Non-Violence, Fundamental Ethical Principle ?


Part 3.2

Girard’s explicit views on ethics are quite sparse, if not absent, but one particular principle seems to be coming back regularly in his writings: non-violence. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World contains a few unambiguous statements such as: “The definitive renunciation of violence, without any second thoughts, will become for us the condition … for the survival of humanity itself and for each one of us.” 1 Later, Girard further clarifies his stance: “Either we are moving ineluctably toward non-violence, or we are about to disappear completely.” 2 A few years later, The Scapegoat’s very last words are on the same line:

“The murderers remain convinced of the worthiness of their sacrifices. They, too, know not what they do and we must forgive them. The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough.” 3

Forgiveness thus appears in Girard’s words as a possible rampart to contagious mimesis. But, if his ethical message was ever hopeful and constructive, it would only go downwards as his oeuvre unfolded. Battling to the End is a much darker study than his previous ones. Girard has not given up, but time is getting sparse. It ends still on a certain call to action and awawerness, but one having a clearly more immediate appeal: “we have to wake up our sleeping consciences. Seeking to comfort is always to contribute to the worst” (Girard, Battling to the End, 217).

It appears that non-violence is the ultimate ethical content of Girard’s system. Non-violence is, in fact, the only possible first imperative. Indeed, since humans are so deeply mimetic and interdependent on one another, hurting or eliminating someone is inevitably harming oneself. And in the contrary, keeping others alive is keeping oneself alive. The principle of non-violence or Ahiṃsā is central in Buddhism: refraining from killing is the first of the Pañcasīla or five precepts for lay people, and Dasasīla or ten precepts for novice monks and nuns. This is not a surprise: being on the path to liberation (Nirvāṇa), it is aiming at putting an end to one’s suffering, and therefore, to one’s role in causing suffering to other human beings. It is intention that matters for the Buddhists, as Ricard puts clearly: “the very core of ethics is our state of mind, not the form our actions take.” 4 What is cardinal within Buddhist ethics is the intention, and not the actual action. It is intention that determines the virtue of a deed, and the ideal, researched intention is necessarily the care of the other. In other words, it is avoiding to harm the other, that is, aiming at non-violence. 5

Jean-Pierre Dupuy has argued that Girard’s mentions of non-violence should not be interpreted, and extrapolated, to form the “ethical principle” implicit to his thought. 6 Girard’s message, according to him, is not didactic but factual, and therefore not ethical but eschatological. In other words, Girard describes the world and calls for its ultimate liberation from its wrong tendencies, but he is not aiming primarily at educating or inspiring individuals. Dupuy explained to me that there are three ways in which Girard could be understood as “ethical”, and none of them points to non-violence.

  1. First, we could understand Girard’s occasional warnings as instances of provisional ethics. In this sense, Girard would not declare non-violence as what should be the universal and eternal rule for human societies, but as the required next move in a particular situation.
  2. Second, the larger angle of approach of Girard remains Christian, and therefore eschatological. He presents what is, to him, and in accordance with the Biblical message, the fate of humanity, and the importance of taking sides with regards to violence. This does not suffice to make him profess non-violence as a solution to the world’s evils. On the contrary, a number of Girard’s statements truly leave the impression that a universal realisation of the effects of mimesis will not happen, and that only the apocalypse announced in the Bible will take place.
  3. Third, Dupuy argued that for Girard it is actually through the very event of violence that we are called to make a choice. In this case, violence is required for the performance of our ethical agency.

Across these three possibilities, Dupuy concluded, nowhere does non-violence appear properly as an ethical principle.

One way to bypass the deadlock accurately noted by Dupuy is to address the question in a different manner. Nearly thirty-five years ago, the same Jean-Pierre Dupuy, co-writing with Paul Dumouchel, noticed the new risks in the growing reception of Girard’s work: “Girard’s thought starts to be known in France, and to be contested. More and more people read Girard, more and more people talk about it or claim to adhere to his work, that is to say, more and more people do not understand him and mix him up with a whole sort of things. The unavoidable price of success.” 7 According to the authors, there are two ways to avoid at once the blind (and flawed) following of Girard, and the direct, general rejection of his thought: constructive critique and creation. It is on the latter that Dumouchel and Dupuy could develop in this work a conception of economy not necessarily ‘Girardian’ but at least inspired by Girard’s thought: “[we] tried to inhabit it from the inside, to be fed by it, to see which strength we could draw from it.” 8 It is exactly on this creative mood that the present hypothesis must be set and understood. Our work is to ethics what Dumouchel and Dupuy’s was to economy: ‘squeezing’ the whole of Girard’s work like a sponge, to catch his most inspiring and fertile intuitions on certain specific questions, and then taking some distance to complete the picture.

In the same vein, one may wish to mention segments of Girard’s work that actually would go against the present thesis. In this case, these are due to the actual complexity, if not impossibility, of an entirely non-violent attitude. In his discussion on war and political dynamics, Girard realises, reading Clausewitz, that the defender is never naively away from violence.

