René Girard, Mimesis, and Conflict (with Cynthia Haven)
Jun 24 2024

61OgZmR3eTL._SY522_.jpg If you're always imitating others or aspiring to be something else, what's left of the "authentic" you? According to the French philosopher René Girard, not much: Nothing can be truly authentic, he argued--everything comes from somewhere else. This is just one of the many original and counterintuitive claims put forth in Girard's sweeping approach to human history. He argues it is sameness, not our difference that leads to conflict, and he sees religion as a way to contain the chaos as opposed to its first cause. Listen as Stanford University scholar Cynthia Haven speaks with EconTalk's Russ Roberts about Girard's theories of desire and violence. The conversation also includes a discussion of the power of forgiveness to put a stop to conflict's rinse-and-repeat.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
Jun 24 2024 at 8:54am

When one hears a devoted disciple speaking with such love and admiration for her great teacher one is reluctant to begin making objections. But as an old curmudgeon I find it difficult not to be honest.
The whole truth about the complexity of everything including human nature cannot be condensed into a single aphorism however clever. So too the truths regarding human violence. We imitate and imitation is a part of our learning but there is also original creation, and original individual creation The aggressor is not the same as the one who is cruelly attacked. The finding of the same everything in everybody is not really the answer to anything. Girard does have interesting ideas about religious violence, but they are not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Long live the next voice that will say something different and interesting.

dave b
Jul 20 2024 at 5:22am

I’m sorry, but this is not really an argument because we know that all models are wrong.  To focus on why a model is wrong is rarely productive while trying to find why it is correct usually brings additional useful insight.

Jun 25 2024 at 7:15am

Will Storr in his book “Status game” points to the status in similar circumstances when Girard noticed mimetism and scapegoating. Maybe status is more fundamental than the desire for being?

Jun 25 2024 at 8:52am

Would love to hear Russ’s thoughts on why Joseph really did not forgive his brothers.

Jun 25 2024 at 4:38pm

Came here to ask for this as well!

This weeks guest was kind of weak. Couldn’t really engage with Russ’s questions unfortunately. Still an interesting topic though.

Russ Roberts
Jun 26 2024 at 2:53am

My essay is here.

Jun 25 2024 at 9:47pm

The practice of forgiveness in Christianity was not only modeled perfectly by Jesus, but commanded by Jesus of His followers.  When Jesus’ disciple Peter asked Him how many times he should forgive his brother who keeps sinning against him, Jesus told him 70 times 7 – a number so large that He means every time.

And forgiveness is actually not to benefit the person who perpetrated the wrong.  Instead it benefits the person who forgives.  Jesus was focused on peoples’ hearts – if you’re holding grudges, or always counting the wrongs done to you by each person, you don’t have a lot of room for love in your heart.

Further, forgiveness is a sign of a Christian’s trust in God, who is the ultimate judge.  If you always forgive, you’re leaving all traces of vengeance, revenge, etc., in His hands.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: May 28, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is May 28th, 2024, and my guest is author Cynthia Haven of Stanford University. She is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public scholar. Among other books, she is the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which was the first biography of the French theorist, published in 2018; and she's the editor of René Girard's All Desire Is a Desire for Being: Essential Writings, which was published in 2023. Cynthia, welcome to EconTalk.

Cynthia Haven: Pleasure to be here.


Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is René Girard and his ideas. We have a previous episode on Girard with Jonathan Bi that we'll link to. But, I want to start with a bit about Girard's life. He was born in 1923. He died in 2015. What was his career? Where was he? What was he writing about? He's not a normal scholar with a narrow discipline, and he had a very unusual academic life.

Cynthia Haven: Yes. He began in Avignon, where he was born, went to the Ecole des Chartres. He followed in his father's footsteps. His father had been the curator of the Palais des Papes. After the war--he was mostly in the Rcole during the war--he went to Paris, came back to Avignon, helped launch the first Avignon Festival, which is now a major event in Europe; and then he went to America. It was a great time for young men to be--America was looking for more European young men to supplement their colleges and their universities. He took the opportunity and went to Indiana, which is how he began his American career.

Russ Roberts: He ends up at Stanford. When did he arrive at Stanford?

Cynthia Haven: He didn't arrive to Stanford until 1980. He went to Johns Hopkins, went to briefly to Duke and Bryn Mawr, went to Buffalo--was at the university there--went back to Johns Hopkins, and then went to Stanford. And Stanford is where he spent more time than any place else in his life.

