Violence in the 21st Century: How René Girard Explains the Current Crisis
Is the end nigh? Ominous prophecies about AI and climate change, intensifying bursts of social violence, and renewed threats of nuclear annihilation all suggest that the world is accelerating toward apocalypse. But is there an underlying mechanism that is responsible for the emergence of these disturbing trends? According to French philosopher and anthropologist of religion René Girard, the answer lies in a fundamental and universal mechanism — “hidden since the foundation of the world” — which drives social dynamics: mimetic desire.
According to Girard, humans are intrinsically imitative. As Girard states, because we “do not know what to desire,” we start to desire “what others desire because we imitate their desires.” Desire, in short, is not pre-determined or innate but always socially mediated — we do not desire something due to its intrinsic nature or qualities but because it is desired by the other.
Herein lies the fundamental problem. Desires inevitably converge and intensify, and, as a consequence, rivalries proliferate, and ultimately explode into contagions that critically destabilize the social order.
In Violence and the Sacred (1972), Girard shows how this process terminates in archaic societies with ritual sacrifice. Ritual sacrifice discharges socially accumulated mimetic tensions by transforming the “war of all against all” into the violence of all against one. The sacrifice temporarily stabilizes the social system by concentrating and discharging violence; after the sacrifice, the victim is divinized because their sacrifice stabilizes the social order. Girard labels this process of simultaneous victimization and deification the “scapegoat mechanism” or “surrogate-victim mechanism.” When mimetic violence reaches a point of threatening to destroy the community or society from within, it is channeled towards a single victim whose sacrificial expulsion or murder restores social unity and peace. But, as mimetic tensions and violence are irrepressible, the temporary peace inevitably breaks down, forcing the social group to reenact the sacrificial crisis ritualistically to repeatedly release accumulated mimetic tensions.
For Girard, the emergence of Christianity represents a decisive rupture with the sacrificial logic of archaic religions. The crucifixion of Christ – the revelation of the cross – reveals the scapegoat mechanism, which needed to remain concealed to retain its mythological effectiveness and lays bare the innocence of the victim. By disclosing the sacrificial logic of violence, Christianity dissolved the ritualistic foundations of social organization, which had previously constrained irrepressible mimetic competition with sacrifices, prohibitions, and taboos.
By undermining the foundation of sacrificial human culture, the slow triumph of the Christian revelation also gave rise to the possibility of scientific knowledge and, consequently, modernity. Only with the deconstruction of the scapegoat mechanism – compelled to designate surrogate victims as the causes of social violence, plagues, famines, or floods – could a new model of knowledge based on nature emerge. Hence Girard claims that we did not stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches.
Yet scapegoating and spirals of mimetic violence have not ceased to occur in our desacralized modernity. Although we no longer physically sacrifice victims, or at least not officially, scapegoating still occurs on a symbolic level. Furthermore, because we can no longer directly engage in the ritual sacrificial practices that Christianity discredited and dissolved, ever-intensifying mimetic dynamics cannot reach a cathartic resolution. In short, the secularization of the West and the liquidation of religion and its ritual boundaries removed all constraints on the violence of mimetic competition: “all that remains,” Girard writes, “is mimetic rivalry, and it escalates to extremes.” It is this unleashing of uncontrollable runaway violence that for Girard equates to apocalypse.
What we are currently experiencing is the resurgence of archaic violence and “mimetic rivalry on a global scale.” Now technologically supercharged and no longer restrained by religious structures, the message of the Gospel that Christ offered himself as the final sacrifice has collapsed, undermined by the forces of radical secularization and Enlightenment. In post-Christian modernity, categorically renouncing violence, as Jesus did, no longer appears as an alternative.
What now “dominates the total planetary culture in which we live” is “the rise of ‘victim power’.” This secularized version of the Christian “concern for victims” deploys an ideology of concern for victims to gain power. ‘Woke’ victimism, for example, represents a desacralized continuation of Christianity stripped of a religious framework. As a consequence, it tends to recapitulate an archaic sacrificial logic in ‘cancel culture’ and its constant demands for ever more sacrifices and victims, or the narcissistic cult of victimization in identity politics. The Christian eschaton, in turn, has been substituted by social justice, climate change, or the technological Singularity conceived as the terminal stage in the historical process promising salvation and redemption for a Christianity without Christ.
