I just finished the most thought-provoking book I have read in the past few years. It connected a lot of previously disconnected thoughts I had about human nature and society. Turns out the books is about the literary theory of a converted Christian. This is literally the last thing I would have guessed if you had asked me before reading this book. I picked up “René Girard’s Mimetic Theory” after reading this essay by Dan Wang: Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror. I recommend it. I expect to cover all of this in more detail in the future. Some loose thoughts for now:
- Here is somebody who is developing a theory of human nature by using literary texts as evidence. That is insane. I still loved it. I had always been a bit stumped and confused why people read fiction, the “canon” in particular. But seeing literary texts analyzed and compared like this was really interesting. I can now appreciate the appeal of fiction a bit better. I still think it’s fundamentally nuts to go “humans are like this because Dostoevsky” but probably less so than before.
- Girard’s mimetic theory provides a fascinating perspective on human status-seeking that connected to many things I had thought of before but in different contexts: meaning and happiness, human ambition, adolescence, my own experiences in university debating, international relations, and so on. This was part of why the book was so thought-provoking.
- He goes on to connect this theory about status-seeking to “the founding murders” of human cultures and communities or the so-called “scapegoat mechanism.” This seemed even more crazy to me, but then I remembered a podcast episode with Richard Wrangham on how capital punishment was crucial for the self-domestication of humans, so the formation of human culture and society. I’ve now picked up Wrangham’s book on the topic – and think that Girard is really onto something here. I probably think that the actual story is somewhat different from the one that Girard tells, but even being close is an achievement given his methodology.
- The third step aspect of Girard’s theory relates to how Christianity overcomes all the human shortcomings he discusses. I’m definitely not buying that, but two things still stood out to me: (1) It gave me a new appreciation for the cultural contribution of Christianity. (2) It connects to how I think Buddhism – also a religious tradition – stumbled on some ways to overcome similar “flaws” in human nature. Coincidence? Probably. It still felt weird.
As I said, I will probably explore these clusters in more detail soon.
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