A New Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar

January 8, 4042 (the future)

A so-called new atheist and a fundamentalist walk into a bar discussing a passage from the fundamentalist’s new Bible on “Richard Dawkins, the one and only true Messiah, who lived about 2000 years ago (at the dawn of the 20th century)”.

Richard Dawkins, the Enlightened One sent by God, had been severely persecuted during his lifetime by “the unenlightened peoples of the world”, but eventually his Spirit lived on. The story of his life had been written down by some of his later followers. None of them, however, had known Dawkins personally. They were all dependent on what eye witnesses had told them. No accounts by Dawkins himself or his immediate followers, the first Dawkinsians, were known.

Richard Dawkins Cult

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “It says here that he navigated many dangerous waters in his lifetime. So he was a skipper. This Book comes from God, so I know this claim to be true!”

New Atheist: “Archaeological research reveals that the very first manuscripts of your so-called Holy Book originated in the middle of the desert, among a group of so-called second generation followers of Richard Dawkins. Today researchers generally assume that the movement around Dawkins and the supposed Dawkins himself barely saw any waters at all. So that claim about “navigating many dangerous waters” and Dawkins being a skipper is just bollocks! Moreover, many elements of the stories around Dawkins are present in stories about famous figures of the time as well, like that Moses guy. Some of those celebrities are even completely fictional characters, like Bart Simpson. The story about Richard Dawkins seems assembled from other stories. So if Richard Dawkins ever existed at all remains to be seen!”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “God’s Holy Book contains the true knowledge and science, He can’t be lying. It would be against God’s very own nature to deceive us! You’re an arrogant sinner not to accept the divine truth!”

New Atheist: “Go on then, you idiotic arrogant Dawkinstard, trust those ridiculous revelations! I’ll go with real scientific evidence, though!”

Richard Dawkins The Atheist Evangelist.jpg

In comes a Dawkinsian Biblical scholar.

Dawkinsian Biblical Scholar: “Hey you guys, 2000 years ago that expression in that context meant that Dawkins encountered many complicated situations during his lifetime. So it is a metaphorical way to express something about a historical experience. Your whole discussion about whether or not Dawkins was a skipper is off-topic. That’s what the science of historical critical research tells us. The writers used the idiom of their time and the stories people already knew.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re not a true believer, you sinful corrupted traitor! You’re heir to the Catholidical Church of Dawkins, which is the Church of the Devil!”

New Atheist: “You’re a rationalizing apologist, stupid enough to waste your time on fairy tale nonsense. No one read the Bible that way at the time!”

In comes an atheist Biblical scholar.

Atheist Biblical scholar: “I must say my colleague, the Dawkinsian Biblical scholar, is right. He presents the scholarly consensus.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re a sinner too, you arrogant know-it-all!”

New Atheist: “Well you’re kind of an arrogant prick to claim the truth, you corrupted pseudo-scientist! Of course you defend the scholarly consensus, your career depends on it!”

Ban AtheismAfter which the fundamentalist Dawkinsian and the new atheistBan Religion continued their mimetic battle. It gave meaning to their lives as it provided them with a sense of superiority over their “stupid, stubborn and evil enemies”. However, as mimetic doubles they eventually became each other’s idiots, hurling similar insults back and forth. It seems every human being becomes that idiot from time to time. They accused each other of being the source of many evils in the world, and therefore saw themselves justified to promote politics that would eliminate the other’s world view.

The Dawkinsian and atheist Biblical scholar, on the other hand, went for a beer together. Or so the story goes…

Mimetic Doubles Fundamentalism and New Atheism

 

 

Freedom Defined

I live in Belgium.

Belgium is a small country in continental Europe, internationally known for its beer, chocolate, waffles, currently world class soccer team, Brussels (the capital and “the capital of Europe”) and, well… French fries.

gueuze girardin

A lot of Belgians also pride themselves on having one of the most liberal legislations concerning moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and LGBTI-rights (Belgium was the second country in the world to allow for gay marriage, for instance).

Some legislations definitely emancipated people from oppression by what was often perceived as “Catholic morality”. For years certain clerics indeed claimed the moral high ground in Belgium. Nowadays, especially since the child abuse scandal broke out in the Catholic Church, the tables have turned. So-called liberals have the strongest voice in traditional media like newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and they define what is morally preferable.

male dominated cultures cartoonIn short, secular liberals took the place of Catholic clerics on moral issues. The problem with this is that morality often is not constructed in a positive way, but that it is, in practice, merely defined by a “being against” everything religious. Of course Islam is also targeted. Rather strangely perhaps, secularists on the left and the right sometimes become divided over the treatment and rights of Muslims, for instance over the right for women to wear a headscarf in public. Some (mostly socialists, on the left) claim to protect the rights of a threatened and suppressed minority as they are in favor of the right for Muslim women to wear the scarf. Others (mostly nationalists, on the right), by questioning the right to wear a headscarf, also claim to protect potential victims, namely women who might be discriminated against by certain cultural obligations and habits. So there is a rivalry going on here on the question of victimhood.

who's the real victim

The most extreme secularists, both on the left and the right, forget the ideological differences between them when they find themselves united against “the evil of religion”. They pursue their ideological battle against religion with religious fervor, actually imitating their religious counterparts (who are mostly fundamentalist extremists). Unwittingly and unwillingly (and therefore tragically), both parties resemble each other more and more. Extreme secularists do not dismiss a religious rationality regarding moral issues on rational grounds, but simply because it is labeled as “religious”. Likewise, fundamentalist extremists refuse to listen to “secular voices” simply because of the term “secular”, not considering the possibility that “a rationality of what’s good” (ethics) could reveal itself independently of one’s own (religious) cultural tradition.

