The Warrior Spirit and the Limits of Violence: A Response to Rene Girard’s Battling to the End Justin Synnestvedt

, December 2011 (abbreviated)

The aristocrat is he who is essentially a war leader, it seems to me. Rene Girard

Introduction In his 2007 book, Achever Clausewitz (published in 2009 as Battling to the End),1 Rene Girard expands his theories of mimetic rivalry,2 and the violent origins of all primitive religions, and the societal order they establish, to include the history of modern war, especially since Napoleon. As a foil, he uses the work of Carl von Clausewitz (1780 - 1831), a Polish general in the Prussian army. In Girard‟s opinion, Clausewitz is the one “who, without realizing it, found not only the apocalyptic formula, but that this formula was tied to mimetic rivalry.”3 He had a “dazzling intuition about the suddenly accelerated course of history, but he also concealed it to try to give his book the tone of a technical and sage treatise.”4 Clausewitz interrupted his work, and died before he could finish it. Girard felt so taken by the work that he decided, as he says, “to finish Clausewitz, by going to the end of the movement that he himself interrupted.” Clausewitz‟ book, On War, was written during the Franco-Prussian wars. It provides both a historic confirmation of Girard‟s theories, showing the changes that Napoleon brought to western warfare, and a link with the subsequent evolution of conflicts up to the present, namely an increasingly rapid advancement of violence that seems to have no limits. And because technology has already provided the means to bring it about, the end of the world is a very real possibility - even probable in Girard‟s view. “Maybe it‟s too late,” he says.5 In Clausewitz, Girard finds support for what he has long held, namely that the Apocalypse spoken of in Christian scriptures was a real prediction, not of God‟s punishment, but of humanity‟s inevitable self-destruction, if it refused to renounce the sacrifice of innocent victims - “scapegoats” - and join instead the kingdom of love, as preached in Christian scripture. My intention here is to critique Girard‟s conclusions, while accepting to a large degree his analyses of human nature, human history, and the apocalyptic era we live in. Although the end of the world is foreshadowed in many ways by the Jewish Prophets6, and predicted specifically in the Christian gospels, most modern thinkers have rejected these prophesies as myth, but Girard - a historian and anthropologist - claims the end is more and more likely in our world than ever before. Clausewitz brought these theories into modern times, showing the trends of war - especially its deinstitutionalization - at the time of the Franco-Prussian conflict, while Girard analyzes the more and more rapid erosion, up to the present, of every means for controlling violence.


I disagree with Girard‟s claim that none of the traditional limits to violence can hold today, and only by conversion to Christianity can humanity avoid the end.7 I think his view is unnecessarily pessimistic, since it is so unlikely that such a conversion can occur. Moreover, it offends against the Christian belief in providence to think such a universal conversion is the lifeor-death choice of mankind as a whole. Furthermore, if such a universal conversion did occur solely because of the fear of death, the so-called „believers‟ would not be true „imitators of Christ,‟ because conversion by compulsion proves self-interest - not love. But more significant to my argument against Girard, I will suggest that there are viable means to hold violence back, and diminish its development. Hero/Warrior Before his encounter with Clausewitz, Girard‟s thoughts about violence emphasized group thinking, and not individual psychology. In Battling to the End, however, he gives a lot of attention to the character of a warrior, as Clausewitz discussed and illustrated it. War brings the trial by fire of manhood - it tests one‟s relation to humanity. Girard quotes his contemporary Levinas as saying “Man is born of war.”8 Heracleitus said much the same, about 500 B.C.: “War is the father of all.” In recent decades, the connection of manhood with war has been more and more discussed in the US - perhaps partly in reaction to the “feminist movement.” Popular books, such as Iron John by Robert Bly, analyze the lack of means to bring boys from adolescence to maturity; and efforts are made to find suitable substitutes for archaic rites of passage that are no longer employed. Often these emphasize the need to inflict emotional and physical pain on young men, to train them to take responsibility in adult society. A warrior must be ready to sacrifice himself for others, it is suggested. He may have to be willing to fight to the death. Against this acceptance - even advocacy - of violence another movement has developed which opposes violence of all sorts, including its depiction in popular literature and media. I believe these opposing movements reflect the basic ambiguity of violence and its place in modern life. Since the end of World War II, there has been a steady increase of fantasy literature about war on the global scale, between the forces of good and evil. Many of these works combine fantasy worlds, sophisticated weaponry, magical powers, and codes of honor. C. S. Lewis, J. R. Tolkien, Philip Pulman, and Robert Jordan are among the most engaging, and all are guided by moral sensibility. Some of these works have been made into popular films. Generally, however, the visual media are more visceral than thoughtful, compared to books, even when they are based on a book. These tend to highlight the excitement of violence, rather than its moral or immoral character. And there is a growing market - helped by the growth of digital technology - for TV, films and video „games‟ where the intoxication of indiscriminate killing is the point. Popular sports can‟t quite duplicate the blood-letting of mediated images, but they too are tending in that direction. “Cage-fighting” is a current example that emphasizes blood lust, disguised as bravery and skill. Does a warrior spirit love violence? It might seem so, but I think not. Girard suggests Clausewitz may actually have loved war. If that is true, Clausewitz‟ character might be described as heroic, but in my opinion it is not consistent with a true warrior spirit. Must a warrior be 2