Russ Roberts: If you had to pigeonhole him, what discipline would you say he's in? What did he study and what did he write about?

Cynthia Haven: Oh. Ohhh. He kind of crossed boundaries, didn't he? Technically, his Ph.D. was in history. He did American and French opinion during the war and after the war. He did the history of Avignon, I think, in the 14th, 15th centuries for the Ecole des Chartres.

But, something began to simmer in him in Indiana, and he began already thinking about what had happened with the war, what had happened with the bombing of Hiroshima. And, that kind of changed his direction. He was very influenced by Malroux.

He was also very influenced because in one of his early classes, he had a roll call--I love this little story--and he came across a name he couldn't pronounce. The name was Martha McCullough. So, for a Frenchman, a name that ends with O-U-G-H was unpronounceable; and he solved the problem a few years later by marrying her. They were married for more than 60 years. It was a very happy marriage, a very contented marriage.

Russ Roberts: Beautiful.


Russ Roberts: So, the central ideas--he writes about lots and lots of different things. This book that we'll be referring to is collected essays that you edited recently, All Desire Is a Desire for Being. Let's start with the title, which is--in the back of the book, I really like it, you have a bunch of aphorisms. We may refer to a few others of Girard, but one of them is the title: 'All desire is a desire for being.' What did he mean by that?

Cynthia Haven: Well, I'm so proud of that because that was my discovery. There was a book of Q&A [Question and Answer] interviews with him--excellent. I highly recommend it--when these things begin, his interviews with Michel Treguer, and I was looking it over when I was working one of my earlier books about him. And that phrase just jumped out at me from the page. And nobody had noticed it before. And, it really takes the whole mimetic cycle that he developed one step earlier.

He always says, 'It begins with envy'; but actually, the envy itself is beginning because we actually long to be someone else. We don't want to just imitate them. We want to occupy them. We want to be them. And that is why all desire is a desire for being. We crave something other than we are.

Obviously, that can be a good thing. We can become better, but it also puts us in competition with other people: hence the problem.


Russ Roberts: We'll talk about that in some length. But, the central idea of that--you used the word 'mimetic.' The concept that's associated with Girard in this area is mimesis, which I loosely translate as imitation, but as you point out, it's more than that. So, why don't you elaborate a little bit on what Girard meant by mimesis?

Cynthia Haven: We are imitative beings. Imitation is how it drives us forward. We begin imitating as soon as almost seconds after we're out of the womb. It's why we learn, it's how we learn. But it's also how we come to fight with each other, because we'll both reach for the same things, whether it's a job, whether it's an office suite, or a fancy car. We long to be something other than we are.

Russ Roberts: I think when I interviewed Jonathan Bi, I'm sure revealed I had not come across Girard's ideas until literally a year or so, a few years ago at most. At first glance, there's something very appealing about the theory as a descriptive theory. I've mentioned my granddaughter. I've had the privilege of watching most of her first two years of life at close range. One of my favorite examples that I think I've mentioned before is: she learned how to walk, and she is holding a milk carton; and she's got the lid--the top of the milk carton in one hand--and the carton itself in the other. It's empty. And she is walking around the room as if she has won an Olympic gold medal or cured cancer, because she is imitating the adults who walk around occasionally with a milk carton to make coffee.

Her language is all imitation. She will repeat endlessly things you say. She repeats things in English, in Hebrew. I could teach her French. I could teach her any language I want. She wouldn't understand a lot of it, but I watch as she continually imitates. Over time, she starts to have conceptual understanding of things. And, it is a remarkable aspect of the human experience.

But, I think we like to believe that after we get to a certain age, that ends and we create ourselves. There's a certain date at which we're done with all that, and now we have a blank slate with a bunch of capabilities and we write on it our own desires. And of course, we are our own person.

Cynthia Haven: We're kidding ourselves.

Russ Roberts: We're kidding ourselves. And yet, this idea that we're kidding ourselves makes, I think, many of us hearing this idea uncomfortable--which is good; nothing bad about that. Is there room for authenticity? If my desire is to constantly be something I'm not, someone I admire, someone I aspire to--as you say, it can be a good thing. But, if I'm always aspiring to escape my own self, what's left of me? What's authentic about me in that story?

