What Girard missed in Plato

One of the pleasures of being a member in good standing of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is that every so often I am sent a pile of books by Michigan State University Press by Girardian authors. Yesterday’s surprise included two new books by Rene Girard himself: When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer and The One by Whom Scandal Comes. What a treat!

However, one of the chapters of the Conversations book has the title “Mimetic Desire: Shakespeare rather than Plato.” (You can picture my grimace if you’d like.) There are really only a few terse mentions of Plato in the chapter from which I will quote. Note that the book is an extended interview and “MT” is Michel Treguer and “RG” is Rene Girard:

MT: Why did you just say that “contrary to what most philosophers think, imitation also bears on desire”?

RG: For Plato, the real is only the imitation of distant “ideas,” everything is subject to imitation except acquisitive behavior. In truth, if you take a close look at his work, The Republic in particular, you notice that it is haunted by the true conflict born of imitated desires, the conflict between people who are close to each other, who desire the same thing, and who all of the sudden become rivals — the sort of conflict I talk about, and that I found in the work of novelists and playwrights — but he doesn’t conceptualize it. (Girard/Treguer, p. 12)

Now, I love Rene Girard like a father, but this is entirely wrong. I could attribute it to the casual character of an interview were it not for the fact that Girard consistently voices a similarly truncated view of Plato throughout his written oeuvre. Where do I even begin with this?

1. First off, I won’t even touch his characterization of the Platonic real, that it is “only the imitation of distant ‘ideas'”. That is a truly bizarre reading of Plato. I will assume the error is just a product of the give-and-take of an interview.

2. The claim that Plato doesn’t “conceptualize” the conflict born of mimetic desire is curious since, well, neither did Shakespeare or Cervantes, to choose two representative favorites of Girard. Like the novelists and dramatists favored by Girard, Plato didn’t write treatises, although his readers do often extract doctrinal pronouncements from them as if they are given in treatises. (I plead guilty to that at times.) Plato wrote dialogues, which it must be remembered are carefully constructed works of *dramatic fiction*. In a dialogue, what is dramatically displayed is often more important that what is thematized. (A massive scholarly movement has already coalesced  around this point — think Brann, Hyland, Gonzales, Howland, Strauss, Voegelin, Sallis, Roochnik, Arieti, Press, Blondell, Griswold and Rosen, just to name a few off the top of my head.) Girard notices the dramatic examples of conflictual desire that “haunt” the dialogues without seeming to grant that Plato wrote them and wrote them intentionally! One cannot understand Plato without attending to the drama, and yet Girard seems to have reduced Plato to a mine of doctrinal nuggets of inferior quality. Having struck what he took to be fool’s gold, he abandons the mine altogether and fails to dig deeper where the true treasure lay. It is really a shame.

3. Girard claims that Plato did not recognize acquisitive mimesis. This is another curious claim. Acquisitive mimesis leading to violence is ubiquitous in the dialogues and not just dramatically. Ephithumia (appetitive desire) and thumos (competitive striving) are both mimetic phenomena in the Republic. The city-in-speech that the characters establish is largely an attempt to control the predations born of such mimetic passions. Let me “girardianize” the definitions of each of these Greek words, epithumia and thumos. They can be distinguished by the type of object that they crave — a potentially useful distinction for the mimetic theory that Girard never really made. Epithumia desires goods that correspond to already existing biological/appetitive urges like food and sex and, by extension, money as a means to these ends. Words that Plato substitutes for epithumia include philokerdes (love of gain) and philochrematon (love of money). Thumos on the other hand corresponds to desire for things not strictly biological/appetitive like victory or honor or glory. Thumos is also an acquisitive desire, like epithumia, but its desire is for objects which are manufactured out of mimetic rivalry, unlike epithumia. Terms that Plato uses as rough equivalents for thumos are philonikon (love of victory) and philotimon (love of honor). The diagnostic term that can describe either of these desires in their diseased state is pleonexia (acquisitiveness.) That thumos and epithumia are both acquisitive in nature and excited by mimetic influences in Plato is fairly easy to establish.

Thumos and epithumia are also perpetual sources of conflict in Plato. Allow me one example. In Book II, Socrates sketches a primitive city based strictly on an economy of need. But Glaucon complains about the lack of luxuries claiming that the city so describes is a “City of Pigs.” Glaucon wants to know about the desires (of the epithumia-type) that exceed bare need and how to incorporate those into the city. Socrates indicates that this will drastically complicate the city (and remember always that the city is an analogical stand-in for the individual soul). Notice the strong element of mimetic doubling and the conflictual situation that results:

Then we’ll have to seize some of our neighbors land if we’re to have enough pasture and ploughland. And won’t our neighbors want to seize part of ours as well, if they too have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of our necessities? (Grube/Reeve, 373d)


[We’ve] now found the origins of war. It comes from those same desires that are most responsible for the bad things that happen to cities and the individuals within them. (Grube/Reeve, 373e)

The upshot is a city (“Feverish,” per Socrates) that must now arm itself with soldiers/guardians to control the conflicts born of excessive desire. Desire competing against desire is the source of war. The linkage is explicit. But there is a sequel. The courageous types needed to serve as soldiers are also those who will possess the greatest thumos and thus will have a marked tendency to fight each other instead of just the enemy as the following interchange between Socrates and Glaucon shows:

And as far as their souls are concerned, they must be spirited (thumoeides).

That too.

