The Ideas of René Girard

René Girard is famous for his ideas of mimetic desire, mimetic violence and the scapegoat mechanism. These are components of a rather ambitious theory that tries to explain societal dynamics based on anthropological studies and literary analysis of scriptures and classics. 

Rather fittingly, Girard’s ideas of mimetic desire and mimicry spread through the same mechanism he theorized. Peter Thiel, co-founder at PayPal, now a prominent venture capitalist is a well known proponent and student of Girardian ideas. We’ll talk about his connection to Girard.

Although far from perfect, Girard’s ideas form a powerful mental model in my toolkit that provide insight into a wide variety of phenomena, viz. intra-group dynamics, the role of religion, the importance of myths, narcissism, envy, and even startups. 

This is a collection of some of the best stuff I’ve come across on Girardian themes of envy, desire and competition applied to a variety of domains. Disclaimer: I’m yet to read any of the original works; I’ve read just one really dense book that tried encapsulating all his ideas, a host of long reads mentioned here and many more tweets, also included here. 

Introductory Book:

René Girard’s Mimetic Theory – Wolfgang Palaver

Introduction to Girard and his ideas:

Secrets about People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard (30 min read)
This is the best place to start if you’re new to Girard 

The Uncomfortable Western Exceptionalism of René Girard (15 min read)
An excellent essay on Girard’s biggest ideas and their implications for society

René Girard, French Theorist of the Social Sciences, Dies at 91 (7 min read)
A profile of Girard that talks about his life, works and influence.

René Girard (1923—2015): Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A comprehensive and concise overview of Girard’s life, ideas, criticisms and bibliography

More Resources on Girard
Imitatio – an organization working to promote research on Girard’s ideas

Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading (9 min read)
Dan Wang explains how Game of Thrones can be viewed as a story based on mimetic desire

The Education System as a Girardian Arena:

Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror (28 min read)
Colleges and elite universities are a breeding ground for escalation of mimetic desire into violence and group-think. This is a must-read essay by the brilliant Dan Wang

Mimetic traps (9 min read)
This is a powerful and difficult-to-write essay by Brian where he explains the reason why he chose Physics at grad school: “I arrived at a simple mechanism: an excessive sensitivity to the desires of others, and a competitive environment.”

Girard and the Media:

The Godfather of the like button is dead. Long live his work (3 min read)
Remembering Girard, the inspiration for Facebook

Media Bias and the Mob (8 min read)
Fake news, out-groups and mimetic desire

Peter Thiel and Girardian themes:

Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself (12 min read)
What does Peter Thiel mean when he talks about contrarian ideas? What does the book Zero to One actually talk about? Is it about building startups or escaping Girardian competition? 

Mimesis, Violence, and Facebook: Peter Thiel’s French Connection (19 min read)
Using Girard’s ideas to understand the implications for social media, hate and violence

Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup – Class 18 Notes Essay (34 min read)
Titled: Founder as Victim, Founder as God
Traits of a founder, the founder distribution curve, myths and sacrifice, victims and anatomy of the scapegoat, monarchy, politics and technology

A 9-part series on Girardian themes in Silicon Valley: Alex Danco and team from Social Capital 

Mimicry: October 7, 2018 Snippets (10 min read)
This week’s theme: mimicry as a fundamental aspect of human behavior

The Organization Man: January 6, 2019 Snippets (10 min read)
This week’s theme: revisiting an old classic, The Organization Man

Productive Illusions: January 13, 2019 Snippets (10 min read)
This week’s theme: why did people in tech love Sapiens so much, and why does that matter?

Envy: January 20, 2019 Snippets (12 min read)
This week’s theme: Exploring something that is taboo in the rest of the world, but celebrated in the tech industry

January 27, 2019 Snippets: The Double Bind (18 min read)
This week’s theme: Silicon Valley rituals around competition and failure

Founders: February 3, 2019 Snippets (15 min read)
This week’s theme: the difference between CEO power and Founder power, and the very important ritual of Everyone Making Fun of Your Startup Idea

The Hustle: February 10, 2019 Snippets (14 min read)
This week’s theme: the first of two reasons why mildly scammy hustles are actually a feature of Silicon Valley, not a bug

Kings and Priests: February 17, 2019 Snippets (14 min read)
This week’s theme: A genuine taboo of Silicon Valley. What if, to build a good business, you have to do bad things?

Tech’s Diversity Problem: February 24, 2019 Snippets (15 min read)
This week’s theme: how the social forces that make Silicon Valley a great place to create something out of nothing have also created a toxic environment for diversity and inclusion


Mimetic desire on Twitter

Mimesis, Violence and Facebook

Founder as victim, founder as God v. 2018

Girard Megathread (read this if you’re super into Girard, this is a mammoth thread)