So, uh, I guess I get to be the first to point out that in the title you've put "Lighting" instead of "Lightning"...
I actually think a good complement to this piece is this contrapoints video on envy: https://youtu.be/aPhrTOg1RUk?si=G_byH4Qksy43fzWf
idk if I've pitched this to you before or not, but I think you might be interested in this other Substack post ( https://theupheaval.substack.com/p/are-we-in-a-500-year-religious-revolution?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2 ) which covers The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle.
Basically, the claim is that Christianity has gone thru ~500-year cycles as the basic story breaks down, and then is reforged according to contemporary sensibilities, and that social justice / wokeness is the 5th such cycle. Importantly, the change each time has involved the movement of authority--the last cycles moving from the institutional authority of the pope to the individual conscience / interpretation of the Bible and now to egalitarian crowdsourcing. (Which is code for 'mob rule' and seems pretty bad from where I sit.)
“Nietzsche proposed that we stop all of this, return to square one, and re-adopt a “master morality” that idolizes the powerful.”
Not sure if you’re quoting Girard here, but this is incorrect and a common misconception about Nietzsche. His idea of the Übermensch transcends both master and slave morality, and while he does “prefer” masters to slaves, he doesn’t really like either.
Kinda cool treatment, and I think I get the fast and loose, expansive take, but did I actually read you right about ‘cancel culture’ not being a manifestation of mob-like scapegoating? You lost me there. Score one for RG on that one. Because however weak the actual penalty of it may be, part of Girard’s thesis is that the reward of scapegoating is as much about the catharsis it delivers to the participants, and that sure seems to be part of what drives it, whatever political or cultural angle it comes from.
I'm not a Girardian, so I don't exactly want to defend Girard, but I do think one can steelman his perspective on the woke a bit more than Scott has done.
The idea is that Judeo-Christian concern for victims, however imperfect, was sincere; whereas the modern, ideological tendency is actually a bid for power, justified as concern for victims. Girard might point to Communist regimes and say, OK, they talk a good game about the workers, but were workers actually treated net better in Communist countries than capitalist? Wasn't the "dictatorship of the proletariat" mostly "dictatorship" and not so much "of the proletariat?" Depending on one's sympathies, one might have similar thoughts about the woke. Girard would also want to unpack this in psychological terms much more than either Scott or I have done here.
This shit (NOT the review, that's great, Girad's book itself) needs to be exiled from academia or clearly labeled as wild speculation rather than serious argument. Maybe some ideas in here are worth exploring or it's aesthetically worthwhile but the same can be said for novels yet we all recognize the danger in calling a work of fiction, no matter how good, non-fiction.
It's an interesting suggestion but that's just a few paragraphs -- the problem is the pretense that everything else in the book constitutes an argument that means it warrants serious consideration. It's not harmless and fun or interesting exploration -- it's pretending that the use of methods of analogical and incautious reasoning that we have piles of evidence are misleading are worthwhile. Ultimately, the value in a subject is as much (probably more) about it's ability to exclude bad work as to sanctify good work. When we allow badly reasoned crap like Girad to be passed off as valuable philosophy we undermine our whole epistemic system. Doesn't matter if his conclusion is correct or not the method is fundamentally unreliable and the constant game so many academics play to hide this fact is deeply disturbing.
The standard reaction when I object to this kind of work to people at philosophy conferences is to either point to some value this stuff has in inspiring ideas or an appeal to the same kind of cultural appreciation we have for novels.
But if that's really the reason then nothing is lost if we just make it super clear that there are wild trippy speculations and serious philosophical arguments and clearly label them as such -- use less prejorative terms if you want just make them stick. Sure, there will be edge cases but label the clear ones.
The very fact that people object strongly to this gives away the game. The reason this kind of stuff is seen as valuable is because it borrows credibility from the serious part of the subject -- and that's the problem.
Sure, if you don't think philosophy serves any purpose other than elite entertainment it doesn't matter. But then I expect you to shut up about it's importance when you look for funding and support. OTOH if you really believe that philosophy serves this important role in helping people understand the world and avoiding mistakes allowing shit like this to masquerade as if the same kind of thing is a big problem.
Scott, I think you might enjoy Opening the Heart of Compassion. It's the best English language treatment I know of the Buddhist psychological model and I think it makes some suggestive predictions about victim mindset. Be warned, the first third of the book is esoteric Tibetan Buddhism stuff. It also has a half a page long, nine step version of the therapy method that I found to be the best after trying about a dozen.
Typo: "The oracle was right that Oedipus had killed his mother and married his father"
It was the other way around.
>"Satan will descend to Earth in the form of Barak... insane right-wing conspiracy theorists"
The Obama years are such a distant memory now that my first reaction on reading this was to wonder what the right-wing conspiracy theorists have been saying about Ehud Barak.
Is it just me, or does step 4 in the single-victim process seem like a non sequitur? I don't see why killing the victim would mean that people "stop coveting their neighbors’ stuff quite so hard, at least for a while."
Would someone mind getting me over the line regarding the opening reference to Obama being the antichrist? Is this Scott being tongue-in-cheek or is this an implication concluded in the book aka "something-something-woke-democrats?"
Typo: in bullet 2 of the enumeration: "individuals wants" should be "individual wants".
Your review was very educational for me as, too, are many of the comments below. I have become an instant fan of your thinking and writing.
"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."
Christianity demands that elites imagine themselves as victims. Victims should also imagine themselves as elites. Both should imagine themselves as brothers. This is an extremely difficult ideal to uphold for both elites and victims. Everyone will fail at this ideal because everyone is broken, but everyone should try to reach this ideal because everyone is redeemable. Both halves of the ideal are important for continuing to make progress.
Wokeness demands that elites (really, the intelligentsia) imagine themselves as victims. It makes no demands on the victims. Neither the oppressors nor the victims are seen as redeemable, either because they're evil or because they're already justified. The result is half a flywheel that spins out of control.
The thing about "concern for (mimetically invented) victims" is this..... its great popularity comes from the nice narcissistic feeling it gives wonderful little YOU - the woke person - about YOURSELF. And the best thing of all is that it costs you nothing.
> 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.
The Cancel Culture most people fear is about a much more intimate and personal mobbing and shunning, much closer to the Scapegoat and the Ostracism.
It's about much *smaller players* being expelled from social circles, about gigs and contracts drying up, about attacks on their business or professional life, or that of partners, and all usually for the sin of holding very mainstream views or having very normal reactions to the events around them.
(These views and reactions aren't necessarily "on the right side of history", but usually common enough that if cancellers were being consistent, there would be very few businesses they could buy from, and not a lot of art or entertainment they could consume.)
I tend to think of Cancel Culture as a form of economic terrorism. However, in light of Scott's review, I wonder if there's something more primal at work: groups affirm their collective luxury or radical beliefs by projecting their individual secret doubts onto the victim, who then takes them off into the wilderness. Catharsis is achieved. Social peace is restored. Until the next time.
Never mind Nietzsche, Tim Rice summed it up nicely in the words of woke Judas:
"My God I saw him, he looked three quarters dead
And he was so bad I had to turn my head
You beat him so hard that he was bent and lame
And I know who everybody's gonna blame
I dont believe he knows I acted for our good
I'd save him all the suffering if I could
Dont believe our good / save him if I could
PRIEST NO. 3:
Cut the confessions, forget the excuses, I don't understand why you're filled with remorse
All that you've said has come true with a vengeance, the mob turned against him, you backed the right horse
What you have done will be the saving of Israel, you'll be remembered forever for this
And not only that, you've been paid for your efforts - pretty good wages for one little kiss
Christ I know you can't hear me, but i only did what you wanted me to
Christ I'd sell out the nation for i have been saddled with the murder of you
...etc etc, then he dramatically hangs himself
Regarding cancel culture, thinking of it in terms of the suffering of the victim seems like a bit of a strawman (tho ironically appropriate here). That's like saying that the medevil catholic church's attempts to clamp down on scientific discoveries were horrible because they made the heretics unhappy. Sure, no one wants to be punished but one could reasonably counter that the ideas the heretics raised could easily make many other people feel unhappy/worried/etc and maybe the balance falls in favor of punishing heresy especially if you leave out the burning alive parts.
The better argument has always revolved around the costs if you end up using social pressure to prevent the acceptance of valuable correct ideas.
Hi, not commenting about the text per se here.
Just read the first three sentences and told myself "damn, seems really interesting, would love to be able to read the entire text, on paper, when I chill at home".
Could it make sense to have some sort of paper version of the 100 best articles from Astral Codex Ten?
That's a thing I would buy and read for sure.
Love the work.
Been a long time since I read Oedipus, but I'm pretty sure the oracle blamed the plague on the former king's murderer still being unpunished; the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother was specifically given to Oedipus and his parents at his birth, and he thought he'd beaten it by leaving home.