Cynthia Haven: I don't know how anything could be completely authentic because it's got to come from somewhere.

I think that that's one of the three major things that René did, is he upset the nature of our desire and our violence: first, that our desire is authentic in our own; second, that we fight from our differences rather than our sameness, which is also caused by this mimesis. And, well, he also made an argument that religion is not the cause of violence, but rather the way in the archaic world, our solution for controlling violence.

But, we're going to see a lot of mimesis this year because it's an election year, which always brings a lot of conflict and everybody will be pressured to think like everybody else.


Russ Roberts: So, explain this role of conflict. The book of essays opens, actually, with a very short essay on conflict that basically says it's the essence of the human experience that we have conflict. We may fool ourselves into thinking it's caused by something external, like, say, religious differences. But he says, 'No, it's rooted in our being.' And, I am confused why imitation has to lead to conflict.

If we have someone--let's take a positive view. If I have someone I admire, someone who I respect, and I want to put on their identity--I prefer it to the way I feel about myself--and I start imitating what they do, what they like, what they say, how they say it.

And of course, just to go back to the parenting/grandparenting child thing, it's very eerie when you see children as adults, looking more and more like their parents--not physically, but in their gestures, in their desires. And you can see it in yourself sometimes in the mirror. Sometimes you feel it in your heart. And you realize, 'Oh, my gosh. I'm becoming my father, or I'm becoming my mother.' But, why should my love--love is not the right word--my envy or desire to be someone I'm not, whether it's an athlete, a neighbor, or a pop star, why should that lead to conflict? Shouldn't that be kind of a harmonious thing?

Cynthia Haven: No, ultimately I think we notice that somebody else is copying us or imitating us, and it creates irritation, because we think we're authentic in our own. But in fact, we're all the products of imitation. Like you say, you're imitating your father or your mother or someone, how could you not? But, it creates conflict because the other person fights to keep themselves from appropriation or what they may see as appropriation. Or where they both become so much alike--which is what typically happens, that two people reach for the same thing.

You see that in Shakespeare all the time. Two guys are so close together. They're swearing in Act One that they will be friends forever. And then a girl walks onto the scene. And they're so much alike that they both fall in love with the same girl. So, instant conflict, because they both want the same girl. Or a kingship.

Russ Roberts: Or power. But it's not just then about, say, cultural transmission, which is clearly a powerful force in people's day-to-day lives, whether they're, again, aware of it or not. It also leads to much more complicated competition for power, women, men, fill in the blank. And that leads in Girard's view to much of, if not all of what makes us at each other's throats? Is that true?

Cynthia Haven: Well, I don't know how you can quantify it that much, but we begin to be irritated by this guy that's jostling for our job, our girlfriend, our boyfriend. It creates a certain amount of social friction, wouldn't you say?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it does, but it doesn't mean I want to kill them.

Cynthia Haven: You just want them to back off, get out of your office[?], or get your job.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I guess there's two things here. There's conflict and violence.


Russ Roberts: Let's go to violence. So, in your collection, you have an essay of Girard on religion and violence, and there are a lot of religious wars throughout human history. Of course, many people blame religion for violence. Girard didn't. Why not and how did he understand the role of religion in violence--which is a very powerful and provocative idea?

Cynthia Haven: Well, he thought, in archaic societies religion was a way of controlling violence. When this tension happens, when people are fighting, the obvious solution or the frequent solution is to find somebody that you can blame for your quarreling, somebody outside the situation that you can offload on him. And he can be sacked, demoted, dismissed, expelled, and whatever, or maybe voluntarily go on his own. This is the scapegoating process.

Now, in the 21st century, it doesn't often lead to violence, but you may not see that where you're sitting right now, the tensions that can explode. We periodically find scapegoating in the archaic society: the sacrifice of that person, the killing, the expelling, whatever, brought a tremendous sense of relief to the society because the problem has been solved. You got rid of this person. Of course, it's only temporary, and then the whole cycle starts again. In archaic--

Russ Roberts: The idea of the scapegoat is in the Bible, literally, where the High Priest in Jerusalem would put his hands on a physical goat and send them out into the wilderness and bear the iniquity of the people. It was a form of--depending on your perspective--spiritual atonement, an embodiment of atonement, a spiritual inspiration. If you're superstitious, it could stand for something else.

