Girard and Swedenborg – Desire, Human Nature and The Word

René_Girard photo Swedenborg_full_portrait

Not being an expert about either of these men who have inspired me, I can’t critique their ideas generally. But as a longtime teacher and student of both philosophy and religion, and especially of critical thinking, I’ll point out some of their similarities and differences, and suggest fruitful areas for further comparison and contrast.

These brilliant thinkers are at the same time ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’. They share similar ideas about god, religion and human nature that are radical – in the sense that they go to the roots of these topics. They are conservative in their commitment to absolute truth, and its divine source, which already distinguishes them from trends in modern philosophy and religious studies.

I was raised on Emanuel Swedenborg’s theology, but discovered Rene Girard only 6 years ago, at age 72. I was struck by how their thoughts complement each other, and although neither man is widely known or has great influence, their ideas share a view of humanness, social structure, spirituality and the divine that is revolutionary. Both are modest about their knowledge, but don’t hesitate to go head to head with their opponents, no matter how respected or popular the latter are. Their views diverge far from the norm of historical methodology too, and orthodox efforts to explain human history from its “archaic” beginnings. They even show why their perspectives are considered preposterous by their critics, as “modernism” has developed, and paradoxically, why that fact confirms the validity of their claims. This kind of ‘religious conservativism’ I think is needed – quite apart from any political viewpoint such a label might bring to mind.

Girard on desire

Rene Girard (1923 – 2015) is known primarily for his theory of “mimetic desire”. A good summary of this topic and Girard’s other work is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) article “Rene Girard”. Mimetic desire involves the fact that humans mimic others, doing things that others do, and wanting to have what others have. But it goes much farther than that. Every visitor to zoos knows that even higher apes imitate others. Mimesis, as Girard describes it, is a function of desiring something because someone else desires it. That is, our motives (not just behavior) are imitative – even to the point of desiring what is to our obvious detriment. (Think the fastest car or the biggest house). In its simplest form, this is obviously the basis of all marketing. What is not noticed, or even believed, is that mimetic desire in humans has a triangular structure, comprised of self (the ‘subject’), other (the ‘model’ or ‘mediator’), and the object of desire (e.g. a product, behavior, skill, reputation, etc.) We desire what the mediator desires. If in turn the mediator is aware of our desire for the same object, then she will likely see us as a competitor, and make us the mediator for her own desires. This way the competition can intensify, to the point where the desired object is no longer important, and each mediator is only concerned – obsessed really – with the ‘other’ as a competitor.

Destructive competition won’t occur if the model and the subject can’t compete, because they inhabit totally separate worlds, and don’t or cannot have the same object. E.g., a “Special Olympics” competitor in wheelchair basketball might have Michael Jordan as a mediating model for how to play basketball, but Jordan and the disabled athlete cannot have the same goal. His object lies beyond her reality. He is what Girard calls her external mediator.

Mimetic desire can go yet a step farther, to become what Girard calls “metaphysical desire”. That’s the point where an imitator wants to be her mediator. Obviously, this object can’t be achieved; no one can be another, but she can imagine it. Metaphysical desire can only generate frustration, obsession, hatred and even a desire to destroy the mediator.

All these potentially destructive mimetic triangles exist only in the minds of the imitators – not in the world of things to be possessed. Girard says they ‘have no reality’. [The Girard Reader p. 34] Here are some more illustrations.

Suppose Wolf notices one of her Facebook ‘friends’ wears clothes that get lots of ‘likes’. Wolf’s ‘object’ will be to get ‘liked’ too. Her friend will become Wolf’s ‘mediator’, and Wolf will probably try to dress the same way, so far as possible. As in the case of a professional model, Wolf’s mediator will affect the popularity of the ‘right’ clothes, which may become scarce, and prices will rise, or may become common and out of style, in which case, Wolf will look for another mediator. Marketing everywhere works on Girardian principles.

For a more complex instance, suppose your brother is often praised by your mother, for getting high grades in school. If you want praise, you’ll take your brother as a model, and seek high grades too. However, since he will most likely know you are doing this, he will see you as a competitor, and try even harder, and you in turn will do the same regarding him, especially if your mother encourages the comparison. He and you will soon look on each other as a threat. Unhappy consequences are likely.