violent? I don‟t think so. A hero might well love war, and might need violence to fulfill his selfimage. But paradoxically a warrior will not love war, or violence, although he may have to act violently. Can the „warrior spirit‟ stop the escalating cycle of violence in our apocalyptic age? I think it is possible, but this needs further examination. In Girard‟s view, Clausewitz did not openly exalt war in his book, perhaps because he wanted to be thought of as a critic in the Enlightenment vein. Yet he sees war as “a human experience par excellence that touches everyone, from soldier to commander.” It constitutes an “incomparable putting to the test of a man. For Clausewitz, there is nothing higher. This is, then, an aristocratic viewpoint. The aristocrat is he who is essentially a war leader.”9 I want to follow the development of this notion of aristocratic warrior spirit further, and paradoxically suggest, contrary to Girard‟s judgment, how it may be the main source of reining in violence, even today, when the „institution of war‟ has all but disappeared, although the business of war is on the rise. At the end of the introduction, Girard mentions the heroic attitude “which he has sought to redefine” under the influence of Clausewitz. It involves, surprisingly, replacing the primacy of winning, with the primacy of the fight. “Only this [attitude] can make the link between violence and reconciliation, or, more precisely, make tangible the possibility both of an end of the world, and the reconciliation of men.”10 This link is possible insofar as a hero is a cut above normal people, and therefore less susceptible to the force of „mimetic rivalry,‟ which underlies violence. The hero/warrior must exemplify a „good transcendence‟, rather than a „bad transcendence,‟11 or what is the same, a struggle for honor rather than a struggle for power. There are two problems here, however, as I see it. The first is that the struggle for honor one might call it the noble sentiment - is not enough to stop violence. As Benoit Chantre (Girard‟s interviewer) points out, the biblical injunction to „love your enemies‟ becomes in the noble warrior „respect your enemies,‟ but that does not entail making friends of your enemies. 12 Two nobles may well fight to the death, and probably will despite their mutual respect; and this indeed is the course that Clausewitz‟ personal ideal seems to take. He did not speak about a future of violence spinning out of control, because, Girard says, he “did not want to see the terrible consequences of the law of the duel, the mimetic law that leads to an escalation.”13 A second problem is that wars for honor („duels‟ in the large scale) no longer exist as they did up through the 18th C. Wars are no longer conducted by „men in lace‟ (the knights of old). Modern wars are not limited by „rules of engagement,‟ or the code of honor embraced by the earlier aristocrats. Since Napoleon‟s day, whole nations are engaged. Since WW I, wars have been „total‟ - even wars of annihilation - driven by a spirit of „hostility‟ rather than one of „adversity.‟ And indeed, wars are being supplanted by other forms of violence, like genocide, terrorism and sexual and economic slavery. A „hero‟ therefore may or may not embody „the warrior spirit.‟ He may simply be motivated by a desire for the good opinion of others. Girard mentions that Clausewitz uses the term „warrior spirit‟ rather than „hero‟ “which perhaps has too theatrical a sense.”14 I would say that every warrior spirit can be a hero, but not every hero is a warrior. Girard doesn‟t seem to notice this. I believe that the difference between hero and warrior is much more than theatrical. I think what distinguishes a warrior spirit from a hero is exactly what would make the former an 3

