René Girard’s Mimetic Theory summary

Actionable Book Summary: René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver

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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Unsurprisingly, as stated in the title, the book is a detailed examination of the most famous thesis by René Girard – the mimetic theory. The desire of the French philosopher is to explain human existence and also tell us why human relations are so prone to conflict and violence. The theory is based on some of the most influential novels in modern literature (The Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, Don Quixote, and more). Therefore, in this book, Wolfgang Palaver examines and comments on the sources used by Rene.

The Core Idea:

We, humans, form our desires based on the desires of the surrounding people. The people we follow and hang out with transmit their desires to us, and they become ours. This realization not only shatters our precious perception of autonomy and uniqueness, but also explains why feelings like jealousy dominate our minds – when we desire the same things as others, we become rivals as we all long for the same objects.

Highlights:

  • Our own desires are a projection of the desires of others.
  • Violence emerges when two people want the same thing. And since we imitate each other, we end up being violent towards our closest friends.
  • When we strive to be someone we are not, we end up hating ourselves for not being who we really are.

6 Key Lessons from René Girard’s Mimetic Theory:

Lesson #1: We’re Deeply Influenced By The Desires of The People Around

The core idea of the mimetic theory is captured in the following sentence: “Humans do not themselves know what to desire; as a result, they imitate the desires of others.”

Just like that, the concept of our uniqueness vanishes. Our perception of autonomy and independence is imaginary. We are, our ambitions, goals, and desires, according to Rene, just a reflection of the yearnings of the people around us.

Why is that?

Simple. We learn by imitating others. When we’re born, in order to cope with the obstacles that come our way, we copy the behavior of the people closest to us. Since we yet don’t know what is true and what actually works, it’s natural to consider the actions of others as right.

This is actually our main advantage over animals – our ability to adapt and “steal” tactics and strategies from the people forming our social circle. This instinct is essential for our survival.

And while there are obvious benefits of mimicking the actions of others, there are some really nasty side effects that emerge:

  • Envy: The feeling of envy emerges when others have things we’re unable to acquire.
  • Rivalry: Essentially, we all desire the same things. We imitate each other all the time after all. Eventually, we start to fight over these same objects.
  • Violence: Violence arises when two people direct their desires towards something specific – since they can’t both possess it, one of them might use force over the other.

The mimetic theory offers answers to all of these destructive patterns that are deeply rooted in our nature.

“Envy,” as the term is understood in everyday usage, is due to a feeling of impotence which we experience when another person owns a good we covet. . . . If we are merely displeased that another person owns a good, this can be an incentive for acquiring it through work, purchase, violence, or robbery. Envy occurs when we fail in doing so and feel powerless.” Max Scheler

Lesson #2: Hatred and Envy Are Feelings Inspired by The People Around us

How do you feel towards someone you don’t have anything in common? Someone you rarely see? Even if he’s obviously wealthier than you?

Probably indifferent. You don’t care. After all, he’s not part of your inner circle.

Totally different motives occupy your brain if we’re talking about your neighbor or your close friend.

This time, if say your next-door friend is part of the group of people you commonly see, he becomes a rival. A source of sadness if your life.

This happens for three main reasons:

  • Disappearance of difference: When two men are from different nationalities, from different classes, they have a lot of differences. These unsimilarities are not allowing us to wish what they wish and the opposite. If, however, we’re similar to the person we see, if we have things in common, disagreements and envy emerge. Mainly due to the fact that we seem equal on the surface.
  • Inability to adore ourselves: When our close friends have traits that are admirable, a feeling of hatred cripples inside us. After all, deep down, we want to feel good about ourselves. We fall, though, because the person in front of us is better. His superiority highlights our flaws. Thus, we feel incapable.
  • Desire the same things: At some point, people who have something in common will start to desire the same things. Since they’ll mimic their desires, it’s only a matter of time to start desiring objects which they are unable to both possess. When this happens, inner conflict forms in our minds.

For these reasons, the mimetic theory is also called the “theory of conflict.”

Since people imitate each other’s desires, they end up desiring the very same things. And when they desire the same things, they easily become rivals since they rarely can both reach the same objects, achievements, etc.