Fundamentally, the mimetic (imitative) rivalry between extreme secularists and fundamentalist extremists is about the question how to define human nature. Paradoxically connected to this question is the question of human freedom. In both instances, “freedom” of individual human beings is understood as the result of having received the opportunity to realize one’s so-called “true nature”. Freedom, understood in these terms, thus indeed is paradoxical, since it is about obtaining the ability (the “freedom”) to fulfill the deepest desires (and urges?) one was born with (and did not freely choose). Apart from pedophiles and serial killers, the so-called individual true “nature” of human beings often seems allowed to have its way in our society…

Readers should please note that the idea of a so-called true identity one was born with, “from the beginning”, does not represent my own views on identity formation.

An example of the conviction that we have some hidden, “true nature” (from birth?):

find-your-true-nature-1

Both the extreme secularists and the fundamentalist extremists consider the other party as representing a decadent perversion or suppression of our “true” nature. Hence the different attitude regarding homosexuality by, for instance, certain Muslim fundamentalists who try to prohibit it and secular liberals who defend gay rights. Both groups claim to protect human nature and human freedom (those Muslims might argue that prohibiting homosexuality is like prohibiting alcohol – a drug that could turn people into addicts).

And so you get weird situations like the following (especially if you’re an alien visiting earth, more particularly a country like Belgium), to name but two…

  • MUTILATION OR LIBERATION?

The Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics regards ritual circumcision of boys on religious grounds as a custom that should be abandoned. It leaves open the possibility for this type of circumcision for grown-ups. The financial burden of such a circumcision should, according to the Committee, also not be carried by society.

Circumcision

On the other hand, transgender surgery is partially paid back by the Belgian healthcare system. Moreover, treatment preparing possible transgender surgery is allowed for minors when puberty begins.  The Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics recommended the Belgian legislation concerning transsexuality.

In short, surgery as the result of the craving to establish a certain identity is considered “mutilating” by official standards in Belgium in the case of male circumcision. Even when adult (Jewish or Muslim) men would decide to have themselves circumcised, it is believed that the financial burden for this operation should not be carried by society. Moreover, an identity issue on religious grounds is often perceived as the result of a kind of “psychological illness” (people having been “brainwashed” and what not).

On the other hand, surgery as the result of the craving to establish a certain identity is considered “liberating” by official standards in Belgium in the case of sex reassignment surgery. It is believed that parts of the financial burden for this operation should be carried by society, and already minors can start a therapy with puberty blockers. Moreover, all kinds of action groups try to “stop trans pathologization”, and the influence of these groups is already visible in documents like the Ferrara Report on the Situation of Fundamental Rights in the European Union.

Again a little note to readers as to where I stand personally: I do not think that the financial burden for surgery as a result of mere “identity formation” (on religious grounds or otherwise) should be carried by society. I am also not in favor of non-medical circumcision of young boys, as I would question hormone therapy for non-medical reasons on a young age. The debate is open. If adults ask for tattoos, piercings, circumcision and the like, then they are themselves responsible to pay for it. Sex reassignment surgery as a consequence of a medical condition like “gender dysphoria” is something else, of course, although it is only one way of dealing with this condition. Other ways of dealing with it should also be considered. Belgium has an elaborate health care system that supports the treatment of any kind of medical condition. To the extent that a trans person does not suffer from a medical condition (I indeed agree to “stop trans pathologization”), it should be examined whether or not the health care system should intervene (and, to be consistent, it should not intervene).

We should at least acknowledge some inconsistencies in our assesment of the children depicted below (a Jewish Kid and a Trans Kid):

Jew Child

Trans Child

  • MADNESS OR RATIONALITY?

Nuns and monks of enclosed religious orders are often mocked for living a so-called alienated mad life (sober and in community), and are also accused of “not contributing anything useful to human society”.

Brother Michelangelo Best (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal)

Hipsters, who try to live ecologically responsible, often by embracing vegetarianism and by experimenting with new types of community housing, are hailed as “the dynamic, enlightened young future of human society”.

Hipster Travel Beard

However, the ecological footprint of the average hipster is presumably bigger than that of the enclosed nun or monk, as the hipster often feels the need to “travel the world” in order to “find him- or herself”. And yet the lifestyle of those nuns and monks is never praised as “an example to the world”…

Maybe it is time to ask ourselves the question what our ethics and legislations regarding certain moral issues are actually based upon, as well as our assessment of “religious life” in general. It should be something more than the “being against” as the result of the ever changing game of mimetic rivalry, no? Yes, often the protection of vulnerable life is a valid motivation, but are we sufficiently consistent in what does or does not protect that life?

Anyway, we do not escape the mimetic aspects of our nature, so we best learn to recognize and understand them…

quote-we-live-in-an-age-that-hath-more-need-of-good-example-than-precepts-george-herbert

The Sacrifices of Socrates and Jesus: a Comparison

Much has been written already about similarities and differences between the trials of Socrates and Jesus. This short sketch tries to understand how their sacrifices are interpreted in some key text fragments. It also tries to answer the question whether or not these sacrifices should be understood as vindications of a social order based on sacrifice or, on the contrary, as denunciations of such an order. In the process, this little inquiry also attempts to shed light on Socrates’ and Jesus’ own understanding of their sacrifice, according to the key texts. In the case of Socrates, the focus will lie on Plato’s Dialogue Crito. In the case of Jesus the texts of the canonical Gospels will be questioned, the Gospel of John especially. Readers should please note that the following considerations are merely suggestions for further reflection, as is evidenced by references to some scholarly articles in pdf (see the end).

