Violence and the Sacred

Date of Publication: January 1, 1979

Author: René Girard

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Unless you are a sociologist or philosopher, you probably don’t want to read this book. Relying heavily on cultic myths and practices of various religions, Girard attempts to explain why violence is at the center of all societies and religions, and why, in fact, violence gave birth to religion.

He ultimately argues that there was an original act of violence which ultimately led to the possibility of the destruction of all people in the community, and so to avoid the ever-increasing cycles of violence, the community selected a ritual victim (a human or an animal) that would both carry the guilt of the community as well as the violent tendencies into death, thus satisfying the demands for revenge and the blood lust that comes with it.

He argues that much (all?) of our violence comes from a desire to imitate or have what belongs to another, and this desire leads to a violent action by which we seek to obtain the belongings or knowledge of the other being.

There is much more that Girard argues, but I do not recommend it for the average reader. His method of argumentation is laborious and while a discerning reader will benefit much from what Girard writes, the amount of work it takes to find these insights makes this book hardly worth the effort. Though I have not read them yet, I expect that “Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World” and “The Scapegoat” will prove to be more reader-friendly.

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