René Girard, R.I.P.


imageUntil his death in yesterday’s early hours, René Girard lived across the street from us, and becoming his friend — we used to get together for lunch or coffee — represented one of the signal joys of my life. Born in Avignon on Christmas Day 1923, René studied medieval history in Chartres while modern history, in the form of the German occupation, took place all around him. (Visiting Paris once during those years, he was once stopped by a gendarme, who asked him to produce his papers. When René displayed his passport, the policeman recognized it as a forgery at once. René thought the policeman would arrest him. Instead, he gestured to the other end of the street, where German soldiers stood peering at them, returned the passport, and told René to go back the way he came. ” Instead of putting me in jail,” René explained, “that man saved my life.”)

Traveling to the United States to pursue an academic career — René taught at Indiana University (where he met his wife, Martha, who survives him) and at half a dozen other institutions before settling at Stanford — René began to study myths, anthropology, and theology. In the course of a long career, he produced some thirty erudite, profound volumes. Much of his thought is complex; I’ve found myself pausing to consider a single paragraph or passage for minutes at a time. Yet, perhaps his best-known insight — certainly the one that has meant the most to me — is quite simple and turns one of the most famous works of comparative religion ever published, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, upside down.

In his massive study, Frazer noticed a recurring pattern, common to myths and religions throughout the ancient world: the pattern of the scapegoat; that is, the sacrifice of a sacred leader or king. In the Oedipus myth, for example, order returns to Thebes only after Oedipus has gouged out his own eyes and is driven into exile. Seeing the same pattern in the gospels — Jesus is crucified on a cross bearing the placard “king of the Jews” — Frazer concluded that Christianity represented merely one more ancient myth above which modern man could rise, abandoning “magic,” as Frazer often called religion, for science.

René Girard’s contribution? To notice a feature that neither Frazer nor his followers had grasped: that, whereas the scapegoats sacrificed in the ancient myths were understood to be guilty — Oedipus really did murder his father and marry his mother — the scapegoat sacrificed in the Christian account is understood to be completely innocent. In condemning Jesus to death, Pontius Pilate, conscious of Christ’s innocence, publicly washes his hands, attempting to cleanse himself of what he has done; even the centurion in charge of the execution proclaims of Jesus, “Truly, this was the son of God.” Christianity, René asserted, represents not another mere myth within a vast, ancient tradition, but a new and astonishing break with, or rupture from, that tradition. Why did the gospel account prove so singular? For one reason, René came to believe: it was true.

Here’s René describing this central insight during my Uncommon Knowledge interview with him six years ago:

France never produced a more thorough Frenchman; when he was elected to the Académie française ten years ago, René took immense pleasure in the green velvet uniform, designed by Napoleon himself, in which he was inducted, and reveled in the notion that he would now become, to use the very French title, “un immortel.” The United States, however, never gained a more patriotic immigrant. No matter how often I complained about slipping standards or political bias in American universities, René would defend them, insisting that the modern university represented an immense — and distinctly American — achievement. And the Church never won over a more faithful son. René once had to cancel a lecture because Pope John Paul II, visiting this country, had asked to meet one of his favorite thinkers. And each Sunday, René and Martha would attend the noon mass at St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto, the only mass in Northern California during which a choir sang Gregorian plainsong.

Soon now, that choir will sing René to his rest. And Augustine, and Aquinas, and John Paul II will welcome him to the academy in which every member is truly immortal.

René Noël Théophile Girard, requiescant in pace.

Published in Culture, History, Religion & Philosophy
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  1. St. Salieri Member
    St. Salieri

    Thank you for that moving tribute.  What a privilege to keep company with such a profound thinker, and thank you for sharing his work.  When I saw that interview six years ago or so, it had a profound life changing impact on my thinking and introduced me to a great thinker.  Thank you Mr. Robinson, and thank you Professor Girard.

    • #1
  2. Manny Coolidge

    There are so many holes in Frazier’s thinking that I think he’s long been ignored.  I’ve never heard of Girard.  His Wikipedia page is quite extensive.  I assume he knew Jacques Barzun?  How did they relate?

    • #2
  3. katievs Inactive

    Wonderful interview. Thank you, Peter.

    I learned about Girard and his central insight years ago through Roger Scruton, who talked about Violence and the Sacred as a profound book and an important influence on him. That central insight about the scapegoat has been with me ever since, helping me interpret my own experience, as well as understanding my faith more deeply.