If we are going to talk about liberal legal processes as the alternative to scapegoating, I think Athenian tragedy may be relevant. Euripides, in particular, shows Orestes being driven mad by the Furies after he has killed his mother and her lover to avenge their murder of his father; but the Furies are turned away by Athena setting up a court where Orestes can be tried and aquitted. That particular mythic account antedates Christianity by several centuries.
I would also suggest that Nietzsche's criticism of slave morality should not be taken as a simple advocacy of master morality. Nietzsche has critical things to say about master morality as well. And very importantly, he argued that the "faith in opposite values" was a fundamental mistake in ethical thinking—and "Nietzsche criticized slave morality and therefore must have advocated master morality" seems like a classic manifestation of that faith.
I wonder if Girard made any commentary in the book about The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
The difference between Christian morality and woke social justice is that Christianity is primarily about the Christian’s achieving salvation, faith, grace, sainthood and secondarily about concern for social justice.
A Christian community sees its Christianity as vital for its members, so it has to be wary about the influence of the outside world. And sees itself as better in at least some way than the non Christian community. The Christian community believes it has the higher ideals that people should submit to, although it falls short of them.
“Wokeness” however assumes that the “Other” is somehow wonderful and special and that “we” are committing some primordial sin by “othering” the outsider. (This explains why woke leftists are so sympathetic to Islamists).
I was moderately shocked some years ago when I found out that Tyler Cowen counted Girard as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Yes, I was aware of the fact that Girard had acquired somewhat of a following outside the academy, I'd even cruised on by a Girardian website or two, but Tyler Cowen? I'm not a Cowenite by any means, but I think he's a smart guy with interesting things to say. He's also an empirical social scientist by training and Girard is, well, I guess he's (Continental) philosopher write very large. A completely different kind of thinker.
Is Cowen following, deferring to, Peter Thiel on this? I don't know.
Anyhow, I gave Girard a serious go some years ago, and then pretty much forgot about him. Dick Macksey brought him in as a guest lecturer in one or two of the five-I-believe-it-was courses I'd taken with him, certainly the course on the autobiographical novel, perhaps the course on the theater as well. Anyhow Girard lectured on mimetic desire and sacrifice and I found it pretty interesting, even compelling. When the English translation Violence and the Sacred came out I read it, marked it up extensively, and then pretty much forgot about Girard. Why? Because by that time my interest in literature had taken me to, of all places, the cognitive sciences in general, and computational semantics in particular. That's a conceptual world that's very different from Girard. No, I liked Lévi-Strauss on myth, the way he analyzed him more than his sometimes puzzling, if not silly, meta-commentary on it all. I saw a line from Lévi-Strauss to cognitive science (& an AI researcher, Sheldon Klein, did a simulation of his myth model back in the late-1970s), so I went there. From Girard, not quite nothing.
For those basic stories of mimesis and sacrifice have stuck with me, so much so that a couple of years ago I used them in an analysis of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2022/02/shark-city-sacrifice-a-girardian-reading-of-steven-spielbergs-jaws.html. The model seemed to work there, and I have no doubt that it works in other cases as well. But as a theory of everything? Really? You believe in those, theories of every-damn-thing, do you?
Anyhow, if you've a taste for it, Stanford comp. lit. professor Josh Landy has written a nice critique of Girard and his followers: Deceit, Desire, and the Literature Professor: Why Girardians Exist, https://arcade.stanford.edu/rofl/deceit-desire-and-literature-professor-why-girardians-exist. Here's a paragraph picked more or less at random:
"Is it really true that all violence is a by-product of mimetic rivalry? Here’s the kind of situation Girard is asking us to imagine. Two men, Jimmy and Joey, stand beside a lake on a hot day. Jimmy decides to go for a swim. Joey, who would never have had this idea in his life, immediately decides to do likewise. Inevitably, this causes a death struggle between the two men as they fight over the lake."
I fear that books like this (ie books that might be called continental philosophy by the non-specialist) exploit a number of weaknesses in the way academia works and in our reasoning systems to be taken more seriously than is epistemicly supported by the arguments they make. While I raised this as a problem in a different comment it's worth exploring how they manage this hack (no doubt unintentionally).
And yes I know that an immediate reaction will be -- just another STEM person dissing work they can't understand (though I do have the equivalent of a masters in philosophy) but it's exactly that reaction which is why I think it's important to push on this point.
Sometimes books in this style can be quite aesthetically enjoyable and pleasant to read (and if not they offer a feeling of accomplishment) . And they may contain interesting ideas or suggestions -- indeed often ones which, because of their vague or hard to quantify nature aren't well represented in the academic literature (tho maybe look more to Foucault than Girad). But that's the first part of the problem.
If you like such a book, even if you aren't convinced by it's argument, you immediately face a dillema. If you call it what it is -- the literary equivalent of a TED talk (an interesting idea wrapped in a snazzy often somewhat misleading presentation) you're effectively discarding it because it's too heavy to be read for fun and there isn't a category we recognize in academia for fun wild speculation without substantial backup. In turn the complexity of the work is necessary to meet the gatekeeping needs of academia (showing you've paid your dues by mastering some complex body of work).
Where the system for evaluating worth really gets hacked, however, is in the use of hard to interpret arguments and obscure points. Sometimes via hard to follow prose but equally possible with breezy deceptively easy to follow prose that isn't easily fit into a declarative argument. This has two effects -- it ensures that people who dislike the book are disinclined to really dig into it and invites the reader who does continue to really invest themselves into it by working out their own interpretation and understanding. The resulting mental workout is easily confused with intellectual value (the same way you might think you must have been productive today because your physically tired) and we now have -- to an extent -- read in our own ideas which we all have special love for.
We've now perfectly set the stage for the last aspect -- the discrediting of the critic. Anyone who doesn't buy into the books value won't have the same detailed theory of the work so can simply be dismissed as not having really understood the work. And this flips the normal criteria of worth in which a work is less valuable the harder it is to understand on its head. Sure, some other experts in the area may attack the work with authority but those are the attacks that legitimize it as being of real epistemic value not those that call it's value as scholarship into question. Or more preciscely, since it is almost definitionally scholarship, it's epistemic value.
Ultimately, then the problem is that the incentives strongly favor even the academics who don't find the style of arguments or methodology at all epistemicly reliable to pretend the work is of value to avoid both creating enemies/drama and especially to avoid the smear that they are the kind of unsophisticated STEM person who just can't appreciate this work.
Also pushing on this point risks raising hard questions about how we value various aspects of academic practice which makes it very hard to put together a coalition around the point (the guy who does Plato scholarship has to expect they are next).
> "[Girard] 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 [....] less elegant than his other claims, and he never really says it outright."
> "[Does Girard have anything to say about] 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"?
I'm not claiming people haven't been unfairly victimized after 1950, but I think there is certainly an elegant theory for Girard to be had here, according to which ever-increasing concern (starting at zero, when Christianity was introduced) with helping unfairly victimized people not only becomes bad but leads to these other things. Namely, once the concern reaches the threshold where it is strong enough to keep unfair victimization in check, further increase requires distorting reality, to support the false but necessary claim that unfair victimization is still unchecked.
Anyone with multiple children knows Girard is deserving a real thing as if it were universal. Man, life would be so much easier if that were so!
Hey kids, want to go to the park?
Older kid: yes!
Younger kid: No!
Hey kids, want to have Pho for dinner?
Younger kid: no!
Hey kids, want to play this game with me?
Older kid: no!
Younger kid: yes!
The Biblical narrative suggests that to be spiritually elite is to suffer more than others. There is a consistent pattern of reform starting at the center and moving outward. This is the role of the prophets or the nation of Israel as a “kingdom of priests” or, in the New Testament, Jesus and the church. God’s saving action begins often with a single person and then with a single group and spreads. But the person or group that is chosen for this role bears the brunt of the world’s resistance and suffers the most. As for wokeness, one could cite many examples of its excesses. A big one is the way that it excuses victims from moral responsibility which has the effect of retarding moral development thereby setting the victim up for further travails as an irresponsible, immoral person. But that’s what happens any time you elevate a single virtue as the master virtue which trumps all others. Christianity has historically blended various virtues and held them in tension. Wokeness simplifies thought with its single imperative and ends up doing injustice in the name of justice.
This was delightful to read! I read Unsong only recently and already miss it, and it was great to start the morning with some of that humor and wit :)
Apologies if I'm missing the joke and you actually did know, but the man who fell of the horse is a depiction of the epiphany of St. Paul — the moment when the tyrannical Roman army officer falls off his horse, has a luminous vision of the Messiah in the sky, and spontaneously becomes a posthumous apostle.
