Scandal Must Come
In the bible, and especially in the Gospels, there is an original conception of desire and its conflicts that has gone largely unrecognized. In order to grasp how old it is we must go back to the Fall in Genesis or to the second half of the Ten Commandments, which is entirely devoted to prohibiting violence against one's neighbor.
Commandments six, seven, eight, and nine are both simple and brief. They prohibit the most serious acts of violence in the order of their seriousness:
You shall not kill.The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object: in place of prohibiting an act it forbids a desire.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him. (Exod. 20:17)Without being actually wrong the modern translations lead readers down a false trail. The verb "covet" suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for hardened sinners. But the Hebrew term translated as "covet" means just simply "desire." This is the word that designates the desire of Eve for the prohibited fruit, the desire leading to the original sin. The notion that the Decalogue devotes its supreme commandment, the longest of all, to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely. The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings -- in other words, simply desire as such.
If the Decalogue forbids the most widespread desire, doesn't it then deserve the modern world's reproach to religious prohibitions? Doesn't the tenth commandment succumb to that gratuitous itch to prohibit, to that irrational hatred of freedom for which modern thinkers blame religion in general and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular?
Before condemning prohibitions as needlessly repressive, before espousing the formula rendered famous by the events of May 1968 in France -- "Il est interdit d'interdire" [It is forbidden to forbid] -- we must pose some questions about the implications of desire as it is defined in the tenth commandment, the desire for the neighbor's goods. If this desire is the most common of all, what would happen if it were permitted rather than forbidden? There would be perpetual war in the midst of all human groups, subgroups, and families. The door would be wide open to the famous nightmare of Thomas Hobbes, the war of all against all.
If we think that cultural prohibitions are needless, we must adhere to the most excessive individualism, one that presupposes the total autonomy of individuals, that is, the autonomy of their desires. In other words, we must think that humans are naturally inclined not to desire the goods of their neighbors. To understand that this premise is false, all we have to do is to watch two children or two adults who quarrel over some trifle. It is the opposite premise, the only realistic one, that underlies the tenth commandment of the Decalogue: we tend to desire what our neighbor has or what our neighbor desires.
If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations. This rivalry, if not thwarted, would permanently endanger the harmony and even the survival of all human communities. Rivalistic desires are all the more overwhelming since they reinforce one another. The principle of reciprocal escalation and one-upmanship governs this type of conflict. This phenomenon is so common, so well known to us, and so contrary to our concept of ourselves, thus so humiliating, that we prefer to remove it from consciousness and act as if it did not exist. But all the while we know it does exist. This indifference to the threat of runaway conflict is a luxury that small ancient societies could not afford.
The commandment that prohibits desiring the goods of one's neighbor
attempts to resolve the number one problem of every human community: internal
In reading the tenth commandment one has the impression of being present at the intellectual process of its elaboration. To prevent people from fighting, the lawgiver seeks at first to forbid all the objects about which they ceaselessly fight, and he decides to make a list of these. However, he quickly perceives that the objects are too numerous: he cannot enumerate all of them. So he interrupts himself in the process, gives up focusing on the objects that keep changing anyway, and he turns to what never changes. Or rather, he turns to that one who is always present, the neighbor. One always desires whatever belongs to that one, the neighbor.
Since the objects we should not desire and nevertheless do desire always
belong to the neighbor, it is clearly the neighbor who renders them desirable.
In the formulation of the prohibition, the neighbor must take the place
of the objects, and indeed he does take their place in the last phrase
of the sentence that prohibits no longer objects enumerated one by one
but "anything that belongs to him [the neighbor]." What the tenth commandment
sketches, without defining it explicitly, is a fundamental revolution in
the understanding of desire. We assume that desire is objective or subjective,
but in reality it rests on a third party who gives value to the objects.
This third party is usually the one who is closest, the neighbor. To maintain
peace between human beings, it is essential to define prohibitions in light
of this extremely significant fact: our neighbor is the model for our desires.
This is what I call mimetic desire. (1)
Mimetic desire does not always result in conflict, but it frequently does so for reasons that the tenth commandment makes evident. The object I desire in envious imitation of my neighbor is one he intends to keep for himself, to reserve for her own use; she will not let someone snatch it away without combat. My desire will be thwarted, but in place of accepting this and moving on toward another object, nine times out of ten my desire will resist this and become even more intense in imitating the desire of its model.