But, that's one example in religious history. Most of us don't think of scapegoats as a common phenomenon in archaic society. We just don't think about it. So, give us some examples of what Girard is talking about and why it had a palliative impact.

Cynthia Haven: Well, it has a palliative impact because there's this tremendous society that's been built up with tensions. We can go to Shakespeare again: Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and the Montagues. What solves that is the tragedy of the death of the two children of the respective families. Now that's not a sacrifice--I guess it's kind of sacrificial--and the society heals over that, while you can hardly call that peaceful; but it's the offloading of a lot of social tensions onto a third party, which may be internal to the system or may be external to the system.

Russ Roberts: Certainly, in primitive societies, human sacrifice was a practice. The way I always thought about it was to mollify the deities. Why is it a therapeutic procedure for warring, conflicting groups within that society?

Cynthia Haven: Because there's a lot of tensions that build up, and it's a way of not taking it out on your own people, but taking it out on a third party that can be exiled, expelled, or killed.

Look at--a person who studies René Girard, James Alison, wrote an excellent essay on the process after 9/11 with a huge social relief, and suddenly everybody feeling like they were one after this because they had gone through something together.

That's one way that mechanism works--where there's this tremendous expelling of tensions in a society and it brings a healing for a while. But of course, nothing's really changed. So, the same thing starts happening again, and you find another scapegoat.

Russ Roberts: Certainly, here in Israel, before the attack of October 7th, there was an immense amount of divisive disagreement, protest, counterprotests over the question of judicial reform. In the aftermath of October 7th, there's a tremendous amount of unity. It's starting to splinter now as the war against Hamas continues and expands in the north. We are under attack in the north now from Hezbollah, from the beginning of that period. People are a little bit war weary and starting to disagree and fight over what we should be doing next.

But, I guess one way to think about the scapegoat, then, is when we have a common enemy, we do forget our squabbles or worse--things that divide us as a nation or as a tribe or as a community.

And a scapegoat--a ritual scapegoat--is a way to create an enemy that would--in the case of Israel, we didn't create it. You can debate that--it's an interesting question--but it was imposed on us on October 7th and we became more unified. But, a lot of people would look at the United States right now, see how divided it is; and, as you say, if there were another attack like a 9/11, there would at least be a temporary unification of some kind.


Russ Roberts: How does Christianity fit into this, in Girard's view?

Cynthia Haven: Yeah, I was just about to go there. I haven't been able to refute this yet--it's an intriguing--basically, René says that the permanent solution is forgiveness; and the people that invented forgiveness are the Jews. The scapegoat--it depends on you thinking the scapegoat is guilty. And the Christian revelation is the scapegoat is innocent. You can't kill the scapegoat unless you really believe he's the cause of all the problems. But that revelation, he says, starts: 'The revelation of the innocence of the scapegoat begins in the Old Testament.' I tried proving him wrong. I thought, 'No, it can't be that way.' But, in other religions, other ancient religions, you find debt forgiveness, but you don't actually find forgiveness.

But, with the psalmist saying, 'I'm being circled, I'm encircled. They're persecuting me,' with Job, you start getting the idea that there's this innocent person being circled around by hostile people. And it's a note, and I think it finds its fullest expression in the Old Testament--in the story of Joseph--that is so incredible. There's nothing like that anywhere, with the forgiveness that Joseph offers, with the guilt of the brothers, with that moment when he is in the Pharaoh's Hall and he's weeping so loudly that everybody in the court can hear the weeping of Joseph as he forgives his brothers who have been constantly--the expiation of that huge generational conflict between Leah and Rachel and the expiation of that with Benjamin being the last souvenir of that when they come to Egypt. It's a huge movement in the psychology and the spirituality of the human people. And there's nothing like it anywhere.

So, how do we deal with the fact that we're picking on these people but they're innocent? We're picking on them to make ourselves feel better, and the picking on them can just be harassing them if you're the boss; or it can lead to the slaughter that we're seeing all over the world today.

But, what if the scapegoat really is innocent--not necessarily innocent or a good guy, but not deserving of what we're trying to offload onto them? How do we work with that?

Russ Roberts: So, I actually don't think Joseph forgives his brothers, but that's another--most people do. Most people do, but let's put that to the side.

Cynthia Haven: There's a lot to [inaudible 00:24:22].

