- René Girard and Thomas Aquinas in Dialogue on the Natural-Law Precept to Sacrifice
CROSS-POLLINATION between Christian theology and René Girard’s mimetic theory has become a subject in its own right.1 Since Girard’s death in 2015, such studies have taken on a particular urgency2 as the Franco-American literary and social theorist’s multifaceted theory continues to attract dialogue partners from fields as diverse as neuroscience,3 psychology,4 and political theory.5 [End Page 497] Shrugging off the relative comfort of remaining in one academic domain, Girard appreciated the value of dissimilar yet sympathetic interlocutors for his own work.6 Theologians such as Raymund Schwager and Robert Daly took advantage of Girard’s openness to both input and correction and likewise looked to him for insights in their own fields.7 Direct dialogue between Girard and Thomas Aquinas similarly occasions a productive reevaluation of sacrifice in each one’s thought, and also—perhaps surprisingly to some Girardian scholars—of natural law.8
In the Summa theologiae Thomas famously observes that offering sacrifice to God is “of the natural law” and rooted in a “natural inclination” to honor someone superior.9 For mimetic theory, this on the surface is a problematic claim, especially if one turns a critical eye to the potentially destructive and violent orientations of sacrifice as they were understood in Thomas’s own time and by the earlier Christian tradition.10 [End Page 498]
Our aim here is to get beneath the surface by means of a three-stage dialogue. The first section frames Thomas’s treatment of sacrifice as a natural-law precept as an occasion to take soundings of Girard’s work on sacrifice and mimetic desire. While Girard notably changed his overly negative view of sacrifice through dialogue with Raymund Schwager, elements of an excessively pessimistic anthropology persisted, especially with respect to knowledge; such pessimism is largely a consequence of a broader hermeneutic of suspicion employed (and cultivated) by Girard as he explores literature, myths, ethnographical studies, and the Bible searching for violence’s roots in mimetic rivalry. In the second section, the theory is related to Thomas’s thinking about sacrifice and the natural law. The anthropological pessimism that a Thomist initially detects can be better appreciated in the light of Girard’s larger project. Such pessimism should not evoke suspicion of mimetic theory as such; rather, Girard’s suspicion is part of a larger tactic meant to arouse a spiritual/moral conversion or heightened awareness in readers. His retelling of the origins of sacrifice and human civilization through the dark lens of mimetic desire is a heuristic meant to lead readers down a path of discovery.
The third section explores how Girard’s heuristic invites readers of Thomas to reconsider the latter’s thinking on sacrifice with suspicious eyes. Thomas’s notion of sacrifice is reimagined in a broader narrative of mimetic desire’s masking of violence in religious sacrifice and law. Even Thomas’s personal sanctity does not banish the possibility of lurking violence, despite Girard’s view that Christianity offers the only solution to mimetic rivalry thanks to Christ’s revelation on the cross that the true meaning of sacrifice lies in self-giving. Girard’s broader objective to defend truth by raising [End Page 499] the specter of a real social threat also prevents his hermeneutic of suspicion from dismissing Thomas outright and helps to soften some of the initial tensions between the two. Meanwhile, an appreciation of Thomas’s own political realism regarding corruption and violence and his nuanced account of the development of sacrifice under the Old Law gives ample space to consider solutions to possible misinterpretations of Thomistic sacrifice and natural law. Adopting mimetic theory’s implicit use of narrative as a meta-philosophical framework and exploring the status of sacrifice prior to original sin taps into divine revelation’s larger (biblical) narrative. Combined with Thomas’s anthropological framework of nature and grace (also biblically rooted) this exploration of prelapsarian sacrifice proves useful in clarifying sacrifice and the natural law in both thinkers.