Opposition exasperates desire, especially when it comes from the man or woman who inspires the desire. If no opposition initially comes from him or her, it soon will, for if imitation of the neighbor's desire engenders rivalry, rivalry in turn engenders imitation. The appearance of a rival seems to validate the desire, the immense value of the object desired. Imitation becomes intensified at the heart of the hostility, but the rivals do all they can to conceal from each other and from themselves the cause of this intensification. Unfortunately, concealment doesn't work. In imitating my rival's desire I give him the impression that he has good reasons to desire what he desires, to possess what he possesses, and so the intensity of his desire keeps increasing.
As a general rule, quiet and untroubled possession weakens desire. In giving my model a rival I return to him, in a way, the gift of the desire that he just gave to me. I give a model to my own model. The spectacle of my desire reinforces his at the precise moment when, in confronting me, he reinforces mine. That man whose wife I desire, for example, had perhaps ceased to desire her over time. His desire was dead, but upon contact with mine, which is living, it regains life. The mimetic nature of desire accounts for the fragility of human relations. Our social sciences should give due consideration to a phenomenon that must be considered normal, but they persist in seeing conflict as something accidental, and consequently so unforeseeable that researchers cannot and must not take it into account in their study of culture. Not only are we blind to the mimetic rivalries in our world, but each time that we celebrate the power of our desire we glorify it. We congratulate ourselves on having within us a desire that "will last forever," as Baudelaire put it ("l'expansion des choses infinies"), but we do not see what this "forever" conceals: the idolization of the neighbor. This idolatry is necessarily associated with the idolization of ourselves. The more desperately we seek to worship ourselves and to be good "individualists," the more compelled we are to worship our rivals in a cult that turns to hatred.
The conflicts resulting from this double idolatry of self and other are the principal source of human violence. When we are devoted to adoring our neighbor, this adoration can easily turn to hatred because we seek desperately to adore ourselves, and we fall. In order to prevent all such predicaments, the book of Leviticus contains the famous commandment "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18); that is, you shall love your neighbor neither more nor less than yourself. The rivalries of desires tend to become exasperated, and as they do, they tend to contaminate third parties who are just as addicted as we are to the entanglements of mimetic rivalries.
The principal source of violence between human beings is mimetic rivalry, the rivalry resulting from imitation of a model who becomes a rival or of a rival who becomes a model. Such conflicts are not accidental, but neither are they the fruit of an instinct of aggression or an aggressive drive. Mimetic rivalries can become so intense that the rivals denigrate each other, steal the other's possessions, seduce the other's spouse, and, finally, they even go as far as murder.
I have just mentioned again, though this time in reverse order, the four major acts of violence prohibited by the tour commandments that precede the tenth. These are the ones I have already quoted at the beginning of this chapter. If the Decalogue devotes its final commandment to prohibiting desire for whatever belongs to the neighbor, it is because it lucidly recognizes in that desire the key to the violence prohibited in the four commandments that precede it. If we ceased to desire the goods of our neighbor, we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness. If we respected the tenth commandment, the four commandments that precede it would be superfluous.
Rather than beginning with the cause and pursuing then the consequences,
like a philosophical account, the Decalogue follows the reverse order,
tackling the most urgent matter first: in order to avoid violence it forbids
violent acts. It turns then to the cause and uncovers the desire that the
neighbor inspires. The Decalogue prohibits this desire but is able to prohibit
it only to the extent that the objects desired are legally possessed by
one of the two rivals. It cannot discourage all
the rivalries of
If we examine the prohibitions of archaic societies in the light of the tenth commandment, we find that although they are not as lucid as the latter, they attempt likewise to prohibit mimetic desire and its rivalries. The prohibitions that appear arbitrary stem neither from some sort of "neurosis" nor from the resentment of grumpy men eager to prevent young people from having a good time. The prohibitions have nothing of the capricious or the mean about them; they are based on an intuition analogous to that of the Decalogue, but they are subject to all sorts of confusions.
Many archaic laws, notably in Africa, put to death all twins who are born in the community, or sometimes only one twin of each pair. Without doubt this law is absurd, but in no way does it prove the truth of cultural relativism. The cultures that do not tolerate twins confuse their natural resemblance in the biological order with the leveling effects of mimetic rivalries. The more these rivalries are aggravated, the more the roles of model, obstacle, and imitator become interchangeable at the heart of the mimetic conflict.
In short, to the extent that their antagonism becomes embittered, a
paradox occurs: the antagonists resemble one another more and more. They
confront one another all the more implacably because their conflict dissolves
the real differences that formerly separated them. Envy, jealousy, and
hate render alike those they possess, but in our world people tend to misunderstand
or ignore the resemblances and identities that these passions generate.
