My work has often been presented as a discussion of archaic religion through comparative anthropology. Its goal is to shed light on the process of hominization: the fascinating passage from animality to humanity that occurred thousands of years ago.
In all of this, my hypothesis has concerned mimesis: Because humans imitate one another, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their society. The mechanism by which they have done that is sacrifice, which reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else.
What this means is that humanity results from sacrifice; we are the children of religion. What I call (after Freud) the “founding murder”—the immolation of a sacrificial victim who is both guilty of disorder and able to restore order—is constantly reenacted in the rituals at the origin of our institutions. Since the dawn of humanity, millions of innocent victims have been killed in this way to enable their fellow humans to live together or at least not to destroy one another.
This is the implacable logic of the sacred, which myths dissimulate less and less as humans become increasingly self-aware. The decisive point in this evolution is Christian revelation. Rituals had slowly educated humans; after Christianity, they had to do without. Christianity, in other words, demystifies religion.
And yet, demystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough.
The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. This is why no one wants to read the apocalyptic texts that abound in the synoptic gospels and Pauline epistles. This is also why no one wants to recognize that these texts rise up before us because we have disregarded the Book of Revelation. Once in our history the truth about the identity of all humans was spoken, and no one wanted to hear it; instead we hang ever more frantically onto our false differences.
Two world wars, the invention of the atomic bomb, and all the rest of the modern horrors have not sufficed to convince humanity, and Christians above all, that the apocalyptic texts might concern the disaster that is underway. Violence has been unleashed across the whole world, and our paradox is this: By getting closer to Alpha, we are going toward Omega; by better understanding the origin, we can see every day a little better that the origin is coming closer. Our fetters were put in place by the founding murder and unshackled by the Passion—with the result of liberating planet-wide violence.
We cannot refasten the bindings because we now know that the scapegoats of sacrifice are innocent. Christ’s Passion unveiled the sacrificial origin of humanity once and for all. It dismantled the sacred and revealed its violence. And yet, the Passion freed violence at the same time that it freed holiness. The modern form of the sacred is thus not a return to some archaic form. It is a sacred that has been satanized by the awareness we have of it, and it indicates, through its excesses, the imminence of the Second Coming.
War, Heraclitus wrote, “is father of all and king of all.” That law of human relations was reformulated, a few years after Napoleon’s fall, in an office of the Berlin Military Academy. And the reformulation took the shape of a trend to extremes, the inability of politics to contain the reciprocal increase of violence. Its author, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), left his book unfinished when he died, but it is perhaps the greatest text ever written on war: a treatise that the English, Germans, French, Italians, Russians, and Chinese have read and reread from the end of the nineteenth century until the present day.
Clausewitz’s On War claims to be a work on strategy. It discusses what was at the time the most recent example of the trend to extremes, which had occurred, as always, unbeknownst to those involved. Clausewitz spoke to us about his specialty as if it were not related to everything else that was going on around it, and the result has implications far beyond his discourse. He formulated and helped identify what might be called Prussianism in its most disturbing form, without considering the consequences of what he had identified.
Ours is the first society that knows it can completely destroy itself. Yet we lack the belief that could bear up under this knowledge. It is not theologians who set us on the track of the new rationality; that was done by a man who died in 1831 at the age of fifty-one. He was a military theorist whom France, England, and the Soviet Union detested, a feisty writer who left no one indifferent. His actual theses have no future. Yet there is a subcurrent running beneath them that needs to be read aloud, for it can reveal a hidden reality.
It would be hypocritical to see On War as only a technical book. What happens when we reach the extremes that Clausewitz glimpses before hiding them behind his strategic considerations? He does not tell us. This is the question we have to ask today. Clausewitz had a stunning intuition about history’s suddenly accelerated course, but he immediately disguised it and tried to give his book the tone of a technical, scholarly treatise. We therefore have to complete Clausewitz by taking up the route he interrupted and following it to the end. Completing the interpretation of On War is to say that its meaning is religious and that only a religious interpretation has a chance of reaching what is essential in it. Through Clausewitz’s text, the relevance of the apocalyptic texts becomes apparent with greater force.