Russ Roberts: We'll save that for another time. I agree that the attempted reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers, who definitely did him a dirty, sold him into slavery--

Cynthia Haven: Repeatedly--

Russ Roberts: probably almost killed him. What?

Cynthia Haven: Repeatedly. But, the most interesting figure I think in that story, who is often overlooked, is when they sell their brother or sell their brothers into slavery, who is the guy that has the idea to monetize the deal?

Russ Roberts: Judah.

Cynthia Haven: Judah. He is willing to enslave his brother and they monetize it to do it. Then when they have that seen in Egypt, he throws himself on his knees and offers himself as a slave. What a human reversal. I mean, what a human reversal--in just a moment.

Russ Roberts: It's one of the greatest--it's a cinematic moment.

Cynthia Haven: It is an incredible moment. It's an incredible moment. The layers of it keep going down with the silver that suddenly they find on them and the silver that was--that they were selling Joseph for silver and then in the scene they're finding the silver on the thing that's been planted because they're trying to test him. Suddenly, they can't get rid of the silver that they were so eager to get earlier. The reversals--of course, the reversals are a big feature of the Old Testament.


Russ Roberts: Let's go back to Christianity. So, I agree with you that the idea of forgiveness is in the Bible in the Old Testament. I agree that and I see that there's a power of that forgiveness, especially when you concede that the person you've been vilifying is an innocent. And in some sense, that's a different way to look at the Joseph story: It's not Joseph's fault that his father loves him more than the brothers. It's not Joseph's fault that his father loves his mother more than his stepbrother's mother, and yet he's the victim. The fact that he crows over it, you could blame him for, but does he really deserve death or a lifetime of slavery? And the answer would be: probably not.

But, how did Girard see the figure of Jesus and the crucifixion as a cultural form of scapegoating that improved things? Because I think he did, right?

Cynthia Haven: Well, it's a more powerful recognition of the scapegoat's innocence: Father, forgive them. They know not what they do. But, things begin to change. They begin to change in the Old Testament. Well, I mean, if you're Christian, you believe that Jesus is God, that it's a manifestation of God. So, that definitely changes the scale of things.

Russ Roberts: But, what is his role? What does Girard see as the role of Jesus as--a scapegoat?

Cynthia Haven: Well, he was. I'm sorry--I have a thought that I was about to--basically--well, here is an interesting idea. René said that the only way out of the circle of imitation--now René could overstate[?] things. There might be other ways out, but certainly a powerful way out is the Imitatio Christi, because every other kind of imitation will lead you back into the human community, which is where things screw up. But, Imitatio Christi suddenly takes you out of that cycle of imitation. It's basically teaching you to imitate God--in his forgiveness, certainly that; but lots more than that.

Russ Roberts: In theory, that should reduce conflict and violence. And so--right?--he saw Christianity as a force for improving human relations. Would that be true?

Cynthia Haven: I would think that he would think it's doing a lot more than that. That would be the minimum. But it's teaching us to be more God-like, if that's not presumptuous. It's teaching us to relinquish our hatreds, our enmities, our rivalries.

Sorry, just a little phrase from Gore Vidal came through my mind. I'm going to paraphrase it. He said: 'Every time I hear about a friend of mine winning an award or something'--do you know this one?--'a little something in me dies inside.' I have to admit a little something in me dies inside.

So, how do we give up these rivalries? How do we give this up? What you're talking about is an outscaling of it from one angle. I mean, it's taking us so beyond the level, but forgiveness as a form of reconciliation is the only way out of the cycle. It's the only way to end the violence.

In his book, The Scapegoat, his last sentences: 'We must forgive one another while there is still time. If we wait too long, there will not be time enough.' What did he mean by that? I don't know. We can all take a stab at it. But that's the way the book ends.

What is the process of forgiveness? What actually is the process? Because we know, if we just try to stuff it[?], it comes back in a more powerful form, and you're seeing that right now in the world around you.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think a lot about that, about what potential is there for forgiveness in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years? It may take a very long time. Both sides in this conflict that I'm sitting in the middle of are very aggrieved and both have narratives that feed that feeling of being aggrieved. I think about it a lot, that, at least among educated people, we like to pretend that we should all be getting along, right? I mean, you're a nice person. I'm a nice person.

Cynthia Haven: None of us is a very nice person, I'm afraid.

Russ Roberts: What?

