107 of 108 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2005
Violence and religion have gone hand in hand as far back as we have records, from Dionysian revels and ancient human sacrifice to contemporary fundamentalisms that would destroy entire nations or races to preserve some particular version of Truth. In "Violence and the Sacred," Rene Girard attempts nothing less than to expose the entire history of this alliance.
It is impossible to give an adequate summary of this comprehensive and closely reasoned book. But briefly, Girard argues that - pre-historically - it was precisely acts of communal violence and the resulting shock and collective repression that resulted from these acts that generated our very sense of the sacred. And our continuing violence, in all its forms, is a history of attempts to re-experience transcendence.
(A word of caution: Early on, those with religious convictions may be tempted to conclude that Girard is reducing religion to a form of collective guilt. **He is not.** Girard is a Christian, and has progressed from literary criticism to critical theory to active efforts to promote methods of constructive, peaceful conflict resolution.)
In fleshing out this theory, Girard leans heavily on his insights into the mimetic and violent nature of desire (see his earlier "Deceit, Desire, and the Novel"), and he links mimetic desire, our tendency to marginalize and scapegoat those who are "different," our tendency toward violence, and our experience of ultimate otherness (the sacred). One of the most impressive aspects of this book is that it constitutes, simultaneously, a response not only to the questions of the origins of violence and religion, but to the key 19th century theorists Marx , Freud (the primal horde scenario, and repression), and Nietzsche, **and** to their late-20th century heirs - Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida (differance).
In the end, however, it was not simply Girard's argument that convinced me, impeccable as it seems. Rather, after working through this book, I began to see the mechanisms of mimetic violence in operation all around me - and within me, as well: consumerism driven by manufactured "needs," road rage, sibling rivalry, not to mention shamefully misdirected nationalism.
In my opinion, this is a very important book. By exposing the mimetic nature of violence and its subtle, often hidden workings, Girard - like a good therapist - gives us a tool to identify and begin to change deeply entrenched patterns of response, in ourselves and the world. But this is not a self-help book. It's a mature work of social and critical theory, and is definitely not light reading. If you take on "Violence and the Sacred," stick with it. It will change the way you see the world!
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2005
By focusing primarily on Greek tragedy, "primitive" religions, and psychoanalysis, Rene Girard attempts to show the inextricable link between violence and the sacred. Mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and sacrifice produce a system in which unrestrained violence can be controlled. Through the sacralization of these elements, religion becomes a way for the community to maintain internal peace and harmony and prevent the recurrence of reciprocal violence.
Because violence is self-propagating, if uncontrolled, it will overflow and flood the community. Against tradition, Girard holds that sacrifice is not meant to appease a deity. Rather, it is a means to restore harmony within a community, by protecting the community from its own violence. Without sacrifice, violence does not have an outlet and would devastate the whole community. The only way to rid the system of violence is to deflect it onto a sacrificial victim. The sacrificial victim must resemble, yet remain different from, the community, and the victim must lack a champion: the community can strike down the victim without fear of reprisal. Because violence is seen as impure and religion is concerned with ritual impurity, the sacrificial victim must be considered pure of the contagion of violence. The function of ritual then is to purify violence.
The first link to impure violence is the sacrificial crisis. The sacrificial crisis occurs when both cathartic rites and the difference between purity and impurity disappear. The sacrificial crisis can then be defined as the dissolution of natural differences or distinctions, which effects cultural disorder. Social values, order, and peace erode leaving fertile ground for reciprocal and unrestrained violence. Understanding the crisis caused by the disappearance of differences helps understand the terror caused by the birth of twins in primitive societies: the physical similarities caused by twins is problematic - there is no distinction between the two children. The theme in Greek tragedies of "enemy brothers" belies this principle. Two antagonists, like twins, are represented without a degree of difference producing a mythic rivalry.
Seeking the mechanism that solves the sacrificial crisis, Girard investigates Oedipus the King for further implications. Each protagonist (Oedipus and Tiresias) seeks to quell violence, but both eventually succumb to it. These enemy brothers symmetrically oppose the other, dissolving differences, and both enter into an interdependent duality, in which violence becomes reciprocal. Patricide and incest also suggest the disappearance of differences, and the plague signifies the collective nature of the disaster. At this point, Girard presents the surrogate victim, or scapegoat. If the community is to free itself from the sacrificial crisis, then the reciprocal violence must be deflected onto some individual. Put another way, the community, fallen victim to unrestrained violence, searches for a scapegoat - one arbitrarily chosen - to pin responsibility for the violence therein. In destroying the scapegoat, the community unanimously rids itself of the present violence and restores order and tranquility.