Back in the ’60s, Girard extrapolated the concept of mimetic desire from literature, and used it to explain things like why Sancho Panza was so faithful. He insisted, in his criticism (IIRC) that mimetic desire was not some universal truth but just a way to understand certain problems and motivations.
As time marched on, mimetic desire became, for Girard, more and more of a universal truth. He also assembled and published a lot of backing evidence about the mythology (Violence and the Sacred; The Scapegoat; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World) involved.
But I See Satan Fall like Lightning is a late-period attempt to synthesize and explain for a popular audience things that Girard is more persuasive about if you let him rumble up to them in hundreds of academic pages. I’m not saying Girard’s theory isn’t crazy (I always think of him as a kind of mad scientist, but a mad *social scientist*) necessarily, just that he works harder to drag more myths than just Oedipus & Apollonius into his schema.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read Girard (except ISSFLL, which I read only a couple years ago), and I’ve hardly gone through all of it, so I’m not in a position to defend him. But I’d certainly suggest that if you read more Girard you’ll find Girard does a better job of defending himself.
So, like, Scott should review more of his books.
There is an interesting passage in 2nd Kings: When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.
What makes this interesting is that surely this is an inconvenient story for the writer. He stays vague about what is the real power at work here. When I read this as an adult, I was struck by how ingrained into the psyche of Old Testament writers was the power of child sacrifice.
Where in the world does this come from? To me that’s the more interesting question at stake in your review. More so than the apologetics issue of whether Christianity uniquely fixes it such a way that we can now live in societies with hospitals, social security, and microchips. Maybe it is connected to the broader framework of mob violence, as the author suggests. But I’d really like more of an anthropological explanation than a wild chain following from mimicry.
Cain may have started the first city, but the suburbs are inhabited by the descendants of Abel. It is for this reason that we call commuting groups "Abelian".
Would love to see you review The Origins of Woke. Hanania is a lot cooler and more rational in print than he is on Twitter -- I sometimes found myself wondering "Is this the same guy who writes the crazy Tweets about Jeffrey Epstein and wants the Israelis to drive all the Palestinians out of Gaza?".
Tom Holland's Dominion is another sympathetic portrayal of the impact of Christianity, though he's not a Christian. Would also make for an interesting review. But it's a long book, and I'm not sure the thesis is sufficiently different from Girard's to make it worth your time.
Mimetic desire is all about achieving certainty. Thing is there are other ways to do this. It's just that mimicry is so fundamental and such a powerful way to settle uncertainty. For this, Girard's fixating on it (and anyone reading Girard) is useful. Scott you originally put me on to The Secret to Our Success. Do you see the connection between Henrich's insights about people (Ie learning by copying) and Girard? I happened to read both that book and this one about the same time, and what I think happens with Girard and Girardians generally is a fixation on a hugely important aspect of human behavior, one especially relevant in a world connected by social media.
The most important victims of wokeness are not the people cancelled on Twitter but those who suffer as the result of woke movements like the increased number of murders and car accidents after the BLM - Defund the Police movement and those who are discriminated from getting a job for being a straight white male.
“you are caught up in it like a leaf in the wind”
Ah, sentences like that always makes me think of the most magnificent scene in “Elizabeth: The golden age”. Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Elizabeth I, but equally great in this scene is the Irish actor William Houston, who plays the Spanish Ambassador to England: Don Guerau de Spes. It is he who utters the immortal line: “You see a leaf fall, and you think you know which way the wind blows.” Link to the scene here, it is the "I too, can command the wind sir"-scene:
Ok, this is a total digression, but is not that what a comment section is for…
Just 2 pick 2 nits: a) Luke was writing in Greek - so saying "Lightning" is "barak" in Hebrew and thus "the bible says Obama is evil" is ... gives me tooth-pain. Sure, Obama means sth. evil in some language, too. (I am aware the Qanons did that, not Scott.)
b) Paraclete (the Greek word for "advocatus" who you "call to" be your helper at court) is ONLY an expression for the holy spirit in a few places in John. Mostly, the evangelists use Greek "pneuma" to speak of the "ruach elochim", the spirit of the Lord.
Not sure if this is relevant to Girard at all--Scott kind of addresses it in the passage toward the end about the antichrist --but isn’t the biggest difference between Christianity and wokeness the imperative to forgive?
Christianity explicitly codifies the value of turning the other cheek (i.e. forgiving those that have wronged us), discouraging victimization of the persecutor, whereas wokeness contains no such imperative; thus, adherents wantonly victimize any wrongdoer, whether real or imagined.
I’d never defend Christianity (or any religion/ spirituality for that matter), but I’ve always admired the Christian imperative to forgive and, today, I certainly wish that I saw more forgiveness in our society for wrongs committed ... whether real or imagined.
"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). "
Thanks for writing this review. I now understand better how some of the tech billionaires end up talking so much about Girard and Nietzsche. I find your skepticism of Girard convincing.
I'm reading the darkening age by Catherine Nixey and it describes the early history of Christianity as full of mob violence against pagan temples and the destruction of art and literatures. This contradicts Girard's characterization of Christianity as more peaceable as compared to paganism.
I'm grateful for this review, because once I ordered this book through inter-library loan and it sat almost unopened on the night table until it was time to return. Reading it gave me a muddled feeling. (I seem to have a sense when things are going to be murky, or incoherent, and unlike SA I don't have the bandwidth to penetrate the murk.) Nonetheless I am glad to have a better idea of the idea within.
Thanks for the thoughtful review! However, I'm not sure why you claim that Girard offers a "theory of everything"... and then give him demerits for the theory failing to explain everything. Wouldn't it be more sensible to treat his ideas like Newtonian physics... concepts that explain a lot of useful things, but only in the appropriate realm with certain limitations? For instance, can you provide the quote where he said that ALL myths conform to his pattern?
One aspect that also could be pointed out in support of his scapegoat theory is that nearly all ancient societies had sacrificial rituals, most of them involving human sacrifice. Why did the Aztecs and the Carthaginians sacrifice so many people? His thesis is that the original scapegoat killing brought peace to the community, and so the people in power made sure to keep doing remembrance sacrifices to keep the peace. (a la Hunger Games) This mechanism was independently "discovered" on every continent, because the tribes that didn't discover this process, killed themselves off in blood feuds. It's an intriguing natural selection sort of argument for the beginning of pagan religions.
Sacrifices generally stopped as Christianity spread. For example, first century Jerusalem supposedly had upwards of 1.2 million animals slaughtered in a single day… but nowadays (most) Jews don’t offer any animal sacrifices, as far as I know. Stories of the Native Americans’ contact with the Gospel are similar.
But if Girard's thesis is wrong, then what else explains the prevalence of human sacrifice in ancient society?
When I saw this review in my mailbox, I thought it might be about Ada Palmer's "Too Like the Lightning". Which is one of the better fiction series I've read in the last few years. And, after reading the review, it seems bears almost the same resemblance to serious work of philosophy as the reviewed book (i.e. very little, but it, too, has interesting ideas in it, despite somewhat dense writing).
It's a minor point, but if you look in Leviticus 16:21-22 the scapegoat is explicitly not killed but sent away alive into the wilderness, unlike other the goat that is offered as a sacrifice. The ritual as recorded in the Mishnah does involve the goat being killed in the wilderness, which raises interesting interpretation questions (did the ritual change? was it always intended to be interpreted that way? was it intentionally written in a way different from how it was practiced?). But if you're going to derive a theology of social change through atonement from the biblical story of the scapegoat in Leviticus, you could just as easily read the scapegoat as a model of sparing something rather than killing something.
" 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!"
Except that Barak means "blessed" in Arabic...
This is a great review, now it makes me want to read this book because (1) I had no idea it came from as late as 1999, I thought it was one of those 1950s productions like Colin Wilson's "The Outsider" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outsider_(Wilson_book) (2) I had no idea Girard was "a good Catholic" and I have to admit, that bit made me eyeroll slightly since I have no interest in reading another Ernest Renan but the rest of the review leads me to think this is not the case. Excellent!
Points in no particular order:
(A) My gosh yes, that is a dreadful cover illustration. I presume it is taken from a picture of St. Paul falling off his horse on the road to the Damascus so it's connected to Christianity but I have no idea why this particular event was picked (I imagine as a cheap alternative to getting an illustrator/artist to do a proper book cover, I've seen these kinds of terrible but cheap cover art on other books that are Kindle versions and/or self-published)
(B) Nietzsche! I thought about him and his "Christianity is slave morality" at the start of the review, and I am gratified to find that I was on the same lines as Girard 😀
(C) "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). "
Well.... you can kinda find the idea there if you poke about a bit (rather like the "all myths are a disease of language/all myths are solar myths/all myths are vegetation myths with the dying-and-returning god" crazes of comparative religion studies in the 19th century to find One Single Great Arc, come on down Sir James Frazer with your Golden Bough).
