Book Review: I See Satan Fall Like Lightning
The phrase “I see Satan fall like lightning” comes from Luke 10:18. I’d previously encountered it on insane right-wing conspiracy theory websites. You can rephrase it as “I see Satan descend to earth in the form of lightning.” But “lightning” in Hebrew is barak. So the Bible says Satan will descend to Earth in the form of Barak. Seems like a relevant Bible verse for insane right-wing conspiracy theorists!
Philosopher / theologian Rene Girard’s famous book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning isn’t directly about Barack Obama being the Antichrist. It’s an ambitious theory-of-everything for anthropology, mythography, and the Judeo-Christian religion. After solving all of those venerable fields, it will, sort of, loop back to Barack Obama being the Antichrist. But it’ll do it in such an intellectual and polymathic Continental philosophy way that we can’t even get mad.
Girard’s starting point is the similarity between Bible stories and pagan myths. You’ve heard about this before - dying-and-resurrecting gods, that sort of thing. You might expect Girard, a good Catholic, to reject these similarities. He doesn’t. He says they’re real and important. Pagan myths resemble the Bible because they’re both describing the same psychosocial process. The myths are distorted propaganda supporting the process, and the Bible is a clear-eyed description of the process which reveals it to be evil. Just as worshipful Soviet hagiographies of Stalin and sober historical analyses of Stalin will have many similarities (since they’re both describing Stalin), so there will be unavoidable resonances between myth and the Bible.
Girard calls this process “the single-victim process” or “Satan”. It goes like this:
Most (all?) human desire is mimetic, ie based on copying other people’s desires. The Bible warns against coveting your neighbor’s stuff, because it knows people’s natural tendencies run that direction. It’s not that your neighbor has particularly good stuff. It’s that you want it because it’s your neighbor’s. Think of two children playing in a room full of toys. One child picks up Toy #368 and starts playing with it. Then the other child tries to take it, ignoring all the hundreds of other toys available. It’s valuable because someone else wants it.
As with the two children, conflict is inevitable. As the mimetic process intensifies, everyone goes from complicated individuals with individual wants, to copies of their neighbors (ie their desires copy their neighbors’ desires, and they become the sort of people who would have those desires). Alliances form and dissipate. There is a war of all against all. The social fabric starts to collapse.
Instead of letting the social fabric collapse, everyone suddenly turns their ire on one person, the victim. Maybe this person is a foreigner, or a contrarian, or just ugly. The transition from individuals to a mob reaches a crescendo. The mob, with one will, murders the victim (or maybe just exiles them).
Then everything is kind of okay! The murder relieves the built-up tension. People feel like they can have their own desires again, and stop coveting their neighbors’ stuff quite so hard, at least for a while. Society does not collapse. If there was no civilization before, maybe people take advantage of this period of relative peace to found civilization.
(Optional step 5) Seems pretty impressive that killing one victim could cause all this peace and civilization! The former mob declares their victim to be a god. Killing the god was the necessary prerequisite to civilization. Now the god probably reigns in heaven or something. Maybe they die and resurrect every year. Whatever.
Rinse and repeat.
Girard is against this process. Not just because it involves violent mobs lynching innocent people (although it does), but because that step perpetuates the whole cycle: people greedily desiring whatever their neighbors have, people hating their neighbors, internecine war of all against all. He dubs the process Satan, based partly on the original Hebrew meaning of Satan as “prosecutor”. Satan is the force that tells people that the victim is guilty and deserves to be lynched.
(and did you know that Paraclete, the Greek word for the Holy Spirit, originally meant “defense attorney”? The Paraclete is the force that - no, we’ll get to that later).
Are all myths and Bible stories really about this process? Girard says yes. For example, consider the myth of Oedipus. Around the end, Thebes is stricken by plague (Girard says plagues should usually be interpreted metaphorically as social plagues, ie discord). Everyone goes to the oracle and asks for a solution. The oracle says that someone has killed his father and married his mother, and the plague won’t end until that person is removed. It is revealed that Oedipus is the culprit. The mob expels Oedipus from the city, and the plague ends.
Okay, that’s one myth. Are there others?
