Authors: René Girard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French philosopher and critic

Identity: Christian

Author Works


Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, 1961 (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, 1965)

Dostoevsky: Du double à l’unité, 1963 (Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, 1997)

La Violence et le sacré, 1972 (Violence and the Sacred, 1977)

Critique dans un souterrain, 1976

“To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology, 1978

Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, 1978 (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of theWorld, 1987)

Le Bouc émissaire, 1982 (The Scapegoat, 1986)

La Route antique des hommes pervers, 1985 (Job, the Victim of His People, 1987)

Shakespeare: Les Feux de l’envie, 1990 (A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, 1991)

Quand ces choses commenceront–: Entretiens avec Michel Treguer, 1994

The Girard Reader, 1996 (James G. Williams, editor)

Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair, 1999 (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 2001)

Celui par qui le scandale arrive, 2001

Edited Texts:

Proust: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962

Alphonse Juilland: D’une passion à l’autre, 1987 (with Brigitte Cazelles)


René Noël Girard (zhee-rahr) was born to Joseph and Thérèse (Fabre) Girard. After receiving a degree from the University of Paris in 1947, Girard attended Indiana University, which awarded him a Ph.D. in 1950. He taught French at Indiana University, Duke University, and Bryn Mawr College before beginning his influential first tenure at The Johns Hopkins University. Girard’s time at Johns Hopkins culminated with the famous structuralism conference in 1968, which changed forever the shape of critical theory in the United States. From 1971 to 1976 he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, then returned to Johns Hopkins, and finally settled at Stanford University, where he became the first Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French language, literature, and civilization at Stanford University in the Department of French and Italian. At Stanford, Girard convened the remarkable Disorder to Order Conference in 1981, which brought an international group of physicists, biologists, economists, and a 1960’s-style mix of human and social scientists to consider competing models of biological, physical, and human order. He retired in 1995.{$I[AN]9810001192}{$I[A]Girard, René}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Girard, René}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Girard, René}{$I[geo]CHRISTIAN;Girard, René}{$I[tim]1923;Girard, René}

Girard has always written against the intellectual grain of Anglo-French letters, even in the 1950’s. His earliest work was a series of critical and skeptical reviews of the icons of French intellectual life: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, scandalously argues for the superior knowledge of social behavior contained in the work of Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevski, and the nineteenth century French novelists of manners. These specialists of jealousy, resentment, and baffled desire presented a novelistic truth that argued for literature (and literary criticism) as one of the human sciences. This book is perhaps the earliest confrontation with what was to become the dominant intellectual fashion of the 1960’s: structuralism. Although during the 1960’s Girard was variously claimed as an existentialist, phenomenologist, Marxist, and structuralist, he was always outside contemporary movements, absorbing them into a working position of greater comprehension. At the seminal conference on structuralism at Johns Hopkins in 1968, Girard urged the participants not to enter into a futile debate between structuralist and poststructuralist positions.

Although Violence and the Sacred continues Girard’s insistence that literature has quasi-theoretical potential, no one could have anticipated the scale of its ambitions: a genetic theory of all cultural forms. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel Girard argues against the romantic presumption that humankind’s desires are original; instead, he insisted that human desires are mediated by unacknowledged models. Violence and the Sacred identifies this mediation as at once the essence of culture and culture’s greatest threat. According to Girard, initiates will copy the rule-governed behavior of others (as a result of what Girard calls the mimetic desire), but it is always possible that they will copy their desires as well, leading to rivalry unless a sufficient number of prohibitions prevent them. If anyone can imitate and be a rival to anyone, then one person, Girard argues, can serve as rival to all. The companion form to prohibition, in primitive society, is ritual scapegoating, whereby everyone is bonded together by agreeing that one person is responsible for everything that goes wrong–that is, that one person is responsible for all violence that threatens to dissolve the social order.

Girard’s most important work is Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, in which he effectively declared himself a Christian and in which he credits a nonsacrificial, nonviolent motive in the Scriptures themselves with educating the West, over time, about the possibility of seeing things from the point of view of violence’s victims. The book is a dialogue with two psychiatrists, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, and it has three parts: “Fundamental Anthropology,” “The Judeo-Christian Scriptures,” and “Individual Psychology.”

Girard continues to lecture and write, publishing several books since his retirement. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers in New York City, he was asked whether his mimetic theory applied to the current international crisis. Girard’s response was consistent with his long-developed philosophy:

The error is always to reason within categories of “difference” when the root of all conflicts is rather “competition,” mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures. Competition is the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be. No doubt terrorism is bound to a world “different” from ours, but what gives rise to terrorism does not lie in that “difference” that removes it further from us and makes it inconceivable to us. To the contrary, it lies in an exacerbated desire for convergence and resemblance. Human relations are essentially relations of imitation, of rivalry.

BibliographyDumouchel, Paul, ed. Violence and Truth: On the Work of René Girard. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. An interdisciplinary collection of essays.Girard, René. The Girard Reader. Edited by James Williams. Crossroads, 1996. An excellent place to start reading Girard, this collection of essays and excerpts from Girard’s books represents his theories on violence, religion, and culture. Bibliography.Golsan, Richard Joseph. René Girard and Myth: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2002. Introductory look at Girard’s writings on Western culture’s violence and suffering. Includes an interview with Girard.Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G., ed. Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Introduced by Burton Mack, commentary by Renato Rosaldo. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987. On Girard’s influence in general. One of the best introductions to critical thought about religion.Helios 17 (Spring, 1990). Special issue applying Girard’s theories to a range of different texts, both ancient and modern.Livingston, Paisley. Models of Desire: René Girard and the Psychology of Mimesis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Examines the psychological implications of mediated desire.Macksey, Richard, and Eugenio Donato, eds. The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. On Girard’s influence in general.Schwager, Raymund. Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. Translated by Maria L. Assad. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987. Explores the theological content of Girard’s theories.Stanford French Review 10, nos. 1-3 (1986). Special issue, called “To Honor René Girard.”
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