“The defender is thus the one who begins and finishes the war. … this is quite consistent with mimetic theory: the model (the side that will have to defend itself) is the one in possession of something that the adversary tries to take (or take back). It is thus the one that dominates and ultimately dictates its rules to the other.” 9

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Girard argues that one does not transcend the dangers of mimesis simply by facing, and pointing at, the openly violent, and the openly mimetic. Without explicitly saying so, Girard responds to all the ‘naïve’ definitions of non-violence. One cannot simply be non-violent if one’s neighbour is violent.

guill bottom right

In other words, Girard argues that one does not transcend the dangers of mimesis simply by facing, and pointing at, the openly violent, and the openly mimetic. Without explicitly saying so, Girard responds to all the ‘naïve’ definitions of non-violence. One cannot simply be non-violent if one’s neighbour is violent. But this, in turn, confirms the Buddhist connection, as it posits one’s attitude to violence as a matter of interdependence. One cannot simply be “a non-violent individual” simply because one cannot be autonomous, independent. Ricard quotes Martin Luther King: “Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.” 10

Even the refusal of violence plays a role within the economy of violence. We partake, we receive, and we benefit from violence through our interdependence with other agents of the world. Thus ‘non-violence’ is not only debatable as to whether being actually encouraged, or even just present, in Girard’s work, but it is also self-contradictory, from the within, from its very alleged claim. This, in turn, is also in accordance with Nāgārjuna’s criticism of our reliance on abstract concepts: the particular concept of “non-violence” is, like any other, in itself empty. This is the reason why the Buddhist traditions, both in the texts and in actual teachings of masters, detail what really entails a life led in the aim of not harming all beings and contributing to their progressive liberation. All in all, remains one central idea: to take care of the other as ultimately, she is inherently a part of myself. Or, more: that from an absolute perspective, she and I are in fact inseparable. To this extent, the term or principle of “non-violence” is necessarily ambiguous and universally inapplicable; yet it is perhaps the closest one can get to conceptualise, to label in the limitations of conventional terms, this profound awareness of one’s dependency on the other.


Adams Rebecca. “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard.” Religion and Literature 25, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 9-22.

Buchoul Samuel. “The Non-Self of Girard.” Contagion: A Journal of Religion and Culture 20 (2013): 101-116.

Cerf, Juliette. “Entretien avec René Girard.” Philosophie Magazine: Hors Série (November 2011): 8-12.

Colborne, Nathan. 2010. “Engaging Girard – Is a Girardian Political Ethic Necessary?” Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace 4:1 (2010). Accessed May 23, 2012.

Chantre, Benoît. “D’un « désir métaphysique » à l’autre : Levinas et Girard.” In Mark Anspach, Ed. Cahier de l’Herne Girard, 216-222. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2008.

Delaye, Alain. Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus. Paris: Accarias/L’Originel, 2007.

Dumouchel, Paul and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. L’Enfer des Choses. Paris: Seuil, 1979.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. “Naturalizing Mimetic Theory.” In Scott R. Garrels, Ed. Mimesis and Science, 193-213. East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2011.

Duyndam, Joachim. “Girard and Levinas, Cain and Abel, Mimesis and the Face.” Contagion: A Journal of Religion and Culture 15-16 (2008-2009): 237-248.

Huntington, C.W. and Geshé Namgyal Wangchen. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhyamika. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 1992.

Garrels, Scott R. “Human Imitation: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspectives.” In Scott R. Garrels, Ed. Mimesis and Science, 1-38. East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2011.

Garrels, Scott R. “Mimesis and Science: An Interview with René Girard.” In Scott R. Garrels, Ed. Mimesis and Science, 215-253. East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2011.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.

Girard, René. “Séminaire de recherché sur l’œuvre de René Girard tenu au RIER.” Studies in Religions/Sciences Religieuses 10/1 (1981): 67-107.

Girard, René. The Girard Reader. Ed. James G. Williams New York: Crossroad, 1996.

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Girard, René, and Benoît Chantre. Battling to the End. Translated by Mary Baker. East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2010.

Girard, René, with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Ives, Christopher. “Dharma and Destruction: Buddhist Institutions and Violence.” Contagion 9 (2002): 151-174.

Jackson, Roger R. “Śūnyatā (emptiness).” In Robert E. Burswell Jr, Ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 809-810. New York: Macmillan: 2004.

Kalupahana, David J. The Principles of Buddhist Psychology. New York: SUNY Press, 1987.

Lefebure, Leo D. “Mimesis, Violence, and Socially Engaged Buddhism: Overture to a Dialogue.” Contagion: A Journal of Religion and Culture 3 (1996): 121-140.

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Ormerod, Neil. “Questioning desire: Lonergan, Girard and Buddhism.” Louvain Studies (to appear): 1-24.

Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Translated by Jesse Browner. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Interbeing: Commentaries on the Tiep Hien Precepts. Fred Eppsteiner, Ed. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1987.

Varela, Francisco J. Ethical Know-how: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Williams, Paul. “Nāgārjuna.” In Robert E. Burswell Jr, Ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 581-582. New York: Macmillan, 2004.

Image courtesy: Francisco de Goya



  1. Girard, Things Hidden, 137.
  2. Girard, Things Hidden, 258.
  3. René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 212.
  4. Ricard, Happiness, 241.
  5. This principle unfortunately remains often a dead letter, even in Buddhism. Christopher Ives gave a detailed account of the limits and misuses of this cardinal principle in the history of Buddhism (“Dharma and Destruction: Buddhist Institutions and Violence.” Contagion 9 (2002): 151-174).
  6. Personal conversation with Dupuy, July 6th, 2012.
  7. My own translation. Paul Dumouchel and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. L’Enfer des Choses (Paris: Seuil, 1979), 9.
  8. My own translation. Dumouchel and Dupuy. L’Enfer des Choses, 9.
  9. Girard, Battling to the End, 16.
  10. Ricard, Happiness, 242.