Kozinski on Girard and Modernity

In a post on René Girard and St. Thomas I argued that Girard’s account of desire as “mimetic” is very persuasive when applied to modern, secular civilization, but that it is much less convincing when applied to the ancients. This is why Girard’s very first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, remains my favorite of all his works. In that book Girard concentrates on the peculiarities of modern culture and its false promise that man can take the place of God. His readings of Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoyevsky are far more convincing than his later readings of Sophocles and other ancient writers, and much, much more convincing than his readings of Sacred Scripture. His account of desire as arbitrary and rivalrous gets at a very important feature of modern (and hypermodern) culture with its subjective view of the good, embedded in capitalistic/consumerist economies and egalitarian politics. But it is not adequate to understanding human life built around the non-rivalrous pursuit of genuine common goods.

But his idea of mimetic desire is remarkably helpful for analyzing modernity. Thaddeus Kozinski has kindly allowed me to re-produce the following contribution that he made to a recent volume of essays, in which he shows the analytic power of mimetic desire for understanding modernity. Moreover, he shows how the idiosyncratic understanding the “scapegoat” that Girard developed from his account of desire explains many features of modern civilization.

Modern sociology (especially in its, as it were, “classical” expression in Émile Durkheim and his disciples) has been obsessed with the question of how modern society can provide social cohesion, despite being deprived of the strong bonds of religion through secularization, and of the network of personal bonds of pre-modern village life by industrialization and the consequent mass scale of social life. Kozinski gives a persuasive case that it is through a paradoxical violence that is nominally in the name of innocent victims, but really perpetrated on innocent victims.

Unlike most thinkers who make use of Girard, Kozinski, recognizes the limits Girard’s thought that come from a lack of an understanding of the common good:

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. But that’s a topic for another essay. Girard’s insights into the nature of political evil are most accurate and profound, and, I would argue, surpass the work of the Thomists in this area. In this respect, he is most helpful in understanding modern politics. (Footnote 7, emphasis supplied).

That is, I think, exactly right. Girard’s theories of limited value in understanding the politics of (say) ancient Sparta or Medieval France, but they are of great use in understanding modern politics. That is not to say that his theoris are of no use in understanding ancient politics. Nor is it to say that the limits of those theories do not also cause Girardian approaches to modern politics to miss certain features of ancient politics that persist in modernity. I think Kozinski analysis is deeply insightful, but if I have a criticism of it, it is that he neglects the extent to which pursuit of genuine common good continues even in a modern culture globally hostile to such pursuit. Human beings remain human, and this means that our situation is slightly more complicated than a straight Girardian reading of the present would suggest.


Guido Giacomo Preparata (ed.), New Directions for Catholic Social And Political Research: Humanity vs. Hyper-Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillam, 2016), ch. 6; reproduced with permission.

René Girard and Modernity’s Apocalypse

Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Ph.D.

Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you.
The Hunger Games[1]

Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
George W. Bush[2]

You can foresee the shape of what the Antichrist is going to be in the future: a super victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.
René Girard[3]

Modernity’s Soteriology?

                  Modernity is inadequately characterized as a mere chronological time period, on the one hand, or a timeless abstract idea, on the other. It is, rather, better described as a culturally and historically embodied consciousness and cast of mind, a “social imaginary.”[4] For, in spite of how it is depicted and narrated by its more superficial devotees, modernity functions in practice as a religious culture. It possesses a historically located origin (the Renaissance or Enlightenment); a sacred event or set of events (the Reformation, Treaty of Westphalia, Glorious Revolution, American Revolution, French Revolution); sacred texts (Kant’s sapere aude, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution); sacred dogmas (the separation of church and state, and religion and politics, individual rights, “religion” as non-coercive and private, the toleration of all beliefs, “the right to define one’s concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”[5]); a perpetual enemy and source of evil (dogmatic belief, religious war, intolerance, racism); and lastly, a soteriology. If we use define soteriology as that which makes peace between competing individuals,[6] modernity’s soteriology is manifold, including the political hegemony of the Nation-State owning the exclusive right to employ coercive force, the privatization and freedom of religion, scientific advancement, and commercial prosperity; for the late-moderns, we can add “private self-creation,” moralistic therapeutic deism, a globalistic market of multicultural carnivals, a trans-humanistic utopia without “Truth” and therefore without terror.

         One could say that Modernity, in the West, is essentially what happened to Christendom after it was de-hellenized, nominalized, and secularized. In its Enlightenment mask, it is an ahistorical, non-ideological, world-view-neutral account of “the way things are and have always been,” bereft of the superstitious, irrational, freedom-suppressing and ruler-serving, ancient-medieval theoretical and practical apparatus of scholasticism, priesthood, oppression, and feudalism. Modernity is something like Christ without the cross, in its liberal democratic manifestation, and it is the cross without Christ, in its totalitarian strains. Modernity seems a liturgical and ecclesial counterfeit of the Church, attempting to unify in its artificial bureaucratic body all people in a national and global church of peace-making and violence-restraining violence.