agent for limiting violence, and keep the latter from being so. One must know the motivation in order to judge heroism. It requires a kind of aristocracy or nobility of spirit, of the sort seen in Aristotle and Confucius. I will give examples in the following section. Heroism is a noble trait - perhaps the most obvious trait of a noble person during war, or in times of great danger. This is natural, since ideas of nobility evolved in traditional feudal cultures, where war was a normal part of life, whether in ancient China, India and Greece, or in medieval and Renaissance Europe. But not all so-called heroic deeds prove a noble character - a warrior spirit. Again, nobility is a question of motive. A person may do something at risk of death, but may be acting without forethought, or acting out of desire for honor or recognition. If I understand Girard correctly, he is right to say “heroism is a value too soiled for us to give it credit: the rabble has been introduced into it since forever”15 That is, heroism is too much defined by how brave deeds are seen by ordinary people as benefitting them; and the motivation of heroes is too often a desire to look good to others. That attitude will not transcend mimeticism16 and its violent outcomes. Thinking about the possible effects of war on some who enter into it, Girard suggests “heroism is a proof of liberty.”17 He cites Levinas, to the effect that war allows a participant to escape the normal conditions of life - “to leave the totality which makes the parts serve the whole, the individuals serve the group, existences serve the essence.”18 Even observers, such as war-correspondents and photographers, can find something addictive about living in a war zone. Choices are simplified, reduced to black and white, life or death. Values become clearer. Civilian life seems trivial by comparison, and drops out of mind. The self as individual is in bold relief here. But this does not reveal clearly another, perhaps spiritual kind of liberty - a freedom, not so much of the self, but perhaps from the self - or at least self-forgetfulness in the good sense of the term. Not surprisingly, Girard refers frequently to Nietzsche in his analysis of Clausewitz and the influence of romanticism. Clausewitz was influenced by the Enlightenment, and perhaps by his appreciation for the rationality of Frederick the Great. Compared to Nietzsche, Girard says he is “more glacial,” being aware of the concept of war - of the „ideal.‟ Even so, Girard thinks Clausewitz was too much of a romantic, albeit a cool-headed one, to avoid the attraction of Napoleon, and the rivalry which that attraction engendered in himself - the love-hate relation of “doubles” with this legendary best and worst of models. The point is, one can be influenced by positive, rational, independent models (or by rational ideals), if one has an aristocratic character. And a true warrior spirit can control the urge for reciprocal violence. In Girard‟s terms, “imitation of the rational model is not impossible,” but it is very difficult. Clausewitz apparently thought it was better to act like Napoleon in order to win battles. “France remains the insuperable model for this Prussian.”19 But whether or not Clausewitz himself developed the necessary degree of maturity to escape mimeticism is not to the point; it can be done. Nietzsche praised a certain type of hero - the knights of the “gay sabre” (The Three Musketeers come to mind.) Their chief characteristic would be to express the will to life, and to challenge themselves by finding „wrongs to right‟ - not from any obligation laid on them by others, or duty, but because they recognized their superiority and capacity to do it, in contrast to 4

slavish commoners, who are governed by desire for comfort (or “utility” as Nietzsche disdainfully put it.) A sense of the obligation of nobility (noblesse oblige) is in every traditional noble culture, be it ancient India, Greece, China, Japan or medieval Europe. But the question always remains about motivation. For Nietzsche, the motive is to be true to oneself - to be a master, not a slave. This means never to do the will of anyone else. It reflects the romantic belief that one can be totally independent - an origin of one‟s choices - a creator. It does not mean following one‟s every desire, but giving reign to those desires which represent one‟s unique capacities, and subordinating all the other desires which would hold one back from „self-fulfillment‟, such as the slavish desires for comfort, security and popularity. „We noble ones,” is what Nietzsche liked to say. This is a romantic notion of self that cannot avoid mimetic rivalry, as Girard points out. It is indeed intoxicating to contemplate breaking free from the „tether to God.‟20 One is tempted to become god. But following this grandiose feeling of mastery obviously leads to violence - even unlimited violence and destruction. Dionysos was Nietzsche‟s model in this - a model which, in Girard‟s view, is too close to man to be helpful. Master/noble Having studied Clausewitz, Girard decides “the aristocrat is he who is essentially a war leader.” What does this entail? The quick answer is that a warrior has an aristocratic or noble spirit. Literature provides many examples of the character types of hero or warrior. That may be what Girard means by saying “heroism is only a literary theme.”21 There is truth in this claim, but it does not mean heroes cannot exist in the world. Heroic qualities are in the thinking and values of the warrior, more than in action. Being interior, they aren‟t visible. That may be why some persons are thought to be heroic, even though their characters lack nobility. And models that inspire a warrior spirit may well come from literature, as a story character, or even a legendary ancestor who influences him. We find many synonyms for aristocratic. The term „honorable‟ seems the least infected with connotations of class, but the word „aristocratic‟ is closer to the spirit I think is meant by the „warrior spirit.‟ Each of these terms, as well as „worthy,‟ „ superior,‟ „uncommon,‟ „upper class,‟ „patrician,‟ „chivalrous,‟ etc. has its own nuances, but they all suggest standing apart from or above ordinary humanness, but without clarifying in what sense. Being chivalrous (on a horse) adds the feeling of physical stature and strength. Although a small person can certainly be noble, size helps to project the image. It isn‟t hard to see that George Washington‟s image of aristocracy is more convincing than Napoleons‟, not just because of their relative physical stature, but because of their general demeanor. Napoleon was self-conscious about being short. One who judges himself by his appearance or his standing relative to others - either rank, social status, or reputation - is not truly honorable, and he is apt to be misled by personal vanity. Vanity will lead him into competition, and the destructive escalation of mimetic violence that Girard speaks about so convincingly. A noble character - a warrior - must transcend not only his natural desires for safety and comfort, and not only his tendency to be part of a whole society, but even transcend nature - or 5