Cynthia Haven: I don't think any of us is a very nice person.

Russ Roberts: That's one perspective.

Cynthia Haven: We're nice people unless somebody steps on our toes.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. And I think the way economists look at this is that it's nice to say things in the abstract. But, when there's a zero-sum game or any competition, incentives start to play a role in how I view you or you view me. There's a lot of cooperation in our economic systems. We work together to create things and companies. So, I think the dog-eat-dog nature of, say, capitalism, I think, is grossly misunderstood.

But, having said that, I think about a lot here in Israel, as I mentioned, before October 7th, people were very, very angry at each other. And, during the war, a song was written--I'll try to link to it. I don't remember the songwriter, but he says this really beautiful phrase. He says, paraphrasing: 'It shouldn't take our enemies to remind us we are angels.' Because in the aftermath of this war, people have done extraordinary, good things to help other people who are suffering.

Why is it that that has to be remembered in a war? Why can't you remember that in peacetime? Why does peacetime have its own internal conflicts; but, when an external enemy is at your gate or worse inside your gates, you rise to the occasion? People did extraordinary things on October 7th and after to help their neighbors here.

And yet when the war ends, it will be hard to remember that we're angels, that we're children of God, say, or just decent human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and be kind; because everyone is in a battle that's not a war, but an internal psychological battle. And that's just, I think, one of the great dilemmas and painful aspects of being a human being. That: it's hard for us to be nice to each other, even when we're comfortable physically and have plenty to eat and a good roof over our heads, we still struggle.

And I think, in many ways, that's what Girard was saying.

Cynthia Haven: Going back to Joseph, I mean: What happened in that room where he begins wailing and hugs his brothers? You know, you go through certain things that outscale, even the years that he'd been through and the stuff he'd been through and the slavery and all of that. Sometimes when there's something that huge, we can rise above it simply because the scale is so large. Simply because there's no choice.

But then we go back to--then it becomes Tuesday again. Well, that's the thing about forgiveness. You know? We'd like to think it's once and for all, but we forgive one day and then the next day it's Tuesday again and they're in our face.

And we remember: 'How do you make it once and for all?' I don't know. I don't have any answers for that. Maybe that is part of what you were asking about the Christian element of that, is something happening that that is that awful, that public, there's no choice but to outscale it.

I don't know. I try to be better at it myself. And if I get the hang of it, I'll tell you.

Russ Roberts: We're told in the Bible not to bear a grudge.

Cynthia Haven: Good luck with that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, good luck with that.


Russ Roberts: And, it's--coming back to your point about imitation and imitating God, in Jewish tradition when the Temple was destroyed: no scapegoat. The Rabbis instituted the idea of Yom Kippur as a personal rather than a national experience where, by atoning, by expressing an internal desire not to repeat the mistakes you've made in the past, you'll be forgiven by God. And, that holiday begins--the basis of that holiday is the idea that you will forgive others for what they have done to you.

And, the fundamental idea there, which, as you say, is almost impossible, is to put that grudge down. And yet, we all would like to believe--if you believe in God; if you don't, you can imagine this, I think, very easily--if you believe in God, you'd like God not to bear a grudge against you--

Cynthia Haven: Oh, oh yeah--

Russ Roberts: I mean, after all, you're only human. Even more powerfully, you were made by God--if you're a believer--with those urges and temptations and failings.

And so, it would seem cruel and unfair for God to bear a grudge against you and punish you relentlessly for things you did. And the idea that you can clean your slate with God through a movement of the heart--and of course by action as well, at least in Judaism, the only religion I know a little bit about--is that if you're asking God: Don't bear a grudge against me. And of course, if you imitate God--as you're encouraged to do--that means not bearing a grudge against others. It means not bearing a grudge against yourself. And it means treating people--giving them a chance to have a clean slate at least if they asked for forgiveness. And it's shockingly difficult.

Cynthia Haven: [?]Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about a story you tell in the book, in your Introduction. I think it's in the Introduction. I'm going to read this paragraph. You write the following:

Years ago at a Stanford conference, Girard faced a tough question about his unconventional methods. His research had involved a close reading of archaic texts--which is to say, stories. In them, he discerned hidden patterns of rivalry and the sacralization of violence and strife, an unending sequence throughout the long night of humanity. His writing was seasoned with characteristic humor and insight--he had learned something about himself along his journey, and so didn't offer himself as a hero or an answer.
After the talk, one man asked a provocative question: "Given that we can't entirely trust the veracity of ancient writings, how would you measure the success of your theory?"
Girard's answer was a thunderbolt in its directness and simplicity: "You will see the success of my theories when you recognize yourself as a persecutor."