            There are, of course, other “just so” stories in this more conservative vein, as well as many persuasive non-theological, secularist-friendly, progressivist narratives. Indeed, the narratives of modernity are seemingly endless and incommensurable, notoriously resistant to definitive adjudication and harmonious negotiation. What is needed is an adequate synthesis in which the partial truths of all the myriad stories and accounts can lie together. If one teased out the most plausible and compelling threads in each narrative, could one find a meta-thread winding through them all and holding them together? Let me posit that such a thread can be found in the work of René Girard, and that absent this thread, modernity cannot be properly understood. This is a bold claim, and I hope to make it persuasive in this essay. Supernaturally powerful, non-violent, and authentically compassionate engagement with the modern world requires an engagement with Girard’s thought. It is my contention that Girard’s work is not only indispensable for understanding our present predicament of escalating violence in the “clash of civilizations,” but also, and more importantly, our future, one which Girard characterizes as apocalypse.

            René Girard, retired professor of language, literature, and civilization at Stanford University, is the preeminent expert on the phenomenon of scapegoating, or the “single-victim-mechanism” as he puts it. Girard’s oeuvre is prolific and complex, including not only a rigorous psychological, sociological, anthropological, theological, and literary account of scapegoating, but also a persuasive analysis of the foundation of religion and culture in collective violence and ritualized murder.[7] Girard has applied his formidable skill and erudition in literary criticism in the analysis of the myths employed by religious and cultural authorities to obscure their violence, including an examination of modern and contemporary Western culture in terms of scapegoating violence and ideological obfuscation.  What follows is a summary of the fundamental principles of Girard’s thought, an analysis based upon those principles of the West’s “war on terror,” a discussion of modernity and apocalyptic violence in the light of Girard’s most recent work, and a brief account of the pertinence of Girard’s thought for Catholic social thought and practice, particularly in America.


Scapegoating Then

             The New Testament recounts the story of St. Peter thrice-denying that he knew Jesus Christ. Obviously, he was under immense pressure.  But what kind of pressure could have led a three-year intimate of Jesus of Nazareth almost to betray his master? I say almost because his full betrayal of Jesus was preempted by Jesus Himself, whose prophetic words about the crowing cock, when recalled by Peter, prevented the latter’s fear-provoked denial from becoming deliberate persecution. The standard explanation for Peter’s behavior is lack of courage: he feared that he would be killed if he admitted to being a friend of Jesus. There is, of course, truth to this, but it is only a partial explanation. René Girard proposes an alternative and rather startling explanation: “Peter’s denial should not be read as a reflection on the psychology of Peter, on the personal weakness of Peter, it should be read as the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. We should have no revelation of it since even Peter, the best of the disciples, joins the mob.”[8]  As we shall see presently, identifying and understanding this “mob” is the key to explaining not only Peter’s personal behavior, but our own, and not only this. Cultures themselves, and hence political orders, are created and sustained in the crucible of this peculiar and mysterious mob-pressure.  Only a robust awareness of the truth about scapegoating, its ubiquity and seeming inexorability, and, most importantly, our own complicity in it, can enable personal, corporate, and, it must be said, ecclesial emancipation from its psychological, cultural, and political clutches.

According to Girard, the first culture was founded by Cain, that is, upon fratricide, with the divine proscription of murder the first law.  Murder, as the omniscient God the Bible depicts must have known, would be imitated and repeated in this originary culture, and thus serve as the original violence of all other cultures throughout history in the now fallen world. However, the law proscribing murder was not obeyed: Cain’s murder of Abel would be perpetually imitated on both a personal and cultural level. The reason humans murder other humans, and why they found and preserve cultures upon violence is, according to Girard, mimetic desire. For Girard, desire is not naturally ordered (at least in its specific movements) but socially constructed, and though we do have an innate, natural desire for the good, the actual form this desire takes in individuals, the particular objects that are seen and desired as good for each person, are the result of social modeling and imitation. In short, we desire what we see others desiring. Consider the toddler in the nursery, whose desire for a particular toy is enkindled by nothing other than another toddler’s reaching for it.

 Since there is a scarcity of desirable objects, mimesis results in competition, until a point is reached when other men’s desires become scandalous, literally, “stumbling blocks,” to us, and conversely. At this point, there is an inexorable cultural crisis, and imminent violence is inevitable; that is, inevitable without some kind of release-value or transference mechanism. Cultures, as well as the political orders that embody and protect them, would never have come into existence without such a mechanism. Since cultures and political orders do exist, there must be some force that counteracts or channels the frenetic and violent-prone psychological storm of mimetic desire. This Girard identifies as the “accusing finger,” the “single-victim mechanism,” or, in religious parlance, Satan. Girard:

The shift from “all against all” to “all against one” permits the prince of this world to forestall the total destruction of his kingdom as he calms the anger of the crowd, restoring the calm that is indispensable to the survival of every human community. Satan can therefore always put enough order back into the world to prevent the total destruction of what he possesses without depriving himself for too long of his favorite pastime, which is to sow disorder, violence, and misfortune among his subjects.[9]

            One has only to consider the story of Creation, in which Eve imitates the desire of the Serpent, a desire both for the forbidden fruit and a desire to blame God who had forbidden it. The “accusing fingers” are then displayed in spades—Satan at God, Eve at Satan, Adam at Eve.