We must not turn the author of On War into a scapegoat, as did, in their time, Stalin and one of Clausewitz’s most famous commentators, Liddell Hart. We shall also not be content with the timidity with which Raymond Aron tried to rehabilitate him. The reason the text is not yet fully understood is perhaps because it has been attacked and defended too often. It is as if we have not yet wanted to understand the central intuition that it seeks to hide.
This constant denial is interesting. Clausewitz was possessed, like all the great writers, by resentment. It was because he wanted to be more rational than the strategists who preceded him that he suddenly put his finger on an aspect of reality that is absolutely irrational. Then he retreated and tried to shut his eyes.
Clausewitz conceived relations among men as mimetic, in spite of his philosophical approach being that of Enlightenment rationalism. He provided all the means for showing that the world is tending more and more to extremes, and yet his imagination always thwarted and limited his intuitions. Clausewitz and his commentators are hampered by their rationalism. This is as good a proof as any that a different kind of rationality is needed to understand the reality of what he glimpsed.
Durch diese Wechselwirkung wieder das Streben nach dem Äußersten, he wrote in his first chapter: “War is an act of violence, which in its application knows no bounds; as one dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which, in the conception, must lead to an extreme.” Without realizing it, Clausewitz discovered not only the apocalyptic formula but also that it is bound up with mimetic rivalry. Where can this truth be understood in a world that continues to close its eyes to the incalculable consequences of mimetic rivalry? Not only was Clausewitz right, in opposition to Hegel and all modern wisdom, but what he was right about has terrible implications for humanity. This warmonger alone saw certain things.
Christ allows us to face this reality without sinking into madness. The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope. If we suddenly see reality, we do not experience the absolute despair of an unthinking modernity but rediscover a world where things have meaning. Hope is possible only if we dare to think about the danger at hand, but this requires opposing both nihilists, for whom everything is only language, and pragmatic realists, who reject the idea that intelligence can attain truth: heads of state, bankers, and soldiers who claim to be saving us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into devastation each day.
By accepting to be crucified, Christ brought to light what had been “hidden since the foundation of the world”—the foundation itself, the unanimous murder that appeared in broad daylight for the first time on the Cross. In order to function, archaic religions need to hide their founding murder, which was being repeated continually in ritual sacrifices, thereby protecting human societies from their own violence. By revealing the founding murder, Christianity destroyed the ignorance and superstition that are indispensable to such religions. It thus made possible an advance in knowledge that was until then unimaginable.
Freed of sacrificial constraints, the human mind invented science, technology, and all the best and worst of culture. Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion. Without sacrifice in the broad sense, it could destroy itself if it does not take care, which clearly it is not doing.
Was Paul a megalomaniac when he said in the First Letter to the Corinthians that “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory”? I do not think so. The rulers of the age, and all that Paul calls powers and principalities, were state structures based on the founding murder, which was effective because hidden. In the context, the leading power was the Roman Empire, which was essentially evil in the absolute but indispensable in the relative—and better than the total destruction about which the Christian revelation warns us. Once again, this does not mean that Christian revelation is bad. It is wholly good, but we are unable to come to terms with it.
A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt. Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one. Learning that we have a scapegoat is to lose it forever and to expose ourselves to mimetic conflicts with no possible resolution. This is the implacable law of the trend to extremes. The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, that of all analogous victims. The process of education away from violent sacrifice thus got underway, but it moved very slowly, making advances that were almost always unconscious. It is only today that it has had increasingly remarkable results in terms of our comfort—and at the same time proved ever more dangerous for the future of life on Earth.
To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet. This is the possibility that Raymond Aron glimpsed when reading Clausewitz. He then wrote an impressive work to expel apocalyptic logic from his mind and persuade himself at all costs that the worst could be avoided, that deterrence would always triumph. This budding religious clairvoyance is superior to what most people are capable of, but insufficient. We have to take the interpretation of the text further. The interpretation has to be finished.
Since the beginning of the “novelistic conversion” in my 1961 study Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, all of my books have been more or less explicit apologies of Christianity. Christianity is a founding murder in reverse, which illuminates what has to remain hidden to produce ritual, sacrificial religions. Paul compared it to food for adults, in contrast with food for children, which is what archaic religions were. Nietzsche himself sometimes had intuitions of this kind regarding the Greeks’ “infantile” character.