the natural viewpoint - by putting his biological life and his role in society into perspective. This means, I think, that he must aim at the highest possible perspective, at the same time that his obligation immerses him to the greatest extent in his individual and physical existence on the battle field. Nietzsche too spoke about nobility in terms of superiority or the super-human (das ubermensch); but he has a different idea of what comprises this superiority. He spoke well when he emphasized the chief qualities of a noble spirit - honesty, self-evaluation, independence and the danger of being idolized. But Nietzsche missed, it seems, the meaning of liberty. Nietzsche wanted to be governed by passion; that is why he fell “into the abyss of the will to power,” according to Girard.22 In emphasizing the independence of an aristocrat - a „master‟ - Nietzsche‟s view accords with traditional notions of nobility, such as one finds in the work of Aristotle and Confucius. A superior person (the warrior) is not anyone‟s slave. He is his own person. His mastery consists of his self-mastery. Even if he promises allegiance to another, or to a cause, it is his free choice to do so; and it is his duty to his own word to keep his promises. What distinguishes Nietzsche‟s „master‟ from a traditional noble is in the idea of self. Nietzsche praises those who discover and are moved by their passion - not by „natural‟ desires, certainly, which are slavish - but by what they see as being uniquely their own. By contrast, a noble such as Aristotle or Confucius, is objective, not subjective. He holds that there is a universal reality, which entails both truth and value, and which engages both his rationality and his will. This reality is outside of him, independent of him; it requires his labor to find and choose it. The work is hard - especially hard in some cultures, such as our own - and those who succeed are few by comparison. But they can be enough to guide the society, and be models for others who follow them. Aristocratic cultures One might say there are degrees of nobility. Certainly one culture might be thought more noble than another. Few would say that the United States exemplifies this quality today. Nobility is either ridiculed as quaint, as in Don Quixote, or hated, for „putting on airs.‟ In Girard‟s historic example, Homeric Greece didn‟t compare to India of the same era. “The Iliad is nothing beside the Maha Bharata” because “ancient India had a capacity for renunciation of which the West has no suspicion.”23 I agree with this assessment. I think the reason for this renunciation lies in the Indian belief in a transcendent reality which is a motivating force, whereas the Greeks brought the gods down to earth literally - whether or not they were eternal - and viewed the afterlife as a poor shadow of this life. Recall Achilles‟ comment to Odysseus who conjured him up in Hades: “Mock not at death, glorious Odysseus. Better to be the hireling of a stranger, and serve a man of mean estate whose living is but small, than be the ruler over all these dead and gone.”24 Or compare „the wrath of Achilles‟ at the start of the Iliad to „the sorrow of Arjuna‟ in the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita. Achilles is furious because his pride is injured. Here is part of Achilles‟ menacing exchange with Agamemnon, his commander: You even threaten to take away my prize [Briseis] yourself, the prize for which I labored much, and which the sons of the Achaeans gave me. Nor do I ever receive a prize 6

equal to yours... The greater burden of furious war my hands sustain, yet whenever there comes division of the spoil, your prize is far the greater … Now I will go to Phthia … nor do I intend unhonored to pile up wealth and riches here for you.25 Arjuna is prideful too, at first. His “sorrow” is really a struggle to find the right action to maximize his status. The normal warrior motive is egoistic. Ordinarily he fights for booty, honor and to protect his people; but in this case, Arjuna is faced with the job of killing his own (albeit treacherous) kinsmen to do his duty. It‟s a no-win situation: if he refuses to fight, he will be thought a coward; if fights, he will be hated by his family. Which will be worse, to win this war, or to lose it? I scarcely know. Even the sons of Dhritarashtra stand in the enemy ranks. If we kill them, none of us will wish to live. Is this real compassion that I feel, or only a delusion? My mind gropes about in darkness. I cannot see where my duty lies. Krishna, I beg you, tell me frankly and clearly what I ought to do. I am your disciple. I put myself into your hands. Show me the way. 26 Arjuna‟s moment of enlightenment (his discovery of true nobility) can begin only when he stops trying to calculate the best course of action (a cost-benefit, external approach), and turns instead to Krishna for help. His normal motivation - pride, honor, status - won‟t help him. He is frustrated; it seems he will lose, no matter what he does. But suddenly, he turns inward, and begins to examine his own motives. That change of perspective alone allows spiritual growth to begin, for the first time. He can begin to be free of his ego. Clearly we see two kinds of hero warriors in these two characters, and the cultures they represent. Achilles - the Greeks, the pre-philosophical West - is emotional and self-glorifying and at the same time addicted to whatever prize and whatever reputation he can earn from his peers. His notion of freedom is a delusion. On the other hand, Arjuna - the Hindus, the reflective East - is objective and self-questioning, seeking liberation from the limiting world of opinion and nature. He wants true freedom that entails unity with the transcendent reality. Individualism/freedom Girard makes clear the increasing threat of disaster brought about in our time by mimetic desire, and the violence it generates, spinning out of control. The only way to avoid destruction, he suggests, is to stop imitating each other, and start imitating Christ.27 But in order to imitate a higher model (Girard would say the only model) one must be aware that such a model exists that differs totally from the models one typically imitates. In other words, good modeling requires that such a choice be seen as such, and be followed freely. The choice itself is between two kinds of models - a „natural‟ model, or a „supernatural‟ one. This is to say, in effect, that humans can operate in two realms, namely nature and spirit. I might say we must be free to practice a „good mimeticism,‟ but that is a misleading expression, since mimeticism by definition leads to reciprocity, which from the beginning is the source of violence. Chantre says, we can no longer speak about “peaceable reciprocity,” but instead “some sort of transcendence.”28