            But men do not just imitate the concupiscible (to use scholastic language) desires of others for scarce goods; they also model for each other the irascible desire to confront and overcome evil. Though the evil of selfish mimetic desire is caused by the desires of men themselves, the notion that a powerful outside, superhuman force is somehow responsible for the cultural crisis is an irresistible one, and so the community transforms its now uncontrollable desires into one, collective, irascible desire for vengeance. The “accusing finger” becomes the new mimetic model, and it enables the community at the point of violent anarchy to attain “peace” by ridding itself of the “cause” of its crisis. The scapegoat, who is both the source and solution to the crisis, is thus identified, murdered, and, through the religio-cultural myths created to justify and obscure the single-victim mechanism—divinized. The ritual reenactment of the “founding murder,” whether through actual or simulated murder, as in the ancient worshippers of Moloch or the pre-Columbian Aztecs, or through surrogates, as in the animal sacrifices prescribed by Moses in the Old Testament, is what sustains culture and politics in the fallen world.

            Returning, then, to the courtyard of the High Priest, we can now see that Peter was swept up in the single-victim mechanism that had already overtaken the Pharisees. When the accusing finger was pointed at Jesus, Peter was unable to resist what his community’s leaders determined: “It is better that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish.” (John 11: 50). However, due to his three-year acquaintance with Jesus, by which he was gifted with a mimetic model whose only desire, according to Girard, was to imitate the self-giving desire of the Father, Peter was able to snap out of his scapegoating trance. This, for Girard, was nothing short of miraculous, for no human power is able to resist the scapegoating dynamic. It is only through imitation of the “otherworldly,” non-scapegoating Jesus that men and cultures can be saved from murderous violence, for Jesus came to be seen as the only man whose desires could and did not cause “scandal” and cultural disintegration when imitated. Cultures centered on and dedicated to a monotheistic divinity would, thus, have no need for the scapegoating mechanism to keep peace. In this sense, only a power of this sort would enable men and whole societies to resist the accusing finger. This is the heart of Girard’s apologetic for Christianity, a peculiarly empirical, psychological, cultural, political, and anthropological defense, without recourse, apparently, to Revelation. It is, itself, a revelation of sorts, but one that any open-eyed person can see, if, that is, s/he desires to see the truth of his/her scapegoating complicity.

            Scapegoating Now

The Gospels, according to Girard, are the only religious literature we have that was authored by those in solidarity with the victim. Paul Nuechterlein writes:

The true God . . . is revealed as on the side of the victims, not that of the idolatrous perpetrators. If we maintain the post-modern concern that truth claims, especially about God, lead to violence, then Girard’s answer is that the true God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ is always the victim of human violence, not the perpetrator or instigator of any new violence. . . . Anthropology guides us into a true theology by understanding that the true God is nonviolent; humankind is solely responsible for its own violence.[10]

            It is the conceit of modern secular culture that, unlike the barbaric, religious cultures of the unenlightened past, it has preserved itself and progressed morally without the need for publicly authoritative religion, let alone religiously authorized ritualized murder. Yet, if Girard is correct, no merely human-centered person, culture, and civilization can renounce the single-victim mechanism; sacrifice is essential to society, and there can be no effective, non-violent cultural engenderer and preserver other than the one, divine, non-scapegoating victim-savior. Either humans scapegoat themselves in recognition of their culpability in the chronic sacrificial murder of innocent life, or they end up siding with the Pharisees and the Romans of yesterday and today, and remain unconverted executioners in denial.

What form might such scapegoating take in our proudly tolerant and humanistic culture, one haunted by the Gospel certainly, as Flannery O’Connor would say, but not converted by it, indeed, a culture that explicitly rejects scapegoating in its maudlin concern for victims? According to Girard, modern culture does possess some “buffers” or katechons for mimetic desire that serve to mitigate cultural violence. One is the free-market, by which desires are multiplied and satisfied without the immediate threat of scarcity and conflict; another is our modern juridical system, predicated, rhetorically at least, upon a commitment not to scapegoat, where one is innocent until proven guilty, that is, not determined to be guilty through the indisputable accusing finger of the community.  Yet, juxtaposed with these seemingly pacific procedures of cultural order that indicate an apparent ethos of victim-concern and non-violence is the modern phenomenon of “apocalyptic violence” and “private” scapegoating. Modern Nation-States are virtually in perpetual war with each other and with those stubborn states that need to be “democratizied”–consider just the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, the Cold War, Bosnia, Israel and Palestine, Israel and Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria…What is particularly apocalyptic about this violence is that each person and state-actor insists upon the moral righteousness of his use of violence and the moral depravity of his opponents; add to this a continuing escalation of the lethalness and destructiveness of the forms of violence employed. Liberal, secular democracy is purported to be peace-loving, yet mass, even genocidal violence is deemed somehow necessary and inevitable for peace.  As Nathan Colberne puts it:

