Pierre Manent’s Critique of René Girard

From “René Girard’s Lesson of Shadows” by Pierre Manent

While preparing a talk for the upcoming meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which is dedicated to the study of the ideas of René Girard, I translated the final paragraphs of Manent’s article on Girard.  It was published in Commentaire Vol. 5, No. 19 (Autumn 1982), pp. 457-463.

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But more than that of Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, the theory of Girard attaches itself to that of the greatest master of suspicion: Machiavelli.  Machiavelli also affirms that the foundation and preservation of cities are essentially violent, and that men live out continually the beneficial effects of this violence which they are not willing to look in the face.  But Machiavelli himself knows what he says: if that which we call humanity is founded on violence, then it is necessary to maintain the active power of violence and prevent men from falling under the influence of a misguided non-violence – that of Christianity – which tends to destroy the very conditions of its humanity.

For Machiavelli, the cultural differences in the interior of the cities – and first the difference between virtue and vice, between good and evil – differences which he does not contest as such but admits are conditioned by, and subordinated to, an amoral violence which circumscribes the space – the city, precisely – in which moral differences can have a meaning.  The question is the following: does the Machiavellian gesture, which places before the eyes of men the role of violence in the constitution of the human world, reveal a truth that their hypocrisy or their blindness keeps buried?  Or, to the contrary, does the scandalous revelation of Machiavelli blind men about themselves far more gravely than does their hypocrisy?  Do men not have good reasons to “stem” the violence?  In fact, their hypocrisy is founded on this: they sense obscurely that the end of social life is irreducible to its violent origin; the sacralization of the origin, which effaces or transfigures the violent aspects of this origin, is the expression of this intuition.  The founding myths are more clever than realist science.  The mythic transfiguration of the foundation guarantees that, in the pursuit of their end, the citizens do not stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.  The origins of any city cannot be absolutely justified in conscience; it is for this very reason that men have had to hide from themselves this origin if they are to live according to their conscience.  That this conscience is inseparable from a certain “false consciousness” which is a “good conscience” indicates only that the realization of the humanity of man in the social world is subject to constraints and limitations, but not that it is radically dishonest, or mystified, or alienated.  The scandal of Machiavelli which sets the limits of the city – the constraints which weigh on the birth of the city – the nature of the city blinds men to their proper nature far more seriously than does mythic hypocrisy.

The Machiavellian path is made possible by the Christian revelation which desacralizes the human city; it desacralizes it, not in revealing that it is essentially violence, but in announcing another city in the composition of which violence has no place at all.  The Christian revelation announces a more total accomplishment of the human, incomparably, than that which is possible in the bounds of nature.  Grace does not destroy nature.  Assuredly, earthly cities being necessarily bound to a certain violence, both foundational and preservative, the Christian revelation tends to underscore the illegitimacy of all earthly cities.  And to reconquer the legitimacy of terrestrial cities, Machiavelli must affirm that the nature of cities is essentially violent.  Thus he turns Christian revelation against itself in unveiling that it is against nature.  Machiavelli reinterprets political life as violence in reinterpreting the Christian revelation as essentially non-violent, thus as essentially fallacious, thus as productive of a violence worse than “natural” violence (cf. what Machiavelli calls the “pious cruelty” of Ferdinand of Aragon, The Prince, XXI).

Girard abides strictly within the terms of Machiavellianism.  To put it simply, he gives a positive sign where Machiavelli gave a negative one, and vice-versa.  But this reversal is absurd.  If the political nature of man is violence or founded on violence, then the non-violence of Christianity is what Machiavelli calls violence against nature, the violence of the second degree, or “pious cruelty.”  If human culture is founded essentially on violence, then Christianity cannot bring anything else other than the destruction of humanity under the fallacious appearance of non-violence.

Christianity According to René Girard: The Lesson of Shadows 

The Christianity of René Girard is a strange revelation.  It reveals to men not their supernatural destination, but the truth of their nature or their “culture.”  It is a sort of Interdisciplinary Super-Institute of Social Sciences.  It tells them what they can know without Revelation.  The proof: Girard, who at least does not pretend to any supernatural revelation, knows what Christianity is better than generations of believers, theologians, and saints who have followed the faith for two millennia.  At the same time, Christianity reveals to men that their nature is essentially evil, because essentially violent.  The revelation reveals that creation is evil.  But this creation is “evil” not on account of sin but simply because it is violent: men only become men by means of sacrificial violence.  The properly Christian consideration of sin can give way to the “scientific” point of view formulated perfectly by Hobbes: “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin.”  Reducing sin to violence, making violence the principle of the humanization of man, Girard makes sin into a principle that does not index the fallenness of humanity.  An innocent and powerless God reveals to men that they are sinners without being guilty of sin, hence they are not sinners at all in the sense that part of their being partakes of sin.  It is a manichaeism without good or evil, a manichaeism equipped with the “axiological neutrality” of the human sciences.  “Christianity” reveals to men the shadows which surround them, and that the “light of nature” of which they avail themselves is founded on the shadows of violence.  The light of grace serves only to humiliate the weak glimmers of nature.  Grace destroys nature.  Machiavelli’s satire against Christianity becomes the truth of Christianity by the ministry of a “theory of culture.”

The Florentine believed himself to have humiliated Christianity irretrievably.  He was mistaken: in its humiliated humility, a perverted Christianity finds a motif of elevation, of an elevation not at all religious, to be sure, but “scientific.”  One is never wicked enough: when the “humble” have no more plays to offer, they can still produce a theory.

False in its own genre as a theory of culture, false in its own class as a work of demystification, false in what is proper to it as an interpretation of Christianity, the theory of Girard is also as false as a theory could be.

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