In Crito, Socrates presents a justification of his death as he reasons from the perspective of an Athenian citizen whose duty it is to obey the Athenian laws. Socrates creates a dialogue between himself and the laws when he tries to convince his friend Crito that he, Socrates, should not escape from prison and accept his punishment. Socrates presents an argument that should be acceptable from Crito’s point of view. In Crito 50e-51c the laws say the following (Socrates impersonating the laws himself):

“Since you [Socrates] have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? Justice between you and your father, or your master if you happened to have one, was not based on equality, so that you could not do whatever you had suffered in return, neither speak back when crossed nor strike back when struck nor many other such things. Will you be allowed to do this to your homeland and the laws, so that, if we try to destroy you, thinking this to be just, you will then try to destroy us the laws and your homeland in return with as much power as you have and claim that you’re acting justly in doing so, the man who truly cares about virtue? Are you so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the courts and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland orders, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?”

And in Crito 51d:

“[…] and yet even so we pronounce that we have given the power to any Athenian who wishes, when he has been admitted as an adult and sees the affairs of the city and us the laws and is not pleased with us, to take his possessions and leave for wherever he wants.”

The Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David, 1787)

According to the speech of the laws, a citizen of Athens should act out of a spirit of obedience. An Athenian citizen is said to be “a slave [of the laws] from the beginning”. Moreover, an Athenian citizen should consider it a holy duty to accept execution and should be willing to sacrifice oneself when the homeland, structured and defined by the transcending order of the laws, demands it and when the citizen fails to convince the homeland otherwise “by appealing to what is naturally just”. Hence, “it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland”.

So, in the end, from this point of view, obeying the laws seems more important than “what is naturally just”. Moreover, as Crito 51d makes clear, those who refuse to accept the order of things in Athens are advised to ban themselves from the city.

This reasoning is crucially different from Jesus’ point of view in the canonical Gospels. According to Jesus, rules (in whatever way they are defined) should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole, not the other way around. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden by Jewish law on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27): “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Contrary to his general ideas on the opinion of the masses (as is clear from other Dialogues), Socrates, speaking from the position of an average Athenian citizen, also uses the desire for recognition by the many as a positive factor in the speech of the laws: “The homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your ancestors, and is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense.” It is difficult to consider such statements as representations of Socrates’ own views in light of other Dialogues. Jesus also criticizes a desire for recognition that becomes an end in itself (see, for instance, Matthew 6:1a: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”).

Another contrast between the Athenian laws and Jesus is perhaps highlighted by the following comparison. Socrates says (Crito 51c): “It is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland.” Compare this with the following words of Jesus (Matthew 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrinations, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus advocates it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says (Matthew 5:44). Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical. In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. Hence Jesus’ conclusion in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

The Athenian laws in Socrates’ speech justify a sacrificial order of things (a sacrificial peace) by demanding the death of Socrates. If Socrates would not accept his death, the laws suggest that he then is in a state of “trying to destroy the laws and his homeland”. Equally, the enemies of Jesus justify Jesus’ death by referring to a potential destruction of the nation. However, by effectively accepting his death, Socrates paradoxically demonstrates that the accusations he is charged with are fundamentally false, and by that he also demonstrates the injustice of his death sentence. Biblically speaking, Socrates “turns the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). In Crito, Socrates does not sacrifice the laws of Athens to establish his own rule. Instead, he accepts the legal verdict and, thus, resists a competition between his potential own sacrificial order of things and the actual one. In short, Socrates paradoxically “sacrifices himself against sacrifice”, much in the same vein as René Girard (1923-2015) describes the death of Jesus. It could be argued that, like the Gospels, Crito already reveals the scapegoat mechanism structuring communities, albeit in a slightly different way.

The Gospel of John perhaps more elaborately reveals how the scapegoat mechanism is at the origin of human culture (and sacrificial ritual).

It is noteworthy that Jesus does not believe in a God who wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”. That’s why he says, when he is questioned by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Jesus does not want to start a civil war. He does not want to establish a rule based on the sacrifice of a previous order. In other words, Jesus refuses “mimetic rivalry” (for more, click here). He does not want to abolish the law, but wants to put it at the service of neighborly love (which was the intention of the Jewish law all along).

In the Gospel of John, the devil is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism (which means that an innocent individual or group is wrongfully accused). Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies.

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Christ on the Cross (Jacques-Louis David, 1782)

René Girard comments on how the Gospels, in principle, destroy the devil or “Satan” as the endless violent cycle of mimetic rivalry and scapegoat mechanisms ruling the human world (in I see Satan Fall like Lightning, Orbis Books, New York, 2002, p.142):

“By depriving the victim mechanism of the darkness that must conceal it so it can continue to control human culture, the Cross shakes up the world… Satan is no longer able to limit his capacity for destruction. Satan will destroy his kingdom, and he will destroy himself.”

In yet other words (Col 2:15):

“Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In what way Socrates also made a “public spectacle” of “the powers and principalities” as a kindred spirit to Christ, is open to further debate. An important difference is the fact that Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), while Christ radically refused violence (see Matthew 26:52).

