What those who repeat the cliche about the similarity between the crucifixion and the "Dionysus-Orpheus-Bacchus" myths fail to see is that the Gospels tell the story of the crucifixion from the point of view of the victim. The Gospels make it perfectly clear that the righteous mob, and the political and religious functionaries that kowtowed to it, were both morally wrong and mentally mesmerized into believing otherwise. "Forgive them for they know not what they do." Was the scholarly erudition required to recognize the similarity between the passion story and the archaic myths so exhausting that the recognition of the perfectly obvious dissimilarity between them had to be forsworn? To refuse to see this difference is to renounce any hope of moral clarity and to turn comparative religion into a parody of what its name implies. Refusing to interpret stories of mob murder as anagogic metaphors [Joseph Campbell's characterization] and concerning oneself instead with "actual historical events" is the victory of Gospel over myth. Swooning over the missed psychological or literary opportunities cannot eliminate the fact that it is that victory that is removing the cultural linchpin, throwing the world into its maturation crisis, and in the process, saving us from sin and death. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p. 129-30
I'll be returning to Peirce and James, but I've got sidetracked in the last several days by reading Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled. I started it because Steve in a comment a couple of weeks ago asked me about Rene Girard, and I said I was only vaguely familiar with him. I had his Violence and the Sacred on my bookshelf, and alongside it Bailie's book, but I never read either because I had it in my mind for some reason that Girard was writing in the the 19th-century demythologizing vein to distinguish the historical Jesus from the mythological one. Whatever parts of such a project might be valid, I've never been sympathetic to the kind of reductionism that seems to flow from it.
As anybody reading here for a while knows, I'm interested in understanding and thinking about the metahistorical significance of the incarnation of the Logos, and particularly the significance of the event on Calvary and what happened three days later. I'm interested in it as history, as something that really happened, but not so much the 'how' and the 'what' of it as scholarship determines those things, so much as the 'why' of it. So I decided to give the Girardian ideas a try and started with Bailie's book, for which Girard wrote the foreword. I learned that I was wrong and that Girard and Bailie have something important to say about all three--the how, the what, and the why.
Their project is not to demythologize the biblical story, but to show how the biblical story demythologizes everything else and how that demythologizing has led over time to the maturation crisis to which he refers. That crisis is acute now, has accelerated since the mid 19th century because the vestiges of the old archaic mythologies that we needed to maintain some sense of order are all but collapsed, the center no longer holds, and it's not at all clear that we will be able to avoid the 'apocalyptic violence' that awaits us unless we do in fact collectively grow up. Girard and Bailie both claim that the gospels both wake us out of the trance that lingers from archaic mythologies, and offers a way forward in sobriety, freedom, and grace.
This is an ambitious claim, and I don't know that I understand the idea well enough to be persuaded by it, but I do understand it well enough to be intrigued by it. It shows that Hobbes's ideas about the state of nature was largely correct. In what I've read so far Bailie doesn't refer to Hobbes, but he uses the term 'apocalyptic violence' to describe pretty much what Hobbes imagined as the state of archaic societies in the war of all against all. I've always thought the state of nature, whether in Hobbes's version of it or Rousseau's, was more of a philosophical metaphor than an actual description of archaic human societies, but Girard's reading of the anthropological evidence would suggest that Hobbes wasn't far off. (It's not clear to me yet whether this applies to both patriarchal and the earlier matriarchal societies, or whether it's possible for his extrapolatory method to distinguish them.)
The foundation for his argument lies on two basic ideas. The first is 'mimetic desire', which is shorthand for the 'influence of others'. It's the primal way our desire is in a state of latency until we become aware that someone else wants it, and it's the root cause of the kind of vicious competition that leads to frenzied, murderous violence. Bailie says
I use the term mimetic "passions" or mimetic 'aggravations" to refer to the social and psychological effects of such influence. As I have tried to suggest the mimetic passions include jealous, envy, covetousness, resentment, rivalry, contempt, and hatred. The same powerful mimetic penchant that gives rise to these passions is responsible for humanity's most laudable traits and most promising potentials. . . .
