maandag 10 december 2012


The voice of Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea and Micah has its impact on modern philosophers. So says the American Professor Sandor Goodhart who recently gave a lecture at the Amsterdam University and who had with “modern philosophers” in particular René Girard and Emmanuel Levinas in mind.

The prophetic voice is audible in René Girard when he calls attention to the ‘scapegoat mechanism’. By that term he means the phenomenon that one man is sacrificed as atonement for uncontrolled rivalries within a collective.

Girard sees this as follows. Rivalry within a collective begins with mimesis: the tendency of people to copy each other’s behavior. In fact, this involves jealousy because people want to be or possess what other people are or possess. We, twenty-first century people, recognize this rivalry as a good capitalist principle, but according to Girard the phenomenon is as old as mankind.

The mimetic rivalry leads to a certain dynamism which runs through different stages. The first step is the struggle of all against all, for example within a city community. If that fight gets uncontrollably violent, the second step can be put in operation: the struggle of all against all becomes a struggle of all against one. This one is physically victimized – which usually means: killed – and that event will bring the peace back into the city. By this beneficial effect the victim will soon get deified and worshipped as a refuge and patron saint of the citizens.

But in order to maintain the calm for a longer period, ongoing victimization is necessary, and in the satisfaction of that long-term need the original victim appears to play a role again. Although the victim is already dead and canonized, she or he may very well be victimized again, only now in a symbolic way. That satisfies the need, and consequently that’s going to be repeated every year. The sacrificial rituals that go with it have a conciliatory and soothing effect on the urban population.

Now, the merit of the Hebrew prophets - and in their wake of Jesus - according to Girard, is that they oppose this sacrality which is so close to violence. They criticize the sacrificial rituals and proclaim that eventually our actions should be focused on individual and collective justice and nothing else.

At this point Goodhart sees Girard and Levinas meet one another. After all, Levinas draws inspiration from the prophets as well and especially from their belief that nothing, no sacrifices but also no institutions or prevailing morality, can be a substitution for one’s personal responsibility. At most, Levinas goes further than Girard, Goodhart says, when he says that one is not only responsible for one’s own actions, but also for those of others.

You could emphasize that the latter idea marks an important difference between Girard and Levinas. Indeed Levinas, when understood that way, arrives at a new type of victimization – namely that of the substituter of the Other – while Girard wants to get rid of the notion of victimhood altogether.

I personally would rather not attach too much importance to the victimish substitution in Levinas. And then Girard and Levinas stand close to each other in their shared dislike of ritual sacrality.

Also see Levinas and Badiou and Holy Fire