Some scholars have argued that the speech of the laws actually represents Socrates’ own view – see, for instance: Socrates Misinterpreted and Misapplied: An Analysis of the Constructed Contradiction between the Apology and the Crito (by Masha Marchevsky, Macalester College). Others understand the speech as an attempt to persuade Crito and indeed reveal something fundamental about the nature of politics – see, for instance: Law, Philosophy, and Civil Disobedience: The Laws’ Speech in Plato’s Crito (by Steven Thomason, Ouachita Baptist University).

As for now, I tend to side with those who consider the speech of the laws as not representing the views of Socrates himself. On a personal note, I should thank my friend George Dunn, who, after a lively and sharp Facebook discussion, forced me to reconsider my initial position and made possible the above reflection.

A Midsummer Night’s Mimetic Desire

René Girard devotes six chapters to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in A Theater of Envy, his book on William Shakespeare (for references I use the edition of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2004 – originally this title was edited by Oxford University Press, 1991). I’ve tried to rework some of Girard’s insights by using the diagrams I’ve developed (for more information, click here for “Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism”). But first things first: a plot summary.

1. PLOT OF A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

A Midsummer Night's Dream by MukilteoCasualtie

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, portrays some strange events surrounding the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The play consists of three plots, interconnected by the noble marriage.

First there is the story of four young Athenian lovers who are invited to the celebration. Fair Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to submit to her father Egeus’ demand that she wed Demetrius. Meanwhile, her childhood friend Helena desperately falls for Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander escape to an enchanted forest outside Athens. Informed by the still desperate Helena, Demetrius follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena chases Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia, but he rejects her offer with cruel insults.

Oberon, king of the fairies and at that time in an envious quarrel over a changeling with his wife and queen Titania, observes the cruelty of Demetrius. This second plot about the fairies intervenes with the first one when Oberon asks his servant, Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, to apply a magical juice to the eyelids of the sleeping Demetrius. The juice is derived from a flower called “love-in-idleness” and causes awakening persons to fall in love with the first creature they see. Oberon hopes to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena. However, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and Lysander falls in love with Helena. Oberon is able to correct Puck’s mistake and uses the magic to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena as well. Rivaling Lysander and Demetrius then end up seeking a place to duel each other, leaving Hermia enraged and desperate as she accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. Puck, following Oberon’s orders, prevents the duel from happening and removes the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius now loves Helena.

The four young lovers return to Athens to witness the celebration of Theseus’ wedding. A group of six amateur actors performs “Pyramus and Thisbe”. These six craftsmen (among them a guy named Bottom who is eager to play nearly every role) prepared themselves in the enchanted forest and went through some upheaval as well. Like the tale of the four lovers, this third plot again is connected to the world of the fairies by Puck’s magical love potion. Oberon lets his wife fall in love with Bottom so he can blackmail her and claim her changeling. He succeeds and after removing the spell from his wife he goes to Athens with her to bless the house of Theseus. All’s well that ends well, so it seems…

2. MIMETIC INTERPLAYS IN THE TALE OF THE FOUR LOVERS

O hell to choose love by another's eyes (Shakespeare quote A Midsummer Night's Dream)I will focus on the subplot of the four young Athenian lovers. René Girard, in the aforementioned book A Theater of Envy, interprets the love shenanigans during the fairy night as consequences of the mimetic nature of the young lovers’ desires. Surprise, surprise. Each individual competes with another one for the recognition or love of a third party. Girard argues that this kind of competition is eventually based on mimetic (i.e. imitative) interplays, and he demonstrates how Shakespeare, throughout his works, developed fundamental insights in this essential human interaction. The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t compete with each other because they accidentally desire the same person, but they desire the same person because they imitate one another. They are led by mimetic desire. Ever more rapidly during the play they all take another person as model or mediator for their desire. This results in self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and divinization of their model on the one hand, or in self-aggrandizement and loathing (a form of hetero-aggression) of their model on the other. In the words of Hermia, which summarize the guiding mimetic principles of the play (in Act I, Scene 1):

O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

Of course, no one is eager to admit that his or her desire is not his or her own. Although the play at first glance lends itself to a romantic interpretation of the ties between the four lovers, Shakespeare comically undermines the belief in “true love” and “true love’s desire” (understood as “unmediated desire”). In the words of René Girard (A Theater of Envy, p.34-35 & p.36-37):

The history of the night continues its prehistory with different characters in the various mimetic roles. Before the midsummer night began, in other words, it had already begun. First Demetrius was unfaithful to Helena, then Hermia was unfaithful to Demetrius, then Lysander to Hermia, and finally Demetrius to Hermia. The four infidelities are arranged in such a way that the minimum number of incidents illustrates the maximum amount of mimetic theory.

It is important to observe that the love juice cannot be invoked as an excuse for the infidelities that occur before the midsummer night. Everything can and must be explained mimetically, that is, rationally. If we had only the infidelities that occur before our eyes, the examples would be too few to lead us unquestionably to the mimetic law, but the addition of the prehistory and the history is sufficient to the purpose. So instead of a single triangular conflict that remains unchanged until the conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests a kaleidoscope, a number of combinations that generate one another at an accelerating pace. Shakespeare gives several objects in succession to the same mimetic rivals for a comic demonstration of the mediator’s predominance in the triangle of mimetic desire.

[…]

A Theater of Envy (1991)Shakespeare satirizes a society of would-be individualists completely enslaved to one another. He is mocking a desire that always seeks to differentiate and distinguish itself through the imitation of someone else but always achieves the opposite result: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an early triumph of unisex and uni-everything else. It involves a process of increasing symmetry among all characters, yet not so obviously perfect a one that the demonstration becomes heavy-handed.

