René Girard: The Scapegoat and the Lamb of God

REVIEWS, 9 Nov 2015

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René Wadlow

René Wadlow

There are people whose time and place of birth are a symbol of what they will be in life. Such is the case of René Girard, who was born on 25 December 1923 in Avignon, France, and who died this 4th November 2015 in Stanford, California. He had taught at Stanford University from 1981 until his retirement in 1995 and then remained a fixture of intellectual life there well after his formal retirement.

It is Avignon in the shadow of the Palais des Papes that symbolically marked his life, his reflections on violence, on the sacred, and on the nature of sacrifice. Avignon was the city of what was later called “the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy” − in reference to the captivity of Babylon during which people from the Kingdom of Judah were held while dreaming of returning to what is now Israel. From 1309 to 1403, the French kings wanted to keep an eye on what the Popes were plotting and had forced the Popes to move from Rome to Avignon. Avignon was a Papal State − a small but independent area of the city of Avignon and lands around it now known for the good quality of its wine, the vineyards having been planted by the Popes. The Popes and their court lived in a large chateau, now become a museum. Just across the Rhone River from Avignon, the French kings built a large chateau so they could pick up any information. During the last part of the Avignon Papacy, 1398-1403, there were two Popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon who copied each other. The way in which people copy each other became a central aspect of Girard’s approach to motivations.

The father of René Girard was the director of the Avignon Popes museum, and thus a specialist of the times when the Popes ruled Avignon. The father was not particularly religious and was, in fact, anti-clerical, knowing too well that the Popes were more interested in power than in attaining spiritual goals.

René Girard started by following his father’s footsteps and studied French history and the study of mediaeval texts. However, having finished his university studies just at the end of World War II when the French job market was more open to post-war rebuilders than to specialists in manuscripts of the Middle Ages, in 1947, Girard had an offer to teach French literature in the United States. He took up the offer and then spent the rest of his life in the USA, first teaching literature, gaining a PhD at Indiana University in 1950, and then teaching in American universities, mostly Johns Hopkins and then Stanford.

In his early teaching of literature, his theme was the nature of desire as the motive of action. Desire is what makes “the world go around”, and he contrasted the way modern French authors such as Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust dealt with desire. In the background of Girard’s thinking was the search of how does one overcome desire; how does one stop the wheel from turning eternally, one desire creating another, one desire giving rise to a counter desire.

Girard’s concerns became increasingly metaphysical rather than literary, and he started to study religious myths. He could have explored Buddhism, as in Tibetan thankas (paintings for meditation and teaching) desire is at the center of the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of life is kept turning by three forces. These three forces are at the center of the Wheel of Life represented by a hog, a cock, and a snake. The hog represents delusion and ignorance; the cock, greed and attachment; the snake, hatred and aversion. It is by cutting the links between ignorance, desire and aversion that liberation, purification and knowledge comes.

However, in the 1950s in the USA, Asian philosophical thought had not gained the popularity that it would have later. When I was a student at Princeton University in the early 1950s, I participated in a yearlong course in Chinese philosophy with a well-known Chinese philosopher who had come to the USA when the Communists had taken control of China. We must have been only eight students in the class, and interest in Asian thought was even less in other universities.

Thus Girard turned his interests to the most widespread of the religious myths taught in the USA − the Jewish and the Christian. He asked himself “How do Jews and Christians end negative desires which can cause disorder and disintegration in society?” Girard first turned his attention to the ancient Jewish ritual of the scapegoat. All the negative desires and subsequent actions considered sinful were symbolically transferred to a goat that was then chased into the desert, taking with him the sins of the community. However, the scapegoat ritual sacrifice had to be repeated yearly, and there was always a danger that a few sins might drop off the goat. Thus, the community was in perpetual danger of disorder and violence. Girard then asked himself if there could be a scapegoat that fulfilled the function of stopping desire, disorder and violent conflict once and for all.

Thus, the shadow of his boyhood in Avignon and his birth on Christmas day came back to him. There is one version of the Christian myth in which the death of Jesus is the “perfect sacrifice” − the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Girard took the Christian myth as the center of his thought. He looked at ritual sacrifice in other cultures such as the Aztec of Mexico. But in each of these traditions, the violent sacrifice which purified the community had to be repeated year after year. Only in Christianity is the death of Jesus of such cosmic importance that it need not be repeated but only recalled through bread and wine.

Some of Girard’s readers who did not know the development of his thought felt that he had just set out to justify Christian theology with sophisticated examples drawn from anthropological literature. But such is not the case. His reasoning became increasingly a defense of the Christian myth but that was the end of his intellectual cycle, not the start.

René Girard’s reflections on the role of the scapegoat, sacrifice, and the need to end violent disorder merits being read more widely. Desires are likely to keep the Wheel of Life turning for some time to come.


The central book by René Girard is La Violence et le sacré (1972), translated into English as Violence and the Sacred (1977).


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Nov 2015.

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