Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 24: Desire
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 24: Desire

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

This week’s essay looks more closely at desire, reviewing and expanding upon some previous comments. We have previously explored how mimetic desire leads to rivalry, bitterness, and divisiveness, and communities repeatedly restore peace by scapegoating. Buddhist thinkers have recognized that desire is the root of human misery, and they have recommended eliminating desire through meditative exercises.

It would seem that Buddhists would be well-equipped to contain the destructive consequences of desire, yet historically it appears that Buddhists have not been significantly kinder or less violent than non-Buddhists. I think Buddhism’s program to quell human desire often fails because (despite Buddhism’s teachings) people generally have little insight into the nature of human desire. People typically believe, incorrectly, that noble aspirations motivate their desires, when in fact their desires are mimetic.

The Christian approach (rooted in the Judaic traditions) is to acknowledge desire and then to encourage the right kind of desire. A stumbling block has been a failure to appreciate the difference between romantic desire and acquisitive desire. In romantic desire, one desires something because it is good. For example, in Christian traditions, one is supposed to desire righteousness because it is ordained by God and is, therefore, good.

In contrast, nothing is inherently good about the objects of mimetic desire. One directs one’s mimetic desires at those objects that other people find attractive. Girard asserts that human desire is largely, if not totally, mimetic. We see mimetic desire most obviously in the play of children, who want whatever toy another child starts to play with. We see it somewhat more subtly in the advertisements aimed at adult consumers. Adults, seeking self-esteem, want to believe that their desires are based on the inherent goodness of the objects (such as practical value), rather than crass mimetic desire.

I think that the appeal of “romance novels” is that people want to see all desire, particularly love, as romantic rather than mimetic. In romance novels, the lovers are attracted to qualities that make them universally desirable, such as looks, humor, courage, kindness, etc. Interestingly, romance novels are rarely classics that people continue to read for generations. Rene Girard, in trying to determine what makes a novel a “classic” made a seminal observation that led to his studies of cultural anthropology and, eventually, theology. Girard found that literature “classics” see desire as mimetic. For example, Dostoevsky captures mimetic desire well in The Brothers Karamazov. Dmetri and his father Fyodor Pavlovitch clash in their competition for Grushenka’s affections. Remarkably, Grushenka is not particularly attractive, dramatizing how the men’s desire for her is more mimetic than romantic. For more details and examples, see Girard’s book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

Why should we care whether or not certain fictional stories are read for generations? The reason is that stories become “classics” if they have themes that resonate with people. While we like to fantasize about romantic desire (and like to think that our own love is purely romantic rather than mimetic), I think that, intuitively, we recognize desire as mimetic. Consequently, when we read novels that describe mimetic desire, it resonates with us as true.

Girard pointed out that what we desire is guided by mimesis, but he did not articulate what motivates our having desires in the first place. In the next essays, I will explore how our innate fear of death generates a fundamental desire to gain self-esteem as a means by which we may have a sense of transcending death. I think that any program aimed to eliminating scapegoating violence must recognize this.

Go on to: Part 25: Fear of Death
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