Unlike the skeptical Puck, who mocks the lovers because he understands everything, Oberon is full of reverence for “true love,” but his language plays occasional tricks upon him and suggests the very reverse of what he intends to say. After Puck has picked the wrong man for his dispensations of love juice, Oberon sounds indignant, as if the difference between “true” and “false” love were so huge that Puck’s mistaking the two were unforgivable. His actual words suggest the very reverse [from Act III, Scene 2]:

What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight:
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turn’d and not a false turn’d true.

Who will tell the difference between some “true love turned” and “a false turned true”? It all sounds the same, and the distinction upon which the pious Oberon insists is humorously undermined. The supposed discrepancy between “true love” and its mimetic counterfeit echoes the inferiority of the copy versus the original in traditional aesthetics. The problem is that no original is available: everything is imitation.

The cacophonic circularity of “true love turned” and “false turned true” ironically suggests the paradoxical contribution of differential and individualistic ideologies to the growing mimetic uniformity; differentialism is the ideology of the mimetic urge at its most comically self-defeating. All this amazingly resembles our own contemporary world.

THE AUTO-AGGRESSION OF HELENA

The first mimetic triangle we encounter in the play structures itself from Helena’s perspective. Helena compares herself to Hermia and this reinforces her desire to obtain (the recognition of) Demetrius – the object of her desire [the left side of the diagram]. All this eventually results in Helena’s self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and the divinization of her “model”, Hermia – Helena wants to erase (the confrontation with) the difference between herself and Hermia, she wants to be Hermia [the right side of the diagram]. The desire for Hermia’s being – the mediator – turns out to be more important than the desire for Demetrius.

 

MND Autoaggression of Helena

Again, in the words of Girard himself (ibid., p.43-44):

Being is what mimetic desire is really after, and Helena says so explicitly.

Helena wants to be “translated” to Hermia.

[…]

Helena is desperately in love with Demetrius, but he is hardly mentioned; gigantic in the absence of Hermia, his stature shrinks to almost nothing in her presence. Thus the real priorities of mimetic desire are revealed: however desirable the object may be, it pales in comparison with the model who gives it its value.

Hermia and Helena (Washington Allston 1818)A remarkable aspect of our text is its sensuousness. Helena wants to catch Hermia’s “favour” as she would a disease, contagiously, through physical contact. She wants every part of her body to match Hermia’s corresponding part. She wants the whole body of Hermia. The homosexual connotations of this text are not “unconscious” but deliberate, and it is difficult to see what kind of help psychoanalysis could provide. Shakespeare portrays the tendency of unsuccessful desire to focus more and more on the cause of its failure and to turn the mediator into a second erotic object – necessarily homosexual, if the original desire is heterosexual; the erotic rival is an individual of the same sex as the subject. The homosexual connotations are inseparable from the growing emphasis on the mediator.

Helena will show a little later that she has not forgotten Demetrius; her behavior with him is more “masochistically” erotic during the night than that of any other character.

[…]

What Helena is going through is part of her “midsummer night.” Many adolescents experience an intense fascination for successful school friends, and it may or it may not affect them permanently.

Girard explores the love/hate – dynamics generated by the mimetic interactions between the four lovers more extensively further on (ibid., p.50-51):

We must examine a striking feature in the amorous language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the proliferation of animal images. In order to express her self-abasement, Helena compares herself to various beasts. In opposition to these metaphors of lowliness, images of sublimity and divinity express the transcendence of the inaccessible object, Demetrius, and of the triumphant mediator, Hermia.

[…]

In all intensely mimetic relations, the subject tries to combat the self-contempt that necessarily accompanies the overvaluation of the mediator. Helena reveres her mediator but also hates her as a rival, and vainly tries to regain the upper hand in a relationship that has become completely unbalanced. The more divine Hermia and Demetrius seem to Helena, the more beastly she herself feels. The animal images are a privileged means of expressing the self-abasement that mimetic desire generates. Instead of rising to the near-divinity that they perceive in their models, the subjects of desire sink to the level of animality.

It’s time to put Girard’s analysis to the test and to take a look at how The Bard himself portrays Helena’s self-loathing in relation to Hermia and Demetrius.

From Act I, Scene I

HERMIA
God speed fair Helena! whither away?

HELENA
Call you me fair? that fair again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!
Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.

HERMIA
I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.

HELENA
O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!

HERMIA
I give him curses, yet he gives me love.

HELENA
O that my prayers could such affection move!

HERMIA
The more I hate, the more he follows me.

HELENA
The more I love, the more he hateth me.

HERMIA
His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.

HELENA
None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!

Hermia and Lysander (John Simmons 1870)HERMIA
Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;
Lysander and myself will fly this place.
Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seem’d Athens as a paradise to me:
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn’d a heaven unto a hell!

From Act II, Scene I

DEMETRIUS
I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

HELENA
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

DEMETRIUS
Do I entice you? do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?

HELENA
And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,–
And yet a place of high respect with me,–
Than to be used as you use your dog?

One of the strongest arguments for the kind of interpretation of the play we’ve been exploring, i.e. in terms of mimetic interactions, is Girard’s reference to what happened before the play begins. The prehistory of the midsummer night is summarized in the very first scene of the play. Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

In the beginning Helena was in love with Demetrius and Demetrius with her. This happy state of affairs did not last. The gentle Helena explains in a soliloquy that her love affair was destroyed by Hermia:

For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

Why should Hermia attempt to seduce Demetrius away from her best friend? Since Hermia now wants to marry the other boy, Lysander, she could not be motivated by genuine “true love.” What else could it be? Do we have to ask? The mimetic nature of the enterprise is suggested by the close similarity […] with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hermia and Helena are the same type of friends as Valentine and Proteus: they have lived together since infancy; they have been educated together; they always act, think, feel, and desire alike.

