The French thinker Rene Girard had a seminal insight which has shed light on just about every aspect of human endeavor from theology and anthropology to economics, politics, psychology and business development. It’s called mimetic desire which being translated is “imitation envy”
Basically it is the observation that we learn by watching and imitating others, we desire to be like the other and before long this leads to rivalry and competition. Johnny watches Jimmy playing with his toy trucks and Johnny is soon pretending to play with toy trucks too, but the problem is he doesn’t have any toy trucks, or he doesn’t have nice shiny new ones like Jimmy so he not only imitates Jimmy he covets Jimmy’s toy trucks and this, of course, may lead him to steal Jimmy’s toy trucks when Jimmy’s out of the room or if he can’t wait and is not sly and is actually bigger than Jimmy he goes over, knocks Jimmy on the head and takes his trucks.
This scenario is perfectly portrayed in the prologue of the third Lord of the Rings film where we see Smeagol steal the ring from his cousin Deagol–after he murders him.
This demonic dynamic is explained very well in a new book by Luke Burgis: Wanting- The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.
In a masterclass last evening sponsored by the folks at Great and Main. I explained how mimetic desire is the motive force that twists ordinary healthy desire into the seven deadly sins.
So, what we call lust is the twisted natural good sexual desire. It is good for a man to desire a woman and vice versa. It moves from good to better and best when that desire is directed toward a lifelong marriage and the procreation of children. The natural desire is twisted into lust, however by mimetic desire. How so? Well we ask ourselves what we really desire when lust is going on. We may simply desire the physical pleasure–the spasm of genital contentment, but the whole lust thing is usually more complicated and it involves mimetic desire–our imitative relationship with others. So a woman may desire a man not because of pure animal lust, but because she wants to be married like all her friends are or because she wants the perfect suburban family like the media has told her she should have. A man may desire the beautiful young woman not for herself or even for sex primarily, but because he will impress all the other guys with he on her arm. The adulterer not only wants sex with the married woman he wants to take her from her husband who he wishes to imitate– So natural sexual desire is twisted into lust by mimetic desire.
Food and drink are also natural desires and are good, but mimetic desire twists that desire into the deadly sin of gluttony. How so? Why does a person eat and drink too much or too little? Maybe simply for the animalistic pleasure of the taste of the food. OK. That’s really pretty basic and forgivable. But, as with lust, there is often more going on. Is the glutton dining at a super expensive restaurant to impress the people he is imitating and who he desires to be like? Is he drinking too much to be “one of the guys” and so being driven by mimetic desire? Is that woman starving herself to fit the ideal she has been given by the people she is trying to impress? Maybe it’s more basic. The person eats and drinks too much (or takes drugs) in order to achieve a level of comfort and ease which he associates with those he wants to be like or to achieve a level of “happiness” that society has told him he must pursue.
We also have a natural desire for money and material possessions. Greed is that desire twisted by mimetic desire. We want the fancy car and the beach house not for the simple pleasure of a well engineered motor vehicle or a relaxing retreat at the shore. Instead we want it to keep up with the Joneses, to impress others by imitating the trappings of “success”. Greed is the most obvious deadly sin conditioned by mimetic desire.
Sloth is more tricky to view through this lens…until we understand what sloth really is. Of course, like the other sins, it has a basic, animalistic dimension. We are slothful because we like laying around and dislike work. However, the natural and good desire for relaxation and leisure is twisted into sloth because we see the leisured classes–the people who are so well off that they don’t need to work and we slip into sloth trying to imitate them.
Wrath is driven by mimetic desire because Johnny gets angry when Jimmy has nice shiny trucks he won’t share. That anger and rivalry leads to revenge (see my book Immortal Combat for a fuller explanation of this dynamic) Wrath is Cain killing his brother Abel in the first action of fraternal violence sparked by mimetic desire.
Envy is not just mimetic desire. It is the final step of the progress of mimetic desire: the desire not only to have what the other has, but to BE the other–to replace them. I don’t simply want my neighbor’s fine house, cool car and glamorous wife. Mimetic desire fully blown is that I want to be my neighbor, and of course the only way to take his place completely is to rub him out.
Pride is the mimetic desire in which we wish to be like the ultimate rival: God. Even in Eden the wily one said to Eve–“He told you not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because he knows then you will be like Him.” Pride is the ultimate and foundational outworking of mimetic desire–the desire to be like God–and ultimately to replace God.
What is the answer to mimetic desire? What breaks the curse is the cross–and this is what I explicate in Immortal Combat.
By the way, if this topic interests you, you can still jump on board the masterclass I am conducting through Great and Main. We’re half way through. Two more sessions next Monday and Wednesday, but if you sign up you’ll be able to watch the recordings of the first two sessions in your own time. Go here for more info.
If you want to learn more about the thought of Girard I recommend The Girard Reader . To learn about his life get Cynthia Haven’s biography, Evolution of Desire and to read a collection of interviews with Girard–through which you can get a more informal introduction to his thought) I recommend Haven’s Conversations with Rene Girard.