In effect, humans must be able to function in two realms - the natural and the spiritual. Of course this is the view of traditional biblical religion, but it became problematic with the beginning of science. Descartes tried, unsatisfactorily for most critics, to see how these realms differ, and how they interact. The Enlightenment spirit led generally to the ignoring, or the dismissal, of the separate spiritual realm of existence. Romanticism and existentialism tried to counter the materialistic determinism inherent in science, with little effect I believe. So today we see increasing attitudes of ridicule and dismissal of each camp for the other. Girard wants to operate in both realms, and wishes to reconcile faith and science, but his critics say they are incompatible. Reconciliation depends on our ability to escape from mass behavior, and its natural mimeticism. In that sense, romanticism was a good thing. It emphasized individuality, and emotion, so it was an antidote to the age of reason, which looked at wholes, laws, and rationality - all of which tend to deny freedom. But for salvation to be real, freedom must exist. “For if there is really anything Christianity cannot violate, it is the freedom to refuse the Revelation.” 29 I certainly agree. Yet Girard speaks so much about mimetic desire, in all his work, one would think it is impossible to be free. When he says that we are deluded by the “romantic lie,”30 and that “individualism is a lie,”31 he is speaking about the mistaken romantic belief in the autonomy of desire. It would be right to judge that freedom is illusory, if all our choices were determined by our desires, whether these are caused socially or biologically. And this is generally assumed by psychologists today. In fact all scientists, as such, tend more and more to agree, at least since the time of LaMettrie‟s Man the Machine (1748), that desires govern human lives.

Rational models/imitators If all people would imitate Christ, reciprocal violence would no doubt disappear in reciprocal love. I don‟t question that. But it is possible to imitate other models, persons who don‟t rise to the level of Christ perhaps, but rise to the level of transcendence necessary to choose against violence. I think it is enough that humans have good models - even if they are limited and this-worldly - who can inspire others to see life clearly. Socrates would be such a model, in my view, as would Buddha, Heracleitus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, Confucius, Rumi and so on - all the philosophers and sages who teach and exemplify noble qualities of truth-seeking, rationality, modesty, self-discipline, tolerance, courage, courtesy, friendship, distrust of fame and competition, and the rest. Girard knows this as well. He mentions literary „saints,‟ like Holderlin, Proust, Stendhal and Cervantes who provide rational models, to illuminate people, “but we must never minimize our incapacity to recognize this reality. We hold more than anything to our wretched autonomy.”32 When Girard claims that only Christ is safe to use as a model, I think he means a model to follow because of faith. But there are other models, literary and historical, and I would add the countless loving parents, teachers and friends whose living example and thought influence us to look for truth, and live by what we learn. Some of these may be imperfect, regardless of how much they might affect us. Their imperfections can be seen, however, in the 8