Humanity maintains its faith in the power of violence to provide peace (demonstrated most vividly in the belief that maintaining a nuclear arsenal will prevent the use of nuclear weapons), but with the exposure of the scapegoat mechanism, we are deprived of the single technique that could justify our faith in the efficacy of violence to maintain peace.[11]

            About the cosmic character of contemporary political violence, Mark Juergensmeyer has written:

Looking closely at the notion of war, one is confronted with the idea of dichotomous opposition on an absolute scale. . . . War suggests an all-or-nothing struggle against an enemy whom one assumes to be determined to destroy. No compromise is deemed possible. The very existence of the opponent is a threat, and until the enemy is either crushed or contained, one’s own existence cannot be secure. What is striking about a martial attitude is the certainty of one’s position and the willingness to defend it, or impose it on others, to the end. . . . Such certitude on the part of one side may be regarded as noble by those whose sympathies lie with it and dangerous by those who do not. But either way it is not rational.[12]

            Here I go beyond Girard to claim that the great historical and contemporary violence engendered by the secularized nation-state indicates that ancient, religious scapegoating and ritualized violence have not only not ceased in the modern era, but have also mutated into something incomparably more sinister and destructive.  This is due to the political culture of modernity and late-modernity being at once cognizant of and opposed to the single-victim mechanism. Anglo-American and European political history is peculiarly guilty of this hypocrisy, idolatry, and violence, for it conceives of the post-Glorious, French, and American Revolution settlements as the beacons of “religious freedom” to the world, as the only truly “Christian nations.” Surely, America, as a political order and culture, is religious and peace-loving, but what religion are we talking about, and what price for peace? Religious belief and practice is free in America, but in more than a private capacity? Ultimately, it seems that only those religions that accept, or, at least, do not publicly protest the public religion-of-the-state, which is the worship of state power itself, a power predicated upon perpetual Manichean enemies and scapegoating, are tolerated:

For Marvin and Ingle, death in war—what is commonly called the “ultimate sacrifice” for the nation—is what periodically re-presents the sense of belonging upon which the imagined nation is built. Such death is then elaborately ceremonialized in liturgies involving the flag and other ritual objects. Indeed, it is the ritual itself that retrospectively classifies any particular act of violence as sacrifice. Ritual gesture and language are crucial for establishing meaning and public assent to the foundational story being told. The foundational story is one of both creation and salvation. At the ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994, for example, President Clinton remarked of the soldiers that died there both that “They gave us our world” and that “They saved the world.”[13]

            Modernity: Birth-pangs of Apocalypse

In a recent work, Girard provides an outstanding summary of his thought on modernity and its relation to apocalypse:

My hypothesis is mimetic: it is because humans imitate each other more than animals that they had to find a way of overcoming a contagious similitude, prone to causing the complete annihilation of their society. This mechanism – which reintroduces difference at the very moment when everyone becomes similar to one another – is sacrifice. Man is born of sacrifice and is thus a child of religion. What I call, following Freud, the foundational murder– namely, the killing of a sacrificial victim, responsible for both the disorder and the restoration of order – has constantly been reenacted in rites and rituals, which are at the origin of our institutions. Millions of innocent victims have thus been sacrificed since the dawn of humanity to allow their fellow men to live together or, more precisely, to not destroy themselves. Such is the implacable logic of the sacred, which the myths dissimulate less and less as man becomes more self-aware. The decisive moment of this evolution is Christian revelation, a sort of divine expiation in which God in the person of his Son will ask man for forgiveness for having waited so long to reveal to him the mechanisms of his violence. The rites had slowly educated him; now he was ready to do without them. It is Christianity that demystifies religion, and this demystification, while good in the absolute, proved to be bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to receive it. We are not Christian enough. One can formulate this paradox in another manner and say that Christianity is the only religion that will have foreseen its own failure. This prescience is called the apocalypse.[14]

In spite of modernity’s katechons having performed their restraining function for hundreds of years, there is still much mimetic violence in today’s world, indeed, more than ever before. But to the true believers in these katechons, the violence we still see in today’s world can only be the result of a deficient application of these katechons: a not-free-enough market, a not-centralized-and-powerful-enough state, the stubborn existence of hierarchical and morally absolutist institutions and regimes. Violence enacted by the so-called “enemies of modernity” and its non-scapegoating practices and institutions, such as the “Islamist” rage, is the result of those few elements of what should now be entirely an extinct, archaic-religious, scapegoating culture. Putatively, these “enemies” simply have not yet been fully modernized by the peace-making influence of the secular state, the globalist economy, the World Bank, the NSA, NATO, the United Nations, neoconservative-democracy bombs, apartheid against archaic and barbaric peoples, or the blandishments of consumer, virtual, entertainment, and erotic culture. As the modern, secular, anti-scapegoating State and the modern, victim-concerned culture it embodies have both become more pervasive and influential, these violent dinosaurs have indeed radically decreased; and terrorist attacks such as 9/11 are merely the last, violent gasps of a terminally ill, ancient-medieval model that only persists due to the West’s anemic tolerance of and complacency towards the futile resistance of those few fundamentalists and fanatics who are not yet resigned to modernity’s inevitable triumph. And, thus, the occupation and destruction of sovereign countries, drone killings, a domestic police state, NSA-spying, and threats of a nuclear attack on sovereign and non-aggressive states, such as Iran, are only the reasonable measures the secular, peace-making West has undertaken to ensure that this triumph becomes a reality sooner than later, for the good of all peoples.

