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René Girard, mimetic desire, and society's biggest rat race

The French polymath had an original perspective on why we want what we want, and thus what really moves the world.

Every parent knows it. In a room full of toys, two children will inevitably gravitate towards the same one. René Girard’s suggestion is just that we never really grow up.

Before the French polymath rose to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century, psychologists and philosophers tended to think that our desires came from within us; our own personal preferences. Over half a century and more, Girard helped the world realise how much of our desires were influenced by other people. In fact, Girard argued that this is all that matters: humans are imitation machines, he said; our desires are mimetic.

Girard traced this concept, in which human desires are directly or indirectly determined by those we respect or admire, to most of the problems in the modern world. Violence, materialism, and social decline all fall under his scope; “the apocalypse has begun,” he suggested in 2010.

Specifically, it began during the Enlightenment. Humankind has always had mimetic desires, but by elevating individuality over community and rationality over tradition, the Enlightenment exacerbated its worst effects.

Girard characterises the pre-Enlightenment era as a hierarchical landscape in which everyone knew their place. God was at the top; society formed a staidly arranged hierarchy beneath. It is this hierarchy that prevents society from tearing itself apart, because it creates “distance” between those different classes.1 The lack of interaction between them in pre-Enlightenment society mutes the intensity of a mimetic desire which Girard fears would result in societal violence when unfulfilled.

Pre-Enlightenment societies could be described as perfectly designed to make the most of a severe level of inequality, in which most of society’s resources were concentrated amongst a small number of very rich men. Paying little attention to those who don’t fall in that category, Girard argues that this concentration of resources and security of status allowed those men to develop an “authentic” individualism and a “passionate love of independence”. In turn, this mitigated their desire to covet the objects owned by their fellow elites, who they were less desperate to imitate. As democratic ideals and Enlightenment ideas came to the fore, however:

“Public opinion may stifle individualism, but it will promote an efficient and honest government. Exceptional men [and women] will be fewer, but the general level of education will go up. The pressures for conformity will be almost irresistible, but the material lot of the average man will improve tremendously. Individuals will be restless, but this restlessness can be channelled into peaceful types of competition [like commerce].”

Definitive of this new period was “the Enlightenment concept of the individual”. Ideas of rationalism, particularly the idea every person was equal, gained prominence. As a result, the divisions between people got a lot smaller: “In the past (divisions) separated the worshipper from the worshipped, now they just separate individuals from each other.” No longer were those with higher status protected (and justified) by tradition or hierarchy.

Girard is fundamentally concerned by what this means for our desires. Truly authentic individualism, he argues, “could not survive in the world of public opinion”. Given the mindset of equality, privilege became less justifiable, and people increasingly felt like they should have what other people had. More importantly, desire was redirected from distant objects, such as elites, myths, or gods, to their neighbours. Robert Doran, who edited the collection of Girard essays I’ve been reading, summarises:

“The more the individual frees himself from the formal expressions of authority (tradition, religion), the more his imitation is turned towards his neighbour … multiplying the interactions and increasing the intensity.”

As a result of equality between humankind, people became closer to their ‘idols’, desired them more, and chased them more. In addition, it breeds constant comparison between people who each feel that the other has no right to be more prosperous than they are. That fosters a connection between equality and jealousy that has been well explored, first by de Tocqueville, who may well have written Girard’s own analysis:

“The modern man is always claiming a self-sufficiency which he is unable to achieve. He constantly compares himself with other people and, afraid that they might be superior, he secretly copies their manners and borrows their desires.”

An individual’s world becomes split between the ‘self’, which does the desiring, and the ‘other’, which is desired. Girard suggests that this concept permeates not just through society and how its members relate to each other, but how its members relate to themselves, recursively establishing conflict between what the self is and what it wants to be, steadfast in its refusal to be content with what it is. “Individualism is divided against itself,” he writes. “We are always coming back to that truth.”

Our modern society, Girard diagnoses, is essentially a rat race, with everyone chasing the same things. This essentially makes individualism an early example of Goodhart’s Law: ‘when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ In pursuing individualism, Girard believes society achieved only a hollow imitation.

Ultimately, Girard fears that (Western) society reduces its members from contributors to participants, “turned into voyeurs”. When our desires are determined by other people, we become extensions of those others. The “mass” individualism of the modern world, he warns, is in “bad faith”:

“The contemporary man should not find it difficult to play a role in which modern life is casting him. Glued to his movie or television screen, fed his daily dose of scandals, always watching and never acting, he has become a Peeping Tom.”

It is ironic, then, that the pre-Enlightenment (a period of inequality in resources and relative equality in ‘independence’) gave way to a period of both greater equality in resources but far greater inequality in ambition. Whilst many in society become “voyeurs”, others embody the opposite.

Writing pre-Enlightenment, William Shakespeare’s plays are full of characters — Macbeth, Richard III, and Claudius in Hamlet — whose earthly ambition comes at the cost of spiritual decline. But the Enlightenment undermined the importance of Christian religion. “God is dead,” wrote Nietzsche in 1882, “and we have killed him.” No longer constrained by respect for a god’s domain, Girard writes that Western society embarked upon a “Promethean project” to become a god itself; ambition became valued. In this project, “objects are desired for the very reason that they are an obstacle that cannot be overcome.” There is no limit to society’s ambition; in his view, progress becomes an eternal race that is “doomed from the start”.

At first glance, Girard’s alternative appears to be returning to an inaccessible past. Reading his work, you get more than a strong sense that he would prefer a return to a world before that Enlightenment concept of the individual, which he casts as a world of authentic independence rather than a hollow imitation. Beyond his apparent nonchalance on how, since then, “the material lot of the average man [has] improve[d] tremendously”, it is a mistake to suppose that there was one moment before everything flipped, which you could return to. A great student of 19th century literature and philosophy, Girard seems to place that moment towards the end of the early modern period. But in reality, that century was just the next step in a process which began with Descartes’ cogito ergo sum [1637], and in all likelihood much earlier.

More broadly, Girard recommends that “our quest should shift from the outer world to the inner world.” One of his ideas revolves around beauty, which he writes was “so often an enemy” in the 19th and 20th centuries. In learning to value beauty for its own objective value, rather than comparing ourselves to others (which is “a comparison that cannot be assuaged”), Girard suggests that we can free ourselves them “centrifugal desire”, find inner peace, and learn to love each other.

Girard’s mention of beauty reminds me of the British philosopher G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica argued that beauty has an intrinsic goodness — that it was inherently virtuous. This virtue ethics is a distinct ethical code to the utilitarianism which has dominated the West since the Enlightenment: virtue ethics is objective, whereas utilitarianism is relative. In virtue ethics, an action is good or bad in virtue of itself, whereas utilitarian ethics is only relevant through comparisons, which breeds jealousy. Virtue ethics is about the internal world; utilitarianism is about the external world.

Girard’s philosophy is emphatically Western and Christian, as are the phenomena he observes, and is limited in a historical focus that ignores much of the material impoverishment of the Enlightenment period. Besides those simplifications, however, lie important nuances. At one moment critical of the “Promethean project” to overcome impossible obstacles, Girard also bemoans a society full of those “always watching and never acting”. What unites the paradox is the criticism that both targets are driven by desires which are not their own. It is only by shaping your own story from within yourself that you can truly be free.

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