light of objective, rational examination. Rationality is the quality most needed, both in the character of those models, and in our choice to follow them. “Rational models,” then, are different from models for our “faith.” Being Catholic, Girard tends towards Christ, and the disciples who imitated him, like Paul.33 I believe that imitating rational models - or for that matter, seeking to be rational - will also provide limits to mimesis. Girard is skeptical in this regard. “The rational model cannot act as an obstacle to mimeticism.”34 He thinks this, because he believes that rationality has no effect on desire. To support this, he cites Pascal. In fact, the epigraph to this book is a long passage from Pascal, which includes the following meditation. (For some strange reason, the whole epitaph from Pascal was omitted in the English edition.) “It‟s a strange, long war - the one where violence tries to oppress truth. All the efforts of violence cannot weaken the truth, and serve only to reveal it more. All the lights of truth can do nothing to stop violence, and only serve to irritate it more. When force combats force, the more powerful destroys the less. When people oppose argument to argument, those which are true and convincing confuse and dissipate those which contain only vanity and lies. But violence and truth can do nothing against each other.” [The source of this passage is not given] In Girard‟s opinion, “in the époque of internal mediation that we have entered, the mimetic model will always win over the rational model.”35 By the “époque of internal mediation” Girard means the modern world, in which traditional institutions and laws of religion and the state - which used to mediate violence „externally‟ no longer hold. This is a bleak evaluation, strengthened perhaps by Girard‟s observation of a long anti-rationalist movement in French philosophy. Rationalism “was not a true setting at a distance, but a sea-wall which we see is in process of giving way. It that respect, it may have been our last mythology. People believed in reason as they formerly believed in the gods; the tremendous naivete of Auguste Comte is a clear symptom.”36 Reason/Emotion/Self-interest I believe it is possible that reason will bring some people to realize and avoid the „escalation to extremes‟ that is swirling through our world, and to put limits on the behavior of others who are not normally reasonable. Reason can do this, for those who practice it. It is not necessary that a person love the truth; it will be enough that he act in accord with truth, because he sees it to be advantageous. This is where I disagree with the pessimistic view I find in Girard. But the practical question is how reason can be brought into the lives of the many whose lives are governed by emotion. I agree with Girard, and Pascal, that reason cannot directly engage violence. However, I believe that emotions can be stimulated, by effective, well-motivated teachers and leaders, to bring reason into the thinking of their listeners. And once reason becomes part of the „interior mediation‟ of an individual, it can influence him towards transcendence and reconciliation with his neighbors.


To illustrate this, let me discuss two examples, from Plato‟s Republic, namely the metaphor of the Sun, and the parable of The Cave. In a class on the History and Philosophy of Freud (of all places),37 Jonathan Lear once remarked on the difficulty Plato must have had to teach about his insights in a way that would not just entertain his readers, but also convince and move them. Lear noted that the parable of the Cave came in Book VII of The Republic; and everything previous led up to this famous inspiring story. He had to set the scene and prepare his readers. An inspired seer must be aware of the mindset and stage of development of his disciples. Every good teacher knows this. But it is so much more true when one is trying to raise the student‟s thinking to approach higher and higher levels of knowledge - and extraordinarily so to see extraordinary knowledge. But this is just what is at stake in the effort to block escalating violence, as has been said. It requires getting away from the world to some transcendent awareness. The Cave is a parable. Plato is a fervent advocate of rational argument and objectivity. Why doesn‟t he speak directly about what he wants to show, and use logic to prove it? Because he cannot. Mathematical thinking is part of the training for a philosopher, and any good thinker; it is an exercise in pure reasoning. But the realities Plato wants to teach are beyond logic and mathematical abstraction; they are transcendent. The highest reality, which he calls the Good, is not something reason can deduce, or earthly eyes can see. It is infinite, and stands above knowledge and truth. So in the long conversation of Book VI, Socrates teases his friends (and readers) with little tidbits about „the highest knowledge‟ which a true leader needs, and what a long and exhausting struggle the apprentice leader - the would-be „philosopher king‟ - must go through to prepare for this knowledge - the „knowledge of the Good.‟ “Tell us about it!” Socrates‟ friends insist. Socrates answers that he would like to, only he is not able; and instead he offers to tell them about „an offspring of the Good which is very like it.‟38 But what Socrates actually describes at that point is yet another metaphor: The Sun. The sun of our visible world relates to light and sight in the same way as the Good in the „invisible‟ world relates to truth and knowledge. The sun is the source of light and vision, but is itself beyond vision. We can‟t see the sun; we see only the light it emits. In a similar way, the Good is the source of truth and knowledge, but is itself neither knowledge nor truth; it is „more prized‟ than they. “The eternal nature of the good must be allowed yet higher value”39 The Good is then beyond knowledge, in any ordinary sense of knowledge. No wonder Socrates expresses his willingness to tell them about the Good, but his inability to do so! The story of The Cave which follows this is, in Socrates‟ words, a “parable of education and ignorance;” and the prisoners, who have been in the cave “from birth” are “just like us.” The only way to escape from the cave is to turn around, away from the shadows cast on the wall in front of them, and begin to take “the steep ascent.” But they (we) are “bound in fetters,” and cannot turn around. We don’t want to turn around; we turn our backs on what is outside the cave, namely the Good. Why? At birth we call good whatever immediately gratifies our selfish and natural desires. Our natural disposition is 180 degrees opposed to true good. What then can make us „turn around?‟ What can bring about this „circum-turning‟ or „conversion‟ he asks. Socrates never answers this question. He only speculates on what would happen, if „someone‟ would come to break the bonds and force the slave to turn around. 10