The so called peace-making state, the free market, international law and transnational organizations, a commercialist, utilitarian culture of mass-produced consumer products, technology, science, the privatization of religious belief and practice, the declaration of and enforcement of human rights and the dignity of every human, the universal concern for victims institutionalized in law and government—all of these katechons, according to modernity, prove modernity’s moral superiority, even its more perfectly Christian character; for, these institutions and practices require no scapegoats: no human sacrifices, on the one hand, no suppression of religious freedom, on the other—and they have brought about an unprecedented material prosperity and moral consciousness to boot(!).

However, with a Girardian lens, things look less rosy: the prolongation and escalation of violence and millions upon millions of human sacrificial victims—the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the poor and middle-class in the first world, the vast majority in the third world; religiously, culturally, and intellectually starved souls; the normalization of political propaganda; pathological violence and plasticized sex in media and entertainment; massive private indebtedness; masses of brave new world soma addicts (in forms Huxley couldn’t have dreamt of), the so-called collateral damage of millions of innocents in perpetual, epic-scale wars; the perpetual fear and terror of the national security and surveillance state; wars and rumors of wars; the renewed threat of nuclear Armageddon.

In other words, scapegoating in the contemporary western world has not just continued since the onset of modernity, but has both escalated beyond control and cloaked itself in an all but unrecognizable form; out of a concern for the victims, it is perpetrated in their name. The politically correct on the left persecute those they deem the persecutors in the name of the persecuted. The “war-on-terror” terrorists of the right terrorize those they deem the terrorists in the name of the victims of terror, victims by terrorists, such as ISIS, which they themselves have created.[15] What is particularly apocalyptic about this new, secular, post-Christian scapegoating violence is that we are in denial, we know not what we do, and that each person and state-actor insists upon the cosmic righteousness of his use of violence and the demonic depravity of his “enemies”—all in the name of concern for victims.

Modernity, for Girard, is now witnessing the birth-pangs of the apocalypse, conceived, as it were, two-thousand years ago through the Gospel’s revelation of the scapegoat mechanism as the original sin of all cultures, a revelation accepted by the Church and embodied in medieval Catholic culture, but still tainted with the religious violence it was supposed to eradicate. This revelation was corporately and politically either thoroughly rejected, as in secularist Europe, or relegated to one private opinion among others, as in America. In both, it was replaced by an officially established, “gospel” of secularized victim-concern, with the divine victim, the only effective means to avoid the apocalypse of scapegoating violence, himself scapegoated through indifference and incomprehension. What ensued was the unleashing of, in Paul’s words, “the man of lawlessness,” now in his full fury—the uncontrollable, escalating mimetic desire of undifferentiated and equal, autonomous, relativistic persons in a secularized, mechanistic, individualized culture bereft of any authoritative, corporate, transcendent meaning and purpose—without the safety valve of the archaic mechanism of religiously authorized human sacrifice. Says Girard:

The trend toward the apocalypse is humanity’s greatest feat. The more probable this achievement becomes, the less we talk about it. . . . I have always been utterly convinced that violence belongs to a form of corrupted sacred, intensified by Christ’s action when he placed himself at the heart of the sacrificial system. Satan is the other name of the escalation to extremes. The Passion has radically altered the archaic world. Satanic violence has long reacted against this holiness, which is an essential transformation of ancient religion.[16]

            The War on Terror: “Satan Casts out Satan”

Perhaps the most globally-witnessed example of scapegoating, apocalyptic violence was the attacks of September 11, 2001. The way we have interpreted and explained this event, and this includes Girard himself, is as a terrorist attack resulting from the resentment, perhaps justified, and religious fanaticism of some extreme elements within the modernity-hating political culture of extreme Islam; that is to say, an attack on, from their perspective, “The Great Secular Satan,” and rendered justifiable by a certain tendentious and primitive interpretation of Islam. In other words, 9/11 was the violent, resentful, mimetic response of those few, archaic “others” living outside the peace-making katechons of modernity, those who have obstinately rejected modernity’s loving concern for victims and its sacred proscription against doing violence in the name of religion. Is this an accurate depiction of the cause of 9/11 and the War on Terror, or is it just another religious myth obscuring our own complicity in scapegoating?