Here’s an example in my background: From an early age, I desired ‘knowledge’ – i.e. to find truth and ‘to understand life’.  No doubt this desire was provoked by my family’s habit of discussing at the dining table whatever issue seemed important, but always avoiding being gossipy or catty. That’s because our engaging conversations were based on Swedenborg’s ideas, which were also the focus of our church, school and the surrounding community where I grew up. But Swedenborg’s ‘mediation’ was their way of reading his ideas. They tended to accept what he says without question or argument, even though Swedenborg himself frequently emphasizes the fundamental importance of reasoning, while cautioning about the risks of intellectual conceit. Our family was risk averse; I wasn’t.

The trouble for me only became clear in hindsight, after I left home for college, married, spent time in the Army, and settled into a teaching job. The mediator in the family of my childhood – which was their reading of Swedenborg – no longer worked for me. I wanted to understand – not just believe – those ideas. In fact, I grew to be critical and rebellious as an adolescent, thinking my parents were closed-minded and prejudiced, especially in matters of political and economic philosophies – i.e., in their enthusiasm for traditional views about a ‘free market’ economy.

As a teacher of philosophy, world religions and ‘the humanities’, I continued to want knowledge and truth. Not surprisingly, great thinkers in those disciplines became my mediators, especially Plato, the idealist. I desired, and still desire, to be as good at thinking well, and as effective at motivating students to do the same, as Socrates was. I imitated what I knew of his approach, asking questions and trying to evoke critical discussion. In fact, I moved out of classrooms whenever possible, and met students in various comfortable open spaces, or outdoors under the trees, or occasionally in local bars (when their ages permitted), to find a more discussion-friendly environment. I didn’t like the impression of authority, and one-way transmission of ideas and ‘truth’, found in the accoutrements of a typical classroom (e.g. smartboard, lectern, projector, students in rows facing the teacher, etc.) Today, these are thought of as ‘necessities’ for mass schooling, which is more and more influenced by financialization.

My ‘mimetic’ style caused little conflict at the college where I taught, even though the president publicly commented on how students liked it, and made sure there were ‘discussion areas’ available for anyone who wanted to follow suit. Other teachers began to be ‘Socratic’ too, without any obvious competition or ill will developing. Maybe someone took me as a mediator of teaching techniques, and was competing for student approval, or took the president as mediator, and was competing for his approval. However, the spirit in our school at that time was generally collegial, and I’m not aware of any instance where the mimetic triangle got nasty. We focused mainly on our students’ development. But I’m quite aware of prestigious institutions of ‘higher education’ where mimetic rivalry is common – in fact encouraged – which I believe does harm to students.

Swedenborg on desire

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) is known primarily for his philosophical theology, which he undertook at the age of 59, being called (as he said) to the mission of explaining biblical scriptures. Previous to that, he was a scientific philosopher, studying how nature and spirit are related, in the manner of Descartes or even Kant. Here’s a short biography from the Swedenborg Foundation.

Like Girard, Swedenborg says our desires come to us from some ‘other”; they are not our own creation. We are “vessels” which receive every aspect of love, desire, thought and sensation. All life has a single divine source. Humans are ‘life receivers’, and their belief in autonomous choices and desires is a delusion, encouraged by natural thinking. In True Christianity he says:

There is a generally held belief that there is life in us, that it belongs to us, and that therefore we are not only vessels for receiving life but we ourselves are life. This common belief derives from the way things appear to be, because we are alive, that is, we sense, think, speak, and act completely as if we had autonomy. Therefore, the statement that we are not life, but are vessels for receiving life, cannot help but seem like something completely unheard of before, or like a paradox that goes against our sense-oriented thinking because it goes against the way things appear to be. I have blamed this misleading belief on the way things appear to be – the belief that we are in fact life, and therefore that life has been created as part of us and grafted onto us from birth. But the real reason for this misleading belief (which is based on the way things appear to be) is that many people today are earthly, and few are spiritual. The earthly self makes judgments based on appearances and resulting false impressions, when in fact these run directly counter to the truth, which is that we are not life but are vessels for receiving life. [TC 470, my emphasis]

Essentially, every human is her mind or spirit. This consists of what she loves (or commits to), and what she believes or discerns (which give form and support to what she loves). This is like the traditional Aristotelian duality of ‘will’ and ‘intellect’. In Divine Providence, Swedenborg says,

Our whole spirit is desire and its consequent thought; and since all desire is a matter of love and all thought a matter of discernment, our whole spirit is its love and its consequent discernment. This is why our thinking flows from the desires of our love when we are thinking solely from our own spirit, as we do when we are in reflective moods at home.

