Death of visionary thinker René Girard

René Girard
Modern thinker and author, René Girard

René Girard, regarded as one of the most influential – and often controversial – thinkers of the modern age, has died in California at the age of 91. He was recognised in numerous ways: most significantly as an ‘Immortal’ member of the French Academy and an honorary doctor of Heythrop College, University of London. His books offered a bold and dynamic vision of human nature, history and destiny.

Described as "the new Darwin of the human sciences" by Professor Michel Serres of Stanford University in California, Girard was fascinated by everything, from history to anthropology, and sociology to theology.  His work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy and his writings span many academic domains: he wrote nearly 30 books. Girard’s influence in the 20th century can be seen on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies and philosophy.

Offloading blame and culpability

“Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behaviour,” says Cynthia Haven from the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages at Stanford. “Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.”

René Girard visited the UK on three occasions and was grateful to the Jesuits in Britain for the welcome he received here. His first visit was to Oxford, where stayed at Campion Hall and where he delivered the D'Arcy Lecture to 200 people in the university. This was followed by two visits to Heythrop, the second of which was to receive an honorary doctorate, as he was on his way to Paris to be received into the Académie française as one of their 40 immortels.

Fr Michael Kirwan SJ lectures at Heythrop College in the Department of Pastoral and Social Studies. He believes René Girard’s influence was considerable and his doctoral work was on Girard’s contribution to modern thinking. He says Girard's good-humoured charm was evident throughout his visits to Heythrop and he went out of his way to listen to young scholars giving papers at conferences and give them encouragement. "The ‘immense intellectual holiness’ is conveyed by the attitude he showed toward his own theory," says Michael. "At times he was like an evangelical about his insights, but he was also capable of being playful, even offhand: ‘People are against my theory, because it is at the same time an avant-garde and a Christian theory … Theories are expendable. They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, “I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.”’ Underlying this challenge is a serene confidence that the truth he is proclaiming is not after all ‘his’ truth, but the truth of God’s revelation, made available to us as a sign of our troubled times."