9/11: The Inverted Sacred

If modernity’s soteriology is the apocalypse, then a massively violent, global-scale event like 9/11 and the War on Terror it spawned should certainly be identified as a failed instance of ritualistic scapegoating that has only served to escalate global violence.  According to Girard’s analysis of 9/11 taken from a recent interview, the Muslim hijackers, who we instinctively locate outside of western modernity, were actually well within it, due to the phenomenon of mimetic doubling and mirroring. Jean Pierre Dupuy puts it this way:

In the face of an event as horrible as the tragedy of September 11, we have generally sought the reasons for the nonsensical and incredible in the radical otherness of those responsible, thereby reassuring ourselves. . . .What could be more different from our liberal, secular, and democratic societies than a gang of Muslim fundamentalists prepared to offer their lives in order to maximize the extent of the damage they cause? Few analysts have understood that the key is to be found not in a logic of difference, but, on the contrary, in a logic of identity, similarity, imitation, and fascination.

Is the upshot of this analysis of 9/11, then, that, à la Baudrillard, we were attacked by ourselves, with the archaic, scapegoating, Islamic “other” nothing but a mirror of us? The Archbishop of Granada, Javier Martinez, has described the phenomenon thus:

The secular society lives in daily violence, violence with reality. This violence shows that nihilism cannot and does not correspond to our being. But it shows also, in a very concrete way, how the secular society annihilates itself by engendering the very monsters that terrify it most and that it itself hates most: the twin monsters of fundamentalism and terrorism. After 11th September 2001 and 11th March 2004, it is more and more obvious that Islamic terrorism, like Islamic fundamentalism, by all its Muslim coloring and a certain vague connection with traditional Muslim ideas and practices, is not understandable or thinkable without the West, it is mostly a creature of Western secular ideologies. It is pragmatic nihilism using Islam instrumentally, very much like the emergent modern nation-states used in their own political interest a Church institution like the Inquisition.[17]

But why would modernity create, so to speak, its own monsters and its own sacrificial victims? According to Girard, just like any ancient scapegoating mechanism, it would be to engender cultural and political unity and, to a real extent, confer salvation. Clearly, 9/11 was ritualistically exploited by its victims and those who identify with them. It seemed as though the collective had found a solemn event wherewith to purge its guilt and fear through the seemingly salvific and redeeming catharsis of the accusing finger and through the mass, ritual-identification with the innocent victim—i.e., the sacrificed American regime.  Was not Ground Zero transformed into a sacred, sacrificial site at which Americans could bury their sins and feel the redemption of ritual identification with the innocent victims, while justifying any subsequent violence in its name, such as preemptive strikes against and occupations of countries having nothing to do with the attacks? If Girard is right, all cultures, even post-modern, secular, technologically advanced ones must construct katechons, and when the ones it previously erected are found wanting, violent and public sacrificial ritual is the inevitable failsafe. When one considers the post-Christian context in which this event occurred, a country trying its best to be completely secular but still denominationally marked by the icon of the mangled redeemer, its success in securing an effective purgative catharsis and forging cultural and political unity would depend upon its likeness to the Sacrifice of Calvary. Sheldon Wolin describes 9/11 precisely in these terms:

The mythology created around September 11 was predominantly Christian in its themes. The day was converted into the political equivalent of a holy day of crucifixion, of martyrdom, that fulfilled multiple functions: as the basis of a political theology, as a communion around a mystical body of a bellicose republic, as a warning against political apostasy, as a sanctification of the nation’s leader, transforming him from a powerful officeholder of questionable legitimacy into an instrument of redemption, and at the same time exhorting the congregants to a wartime militancy, demanding of them uncritical loyalty and support, summoning them as participants in a sacrament of unity and in a crusade to “rid the world of evil. [18]

            James Allison, an eminent Girardian theologian, has given the most penetrating account of the way in which 9/11 served and still serves as militant America’s new, cementing and soteriological event:

And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. . . . What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.[19]

            What is the meaning we have been given by 9/11 and delighted in, and who gave this meaning to us? Did we give it to ourselves? In light of Girard, in light of modernity’s programmatic repression and “privatization of the transcendent,” leading to, I would argue, a cultural neurosis of simultaneous repulsion and fascination by the sacred, and in light of the War on Terror’s unmasked identity as a world-wide, murderous, scapegoating terror campaign of mimetic violence, the true meaning of the September 11, 2001 attacks is something like this: the inauguration of the reign of the archaic sacred in the midst of modernity; a ritual human sacrifice ushering in the apocalypse for which an unrepentant modernity lusts in its death-prone heart of hearts. Girard:

On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: We always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet, the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it.[20]