If these hypotheses are correct, religion is implicated, and Girard seeks to examine the origins of myth and ritual. By putting and end to the destructive cycle of violence, sacrificial rites also initiates a constructive cycle. Adherents of sacrifice strive to produce both a replica of the previous crisis and the unanimous victimization of the scapegoat. In doing so, the ritual victim, whether human or animal, represents the original surrogate victim and transforms maleficent violence into beneficial violence, moving the system from disorder to harmony. As such the "original act of violence is the matrix of all ritual and mythological significations" (113). Overtime these rituals become diverse in meaning and presentation. According to Girard, because of the human desire to transform bad violence into good, coupled with the mystery of this transformation, humanity is predisposed to ritual.
Religious festivals also have their origins in sacrifice. The beneficial character of the unanimous violence is projected into the past, and the happy ending results in jubilation. An antifestival, on the other hand, is similar but celebrates the unanimous violence negatively, with asceticism, fasting, and mortification. As such, the festival and the antifestival serve as replacements for sacrifice. The gradual loss of the structure of the sacrificial rite, compounded with the increasing misunderstandings of the purpose of the rite, produce these replacements. The festival and antifestival eventually lead towards a new sacrificial crisis as they cease to be preventative measures for violence, as seen in Euripides' The Bacchae.
The role of mimetic desire and the monstrous double provide the foundation of the sacrificial crisis. With in the sacrificial crisis, both subject and rival desire the same object: violence. Rivalry does not occur because both rival and subject have the same desire, "rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject ... in regard to desires" (145). This mimetic desire serves as the catalyst of the sacrificial crisis, eventually leading to conflict. In tragedy, these antagonists eventually become indistinguishable, but the disappearance of difference happens in oscillation. The oscillation of differences accelerates until the antagonists jointly perceive a monstrous double - a projection of their unity - which serves as a scapegoat upon which they unanimously agree.
Girard next examines the process of divine sacralization. The metamorphosis of maleficent violence into beneficent violence elicits public veneration. The marriage of the beneficent and maleficent within the monstrous double and surrogate victim becomes an incarnation of sacred violence. The term `sacred' respects the duality of life, both positive and negative elements (i.e., urges toward both destruction and peace). The sacred is present in violence, seen in the destructive power of reciprocal violence and in the positive effects of cultural restoration. This union of violence and the sacred, the basis of religion, jars traditional thinking, but humanity's inability to grasp this union perpetuates its effects. At this point, Girard completes his theory on the surrogate victim and sacrifice. Because sacrifice expels and appeases violence, violence can be viewed as a god who is appeased with the sacrifice: again, violence is sacred. Finally, the sacrificial victim, in order to be effective, needs to both represent the community yet be differentiated from it.
In his final chapter, Girard shows how the surrogate victim unites all rituals. Cultures that employ cannibalism rely on the surrogate victim, and rites of passage provide a surrogate victim to leave the community in one stage of life in order to enter another stage - a pattern that recurs in all rites of initiation. The realization that the surrogate victim pervades all of human culture and unites mythology and ritual, leads Girard to see the surrogate victim in other cultural forms: political power, legal institutions, medicine, theater, philosophy, and anthropology.
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 1999
Those who read contemporary French criticism will understand where Kristeva and others culled their best insights. Girard shows how violence both generates and destroys cultural order. Religious attempts to curtail violence, and modern secularists remain more ignorant than ever of the "virus" of violence, which they displace onto the secondary realm of sexuality. Girard is most brilliant when revealing how myths occlude persecution, scapegoating, and surrogate victimization. Essential reading for feminists as Girard indirectly reveals that women (via Freud) have become the surrogate victims du jour of man's power to evade confronation with his own violence.
32 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 1998
This book was an unexpected pleasure. Mythology and cultural anthropology have always been of interest to me, but Girard's scintillating and illuminating ideas, in my opinion, blast through the ubiquitious shadows which cling to and obscure our broader vision. I loved it -- not because of the often revolting realities of human nature which it illuminates, but because of it's unswerving quest for truth. Great!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2014
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Unless you are a sociologist or philosopher, you probably don’t want to read this book. Relying heavily on cultic myths and practices of various religions, Girard attempts to explain why violence is at the center of all societies and religions, and why, in fact, violence gave birth to religion.