To make the situation even more perverse, however, Christian revelation is the paradoxical victim of the knowledge that it provides. Absurdly, it is conflated with myth, which it clearly is not, and doubly misunderstood by both its enemies and partisans, who tend to confuse it with one of the archaic religions that it demystifies. Yet all demystification comes from Christianity. Even better: The only true religion is the one that demystifies archaic religions.
Christ came to take the victim’s place. He placed himself at the heart of the system to reveal its hidden workings. The second Adam, to use St. Paul’s expression, revealed to us how the first came to be. The Passion teaches us that humanity results from sacrifice, is born with religion. Only religion has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans. Mimetic theory does not seek to demonstrate that myth is null but to shed light on the fundamental discontinuity and continuity between the Passion and archaic religion. Christ’s divinity, which precedes the Crucifixion, introduces a radical rupture from the archaic, but Christ’s resurrection is in complete continuity with all forms of religion that preceded it. The way out of archaic religion comes at this price. A good theory about humanity must be based on a good theory about God.
People in the process of being educated, who are not yet fully human, can become so only by measuring themselves against the divine, and there comes a time when God can reveal himself fully to them. It is understandable that Christ frightened the apostles. He is also, however, the only model, the one that places man at just the right distance from the divine. Christ came to reveal that his kingdom was not of this world but that humans, once they have understood the mechanisms of their own violence, can have an accurate intuition of what is beyond it. We can all participate in the divinity of Christ so long as we renounce our own violence.
And yet, we now know, in part thanks to Clausewitz, that humans will not renounce it. The paradox is thus that we are starting to grasp the gospel message at the moment when the trend to extremes is becoming the unique law of history.
Christian revelation has confirmed all religions in its relation to the divine that is rejected by the modern world. It confirms what religions have glimpsed. In a way, it is because Christ accepted the mold of false resurrections that he is truly risen. The beneficiaries of archaic resurrections that reestablished peace and order were in a real relation to the divine. There was something Christian in all myths. By revealing the victims’ innocence, however, the Passion makes positive what was still negative in myths: We now know that victims are never guilty. Satan thus becomes the name of a sacred that is revealed and devalued through Christ’s intervention.
At present, the wise and the discerning (which I suppose now refers to academics) are furiously redoubling their attacks on Christianity and once again congratulating themselves on its forthcoming demise. These unfortunates do not see that their skepticism itself is a byproduct of Christian religion. While it is good to get rid of the sacrificial idiocies of the past in order to accelerate progress, eliminating obstacles to humanity’s forward march and facilitating the invention and production of what will make our lives more prosperous and comfortable (at least in the West), it is nonetheless true that sacrificial stupidity was also what prevented us from perfecting ways of killing one another.
Paradoxically, stupid sacrifice is what we are most in need of at present. Few Christians still talk about the apocalypse, and they usually have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.
Violence is a terrible adversary, since it always wins. Desiring war can thus become a spiritual attitude. We have to fight a violence that can no longer be controlled or mastered. More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.
In fact, the apocalyptic moment serves as a link between Clausewitz’s treatise and considerations on the destiny of Europe. If we take to its logical conclusion our analysis of a new global escalation of extremes, we have to consider the complete novelty of the situation since September 11, 2001. Terrorism has again raised the level of violence up a notch. It is one of the last metastases of the cancer that has torn the Western world apart. Terrorism is the vanguard of a general revenge against the West’s wealth. It is a very violent and unpredictable revival of conquest, which is all the more terrifying because it has encountered America along the way.
In this sense, everyone knows that the future of the idea of Europe, and thus also the Christian truth running through it, will be played out in South America, India, and China as well as in Europe. Europe has been playing a role analogous to Italy’s during the wars of the sixteenth century, except worse. It has been the battlefield of the entire world. Europe is a tired continent that no longer puts up much resistance to terrorism. This explains the stunning nature of the attacks, which are often carried out by people on the inside. Resistance is all the more complex because the terrorists are close to us, beside us. The actions are completely unpredictable. The very idea of sleeper cells corroborates everything we have said about the violent mechanisms by which cultures mediate themselves: the identity between people that can suddenly take a turn for the worst.
