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Ren� Girard, RIP: A Rare Wisdom

Michael Egnor


French historian and philosopher Ren� Girard (1923-2015) passed away on November 4. Bishop Robert Barron writes at Real Clear Religion:

Ren� Girard, one of the most influential Catholic philosophers in the world, died last week at the age of 91. Born in Avignon and a member of the illustrious Academie Francaise, Girard nevertheless made his academic reputation in the United States, as a professor at Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and Stanford University.

There are some thinkers that offer intriguing ideas and proposals, and there is a tiny handful of thinkers that manage to shake your world. Girard was in this second camp.

In a series of books and articles, written across several decades, he proposed a social theory of extraordinary explanatory power.

Girard certainly shook my world. I came across his work a decade ago in a bookstore. The book I found — I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning — changed the way I understand God, culture, history, and myself. I read many of his other works, and over the years (he takes a while to digest) I came to agree with many scholars who believe that he has revealed a fundamental truth about humanity and about our relation to God that has remained veiled for millennia.

The explanatory power of his ideas is indeed remarkable. I believe that his work provides indispensible insight into the impact that artificial intelligence will have on our society, and there’s nary a more pellucid description of the Darwinian assault on intelligent design than “mimetic contagion and scapegoating.”

Bishop Barron notes Girard’s profound insight into Judeo-Christian theology and culture:

In the second half of the 20th century, academics tended to characterize Christianity — if they took it seriously at all — as one more iteration of the mythic story that can be found in practically every culture. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars, the “mono-myth,” to use Joseph Campbell’s formula, is told over and again. What Girard saw was that this tired theorizing has it precisely wrong. In point of fact, Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it — which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.

The recovery of Christianity as revelation, as an unmasking of what all the other religions are saying, is Ren� Girard’s permanent and unsettling contribution.

Bishop Barron offers a fine synopsis of Girard’s work in his essay. I wrote a bit about Girard several years ago.

In my view, Girard’s theory of mimesis, mimetic contagion, and scapegoating is the best idea anyone has had in the past few centuries. Girard’s theory is a revelation in anthropology, culture, and theology. In an era when second-rate ideologues peddle third-rate science and metaphysics, it’s important to know that we have been graced with real wisdom in our time.

If you do not know Girard’s work, please take the time to read him. His I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning is a good place to start. He is not an easy read, but you will be rewarded. You will not be the same when you finish.

Image credit: Vicq (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.