Hercules is, in a sense, *the* single victim; he's always going crazy and murdering people in a fit of rage, then having to go be purified of that crime and do penance. So he is both the cause of your troubles (just ask his music tutor) and the victim who becomes a god. The famous labours are an example of his expiation of his crimes:
"Driven mad by Hera, Heracles slew his own children. To expiate the crime, Heracles was required to carry out ten labours set by his archenemy, Eurystheus, who had become king in Heracles' place. If he succeeded, he would be purified of his sin and, as myth says, he would become a god, and be granted immortality."
His death comes about as a means of his apotheosis; only his mortal part is burned away by the funeral pyre, leaving his immortal self to ascend to Olympus, marry Hebe, and be worshipped as a god or hero in future.
Persephone is herself one of the dying-and-returning vegetation goddesses, she is Spring who is carried off to the Underworld; her mother's anger and grief means that mortals suffer from famine; she returns to the upper world, but has to periodically return back to Hades as the vegetation withers in winter. And she is also associated with the other dying-and-returning vegetation god, Adonis:
"Aphrodite found the baby, and took him to the underworld to be fostered by Persephone. She returned for him once he was grown and discovered him to be strikingly handsome. However, Persephone too found Adonis to be exceedingly handsome and wanted to keep Adonis for she too fell in love with him; Zeus settled the dispute by decreeing that Adonis would spend one third of the year with Aphrodite, one third with Persephone, and one third with whomever he chose. Adonis chose Aphrodite, and they remained constantly together. Another version states that both goddesses got to keep him for half the year each at the suggestion of the Muse Calliope."
But yeah, this is one of those "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" situations.
(C) Jonah's case is slightly different; yes, the sailors were right to cast his overboard, but Jonah didn't die, he was saved by being swallowed by the great fish and then cast up on land later. Jonah is not a sacrificial victim, but rather has to learn both obedience to the will of God and mercy.
(D) "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."
The particular modern version calling itself (or called by its opponents) wokeness does like to claim legitmacy from the 60s Civil Rights struggle, but it's morphed into a hydra-headed beast of many aspirations, and there's an awful lot of whiteness involved in it. The African-American concept of "woke" is something different and goes back a lot further:
"The phrase stay woke has been present in AAVE since the 1930s. In some contexts, it referred to an awareness of social and political issues affecting African Americans.
...Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, used the phrase "stay woke" as part of a spoken afterword to a 1938 recording of his song "Scottsboro Boys", which tells the story of nine black teenagers and young men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In the recording, Lead Belly says he met with the defendant's lawyer and the young men themselves, and "I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there (Scottsboro) – best stay woke, keep their eyes open."
Original wokeness was "be careful, there's a good chance of getting lynched in this place here"; modern wokeness is "you micro aggressed me!"
(E) "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)."
I feel a Chesterton quote coming on. From "Orthodoxy":
"The phrases of the street are not only forcible but subtle: for a figure of speech can often get into a crack too small for a definition. Phrases like “put out” or “off colour” might have been coined by Mr. Henry James in an agony of verbal precision. And there is no more subtle truth than that of the everyday phrase about a man having “his heart in the right place.” It involves the idea of normal proportion; not only does a certain function exist, but it is rightly related to other functions. Indeed, the negation of this phrase would describe with peculiar accuracy the somewhat morbid mercy and perverse tenderness of the most representative moderns. If, for instance, I had to describe with fairness the character of Mr. Bernard Shaw, I could not express myself more exactly than by saying that he has a heroically large and generous heart; but not a heart in the right place. And this is so of the typical society of our time.
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race — because he is so human."
The cure is proportion, to be in the right place, and not to be isolated and magnified. All the virtues are needed, and need to work together.
(F) "The Son of God brought from Heaven to Earth a single Word of the ineffable Divine speech, and that word was “VICTIM”.
I thought the Word was Logos:
But hey, O Salutaris Hostia works too! 😀
Also, I did know that about the Paraclete! It is often also translated as "Comforter", but yes - defence attorney is the original meaning! 😁
There's a rational reason to lean (at least slightly) towards wokeness: Tolerating injustice sets a precedent, which lowers the threshold for further injustice, until nobody can rely on justice anymore. This way I argue myself into supporting people, who otherwise wouldn't mobilize my empathy.
My experience with very woke people is, they are divers. There's the scheming faker, who picked up the rules of the game and plays to exert power. There's the wayward rationalist, simply getting to emotional. There are lots of them believing honestly in the good of their cause.
Wokeness looks to me like the logical successor of the politically correct 1990s/2000s and whatever movements paved the way before. There's a slight chance it develops further into an application of realistical justice and a fair chance it get's eaten by history in a few decades. I hope for the 1st option.
Re mimetic desire as the basis of all, or almost all, desire: I'm open to this theory as a hypothesis on which to base research. But for acceptance, I'd want to see years of careful studies of living people. As is, I'm skeptical. The toy example and others I've seen (often the tired one about why suburbanites buy new cars) seem to me to follow the same pattern as "We have the story of Jesus. See? All myth is about single-victim sacrifice." One sees plenty of examples of kids playing happily side by side with different toys, and plenty of suburbanites who hate having to buy a new car and put it off as long as possible. And in the hands of Girard, I think the idea of mimetic desire comes with some clear baggage, including a not-small degree of misanthropy and hostility to desire as such. My memory is that somewhere G. suggests that mimetic desire is the, or a, curse of our fallen state, and I sense in him an implication that, in a before-the-fall state, it is not that we would we experience authentic desire, but no desire at all--except perhaps to obey the divine command. I wonder if in part he's thinking of Augustine's idea that, before the Fall, Adam and Eve had sex without pleasure or desire, simply as a rational response to God's command to be fruitful and multiply.
I appreciate how any grand theory of "wokeness" that goes beyond the bugaboos of the present moment stumbles upon the fact that it's just a term for moral progress.
I prefer Tom Holland’s explanation that leftism is what happened when a Christian cultural environment became unmoored from actual Christian theology in our secular age.
>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.
Well, clearly the solution is to find the leader of the Woke faith, and form a mob to kill them!
This will undoubtedly end the Woke plague!
I would draw it as Slave Morality (Judaism) -> Victim/Oppression Obsession (Judeo-Christianity, later Marxism for the nonbelievers) -> modern wokeness. The only problem with wokeness is it's just degenerate slave morality. Add in the vigor and vibrance of a slave morality that cares about all aspects of life and you get back to liberalism.
While we are talking the modern victim cult, here is something that occurred to me recently. Something which has no doubt been thought through in far more depth by bigger brains before: but as I am an engineering researcher, I'm not that well read in the humanities: so apart from general feedback, I'd be happy to get pointers to sources where this was already more nicely put.
The thing is, in addition to all other aspects of it that are nasty, I think that modern woke victim culture is fairly damaging *for its adherents and followers* (see also Scott's statements elsewhere in the comments about him being their psychiatrist). My theory is that being woke in the modern sense is intrinsically psychologically damaging, because it induces a mindset that actively stifles personal growth.
How so? Well, consider the core societal archetypes societies worked with before the woke virus struck. Who were inspirational stories about? Heroes. Prophets. Historical figures of great importance. Kings, generals. Later, in Christianity (at least the Orthodox and Catholic versions), saints.
Who do we have now? Victims.
And there is one crucial difference between the woke victim, and the archetypes of yore. The latter had agency. And generally, were human beings who had it more or less horrible in at least some ways, were faced with considerable difficulties, but grew with the challenge. And ultimately succeeded, in whatever way was deemed important. For a saint, that could mean being shot through with arrows or fed to the beasts - but he made it to heaven because of his personal growth that let him forgive his attackers, so all good (most heroes of yore instead settled for simply winning a war, and getting the girl - but as I said, there is considerable variety here). The red thread that runs through all these stories, as varied as they are, is that they give examples of people overcoming hardship, and personally growing in the process.
Contrast that to the woke victim. The only agency such a victim has is to exist, and to have suffered some sort of injustice - no personal growth is ever needed, or considered. Or even desired. Typically, the woke movement doesn't care at all about members of the chosen victim groups who actually tried to change their lot: slaves who successfully rebelled, or ghetto inmates who fought back. These are heroes of local cultures (e.g. in Israel), but overall of no importance to those who want to make the world feel guilty for existing.
Obviously, this focus on static victims is in no way a worldview on which one can reflect, nurture oneself by absorbing it, and personally grow.
To be fair, no one seems to ever have directly said that the victims of woke culture were to be used as examples: but crucially, there is almost nothing else that is really being talked about. There are no heroes in the woke world, only villains: and static victims. In such a bleak world, the soul shrivels almost by definition. And it does, as the overall tristesse of the woke crowd shows.
