Summarizing Mimetic Anthropology

This summary (taken straight from my draft term paper) provides some background on the mimetic approach to theological anthropology and the atonement from which I frequently tend to work. It is based on the work of Rene Girard and of other theologians working in this area, most notably James Alison. (Science fiction fans who are familiar with Ursula Leguin’s Hugo-winning short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas will recognize some of the themes here.)

Feedback, either from those who are familiar with this area and can offer corrections or amplifications, or from those who are unfamiliar with it and do not find it clear, would be very welcome!

Human desire (as distinct from appetite, and considered in the general, not the specifically sexual sense) does not arise spontaneously; instead, all human desires are modelled on the desire of another. This can be seen in the nursery, where the toy that most fascinates a child is the toy that another child possesses: the first child (the mimetic model) mediates the desire for the toy. But in another sense, the toy mediates the desire of the second child for the first child: I want what you have because I want to be like you. Contemporary advertising techniques both exemplify and exploit this mechanism of desire. This capacity for mimesis has great potential for good and is an inherent element of human socialization, but it also has the capacity to lead to violence. Mimetic rivalry can escalate until the original mediating object is forgotten, and the two persons become mimetic twins, each mirroring and intensifying the threatening demeanor of the other until violence breaks out. Again, we can see this in the nursery as children quarrel over a toy.

When this machinery of desire is activated in a larger social setting, the effects are amplified, and may escalate into a mimetic crisis with the potential of erupting into universal uncontrolled violence. The scapegoat mechanism can avert this outcome by engaging the mimetic machinery to focus the violence of the entire crowd onto a single victim: as an initial accusatory gesture is imitated by all, the result is the lynching of an allegedly guilty (but actually innocent) victim, rather than a riot. The emotional bonding experienced by the crowd as they unite against the scapegoat resolves the crisis.

Although literal lynchings and riots are thankfully rare, we can see the same social dynamics in muted form in the schoolyard, and in virtually every domain of human sociality. Gil Baillie observes that even the morally legitimate violence enacted by our judicial and penal systems engages this mechanism: he distinguishes between moral innocence and structural innocence, and notes that even a morally culpable victim can be said to be structurally innocent if the crowd experiences the same benefit of emotional bonding from the victim’s punishment.[1]

Christian theologians working with mimetic theory have developed an understanding of the atonement as the culmination of the gradually unfolding revelation in the Tanakh that God speaks on behalf of the victim. In the atonement, God in the person of Jesus Christ literally becomes the innocent victim of mob violence, revealing the workings of the scapegoat mechanism and, because once exposed it becomes ineffective, thereby inaugurating the process of its destruction.

[1] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, 76-83.

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3 Responses to Summarizing Mimetic Anthropology

  1. You have introduced me to the world of Mimetic psychology, and to the thinker René Girard, and for both these things I am very thankful. I have a few questions to shoot your way, if you don’t mind. They will be the questions of a Theologian and a Philosopher, not a psychologist.

    First, to your mind, does this Mimetic model work given the fall of man, or would it work in the absence of a fall? In other words, because it proposes that man seeks to find the self in the other, can we integrate this psychology into the wider world of Trinitarian theology (according to which the proper state of unfallen man is in Kenosis)?

    Second, putting Girard himself aside, can Mimetic psychology be interpreted as compatible with the Catholic faith when it comes to the issue of their being a literal first Adam and Eve (See Pope Pius XII encyclical Humani Generis, where he defines this clearly so as to demand the religious assent of all Catholics)? Notice, there being a literal first Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be true for the question above to be answered affirmatively. My question here is trying to tease out the philosophy of language and anthropology which may come along with this Girardian thesis.

    Third, how do you find the explanations on offer by evolutionary psychologists to fare, as alternatives to Mimetic psychology? What are some noted advantages you can think of, if there are any?


    • Hi Tyler,

      First, to your mind, does this Mimetic model work given the fall of man, or would it work in the absence of a fall?

      Great question. It absolutely works in the absence of the fall and to my mind, is profoundly compatible with a trinitarian anthropology.

      Mimetic anthropology understands human nature as receiving the self, and the desires that make up the self, from others. So it maps very well to a theology that holds that human beings are created in the image and likeness of the Trinity, whose perichoretic dance of love and giving and receiving can be seen as the fullness of what our interpenetrating desires and what some mimetic theorists describe as our “interdividual selves” are an image.

      Mimesis itself, like reason itself and desire itself, is a capacity that is properly good but has the potential for misuse. It is mimetic rivalry, its escalation, and its turn towards violence, that is the problem. I would map that turn to the Fall, as it was a contingent, not inevitable, outcome for mimetic creatures.

      Likewise it is compatible with the notion of a literal first Adam and Eve. A number of mimetic theorists propose a speculative “original scene” in which the scapegoat mechanism first emerges at the dawn of humanity.

      I recommend to you The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes by Catholic theologian James Alison, who engages with these types of questions in a very substantive theological manner. It is not light reading, but you’ve clearly got the theological chops for it. 🙂

      As for evo-psych, most of it is garbage science and I pay no attention to it.

      • Hi

        I came across your post whilst writing my late assignment for an online course myself and many others are doing called Mimesis Academy by Andre Rabe ( You clearly don’t need to do this course, but please do recommend it far and wide as it is simply what you are outlining here. In fact what you wrote is almost verbatim what Andre would have written, so clearly you both have been reading the same material and Girard being the main person. Great stuff and keep on with this as the world (especially the Christian world) needs to hear this. Love it 😀

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