    I hope I can thank him face to face in heaven one day.


    • #3
  4. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.

    Thank you, Peter. That was beautiful and you left your friend a great tribute.

    • #4
  5. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju

    As a Buddhist and Jew who very much believes in and experiences God in my life, I can so appreciate the devotion to and love for Christianity that both you and Girard demonstrated in this interview (which I had not seen previously). I especially appreciated the discussion of myth and scapegoating. It was enlightening. Thank you.

    • #5
  6. Tom Riehl Inactive
    Tom Riehl

    What a pleasure and outright thrill to watch this interview.  He extends hope to those who might otherwise despair; and it is a hope that is intellectually coherent.  What a gift he was.  Thanks for sharing this along with your loving comments, Peter.  My evolving reading list will outlive me, but oh well…

    • #6
  7. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow

    Thank you for a most moving tribute.

    I’m sitting out here on my construction site, and once again thinking of how my Ricochet membership has introduced me to the most amazing and eclectic group of people, their doings and their thoughts. But also the doings and thoughts of all the extraordinary people they know. How else would I ever have known of this man? And now I will be thinking about him all afternoon.

    • #7
  8. Peter Robinson Contributor
    Peter Robinson

    The Scarecrow:Thank you for a most moving tribute.

    I’m sitting out here on my construction site, and once again thinking of how my Ricochet membership has introduced me to the most amazing and eclectic group of people, their doings and their thoughts. But also the doings and thoughts of all the extraordinary people they know. How else would I ever have known of this man? And now I will be thinking about him all afternoon.

    Bruce, that’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about our beloved Ricochet. You’ve made my day.

    • #8
  9. Manny Coolidge

    I now watched the video.  You know, whether Christ is innocent or guilty is almost secondary.  The reason for the sacrifice is that Christ becomes the Passover lamb, from which sin is expiated once and for all, replacing the animal sacrifice of Judaism.  Yes, Christ is innocent, as the lamb is innocent, but Frazier put (forced, would be a better word) the Christian context into a Greco-Roman context, which fundamentally doesn’t make sense.  Frazier’s book is just a goof ball work that really doesn’t have much merit.  Trying to dispute Frazier by accepting his context is a mistake in my opinion.

    Not trying to take away from Girard.  He seems like an important thinker.

    • #9
  10. Dave Carter Podcaster
    Dave Carter

    I got off of work early today, as wedding preparations enter the last few days,…but I took time to watch the video.  Remarkable gentleman.  Such deep insight and such a gentle man.  God rest this wonderful soul. Peter, thanks for sharing this.

    • #10
  11. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt

    Thanks Peter for a beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. I’m struck by coincidence, although I really believe in purpose. The purpose is that when through no effort of our own wonderful people cross our path. A neighbor and good friend to my parents passed away a few days ago. He was a young boy in Munich during WWII. One evening his mother and older brother came back to their apartment after an Allied bombing of Munich. There was a draft notice for his brother affixed to their front door. His mother tore the draft notice into pieces and hid her eldest son for the remaining years of the war.

    He was well read and a kind and gentle man. He was apprenticed to a chef shortly after the war and became very skilled and practiced his culinary arts in Europe and the US.

    Sometimes when we least expect it through no effort or deserved action on our part our lives are enriched and our faith is renewed in mankind when we most need it.

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  12. Fredösphere Inactive

    Thanks, Peter. Because of the efforts of you and a few others to promote Girard’s work, he has become a hero of mine.

    • #12
  13. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat

    Thank you for sharing this story about your neighbor – you were both lucky to have known each other! Sometimes the smartest, most intellectual are like the verse in Matthew – “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” – replace rich with intelligent because everything has to be rational – maybe his greatest achievement was stepping out on faith.

    I love talking and hearing about the elderly – they are so wise and we’re losing them. I had a neighbor once who was learning to be a teacher and went to Europe for a semester on an exchange program – she heard a bunch of racket she told me, outside her apt. window – opened it to see firsthand, the marching of the Hitler Youth – can you imagine?

    They could tell us so much about the direction we are going now, since they have already been there. God bless your sweet neighbor and sharing his lifetime of achievements.

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  14. Fredösphere Inactive

    Reading the news out of Yale and U-Missouri makes me wish we were teaching Girard in our schools right now. Maybe more people would see the the scapegoating going on for what it truly is: a very common kind of madness.

    • #14
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