Violence and the Sacred

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Violence and the Sacred
File:Violence and the Sacred (French edition).gif
Author René Girard
Original title La Violence et le sacré
Translator Patrick Gregory
Country France
Language French
Subject The sacred
Published <templatestyles src="Plainlist/styles.css"/>
  • 1972 (Editions Bernard Grasset, in French)
  • 1977 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, in English)
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 352 (2005 Continuum edition)
ISBN 978-1472520814

Violence and the Sacred (French: La violence et le sacré) is a 1972 book by French anthropologist René Girard, in which Girard offers hypotheses about cultural order in primitive societies and human communities in general. The work sparked controversy but also received praise.


Written while Girard was distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Violence and the Sacred was the product of a decade's research, and represents the first substantial stage of Girard's exploration of the ramifications of his theory of mimetic desire in relation to anthropology, Greek tragedy, and mythology.[1]

Girard was influenced by the work of Georges Bataille.[2]


Girard offers a series of hypotheses about the generation and stabilization of cultural order in primitive societies and human communities in general. He argues that mimetic desire often leads inexorably to rivalry and conflict, and that the origins of cultural order and stability reside in repeated acts of collective violence against a lone victim or group of victims, the scapegoat. Girard postulates a hypothetical morphogenetic mechanism accounting for the generation of cultural and social order: the surrogate victim mechanism.[1]

Religion is seen by Girard as a way of regulating social violence and creating social cohesion. He argues that through sacrifice, the violence that threatens the community is ritually cast out, turned outwards rather than inwards on to the members of the community. Girard, who sees society as an affair of men and says this explicitly, relates sacrifice to religion: he sees the function of religion as keeping violence out of the community by means of the mechanism of the scapegoat, or the ritual which substitutes for it.[3] Girard writes that while "Contemporary criticism is almost unanimous" in finding Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo (1913) unacceptable, he views the work differently. Girard notes that Freud's concept of collective murder is close to the themes of his own work.[4]


Violence and the Sacred spurred international controversy.[5] The work was greeted by a fanfare in Le Monde. G. H. de Radkowski gave it a laudatory review, asserting that it represented an enormous intellectual achievement, and a highly unique one: for Radkowski, it was "the first authentically atheistic theory of violence and the sacred". Violence and the Sacred was translated into English in 1977, and of Girard's works, it is the one which Anglophone theorists are most familiar with. Girard was awarded the Prix de l'Académie française for the book.[1] Classicist Norman O. Brown writes that Girard's purpose in Violence and the Sacred is to frighten people into returning to orthodox religion; Brown claims that Pope John Paul II liked the book.[2] Nevertheless, Violence and the Sacred has been seen as hostile to religion.[1]

For feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, Girard's account of sacrifice and its function corresponds to the model of male sexuality described by Sigmund Freud: the model of tension, discharge, and homeostasis. Irigaray believes that there is a more fundamental sacrifice that Girard does not mention: mothers, who are a "totem prior to any designated totem". Relations between men and women are paralyzed because society does not recognize this initial sacrifice. Irigaray suggests that violence could be mediated in ways different from the mechanism characteristic of male violence described by Girard, and insists on the need for rites and paroles, words or symbolizations.[3] Religious studies scholar Catherine Bell writes that Girard uses "Freudian notions of desire, guilt, and an original murder at the hands of the group" to present "a theory of ritual sacrifice as the central act of a cultural system generated by primal violence." Bell finds Girard's views similar to those of Walter Burkert, as expressed in his book Homo Necans (1972).[6]


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