What did he mean by that?

Cynthia Haven: Goodness. Isn't it obvious?

Russ Roberts: Not to me. I don't know him as well as you did, and I certainly don't know his work as well as you do.

Cynthia Haven: Well, we're perps. I mean, we think of ourselves as the innocents, the people that are put upon, but we don't have to think very hard. But, for each one of us--I mean, I don't think it's presumptuous for me to assume I'm speaking for everyone--each of us has been a perpetrator of injustices on a big or small scale, whether it's punishing your kid because you're mad at someone else at the office or just turning away from people that need help. I mean, it goes on and on. We're all guilty of stuff. We're all guilty of bending the truth. We're all guilty of rewriting the story to favor our own innocence. But, when you see that yourself, you're not that different, then it helps you forgive other people. Why should I get a free pass and they don't?


Russ Roberts: And of course, we see this in Adam Smith with the idea of the impartial spectator--someone who is watching you, who isn't you, doesn't have your self-interest at heart is just a disinterested, impartial observer of--a spectator. And, Smith argues that you can use that concept. He sometimes calls it the man within the breast, meaning your ability to sometimes step outside yourself and see yourself as you truly are. He talks about how difficult that is, of course; but that that's what allows us to occasionally rise above our own narrow selfishness and do something kind or thoughtful for someone else.

Also, our desire to be seen as lovely, as he would put it, is partly what motivates us to do the right thing.

But, what I'm curious about for Girard is--first of all, it's easy to say we're flawed, we're imperfect, but persecutor is a much stronger claim. And I'm curious how that fits in with the rest of his ideas. Why did he see that as my ability to recognize myself as persecutor as a vindication of his own theories? Presumably he didn't just mean that we're flawed or we're sometimes inconsiderate or cruel. He saw that as fitting in with the mimesis and scapegoating, right? 

Cynthia Haven: Sure.

Russ Roberts: Can you explain that?

Cynthia Haven: We're not disinterested people. We overlook so much. If we could see ourselves as others see us, what would they say?

I mean, we exonerate ourselves daily: 'It wasn't so bad because I did it.' 'Somebody else did the same thing.' This is just so much in our human nature, self-love of the wrong kind.

There's another story. I don't think it's in the introduction. It's often told--it's part of the Girard lore. He was in a room of theologians; I think it was somewhere out in Napa or something like that. And they were talking about the world that we were talking about a few minutes ago, although different series of incident. They were talking about the environment, and the this, and wars. They turned to René and they said, 'Given all of this, what would you recommend we do?'

And he said--I think it's a little bit shocking that it had to be said to theologians--he said, 'We might begin with personal sanctity.' And really, doesn't it start there?

I mean, if we begin to examine ourselves a little bit, the self-interest, how much more could I be doing than I am doing and how much do I excuse in myself what I wouldn't excuse in others? I mean, it goes on and on. How many grudges do I keep that are merely dormant because they happened long ago and perhaps the people that they're held against are now dead? Why not begin there? Why not begin with house-cleaning, internally? But so[?] that's not quite the same as seeing oneself as a persecutor, but none of us is immune from charges of cruelty towards other people.


Russ Roberts: But, I took--one of the maxims in the back of this book is: The best way not to be crucified in the final analysis is to do as everyone else and join in the crucifixion. I take that to be a statement about our temptation both for group-think and self-exoneration: to persecute others rather than deal with our own flaws. Is that a fair summary?

Cynthia Haven: Well, he points--the only way to not be stoned is--he said this elsewhere--is to join the stone throwers.

We do that all the time: I mean verbally. And he points that out there[?].

I think there was one thing I was just reading about the other day, Herod and--gosh, [?]--Herod and Pilate after the crucifixion. I am probably getting this passage mangled. They went home to--they made friends that day. Or maybe it was Caiaphas; I can't remember. But they bonded over that.

We bond by joining the persecutors. It's hard to be an orphan.