Socrates does say, however, that conversion is an “art.” This suggests that it lies in a personal relationship, not in a book - that it demands an experiential relation between a pupil and a teacher who knows from experience the pupil‟s state of mind. It is „hands on,‟ rather than theoretical. Further, in my view, „turning around‟ mentally, or spiritually, cannot be done by reasoning alone. It requires an involvement of the heart. That is to say, the teacher must be a motivator. The will to know must be stimulated; the desires are to be employed. That is why Plato uses metaphor so widely. Reason can see the logic of things. Reason can show when ideas are contradictory and make no sense. But reason won‟t make the learner care. This is what Pascal is saying, among other things, in the epitaph Girard put to the book. Reason cannot change violence. It takes a change of motive - of heart, rather than head - to stop the mimetic cycle. The necessary interaction between reason and desire - between head and heart - is summarized in Plato‟s Seventh Letter. Although the authorship of the letters is not certain, it is agreed by scholars that the ideas expressed in it follow the historic facts of Plato‟s life, and reflect very closely his thinking. He speaks of knowledge as enlightenment - a direct realization of the „higher‟ truth that comes to a seeker who has trained himself by a long life of rational discipline and study to be receptive. It is not the result of reading, or even hearing. “For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like a light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself.”40 Plato is famously inspiring and engaging, but he is idealistic in the extreme. Few people, especially today, have the drive or the sensitivity to follow his ideas, let alone undergo some mystic conversion such as he hints at. That‟s not the point. I know from many years of teaching philosophy and comparative religion, that there are always a few students who find these studies intriguing, and begin to develop a habit of rational thinking. The study of mathematics and science can also turn young minds in that direction. It is their exercise of rationality that begins to open up their higher mental capacities; and it is the use of reason that can provide them with some perspective about, and distance from the emotional distraction and appeal of our culture. Not too many will develop the ability for abstract thought, I think, and even fewer will reach the level of „transcendence‟ of the sort that the West needs, in terms of universal principles of morality, humanity and justice. They can be the leaders, the inspirers, the advocates of good law, good education and other social causes. But many more, I believe, will realize, simply out of rational consideration, that violence continues to escalate, and it is in their best interests to do something about it. Pessimism/Realism “Right itself is finished,” Girard says, at the conclusion of the section entitled The duel and the sacred.41 He asks, “Are we still in a world where force can give over to right?” and 11

answers negatively. Even his jurist friends, he tells us, no longer believe in right. This negative conclusion follows from Girard‟s hypothesis that all law and institutions originated from beliefs in „the sacred,‟ which justified violence in the name of the gods. Since these sacred beliefs have been uncovered (paradoxically, by biblical teachings), the „sacred‟ has been demystified and rejected, along with the notions of „right‟ that rested on it. In traditional societies, when people ask why they should not be violent towards their neighbors, the answer is that the gods forbid it. Today, however, such an answer is not accepted by a society in which the gods have been discredited. The argument is strong, and the evidence for this thinking is all around us. Even so, I believe the concept of „right‟ in the Greek philosophical sense still has influence in the thinking world. As I said above, students of classical western philosophy, and of the sages in non-western cultures, continue to embrace and exemplify a belief in a transcendent realm, of higher truth and value. Furthermore, there are many westerners who even suggest there is a new awareness of transcendence. One finds the term „spirituality‟ in mainstream culture, as contrasted with, or opposed to, the traditional language of „religion.‟ More social research on the question would be useful. But I think right, morality and justice do still exist in the realm of transcendent thought. Girard judges that we are no longer in a world where force can give over to right. I think this view is misleadingly pessimistic - misleading because right, like truth, has never had direct control over force or violence, as Pascal said, and we discussed earlier. Right is not finished, as Girard claims; but its discovery requires work - not the blind acceptance of dogma. Reason can show a transcendent-minded person what is right, and can show as well the benefit of obeying what reason discovers. One does not have to be a believer in God to take this view.42 The last sentence of this provocative book is a warning: “To want to reassure is always to contribute to the worst.”43 If Girard means that we should not give people a false sense of security, which will keep them from being on guard, I certainly agree with him. We must face the present reality, and predict as well as possible what to expect next. People have never enjoyed hearing bad news, but today, especially in the United States, the old „Positive Mental Attitude‟ movement has become mainstream, in the business world, medicine, psychology, religion and politics, keeping people from seeing reality and making good choices. Barbara Ehrenreich has clearly shown this in her book Bright-sided.44 Girard‟s conclusion also expresses a perspective which I have suggested is pessimistic. This view might discourage readers from thinking about how to improve the world. The author does not say to give up hope, however. In fact, he says “it is up to each of us to hold back the worst.”45It is as though he feels the battle with violence is lost, but honorable persons must nevertheless fight as long as they can. Perhaps the word “fight” is inappropriate for one who appeals to Christ‟s absolute renunciation of violence. But as I said above, meeting violence with force need not always add to the scope of violence. I don‟t think that the Apocalypse will come to us, as it was described in the Bible. In this, I follow the thought of Emanuel Swedenborg, the influential 18th century writer. He argued that the Apocalypse was a „spiritual‟ battle, taking place in the spiritual realm, even as he was writing 12

