Reflections on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desires, the Buddhist concept of desire and the mirror of Christ

I was reflecting recently that Girard’s theory of mimetic desires that produce envy and rivalry leading to suffering is somewhat similar to the Buddhist concept of desire or craving leading to suffering. I googled about it, and noted that a number of articles have also made the same observation, such as this one.

“Rene Girard calls it Mimetic Desires, that “mimesis is an unconscious form of imitation that invariably leads to competition and desire is the most virulent mimetic pathogen”. The idea is not new as Thomas Hobbes had already written in Leviathen, “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies”. And long before that Buddha preached that all suffering and conflicts on earth is because of man’s craving, desire.

Agganna Sutta is all about mimetic desire, if we are to interpret using Girardian logic.”

(From “Mimetic desire“)

In addition, I learnt that some writers observed that while Girard’s mimetic theory and Buddhism share similar ideas that desires can lead to suffering, Girard’s theory goes one step further by saying not all mimetic desires lead to suffering because it depends on who we imitate. I think this blog does a good job in explaining that when people imitate Jesus in his love instead of their neighbours in their envy and rivalry, they can overcome violence and scapegoating.

“First, René Girard goes on to make the point that mimetic desire is not inherently wrong, even if in practice it leads to rivalry and violence between human beings. The question is how to prevent mimetic desire from leading to such violent rivalry.

One answer is that of law: prohibit both the expression of that violent rivalry, and the things which lead to it. That is the approach taken by the Ten Commandments, which first prohibit murder, adultery, theft and perjury, and then prohibit the covetousness – the desire stirred up in us by our neighbour’s desire – that leads to them.

A second answer is to identify desire itself as the cause of human violence and suffering, and thus to seek to extinguish desire. This is the approach taken by religions such as Buddhism.

But, as Girard points out, Jesus proposes a new approach to handling mimetic desire. Instead of issuing new laws or telling us to cease desire or imitation, he provides a new model for our desires to imitate: namely, himself. Girard writes:

‘Far from arising in a universe exempt from imitation, the commandment to imitate Jesus addresses us as beings penetrated by mimesis. Non-Christians imagine that, in order to become Christians, they must renounce an autonomy that all human beings possess by nature, an autonomy of which Jesus wants to deprive them. In fact, as soon as we imitate Jesus, we discover that we have always been imitators.’

The difference is that, while previously our imitation has led us into rivalry with one another, to imitate Jesus frees us from that rivalry with our neighbours.”

(From “Mimetic spirituality in practice“)

Similarly, this article suggests that desire itself is not necessarily flawed nor does it be suppressed or denied, as implied in typical Buddhist teachings (though I think some other Buddhist teachings focus on transformation of desires instead of suppression of desires, which I agree with) but rather desire can be positive when it is channelled towards mirroring Christ and modelling the love of Christ, which can potentially redeem humankind from suffering and violence, so to speak.

“Permit me a brief digression, with my own observation. Buddhism is correct in also seeing human desire at the heart of lives of suffering. But isn’t the Buddhist insight into desire of the linear variety, seeing it as merely a matter of each person and his or her objects of desire? It thus sees desire itself as flawed, and the only cure to be the denial or sacrifice of desire. According to Buddhist philosophy, we must learn to put behind us the world of human desiring.

Girard’s analysis of desire, on the other hand, does not make desire itself the problem. Because human desire is mimetic, necessarily taking a model, the problem and cure lies with the modeling relationship. Presumably, if we had the right model for our desire, we could potentially be redeemed from suffering. But the problem, ever since the first man and woman, is that we have chosen to follow desires of our fellow creatures rather than of the one in whose image we are made, our Creator. Modeling God’s desire for creation is the only desire that can save us from lives of suffering.”

(From “Girardian Anthropology in a Nutshell“)

In view of the above observations, I think Girard’s mimetic theory is both insightful and practical for humanity to learn to dwell in peace and true unity.

I came to realise that the Bible is also full of mirror imagery and symbolism about mimetic desires. It occurred to me that Jesus himself mirrored the father (possibly refering to his highest self), as he revealed in his words to the Jews – “Most assuredly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father do; for whatever he does, the son also does in like manner”. So it could well mean that Jesus chose to follow the mimetic desires of the Father, who is Love that embraces all. Hence, whatever Jesus sees the Father does in love, such as healing the sick, he imitates the Father.

Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ”, so Paul may be in effect saying that he chose to align his mimetic desires with the love of Christ, instead of the competition and rivalry of the world system. Interestingly, in Ephesians 5:1, Paul wrote “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” – it is as though Paul understood the mimetic nature of human beings, even though he lived before the scientific discovery of mirror neurons.

I also realise the mirror of God always shows how beloved and glorious we actually are, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18 “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror, the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord”. Last but not least, James 1:25 says “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty (mirror of our true identity in Christ) and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer (poet) of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” Yes, as we behold our true self in the mirror of Christ, we behold the beauty and poetry of our souls, so to speak.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. eric keys says:

    Thank you so much! You have no idea how helpful this is!

    1. jimmytst says:

      You are most welcome, Eric.

  2. Patrick Daoust says:

    Very interesting. Could you provide your references?

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