They have ears only for the deceptive celebration of differences, which
rages more than ever in our societies, not because real differences are
increasing but because they are disappearing.
The tenth commandment signals a revolution and prepares the way for it. This revolution comes to fruition in the New Testament. If Jesus never speaks in terms of prohibitions and always in terms of models and imitation, it is because he draws out the full consequences of the lesson offered by the tenth commandment. It is not due to inflated self-love that he asks us to imitate him; it is to turn us away from mimetic rivalries.
What is the basis of imitating Jesus? It cannot be his ways of being or his personal habits: imitation is never about that in the Gospels. Neither does Jesus propose an ascetic rule of life in the sense of Thomas à Kempis and his celebrated Imitation of Christ, as admirable as that work may be. What Jesus invites us to imitate is his own desire, the spirit that directs him toward the goal on which his intention is fixed: to resemble God the Father as much as possible.
The invitation to imitate the desire of Jesus may seem paradoxical, for Jesus does not claim to possess a desire proper, a desire "of his very own." Contrary to what we ourselves claim, he does not claim to "be himself"; he does not flatter himself that he obeys only his own desire. His goal is to become the perfect image of God. Therefore he commits all his powers to imitating his Father. In inviting us to imitate him, he invites us to imitate his own imitation.
Far from being a paradox, this invitation is more reasonable than that of our modern gurus, who ask their disciples to imitate them as the great man or woman who imitates no one. Jesus, by contrast, invites us to do what he himself does, to become like him a perfect imitator of God the Father.
Why does Jesus regard the Father and himself as the best model for all humans? Because neither the Father nor the Son desires greedily, egotistically. God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and he sends his rain on the just and on the unjust." God gives to us without counting, without marking the least difference between us. He lets the weeds grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. If we imitate the detached generosity of God, then the trap of mimetic rivalries will never close over us. This is why Jesus says also, "Ask, and it will be given to you . . . ."
When Jesus declares that he does not abolish the Law but fulfills it, he articulates a logical consequence of his teaching. The goal of the Law is peace among humankind. Jesus never scorns the Law, even when it takes the form of prohibitions. Unlike modern thinkers, he knows quite well that to avoid conflicts, it is necessary to begin with prohibitions.
The disadvantage of the prohibitions, however, is that they don't finally play their role in a satisfying manner. Their primarily negative character, as St. Paul well understood, inevitably provokes in us the mimetic urge to transgress them. The best way of preventing violence does not consist in forbidding objects, or even rivalistic desire, as the tenth commandment does, but in offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries.
Often we believe we are imitating the true God, but we are really imitating only false models of the independent self that cannot be wounded or defeated. Far from making ourselves independent and autonomous, we give ourselves over to never ending rivalries.
The commandment to imitate Jesus does not appear suddenly in a world exempt from imitation; rather it is addressed to everyone that mimetic rivalry has affected. Non-Christians imagine that to be converted they must renounce an autonomy that all people possess naturally, a freedom and independence that Jesus would like to take away from them. In reality, once we imitate Jesus, we discover that our aspiration to autonomy has always made us bow down before individuals who may not be worse than we are but who are nonetheless bad models because we cannot imitate them without falling with them into the trap of rivalries in which we are ensnarled more and more.
We feel that we are at the point of attaining autonomy as we imitate
our models of power and prestige. This autonomy, however, is really nothing
but a reflection of the illusions projected by our admiration for them.
The more this admiration mimetically intensifies, the less aware it is
of its own mimetic nature. The more "proud" and "egotistic" we are, the
more enslaved we become to our mimetic models.
Even if the mimetic nature of human desire is responsible for most of the violent acts that distress us, we should not conclude that mimetic desire is bad in itself. If our desires were not mimetic, they would be forever fixed on predetermined objects; they would be a particular form of instinct. Human beings could no more change their desire than cows their appetite for grass. Without mimetic desire there would be neither freedom nor humanity. Mimetic desire is intrinsically good.
Humankind is that creature who lost a part of its animal instinct in order to gain access to "desire," as it is called. Once their natural needs are satisfied, humans desire intensely, but they don't know exactly what they desire, for no instinct guides them. We do not each have our own desire, one really our own. The essence of desire is to have no essential goal. Truly to desire, we must have recourse to people about us; we have to borrow their desires.