If you're thinking of reviewing Hanania's book on the grounds of wokeness being an outgrowth of Civil Rights law (rather than on the grounds that Hanania is also a Substacker, deeply obnoxious, and the two of you have some overlap in fan groups and possibly social circles), you might want to take a look at Christopher Caldwell's Age of Entitlement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Entitlement:_America_Since_the_Sixties) which presents the same thesis but has the advantage of not being written by Hanania. That said, Hanania's book probably has more recent content (Caldwell's released in early 2020 but I think the bulk of it stopped around 2015-2016) that may be of interest but would also be... polarizing.
Typo: "But it’ll do it in such an intellectual and polymathic Continental philosophy way that can’t even get mad."
Presumably should be "that I can't even get mad".
The topic looks like more fun than I deserve.
> Cancellers never kill anybody, just drive them off Twitter for a while...
Cancellers have caused people to commit suicide several times already, though admittedly this doesn't happen as often as in the case of physical mobs.
..."i saw Satan fall like lightning" was Jesus responding to his disciples coming back with joy at how they could perform exorcisms in His name. They had been sent out to preach to the cities under His authority, and part of that was having his ability to exorcise delegated. Jesus was just commenting on their success.
Trying to isolate a single verse from its context is called proof-texting and its very common with the Bible. Frustrating too.
if i understood right, i think mimetic desire is more basic. The natural end of man is to explode in mass violence. To prevent this, we have created a form of cartharsis through the creation of scapegoats. A scapegoat "bears the sins of the world" and enables people to throw their violence onto an object, ritually purging it for a time.
its a common motif of horror films. The Cabin in the Woods for example. There's an old anime called Kakurenbo that does it well. When the game is over, the city's lights go back on...for a while. Now YOU are it.
Jesus i think enables people to transcend this because of an eternal scapegoat. he both called it to attention and exists as an eternal unchanging victim to sacrifice desire on until it is taken away by eternity. Only a divine can bear it for all mankind for all time.
i think wokeness and anti-wokeness is just the return of the scapegoat in weaker forms. Christianity has mediated it for a long time, but without the whole message paganism
reasserts itself. Even with it it still exists, but we are kind of aware only jesus is a true scapegoat, others are not. So there is guilt.
the removal of this will end up in a world where we will see less and less people criticizing cancelling. we will just return to overflowing desire-scapegoating-catharsis as a cycle almost uncontrollable.
there is a second answer that Girard probably doesn't want to think of. Christianity will end scapegoating when Jesus comes back to draw the curtain on history. back to prooftexting-minetic desire is a philosopher looking at sin, and Christianity posits a future world where sin nature itself is destroyed.
the pagan alternative is judgement without heaven, the gods die. may also be a danger are fear to make people tremble, i guess.
The reviewer exposes a bias when they assume Girard is a "good Catholic". I got the feeling the reviewer found no value in this explanation of desire. One experiment with children, for example, found that if you have ten kids in one room with ten identical toys then, instead of each rationally taken one toy, they tend to hang-back until one toy is identified as desirable. I found Girard to be translational to Iroquois torture ceremonies, and Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in The Puppet of Desire, found explanations for the well-documented Loudun possessions. The popularity of short stories like The Harvest also depend on this idea of community and sacrifice. In any case, I think we can all agree that we have needs or requirements (e.g., air, water, food, and shelter), but the next step to needing others is tricky. Of course, the baby needs the adult, and astronauts need rocket scientists, but what do relationships mean in general and particular?
If I understand correctly, Girard seems to use the frequency of single-victim myths to argue that it arises from deep-seeded aspect of human pyschology. But many of the examples he uses are from Indo-European cultures. Comparative mythologists will tell you that these myths are common and similar because they have the same proto-Indo-European ancestor. So it's not lots of different cultures sharing a common mythological trope, but lots of related cultures remembering a shared ancestral mythological trope.
Admittedly, that doesn't explain why the same trope is (seemingly) common among Semitic cultures, but one of the things I've learned recently is that ancient people moved around a *lot* more than I naively used to think. So maybe this reflects cultural trade or some older shared cultural ancestor.
I really like Girard and I believe that his work is a big deal even though the rational conclusion from it is not what he believed and even thought he exaggerated a lot. He shows the social usefulness of religion, that means that religion is practiced because of its usefulness not because it is true. Christianity being a bit more true does not change this. But it is still a big deal - it is a religion that retains social usefulness but is closer to reality allowing for more rationality in mainstream discourse.
Thought i’d point out that the canonical gospels including Luke were written in a form of ancient Greek, not Hebrew.
Sometimes reality is simple and we just make it complicated because we can't face the truth.
The question of our era is, in a post-Christian world, how do you handle the idea of groups of humans not being equal to each other?
After the disaster of Nazi ideology (a post-Christian belief system), and with the threat of communism (another post-Christian belief system) on the rise, something had to be done.
But we had no moral framework that could handle the issue.
So, we punted.
How did we solve this moral conundrum? We simply lied.
We told everyone that race was just skin deep. Those behavior patterns people had noticed between genetically similar groups and the differences in IQ? All caused by social factors. 100%. Nothing genetic. In fact, it was actually impossible for it be genetic because of [whatever excuse is popular]. Lucky for us!
The philosophical issue of equality between groups goes away if you just tell everyone that all groups are equal! Problem solved.
This worked for a while - several decades in fact. The downsides were massive damage to American cities, trillions lost on social programs that didn't work and a racial demographic change that we couldn't stop (on account that it would be racist).
But eventually, the lie catches up to you. The public started to demand answers to why equality wasn't happening. And then - boom - the Great Awokening.
The question now is what do we do about it?
The second Word is INFINITE.
Scott sorry if my earlier remark sounded like I was taking a shot at you, I meant Girard but realize I was very unclear. I appreciate how you reviewed it.
Re the first step in Girard's process:
"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."
There are at least three possibilities:
1) Yeah, some of this is accurate as it stands
2) Some human desires, "hunger and thirst and venery" are rooted in biology and would exist even if there were no one nearby to copy
3) Copying can sometimes occur without conflict. A child picking up Toy #368 makes Toy #368's characteristics more salient to child #2. If there happen to be two copies of it, child #2 may pick up copy #2. Not all goods are rivalrous or in short supply. The adult version of this can be "adopting best practices" (or, if someone insists on a negative spin, "cultural appropriation").
I too am skeptical of the whole scapegoating thing. If this were a common occurence in the ancient world, why is it so hard to conceptualize how and why it all worked, and why arent' modern examples more prevalent?
My intuition here is that what Scott/Girard are describing as the single-victim-process is actually just a normal conflict resolution process that involves mythmaking between different factions.
So, to posit an example: take some powerful authority figure like a king or a high priest, and let's say a coalition forms in opposition to the king. Some of them have what they believe are legitimate grievances against the king and others just want to usurp his power. They kill the king and one of their number assumes power. Naturally, the king's loyal supporters and friends are outraged and demand justice. They will likely be pushing narratives about how the king was a swell guy and didn't deserve to be offed in order to rally people who were on the fence to their side. Meanwhile, the new ruling faction will be doing the opposite: they'll be demonizing the king to anyone who will listen. To solidify the new ruling faction's grip on power and avoid a counter-coup or civil war, they strike a deal with the old ruling faction, and maybe one concession they make is to the other side's narrative: actually, the dead king was a pretty swell dude. Or he sacrificed himself so that a new regime could be born peacefully and lead us to an exciting new future, and whatever other kind of crap might be necessary to placate the losers.
In other words, I suspect that if the phenomenon Girard is describing here is real, then what's actually going on is that people are constructing myths about some event after the fact to hide or avoid confronting that it was just another case of "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must."
People are getting very bogged down in arguments of definition over the word “woke” rather than focusing on the profound cultural shift that’s happened over the past couple decades, which is the pivot from descriptive postmodernism to authoritarian postmodernism. You see this in thinkers like Foucault being interesting in describing Hegelian master-slave dialectics in contrast to the contemporary turn to dismantling Hegelian master-slave dialectics. 1960’s era Critical Theory was descriptive postmodernism, whereas things like Critical Fat Studies / Critical Race Theory / Critical Gender Studies all fall into the authoritarian postmodern camp.
Foucault was interested in the way that power and knowledge feedback into each other. It took Foucault hundreds of pages to say what Yudowsky would summarize as “The map is not the territory.” Foucault argues that the map is produced by the people in power and explores the ways that language and institutions shape our maps. This is descriptive postmodernism.
The recent iterations of Critical X Theory agree that the map is not the territory, but the map produced by the people in academia is the morally correct map, and asking about facts (the territory) is a weapon of the cishet-white-supremacist patriarchy (the masters), and if you don’t follow the morally correct map, then you aren’t factually false, you’re morally evil. It becomes a moral duty to replace the map produced by the people in power with the map produced by liberal arts professors/activists, and questioning this new map is “perpetrating harm.” This is authoritarian postmodernism. You can call that cultural turn “woke” if you want.
