The Origin of Envy & Narcissism – René Girard


Desire, Envy, Violence, and Worship. How did our ancestors manage to survive and
work together with all this chaos? Next up on Psych Reviews, I’ll provide a summary
of one theory by the work of the French master the late René Girard. At the beginning of human communities, there
is a mystery surrounding how our ancestors created human societies and religions. Some theories focus on how human groupings
aid survival for the individual human families. Others focused on how a larger brain allowed
the ability to understand the intentions others, and hence group coordination. With a larger brain, and the ability to reflect,
early humans could reflect on their place in human society, mortality, and the meaning
of life. Being able to benefit from sharing knowledge
made humanity flourish. Yet despite the benefits of increased group
living, humans have always had a sense of danger that came with the price of living
in groups. One theory in particular, by the social science
philosopher René Girard, clarified the reflective part of the mind that allows for humans to
learn from others. He called it Mimetics, or the ability to imitate. For René, social institutions and religions
were born out of necessity from violent origins, to help direct the intentions of all members
of the group towards an imitated harmony. The disharmony that regularly occurred was
motivated by power differences in the human groups, and how it allowed for unequal consumption
of resources. These benefits of status and consumption constantly
tested the group harmony, motivated by envy and competition among its members. There was a need to create social institutions
to monitor unfair power dynamics, and to met out justice, and these were the seeds of our
religions and our modern justice system that we take for granted. On a negative note, some of these institutions
involved Factionalism, Bigotry, and War. Coming from an odd mixture of Sigmund Freud’s
ideas in Totem and Taboo, and Christian influences, René carved out a middle path that modernizes
Biblical interpretation and helps us see our unconscious imitation, envy, politics, and
violence. By illuminating our human tendency to escalate
war to the point where civilizations end, René was able to take our past and make it
relevant for all future generations. The test for every generation is to succeed
in creating happiness for its members, without destroying it with those very same efforts. Happiness is an abstract term, and is mocked
in our jaded modern world. It means different things to different people,
but for Girard happiness that people are generally looking for, is something very specific. One of the ways to understand human desire
is to look closer at the influence of role models. When we are children, our parents are our
role models. The world is a confusing place, and other
than parents, our desires are based on seeing role models in the community react to objects
and situations. Their preferences for one object or another
becomes a guide for us. A parent savouring an object and then sharing
with us, is a perfect example of how our typical attitude, that the characteristics of an object
are what attract us to them is in fact backwards. We learn about objects from our role models
often before we actually engage with the object, hence the desire for an object is mediated
by role models. Much like advertising, there is a promise
of happiness suggested by the reaction of role models to these objects. From an early age, we are conditioned to look
to others, surrogate parents, who have status and authority to suggest what we should like,
and in turn we become conditioned to abandon ourselves and imitate the being of others. This Being-In-Savouring, becomes a marker
for all of us on how to be. Like pictures, our brain freezes the moment
of savouring that we vicariously observe our role model enjoying. In turn, the role model will also increase
their desire for the object if they find that imitators are watching with envy. Like a triangle, each object includes a subject,
and a role model. Each role model suggests to the subject whether
the object should be valued more or less. Role models also have their role models, so
these triangles can spread throughout society. The farther away the subject is from the role
model, René calls External Mediation, and the more plentiful the object is in society,
the less rivalry and conflict. A modern example would be consumer society,
celebrity advertising, and mass production. On the other hand, the closer the accessibility
of the role model, René call this Internal Mediation, and the more rare the object is,
the more likely there will be conflict. The role model is addicted to the attention
and the confirmation of their status for possessing the object, and the imitator is in desperate
need to be in that position. The intensity of our desire for an object
increases when we feel it is a scarce object, and someone else will get it if we don’t pounce
on it right away. Just like modern sales techniques, most of