Atta, the leader of the September 11 group who piloted one of the four airplanes, was the son of a middle-class Egyptian family. It is staggering to think that, during the three last days before the attack, he spent his nights in bars with his accomplices. There is something mysterious and intriguing in this. Who asks about the souls of those men? Who were they and what were their motivations? What did Islam mean to them? What does it mean to kill oneself for that cause?
We are witnessing a new stage in the escalation to extremes. Terrorists have conveyed the message that they are ready to wait, that their notion of time is not ours. This is a clear sign of the return to the archaic, a return to the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, which is significant in itself. But who is paying attention to this significance? Who is taking its measure? Is that the job of the ministry of foreign affairs? We have to expect a lot of unexpected things in the future. We are going to witness things that will certainly be worse. Yet people will remain deaf.
On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: We always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet, the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it. It is precisely a modality of what Pascal saw: the war between violence and truth. Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes who preached the nonexistence of the real.
We have to think about time in such a way that the Battle of Poitiers and the Crusades are much closer to us than the French Revolution and the industrialization of the Second Empire in France. The points of view of Western countries are at most unimportant background features for Islamists. They think of the Western world as having to be Islamicized as quickly as possible. Analysts tend to say that this is the attitude of isolated minorities cut off from the reality in their countries. They may be so with respect to action, of course, but with respect to thought? Despite everything, does such thinking not contain something essentially Islamic? This is a question that we have to have the courage to ask, even though it is a given that terrorism is a brutal action that hijacks religious codes for its own purposes. It would not have taken such a hold on people’s minds if it did not bring up to date something that has always been present in Islam. To the great surprise of our secular republicans, religious thought is still very much alive in Islam. It cannot be denied that some of Muhammad’s theses are active in today’s world.
What we are witnessing with Islam, however, is nonetheless much more than a return of conquest; it is what has been rising ever since the French Revolution, after the communist period that acted as an intermediary. Indeed, Leninism had some of these features, but what it lacked was religion. Our new escalation to extremes is thus able to use all components: culture, fashion, political theory, theology, ideology, and religion. What drives history is not what seems essential in the eyes of Western rationalists.
If we had said in the 1980s that Islamism would play the role it plays today, people would have thought we were crazy. Yet the ideology promoted by Stalin already contained parareligious components that foreshadowed the increasingly radical contamination that has occurred over time. We therefore have to radically change the way we think and try to understand the situation without any presuppositions and using all the resources available from the study of Islam.
The work to be done is immense. Personally, I have the impression that this religion has used the Bible as a support to rebuild an archaic religion that is more powerful than all the others. It threatens to become an apocalyptic tool, the new face of the escalation to extremes. Even though there are no longer any archaic religions, it is as if a new one had arisen built on the back of the Bible, a slightly transformed Bible. It would be an archaic religion strengthened by aspects of the Bible and Christianity. Archaic religion collapsed in the face of Judeo-Christian revelation, but Islam resists. While Christianity eliminates sacrifice wherever it gains a foothold, Islam seems in many respects to situate itself prior to that rejection.
Of course, there is resentment in its attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relation to violence that we do not understand and that is all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not.
We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it, and we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand and that classical Islam may not understand either.
Clausewitz is easier to integrate into a historical development. He gives us the intellectual tools to understand the violent escalation. But where do we find such ideas in Islam? Modern resentment never leads all the way to suicide. Thus, we do not have the analogical structures that could help us understand. I am not saying that they are not possible, that they will not appear, but I admit my inability to grasp them. This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims.
We do not experience this reality; we have no intimate, spiritual, phenomenological contact with it. Terrorism is a superior form of violence, and it asserts that it will win. There is no indication, however, that the work that remains to be done to free the Qur’an from its caricatures will have any influence on terrorism itself, which is both linked to Islam and different from it. We can thus put forward the tentative hypothesis that the escalation to extremes now uses Islam as it once used Napoleonism and Pangermanism. Terrorism is fearsome in that it knows how to use the most deadly technology outside of any military institution. Clausewitzian war is an analogy that can make only imperfect sense of terrorism, but it certainly does foreshadow it.
