An Excerpt from René Girard's I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), the beginning of Chapter 3, "Satan," pages 32-38

Now I would like to confirm what I call the "mimetic cycle" in the Gospels. To do this we have to turn to an idea, or rather a figure, that Christians today much disdain. The Gospels call him by his Hebrew name, Satan, or his Greek title, the devil (diabolos). (1)

In the period when the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann had such great influence, all the theologians who were up to date "demythologized" the Scriptures with all their might, but they didn't even do the prince of this world the honor of demythologizing him. In spite of his considerable role in the Gospels, modern Christian theology scarcely takes him into account. If the Gospel references to Satan are examined in light of the preceding analyses, then we see that they don't deserve the oblivion into which they have fallen.

Like Jesus, Satan seeks to have others imitate him but not in the same fashion and not for the same reasons. He wants first of all to seduce. Satan as seducer is the only one of his roles that the modern world condescends to remember a bit, primarily to joke about it. Satan likewise presents himself as a model for our desires, and he is certainly easier to imitate than Christ, for he counsels us to abandon ourselves to all our inclinations in defiance of morality and its prohibitions.

If we listen to Satan, who may sound like a very progressive and likeable educator, we may feel initially that we are "liberated," but this impression does not last because Satan deprives us of everything that protects us from rivalistic imitation. Rather than warning us of the trap that awaits us, Satan makes us fall into it. He applauds the idea that prohibitions are of no use and that transgressing them contains no danger.

The road on which Satan starts us is broad and easy; it is the superhighway of mimetic crisis. But then suddenly there appears an unexpected obstacle between us and the object of our desire, and to our consternation, just when we thought we had left Satan far behind us, it is he, or one of his surrogates, who shows up to block the route. This is the first of many transformations of Satan: the seducer of the beginnings is transformed quickly into a forbidding adversary, an opponent more serious than all the prohibitions not yet transgressed.

The secret of Satan's troublesome transformation is easy to discover. The second Satan is the conversion of the mimetic model into a rival, and this process, which was described in chapter 1, brings about scandals. Because our models suggest their own desires to us, they inevitably oppose the resulting desire. Once prohibitions are transgressed, another kind of obstacle rises up that is more tenacious still, though it is concealed at first by the very protection the prohibitions offer, as long as they are respected.

I am not the first or only one to relate Satan to scandals. The first was Jesus himself in a scathing rebuke to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan, for you are a scandal to me." Peter becomes the object of this rebuke when he reacts negatively to the first prediction of the Passion. Disappointed by what he takes to be the excessive resignation of Jesus, the disciple tries to breathe into him his own desire, his own worldly ambition. Peter invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire. If Jesus were to turn away from his Father to follow Peter, he and Peter both would quickly fall into mimetic rivalry, and the venture of the kingdom of God would melt away in insignificant quarrels.

Here Peter becomes the sower of scandals, the Satan who diverts human beings from God for the sake of rivalistic models. Satan sows the scandals and reaps the whirlwind of mimetic crises. It is his opportunity to show what he is capable of doing. The great crises lead us to the true mystery of Satan, to his astonishing power, which is that of expelling himself and bringing order back into human communities.

The main text on the subject of the satanic expulsion of Satan is the response of Jesus to scribes who accuse him of expelling Satan by Beelzebub, the prince of demons:

How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, it cannot be maintained. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot endure and is finished." (Mark 3:23-26)
Accusing a rival exorcist of expelling demons by the power of Satan must have been a common accusation in that period. Many people must have repeated it mechanically. Jesus wants to make his hearers reflect on its implications. If it is true that Satan expels Satan, how does he go about it? How is this tour de force possible?

Jesus does not deny the reality of Satan's self-expulsion; he asserts it. The proof that Satan possesses this power is the affirmation, frequently repeated, that this power is coming to its end. The imminent fall of Satan, prophesied by Christ, is one and the same thing as the end of his power of self-expulsion. The demonic or satanic expulsion of demons has worked previously, at least temporarily, because the violent outcome of scandal, the violent expulsion of scapegoats, works for a while.

In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus repeats the word "Satan" instead of replacing it with a pronoun. Jesus repeats the name: "How can Satan expel Satan?" Matthew changes the interrogative sentence of Mark into a conditional clause, but the basic formula does not change: "If Satan expels Satan." The repetition of the word "Satan" is more eloquent than its replacement by a pronoun, but it is not a taste for fine language that inspires it; it is rather the desire to emphasize the fundamental paradox of Satan. He is a principle of order as much as disorder.

The Satan expelled is that one who foments and exasperates mimetic rivalries to the point of transforming the community into a furnace of scandals. The Satan who expels is this same furnace when it reaches a point of incandescence sufficient to set off the single victim mechanism. (2) In order to prevent the destruction of his kingdom, Satan makes out of his disorder itself, at its highest heat, a means of expelling himself.

Because of this extraordinary power, Satan is the prince of this world. If he could not protect his domain from the violence that threatens to destroy it, even though it is essentially his own, he would not merit this title of prince, which the Gospels do not award him lightly. If he were purely a destroyer, Satan would have lost his domain long ago. To understand why he is the master of all the kingdoms of this world, we must take Jesus at his word: disorder expels disorder, or in other words Satan really expels Satan. By executing this extraordinary feat, he has been able to make himself indispensable, and so his power remains great.

