René Girard Biography

René Girard was a French philosopher of social science, historian, anthropologist, educator, and author. Check out this biography to know about his childhood, family life, career, and achievements.

René Girard
Quick Facts

Birthday: December 25, 1923

Nationality: French

Famous: Essayists Educators

Died At Age: 91

Sun Sign: Capricorn

Also Known As: René Noël Théophile Girard

Born Country: France

Born in: Avignon, France

Famous as: Philosopher

Height: 1.78 m

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Martha Girard (m. ?–2015)

father: Joseph Girard

mother: Marie-Thérèse Fabre de Loye

siblings: Antoine, Henri, Marie, Marthe

Died on: November 4, 2015

place of death: Stanford

More Facts

education: Indiana University Bloomington (1947–1950), National School of charters (1943–1947), Indiana University

awards: Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres‎
Prix Médicis essai
Q2330764

Guggenheim Fellowship
Knight of the Legion of Honour
Broquette-Gonin prize

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René Girard was a French philosopher of social science, historian, anthropologist, educator, and author. Labeled as the "most compelling Catholic thinker of the age,'' he propounded the "mimetic theory," through which he expounded a comprehensive view on the anthropology of religion. A renowned literary critic, Girard had authored nearly 30 books that reflected his thinking on disciplines such as anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, philosophy, history, and biblical hermeneutics. Girard had been a pioneer in the field of the epistemological and ethical systems of desire. Over the years, he had developed theories related to “mimetic desire” and Judeo-Christian scriptures. He had provided a critical view of the Oedipus complex and the “scapegoat mechanism.” He believed that specific conflicts could be solved to an extent through his theories but had always professed Catholic beliefs as the best way to prevent violence. Despite Girard’s distinguished career, contemporary philosophers have marginalized his works due to the lack of any specific disciplinary affiliation. On the contrary, theologians still second his thoughts and acknowledge his commitment to Christianity.

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René Girard
Childhood & Early Life
  • Girard was born René Noël Théophile Girard, on December 25, 1923, in Avignon, France, to Joseph Girard and Marie-Thérèse Fabre de Loye. He had an older brother named Henri and a younger brother named Antoine. Girard also had two younger sisters, Marthe and Marie.
  • Like his father, he had worked as a local archivist. Girard was a philosophy major from a local college and then became a medieval studies research fellow at Paris's ‘École Nationale des Chartes,' a training institute for archivists and librarians.
  • In 1947, after his graduation, Girard moved to America due to the ongoing ‘Nazi’ revolt and pursued his PhD from 'Indiana University.' He briefly took an interest in what Americans opined about France but ultimately turned his focus to French affairs.
  • Interestingly, 'Indiana University' initially rejected his works, as Girard had not published enough back then, which is an irony, as he later wrote around 30 books that have, over the years, been translated into 25 languages.
  • Upon completing his doctorate, Girard taught at 'Indiana University,' the 'State University of New York in Buffalo,' the 'Duke,' 'Johns Hopkins' (1957–1968), 'Bryn Mawr,' and finally 'Stanford,' where he had the longest tenure (1981–1995). He released 'Le Bouc émissaire' (1982), 'La route antique des hommes pervers' (1985), and 'Quand ces choses commenceront ...' (1994) during this period.
  • As a lecturer, Girard was initially assigned a European literature course, something he was not familiar with back then. Hence, he began reading great European novels. In the process, he was influenced by the works of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Proust.
  • Girard's first published French book, 'Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque' ('Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure', 1961), was a literary criticism of these great novelists. Influenced by the religious conversions of some of Dostoyevsky's characters, Girad converted to Christianity from being a self-declared agnostic.
  • He received his first honorary degree in 1985, from the 'Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam' (‘Free University Amsterdam’) in the Netherlands.
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Career
  • Following the release of his first book, Girard developed a new way of literary expression: his ''mimetic desire'' theory, or "the mimetic character of desire,'' which emphasizes the role of imitation in one's lives and how it structures one's persona.
  • Going forward with his works of literary criticism, he published 'Proust: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall' in 1962 and 'Dostoïevski, du double à l'unité' ('Dostoievsky, from the Double to the Unity') the following year.
  • Girard's interest in ancient and contemporary sacrifice rituals and Greek mythology led to his highly recognized publication 'La Violence et le Sacré' ('Violence and the Sacred') in 1972. However, his magnum opus was 'Des Choses Cachées Depuis la Fondation du Monde' (1978), which expressed Girad's Christian views.
  • Girard's 'Critique dans un souterrain. Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme' (1976, reprint in 1983) was a collection of his essays published between 1963 and 1972 and a criticism of the same. In 1991, he released the French translation of 'A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare' under the title 'Shakespeare: les feux de l'envie,' which was, however, published before the original English text.
  • The 'Colloquium on Violence and Religion' (COV&R), an independent group of international scholars established in 1990 (co-founded by Roman Catholic theologian Raymund Schwager), works toward developing Girard's ''mimetic model.'' It also organizes a yearly conference to discuss his theories of mimetic desire, scapegoating, violence, and religion. Girard had served as the Honorary Chair of the establishment. It also publishes an annual journal called 'Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture.'
  • In 1999, Girard published 'Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclair' ('I See Satan Fall Like Lightning'), which is still considered a pivotal work on the astounding power of the gospel. His 'Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire' (2004) was a thorough demythologized stand on social structures, which established cultural equilibrium through the scapegoat mechanism. Through the book, Girard released the Oedipal triangle from the shackles of Freudian theory.
  • The 2006-published book 'Verità o fede debole' ('Truth or Weak Faith') was a collaborative work with Italian philosopher and cultural commentator Gianni Vattimo and a take on Christianity and Relativism.
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  • Girard was inducted to the 'Super Bowl' of French thinkers, the 'Académie Française,' France's highest intellectual honor, in 2005.
  • The 'Stanford University Press' collected the unpublished essays of Girard from the period when he was working on his first book (1955 to 1959) and republished them under the title 'Mimesis, and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism' (2008). The volume contained 20 essays on literature and theory.
  • The 'Imitatio' foundation has been instrumental in advocating The "Girard Effect" worldwide. It launched a research program with a conference at 'Stanford' in April 2008, involving about 40 scholars from around the world.
  • Girard, along with Professor Emeritus Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, had established 'The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man' conference, which introduced the French literary theory to America.
  • Girard was honored with a 'Lifetime Achievement Award' by the 'Modern Language Association' on December 28, 2008.
  • Toward the end of his life, Girard majorly focused on the role of forgiveness in breaking the vicious cycles of vengeance prevalent among competing clans and tribes. Several interdisciplinary types of research and experiments, such as the 'Mimetic Theory' project, which is sponsored by the 'John Templeton Foundation,' draw inspiration from Girard's prolific works.
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Family, Personal Life, & Death
  • Girard's father was a curator of 'Château des Papes,' France's biggest medieval fortress and the ecclesiastical residence during the Avignon papacy. He was an Anticlericalist and a staunch republican, married to Marie-Thérèse, an ardent Catholic and the most eligible young woman in Drôme in Bouchet.
  • Girard was diagnosed with cancer in 1959. His marriage to Martha was officiated by a Catholic priest. They had two sons, Martin and Daniel, and a daughter, Mary Brown. All his children have been baptized.
  • Girard died on November 4, 2015, at his Stanford, California, residence, following a prolonged illness.
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Article Title
- René Girard Biography
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Last Updated
- October 14, 2019

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