Girard relates a story about 1st-century magician Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius goes to Ephesus, which has been stricken by (wait for it) a plague. Nobody knows what to do. Apollonius suggests stoning a blind beggar. The Ephesians start out horrified, but Apollonius talks them into it, whipping the mob into a frenzy, and they eventually stone the beggar. When he dies, the beggar reveals his true form as a demonic hound, and the plague ends.
Okay, but that’s so obscure it doesn’t even qualify as a real myth. Are there others?
Sort of. Girard says that all of the primeval “we killed a guy and created the world from his corpse” myths fit his pattern - so Marduk killing Tiamat, Odin killing Ymir, etc. Maybe Cronus killing Ouranos counts, even if he didn’t exactly create the world from his corpse. The point is, there sure are a lot of “the world started with a primordial murder” myths, and maybe they’re distorted, half-remembered descriptions of the single-victim process founding civilization.
(Rome started with the primordial murder of Romulus killing Remus - and they were even twins, which sounds like a metaphor for mimetic identification!)
He also counts “the oracle said something bad would happen if we left a guy alive, so we (tried to) kill them”. For example, the oracle told Priam that Paris would bring doom to Troy, so Priam originally left him exposed to die (he didn’t).
But also, various real-world practices. The ostracism in Athens. The scapegoat of Israel. The pharmakoi of Greece, which Wikipedia describes as “a slave, a cripple, or a criminal was chosen and expelled from the community at times of disaster”.
For Girard, the important thing about all these myths is that the victimization is good and correct. The oracle was right that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother. This really was causing the plague. Expelling Oedipus really did solve the plague. Tiamat was the Dragon of Chaos; killing her and creating the world was probably a good move. Paris really did bring doom to Troy; Priam was right to try to kill him, and the only possible regret was that he didn’t finish the job.
He contrasts this with the Bible. Lots of Bible stories also fit the pattern. As in Babylonian and Norse mythology, the world begins with a primordial murder: Cain kills Abel. But the clearest example is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers grow jealous of him, coveting his beautiful multi-colored coat. They form a mob, gang up on him, and are about to kill him, when a slave caravan comes by and they decide to sell him as a slave instead. Then Joseph becomes as close to a god as the monotheistic Israelites are willing to accept (Prime Minister of Egypt) and founds the next stage of Israelite civilization as some kind of culture-hero figure.
The difference from the pagan myths is that the Bible says that this is bad. Cain’s murder of Abel is unjustifiable. The murder does result in the foundation of civilization (the Bible says Cain wandered the earth in penance for a while, then started the first city), but he’s still basically a bad guy who killed his brother for no reason. Joseph’s brothers try to kill him because they are jealous, but Joseph turns out to be a great guy who forgives his brothers and is totally blameless in the whole thing.
And of course there’s the Gospels. 1st century Judaea is wracked by conflict and revolutionary fervor. The Jews form a mob and murder an innocent person - Jesus. Then Jesus is deified as the Son of God. It’s the same story, except told from a perspective where Jesus is great and everyone was wrong to kill him.
So, concludes Girard, the single-victim process is the basis of all ancient civilization. The pagan myths were written by people who had recently been in the mobs. It accurately reflects their understanding of events: there was some kind of looming crisis, we figured out that an ugly foreigner was responsible, we killed him, and that solved the problem (and optionally, he might be a god). Girard insists that this process is approximately infinitely powerful. You can’t just choose to be a good person who isn’t in the mob. Everyone joins in the mob. You can’t even regret being in the mob afterwards. This is some Julian Jaynes-level stuff. Your psyche is completely shaped by the single-victim process, you are caught up in it like a leaf in the wind, and all you can do is write some myths afterwards talking about how very right you were.
So how does the Hebrew Bible escape this failure mode? Girard says divine intervention. God (here meaning literal God, exactly as the average churchgoer understands Him) tried to break the reign of Satan (here meaning metaphorical Satan, the single-victim process) over the Jewish people, by constantly providing them with examples of the single-victim process being bad and ensuring those examples were written up accurately. He got the Israelites to obsess over these examples and worship them as a holy text, trying to hammer the whole thing into their heads. Finally, He sent His only begotten Son as the perfect victim, who would undergo the process in its entirety and have it be written up with unprecedented attention to detail. This extra-compelling example finally penetrated the Israelites’ thick skulls. Although Peter and the other disciples sort of joined the mob in denying Jesus at the beginning, after the Resurrection they started thinking previously barely-thinkable thoughts, like “what if our mob was in the wrong?” and “what if mob violence is bad?”