about it.46 Swedenborg adds that because the outcome was in favor of the forces of truth, humans are now able to break free of delusion, and make real choices for their personal and eternal lives. The world is not going to end, because the realm of nature is the necessary setting for spiritual evolution. God is indeed, necessarily, as Girard states it, at a distance from humans, and they need always to find some mediation (whether exterior or interior) that can maintain the correct “proximity” to God, and benefit from God‟s presence. These are the issues of „salvation‟ that Girard speaks about throughout this work, but especially when he is analyzing the movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in Europe. Swedenborg‟s ideas caught on very quickly in a wide circle of 19th century artists, poets and thinkers. To conclude, whatever one‟s perspective about faith might be, rationality is our greatest modern tool for mental growth, including the rational admission that there are aspects of humanity that cannot be made subjects of scientific certainty. As Pascal said, „The heart has its reasons that Reason doesn‟t know.‟ With a due degree of modesty in this regard - which has always been among the values of history‟s sages - we can work to increase the presence of transcendent principles in our public and private lives. These can reveal violence, I think, and help to curtail it.


Rene Girard, Achever Clausewitz (Paris: CarnetsNord, 2007), translated as Battling to the End (E. Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press, 2009).

For a good summary of Girard‟s work, see Cynthia Haven, “History is a test. Mankind is failing it.” in Stanford Magazine, July/August, 2009; and Jas. G. Williams (ed) The Girard Reader (New York, Crossroad Pub. Co, 1996).

Achever Clausewitz, p. 15. All the citations from this book will be my translation. Achever, p. 14. Achever, p.191. E.g. Is 51:6.





What Christianity includes for Girard I don‟t know. But he frequently says we must accept that Christ is the only model whom we can safely imitate, and that Christ is at the „right distance‟ from God, who offers mankind the Kingdom - i.e. the happiness of loving others.

Achever, p. 177. Achever, p. 169, my emphasis. Achever, p. 22. Achever, p. 148.






Achever, pp. 145 - 147 (Benoit Chantre‟s overview). Achever, p. 147. Achever, p. 160. Achever, p. 191.





This is Girard‟s basic insight, now become mainstream: namely, that people (and other animals) naturally imitate the desires of others, and that this mimetic desire (mimesis = imitation) leads to rivalry and violence. Violence escalates until the group spontaneously and all together fixes upon some innocent scapegoat, and kills him. Their unanimous accord, and the cessation of violent rivalry it brings, lead the group to deify the scapegoat, and form a mythology which conceals the scapegoating, and provides ritual and prohibitions which bring long term order into the society. Thus violence is at the foundation of both religion, and social order.

Achever, p. 178. Achever, p. 176. Achever, p. 265. Achever, p. 174. Achever, p. 232. Achever, p. 176. Achever, p. 132. Homer, The Odyssey, tr. Palmer & Porter (New York: Bantam, 1962), 153. Homer, The Iliad, tr. Chase, & Perry (New York: Bantam, 1950), 38. Bhagavad-Gita, tr. Prabhavananda & Isherwood (New York: Mentor, 1972), 35 (my emphasis). E.g. Achever, pp. 228, 235, 236 . Achever, p. 232. Achever, p. 336. Achever, pp. 269, 270. Achever, p. 53. Achever, p. 233.


















Achever, p. 235. Achever, p. 232. Achever, p. 233. Achever, p. 214. At the University of Chicago. Great Dialogues of Plato, tr. Rouse (New York: Signet, 2008), 357. Great Dialogues, p. 360. Tr. Glenn R. Morrow, in Plato Complete Works (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1997), 1659. Achever, p. 196. E.g. see Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971). Achever, p. 364.












Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided - How positive thinking is undermining America (New York: Holt/Picador, 2009).

Achever, p. 231.


Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Revealed (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1970 - first published in Latin, Amsterdam, 1766).