us are conditioned to “Act now before it’s too late!” Right at the beginning of our lives, we are
fighting with our siblings over dwindling food in our fridge, or fighting over toys
we don’t want to share. When objects are left us on their own merits,
there is desire, but the recommendation of others, demonstrated by how much interest
they invest in the object, increases the intensity of how we feel about the object. For example, if you watch a movie with your
family, and you are the only one who likes it, their dislike of the movie will naturally
affect your opinion of it, and vice versa. This is also true of movie critics that you
respect. Experts replace our parents over time, and
the worship of parents can then transfer to the worship of experts. This is the typical kind of religious attitude
that most people have, but they don’t believe it is worship. They call it fandom. Experts then become the ideal example of how
we should imitate to get our needs met. Girard takes this envy and goes beyond Freud
in Totem and Taboo. Children can envy their parents and want to
replace them, like Freud Oedipus Complex theory, but this triangle can manifest in any area
where the subject is convinced that there is someone worth imitating, and something
worth savouring. A recipe for desire includes, a role model
that the subject respects, suggestions communicated by signs of savouring and basking emanating
from the role model, deadlines for action, and enough skill to imitate. Objects of desire can include people as well,
like romantic partners. The qualities of the object, and the qualities
of the romantic partner, do matter, but competition has a way of motivating insecurity based on
fears of scarcity, and the attention moves away from those objective qualities to jealousy
of the possessor, and envy of the person who lacks. As Girard explains so well in Deceit, Desire,
and the Novel, the objective qualities of an object, or person, are often quite boring
when the mystery is gone. The conquest is more thrilling because the
desire was actually metaphysical. Girard says, “the desiring subject, when he
takes possession of the object, finds that he’s grasping at a void. The subject discovers that possession of the
object has not changed his being. The greater the apparent ‘virtue’ of the object,
the more terrible is the disappointment, thus disappointment deepens as the mediator draws
closer to the hero.” Girard is aware of the illusion most of us
have of achieving a permanent, intensely felt desire, that never fades. He says, “everyone in the universe of internal
mediation, heaves on a chain of desire, and the dreams of a retirement he will enjoy,
not out of the world, but in a world he has finally conquered. A world possessed, and still desirable.” As rivals debate, misinterpret, insult, slander,
justify their positions and make claims, the desire increases to threaten, and escalate
conflict. Like in Totem and Taboo, rivals are tempted
by ambivalence. They would like the object or situation if
they can get away it. Then their justifications become distorted
to righteously act to possess the object, or situation, creating a scandal that triggers
a conflict. In the ancient world, there was no formal
justice system or mediation that we take for granted in our modern society. As people see opportunities for theft and
appropriation, they all can find self-serving justifications, and the conflict can spread
like fire throughout the community, threatening to destroy it. What is often not seen in desire and conflict,
is the need to be somebody else. In Sadomasochism, there is Masochism first,
when the subject is feeling envy of a mediator, and sadism next when the subject becomes a
mediator. Subjects feel like the role model is a…
as René says. The obstacle the rival creates increases the
desire, but at the same time, the subject is developing self-hatred. To want to be someone else means you don’t
want to be yourself. Yet unconsciously the subject is not convinced
of his or her own value because of the illusion the mediator generates. Girard says, The obstacle signals to the subject the value of the object or situation
sought after. The masochism arises when the subject forgets
the actual properties of the object or situation, and repeatedly seeks after situations of loss,
precisely because, the subject dealing with ever bigger obstacles, knows that those obstacles
signal that they are near a deity of competence and self-sufficiency. That’s why to onlookers, they may appear masochistic
or self-defeating, but the onlookers don’t see the illusion they are caught in, which
makes them think they’re pursuing something meaningful. Being the opposite of masochism, Sadism still
has a connection to it. René says that the masochist is, René continues,
This is how a victim can identify with the abuser. The victim is not completely innocent, but
is in fact infected with the same desire to be a deity. There is still masochism motivating him. Yet becomes possession doesn’t not change