We may conclude, then, that when we become spirits (which happens after death), we are the desire of our love, and not our thought except to the extent that it comes from that desire. We are drawn to what is evil (which amounts to a compulsion) if our love has been a love for what is evil, and we are drawn to what is good if our love has been a love for what is good. We are drawn to what is good to the extent that we have abstained from evils as sins; and we are drawn to what is evil to the extent that we have not abstained from evils. [DP 61]

The opposing view – that we are the creators of our desires – is one which Girard derides as a “Romantic Lie”. It is the basis of all post-modern thinking, which presents itself under various – even contradictory – names, each claiming to have the true picture of humanity. This lie manifests as increasingly extreme forms of self-interest, disdain for truth, and individualism masquerading as democracy.  The French novelist Stendhal ridicules the vaniteux (“vain person”) in his 1830 book, Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), which greatly influenced Girard’s ideas of “mimetic desires”. Here is Girard’s characterization, from his 1961 Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

The romantic vaniteux always wants to convince him­self that his desire is written into the nature of things, or, which amounts to the same thing, that it is the emanation of a serene subjectivity, the creation ex nihilo of a quasi­ divine ego. Desire is no longer rooted in the object perhaps, but it is rooted in the subject; it is certainly not rooted the Other… The objective and subjective fallacies are one and the same; both originate in the image we all have of our own desires. Subjectivisms and objectivisms, romanticisms and realisms, individualisms and scientisms, idealisms and positivisms appear to be in opposition but are in secret agreement to conceal the presence of the mediator. All these dogmas are the aesthetic or philosophic translation of worldviews peculiar to internal mediation.  They all depend directly or indirectly on the lie of spontaneous desire. They all defend the same illusion of autonomy to which modern man is passionately devoted.

Freedom, considered as total psychological independence, is part of the “romantic lie”. Swedenborg too says we all hold tightly to the belief that we are free, but by nature, we’re bound to selfishness. We need to become free, and that requires help – ultimately from the Lord. This is from his book The New Jerusalem:

No matter how similar they look on the surface, freedom to do good and freedom to do evil are as different and as remote from each other as heaven and hell…. To the extent that we have the one freedom we do not have the other—no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We can also see from this that people who have freedom see it as slavery and bondage if they are not allowed to will what is evil and think what is false whenever they feel like it, while people who have heavenly freedom loathe to will anything evil and to think anything false, and if they are forced to do so, it torments them.

Since acting from freedom seems to us to come from ourselves, heavenly freedom can also be called “heavenly selfhood” and hellish freedom can be called “hellish selfhood.” Hellish selfhood is the sense of self into which we are born, and it is evil. Heavenly selfhood, though, is the sense of self into which we come as we are reformed, and it is good. [NJ 144, 145]

I believe this is the idea of Jesus’ words: “If you abide in my words, you shall the know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” [John 8: 31, 32] “If you abide in my words…” People usually leave out this vital qualifier. Freedom is not just doing what we desire, although when I asked students, ‘What is freedom?’ that was the default answer I could count on.

Girard and Swedenborg on natural violence

Girard moved from fiction to mythology – from literary criticism to anthropological research – and discovered mimetic structures in both places. Studying ‘archaic’ communities and their myths, he found the same way of thinking and acting ‘in the real world’ as in the fictional. These communities are tribal, pre-literate, and even pre-rational. How did they deal with the inevitable conflict and chaos that are the natural outcome of ‘mimetic desires’? Larger, literate, developed ‘civilizations’ have controls that avoid total social disorder. But how did primal groups maintain order? Girard’s answer is the ‘scapegoating’ phenomenon.