Wherever Christianity spread, people had the mental toolbox to try to consider the victim’s perspective. They didn’t always use the toolbox very effectively, and occasional outbreaks of the single-victim process continued - lynchings, literal witch hunts, metaphorical witch hunts. But you got increasingly long periods where it didn’t happen at all, and in any case it no longer seems like the central feature of civilization. Satan has been cast down.
Okay, But This Is All Crazy, Right?
Yeah, I think mostly crazy.
I originally picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about mimetic desire. I think there might be something to this part. The “two kids fighting over a toy” example is mine (my neighbors have several small children, who have leaned into this stereotype recently). But also, Girard explains this (I think correctly) as an example of how desire forms at all, beyond a couple of hard-coded things like liking calorie-dense foods. There were hints of this in Sadly, Porn (why do cultural beauty standards exist at all? why are there fads in fetishes?) and I thought it was important and wanted to understand it better.
But Girard lost me with the part about the myths. Most pagan myths have nothing to do with the single-victim process (eg labors of Hercules, Jason and the Golden Fleece, rape of Persephone, the Iliad, the Trojan Horse, the Odyssey, etc, etc, etc). The same with most Bible stories (Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, the Tower of Babel, the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, etc). It kind of seems like the sort of thing where Freud can claim all myths are about castration. There are lots of myths, and they’re about lots of things. “Person does bad thing, the gods collectively punish humanity, then once we get rid of him the collective punishment stops” is certainly one trope. But it’s not hard to fathom why a primitive community stricken by a plague might think God was punishing them for some iniquity. And if I haven’t committed iniquity lately, and you haven’t committed iniquity lately, it must be some particular bad guy who needs to be stopped.
Even when myths do fit the pattern, I disagree that the pagans always support it and the Bible always opposes. Consider the myth of Jonah (before he gets to the whale). God tells him to prophesy. Jonah refuses. He tries to escape by taking a boat. God sends a storm to the boat. The sailors realize this is a supernatural storm and decide it must be someone’s fault. They draw lots. Jonah gets the short lot, revealing that the storm is his fault. They throw him overboard. The storm dissipates. This seems equivalent to the Thebans identifying Oedipus as the source of the plague and successfully stopping it. The sailors are right to blame Jonah. They are right to throw him overboard. Their good sense in blaming a single victim saves their lives.
Or what about Numbers 25? The Israelites intermarry with the idolatrous Moabites. God sends a plague as punishment. 24,000 people die. Then Phinehas kills the leader of the intermarriers, and the plague ends.
Nor does it seem like pagans can’t possibly comprehend that some accusations are false. The queen of Tiryns tried to seduce Bellerophon; when he refused, she falsely accused him of trying to seduce her. The king exiled Bellerophon to Lycia, but when the king of Lycia learned of the accusations, he tried to kill Bellerophon by setting him the impossible labor of murdering the Chimera. This is a close match to the story of Potiphar’s wife falsely accusing Joseph, which Girard spotlights as an example of the Biblical pattern where accusations are false.
Also: the mob murdered Socrates, and Plato seemed pretty unhappy about this. It didn’t seem that hard for him to think the thought “I am unhappy about it”. He just went ahead and thought it, 400 years before Christ.
I just don’t feel like mobs murdering people was that fundamental to civilization. Sometimes mobs did murder people, and this was an important component of myth. I do think Jewish myths have the mobs in the wrong more often, probably because even when they were writing the Bible, Jews had more experience than usual with being a persecuted minority (eg during the Babylonian Captivity). But this doesn’t seem like enough material for a theory-of-everything that solves anthropology, mythography, and the Judeo-Christian religion.