Russ Roberts: Do you know what Girard thought of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov--this idea that the Church had betrayed the teaching of Jesus and that the Church as an institution had its own view of humanity that was not Jesus's view? Did he write about that? Did he talk about institutional religion versus personal religion?

Cynthia Haven: I don't remember talking to him about that. I don't remember him writing about that.

I think it gets back to what he said, 'We might begin with personal sanctity.' And he seemed to practice what he preached in that regard.

I mean, we always want to sort out the big international organizations before we sort out ourselves. We think it'll be easier, I guess, in my experience, trying to change deeply ingrained habits of hardness that accumulate over decades. You are not going to solve what's happening outside your office. It's on a much larger scale.

Russ Roberts: Well, there's an expression in the Talmud: It is not up to you to finish the work. Neither are you free to desist from it--

Cynthia Haven: Yes--

Russ Roberts: I'm not going to solve what's outside my window, the challenges of this neighborhood, this part of the world. But, I do think I have a responsibility to try to do something--maybe small, certainly for my own. I agree that I have to start with myself. But I also want to try to be a force in the right direction in this country and in any public work that I do, and I assume others would agree.


Russ Roberts: I want to ask: There's a great line in the back, in the aphorism section--

Cynthia Haven: I'm glad you liked that section--

Russ Roberts: What? It was awesome.

Cynthia Haven: [inaudible 00:48:55].

Russ Roberts: Girard said, "If you do not have a real religion, you end up with a more dreadful one." End of quote. And that's a, for me, a version of David Foster Wallace's "Everyone Worships." You're going to have a religion. So, pick a good one. Don't pick a dreadful one.

Cynthia Haven: Yes. And let's not make it politics this year.

Russ Roberts: Well, good luck with that.

Cynthia Haven: There will be a lot of stone throwers. Take cover. Yeah.

Of course, as soon as I compiled that section, you open a book and you see another great one that should have been in the book. He was very aphoristic. That was one of the fun things about being around him.

Russ Roberts: Why did you title your introduction--it's a very haunting title--"We Do Not Come in Peace"?

Cynthia Haven: I crowdsourced that. And a Polish friend of mine, Artur Rosman, that was his idea. He's a very witty man, too. So, that was his idea.

Again, it speaks to that assumption of our own innocence. Because we feel we're basically good guys. We think we come in peace. Aut that's just not the case often. Everybody is a nice person until you scratch them a little.

Russ Roberts: One other aphorism, and we've talked about it but I think it bears repeating: "Only the most superficial forms of imitation are voluntary." I'll say it again: "Only the most superficial forms of imitation are voluntary." I think one of the powerful aspects of this idea of mimesis is not just that we imitate, but we actually think we imitate because we are doing it voluntarily. And he's saying: 'Don't fool yourself.' I think that's really a deep, deep idea.

Cynthia Haven: It is. I'm sure I imitate my mother in a thousand ways that I don't even see because she was my mother. And I look like her. I'm bonded with her, and I'm sure that there's so many things I don't even see that I picked up, so many things intergenerationally if you've noticed that one from people you didn't even know that got passed through. Habits of thought, habits of being. Those are the ones that are not so voluntary because we don't even see them.


Russ Roberts: Let's close with a personal reflection. You write very beautifully at the end of your introduction the following, speaking about Girard. Quote:

We can experience him today through what he wrote, but the firsthand effect of the living, breathing man--his deep courtesy, his affability, his gentle humor and hard-won restraint--is gone forever. I hope the section of "maxims" I have included captures the spirit of his offhand aperçus and transformative insights. However, I would trade them all to enter the Girards' living room on Frenchman's Road, on the Stanford campus--with its rose-colored armchair from Avignon, its bookcases with clay ushabti from Egypt lined up on the shelves--and to have René again invite me to sit down beside him on the white couch and then ask me once more, "What should we talk about today?"

It's so beautiful.

Just tell us something you might share about the man. I mean that obviously says it all, but maybe there's a little more you could add when you think about him as a person, not just as a thinker.

Cynthia Haven: I miss him. I miss him a lot--his gentleness. Not everyone experienced him that way. He was just a lovely, lovely person to be around, and he got better as he aged, I understand, from people that knew him for many decades. I'm glad. It was just a remarkable opportunity to get to know him for--what was it?--seven years, eight years. It was a pure gift.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Cynthia Haven. Cynthia, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Cynthia Haven: Thank you, Russ. It's been a pleasure.