Girard argues that a primal society, descending into chaos that results naturally from the competition, mutual distrust and violence mimetic desires bring, would spontaneously ‘discover’ someone to blame for their problems – a scapegoat. They would expel or kill her, in a group action, like stoning, drowning or crowding her off a cliff. But paradoxically, their very fixation on the alleged cause of their trouble – usually someone ‘different’, like a cripple, rule breaker or ‘outsider’ – and their shared violence against her, would unify the community, and reestablish order. After the fact, they would all recognize her double influence, for disorder and order. The person who was responsible for all their troubles was also she who had cured them. She would become a cosmic god, able to do both evil and good.

Not wanting to admit to themselves the unacceptable fact that they had killed their scapegoat-savior, the archaic community disguised the scapegoating violence in symbolic mythology and rites, and ensured the continuation of their social order by further ritual ‘sacrifices’, repeated periodically. Girard examines many myths, and convincingly teases out the disguised originary scapegoating event for that group. His controversial conclusion is that every archaic religion (and the social order that rests on its mythology and rites) originated in violence against an innocent.

Swedenborg too says that ‘self-centered’ desires are our natural inheritance, and claims that this fact is the true meaning of “original sin” – not the Fall in the garden, but what that story symbolizes – which a knowledge of correspondence can reveal. It’s a spiritual disease that has continued to infect societies, regardless of their size or degree of civilization, up to the present. Both men say that this disease can only be overcome by divine intervention, through the efficacy of the Word. In True Christianity Swedenborg says,

For man is enticed by two loves, the love of ruling over all, and the love of possessing the wealth of all. These loves, if uncurbed, rush onward to infinity. The hereditary evils into which man is born have arisen principally from these two loves; nor was the sin of Adam any other than a desire to become as God, which evil the serpent infused into him… [with the result that] “the earth should bring forth the thorn and the thistle to him” (Gen 3:5, 18) which means all evil and falsity therefrom.

All who are enslaved by these loves, look upon themselves as the one only object, in which and for which all others exist. Such have no pity, no fear of God, no love for the neighbor; consequently they are unmerciful, inhuman and cruel …

That man is inwardly such, is manifest in seditious disturbances when the bonds of law are loosed, and also in massacres and pillaging, when the signal is given to soldiers that they are free to satiate their fury upon the conquered or besieged; from which scarcely anyone desists until the drum beats the order to do so.

From all this it is clear that if no fear of legal penalties restrained men, not only society, but the whole human race, would be destroyed. [TC 498]

But for any individual, if she did not (or does not) believe violence against others is wrong, then she would not be held culpable by a loving god. I recently tried to summarize Girard’s thinking to an acquaintance, who asked if ‘covering over’ the scapegoating in primal mythology implies that it was seen to be wrong. I don’t know how Girard would answer, but to me it seems so.

The question for me in this notion of culpability is when (either historically, or in prehistory) people began to understand or perceive what is right, sufficiently to make a free choice to follow (or not follow) that perception. Swedenborg emphasizes that people are not culpable for what they do in ignorance, or are compelled to do. People are only responsible for what they choose to do in freedom. Unfortunately, countless generations of increasingly naturalistic thinking, from ancient times until the present, have led to the tendency to ignore what is right, and favor what is not right – favoring worldly pleasure, and power over concern for the welfare of others, and love of god – so that all people today need help to regain good motives. Ultimately this help comes from the source of all good and all life.

From mythology to ‘The Word’

Girard’s extensive exegesis of world mythologies, including biblical literature, revealed a strange exception: Hebrew and Christian scriptures do not hide the scapegoat victimization. Uniquely, they show the innocence of the scapegoat, if not always remorse over it. In fact, they demonstrate in various texts that the only acceptable way to bring social order is to reject violence and replace it with love – in emulation of Jesus.

I’m not confident to say the injunction to ‘love thy neighbor’ is equivalent to total ‘non-violence’, if violence includes all killing. That would seem to preclude me from acting forcefully (as in defending or protecting others), to whatever degree needed. But violence against the innocent, or out of hatred or self-interest, is never excusable.

