Girard on the Powers and Principalities

An Excerpt from René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), the beginning of Chapter 8, pages 95-98.

Chapter 8

Powers and Principalities

The preceding chapter has shown us that the Bible and the Gospels essentially agree with foundational myths that the cumulative effects of the “single victim mechanism” and sacrificial rituals are responsible for the foundation and development of human societies.

Christians heartily distrusted the sovereign states in which Christianity emerged and spread, on account of the violent origin of these states. In naming them Christianity did not resort to their usual names, such as the Roman Empire or the Herodian tetrarchy. Instead, the New Testament usually calls upon a specific vocabulary, that of “principalities and powers.”

If we examine the Gospel and New Testament passages that speak of the powers, we confirm that implicitly or explicitly they are associated with the type of collective violence on which I have insisted. This association makes perfect sense if my thesis is right: this violence is the founding mechanism of sovereign states.

In chapter 4 of the Acts of the Apostles Peter applies a line from the second psalm to the Passion of Christ:

The kings of the earth took their stand
and the rulers were gathered together
against the Lord and against his anointed.

We don’t have to conclude from this quotation that Peter takes literally the participation of all “the kings of the earth” in the Crucifixion. He knows perfectly well that the Passion of Jesus didn’t attract the attention of the entire world. He does not exaggerate the strictly historical importance of this event. What the quotation means is that beyond an incident certainly minor from Rome’s standpoint, Peter finds a special connection between the Cross and the powers in general because the powers are rooted in collective murders similar to what befell Jesus.

Though not identical with Satan, the powers are all his tributaries because they are all servants of the false gods that are the offspring of Satan, that is, the offspring of the founding murder. So here it is not a matter of religion for the individual or belief in a purely individual sense, as modern people tend to hold. What we are talking about here are rather the social phenomena that the founding murder created.

The system of powers Satan has engendered is a concrete phenomenon, material and simultaneously spiritual, religious in a very special sense, efficacious and illusory at the same time. It is religion as illusion, which protects humans from violence and chaos by means of sacrificial rituals. Although this system is grounded in an illusion, its action in the world is real to the extent that idolatry, or false transcendence, (1) commands obedience.

It is striking how many names the New Testament writers invent to designate these ambiguous entities. They may be called powers “of this world,” then on the other hand “celestial powers,” as well as “sovereignties,” “thrones,” “dominions,” “princes of the kingdom of the air,” “elements of the world,” “archons,” “kings,” “princes of this world,” etc. Why such a vast vocabulary, made up apparently of such dissimilar elements? When we examine these titles, we quickly confirm that they divide into two groups. Expressions like “powers of this world,” “kings of the earth,” “principalities,” etc. assert the earthly character of the powers, their concrete reality here below in our world. On the other hand, expressions like “princes of the kingdom of the air,” celestial powers,” etc. emphasize the extraterrestrial, “spiritual” nature of these entities.

We are talking about the same entities in both instances. The powers called “celestial” are not different at all from powers “of this world.” But then why are there two groups of names? Is it because the New Testament writers don’t know exactly what they mean? No, to the contrary, they are well aware, I think, that they oscillate between the two sets of terms.

The New Testament authors have an acute awareness of the twofold, ambiguous nature of these powers. What they seek to clarify is the combination of material power and spiritual power that is the sovereign reality stemming from collective, founding murders. The New Testament writers would like to name this complex reality as economically as possible, and the reason why they multiply the formulas is, I think, because the results they obtain do not satisfy them.

On the one hand, to say of the powers that they are worldly would be to dwell on their concrete reality in this world, which is an essential dimension but to the detriment of the other dimension, the religious one. Although the latter is illusory, it has effects too real to be conjured away. On the other hand, to say of the powers that they are “celestial” is to insist on their religious dimension, namely, on the prestige that thrones and sovereigns enjoy among humankind and that is always perceived as a little supernatural. We see this even now in the toadyism that bows and scurries at the feet of our governments, no matter how unimpressive the latter are. This second set of terms inevitably cancels out everything the first set brings out, and vice versa.

How can one define in one word the paradox of organizations or institutions that are very real but rooted in a transcendence that is unreal and yet effective? If the powers have many names, it is because of this paradox that constitutes them, an internal duality that human language cannot express in a simple, straightforward fashion. Human language has never assimilated what the New Testament is talking about here. It does not command the necessary resources to express the power of bringing people together that false transcendence possesses in the real, material world, in spite of its falsity and imaginary nature. Modern readers don’t understand the problem the New Testament authors encounter, and so they gladly read into the theme of the powers all the elements of superstition and magical thought that they wish to find in the Gospels.

The powers, though always associated with Satan and based on the transcendence of Satan, are not “satanic” in the same sense as he is, even though they are his tributaries. Sacrificial rituals do not seek to become one with false transcendence; they do not aspire to mystical union with Satan. To the contrary, they try to keep this formidable figure at a distance and hold him at bay outside the community.

We cannot call the powers simply “diabolical,” and we should not, under the pretext that they are “evil,” systematically disobey them. It is the transcendence on which they are based that is diabolical. The powers are never strangers to Satan, it’s true, but we cannot condemn them blindly. Moreover, in a world that is alien to the kingdom of God, they are indispensable to the maintenance of order, which explains the attitude of the Church toward them. St. Paul says the powers exist because they have a role to play as authorized by God. The apostle is too realistic to go off to war against the powers. He recommends that Christians respect them and even honor them as long as they require nothing contrary to Christian faith.

[The chapter concludes with: a section on Rome as a power at the time of Jesus, with Shakespeare’s correct assessment of its beginning in collective murder; brief comments on the aptness of Durkheim’s term “social transcendence.”]


1. “False transcendence” is one way of indicating the outcome of the working of the single victim mechanism. The whole process of conflicting desires fixed on the model, the snowballing effect of scandal, and convergence upon the single victim leads to the establishment of institutions that are based on the error or illusion of the founding murder. — Trans.

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