- The Future of (Post-)Modernity—Silver Linings or Heart of Darkness?René Girard’s Apocalyptic Thinking Revisited
René Girard, mimetic theory, apocalypticism, fatalism, hope, Carl von Clausewitz
In one of his brilliant essays, Gilbert Keith Chesterton—famous English author of the early twentieth century and master of paradoxical reasoning in his intellectual battle for the truth of Christianity1—outlines the fascinating story of a very strange adventurer. Having completely lost orientation after a long, stormy journey, this adventurer reaches the safe shores of his homeland, proudly believing to have discovered a yet-unknown country. Even stranger and more fantastic is his constant astonishment in rediscovering exactly those places, people, and things that had actually always been part of his everyday life. Chesterton stresses that this is not the story of the embarrassing mistake of an unskilled seafarer or of the pitiable mental disturbance of a lunatic, but a story about the most wonderful feeling a discoverer could ever have, who, trying to find the absolutely foreign, discovers anew what is in fact already his.2 [End Page 89]
René Girard is quite the Chestertonian adventurer in his reading of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. When he began to dig his way through the thicket of this nineteenth-century classical treatise of military theory, he had to prepare for meeting a kind of thinking very different from his own. According to the almost unanimous history of interpretation, Clausewitz was a thinker who, precisely in times of war, fundamentally presupposed the stabilizing power of political rationality. It is obvious which famous catchphrase from On War is usually used to prove this point: Clausewitz’s dictum according to which “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”3 Precisely in the wake of this approach, Raymond Aron, probably the most influential of all interpreters of Clausewitz in the twentieth century, regarded as the most important thought of On War the thesis that there was “the possibility of a movement in the opposite direction from a rise to extremes,” which was “extrinsic to war in the narrow sense of a trial of strength, but intrinsic to war according to its full definition, no longer something autonomous but part of the political whole.”4 Famous British military historian John Keegan was in accordance with Aron that this really was the central element of Clausewitz’s thinking; however, very different from Aron’s evaluation, Keegan absolutely refused this thesis.5 In his epoch-making book A History of Warfare he arrived at the conclusion that in On War Clausewitz had answered the question, what is war? in a way that was, in several respects, “defective.”6 When it comes to evaluating Girard’s perspective on Clausewitz, the important point is that, with regard to contents, both Aron (who agreed with his understanding of Clausewitz as a believer in political rationality) and Keegan (who disagreed with Clausewitz in this respect) were essentially reading Clausewitz the same way: they both thought that the main point of reasoning in On War was to promote an understanding of war as one very specific element of the stabilizing political powers that form human society. They just had different opinions whether this was actually true or not.
Contrary to both of these icons of political science and military history, the Chestertonian adventurer Girard arrived at a different conclusion. Much to his surprise, he recognized that both his and Clausewitz’s thinking were actually built upon the same intellectual foundations: a ground that was deeply shaken by an unsettling apocalyptic disquietude. Consequently, Girard found in Clausewitz the very element that had been at the heart of his own intellectual development through the decades, beginning in the late 1950s. In Achever Clausewitz—translated into English as Battling to the End7—he emphatically states that he had never imagined he would ever [End Page 90] come across analyses that were as consistent with his own as Clausewitz’s were.8 Even though, back in 1986, one of his Stanford colleagues declared exactly the opposite conviction,9 Girard’s thinking is in fact from its very beginning to be understood as a thinking disquieted by apocalyptic discomposure...