Gerard concentrates on Christianity, but points out that the Hebrew scriptures also contain this message, only less openly than the teaching and example of Christ. For that matter, neither Jews nor Christians have really gotten the radical message of the Gospels (‘Good News’). They are still living in the spirit of scapegoating, and violence against opponents, and are increasingly ‘buying into’ the victimization inherent in the larger civil community. The specifics differ, but the general theme is: it’s all right to sacrifice a few ‘for the good of the whole’. No it isn’t.

In brief, Girard claims every archaic culture’s order is based on an original act of violence against a scapegoat. I can’t effectively argue the point. I think it depends on what one calls ‘archaic’, either in terms of history, or prehistory, or as having a written code to follow. Girardians describe the thinking of such communities as ‘pre-rational’, ‘pre-representation’, ‘pre-literate’ – rather like what Freud described in Group Psychology (1921) as belong to ‘uncivilized’ cultures, noting that today’s crowds can easily revert to such emotion governed, suggestible and contagious thinking easily, in tense situations, or under incitement. (One Girardian journal is called Contagion.) However, many social scientists today will bristle at any talk about some cultures being ‘uncivilized’ or ‘primitive’.

I don’t think Girard is making moral or spiritual judgments about archaic communities, but rather is saying that victimization has always been part of their way of dealing with mimetic desires that are the ‘natural’ tendencies of people at birth. He says,

But mimetic rivalry is not satanic to begin with, it is not sinful per se, it is only a permanent occasion of sin [The Girard Reader, p. 198]

This is certainly not equivalent to the orthodox Christian view of ‘original sin’. It especially differs from Protestant norms. Girard’s view of this originary state is described in the Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy article “Rene Girard”:

Under Girard’s interpretation, there is a twofold sense of original sin: 1) human beings are born with the propensity to imitate each other and, eventually, be led to violence; 2) human culture was laid upon the foundations of violence. Thus, human nature is tainted by an original sin, but it can be saved through repentance materialized in the withdrawal from violence. [IEP “Rene Girard”, Sec 5d]

Like Girard, Swedenborg holds that written Hebrew and Christian scriptures have an inner or spiritual meaning. Swedenborg say that a ‘code’ is needed to unlock the secrets. His principle work to this effect is called “Heavenly Secrets” (Arcana Celestia). Whatever the Word seems to express in the literal form, some of which refers to obvious moral principles, as well as to real names, places and events in middle eastern history, there is always an additional inner, spiritual truth to be learned, which is never obvious. Correspondence is what Swedenborg calls this code, that connects the outer, worldly meaning to its spiritual messages. This way of reading was known to ancient peoples, but was lost, due to countless generations of increasingly materialistic orientation.

Spiritual truth contained in the scriptures can be known today, but only with divine assistance, and only to the degree that the seeker recognizes the divine origin of truth, and desires to apply this knowledge to living a good life – i.e. a life of service to others, which we can call compassion. Without this application to life, the truths one knows are simply ideas, and eventually will dissipate. Our default mode is to gratify our innate self-interest. For this reason, we naturally tend to accept, and rationalize, whatever falsity and delusions strengthen what we value, and the desires they generate. This agrees with Girard’s idea that desires govern us.

From the perspective of a follower of Swedenborg, I believe Girard has amazing insights into the weaknesses of human nature, and into the means God provides to save us all, namely God’s Word. Girard says that the true message of the Gospels – when properly understood – is presently the medium for saving everyone, wherever they live, whether or not they are even aware of Christian teachings, or have ever heard the name of Christ. This makes me think Girard is one of those devoted seekers of the real meaning of the Gospel who have been given access to its inner truth, by the divine mediator, despite constant efforts of the “Father of Lies” he discusses so eloquently, especially in his essay “How Can Satan Cast out Satan?” [See The Girard Reader, Ch. 13] Only God can know the real spiritual state of any of us at any time, but to me Girard fits the model of an inspired student.