Which is too bad, because the last two chapters of ISSFLL bring us to:
The Origins Of Woke
Richard Hanania has a new book out by this title. I hope to review it soon. He claims that wokeness originated in civil rights laws from the 1960s.
Needless to say, Rene Girard would trace it back further.
He is writing in 1999, before the current wave of wokeness. But he’s familiar with earlier forms of left-wing philosophy, and sees them intensifying all around him. He defines wokeness (not literally, obviously in 1999 he wouldn’t use that exact word) as excessive concern for victims. It believes that social systems must be seen through the lens of oppressors persecuting victims, and all political positions must be reduced to siding with victims as much as possible.
Other French intellectuals (he says) believe that we are in an age of unprecedented victimization. The rich victimize the poor, whites victimize blacks, straights victimize gays, and everyone victimizes the environment. While Girard acknowledges that all these things happen, he’s more interested in why we do this much less than any previous society. We have more of a social safety net for the poor than ancient Greece or Rome; better civil rights for blacks than any of the Arab, European, or American civilizations where they were enslaved for millennia, more tolerance for gays than medieval societies (or even Greece and Rome, which wouldn’t have allowed full gay marriage), and are one of the only societies to voluntarily restrict our economic growth in order to protect the environment. He thinks that, at least graded on a curve, we’re doing great morally. It’s not that we’re victimizing people uniquely much. It’s that for the first time in history, we notice victims and feel sorry for them. Peter Singer would say we’ve expanded our circle of concern, learning to care about people (and other beings) more and more different from us as time goes on.
There’s a cliched sci-fi trope where space travelers find the ruins of an unspeakably advanced civilization. The whole planet seems dead except for one strange garden, and they bring back a single flower to Earth. The scientists studying the flower start to behave strangely, and buildings in its vicinity start to crumble. It turns out the flower was infested with alien nanobots, far more advanced than any human technology! A few years later, Earth is dead and in ruins, except for a single strange garden with a single flower . . .
This is kind of how Girard thinks about Christianity. The Son of God brought from Heaven to Earth a single Word of the ineffable Divine speech, and that word was “VICTIM”. At first it was whispered only by a few disciples, so softly it could barely be heard at all. But as missionaries spread the faith, the word grew louder and louder until it became a roar, drowning out all merely-human metaphysics / psychology / ethics.
At some point it no longer needed the Church as a carrier vehicle. Like Oedipus, it killed its parent. The Church, it might seem, is not maximally designed to help victims. It has all these extraneous pieces, like prayers and cathedrals and Popes. And isn’t prayer offensive when we should be engaging in direct revolutionary action to free the oppressed? Aren’t cathedrals are a gaudy celebration of wealth, when that money should be used to feed the poor. Doesn’t a celibate clergy create conditions rife for child sexual abuse? As the single divine Word grew louder and louder, Christianity started to seem morally indefensible, and began to wither away like the pagan faiths it supplanted.
Rene Girard is against this. He shares the basic anti-woke fear that all of this ends in some kind of totalitarian communism, or in a bloody war of all against all where everyone accuses everyone else of being some kind of oppressor. But - at least in this book - he seems totally confused how to think about this or what can be done about it.
He mentions one semi-credible attempt to stop the divine Word: Friedrich Nietzsche’s project to brand Christianity as “slave morality”. Girard admires Nietzsche for correctly identifying the core of Christianity as a previously unprecedented form of morality that supported victims and the oppressed (as opposed to pagan “master morality”, which supported the powerful and popular). He rejects Nietzsche’s theory that the Christian impulse comes from petty resentment by dumb weak poor people against their betters - Girard believes it comes from the genuinely true fact that victims are being unfairly victimized and we should help them. But he thinks otherwise Nietzsche was pretty prescient.
Nietzsche wanted to rehabilitate pagan master morality, and Girard interprets Nazism as trying to enact this project. Victimize a bunch of innocent people - kill them, horribly, in a way totally anathema to Christian morality - to announce that victimizing people is back in fashion. Obviously this isn’t what the Nazis said they were doing, but Girard is a Continental philosopher and allowed to posit subtle psychological undercurrents, I guess.