In our prehistory we have a first mimetic triangle. […]

Demetrius is still very much in love with Hermia because she is the one who jilted him, just as Demetrius himself had jilted Helena a little before. The enterprising Hermia first stole the lover of her best friend and then lost interest in him, thus making two people hysterically unhappy instead of one. If Hermia lived in our time, she would probably claim that a bright, modern, independent young woman like herself needs “more challenging friends” than Demetrius and Helena. Demetrius and Helena seem insufficiently challenging to Hermia because she found it too easy to dominate them. First, she roundly defeated Helena in the battle for Demetrius, which destroyed the prestige of this friend as a mediator. Being no longer transfigured by the power of mimetic rivalry, Demetrius too lost his prestige and did not seem desirable any longer. Whenever an imitator successfully appropriates the object designated by his or her model, the transfiguration machine ceases to function. With no threatening rival in sight, Hermia found Demetrius uninspiring and turned to the more exotic Lysander.

This explanation is also valid for Demetrius, our first example of infidelity. He yielded to Hermia’s blandishments because Helena was too gentle and loving; she did not make things difficult enough for her lover. When mimetic desire is thwarted, it intensifies and, when it succeeds, it withers away. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the play in which these two aspects are discreetly but systematically exploited. The two together make up the dynamics of the midsummer night.

THE HETERO- (AND AUTO-) AGGRESSION OF HERMIA

Indeed, from the observations about the prehistory of the midsummer night it is plausible to consider the alternative love triangle at the climax of the midsummer night as a consequence of (Shakespeare’s insight into) mimetic logic. Puck’s love potion hardly conceals Shakespeare’s deconstruction of the “true love” illusion. The reality of mimetic desire brings any stable “forever and ever” romanticism to an end. Once again, René Girard (ibid., p.51):

god dogAs the end approaches, the metaphysical absolute shifts from character to character and the mimetic relation loses all stability. When the two boys abandon Hermia and turn to Helena, the entire configuration is reorganized on the basis of the same polarities but with a new distribution of roles. A formerly despised member of the group has become its idol, and a former idol has lost all prestige; in the language of our metaphoric polarity, it really means that a beast has turned into a god and, reciprocally, a god has turned into a beast. Up is down and down is up. When Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, it is Hermia’s turn to feel like a dog.

The diagram from the perspective of Hermia thus looks like this:

 

MND Heteroaggression of Hermia

Helena cannot believe that the two boys now rival each other to obtain her (all the while, of course, mimetically reinforcing each other’s desire). Of course Hermia is not happy with this turn of events. At the same time as she “masochistically” loathes her own “dwarfish stature”, she loathes Helena. Hermia, comparing herself with Helena, is even prepared to fight her friend. The Bard:

From Act III, Scene II

HELENA
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you were civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.

[…]

HERMIA
What, can you do me greater harm than hate?
Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me:
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?

LYSANDER
Ay, by my life;
And never did desire to see thee more.
Therefore be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.

HERMIA
O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom!
You thief of love! what, have you come by night
And stolen my love’s heart from him?

HELENA
Fine, i’faith!
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!

HERMIA
Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.

THE HETERO-AGGRESSION OF DEMETRIUS

Finally, the mimetic logic is also at work in the behavior of the two boys. René Girard (ibid., p.32-33):

The first thing to observe is that, even though the two boys are never in love with any girl for very long, both of them at any given time are always in love with the same girl. We can also observe great similarities in their two discourses, which remain unchanged when both of them shift from one girl to the other, except, of course, for the minor adjustments required by the fact that Helena is a tall blonde, whereas Hermia is short and dark-haired.

[…]

[Demetrius] imitates Lysander because Lysander took Hermia away from him, and like all defeated rivals, he is horribly mediated by his victorious opponent. His desire for Hermia remains intense as long as Lysander provides it with a model; as soon as Lysander shifts to Helena, Demetrius also shifts. This perfect parrot is a more comic version of Proteus [from The Two Gentlemen of Verona]. Imitation is so compulsive with him that, were there a third girl in the group, he would certainly fall in love with her, but not before Lysander did.

In short, Demetrius compares himself to Lysander, and this reinforces his desire for Hermia [the left side of the diagram]. All this results in Demetrius’ desire to erase (the confrontation with the difference between him and) Lysander [the right side of the diagram]. Hence the full diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Demetrius

In the words of The Bard:

From Act II, Scene I

DEMETRIUS
I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

HELENA
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

THE HETERO-AGGRESSION OF LYSANDER

Lysander at first seems more independent than Demetrius, but we should not be fooled. René Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

What about Lysander himself? When he shifts to Helena, he has no possible model, since no one is in love with the poor girl. Does that mean that his desire is truly spontaneous?

[…]

the chase is better than the catchIn The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare emphasized the strength and stability of unfulfilled desire. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this emphasis remains, but it is supplemented by an equal emphasis on the instability of fulfilled desire. We can now understand why Lysander abandons Hermia, for all desertions are rooted in the disenchantment of peaceful possession. Lysander has triumphed over his mimetic rival Demetrius. Hermia truly belongs to him, so he lacks the indispensable stimulus of mimetic rivalry. Helena must seem attractive at this point because she has given no indication of being interested in Lysander; besides, there is no one else to turn to.