I don’t know if Girard ever studied, or even heard of Swedenborg, yet both men insist that scripture – The Word – has never been understood, from the time it was revealed to Jews and Christians (what we might call the followers of the “Old and New Testaments”). Even so, both men agree, the spirit of this Gospel has been working from its beginning long before writing – as it were secretly or providentially — to effect the needed changes in humans and society since ‘the fall’, which both these thinkers undertake to explain.

Revealing the true interpretation of scripture is the calling that Swedenborg expressly claims to have received and undertaken. Swedenborg’s role as a revelator is something strange – indeed unique among Enlightenment philosophers and scientists – and it was fiercely opposed in his time, even by those like Kant who believed in revealed truth, and tried to justify or validate it philosophically. But the following century saw some claims of new revelations, e.g. by Joseph Smith to the Mormon faithful in America, and The Bab to the Bahai faithful in Iran, as well as an explosion of claims for, and endorsements of various spiritual influences, healings, and direct or indirect communication with the ‘spirit world’ – e.g., Homeopathy, Christian Science, Theosophy and Jehovah’s Witness. There are studies which connect some of these ‘transcendent’ world views to Swedenborg’s influence, but this is not the place.

The Word, when lived, is the way to salvation

Girard thinks the Lord’s Incarnation is to give a concrete expression to the idea of siding with victims, and eschewing violence, and proving that it can be done. Christ’s death does not buy people’s salvation (the doctrine of redemption) nor appease a god who is angry. Christ is God. [IEP 5b] This too is at the core of Swedenborg’s teachings. There is one god, who is not “three divine persons”. This god came into nature to show what is needed to ‘come into his kingdom’, and to make that spiritual development possible. Each person must play a role in allowing herself to be saved – by living as she should (and not doing what she should not do), and recognizing that her attempts at a good life are always the result of God’s eternal concern to bring all people to himself.

Both Girard and Swedenborg hold that all people on earth have the opportunity to be saved, which is provided through The Word. Its real meaning can be known, with the help of the paraclete “helper” [John 15:14] who comes to those who, “if you love me, keep my commandments”. This is the “spirit of truth” (or spiritual truth). This is the Word that was “in the beginning [John 1:1] who became flesh.

It is not necessary to be a Christian. Anyone who does what she thinks is right will be saved. It’s a cruel heresy to think that only those who believe in Christ can be saved. According to Swedenborg,

It is an insane heresy to believe that only those born in the [Christian] church are saved. People born outside the church are just as human as people born within it. They come from the same heavenly source. They are equally living and immortal souls. They have religions as well, religions that enable them to believe that God exists and that they should lead good lives; and all of them who do believe in God and lead good lives become spiritual on their own level and are saved, as already noted (DP 326). [DP330(c)]

In fact, Christians are not typically the best of humans. They neither understand nor practice what the Gospels teach. Swedenborg continues,

Christians get the commandments of their religion from the Word, but not many of them actually take any commandments of life from it.

Catholics do not read it, and Protestants who believe in faith separated from charity pay no attention to what it says about life, only to what it says about faith. Yet the whole Word is nothing but a theology of life. [DP330, my emphasis]

As a professor of philosophy and of comparative religions, I’ve always used Swedenborg’s ideas, but usually without identifying him, or myself as a follower of his revelation. I’ve come to think that being raised under the tutelage of Swedenborg’s teachings is the greatest gift I can imagine, yet I’ve been uncomfortable – even embarrassed at times – to tell people that Swedenborg is a revelator of the divine Word. My students and other acquaintances tend to look askance at this idea, either because they believe in some other ‘normal’ religion, or because they are ‘modern’ thinkers, who think all religions are useless superstition at best, and often troublesome or even dangerous.

Besides, it wasn’t my desire or role as a teacher to proselytize. I tried for years to present these revealed teachings in philosophical clothing. But nearing the end of my days, I’m convinced it’s not possible to make satisfactory sense of life without the help of religious belief. Philosophy alone – as much as I love it passionately – is not enough. We cannot reason our way to freedom, or morality, without presuming (never proving) that there is a spiritual realm, where our minds operate, in which we can find moral truth, make free choices whether or not to follow them, and be guided in this by the Lord’s loving providence. This conviction is the conclusion of my 1916 book: Modern Or Moral – The Conflict of Freedom and Nature.