The conflicts resulting from this double idolatry of self and other are the principal source of human violence. When we are devoted to adoring our neighbor, this adoration can easily turn to hatred because we seek desperately to adore ourselves, and we fall.” René Girard

Lesson #3: Faith Is The Only Permanent State Of Mankind

Girard’s work aims to promote Christianity as the ultimate form of salvation from our dreadful worldly desires – aggression, hostility, frustration, etc.

But say you’re a non-believer. You don’t think that there are Gods or beings above the clouds. Does this mean that you never worship anyone?

Nope.

We all have a need to worship someone. We aspire to find a person, an idol, who can “show us the way” towards a better life.

The following words by Dostoyevsky are mentioned in the book to help us understand this:

A man cannot live without worshiping something; without worshiping he cannot bear the burden of himself. And that goes for every man. So that if a man rejects God, he will have to worship an idol that may be made of wood, gold or ideas. So those who think they don’t need God are really just idol worshipers, and that’s what we should call them.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

When our basic needs are met, we don’t sit and relax. We still remain unsatisfied. Loftier desires emerge. We want more! But what?

Since we’re unable to fill the gap all by ourselves, we seek to find an answer to this troubling question in someone else. Someone who seems more important. A high-ranking person.

No wonder we’re obsessing over celebrities and media stars. We idolize them because we see in them things we don’t have. And since they seemingly are in possession of the things we want, we start to follow them thinking that this act of adoration will bring us closer to salvation.

Lesson #4: Our Uniqueness is Imaginary

Our current world promotes originality. Big companies sell us the idea that their items will help us escape the mundane horde and allow us to create a distinctive persona.

People are described as unique. One of the kind. Original. As long as, of course, they acquire the advertised products.

The claim that we’re formed by the desires of others immediately throws these allegations in the trash.

Any person caught imitating or following the herd almost automatically attracts our complete scorn. It is thus certainly no surprise why most reactions to Girard’s mimetic theory have been negative, for it attempts to argue that all human beings are determined by imitation—a scandalous claim in our world that so highly praises originality.” Wolfgang Palaver

We want to express ourselves and to feel unique but at the same time, our longings are heavily influenced by what others have and want. Therefore, since everyone strives towards the same things, this automatically means that we’ll all end up having and doing the same things.

As the French social philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy explains, “the paradise of non-imitation” can only be achieved “thanks to imitation”.

Of course, big companies don’t want you to realize this. They promote uniqueness in all of their products and say that when you’re in a possession of the advertised object, you’ll be one of a kind.

Is this true, though? Can you become unique if you buy the precious objects advertised? Well, you can’t. The reason is very simple. Since everyone can potentially buy what is sold, when everyone buys this object, it will no longer be unique. So, it all comes down to wealth. The more money you have, the more extravagant stuff you can buy that are not easily accessible by the masses. Or at least based on the narrative that things make you unique.

Does this mean that only wealthy people can be one of a kind?

Again, the answer is no. After all, there are other rich people who have the funds to purchase expensive items.

So, how can we then avoid being associated with the herd and shine?

Avoid the crowd.

The only way you can distinguish yourself from the crowd is by detaching yourself from what the rest of the world is doing. This alone time can help you find your own voice.

If you want to be genuine, you need to spend some all by yourself. This will help you form your own unique perspective that is not influenced by the desires of the crowd.

Lesson #5: We Place Our Desires Above Else and They Blind Us

As noted, to move up in the world, to feel accepted by others, and essentially feel good about ourselves, we absorb the desires of the people around with all of our senses, and they finally become our own. Once a desire is formed, naturally, consciously, or subconsciously, our actions start to lean towards achieving what we aspire.

This model of desire takes a triangular shape. As explained in the text, “the apex represents the mediator and the two base vertices the imitating subject and the object.”

Or in other words, on the top of the pyramid, we place the person we want to become (also called mediator). The left corner is where we are currently. On the right, sits the object we strive to obtain that will essentially help us move closer to what’s on the top.

To explain this better, the author looks at literature and more particularly at the classic novel Don Quixote.