But . . .
The enormous value of positive mimesis comes into play only in non-rivalrous settings or where rivalry is carefully codified and limited in scope. The intrusion of jealousy, envy, resentment, and all the other mimetic passions into such settings immediately undermines the benefits of healthy mimesis. If the passions born of rivalistic desire are not eliminated or kept severely restricted, few of the blessings of positive mimesis will be able to survive in the social hot-house that results. What protects humanity from the ravages of these passions--and screens us from the apocalyptic violence toward which they would otherwise drift--is culture. As I have shown, in overriding these passions cultures have invoked the sacrificial resources of the primitive sacred or one of its weaker modern vestiges. As the gospel influence began to render the sacred system morally and culturally problematic, the mimetic passions it was once able to to tame grew, eventually becoming the social, psychological and spiritual crisis of our time. Violence Unveiled, p. 112.
Bad money pushes out bad, so to say, unless there is some mechanism to control it.
The second concept, human sacrifice, is alluded to in this excerpt. The idea is that once the frenzy of negative mimetic desire takes over, any group or any society, will tear itself to pieces unless some mechanism can bring order, and the mechanism that seems to have been a universal one in (patriarchal but not matriarchal?) archaic societies is the sacrificial murder of a human scapegoat--to tear one person to pieces so that the nation might survive. But if the goal is to end to apocalyptic violence or to keep it at bay, just killing the victim doesn't work unless the act is done in a ritual trance that imbues the act with a sacred significance that effects a catharsis, and that only happens if the victim is seen as a god.
The anthropological evidence is strong to show how such sacrificial societies bend over backwards to preserve the illusion that the sacrificial victim remains a godlike object of fascination. Once the victim is seen to be just a guy, the collective trance is broken, the ritual is rendered ineffective, and the society collapses into apocalyptic violence until the cycle repeats itself or has some other external ordering principle impose itself, e.g., getting conquered/enslaved by the tribe next door.
I don't want to oversimplify a more complicated argument, and I don't want to bore readers with an overly long explanation. But the Girardian theory explains why kings in archaic societies were in the beginning both godlike and sacrificial victims, and then later just godlike. Archaic societies felt themselves to be always on the brink of falling back into apocalyptic violence driven by the tendency of negataive mimetic passions to blaze into anarchic collective insanity, and the only effective way to provide some stability was in various forms of ritual human sacrifice. A society reached a new level of stability when the godlike king was able to prove effective enough in his godlike persona to maintain order and to have other humans or animals sacrificed in his stead.
And Bailie is making a larger argument with which I sympathize: that our society now is more fragile than we think because we are in a condition in which there is diminishing possibility for positive mimesis and yet is rife with negative possibilities. We think that what happened in Germany after WWI was aberrational, but Bailie is pretty convincing that it's the norm when cultural forms have lost their legitimacy and no longer have the authority to hold negative mimetic desire in check. The old sacralized cultural forms, ideas like 'democracy' and 'republican virtue' have lost their ability to fascinate or evoke from us collective reverence. We find it hard to think of them except as in air quotes, and once the air quotes go around anything, they will be blown away by the next storm.
What's the antidote? Well it is, of course, presented by the gospel narratives, and I would say also what was effected by the passion of Christ, which was to create a new possiblity for humans and the earth. So we need both to be awakened from our negative mimetic trance and to a better possibility that is always there, which is the ubiquity of grace. That's why the early civil rights movement rooted in its religious commitments provides the best model for breaking the vicious cycle of mimetic violence. How do we make of that movement something that can be broadly adopted as a model for positive mimesis? How can it be applied as an antidote to the centrifugal forces that are otherwise tearing us apart, and I fear with greater ferocity with each passing year.
On that note a blessed and happy new year to you all, and I'm not saying that with air quotes.