The Dangers of Idolatry

At the outset of this essay, I stated that supernaturally powerful, non-violent, and authentically Catholic engagement with the modern world requires an engagement with Girard’s thought. It has been the purpose of this paper to engage Girard’s thought as it pertains to Catholic thought and action in contemporary western culture. A full Girardian program for interpreting and applying the principles of Catholic social teaching is urgent, in my view. This piece is an attempt of a first step in that direction.  For the present, I think we may glean from the foregoing Girardian analysis one fundamental insight and one indispensable directive, which might be of guidance for Catholics and all compassionate persons of all persuasions. The insight is that the liberal, secular, humanist model of political order, one in which any conception of the sacred, as well as all religious belief and practice, is normatively privatized, necessarily pluralistic, and publicly non-authoritative, and in which the mechanisms of ritual scapegoating are, and can never be, acknowledged as such is not just admittedly duplicitous, but inherently prone to mass-deception. 9/11 and the War on Terror constitute a self-evident demonstration that scapegoating has never been renounced by the West, but only masked by the discourse of Enlightenment “reason,” and that, pace pluralist dogma and the separation of Church and state, the sacred is as authoritative and intolerant as ever it was in pre-modern society; and that the Empire is itself a public religious cult that brooks no competitors. Thomas Breidenbach, who has written an erudite, groundbreaking account of the 9/11 attacks as bound up with an imperial sacrificial cult, summarized the question:

What 9/11 ultimately reveals is a ritual landscape and technology the secular mind is largely if not wholly unequipped to apprehend, largely because of its own sentimental attachment thereto.  It follows that the rationalist has been carefully conditioned not to believe in (and therefore not to perceive) the very technology being used to complexly condition him and his community.  However ironically, rationalism dismisses as superstition the precise method, craft, or secretive science being used to channel the collective desires, fears, and animosities of the West into an effective external aggression that many rationalists themselves may nominally oppose, an aggression which their opposition (as a demonstration of the imperial collective’s overall freedom) serves in a crucial sense to bolster.  Meanwhile, most of the self-professed religious faithful are similarly unwilling to confront the intra-communal or ritual dimension of 9/11, since to do so would reveal their participation in a satanic (human sacrificial) cult(ure).[21]

            It is not just the rationalists, naturalists, atheists, and skeptics, who do not, cannot, or will not see the reality of violent scapegoating in their midst and their complicity in it, but it is most of all the “self-professed religious faithful,” who are most culpably involved in this particular social dynamics.  And our ignorance is, perhaps, a more culpable one, since, nominally, we do not doubt the reality of the sacred, of the divine, of spiritual reality, of the existence of the demonic, and of the supernatural. The obstacle to the penetration of Truth is not so much our culture’s alleged rationalism, naturalism, and atheism, or even the “dictatorship of relativism” (J. Ratzinger), but its simultaneous denial of and resignation to human sacrifice. This is the insight that both Church leaders and educated lay people do not seem to grasp. Further, Catholics are themselves prone to this idolatrous dynamic insofar as they participate in, or at least do not fully renounce, the imperial culture that embodies it—in all its “Catholic -friendly” disguises. The more orthodox and pious among us tend towards the “conservative” forms of imperial culture, propping up an economy of exploitation of the poor and middle-class, consumerism, usury, fiat money, and bankster hegemony under the guise of the “freedom of the market” versus the evils of “socialism” and the “welfare state,” citing tendentiously interpreted Social Encyclicals in defense of precisely those capitalist ideologies and practices they unequivocally condemn. Politically, neoconservative fascism—“You are either with us or with the terrorists”— bound up with the Orwellian national security-surveillance-propaganda state, government-sponsored false-flag terrorism, the racial/tribal scapegoating idolatry of American exceptionalism, and Manichean Islamaphobic propaganda are defended as patriotic measures against the “enemies of Christianity, the West, and freedom,” both domestic and foreign. Those with a more “liberal” bent support the other dehumanizing aspects of the imperial culture, the egalitarianism and deracination that deprives peoples of those ethnic and cultural heritages and traditions indispensable for their moral and spiritual flourishing under the guise of cultural diversity and tolerance, and the moral relativism that destroys the natural foundation of human culture in sexual complementarity and fruitful intercourse. Both flavors of the imperial culture give worship to the Nation-State as the sole repository of political and legal authority, accepting its absolute determinations of what is sacred in public life (government narratives of terrorist attacks, on the one hand, government identifications of “hate crimes,” on the other), and, obeying the dictates of pluralism, the relegation of all ecclesial and magisterial authority, as well as any purported religious authority, to the realm of the sub-political, background-cultural, and idiosyncratically private. Insofar as the human element of the Catholic Church has been co-opted into thinking and behaving according to these categories, it has made the Gospel an instrument of imperial culture, that is, it has engaged in idolatry.

The “earthly city” has always been opposed to true religion, and what Catholics, in America especially, need to grasp is that the culture in the West is neither liberal, tolerant, rationalist, materialist, religiously neutral, enlightened, morally progressive, secular, nor non-violent. At the heart of culture, pace the Enlightenment, is always the Sacred, and at the heart of our post-9/11 imperial culture is a terrifying sacred power in mortal conflict with the injunctions of compassionate belief. As for the primary Girardian directive for Catholics: it is nothing else than the wholehearted rejection of the imperial culture at the heart of today’s City of Man, one that has eclipsed the City of God through its counterfeit imitation of it. What this rejection looks like when translated into Catholic teaching and everyday life, as well what a blueprint for building an anti-imperial culture in the name of love might look like, are matters that need urgently to be addressed by Church leaders, lay and clergy.


[1] Suzanne Collings, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic Press, 2008), 18-19.