Quixote’s ultimate goal is to one day become a knight. For him, this is the top of the mountain. So, to become a noble sword-bearer, move from his current state to where he wants to be, he imitates Amadis of Gaul, the hero of a famous novel of chivalry.

Everything Don Quixote does is based on his representation of knighthood. Even if this means suffering. That’s why he breaks his relationship with Aldonza Lorenzo (his Dulcinea) in order to faithfully imitate his mediator – Amadis.

There are many other examples in the book that explain the triangular shape of the mimetic desire theory but the important thing is this: be careful what you aspire. Other people deeply influence our perception of good and bad. Eventually, no matter how reasonable you might think you are, you’ll fall victim to this three-sided loop. It’s important to strive towards an ideal but never blindly pursue this model of desire.

Long live the memory of Amadis, and let him be imitated so far as is possible by Don Quixote of La Mancha, of whom it will be said, as was said of another, that if he did not achieve great things he died in attempting them. If I am not repulsed or rejected by my Dulcinea, it is enough for me, as I said, to be absent from her. And so, now to business! Come to my memory, ye deeds of Amadis, and show me how I am to begin to imitate you.” Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Lesson #6: Mimetic Desire is The Actual Cause of the Fall of Man

If you’re a believer, a Christian, you’ll probably find the text intriguing.

There’s a long discussion in the book about how religion is shaping our behavior and about how the ancient biblical text is connected to the mimetic desire theory.

In the Old Testament, pride, envy, lust, are what led to “the break” with God. When Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit from the tree they were expelled from heaven. But from where did pride and envy actually emerged? The holy text introduces the Devil as the main character influencing this behavior. But it can be translated otherwise.

Behind these devilish feelings, the desire to “be like God” is actually forcing humans to refuse to obey his rule of not touching the fruit. They look at him as this all-knowing being. Naturally, they want to be like him. And since the fruit of knowledge is the only thing that offers a way to “be like him”, they want to have it. So, the apple was taken because the first humans wanted to be like God – that’s the main reason they broke the law.

It’s paradoxical, the desire to be like God and to obey him is and at the same time a blessing and a curse. We want to be like God, that’s why we act as he wishes. However, reaching his greatness is impossible since he is in possession of holy powers. Therefore, our desire to mimic him force us to not obey his commandments.

The salvation: The salvation the Bible offers for humanity is again related to the mimetic desire phenomenon. This time, it’s explained in the New Testament. By not acting violently, Jesus wants to inspire others to basically do the same.

Why then he was betrayed and abandoned by his students?

The text provides an answer:

Jesus’s radical nonviolence, which he lived in accordance with his own teachings, is ultimately, and not surprisingly, what makes him a scapegoat. In a culture rooted in violence, the absolutely nonviolent person is an almost inexorable target for collective persecution.” Wolfgang Palaver

Or in other words, since all people desire the same things, they essentially think and act the same way. The kind nature of Jesus seemed so unnatural. And, according to the people, the root cause of everything bad on the planet. So, getting rid of this “different” person should fix everything. At least that’s what people thought.

The “magic” happened 3 days after Jesus was buried.

After the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, he is shown to be innocent. The world no longer sees him as a victim and nonviolence, what he promotes, prevails over the fierceness of humanity. This “second chance” is an opportunity for humanity to fix itself.

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Actionable Notes:

