RMB, and will further add that the sins of the world are not on the Devil's head but our own. In the garden, Adam and Eve both chose of their own God given free will to disobey God.

      Satan does not force us to sin, he tempts us. To commit evil we must consent to it.

    2. Re: "you're trying to show that the scapegoating ritual has continued on through the death of Christ" Not exactly. I'm just pointing out that the trial of Christ seems to be presenting us with a parallel to the two goats on the Day of Atonement. I don't see how anyone can mistake which goat is which. One is sacrificed and one is set free. Barabbas is the one who is set free. He's the rebel just like Satan, or just like us if you prefer. I agree that Satan is probably nothing more than the personification of our own evil inclination.

    3. Satan is a spiritual being, the covering angel, who fell into sin due to his pride.

      Again, clear to see if you read the Bible literally. If not, well then anything can mean anything you want it to and therefore nothing of any value.

    4. Regardless of how one reads the bible, it doesn't address the problem of mistaking the scapegoat with Christ. A literal Satan who has sinned rightly deserves the sin of the world to be placed upon his head. The sinless lamb, or in this case a goat is slain, and the high priest then ascends to the Holy of holies to present this sacrifice to God. God accepts it, at which point the high priest descends, and then places the sins of the world upon (Hebrew, "Azazzel") the scapegoat who is then released into the wilderness. Christ is sacrificed, Christ is not released into the wilderness. Christ goes into the wilderness and who does he meet there except Satan? Again, I see what Girard is saying, I just don't see how he could have missed something so obvious.

  9. Satan is not punished for the sin of humans. He is not even being punished now. He will be punished for his own sin and rebellion. That has nothing to do with the atonement between God and man. 2 Corinthians 5:21 "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf", 1 Peter 2:24 "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.

    The scapegoat isn't set free. He is banished to die outside of the community. Just like Jesus. Azazzel doesn't even show up in the Bible so I don't know what you are talking about.

    1. You admit that Satan will be punished, but don't seem to see that this is what the Day of Atonement is depicting. You say that "Azazzal" doesn't show up in the bible, but it most certainly does, and it's in the section we're talking about with the "scapegoat". That's what translators use to refer to the goat named "Azazzel", and they call him the "scapegoat" because this term is a contraction of "escape+goat", and the goat escapes into the wilderness. The fact that he then probably dies doesn't negate the fact that one goat is sacrificed while the other "Azazzel"(translated as "scapegoat") is set free, banished, exiled, etc.

    2. I looked it up. Azazzel is the Hebrew used. But it doesn't have anything to do with Satan or the demonic. It is a compound word literally joining goat and to go.

      Ez+azal. Goat that is gone or that has left. It is a simple descriptor of the what the purpose and identity of the animal is.

      The scapegoat takes on the sin of Israel. Read Leviticus 16:21-22 "Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness."

      Barabbas didn't take on the sins of Israel or anybody else. Jesus did. That is why it is clear that the scapegoat is a "type" for Jesus' death. He removed the sins away from the people. I don't see how there can be any major disagreement once you read the clear statements of Scripture, both Old and New testament.

    3. shnarkle, if Jesus was not the scapegoat (within the context of this post) - and if anyone else was / is the scapegoat (within the context of what Jesus did and why He did it) - we can throw away Christianity.

      Let's just call him a good and wise man - and also a looney one, because any human being who said many of the things that he said should be rightly ignored - even derided.

    4. Here's a fuller quote from the text itself. Again, I don't know why anyone would necessarily come to the conclusion that Christianity needs to be thrown away simply by noting that Christ is the lamb (or in this case goat) slain to sanctify God's temple (which today is explicitly "the many-membered body" of Christ). This is what explicitly allows all direct entrance into the Holy of holies (symbolized by the curtain being torn at
      Christ's death). To then claim he is also the scapegoat, or to ignore the parallels in the gospel narratives which quite clearly show Christ being allotted crucifixion while Barabbas (meaning "son of the father") receives his lot to be set free. Here's the context: "
      "And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, 7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
      8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. 9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.
      10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.15 Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail,and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat:16 And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions18 And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it
      20 And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat:
      21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:
      22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
      29 And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month" "

    5. Shnarkle

      That's enough for this conversation. I tried to make my point subtly, I will now be direct. Argue your theology elsewhere. This isn't the blog for such discussions.