In my 1972 book Violence and the Sacred, I borrowed the idea from the Qur’an that the ram that saved Isaac from being sacrificed was the same one that was sent to Abel so that he would not have to kill his brother: proof that in the Qur’an sacrifice is also interpreted as a means of combating violence. From this, we can draw the conclusion that the Qur’an contains understanding of things that secular mentality cannot fathom: that sacrifice prevents vengeance, for example. Yet, this topic has disappeared from Islam, just as it has disappeared in Western thought. The paradox that we thus have to deal with is that Islam is closer to us today than to the world of Homer. Clausewitz allowed us to glimpse this, through what we have called his warlike religion, in which we have seen the emergence of something both very new and very primitive. Islamism, likewise, is a kind of event internal to the development of technology. We have to be able to think about both Islamism and the escalation to extremes at the same time; we need to understand the complex relations between these two realities.
The unity of Christianity in the Middle Ages resulted in the Crusades, which were permitted by the papacy. And yet, the Crusades are not as important as Islam thinks. The Crusades were an archaic regression without consequences for the essence of Christianity. Christ died everywhere and for everyone. Seeing Jews and Christians as falsifiers is more irremediable. It allows Muslims to eliminate all serious discussion, all comparison among the three religions. It amounts to not wanting to see what is at stake in the prophetic tradition. Why has Christian revelation been subject to the most hostile and ferocious possible criticism for centuries, but not Islam? There is an abdication of reason here. In some respects, it resembles the aporia of pacifism, which can be a strong encouragement for aggression. The Qur’an would thus benefit from being studied in the same way that Jewish and Christian texts have been studied. I think that a comparative approach would reveal that it contains no real awareness of collective murder.
By contrast, there is a Christian awareness of such murder. The two greatest conversions, those of Peter and Paul, are analogous: They are one with the awareness of having participated in a collective murder. Paul was there when Stephen was stoned to death. His departure for Damascus immediately followed that murder, which must have affected him terribly. Christians understand that the Passion has rendered collective murder inoperative. This is why, far from reducing violence, the Passion aggravates it.
Islamism seems to have understood this very quickly, but in the sense of jihad. There are forms of acceleration in history that are self-perpetuating. We have the impression that today’s terrorism is somehow the heir of totalitarianism, that terrorism and totalitarianism contain similar forms of thought and ingrained habits. One of the possible threads of this continuity is the construction of a Napoleonic model by a Prussian general.
The model was later taken up by Lenin and Mao Zedong (referenced by al-Qaeda). Clausewitz’s brilliance lies in his having unknowingly anticipated a law that has become worldwide. The Cold War is over, and now we are in a hot war, given the hundreds, and tomorrow perhaps the thousands, of victims every day in the Middle East.
The trend toward the apocalypse is humanity’s greatest feat. The more probable this achievement becomes, the less we talk about it. I have come to a crucial point: that of a profession of faith, more than a strategic treatise, unless both are mysteriously equivalent, in the essential war that truth wages against violence. I have always been utterly convinced that violence belongs to a form of corrupted sacred, intensified by Christ’s action when he placed himself at the heart of the sacrificial system. Satan is the other name of the escalation to extremes. The Passion has radically altered the archaic world. Satanic violence has long reacted against this holiness, which is an essential transformation of ancient religion.
It is thus that God revealed himself in his Son, that religion was confirmed once and for all, thereby changing the course of human history. Inversely, the escalation to extremes reveals the power of this divine intervention. Divinity has appeared and it is more reliable than all the earlier theophanies, but no one wants to see it.
Humanity is more than ever the author of its own fall because it has become able to destroy its world. With respect to Christianity, this is not just an ordinary moral condemnation but an unavoidable anthropological observation. Therefore we have to awaken our sleeping consciences. To seek to comfort is always to contribute to the worst.
René Girard is a French-born literary critic, anthropologist, and theologian. Elected to the Académie française in 2005, he is the author of such books as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Violence and the Sacred, and To Double Business Bound. This essay is adapted from Achever Clausewitz, forthcoming in Mary Baker’s English translation as Battling to the End: Politics, War, and Apocalypse from Michigan State University Press.