Philosophy's Violent Sacred

Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory

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Duane Armitage
Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture
  • Lansing: 
    Michigan State University Press
    , April
     2021.
     160 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611863871.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When some people read René Girard, their response is a shrug of the shoulders, or even a negative dismissal. Others, however, find reading him to be transformative to their understanding of the human condition, key texts in the tradition, and the subtle changes in history that have resulted in many of the salient features of the modern world, such as intense concern for victims. Philosopher Duane Armitage, author of Philosophy’s Violent Sacred: Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory, is clearly the second type of reader. He speaks in his acknowledgments of his “recent obsession” with Girard’s writings after a mentor gave him a book by Girard in 2012.

This short book, of roughly one hundred pages, presents a critique of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger from a Girardian point of view. Girard himself, of course, made comments about those two thinkers in his writings. This work expands on those comments from the perspective of a philosopher who has studied the primary and secondary literature much more thoroughly than Girard himself did. Armitage wrote two previous books on Heidegger, and anyone who can make that claim will unavoidably also be a Nietzsche scholar as well.

Chapter 1 presents an introduction to Girard’s thought, focusing on his theory of how violence forms and maintains human culture. The author’s thesis is that if Girard is correct, then most of what passes as postmodern philosophy in the modern academy is premised on certain errors of understanding and judgment. The “cultural death” of Platonism and of religious belief has created problems for which postmodern thought does not have adequate answers. More specifically, contemporary thought mistakenly blames reason and truth as the source of violence, and it fails to recognize the biblical roots of its own concern for victims and its sense of justice.

Chapter 2 is a careful reading of Nietzsche’s thought, developing Girard’s idea that Nietzsche saw more deeply into the heart of Christianity than almost anyone else in the modern world. He saw Christianity’s concern for victims and its critique of violence as its core—and he rejected that idea in favor of a reaffirmation of Dionysian violence. That which Nietzsche describes as the “slave morality” of the Judeo-Christian tradition is precisely what he thinks must be rejected and overcome. Armitage quotes Nietzsche: “The weak and the ill-constituted should die off: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice?—Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak—Christianity” (23). This support for a version of social Darwinism is, of course, the polar opposite of the Sermon on the Mount and the pacifist ideal of Christianity. Nietzsche saw that Christianity had undermined the mythology that supports mob violence, and he wanted to restore the previous way of life, which is, in reality, impossible—and insane.

Chapter 3 focuses on Heidegger, drawing on the author’s expertise in that locus of philosophical thought. Armitage notes that Heidegger drew a distinction between the Greek logos and the Hebraic logos, favoring Greek thought and accusing the Hebraic of forgetfulness of being. The details of the summary and analysis of Heidegger’s thought cannot be presented here; suffice it to say that this book advances the cutting edge of refinement in the secondary literature that discusses the relationship between Heidegger and Girard (and also Nietzsche and Friedrich Hölderlin). Armitage notes that Heidegger argues that the Christian idea of creation leads to the dominance of technology after the death of the Christian God, as humans take God’s place. Gianni Vattimo, another Heidegger scholar who entered into dialogue with Girard, is discussed by the author in connection with the idea of the weakening of God in modern thought, which can be connected with the weakening of systems of control and violence.

Chapter 4 is where the author really hits his stride, as he discusses Girard’s critique of postmodernity. The modern world has to a great extent adopted moral relativism as the first article of its creed, yet it also wants to be able to critique and denounce anyone who can be labeled as an oppressor of victims. This denunciation is expressed in a tone of objective truth, not Nietzschean perspectivism and relativism. We cannot lift up Nietzsche and his will to power, which bifurcates the world into those who have power and those who don’t, and also maintain that the lives of all human beings, and most especially historically oppressed people (e.g., Black Lives Matter), must be protected from violence. Girard says, correctly, that our instinct to side with the weak is the result of two thousand years of Christian catechesis (and three thousand years of Torah). Yet fashionable currents in academia seek to undermine precisely that history and to usher in a post-Christian world.

Armitage echoes Girard in pointing out the absurdity of such a quest. It is not possible to ever be post-Christ because the story of his lynching has become the foundation of our deepest moral sensibilities. Any attempt to stand on a superior moral ground in modern culture thus must base its claim on defending a particular class of victims. But there are so many different possible victimage narratives coming from the left and the right that we are left with a cacophony of denunciations with no end in sight. For example, the author refers to “the white nationalism that conceives itself as victimized, or members of Antifa who seek to enact violent, public lynchings of fascists in the name of the defense of victims” (99). He adds that “postmodernism’s overcoming of absolutism is just as absolute as the absolutism it thinks it has overcome” (100). In addition to the other thinkers mentioned, Karl Marx also makes an appearance here, because he is such a clear example of a claim to defend victims leading to Dionysian orgies of violence in various countries. Girard’s voice overlooks this cacophony and says that the central imperative ought to be to stop scapegoating truth—the truth revealed in the Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
April 7, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Duane Armitage is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He is author of Heidegger's Pauline and Lutheran Roots (2016) and Heidegger and the Death of God (2017), and coauthor of a children's book series on philosophy entitled Big Ideas for Little Philosophers.

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