Modern Violence: Heavenly or Worldly—Or Else?

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Violence is often considered through its causes or effects, but seldom by its source. As to that, opinion is also divided. Some say that human culture is the source of violence and that love and peace can only come from ‘outside’; others claim that precisely this ‘outside’ is the source of violence and that love can only blossom in a society that cancels all arbitrary reference to any ‘outside’. These positions are articulated by, respectively, René Girard and Gianni Vattimo. This article confronts both positions and tries to learn from them, even though no scientific proof can decide between them.

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  1. 1.

    We should distinguish this ground from a metaphysical one, that claims to have absolute and total explanatory potency, is eternal and without peers, and is the unnegotiable warrant of truth. A metaphysical ground precedes thought and remains unaffected by it. A hermeneutic ground is in no way a remedy against metaphysical grounds; in fact, a hermeneutical ground can always petrify into a metaphysical one when it is declared absolute and exempt of interpretation. If the death of God would become a hard fact or weakening an absolute ethical imperative, than they would turn into metaphysical grounds.

  2. 2.

    For a more extensive treatment of both thinkers, I refer the reader to a title that brings together three talks of both with Pierpaolo Antonello and an article by each of them (Girard and Vattimo 2010) and (Meganck 2013).

  3. 3.

    Two titles by Girard are relevant here: Girard (1987, 1989). In the latter, the first four chapters of the first book deal with the scapegoat mechanism, the first three chapters of the second book with the anthropological message of Christ, and the first two chapters of the third and last book with mimetic desire. In The Scapegoat, Girard explores texts throughout history that evocate the scapegoat mechanism (Girard 1989).

  4. 4.

    Here, one can see how a hermeneutic ground is more a perspective than a representation of facts. The ‘event’ is approached by three irreconcilable hermeneutic grounds: the Nazi-perspective Endlösung, the allied perspective holocaust and the Jewish perspective shoah. None of these versions is true or false, they all offer a certain hermeneutic potential and are based on a specific cultural experience that is expressed in a specific narrative. The first presents a cold and purely instrumental solution to a socio-economic and political problem without any human consideration; the second evocates the position of a spectator who cannot believe his eyes and does not know how to react to such atrocities; the third relates the desperate experience of total annihilation of a people. All three refer to the same event: the extermination camps.

  5. 5.

    It is also one of the rare fragments that appear in the four gospels, not in the synoptics or John. Mt21:12-13; Mk11:15-17; Lk19:45-46; Jn2:14-16. John must have estimated the importance of this narrative greater than the others, since he already mentions it in the second chapter. The clearance of the temple is often explained as Jesus’ rejection of trade. This, however, would be naïve.

  6. 6.

    Perhaps ‘meta-religion’ would be a better term, since Christianity explains the violence at the core of every religion and culture.

  7. 7.

    The relation between, or better: the identification of violence and metaphysics is a main theme in all Vattimo’s work, but I select a few key texts here: (Vattimo 1988: 45–61; 2002: 113–121; 2007: 400–421; 2016: 121–146).

  8. 8.

    Another thing that Girards model explains more thoroughly and convincingly than Vattimo’s, is terror. Unfortunately, a full treatment of this would take us far beyond the scope of this article. In short, since it seems impossible to draw a profile of terror and terrorists, this could be an outburst of original violence. The fact that terror eludes scientific analysis throws serious doubt on Vattimo’s contention that terror, like all kinds of fundamentalism, is a nostalgic reaction to weakening. (See Vattimo 2003: 91). Terror is not purely or even merely religious, since most perpetrators/victims (of their own terrorist act) barely have any theological basis, they often started reading parts of Koran on Internet just weeks before their suicidal attack. It is not purely or mainly anti-modern, since they use high-tec social media. It is not purely socio-economic or political, since terrorists come from all classes and ideologies. But one thing has become clear: the modern organization of society is unable to ensure at the same time safety and privacy—the latter being an exclusively modern value.

  9. 9.

    This is also why the victims of the scapegoat mechanism do not become ‘saints’ in modern society. The sacred now takes the form of the useful. As I mentioned in the example, Jews and dissidents were useful to the totalitarian regimes of Germany and Russia. It is interesting to see how the current victims, the refugees, can no longer be seen as useful. They are a symptom of the late-modern erosion of instrumental thought. They point at the impossibility to solve the problem with the aid of the models that held modern society together.

  10. 10.

    The other one is the viewpoint from which everyone can start his life afresh, which is called: resurrection. Žižek says that these were two reasons why we should never forget Christianity (Žižek 2000).

  11. 11.

