Ascent and Descent by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. - a metal ladder and its shade

Humility: a loser’s virtue, the route to reality, or both?

Presentation for a discussion with Cistercian Abbots and Abbesses hosted by the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo, MI


I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to be recognised for what I am, a world-class authority on humility. And to be invited to come and share with you my hard-won insights into this virtue. I plan to make available for you simple and easy, bite-sized chunks of my savoir-faire. The which, duly ingested, will quickly make you almost my equals in humility. Almost, I say, for such is my lowliness that, in the case of any of you coming too close to my level, I will know how to reach lower than all, humble beyond compare.

Here’s the thing. I don’t even need a funny accent to make that sound ridiculous. Anyone who talks about humility as a quality of their own immediately grates on the nerves. Either they are doing so as a form of emotional blackmail in the way made famous by Dickens’ character, the “ever so ‘umble” Uriah Heep, or else they are so lacking in self-awareness as not to realize that even a casual mention of considering yourself to be someone marked by this rarest and most self-effacing of qualities disqualifies you from actually being perceived as bearing it.

The result, of course, is that proud people are far too clever to mention their humility, even when we think we have it in spades, so that people may think us humble precisely because we seem not to be aware of how special we are. As you can see: an endless game of mirrors.

Here’s an example. As you come through a door into a large room full of people, those inside burst into applause. You instinctively step aside, look behind you to see who the important person coming into the room is, and begin to join in the applause. Yet the applause was in fact for you, so now those applauding are even more thrilled at your humility in thinking that it must have been for someone else, than they are at whatever feat of greatness, or history of accomplishment, led them to applaud your entry in the first place.

Nevertheless…I suspect I am not alone in having lived the following version of the same visible incident. You come into a space of praise that you more than half-know is for you; and you know quite well why. Yet you make the split-second decision to stand aside and look behind you for the “more important person” you know not to be there, so as to receive added kudos for your humility, appreciation for your charming lack of self-awareness, when the very reverse is the case.

The incidents look identical from the point of view of those applauding. One is genuinely a glimpse at a humble person, while the other is something like its reverse: part of a proud person’s descent into the shame of half-knowing themselves a manipulator. But this is not evident to the applauders unless they know much more about the life, relationships, and interactions over time of the person coming into the room[1].

For the benefit of the genuinely humble among us, for whom such manipulative split-second cunning is difficult to imagine, let me share something that any gay boy, at least of my generation, was aware of during adolescence. What we now call hypervigilance takes the form of split-second assessment of what the straight majority’s expected reaction to this or that situation would be, given that we have no “instinctual-seeming” guidance tending to produce their “natural-seeming” reactions. That split-second assessment then allows us to produce more or less conscious imitative reactions “against our nature” so as to survive. We play to what “they” would pick up in order to garner toleration. Eventually, “coming out”, if we get there, means embarking on many, many years of undoing that excruciatingly and brilliantly fast-contrived false persona, which may be the only one we know.

Generally speaking, the only occasion when we recognise it to be reasonable and potentially truthful to talk about humility in the first person, is when someone has just been able publicly to accept a piece of hard learning of something true as having humbled them. Whether through an emotional or an intellectual jolt. And part of being able to recognise this verbally is that for whatever reason, something that might have been humiliating, never a good thing, has been received as a gift, and so without resentment. Here “I” am in fact celebrating a piece of good fortune, a grace, that I have undergone at the hand of another, or others, rather than laying claim to a quality of my own.

Well, so far, I’ve talked about humility in what I take to be ordinary cocktail party language. You don’t need to be either a believer or a non-believer in any particular religious scheme to understand and assess what I’ve said. And yet, St Augustine, whose thought undergirds the basic software of at least Western Christianity and the cultures it has touched, gave as his definition of the glory of heaven: clara cum laude notitia. Which is to say: “being noticed publicly and evidently with praise”. In other words, the glory of heaven is, for all anthropological purposes, the same as our first “entry to applause” scenario. The Voice is saying “That’s m’ boy,” or “That’s m’ girl”, beaming celestial delight to an ever wider public, while you are genuinely amazed at what that public regard tells you about the enthralled “they” who are welcoming you into their “we”, and about the “self” that you are receiving through their eyes. Uncomplicated approval is everything.


What I would like to do with you is to share something of the insight into the relationship between human desire and violence that was developed by my principal mentor René Girard [2], the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year. I want to do so because his insight makes available an anthropology which is certainly concentric with the central religious doctrines found in Christianity, as well as with major readings of Judaism; but at the same time, it is one that can be talked about, and its insights used straightforwardly, in modern situations without either overt or covert relationship to institutional religious teaching. It is this capacity to play simultaneously in two registers, without diminishing either of those registers, as shown in the applause-room/ image of heaven examples above, which makes it especially useful when talking about something like “humility”. For religious use of the term has become suspect, for very good reasons, while ordinary conversation may underestimate the painful, and indeed harmful, games-of-mirrors behind the attractive quality which we glimpse from time to time in other people’s lives, and which we praise or recommend without thinking too much about what we are promoting.

