The Republic of Letters, as Pierre Bayle called it, has shaped the Western mind for centuries, as had Plato’s Academy before it. The French Revolution brought lawyers and writers to power. By marrying the Enlightenment and Rousseau, drama and journalism, the still-sketchy drafts of modern ideologies—"fire in the minds of men”—imaginatively seized the commanding heights of public opinion. Liberty, equality, and fraternity translated into liberalism, socialism, and nationalism. Noble generalities became the tools in trade of “the inspired individual.” As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it: “The thunderbolt, the flash, may burst out through any individual. Government by inspired individuals becomes the endeavour of the national society.” Enlightenment philosophes and liberal theologies offered to build more stately mansions for the soul.
In the final chorus of The Marriage of Figaro, the playwright Beaumarchais carefully laid the depth charges that helped bring down the Old Regime:
By the chance of birth
One is King, the other shepherd;
The difference is haphazard,
Inspiration alone can change everything.
Incense for twenty Kings
Vanishes with their deaths,
But Voltaire is immortal.
The media of the day broadcast the message of social justice. “The cult of an inspired literature is a real creed,” Rosenstock observed, “and involves a theory of revolution.”
The storming of the Bastille by the mob that had gathered at Les Invalides freed only a handful of elderly prisoners, not the expected political dissidents. The French Revolution was, as Karl Marx put it, a charade played out in Roman dress. Equally theatrical were the Noyades, the festivals, and the guillotine devouring the Revolution’s children. The parade of masks and fashions it inspired has continued unabated. As Marx also observed: “History repeats itself twice: First as tragedy, then as farce.”
In practice, the Revolution and its many offspring meant rule by the charismatic genius, the Hegelian hero in whom “history had become conscious of itself.” A frenzy of renown elevated the likes of Danton, Robespierre, the two Napoleons, Lenin, and so many others into power and their own personality cults, only to—iconoclastically and often unceremoniously—dash so many of them to the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi.
What Pitirim Sorokin described as the chaotic syncretism of a decaying sensate culture resembles the eclipse of a society at war with itself. The French literary scholar René Girard quoted one account to this effect: “As soon as this violent and tempestuous spark is lit in a kingdom or a republic, magistrates are bewildered, people are terrified, the government thrown into disarray. Laws are no longer obeyed; business comes to a halt; families lose coherence, and the streets their lively atmosphere. Everything is reduced to extreme confusion.” He added that, in the throes of collective persecution: “The strongest impression is without question an extreme loss of social order evidenced by the disappearance of the rules and ‘differences’ that define cultural divisions.”
Early in his career as a literary scholar, Girard, who—like Voltaire—ranked among the Immortals of the Académie Française, searched the Bible to understand the unseen influences that unsettle us morally and distort our sense of reality. At the outset in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard contended that “the great writers apprehend intuitively and concretely, through the medium of their art, if not formally, the system in which they were first imprisoned together with their contemporaries.” This imprisoning system is, like a language, what helps shape and mediate people’s sense of reality.
A careful study of exceptional writers like Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky taught Girard that there is nothing original about what we desire. From the starts, someone or something captivates us by modeling what is desirable. Desire is a dynamic, triangular relationship. It involves a subject, an object, and a mediator that models what is desirable. Girard later called this interactive relationship mimetic desire. “The real structures are intersubjective. They cannot be localized anywhere; the triangle has no reality whatever; it is a systematic metaphor, systematically pursued.”
To illustrate, Girard begins with Don Quixote, a character created by Miguel de Cervantes, who embraces another fictional persona, Amadis of Gaul, as his vicarious model of chivalry. “The mediator is imaginary but not the mediation. Behind the hero’s desires there is indeed the suggestion of a third person, the inventor of Amadis, the author of the chivalric romances. Cervantes’ work is a long meditation on the baleful influence that the most lucid minds can exercise upon one another. Except in the realm of chivalry, Don Quixote reasons with a great deal of common sense.” Others always whisper in our ear. Throughout life, we are more impressionable than we imagine.
What makes Girard’s observation important? Mimetic desire for the same object may spark envy, rivalry, or spread as a social contagion. The Tenth Commandment forbids coveting generally. The Bible reveals how vulnerable we are to subversive or tyrannical temptations. As God told Cain: Sin crouches at the door; its desire is for you.
People in thrall to a cult, ideology, or Soviet-era disinformation might seem quite ordinary. So might an inmate of Plato’s Cave, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, or Xi Jinping’s social credit system. It is not a question of intelligence or gullibility. Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays, and Harold Lasswell all showed how consent can be manufactured through manipulation of public opinion or stifling dissent.
We live within a federal republic where professions are credentialed, regulated, and gravitate toward national hubs. Like public education, the media are powerful tools that shape public opinion. A permanent network of communications corporations, like similar oligopolies, is a major gatekeeper of public information—a situation that raises questions of neutrality and editorial integrity. When truth is withheld or diluted, when consent is assumed or extorted, people’s ability to be self-governing and to make reasoned decisions is compromised. Truth matters. In the service of ideological orthodoxies our media-saturated reality invites scandals and mimetic violence.
Scripture casts a critical eye on the glories of the world. During crises of an earlier age, western civilization coalesced around a Gospel which taught that the truth will set us free. For more than a thousand years Holy Writ gradually leavened the culture, bringing to light the pervasive forms of envy and persecution that tyrannize over everyday society. As Girard noted: “The Passion accounts reveal a phenomenon that unbeknownst to us generates all human cultures and still warps our human vision in favor of all sorts of exclusions and scapegoating. If this analysis is true, the explanatory power of Jesus’ death is much greater than we realize, and Paul’s exalted idea of the Cross as the source of all knowledge is anthropologically sound.” It is a revolutionary revelation of things otherwise hidden from view. The Bible provides models—either to imitate or avoid—that can serve as a mirror on our times and a beacon for our lives.