In other words, Lysander compares himself to Demetrius and reinforces his desire for (the recognition of) Helena, to the point where he wants to get rid of Demetrius. Hence the diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Lysander

From Act II, Scene II

HELENA
O, I am out of breath in this fond chase!
The more my prayer, the lesser is my grace.
Happy is Hermia, wheresoe’er she lies;
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears:
If so, my eyes are oftener wash’d than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear;
For beasts that meet me run away for fear:
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster fly my presence thus.
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne?
But who is here? Lysander! on the ground!
Dead? or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander if you live, good sir, awake.

LYSANDER
[Awaking] And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!

HELENA
Do not say so, Lysander; say not so
What though he love your Hermia? Lord, what though?
Yet Hermia still loves you: then be content.

LYSANDER
Content with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason sway’d;
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will
And leads me to your eyes, where I o’erlook
Love’s stories written in love’s richest book.

3. MIMESIS AND EROS

Without further ado, René Girard’s main conclusion on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ibid., p.64):

The symmetry of the two human subplots suggests that aesthetic imitation and the mimetic Eros are two modalities of the same principle. Bottom’s desire for mimesis spreads as contagiously among the craftsmen as erotic desire among the lovers and has the same disruptive effects upon the two groups; it produces the same mythology [the midsummer night’s dream].

In his theatrical subplot, Shakespeare reinjects the ingredient that the aestheticians always leave out – competitive desire. In the lovers’ subplot he reinjects the ingredient that the students of desire never take into account – imitation. This double restitution turns the two subplots into faithful mirrors of each other, the two complementary halves of a single challenge against the Western philosophical and anthropological tradition.

[…]

The enormous force of Shakespeare comes from his ability to rid himself of two bad abstractions simultaneously: solipsistic desire and the bland, disembodied imitation of the aestheticians. The love of mimesis that sustains the aesthetic enterprise is one and the same with mimetic desire. This is the real message of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Western philosophical and scientific tradition is based on the opposite principle. Mimesis and Eros are seen as separate. The myth of their mutual independence goes back to Plato, who never associates the two concepts, even though his frantic fear of mimetic contagion and his distrust of art, more particularly of the theater, points to the unity that his formal system repudiates.

[…]

Shakespeare’s spectacular marriage of mimesis and desire is the unity of the three subplots and the unity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Lord What Fools these Mortals be

The play ends with Puck addressing the audience. It seems he tries to reassure us that “true love” can only be disturbed by a magical dream. As if a certain configuration of relationships is true and “real” and an alternative one can only be false and “dreamlike appearance”. We don’t like to admit that our desires are subject to mimetic antics. We would like to escape the realization that our desires are guided by emotions like envy and jealousy, or pride. And yet, Puck ironically reveals that there indeed is a “serpent’s tongue” (i.e. the principle of mimetic comparing, as the serpent refers to the creature that seduces Adam and Eve to compare themselves to God in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden). Thus Puck is the liar (“merely a character in a play”) who tells the truth. And so he gets the last laugh…

From Act V, Scene I

PuckPUCK
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

CLICK HERE FOR A PDF-FILE OF THE DIAGRAMS

Here are some previous posts concerning the same issues:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Achever… the Social Sciences (click to read)

Mimetic Theory in High School

Some of us working on mimetic theory would like to develop some material that could be useful in high school curricula, in different disciplines. I’ll be posting some ideas and present some possible content in the months to come. This is how an introduction to a high school course on mimetic theory could look like. Any suggestions are welcome!

CLICK HERE TO READ A PDF VERSION

A.      HUMAN BEINGS AS CRISIS MANAGERS

We all have to deal with crisis situations. A crisis happens when we are challenged to renew or change the order of things as we know it. Therefore it is always a threat, big or small, to the systems that bring stability to our lives. A crisis is a time to make decisions in order to preserve a given system of stability or to create a new one. As such it is not just an event which forces us to adjust to its course, but also an opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world. A crisis is violent when it is primarily experienced as an assault on our personal integrity and our socially defined identity. On the other hand, a crisis might contain the promise of a better protected personal integrity and an enhanced social identity when it is experienced as an assault on systems of stability that actually suppress us. In short, the crisis situations that befall us and subvert the world as we know it are experienced either as a curse or a blessing, either as doom or chance.

crisis is danger and opportunity

Confronted with crisis situations, every human being is able to ask three clusters of questions, one scientific and two philosophical. Here’s what the crisis manager named human might think about:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How can a crisis situation be explained? What are its causes and consequences? How do we, people, deal with it and what explains our behavior?

To use a business analogy:

How do people behave within the company and what problems arise out of this behavior?

  • A FIRST SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

Where do we want to go from here, confronted with this crisis? What is the ultimate goal of what we are trying to do? What are we hoping for?

To use the business analogy:

What does this company stand for? What goals does it hope to accomplish?

  • A SECOND SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave ourselves if we want to accomplish our goal, dealing with this crisis? Should we deal with the crisis situation like we normally do, or should we change our behavior?

To use the business analogy:

How should people behave within the company in order to accomplish its goals?

Once the two sets of philosophical questions are answered, science of course functions as a means to make the fulfillment possible of thought-through goals which transcend (and therefore guide) the merely scientific endeavor.