A couple quotes from the review that stood out to me:
> If you’re concerned about the influence of wokeness on society, you should be more interested in things like…anti-free-speech policies, journals refusing to publish politically incorrect scientific results, or colleges forcing students to take diversity classes
Agreed. Descriptive postmodernism is an exploration of the ways that subtle things like language shape our maps. Authoritarian postmodernism is saying, “You will use the the language I want you to use or I’m going to punish you.”
> 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.
Yes, we aren’t just describing these systems as a scientist would, but exploiting them as an engineer would. This is the transition from a theoretical description of social systems to an authoritarian version of postmodernism that applies these observations.
I want to separate my claim from another claim that is often made about wokeness: that it is nothing but a bid for power. I think this claim is orthogonal from what I am saying here about the authoritarian nature of it. It’s possible you could be woke and be genuinely concerned about the things you’re saying, or you could also be doing it as a bid for power. Surely there are some people in the social justice movement who are genuinely trying to make the world better and surely there are grifters just like in every movement. There have been a lot of altruistic, goodhearted people in the history of the world who thought authoritarianism would make things better. If you genuinely believed that anyone who holds different beliefs than you was causing harm you might get feisty too.
I am dubious about engaging the issue of woke-ness from such lofty heights.
A great elucidation of cancel culture comes from Lukianoff and Schlott (The cancelling of the American Mind). It is the product of decades of ground level observations, and makes it abundantly clear that mob violence in many forms underly the changes that you state have gone through “normal liberal procedures” . To actually work, these depend on the type of free debate that cancel culture is so successful at undermining. If you don’t agree with the term mob violence, I encourage you to explore the examples they give and come up with a better term.
They also point to factors that go beyond the dynamic of the mob to additional contributing psycho-social factors, some of which are new.
Of course ideology also enters the picture, and you could get to myth from there, but here I would say that caring for victims is not the central issue, it is what constitutes victimhood that has been redefined.
To the idea of the sacrificed body I add the Indian notion of the universe as a sacrifice - maybe the highest manifestation of these types of myths.
That very ending caption, "These are among the many questions of mine that ISSFLL fails to answer"... that reminded me of the whole "mystery as the point" thing. Almost too big for a trope, like a meta-trope (yeah yeah INB4...)
The narrow version is when Yudkowsky noticed people "worshipping their own ignorance", and the broader version is... ahh I don't have a really-coherent paragraph here (yet?), but y'know how some of the best Art is like "in touch with the great mystery" or "the Universe" or "the void" or whatever? That, that thing. I hereby point at that and say "perhaps related?" without answering that question (yeah yeah INB4...)
A final note:
>no results in article
IIRC "Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World" is supposed to be a more in-depth work by Girard on this topic? Haven't really read it, but maybe it answers (or semi-answers) the lingering questions.
Scott: do you see the central myth as similar to the story from Freud’s Totem and Taboo? Focusing on killing the scapegoat rather the father.
Girard's theories fundamentally don't make sense. Weaker versions of mimetic theory do, but are better spelled out by cultural evolutionists (Heyes, Henrich, etc). I'm not sure if the scapegoat mechanism makes sense at all.
However, Girard's readings of literature and myth are often very interesting. At his best, he makes the dynamics of mimetic rivalry and the human propensity to imitate more salient. I think that's useful and have put it to use in the Shakespeare debate and reflections on Covid:
Great review! Extra virtue points for not strawmanning wokeness. I think you you've highlighted most of the issues with author's reasoning very well.
However, there is one that you didn't mention. How does the initial transition from mimetic desire to victimization even supposed to work?
Sure, people do tend to want stuff other people want. Does this lead to constant war of all vs all? Unless you are very generous with your definition of "war", so that it included any kind of competition between individuals - not really. But also, why would victimization help alleviate the mimetic desire? Okay, we've expelled a person. How is it supposed to prevent me from wanting stuff that my neighbour has?
And society isn't build as a result of the lack of mimetic desire. Even if we accept
the whole "status framing" - it's the opposite. Our civilization is founded on these silly status games. It exploits and perpetrate the desire of things other people agree are worth desiring. And yes some people can feel status boost through lowering status of others or just bullying the people with lowest status, but it's part of the vicious cycle, not an escape from it.
I feel like you were gesturing at this, Scott, with your comment about the blood of Christian children. There is an oft-repeated pattern in history that Jewish people end up the scapegoats for whenever the social fabric falls into disrepair.
This seems very relevant to the current conflict and protests throughout the world. For me at least this has been the final proof that woke-ism is morally bankrupt. If you wouldn't say "n****r" when referring to a Black person, or "f****t" when referring to a gay person, how is it OK to chant "from the river to the sea," when many Jewish people have explicitly said that they interpret this as a call for genocide? Instead, the woke mob mansplain that it means something else. That's not even relevant! Who cares if "f****t" literally means "a bundle of sticks?" The important thing is how it's interpreted by the Jewish community, you a**holes.
Anyway, what's happening now strikes me as another episode in the long running trope "Jews are to blame for all the world's problems, let's kill a few thousand or million of them, then we'll feel bad about it later" except now the Jews have nuclear weapons and the anger and tension have nowhere to go. Like you, I really don't know how this gets resolved, and feel apprehensive about the future of world peace. I think also there's a strong chance Trump gets re-elected in 2024.
"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."
I believe that one could make a credible case that we currently live in the most heightened time of mimetic tension in the history of mankind. At no point in history prior to the current moment were people actually able to tap into a 24/7 feed of what everyone they know and everyone they hear about on the media (also not a concept for most of human history!) is saying, doing and thinking.
The ability to tap into such a stream of information seems to me like something that would inordinately heighten how much we end up desiring things simply because "everyone else" seems to be desiring it. Or how we'd want to *be* like someone just because everyone else seems to want to be like them. "Influencer" has been the top most-desired profession for a while now, if I recall correctly.
I guess in this group of die-hard atheists, I have to be the one to state the obvious: Girard (the sincerely believing Catholic Christian) in fact *does* have a solution: repent and acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and Savior. The fact that rationalists find this so preposterous is just additional evidence for how uniquely bizarre Christianity is. Worse, it only works if everyone in society believes or pretends to believe. Wokeness is, indeed, what happens when concern for victims is separated from all the other Christian embroidery of humility, prayers, cathedrals and Popes. Girard's solution is for us to go back to believing the rest of the Christian story, which until the last hundred years most Westerners accepted as the background cost of ensuring civilization doesn't collapse.
I haven't read Girard, but I like this idea. ~Everyday at work there's some problem, and after identifying the problem someone will often suggest a scapegoat. "Wayne must have taken it." (Even though we all know this is probably not the person to blame.) We have now 'assigned blame' and can get on with solving the problem. This is important because what we need to do is solve the problem. But as humans we somehow want to assign blame after identifying a problem. And using a known scapegoat let's us move past this step and get on with problem solving. Scapegoating is a time saver, we (mostly jokingly) agree on who's to blame and move on. (Why humans want to assign blame is perhaps a deep question.) The other type of problem at work is where person X comes up and says, "I broke this doing this." and you can get right into problem solving.
Oh, I really enjoyed the post too!
I figured it out when I saw this headline: “Ukraine says it has evidence of 109,000 Russian war crimes”.
You can say that *war* is a crime. But saying there are 100000 crimes is bureaucratic nonsense, done by a political movement that feels you win, not by winning, but by complaining.
This isn’t master morality v. slave morality. This is *Loser* morality. Good things and success are bad, and incompetence is good. There is no need for an oppressor; one’s personal incompetence and malfeasance is sufficient to gain the moral high ground.
So we have Israel and Hamas at war, but competing, not to kill each other, but to present an image of meekness and victimization to the world. We have a society where wealth is prima facie evidence of moral guilt.
Is it any wonder the world is insane, and on fire?
If you want a principled explanation of why Christianity (in some form) got this right and woke gets it wrong, read https://drafts.interfluidity.com/2023/11/13/pluralism-or-magnanimity/index.html?ref=thediff.co
If you are looking for some more *ahem* intellectualy rigorous analysis of the Christianity --> modern morality topic, the historian Tom Holland has written a great and thoroughly readable book - Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_(Tom_Holland_book)
In prehistoric times mimetic imitation must have often taken the grizzly form of literally wanting a piece of an esteemed person, in the hope and belief of acquiring some of their good qualities, like a sort of souvenir. Even in relatively recent times one only has to think of saints' relics, which included body parts such as bones and vials of blood.
