In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section René Girard

  • Introduction

Literary and Critical Theory René Girard
Wolfgang Palaver
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0098


René Noël Théophile Girard (b. 25 December 1923 in Avignon, d. 4 November 2015 in Stanford) was a French-American cultural anthropologist who discovered in the works of European novelists like Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky the important impact of imitative desire on human relations. This insight became the basis for his mimetic theory, an anthropological approach that has not only helped to interpret literature, but has also become a theoretical tool to understand the development of human culture and particularly the role of religion in it. By distinguishing between the sacred of early religions and the holy as the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition, mimetic theory provides a theory of religion that contributes also to a better understanding of the post-Axial religions. Mimetic theory, however, reaches far beyond literature and religion, as its application in fields like anthropology, psychology, theology, and history as well as political and economic theory shows. Similar to the broad outreach of mimetic theory, also Girard himself entered many different scholarly disciplines. He studied medieval and modern history before he entered fields like literary criticism, religious and classical studies, and biblical literature. In 1947, he graduated with a dissertation on marriage and private life in 15th-century Avignon as an archiviste-paléographe from the École des Chartes in Paris. Soon afterward, he left for the United States to study contemporary history at Indiana University, where he received his PhD with a dissertation on “American Opinion on France, 1940–1943” in 1950. After working as an instructor of French literature at Duke University (1952) and as an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College (1953–1957), he held professorships at Johns Hopkins University (1957–1968; 1976–1981), in the Department of English at SUNY Buffalo (1986–1976), and finally at Stanford University (1981–1995). He received honorary degrees and awards from many different universities and academic institutions and was elected in 2005 to the Académie française. His mimetic theory consists mainly of four stages: (1) mimetic desire as he discovered it in great literature; (2) the scapegoat mechanism as the origin of human culture and early religions; (3) his theory of religion, which distinguishes between the sacred of early religions and the holiness that characterized the Judeo-Christian tradition; and (4) finally his apocalyptic view of history, which started with a chapter on Dostoevsky in his first book and culminated in his reflections on Clausewitz’s theory of war in his last book.

General Overviews

Biographies, introductions, and commemorative publications provide an overview of Girard’s life, his work, and his unfolding of mimetic theory.

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