So, since the Nazis are bad, we should stick with slave morality, and view the increasing concern with victims as good, right? Girard is uncomfortable with this conclusion. He’s a conservative Christian, so he has to be against wokeness. But he identifies wokeness as increasing fidelity to the Christian imperative to care for victims. So he has to support something like “increasing concern with helping victims was good until about 1950, and then went too far and became bad”. This is a totally coherent philosophy that might very well be true. It’s just sort of awkward, and less elegant than his other claims, and he never really says it outright. A hostile reader would naturally accuse him of being a naive conservative: social progress was good right up until the point where it produced the society I grew up in, and then after that, it became bad.
It would help if Girard could come up with some specific way that wokeness went too far and became qualitatively different from the Christian imperative. The best he can do is sort of (very weakly, I almost feel like I’m reading subtext here) gesture at a kind of meta-victimization. Cancel culture is, in a sense, a return to the single-victim mechanism and Satan. Once again, we organize our ethics around a pantomime where if we could just get rid of these Bad People doing Bad Things, society would be safe and everyone would be happy. We have new names for the Bad People - racists, colonialists, fascists, “the alt-right”. But the fact that they cause all our problems and we have to suspend the normal rules of tolerance and civil rights in order to get rid of them stay the same.
“I see Satan fall like lightning” doesn’t mean Satan dies. It means he falls from Heaven to Earth. He goes from being a semi-incomprehensible Jaynesian spiritual force, to lurking underneath all of our usual human squabbles. Girard does name wokeness as the Antichrist: not in the sense of “anti-Christian”, but in the older sense of anti-, the one that produced the word “antipope”. An antipope is a person who looks like he is the Pope, makes a superficially-credible claim to be the Pope, but is in fact not the Pope, and is opposed to everything that good Popes should stand for. Girard thinks wokeness looks kind of like Christianity, makes a superficially-credible claim to be Christianity, but stands against Christianity (because it tries to justify victimization).
A woke person would counterargue that yes, they may accuse people of being racists and causing problems, but those people really are racists who are causing problems. It’s easy to forget, reading Girard’s discussion of primeval myths, that there’s no rule that victims have to be innocent. The average victimization by society, throughout history, was the execution of a convicted murderer. Every group of victimizers has argued that their victims were guilty, sometimes correctly (surely the Nuremberg Trials were okay), other times incorrectly (come on, the blood of Christian children isn’t even kosher). Now woke people are accusing racists of being bad - but racism does seem pretty bad. Surely we can’t call them the Antichrist just for making the accusation?
I think Girard would counter that the problem isn’t a claim that racists are bad, the problem is the mob mentality that wants to immediately punish and destroy specific suspected racists without going through normal liberal procedures.
Certainly things like this have happened. But they don’t seem to me to be the interesting essence of wokeness. If you’re concerned about the influence of wokeness on society, you should be more interested in things like affirmative action laws, anti-free-speech policies, journals refusing to publish politically incorrect scientific results, or colleges forcing students to take diversity classes. All those things get enacted slowly through normal liberal procedures, the opposite of mob violence. Does Girard have anything to say about them?
Not that I can figure out, and I’m not sure he even has anything new to say about the cancellation mobs. People don’t use cancel culture to relieve mimetic tension - otherwise it would happen at times of mimetic tension, instead of whenever a celebrity is revealed to be bad. Cancellers never kill anybody, just drive them off Twitter for a while; usually they’re back after six months. Cancellers certainly don’t deify their victims afterwards. And none of this temporarily rejuvenates society; people are just as happy to cancel another celebrity the day after cancelling the first one.
So Girard is stuck in an awkward position of saying that the rise of concern-for-victims was good when Christianity is doing it, is bad now, and not having any good theory of what changed, or how this relates to the more speculative anthropology.
I appreciate ISSFLL for reminding me of the connection between Christianity → slave morality → modern harm-focused and victim-focused morality, and for painting this as a grand arc of history. But aside from that, I don’t feel like it comes out with a particularly coherent viewpoint, or any extra insight on our current social order.
Rene Girard said that the first age of victimization was solved by direct divine intervention. He can’t - and I can’t - figure out any merely human way to solve the current one. Someone with access to Heaven is going to have to give us a second divine Word.