The class of scapegoat myths overlaps with and segues into those of challenges or ordeals, from which the hero emerges triumphant. Christ in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, which he successfully resisted, Christ on the cross and dead for three days thereafter before ascending to Heaven, Odin hanged on the tree Yggdrasil for nine days, until at last he sees and understands the runes below the murky water, etc
> 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.
The trials of Job is a good example of your point, quoted above (as best I can with this utterly crap and almost non-existent substack formatting facility!).
Job's material prosperity also provides a hint of envy, which is first cousin to mimetic imitation!
Satan is chatting with God and the topic of Job arises:
And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?
Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.
But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord. ..
The parable of the rat
According to podcast science (so it may be false, but this is a fairy tale anyway), if you give an unavoidable random stressor to a rat, it will develop heart disease. Given another rat to bite, however, it will not. This is what Girard perhaps didn't fully understand. There is a _nonconservative current_ of pain that flows into us like entropy from our environment. We must have a place to put that pain, but we cannot reverse the irreversible. The destruction, therefore, is either directed inward or outward. There is no alternative. What appear to be alternatives are merely various strategies to turn that entropy on ourselves or on others, or, perhaps some lucky few, at best, find hiding places in dark, cool environments to avoid it somewhat. But the fundamental law remains. And some rage entirely against the tyranny of pain, thereby embracing it, becoming organic matter burning itself alive because a fiery escape has its own appeal.
Or we could work together to stop the sources of that pain coming into us _and_ others around us; after all if we just reflect our crap onto others, eventually, they'll bite back. I was raised Catholic, and the sensible stuff in the Bible always sounded like various ways of Jesus telling us, "Hey, if you want Heaven, here's how you get it: help each other, work real hard at it; trust me, eventually, things will get better." We're doing OK at it, honestly, and I credit a lot of that to technological advancement. Still, politics, humanities, arts, economics, these are all evolving fields and I hope there are still ways to develop them all in tandem to advance humanist / "non-ecstatic" Christian values.
End of parable!!!
Here's a theory of the roots of wokeness: It's hard to be religious these days, because science provides such convincing alternatives to god-based explanations of how the universe works and how people work. And technology is becoming more and more able to do things we used to believe only people could do. But there's a need to be religious, so people seized on on a secular belief that was sort of like religion -- liberalism -- and pumped it up like a Macy's Parade float until it was huge and godlike. It now furnishes believers with a way to be seen as good and a guide to how to live, and has the delicious bonus feature of allowing people to hate and destroy outsiders, via cancellation, without felling as though they are being cruel.
For the first time I received a substack refusal to post my comment with a red lettered demand to "please type a shorter comment".
I attempted to do so but still failed to meet the blog's criteria so instead I added an intro and outro and shared the comment on my own page.
I'm sure this will result in fewer readers but I've done my best and can't do any better.
Scott, I hope and ask that you at least read it. It's my attempt at an actual solution to pseudo-moralistic victimology run amok.
In a word it is a call for public conversations about all of the truths we dare not speak.
My comment was too long for the algorithm so I had to post it on my own page but I guess it makes sense to post the first half so that readers can make an educated opinion about whether to read the rest of it.
Here's to hoping that the first half of the response is within the allotted character limit.
"Someone with access to Heaven is going to have to give us a second divine Word."
I make no claim to being that person.
In fact I deny that such an individual is necessary.
The Torah (which I care enough about to have studied for sufficient decades to become an orthodox rabbi) says that God's Instruction is not in the heaven or across the sea but incredibly close to us - in our very mouths and hearts.
All that I am saying is what everybody already knows.
The Torah - and all righteous laws - demand that an individual who engages in some new form of socially dangerous activity be dealt with lest he infect others with "mimetic desires" who then go about doing likewise and in so doing, harm themselves and others.
Lacking human-instituted consequences The Torah isn't any kind of law at all but just a set of suggestions.
When a single individual was found working on the Sabbath gathering sticks, nobody, including Moses had any idea what to do about it.
From Moses' perspective the whole thing was ridiculous. The weekend break from economic activity is *obviously* a good idea. And besides, hadn't he already shared God's Instruction not to covet your neighbor's life? Why would anyone violate the Sabbath just because this single moron did so? The Sabbath is *awesome*!
To you and I the social danger is obvious.
If this fellow were allowed to go on violating The Sacred Sabbath Rest then he would get richer, others *would* covet, and within a year "poof!" there goes the very concept of the weekend as all of mankind is once again reduced to inhumane, thoughtless slavery - just rats on a hamster wheel.
But Moses and Aaron were baffled. They had only recently delivered God’s Law and were at a loss about how to proceed when some fellow had idiotically violated it.
There's a paragraph break in Torah Scrolls at this point, likely intending to indicate the passage of time as Moses, Aaron and the congregation at large debate how to deal with The First Criminal.
After the break God arrives and tells Moses what to do.
Take him outside the camp and have the entire congregation stone him to death.
Fast Forward 1,530 years.
Yehoshua of Natzeret (henceforth "Jesus") is making waves.
He's a simple fellow, of no great learning or parentage, certainly not any sort of god, and almost definitely a bastard.... continued here
agreed, it doesn't add much, but it does add a something. In the same way, anecdotal evidence is still evidence. Similar studies, somewhat tangent to Girardian ideas, are in the field of terror management theory. These investigators were able to test Becker's ideas, but, as you say, studies like this are difficult. I don't think that detracts from the ideas, and at least doesn't falsify them.
Seems silly to me to think of mimetic tension as the main force interfering with social bonds between people and social cohesion generally. Think about all the neighbors you have had, and all the neighbors your friends have had and talked about, and mentally list all the qualities neighbors can have that make you distrust or dislike them: The can be inconsiderate -- they play loud music late at night. They can be harsh and critical of you, complaining vociferously about small things you do. They can seem dangerous -- you can get glimpses of how they think and live that make you afraid they will rob you or attack you. They can be filthy and disgusting. They can be attractive and charming and flirtatious with your spouse, so that you fear you will lose your spouse to them. They can be needy and demanding, asking you frequently for little favors. They can be nosy. And, yes they can own such great stuff that you are chronically pained by jealousy. But the last reason seems to me both less common and less severe than other ways neighbors can make you unhappy, angry or worried.
I can't see an ounce of justification for pointing to jealousy as the main force that interferes with social bonds and makes people chronically angry and unhappy -- exact that there's a fancy, stylish phrase for jealousy: "mimetic tension." Maybe we just need some more stylish terms for all the other shit neighbors can do to spoil your day.
-filthy and disgusting neighbors -- Coprophilic Disaffiliation.
-needy and demanding: Philanthropic Pressor Stress
-seem like they might rob you or attack you: Thanatonic Encroachment Anxiety
"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?"
All the things you mentioned did not get enacted slowly through normal liberal procedures, they are almost entirely the result of judicial decisions that create incentives for organizations to enact those policies outside of the normal "get democratic validation for this policy" procedure.
I just read Christopher Caldwell's The Age of Entitlement, and he makes a really compelling argument that the reason the issues you mentioned are so controversial and central to current controversies because they were never legislated or voted on.
>Okay, But This Is All Crazy, Right?
Yeah, I think mostly crazy.
I had the strange thought that mimetic desire is a lot like the prediction market trope . Or sticking with the guy throwing hot dice in a craps game (until he doesn’t.)
If someone else shows an interest in some thing, is it not natural to think that maybe it’s something you missed? It has resonance in practical terms. We learn by imitation; no one squawks about that. I think, referring to this as desire obfuscates more than clarifies. Humans are very uncomfortable with their own discomfort so projection of one’s discomfort onto an external cause is clearly a thing.
If one were to drag Shakespeare into this, the line that comes to my mind is, “the fault ,dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings“
I also couldn’t help thinking of an old prayer/ditty :
“God bless the squire and his relations,
And keep us in our proper stations.”
An accepted hierarchy can be very good for social cohesion.
Memetic tension is too big a thing (like gravity) to attribute to a single voice like Girard's. Accordingly, breaking or easing such tension can follow many trajectories -- not just the conservative gender norms, caste systems, etc. I can think of all sorts of ways the current "single rewards system" you point to could be turned on its head overnight, quite possibly toward greater individuality than ever before.
I’m not Girardian and not really a Christian either but I’m curious, Maybe some of his earlier books make his theory a bit clearer but it is not easy to handle. I find it’s a pity he got so much faith, he would have been possibly considered differently if he wasn’t so Christian, especially in France where the intelligentsia is really anti-christian.
I think I would divide what happens inside a western historically Christian society and the relation with the outside world even if is the same mechanism.
For the case on wokeness and racism. In our society, wokeness defends the victims, ok but racists do not perceive themselves as bullies or a sacrificial mob. They perceive themselves as victims as well. Racists will have arguments such as the invasion of foreigners taking their jobs, etc. So racists make foreigners a scapegoat and act by resentment. Wokeness makes racism a scapegoat and act by resentment. All in a victimization mimetic dynamic.