This borrowing occurs quite often without either the loaner or the borrower being aware of it. It is not only desire that one borrows from those whom one takes for models; it is a mass of behaviors, attitudes, things learned, prejudices, preferences, etc. And at the heart of these things the loan that places us most deeply into debt -- the other's desire -- occurs often unawares.
The only culture really ours is not that into which we are born; it is the culture whose models we imitate at the age when our power of mimetic assimilation is the greatest. If the desire of children were not mimetic, if they did not of necessity choose for models the human beings who surround them, humanity would have neither language nor culture. If desire were not mimetic, we would not be open to what is human or what is divine.
Mimetic desire enables us to escape from the animal realm. It is responsible
for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level
as well as what elevates us above it. Our unending discords are the ransom
of our freedom.
If mimetic rivalry plays an essential role in the Gospels, how does it happen, you may object, that Jesus does not put us on guard against it? Actually he does put us on guard, but we don't know it. When what he says contradicts our illusions, we ignore him.
The words that designate mimetic rivalry and its consequences are the noun skandalon and the verb skandalizein. Like the Hebrew word that it translates, "scandal" means, not one of those ordinary obstacles that we avoid easily after we run into it the first time, but a paradoxical obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid: the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us. Those who are scandalized put all the more ardor in injuring themselves against it because they were injured there before.
The Greek word skandalizein comes from a verb that means "to limp." What does a lame person resemble? To someone following a person limping it appears that the person continually collides with his or her own shadow.
Understanding this strange phenomenon depends upon seeing in it what I have just described: the behavior of mimetic rivals who, as they mutually prevent each other from appropriating the object they covet, reinforce more and more their double desire, their desire for both the other's object of desire and for the desire of the other. Each consistently takes the opposite view of the other in order to escape their inexorable rivalry, but they always return to collide with the fascinating obstacle that each one has come to be for the other.
Scandals are responsible for the false infinity of mimetic rivalry. They secrete increasing quantities of envy, jealousy, resentment, hatred -- all the poisons most harmful not only for the initial antagonists but also for all those who become fascinated by their rivalistic desires. At the height of scandal each reprisal calls forth a new one more violent than its predecessor. If nothing stops it, the spiral has to lead to a series of acts of vengeance in a perfect fusion of violence and contagion. (2)
"Woe to the one by whom scandal comes!" Jesus reserves his most solemn warning for the adults who seduce children into the infernal prison of scandal. The more the imitation is innocent and trusting, the more the one who imitates is easily scandalized, and the more the seducer is guilty of abusing this innocence. Scandals are so formidable that to put us on guard against them, Jesus resorts to an uncharacteristic hyperbolic style: "If your hand scandalizes you, cut it off; if you eye scandalizes you, pull it out" (Matt. 18:8-9).
Recent translators, trying to make the Bible psychoanalytically correct, attempt to eliminate all the terms censured by contemporary dogmatism. They replace the admirable "stumbling block" of our older Bibles, for example, with insipid euphemisms, although "stumbling block" is the only translation that captures the repetitive and addictive dimension of scandals.
Jesus would not be astonished that his teaching is not recognized. He has no illusion about the way in which his message will be received. To the glory that comes from God, invisible in this world, the majority prefer the glory that comes from humankind, a glory that multiplies scandal as it makes its way. It consists in gaining victory in mimetic rivalries often organized by the powers of this world, rivalries that are political, economic, athletic, sexual, artistic, intellectual . . . and even religious.
The phrase "Scandal must come" (see Matt. 18:7) has nothing to do with either ancient fatalism or scientific determinism. Taken individually, human beings are not necessarily given over to mimetic rivalries, but by virtue of the great number of individuals they contain, human communities cannot escape them. When the first scandal occurs, it gives birth to others, and the result is mimetic crises, which spread without ceasing and become worse and worse.
1. "Mimesis" or "mimetic desire" is the most important concept for understanding Girard's thought. It is what lies behind the rivalistic conflict that leads to scapegoating. One may translate it as "imitation" or "imitative desire." However, he thinks that "mimetic" serves to highlight the conflictive aspect of imitation in a way that "imitation" does not. -- Trans.
2. Girard uses mimétisme here, for which English has no equivalent. In his usage it refers to imitation of others' desires and a complex of rivalries, that spread rapidly and increase to the point that sandals begin to accumulate. This is an unconscious process that leads to the "war of all against all" if it were not for a mechanism, an unconscious operation, that avoids chaos by the unanimous resort to expelling or lynching a victim. In subsequent chapters I often translate mimétisme as "violent contagion." -- Trans.