  • Who are you imitating? We’re all influenced by outside people. Full autonomy is a mirage. From a very early age, we copy the behavior of the people around us and we try to be like them. Think about who are you trying to imitate and most importantly ask yourself “why?” are you striving to be like them.
  • Create your own idol: Aspiring to be like someone else, someone “better” than you can be of assistance. Especially if you don’t know what you should do with your life. However, this pursue towards someone else usually leads to a downfall. By striving to be this other person, you never give room to express your true self. Therefore, you’ll eventually feel “out of your skin” for trying to be someone you’re not. Rather than striving towards person X, create a unique “idol” by combining qualities from several people. Still, never betray your own interest and your personality. Use what you formed as a heroic image for guidance, not to displace your true persona.
  • Avoid bad faith: The concept of bad faith is beautifully described by a personage we all daily face – a waiter in a cafeteria. The posture, the voice, the way he walks, everything a waiter does is an act. A play. The person is playing at being a waiter, but he is actually not a waiter. At last not on the inside. Moreover, the more a waiter strives to be good, the more he proves that he’s not a waiter. Why is this bad faith? The more you strive to be someone you’re not, the less you’ll actually be you. When you’re trying to be someone you are not, while you are doing it, you are not you. The conclusion? To avoid inner disappointment, do things that are closer to you.
  • Rethink your relationship with the Other: We rely on outside feedback to feel good about ourselves. Which is sad. The words of the novelist and philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, are included in the book to explain this: “in order for me to be what I am, it suffices merely that the Other look at me. The joy of love is based on the other’s justification of our own existence.” In other words, we find satisfaction only when “the Other”, people around us, vote for us in some way. In the 21st century, this means likes and followers. So, what we should do if the Other is not giving us proper attention? The only solution offered in the book is to avoid them. Satre continues: “My original fall is the existence of the Other.” Probably we can’t detach ourselves from the world but at least we can position ourselves where the influence of the Other is positive or not threatening.
  • Imitate only nobles: The whole concept of the book revolves around the idea that other people heavily influence our behavior. Therefore, it’s of prime importance to carefully select the people you admire and “follow”. The author, a devoted believer in Christ who wants to promote Christianity, among other things in the book about religion, describes a state called transcendence of love. Mainly occupied by divine entities, this mythical concept is explained as a “form of transcendence that never acts by means of violence, is never responsible for any violence and remains radically opposed to violence.” To visualize this better, imagine Jesus of Nazareth. But how can we reach this state when everyone around us is violent? Being good all the time is surely out of the question. What we can do then? You can detach yourself from the wrongdoings happening around and find a nonviolent place. This way, you’ll ensure that there are no violent people around you. And, you won’t accidentally copy a bad behavior. Additionally, make sure to look after truly exceptional people. Not fake gurus who, as mentioned in the book, “claim to imitate nobody… but at the same time want everybody to imitate them.”

Commentary and My Personal Takeaway

You know that you’ve read a good book when you don’t understand half of the words used inside.

René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver is a detailed dissertation of the mimetic desire concept introduced by René Girard – and not only. Wolfgang Palaver tracks down the text Girard used to construct his theory and adds detailed comments making it easier for us to grasp this theory. Amongst the various explanation of how the mimetic desire is influencing pretty much all of our actions, the text also finds the same theory influencing biblical texts and myths.

All in all, the text explains how and why humans borrow the desire of others and make them their own.

This concept is especially important to understand in our current world. A world where everyone is connected to others, thus, influenced by everyone.

A couple of years ago, you were mainly imitating the behavior of people around your block. Now, you have the chance to look inside the lives of people that are on the other side of the planet.

Why is this bad you might ask yourself?

Well, we all start to dream of getting the same things. But since we can’t all have fame and fortune, we then start to see others who were previously our friends as enemies. As obstacles that are trying to stop us from acquiring what we (all) want.

Today, everybody is imitating someone. But at the same time, we want more people to imitate us. If this doesn’t happen, our self-esteem is crushed.

The key takeaway:

Although there are obvious benefits of imitating people who have achieved more than us, placing yourself as a follower always leads to a downfall. Trying to be someone you’re not will take you further away from who you really are. The only solution is to be your true self. The person you are when there is no one around you.

Notable Quotes:

In television commercials, the advertised object only rarely appears directly on the screen; most often what is shown are the people in possession of the object—or those who desire it—in order to activate the viewer’s imitation. This is a clear illustration of the triangular structure of mimetic desire.” Wolfgang Palaver

Human beings influence each other, and when they are together, they tend to desire the same objects. This is not because these objects are scarce, but because . . . imitation . . . governs desire. Man attempts to create a being out of himself that is essentially based on the desire of his fellow.” René Girard

Everything which may be said of me in my relations with the Other applies to him as well. While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me. . . . Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others.” Jean-Paul Sartre

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