All sides are taken in loop of “undifferentiation” as Girard’s name it. That’s your stage 2. The war on all against all fuelled by resentment. The crisis can only be resolve by the sacrifice of a scapegoat if we keep in our ancestral violent ways. But our society tends to be less violent because, according to Girard, the infusion of Christ message of non-violence. So we stay stuck in that stage.
On the scapegoat mechanism, I would add our western society does not achieve a crisis resolution using sacrifice because it tends to move from verticality (god, king, country, family, etc.) toward more horizontality (democracy, state, justice, equality, openness, genders, etc.) In verticality, there is always someone higher or outside the community we could name as a scapegoat. In horizontality, nobody is really from the outside, people can be on the fringe or richer but that's possibly marginal compared to previous times. For instance, everyone in a state has access, in theory, to the same justice system preventing individuals to get immediate revenge, etc. So it become really hard to designate a true functioning scapegoat, and that’s not for lack of trying but still the crisis stays unresolved so the violence is deemed to escalade, that’s why Girard in his late work speaks about apocalypse.
The relative inside peace was and still is maintained by persistence in designating enemies/scapegoats on the outskirts of our society, for instance Russians, Muslims, China etc. and they are doing the same on their side. Outside, we make real wars in the name of victims making in our turn thousands of victims. Inside of historically christian society, we use a less powerful violence, a diffused violence, we make victims but the sacrifice is not as strong.
How I understand Girard’s view, there is only two solutions. To truly, faithfully I should say, embrace the victim defence and non-violent way of Christ, so conversion. Or the violence will escalade to extremes, the apocalypse. In his last book in French, he uses Clausewitz theory on war to argument that point. As the means to unchain violence globally have never been so destructive and as the inside divisions keeps getting stronger, if we persist in believing the antichrist disguised in Christ victim’s clothes, we are doomed for apocalypse.
That’s how I understand it.
> if everybody wants the same thing, and is trying to get the same thing, this builds up tension. https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/book-review-i-saw-satan-fall-like/comment/43878793
For a capitalistic set of societies where trade is a fundamental fact of life - trade can only happen when there are differentiated needs and wants, and ideally specialization. I'll trade you my apples (which I have lots of and I'm good at growing efficiently) for your oranges (which you have lots of, etc...). If everyone is equally capable of making all things, and is equally looking to obtain exactly the same things, then trade can't happen and we're looking at zero-sum, war or other conflict.
It is insane to compare christianity to wokeism. Christ does not intercede for the victim, but for man. It is the supreme egualitarian regime, and its courtroom is conscience. Individual conscience. All responsability lies with the individual and its soul; not the other. Wokeism, being founded in materialistic marxism, is its opposite: Collective conscience, and all responsability lies with the collective and its power. That is why identitarism is ravaging: it relieves all 'guilty' from the individual and places it on the collective. This is satan: the biological status seeking machine that trumps conscience and rationalizes (the brightest light) all trought relativism. Woke (marxism) is the opposite of Awake (christianity). N1. The Gospel of Luke is written in greek, not hebrew. N2 Satan is 'the divider', not the accuser. The greek root indicates Satyro (half man, half beast) and the diabolo (di = 2, to shoot trought, to divide, as in dialogue (two persons exchange the logos (di.a.logos - wich is the root in greek and latin)). As you see, wokeism 'divides' by 'identity' (what is most false about humans) and christianity 'unites' by inviduality (soul), what is most true about humans.
> come on, the blood of Christian children isn’t even kosher
I was about to say, Christianity has this historical blind spot where slave morality or no, when there's a plague or something else bad on, a common response is to gather a mob and go against the local Jews. Some say it's been getting more intense again since October. As far as I can tell, this has never really solved a problem, unlike in the Oedipus case.
I just so happened to come across another reference to this quote today, in of all things a clip from the Street Fighter movie:
"You still refuse to accept my godhood? Keep your own God! In fact, this might be a good time to pray to him! For I beheld Satan as he fell from Heaven! Like lightning!"
And because of the delivery, I think this quote is spoiled for me forever. :-)
Paraclete isn't ancient Greek for "Holy Spirit". That would be "pneuma to hagion", or other inflections. Literally "wind the holy" (the holy air/wind/breath). This is an absolutely crucial theologically distinction, since the only verses in the New Testament (AFAIK) which imply that the Holy Spirit is a person, other than later insertions, are those which call the paraclete a holy spirit. A paraclete would normally be a person. So whether you accept the Trinity and live, or deny it and are burnt alive, depends on whether you think "the paraclete the air the holy" means the paraclete is a manifestation or recipient of the holy spirit, or "is" the holy spirit.
IMHO the holy spirit is not a person, but in-spiration from God (literally, the holy breath), because that's the only similar concept found in the Old Testament. So I'd get burnt alive.
> All those things get enacted slowly through normal liberal procedures, the opposite of mob violence.
I think both of Scott's biblical examples of the "single-victim process" don't quite fit upon closer examination.
Note that after the sailors draw lots and identify Jonah as the problem they don't rush to kill him rather they first ask him ask "...what is your business? Where have you come from? What is your country, and of what people are you?” (1:8). After the sailors learn Jonah is feeling from G-d's service they again consult him: “What must we do to you to make the sea calm around us?” (1:11). Jonah tells them this is all his fault and they have to throw him overboard. The sailors do not want to do this and indeed their first response is to try and make it back to land: "Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to regain the shore, but they could not, for the sea was growing more and more stormy about them" (1:13). When the sailors do finally throw Jonah overboard (as he requested) they first cry out to G-d: "...Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O ETERNAL One, by Your will, have brought this about" (1:14). Of course Jonah then famously does not die. Instead he is released into G-d's custody by way of being swallowed by a large fish. Not only is this not sacrifice but it isn't exile, as Jonah was merely a passenger on a ship filled with presumably pagan strangers. But the more important point is that the mob is totally absent from this story! There is no turning of ire on to Jonah or release of social tension after Jonah is cast into the sea. The sailors are super reluctant. They don't want to kill Jonah and it's Jonah's idea to throw him overboard. The sailors actively see themselves as committing murder and G-d as forcing their hand. If you look through your six step breakdown of the "single-victim process" you'll see very few similarities between any details of the six steps and any details of the Jonah story.
As for Numbers 25, this example is a bit better because there is social tension and it does seem to go away with someone's death. The first important thing to note about this story is that there isn't one sinner but a whole plethora of them, as it says "...the menfolk profaned themselves..." (25:1) and "...Israel attached itself to Baal-peor" (25:3). This pisses G-d off so he tells Moses to gather the heads of the nations and go kill these people publicly. Moses gets some officers together and as he's giving instructions, one of the heads of the nation, the chief of the tribe of Simeon (25:14), grabs a Midianite women and goes to start sinning in front of everyone. This makes everyone start to cry in front of the "Tent of Meeting" except Phinehas who promptly follows the sinner and kills him; "then the plague against the Israelites was checked" (25:8). Is the death of this particular sinner solely responsible for the end of the plague? I think that would be a sloppy reading and much more likely it represents a turning point in the story where the Israelites are emboldened to start killing the sinners among them. The point is, that we know in this case what's causing the plague (lots of people sinning), and G-d gives clear instructions how to proceed (kill the sinners), so it stands to reason that the plague is ended by following G-d's instructions not by the first symbolic action of following G-d's instructions. Further, I would argue that there is once again no mob in this story. G-d gives instructions to kill some people, Moses begins assembling the relevant officers and then we hear about one guy, Phineas, taking action into his own hands (despite the inaction of the masses).
I think much of Scott's broader point about projecting the single-victim process into all pagan myths and denying it's existence in the bible may well be true but I do not think his biblical examples are necessarily the best ones. I should add I have not been able to think of any better biblical examples but would be interested to hear if others have.
*All quoted translations courtesy of Sefaria
Thank you for the overview.
The book seems like the 2nd blind wise man describing his part of the elephant to the other two.
My view on woke is far closer to Turchin's "popular immiseration" and "elite overproduction" - particularly the latter. In an era of ever greater concentration of power and wealth in the West, resulting in ever greater diminution of the middle class, there ways are found by which those desiring a position in said shrinking elite can achieve this status - outside of norms.
Cancel culture is perfect for this: taking down of incumbent elites even as it raises the profile of a few "influencers".
Ditto woke overall: where before success was a function of hard work or birth wealth or location etc - now it can be because corporate boards and industry executive populations lack <insert minority here>. If you aren't one of the accepted existing minorities - create yourself one!
Girard is correct about saying that mob mentality is the worst thing ever and society needs a course correction.
The solution is to simply have the solitary individual gun down the angry lynch mob. When NPCs are PUNISHED for behaving like animals, they will quickly learn to stop doing it.