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A Genealogy of Violence and Religion

René Girard in Dialogue

James Bernard Murphy is Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH. His books include: The Moral Economy of Labor: Aristotelian Themes in Economic Theory (Yale University Press); The Philosophy of Positive Law: Foundations of Jurisprudence (Yale University Press); The Philosophy of Customary Law (Oxford University Press); and The Nature of Customary Law: Legal, Historical, and Philosophical Perspectives (co-edited with Amanda Perrreau-Saussine; Cambridge University Press).

Why are religious rituals, symbols, and rhetoric so full of images of blood, sacrifice, and death? Why does religious fervor so often lead to Holy War, Crusade, and Jihad? No wonder many people assume that religion tends to give rise to violence. But what if it were the other way around? What if violence actually gave rise to religion?

So argued the French literary theorist and anthropologist René Girard (1923–2015). Described as the “Darwin of the human sciences,” he was elected to the French Academy in 2005 for his seminal theories of sacred violence. Girard argued that religious practices function to sublimate, regulate, and discharge human violence in controlled rituals. Where does violence come from? According to Girard, from the social nature of human desire itself. We desire things only because others desire them, so desire is inherently rivalrous, leading to violent conflict. But if a scapegoat can be found, then this war of all against all turns into a war of all against one. Social order, claimed Girard, stems from the unity of a lynch mob. Religious rituals then serve to commemorate the primordial murder of the scapegoat.

What are we to make of Girard’s provocative claims about human desire, violence, scapegoat killings, and religion? Political philosopher James Bernard Murphy presents here a series of sharp and witty dialogues in which Girard attempts to defend his ideas against attacks by rival theorists, among them, Sigmund Freud, William James, Simone Weil, Elias Canetti and Joseph de Maistre. Whatever we might think of his answers, Girard asks challenging, unsettling questions.

In these illuminating and lively exchanges, Girard squares off with the titans of social theory.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-928-9
Paperback Price: £19.95 / $29.95
Release Date: May 2018
Page Extent / Format: 160 pp. 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface: Why Girard? Why Dialogue?
Dramatis Personae

Chapter One: Living Water: A Parable
Chapter Two: Why Do We Read Literature? A Symposium
Chapter Three: Mimetic Desire: A Conversation with William James
Chapter Four: A Crowd of Theories
Chapter Five: Scapegoating Sacrifice: A Discussion Moderated by John Milbank
Concluding Reflections on Violence

Guide to Further Reading

Contents to Follow

Pre-Publication Endorsements

Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy, University of Tulsa

Girard’s understanding of the relationship between religion and violence has never been more timely and relevant than it is now, yet his thought remains largely inaccessible to educated amateurs. Murphy’s book is a loving (and therefore critical) attempt to make his essential ideas intelligible to a broad audience. This is also a most unusual book. It is engaging and accessible, but intellectually and morally deep. Murphy wears his scholarship lightly, but his command of the relevant research is beyond question. It is a dialogue, and an impossible piece of historical fiction, bringing together great thinkers from across the centuries. Not only does it raise fundamental questions, it furnishes readers with the resources to come up with their own answers. One could hardly ask for more in a short book! I think this will be a favorite entryway into Girard’s thought for years to come.

Dr. William T. Cavanaugh, Professor, DePaul University, Director, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology
Of the many books on René Girard, Jim Murphy’s is unique because it is cast as a series of symposia in which Girard enters into conversation with a broad range of figures from the Western canon—from Socrates to Sigmund Freud—who have thought about desire, worship, violence, and beauty. The imagined conversations are broad and deep, contentious and full of humor. The book is fun, a rollicking good read. Though Murphy lets others do the talking, his own keen mind shows through. Neither a Girard acolyte nor someone who dismisses Girard out of hand, Murphy finds Girard and the whole range of issues he brings to light well worth a good argument. Short and accessible for students, this book would be great for use in the classroom.

Stephen Gardner, Department of Philosophy, University of Tulsa
This is one of the best scholarly works I have read on Girard. Marshalling a vast backstory to Girard’s work, and with enviable lucidity, Murphy helps us to understand how Girard’s work belongs within a larger and older set of problems besides those he defines for himself. This book breaks Girard’s thought out of the isolation often imposed on it and adds a crucial depth dimension. It would make a great text on the undergraduate level, as an introduction not just to Girard and the issues he raises, but to lots of other thinkers as well. Their voices and their engagement with each other are laid out in a fair and critical way, in language that is clear and accessible. Anyone who takes seriously Girard’s ambition to reanimate the “human sciences” or the political implications of his thought will appreciate it. John Ranieri, Department of Philosophy, Seton Hall University This is a creative, well-written, interesting, and genuinely thought-provoking book. I liked it a lot, and I’m impressed by the amount of material incorporated here, and the skill with which Murphy weaves conversations. A Genealogy of Violence and Religion is an excellent introduction to some of the ways in which Girard’s work might be criticized. Murphy picks up on some of the important questions Girard leaves unresolved, especially with regard to violence and pacifism. Based on my reading of Girard and some conversations I’ve had with him, my impression is that the way Murphy has Girard responding to his interlocutors is almost always on target.

French literary theorist and anthropologist Girard (1932–2015) was the most eminent recent scholar to argue that violence is the origin of religion rather than the other way around, as most people are taught, says Murphy. He neither explains nor criticizes Girard's ideas, but compares them with competing ideas of other major thinkers about literature, desire, crowds, and sacrifice. His perspective are living water: a parable; why we read literature: a symposium; mimetic desire: a conversation with William James; a crowd of theories; scapegoating sacrifice: a discussion moderated by John Milbank; and reflections on violence.

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