B.      MIMETIC THEORY – INSPIRATIONAL THINKING IN TIMES OF CRISIS

I.                    CONSIDERING “CRISIS MANAGEMENT” QUESTIONS

As long as we are alive and well as human beings, we are mimetically connected to each other. It is because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that we are social creatures. Mimetic theory, as it was initially developed by René Girard, tries to understand and explain the possibilities and pitfalls of human social behavior by studying its mimetic interactions. It attempts to answer the three clusters of questions, identified previously, concerning “crisis management” as the condition humaine:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How do crisis situations in human life arise out of mimetic interactions? How are these mimetic interactions influenced by conditions of the natural environment? Or, on the other hand, how do mimetic interactions construct patterns of human behavior that influence the natural environment in negative or positive ways? How do we normally deal with crisis situations arising out of mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

What goals are desirable for human life, considering the mimetic nature of human beings? What are we trying to accomplish by studying mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave if we want to accomplish our goals? Should we deal with crisis situations, arising out of mimetic interactions, like we normally do – like our ancestors did, for instance? Should we accept certain morals (of which the origins can be scientifically explained)? Or should we try to change our behavior?

II.                  OUTLINE FOR A COURSE USING MIMETIC THEORY

  • MIMESIS AND EMPATHY

Any course using mimetic theory starts with a simple observation: the way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)

Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

double mediation

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. As it happens though, the recognition we get from one social group might be of more importance to us than that of another. We might empathize more with the members of the San Francisco symphony orchestra we’re part of than with the homeless of that same city. Or we might feel so close to our favorite football team that we become really hostile to its adversaries.

So our ability to empathize with others turns out to be a two-edged sword. It connects us with and disconnects us from others at the same time. It can connect us to the members of a group we want to be part of against a common enemy. Even more so, it can stir rivalry between members of the same group or the same social environment. That might be surprising, but on second view it will turn out to be quite logical. Our mimetic ability allows us to take other people as models for our behavior. It allows us to learn from them in all sorts of ways, but it also plays a significant role in structuring our desires and ambitions. For instance, there’s more than one twelve year old soccer player walking around with a shirt of Lionel Messi or some other soccer idol, secretly dreaming of being the next soccer sensation.

  • MIMESIS AND RIVALRY – THE PROBLEM OF MIMETIC DESIRE

There seems to be no harm in identifying with someone you admire and take as an inspiration for your own desires and ambitions in life. At first glance, that is. As long as the model you imitate belongs to quite another world than your own, as long as there is a significant distance between yourself and your model – in space, in time, or both –, chances of a conflictual relationship with the model are reduced. On the other hand, when that distance is no longer experienced, things might turn ugly, both for yourself and your model. As a twelve year old forward in a soccer team, it’s fairly easy to admire Lionel Messi, but it might be a hell of a lot harder to appreciate the talents of the new teammate who comes in and takes your spot. Identifying yourself as being the forward (or even “the Messi of the team”) immediately complicates your relationship with this newcomer, as he arouses the desire for your former status and the recognition it is supposed to bring. You might, for instance, try to get rid of the new guy by locking him out. Good coaches, though, know how to deal with these types of situations, even strengthening their team in the process. When two or more forwards imitate and thereby reinforce each other’s desire to be the best player on their position, it indeed can make them all better players in a consequently better team.

Mimetic Rivalry

Good coaches and managers are able to use mimetic rivalry in constructive ways, allowing their employees to recognize and respect that “the best has won.” However, all management efforts aside, mimetic rivalry remains a tricky thing. It is literally rivalry based on the imitation of desires for certain material and/or immaterial objects (e.g. a trophy, some sort of social recognition or status, power within a company, wealth, etc.).

Envy Pride Mimetic Desire

Human desire is, beyond instinctive needs and wants, highly mimetic (i.e. based on imitation). True, we’re all born with certain physical needs (for food, water, oxygen, etc.). But no one is born with the desire to become, say, a culinary chef. That is a socially (and therefore mimetically) mediated ambition that gets different cultural expressions. Mimetic desire and mimetically mediated ambition can easily lead to frustrations and destructive conflicts between people who take each other as model.

Mimetic Desire

When two or more people, consciously or more often rather unwittingly, imitate each other’s desire, they become each other’s annoying obstacle when they cannot or do not want to share the object of their desire. In short, they become antagonists because of mimetic desire. Paradoxically, it is because people are close to each other and can imagine what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, that they can become each other’s archrivals in the context of a mutually shared desire. As said, our mimetic ability connects and disconnects.

Mimetic Desire (The Raven Foundation)

  • THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AS RESPONSE TO MIMETIC CRISES

The mimetic building blocks of our psychosocial fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, unjustly blamed for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

Scapegoat Team Building

  • GOALS OF THIS COURSE

Because of the widespread presence of the scapegoat mechanism and the sacrifices that go along with it in the preservation of social order and peace, it is a real challenge to imagine other ways of building human communities. The question is how to create communities where differences between people don’t lead to escalating rivalries that tend to leave no difference at all – except for the violently established difference between a group and its scapegoat or sacrificial victim. In other words, are there ways to create a social order and peace that leaves room for non-violent, creative conflicts that originate in the irreducible yet fascinating differences between ourselves and other human beings?

The goal of this course is, first, to become more aware of the psychological and social mechanisms this introduction already briefly touched upon. Among others, it will present three ways by which mimetic connections between ourselves and other human beings might become mentally and/or physically violent and destructive. Some stories, old and new and from different media, will function as mirrors that reveal some of those important aspects of who we are as human beings. It will allow participants to analyze actual events and to reflect upon their own life. For those interested, extracurricular background information is given, including some scientific and philosophical material. Secondly, this course invites participants to actively grow into a way of being that prospers non-sacrificial peace and a way of life that is giving and joyous.