[2] George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, September 20, 2001.

[3]René Girard, Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (Continuum: London, New York, 2007), p. 236.

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2007).

[5] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 851 (1992).

[6] William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination (Scotland: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002).

[7] 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. But that’s a topic for another essay. Girard’s insights into the nature of political evil are most accurate and profound, and, I would argue, surpass the work of the Thomists in this area. In this respect, he is most helpful in understanding modern politics.

[8] Markus Müller, “Interview with René Girard” (June, 1996), available at http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0201/interv.htm.

[9] René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), “Satan,” 37.

[10] Paul Nuechterlein, “The Anthropology of the Cross as Alternative to Post-Modern Literary Criticism” (October, 2002), available at http://girardianlectionary.net/girard_postmodern_literary_criticism.htm. I do not agree with the suggestion here that all violence is prohibited by the Gospel. Joshua’s genocide of the Canaanites, the Inquisition, and the Crusades are not necessarily forms of scapegoating in principle, though acts of unjust violence and scapegoating were committed. I do not follow most of the Girardians in condemning all religion-inspired and justified violence. Jesus Himself did not refuse to use violence; consider his use of whips to punish the moneychangers in the Temple. The point to emphasize is that violence in the hands of those subscribing to religions that reject the Gospel, implicitly or explicitly, will always be a form of scapegoating.

[11] Nathan Colberne, “Engaging Girard: Is a Girardian Political Ethic Necessary” Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace 4, No. 1 (June, 2010), available at http://www.religionconflictpeace.org/node/73.

[12] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 152.

[13] William T. Cavanaugh, “The Liturgies of Church and State” Liturgy 20, No. 1 (2005): 25-30, available at http://works.bepress.com/william_cavanaugh/28.

[14] René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre (Michigan State University Press, 2010), 9-10.     

[15] Garikai Chengu, “America Created Al-Qaeda and the ISIS Terror Group” (September 19, 2014), available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/america-created-al-qaeda-and-the-isis-terror-group/5402881.

[16] Girard, Battling to the End, 216-217.     

[17] Francisco Javier Martinez, “Beyond Secular Reason” Communio 31/4 (2004), available at http://www.secondspring.co.uk/articles/martinez.htm.

[18] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 9.

[19] James Alison, “Contemplation in a world of violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle,” a talk given at the Thomas Merton Society, Downside Abbey, Bath, November, 2001, available at http://girardianlectionary.net/res/alison_contemplation_violence.htm.

[20] “On War and Apocalypse” First Things (August, 2009), available at http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/apocalypse-now.

[21] Thomas Breidenbach, IX  XI: a Study of the Ritual Dimension of Contemporary Western Imperial Statecraft (unpublished, 2014). See his published companion book of 911 poetry The Wicked Child / IX XI (New York: The Groundwater Press, 2014).

Header Image: Stephen J. Danko.


9 thoughts on “Kozinski on Girard and Modernity

  1. Though there are many excellent points to ponder here, I wonder if some of the ideas expressed might over-psychologize a few things…

    If oxymoronic “war on terror” signifies Apocalypse, then what does indifferent or pacifistic acceptance of Christianity’s eradication, especially in its place of origin, portend?

    Does praying a rosary to support a Crusade hasten or hinder the coming of the Kingdom?


    • As the great Paul Craig Roberts recently wrote, and quite accurately: “the Muslim threat” is a hoax created by the neoconservatives and the military/security complex with the complicity of the presstitutes to serve the hegemony agenda and the budget and power of the CIA, Pentagon, and military industries.”


      • I’m not sure if I buy into the idea that the US has done false flag terrorism, but I am certain that terrorism is an overblown threat mostly created by the US starting in the 80s to fight the Soviets, which has since then has blown up in our faces.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Fr. Waldstein,
    Thank you for sharing this.

    A thought: what if Girard is, in fact, a neo-Thomist writing in a modern context according to the principles of the divine pedagogy? I have often felt that, at the core, he was a Thomist and allowed the principles of right reason to tweak and correct this thought as St. Thomas would have done. However, his audience was almost never Thomists, so he rarely — if ever — used the language of Neo-Scholasticism in any definitively precise way.

    Nevertheless, the Thomistic principles are often quite striking. Consider, for example, Girard’s extrapolation of the Ten Commandments in I SEE SATAN FALL LIKE LIGHTNING. In that text, Girard explains that the mimetic reading of the commandments reveals a lawgiver attempting “to resolve the number one problem of every human community: internal violence.” Moreover the “goal of the Law is peace among humankind.” Is this really different from a Thomistic understanding of the common good? In describing the Angelic Doctor’s principles, Pius XI explains that “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” (SD 20). In this sense, it is, perhaps, too extreme to claim — as you and Kosinski do — that Girard has no understanding of the common good.

    In any event, I think that a continual openness to the rapprochement between Girard and Thomas will bear fruit for Holy Mother Church. Thank you for your work in this area!

    Tyler Graham
    Ave Maria, Florida

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: René Girard and the Common Good - The Imaginative Conservative

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.