    I think the possibility of a peaceful equality between humans has to do with a thorough understanding of monotheism. It seems to me that true equality is possible when only God is recognized as God. If nothing in the world can have divine status (in its theological sense), then there is no earthly reason (standard, power, institution, etc.) that allows for people/positions to be ‘above’ other people/positions. Of course, this has nothing to do with the extent and range of someone’s responsibility. The principle that supports the absolute power of a pope or an emperor or natural law or, of course, of the very concept of God himself is henotheistic and is modeled along the form of delegation or vicariate. The displacement from henotheistic to monotheistic principle can be recognized in the traditional burial ceremony of the Hapsburg dynasty. The Grand Chamberlain knocks at the door of the Capuchin convent where the emperors of Austria-Hungary are buried. Upon the porter’s query who is there, the Chamberlain answers with all the noble titles the emperor possessed. The porter replies that he does not know him. Then the Chamberlain knocks again and to the same question answers with the name and ‘his majesty the emperor and the king’. Again, the porter denies any knowledge of him. The third time the Chamberlain answers with the name and ‘a poor mortal and sinner’. Only then the gates open to the deceased emperor.

  12. 12.

    I will develop this remark in the following paragraph. In this note I would just draw attention to the question whether Girard himself would have appreciated this theological annexation of his anthropological exploration of violence.

  13. 13.

    I prefer the version of John Caputo (2001: 56–66).

  14. 14.

    Kenosis is described in the Christ-hymn that Saint Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians. Vattimo and other thinkers of secularization also ignore the Trinitary character of kenosis where only one of the Persons incarnates. It is this Person that is exalted in His humiliation. The Son (obedience) is exalted by the Father (mercifulness). It seems to me of the utmost philosophical relevance that in this movement of humiliation/exaltation, the loss of Form or Substance is not recompensed for by or by a new and better Form or Substance, but trans-Forms into a Name, the highest Name. This may well be the prototypical movement that is revealed by desecularization, the ‘end’ of secularization, the dissolution of all onto-theo-logy into the Name that persists and circulates, as a philosophical image of Revelation, and that is holy because it is absolutely free of any reference, any object.

  15. 15.

    When Napoleon asked him where God could be found in his celestial mechanics, Laplace famously replied that he did not have any use for that hypothesis. The sequel is less well known, but at least as symptomatic. When Napoleon told another scientist, Lagrange, about this, the latter cried out: ‘But God is a great hypothesis, you can prove almost anything with it!’.

  16. 16.

    This is the same monotheistic movement that Heidegger investigated concerning Being. It belongs to Nichts, to what means Nothing to science, to what has no referent in this (scientific) world. Other ‘meaningless’ words followed, like Derrida’s différance. It was Derrida who reminded us of Plato’s Chôra that also remains uncontaminated by reference. But, though this would lead us to far here, that does not imply that God, Nothing, Being, differance are synonyms, are names of the same entity. (See Meganck 2018).

  17. 17.

    The end in the common sense would be an (en)closure, locking the world up in a total explanation that makes any further thought superfluous. This is the teleological or ideological connotation of secularism as an end in itself. This end also ‘ends’.

  18. 18.

    See my criticism of Vattimo above, and for further reading Meganck (2015).

  19. 19.

    John Milbank wondered why late modernity has questioned every premise of modernity, except its secularism (Milbank 1992). I think it finally has.

  20. 20.

    Richard Rorty called religion a conversation stopper, but I am quite convinced that, mainly in politics, secularization has fulfilled this role at least as much. If the ‘end’ has any meaning, then this rhetoric will soon peter out.

  21. 21.

    By ‘surreptitiously,’ I mean that Nietzsche maintains his exuberant style but does not explicitly mention the appearance of the three theological virtues. It cannot be, however, a coincidence that they appear all three in the preface. In this, I follow the reasoning of Paul van Tongeren (Nietzsche Research Group).

  22. 22.

    In this article, I consider the gesture of lighting a candle when the doctors leave a sickbed as thoughtful instead of superstitious. From the viewpoint of traditional metaphysics and medical science, this is meaningless. From religious thought, it can be seen as a mark where cure and care do not pervert into therapeutic aggression, which constitutes a form of technological violence. It can also be understood as a sign of hope, rising from technological despair, and trust that whatever befalls the person in the sickbed, will be ‘for the best’, even if we do not know what is this ‘best’ and why.

  23. 23.

    This is what already Plato ‘poetized,’ that the sense, the event of significance, was a divine initiative. Meaning was transported by a god (theos), the gods (theoi), of the divine (theios)—Plato uses these three without preference. They took the ideas from things to minds and from minds to other minds. And that, he thought, was amazing, which is how real philosophy starts. Aristotle became skeptical about all this, and metaphysics was born.


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Meganck, E. Modern Violence: Heavenly or Worldly—Or Else?. Hum Stud 43, 291–309 (2020).

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  • Violence
  • Peace
  • Secularization
  • Desacralization
  • Desecularization
  • Gianni Vattimo
  • René Girard