Mimetic Desire Giving Rise to Sin: René Girard and Exposure of the Scandalous Lie

René Girard was insulted with “Girardian Theory” as a description of his work, as mimesis, which is central to every phase of his work, is a well-known phenomenon, recognized from Plato onward in western philosophy and thought.[1] It is not as though Girard discovers mimesis, but he uncovers the logic of mimetic desire in the model of desire, the obstacle cause of desire (the skandolon), and ultimately the founding murder and sacrificial religion. Girard calls his project “mimetic theory” as the entirety of his thought, whether on the novel, anthropology, religion, or theology, is a prolonged description of the workings and logic of human desire, which is mimetic or an imitation (desire is not our own, but what draws into community). Its mimetic quality gives rise to and explains the range of interpersonal dynamics, from envy, pride, rivalry, violence, scapegoating, sacrificial religion, and in turn is a key point in understanding the Judeo-Christian religion in its exposure of this dynamic.

On a surface level the arc of the theory is easy to summarize but may not be convincing, as its inner logic depends upon recognizing the nature of desire which has each of us in its grip and which we have a vested interest in misrecognizing. That is, we are all implicated in this story, and unless we recognize this by penetrating our own self-deception, it is not only Girard, but his identification of the heart of the New Testament, that may fail to impress.

The problem is two-fold. First, the lie surrounding desire is the notion that desire originates within us. It is “my desire” and this is the most private and intimate thing about me. Isn’t desire an expression of my inmost self, arising spontaneously from what is the very center of personhood? The desiring subject, though kept hidden, is taken to be the true subject. An imitated desire, under this definition, is inauthentic and is unbelievable. Corporately and individually amidst the worst forms of evil, as Jesus pointed out from the cross, we do not know what we are doing. We cannot get a handle on the truth, as there is disability in identifying the scandal (the cause of sin) giving rise to human desire.

Second, though envy, jealousy, inadequacy, shame and pride are a universally recognizable part of human experience, there is also the profound sense, as with desire, that these are peculiar and private. This is so personal and shameful, we are unlikely to admit this truth to ourselves, let alone to other people. The tendency is to obscure the underlying feeling of emptiness, of not being enough, of lacking in being, giving rise to desire. To put it in biblical terms (recently rediscovered in psychology), shame is an unbearable experience which requires it be hidden in pride. This truth is hard to bear and describe but is so recognizably the case, which explains the key role of the modern novel in Girard’s discovery.

Anyone who has tried to write about themselves may understand the temptation to flattery and deception – everything rings hollow and false. There is a reason hagiography was and is the predominant form of biography and autobiography and has been for millennia. Inflation, a façade, is much easier to accomplish, and perhaps less painful, than truth. Truth can be sordid, dark, painful to read, and painful to write, yet the best novels touch upon a truth that is immediately recognizable.

The compressed development of the “I” novel in modern Japan illustrates the point, that a certain masochistic destructiveness takes hold in the “confessional novel,” making it the most dangerous profession in Japan (due to suicide). The truth of the human condition can become overwhelming (especially in the Japanese novel which is often entirely lacking in redemptive elements). Likewise, reading Dostoevsky is not hard, simply “because of all the names,” but because the depth of darkness is hard to endure. Envy, rivalry, lust, murderous intent, and the pride that prevails in the human condition reaches uncomfortable levels of intimacy. The best fiction takes up a realism that dispels romanticism and which reduces most mere history (personal or corporate) to a form of fiction.

According to the histories of the novel, this modern literary art form takes as its point of departure and development entry into human interiority presumed throughout Scripture. As Erich Auerbach and others have pointed out, from Genesis forward, the literature of the Bible is developing a technique of interiority which will only be fully appreciated and deployed in the modern novel. The “violation of consciousness” or the presumption to enter into human interiority is the working premise of Scripture, taken up in the modern art form. What separates second rate literature from literary masterpieces is the capacity to deal truthfully with human interiority. According to Girard, the “romantic lie” is thoroughly exposed by “novelistic truth”[2] and this novelistic truth is afforded through biblical revelation.

The romantic lie is a manifestation of the singular lie that life, substance and being reside within. The serpent of Genesis models a form of desire, in which divine life is graspable and consumable. The mediation of desire in the tree of knowledge, is the obstacle to its realization (divine life). It is an obstacle to the fulfillment of the promised desire, but the failure of the lie is not its exposure, but a doubling down on extracting life from death. The scandal initiated by the serpent identifies the role of Satan. Satan is the “adversary” or the original fabricator of the obstacle to desire through misdirection of the lie.

Christ directly identifies Peter with Satan and the scandal, as Peter is caught up in human desire in his attempt to misdirect Jesus away from the cross: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (scandal) to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” His specific guilt is imitating the crowd (saving himself, as evidenced in the High Priest’s courtyard), rather than imitating Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 16:24–25).

Mimesis is not inherently sinful, but the scandalous model becomes an obstacle, unlike the model of Christ. Cain kills able to obtain his place before God. Lamech is a serial murderer, as he would reap divine vengeance and take the place of God. The generation of Noah is consumed by mimetic desire and rivalry until all differences are drowned in sameness. The desire prompted by the lie is exponential. Participation in the divine life is not through extracting life from death (violence, scapegoating, crucifixion) but through taking up the cross. Jesus explanation to those who would kill him is that they are caught up in a murderous lie: “You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). They are carrying out the desires of the devil in their murderous plots.

To ignore the mimetic nature of desire is to miss the fundamental impetus to evil. The role of the “model of desire” and the structuring role of the model turned obstacle (the skandolon), give rise to sin. The obstacle cause of desire, is the direct experience of the lie the New Testament calls the skandolon, or in its verb form, skandalizein. The noun gives rise to the verb or is the cause of sinning. Thus, the New American Bible translates Matthew 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin (skandalizei), cut it off.” 

Excision of the scandal is not accomplished through cutting off the hand, but through crushing the head from which it arose. The murderous logic of mimetic desire is undone in Christ’s exposure of its dynamics.


[1] This is the beginning claim of Michael Joseph Darcy,  (2016). René Girard, Sacrifice, and the Eucharist (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/45 This dissertation is one of the finest summaries of Girard’s work I have come across.

[2] As Darcy points out, “The French title of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, or literally, ‘romantic lie and novelistic truth.’” Darcy, 2.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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