the being, Most sadistic actions are then pursued, or the master returns to the masochistic
position when chasing a new master. This is even how sexuality can be decoupled
from healthy relationships and go into an addictive bond where, both master and slave
want to transcend their low self-esteem, and become Gods via sexual conquest. Whether the dominant partner is more sadistic
and wants the object of desire to increase his or her self-esteem, or whether the submissive
partner wants to be the desired object, to increase his or her self-esteem, they both
don’t like who they are. Now, not everyone resorts to sadomasochistic
rituals to find release, but there is another method. The constant emptiness, disappointment, and
resentment the community feels over the endless rivalry starts to search for an outlet. As the community starts to fall apart with
scandals, the downside of not having a trusting community becomes important. As individuals in the community rival amongst
themselves, they find common enemies to rally around, and vent their frustrations towards. As rivals start becoming allies, they more
and more agree on a common enemy, that will ultimate reunite the entire community. This scapegoat is usually somebody or a group
that chooses not to retaliate, or cannot retaliate. As the distorted justifications find currency
in the community, a biased judgement falls on the scapegoat, and he or she is brutally
killed or banished. All the bigoted biases finally come out in
an overt way, because the solidarity protects people from their embarrassing views. The majority oppresses the minority, as seen
throughout history. The relief in the community over the death
of the common enemy is celebrated. For a period of time, there is cohesion and
cooperation in the community, that is until imitation, envy, and scandals breakout again. Then a new scapegoat has to be found. As the justifications for the murder become
forgotten, change, and develop over time, there is a certain celebration of the scapegoat
for being the reason for the harmony of the community. Those past justifications for the brutality
become myths, and the celebrations turn into rituals that mimic the destruction of the
scapegoat. Eventually these myths develop into religious
rituals, that become harder to decipher as they disguise the past brutality further. These myths and religions communicate to community
members what their form of harmony is supposed to look like, and what they should imitate. Like political propaganda, there is a chilling
message contained in these myths. When reading René Girard, myths take on a
new perspective. For example, there are often myths where there’s
a stranger who appears in the community, or there is a character with a special talent
that’s revered by the community. Yet these myths may disguise the original
abuse. What is often not contained is the original
envy, jealousy and murder of the stranger, or the person with the special talent. People who are talented and stand out, and
especially if they do not or cannot retaliate, are perfect targets for the community. Their talents threaten they hierarchy of the
community, and their inability to retaliate makes these scapegoats an easy target to rally
the community around. To avoid apocalyptic scenarios of the future,
Girard hints at solutions, though unpopular ones. Converting to Christianity, Girard saw that
imitating humans, he calls Deviated Transcendency, was inferior to imitate Jesus, Vertical Transcendency. He felt that Judaeo-Christian texts were aware
of these self-serving myths, and by demystifying them, the cycle of violence loses its underlying
motivation. By dropping human worship, the objects and
people still retain their objective value and character, but the sadomasochistic distortion
of wanting to be a deity, is released. By following the Ten Commandments, and by
withdrawing from escalating conflict, the Christian avoids need a scapegoat to find
harmony in society. Now if we worry about Christian superstition,
Christian hypocrisy, Christian factionalism, and violence and reject it, we still have
to watch ourselves that we are not thinking we are atheist, but all the while unconsciously
worshiping experts. Any Christian who uses their religion to bolster
their self-esteem against others, is still trying to be a deity, and ironically, they
end up not benefiting from their religion. An atheist who understands the dangers of
human worship can benefit from the knowledge without being Christian. Seeing these dynamics in domestic violence
situations, toxic friendships, and abusive employment situations shows that any institution
can have this sadomasochistic dynamic. The challenge for a modern society that moves
beyond Christianity, is to not fall back into the cycle of imitation, envy, justification,
conflict, scapegoating, and myth, regardless of where a person identifies.

10 comments

This is perfect explanation of the anxiety-envy based hyper-consumerism culture which rules today. What a pathetic simple reality.

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