How do we comprehend this idea? Let us go back to the moment when the divided community, at the height of the mimetic process, reestablishes its unity against a single victim who becomes the supreme scandal because everyone, in a mimetic fervor, holds this one to be guilty. Satan is the violent contagion that persuades the entire community, which has become unanimous, that this guilt is real. He owes one of his most ancient and traditional names to this art of persuasion. He is the accuser of the hero in the book of Job, before God and even more so before the people. In transforming a community of people with distinct identities and roles into a hysterical mass, Satan produces myths and is the principle of systematic accusation that bursts forth from the contagious imitation provoked by scandals. Once the unfortunate victim is completely isolated, deprived of defenders, nothing can protect her or him from the aroused crowd. Everyone can set upon the victim without having to fear the least reprisal.

The victim may seem insignificant in relation to all the appetites for violence that are converging on him or her, but at this very moment the community desires nothing other than the victim's destruction. This victim thus effectively replaces all those who were in conflict just a little earlier in the thousand scandals scattered here and there and who now are all mustered against a single target.

No one in the community has an enemy other than the victim, so once this person is hunted, expelled, and destroyed, the crowd finds itself emptied of hostility and without an enemy. Only one enemy was left, one who has been eliminated. Provisionally, at least, this community no longer experiences either hatred or resentment toward anyone or anything; it feels purified of all its tensions, of all its divisions, of everything fragmenting it.

The persecutors don't know that their sudden harmony, like their previous discord, is the work of contagious imitation. They believe they have on their hands a dangerous person, someone evil, of whom they must rid the community. What could be more sincere than their hatred? Thus the mimetic ganging up of all against one, or the single victim mechanism, has the amazing but logically explicable property of restoring calm to a community so disturbed an instant earlier that nothing appeared capable of calming it down.

To apprehend this mechanism as the work of Satan is to understand that what Jesus asserts -- "Satan expels Satan" -- has a precise meaning, rationally explainable. It defines the effectiveness of the single victim mechanism. The high priest Caiaphas alludes to this mechanism when he says, "It is better that one man die and that the whole nation not perish." The four accounts of the Crucifixion thus enable us to witness the unfolding of the working of the single victim mechanism. The sequence of events, as I have already said, resembles numerous analogous phenomena whose director and producer is Satan.

The proof that the Cross and the mechanism of Satan are one and the same thing is given by Jesus himself when he says just before his arrest, "This is your hour, and the power of darkness" (Luke 22:53). This hour, the moment of the power of darkness, is the hour of Satan. Jesus' statement is not a rhetorical formula, a picturesque way of suggesting the reprehensible character of what his persecutors are going to do to him. Like all the other Gospel statements on the subject of Satan, this one has a precise and even "technical" meaning. It is one of the statements that designate the Crucifixion as a working of the single victim mechanism.

The Crucifixion is one of those events in which Satan restores and consolidates his power over human beings. The shift from "all against all" to "all against one" permits the prince of this world to forestall the total destruction of his kingdom as he calms the anger of the crowd, restoring the calm that is indispensable to the survival of every human community. Satan can therefore always put enough order back into the world to prevent the total destruction of what he possesses without depriving himself for too long of his favorite pastime, which is to sow disorder, violence, and misfortune among his subjects.

The death of Jesus thwarts the satanic calculation. We will soon see why, but initially it does indeed have the effects that we would expect of the one who set it in motion. We can verify from the Gospels that Jesus' death has the pacifying effect that Pilate, just like Satan, expects of it. The outcome is quite favorable from the point of view of the pax Romana, of which Pilate is the guardian. The procurator feared a riot, but owing to the Crucifixion it did not occur.

The torture of a victim transforms the dangerous crowd into a public of ancient theater or of modern film, as captivated by the bloody spectacle as our contemporaries are by the horrors of Hollywood. When the spectators are satiated with that violence that Aristotle calls "cathartic" -- whether real or imaginary it matters little -- they all return peaceably to their homes to sleep the sleep of the just.

The word "catharsis" designated first of all the "purification" that the spilled blood procures in ritual sacrifices, which are deliberate repetitions of the process described in the Passion. In other words it is the satanic mechanism at work. This mechanism is also presupposed in the phenomenon of exorcism, which is the subject in the debate that gives Jesus the occasion to raise the question about the satanic expulsion of Satan.

The Gospels enable us to see that human communities are subject to disorders that recur periodically and that can be resolved by the phenomenon of the unanimous crowd when certain conditions are satisfied. Such a resolution is rooted in mimetic desire and the scandals that always make human communities break down. The mimetic cycle begins with desire and its rivalries, it continues through the multiplication of scandals and a mimetic crisis, and it is resolved finally in the single victim mechanism, which is the answer to the question asked by Jesus: "How can Satan expel Satan?"


1. The synoptic Gospels use satan/satanas and diabolos interchangeably and with equal frequency. The Gospel of John uses diabolos three times and satanas one time. Both words refer to one who accuses, slanders, denounces, and seduces.

2. "Single victim mechanism" is a translation of the French mécanisme victimaire. It refers to the unconscious snowballing process that reaches a point of crisis and ends the disorder of human rivalries and scandals be expelling or lynching a victim. It could, of course, select more than one victim, perhaps a minority group, foreigners, et al., but for purposes of analysis and discussion Girard wishes to keep a clear focus on the simplest instance of the mechanism, which is also exemplar: convergence upon a single victim. -- Trans.