It is not just secularization that contributes to the acceleration toward mimetic apocalypse. Other factors are the equalizing forces of technology and liberalism, which, by attempting to annihilate any residue of difference and distance, intensify the spiraling dynamics of mimetic violence. Echoing Martin Heidegger’s critique of technology as “lumping everything together” in “uniform distanceless” — manifested in the endless stream of TikTok and Instagram posts — Girard’s mimetic theory helps explain how technology exacerbates this loss of differentiation by hyper-charging mimetic contagions and crises. Everything and everyone converges in sameness, resulting in a crisis of differentiation: the more equal we become, the more violent we get.
All of this has deeper apocalyptic implications. Girard, who was a committed Christian, identifies the cycle of mimetic violence with Satan himself. As a “skandalon” or obstacle, representing the “temptation […] of mimetic rivalry,” Satan embodies the mimetic dynamic that culminates in scapegoating. The “prince of darkness” is the principle of social chaos, disorder, and instability. According to Girard, “Satan expels Satan” by promising safety, peace, and stability which, in turn, requires the abandoning of prohibitions, and enables the transgressions which further reinforce the mimetic cycle and its violent resolution.
Because of the triumphant de-mythologization and de-sacralization of Christianity our “desacralized and sacrificially unprotected world” is descending into the apocalypse. But as Girard insists, the Gospel prophesizes a violence that is human and not divine. The unraveling of the pre-Christian sacrificial edifice, which has contained violence up until the event of the crucifixion, has removed all constraints and unleashed a planetary-scale crisis of undifferentiation, which gets constantly technologically reinforced and intensified.
Can we disrupt the mimetic cycle of escalating violence — can the apocalypse be forestalled? In theological terms the question evokes the complex concept of the katechon. According to Thessalonians 2:6–7, the katechon is “that which withholds” (or “the one who withholds”) the apocalypse. The katechon is a force that holds back the destruction of our world but – by impeding the coming of the Antichrist, which is the pre-condition for messianic redemption – it simultaneously also holds back the return of Christ. As Girard notes, it “contains the Apocalypse in the twofold sense of the word […]: to have within itself and to hold within certain limits.” For Girard, the “inability to understand the Revelation of Christ” contains the apocalypse as both the pre-Christian mythological scapegoating mechanism – which enables the reign of the Antichrist — and the post-Christian process of unconstrained secularization push history inexorably to its apocalyptic conclusion: the second coming of Christ and God’s kingdom.
Although Girard does not explicitly engage with the katechon, he nevertheless suggests how we can break the spiraling cycle of violence and exit the mimetic system. According to him, the Antichrist is opposed to any form of transcendence, which interrupts the cycle of violence, disorder, and instability. Satan, for his part, represents the “emergence of a false transcendence,” or, as Girard called it, a “deviated transcendence.” The scapegoat mechanism is precisely a deviated transcendence as it confers an illusion of peace, safety, and stability. After the ritualistic murder, the community experiences a cathartic purification. For Girard, Christ, in contrast, symbolizes the rupture through which “vertical transcendence” breaks into the temporal and horizontal order of pure immanence. It is this insight that Girard recovers from Christian revelation. The event of eternal transcendence represents the radical break with the perpetual recurrence of mimetic crisis and violence that governs this world.
For Girard, what disrupts the mimetic cycle of violence, then, is a form of “vertical” mimesis. Christ figures as the absolute model for all future imitation, which channels mimetic energy and converts envy and aggression into love and peace. “Imitatio Christi”, to imitate Christ, is a call to interrupt and transcend the ever-intensifying and self-reinforcing feedback loop of “horizontal” (or inter-personal) mimetic desire. What is needed is a radical break with mimetic desire: “a liberation from desire.” After the resurrection, Christ “withdraws at the very point when he could dominate.” “To imitate Christ,” Girard emphasizes, is thus to “refuse to impose oneself as a model […] To imitate Christ is to do everything to avoid being imitated.” According to Girard, we need to follow Christ’s refusal to imitate any other man. This radical withdrawal from the mimetic system — which, for Girard, is embodied in the life and work of the 19th-century German poet Friederich Hölderlin — resembles in some respects Ernst Jünger’s “Anarch” and “Forest Rebel” (“Waldgänger”): a metaphysically idealized figure of a sovereign individual that overcomes the mimetic desires of this world.
Girard does not provide any actionable worldly solutions, though. He ends his last book with an unsettling statement: “Violence can no longer be checked. From this point of view, we can say that the apocalypse has already begun.” But perhaps we can detect in the silence that echoes from this sentence some hope. As Hölderlin put it: “But where there is Danger, Salvation also grows.”