He ultimately argues that there was an original act of violence which ultimately led to the possibility of the destruction of all people in the community, and so to avoid the ever-increasing cycles of violence, the community selected a ritual victim (a human or an animal) that would both carry the guilt of the community as well as the violent tendencies into death, thus satisfying the demands for revenge and the blood lust that comes with it.
He argues that much (all?) of our violence comes from a desire to imitate or have what belongs to another, and this desire leads to a violent action by which we seek to obtain the belongings or knowledge of the other being.
There is much more that Girard argues, but I do not recommend it for the average reader. His method of argumentation is laborious and while a discerning reader will benefit much from what Girard writes, the amount of work it takes to find these insights makes this book hardly worth the effort. Though I have not read them yet, I expect that “Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World” and “The Scapegoat” will prove to be more reader-friendly.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Author Rene Girard's groundbreaking text on ritual sacrifice and violence is nothing short of extraordinary.
Girard tackles the seemingly taboo origins of sacrifice, cultural order as a result, and how violence is as ingrained in our humanity as much as our need for nourishment. Particularly how the act of sacrifice (born out of violence) has influenced societies collective notion of what is "sacred" and what is not.
This aspect of necessary sacrifice and violence has manifested in religious rites, particularly the "theory of the surrogate victim." This key part of Girard's theory of generative violence offers an explanation of the primordial role that religion plays in primitive societies and of man's ignorance of this role.
Girard also discloses the nature of violence not only during life but after death. The passage into death, Girard asserts, "by a member of the community may provoke (among other difficulties) quarrels among the survivors, for this is always the problem of how to redistribute the dead man's belongings. In order to meet the threat of maleficent contagion the community must have recourse to the universal model, to generative violence; it must attend to the advice of the sacred itself."
From modern religious beliefs to the metaphorical tales and parables of mythology Girard shows that violence is a natural outgrowth and need of our physical composition and mental attributes. The truth of Girard's assertions can be found in the historical annals of every race and culture by examining their cultures and beliefs; all of which idealize instead of unilaterally eschew violence through sacrifice. This is not to be confused with the prohibition of murder, for example, which has been and is enforced in nearly every society.
I see Girard's work as unique, powerful, and more important, insightful. This text represents a seminal thrust into previously unchartered territory. A hallmark at five stars without reservation.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2006
In this book, Rene Girard tries to propound a new theory of sacrifice, religion, myth, tragedy, incest, and taboo. His basic thesis is that sacrificing a scapegoat was the way primitive societies overcame the natural lawless violence (mimetic desire) of their societies by re-directing it on a sacrifical victim.
To explain his thesis, Girard studies sacrifical rites of the world and especially the ancient world and primitive societies, as also the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripedes, particulary those that pertain to Oedipus and Dionysos. He gives a radically new interpretation of Oedipal tragedy taking Freud into a radical new direction, and explains why incest was feared because of its effect of leveling distinctions. His interpretation of Dionysos is singularly brilliant.
According to Girard, leveling distinctions or eliminating differences removes the safegaurds that contain violence in primitive societies (he states that our safegaurd - law - is itself based on the concept of sacrifice to restore order) and hence anything that levels distinctions was feared. He also shows how the various sacrifical animals or men have the chracteristics of inside/outside with respect to the community.
The book does have its drawbacks, but is intellectually stimulating. The main hallmark of this work is that it de-mystifies religion and especially represents the most convincing theory of sacrifice and tragedy I have read.
As far as the drawbacks are concerned, the theory is rigorously argued in the beginning but thins out towards the end of the book. As a theory of sacrifice, his evidence supports him. As an interpretation of certain myths and as an explanation of incest and African kingship rites, he is close. However when he streches it to explain origin of religion, kinship rules, all kinds of rites etc., his argument often wears thin.
There is also a question of unanswered ethical import - is sacrifice legitimate because it prevents communities from collapsing?
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2014
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as expected :-D
Written in the best french tradition - nothing is left out bud just written precisely as it should be
9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2002
No one but Rene Girard could touch upon the deepest human drive and emotion as Girard does. This work is possibly his greatest thus far and is certainly destined to be a classic. The book is of imeasurable value to anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and theologans all at the same time. I highly recommend this book to anyone that seeks to understand this imporant aspect of human nature.
on December 13, 2014
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Really great book. Seminal work by an important thinker. Will probably write more about it later, after I've read more by Girard.