But if they have natures like that, Glaucon, won’t they be savage to each other and to the rest of the citizens?

By god, it will be hard for them to be anything else.  (Grube/Reeve, 375b)

Thumos is inherently conflictual, it being the most highly mimeticized form of desire. Thumos is always a product of competition, a word whose Latin root means “to seek in common.” The problem is that thumos can’t really oppose thumos without an escalation of scandal. (In fact, I read the Socratic posture of ironic humility toward his thumic interlocutors as a rhetorical response to dampen mimetic scandals born of thumos.)

Here is my key contention: whenever Plato mentions either epithumia or thumos, he is writing about mimetic desire.

Plato, as is well known, does give “mimesis” extended thematic treatment in Books III and X of the Republic.  But Plato’s concern there is with the education of the young and with the inherent problems mimesis has as a medium of cultural transmission. To give one application, Socrates notes that mimetic art is much better at imitating people of dubious virtue than to those who are more moderate:

Now, this excitable character admits of many multicolored imitations. But a rational and quiet character, which always remains pretty well the same, is neither easy to imitate nor easy to understand when imitated, especially by a crowd consisting of all sorts of people gathered together. (Grube/Reeve, 604e)

So mimesis in art has a built in selection bias. It is better at representing titillating badness than wholesome goodness. Bad news makes better press. Try as you will to counteract one bad examples with ten good ones the bad example will just have more mimetic effect, more “stickiness,” to use a modern advertising term. One part of the Romantic delusion is to think we can choose which of the buzz of ambient mimetic sources to be affected by. This has consequences for Plato’s Republic specifically and for mimetic animals like us generally. (Know any?) To the extent that he is developing in Book III a “theory of mimesis,” it is only for the ad-hoc purpose of understanding the role of mimesis in education, both civic and personal. I think what he says explicitly about mimesis in the Republic is both true and important, but it is not a comprehensive theory. And because of its context within a dialogue filled with dialectical gropings and failed attempts that end in aporia, it is not even clear that it represents what can be called “Plato’s Theory.”

So why does Girard miss what is so ubiquitous in Plato? Let me try to reconstruct a hypothesis of how Girard might have arrived at this reading of Plato. I think Girard goes to the Republic looking for any hint of a “conceptualization” of mimetic desire in support of his theory. For a theorist of mimesis, Books III and X are obvious places to focus. Girard notices that that “Plato’s Theory of Mimesis” presented there doesn’t touch on acquisitive desire. (“Plato missed it, obviously.”) Girard observes that “Plato’s” critique of mimesis culminates in a purging of the poets. (“Sacrifice!”) Plato suffers from a primitive fear of mimesis. (“Ah ha!”) Plato enacts a sacrificial immolation of the originators of these terrors. (“Ah ha, again!”) Philosophy then is just another myth concealing the truth of acquisitive desire and sacrificial origins. So not only was Plato blind to conflictual mimesis, he is a scapegoater to boot! (Q.E.D.) Girard closes the book on Plato and never really reopens it. Or so I imagine.

But like the Purloined Letter, what Girard was missing in Plato is hiding in plain sight. Plato obviously didn’t use the term “mimetic desire.” And it is true that the problem for Plato isn’t specifically in the mimetic origins of the desires but in the desires themselves. However, Plato understands that the cure for disordered desire must be based on an understanding of their mimetic origins. Plato doesn’t thematize acquisitive mimesis in Book III, because he already has in Book II. The section on mimesis and mimetic art in Book III is the beginning of a dialectical search for a cure for conflictual, acquisitive mimesis through a different type of education. And Plato takes up acquisitive mimesis under two distinct guises: epithumia and thumos.

No one can read everything and few can read a lot of things well. Rene Girard is one of the most gifted readers that I know, but I don’t think he ever took the time, as he did with Shakespeare for instance, to read Plato at all his different registers of highly-ironized, dramatically-mediated meaning. His citations from Plato are simply too sparse, too fixated on a few passages in the Republic. His base of scholarship in Plato was very narrow — at least to judge by the evidence he has left us. And that’s OK, as I will make clear with a personal anecdote.

I remember vividly a particular lunch I shared with Rene Girard at Stanford. (Rene Girard was very kind and generous with his time for those who were enthusiastic about his ideas as I was — and am.) He rehearsed for my benefit some of the themes that would end up being the book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning — now one of my personal favorites of his. The first of those themes was the last commandment in the Decalogue, the prohibition against coveting. He said that all of the other commandments revolve around action, whereas this commandment was peculiar in that it prohibited a certain type of desire, i.e. mimetic desire. I asked whether he knew the Greek word in the Septuagint for “covet.” I myself didn’t know the answer but I knew a little Greek at the time and was hoping to make a connection. Girard said he didn’t know the Greek word and then confessed that “he wasn’t much of a scholar.” The smile he gave me was a mixture of humility and mischievous glee. When I expressed my surprise at his claim not to be a scholar, he explained that he was a theorist, not a scholar, and that a theorist didn’t need to know everything, just enough to illustrate the theory. Of course he’s right. I learned a lot from that conversation. For my part I am glad the Rene Girard focused on theory instead of scholarship. If he didn’t study everything, he surely studied enough to do the world much good. Let the scholars catch up where they can!

Oh, yeah, one more thing: after some time, I did finally look up the word translated as “coveting” in the Book of Exodus. It is the verbal form of epithumia.


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