In a nutshell, Girard advances beyond Aristotle’s take that “humans are the most imitative creatures in the world”. Over hundreds of thousands of years our mimetic capacity outstripped our instinctual capacities. These latter had made it difficult for us, as it does still for other animals, to kill other members of our own group. But as we became better and better imitators, with all that that means in terms of an ability to learn and to socialize information, the risk that the imitative equality in our simian cohort might flip into rivalry (which is simply imitating each other against each other), grew until we became peculiarly and unstably at risk of our imitation turning into violent rivalry. Better imitation means that it is easier for a peaceful imitation of each other, following some leader, to turn into an all-against-all, since the leader turns out to be, after all, no more than another imitating member. And “all-against-alls” can simply wipe everybody, or almost everybody, out.

Girard points out that such self-destructive “all-against-alls” probably did wipe out huge numbers of our proto-hominid ancestors. Certainly, we are all descended from a line that at one time had in the low thousands of members, tiny by comparison with other ape hordes. Nevertheless, in the midst of such frenzies some at least seem to have found themselves undergoing the aleatory occasions when an “all-against-all” turns into an “all-against-one”. With the result that the group, without understanding why, found itself entirely at peace – truly remarkable given the incomprehensible frenzy and disorder of an all-against-all. And at their feet was a cadaver. What has in fact happened is that by all their rivalry having turned into a shared imitation of an act of violence against a particular one, one who is now no longer there, they have produced peace. In other words, their current moment of peace is the direct extension of their shared unanimity in the murder. Nothing more.

However, what it looks like to them, and of course all of this is pre-cognitive, is that something “other”, associated with the cadaver, has done something to them. There’s a mysterious power to this “other”. The group must have been right to expel them, as is shown by the fact that they are now at peace. Thus, the expelled one must have previously had the power to produce this terrible rivalry among them – that one was genuinely to blame. But also, in the departure of the expelled one, leaving behind this cadaver, that one had shown the extraordinary munificence of granting peace to the group. The first hint of para-instinctual shared meaning is also the first hint of an ambivalent god, one who causes disorder, and under certain circumstances, can give peace.

Human self-transcendence is thus based on a miscognition of an event produced entirely instinctually which leads to the emergence of a culture run by something more-than-instinct. This latter is the world of meaning – the sense deriving from this new “other” – that begins to accrue to and from the cadaver. Exceptional imitators will quickly learn how to imitate what they have just done, and which does indeed work, to reproduce peace in their group. And over time, which may have been hundreds of thousands of years, what we call human culture emerges around the meaning given by the divinised aleatory victim. Spontaneous lynching turns gradually into sacrifice, with someone being chosen to re-enact what always works: if you come together to cast one out unanimously either to placate or to honour the original divinity, you get peace. And peace is the good most necessary for human cooperation and flourishing.

Thus do ritual, myth, and prohibition, the three pillars of archaic religion or culture (since they are synonymous at that stage), come into being: ritual in which the initial event is re-enacted with first human, and then animal substitutes: the beginning of sacrifice. A long time later, as dancing and singing in the re-enactments gradually yield to spoken words, myth develops. Time and time again a story is born in which some gods once treated us to a collapse of our order (by means of plague, famine, flood or fire); they then squabbled among themselves, leading to some dismemberment of a human being, or indeed of one of themselves, out of whom poured all the order of our world: our crops and families and our health. And along with myth, maybe even before myth: prohibitions, all of which aim to protect the group from an outbreak of rivalry which might overwhelm them should things be too “like” each other.

Forgive me this gallop through such dense material, but I hope you will see shortly what all this has to do with humility. Girard is giving a hypothetical description of a group of apes that stumbled into an extraordinary act of self-discovery: a violent way of containing their own violence. Central to this was the sign that emerged as this mechanism was repeated, and that led us into the huge crisis of symbolicity (something standing for something else) with which we humans have been living ever since. It is this birth of symbolicity which means that we are unmoored from our instincts and have access to them only through shared group negotiation of meaning. Far from evolution being a peaceful glide into human consciousness, our humanity begins when our shared culture overrides our instincts such that we know successfully how to maintain peace: find someone to blame and cast them out. All the binaries which structure human life: in/out, alive/dead, we/them, before/after, good/bad and so on, flow from this emergent sign of the misperceived slaying in which one can stand for all, and all for one.

If I have gone very slowly through this, it is to bring out how two central dimensions of Girard’s insight, the mimetic nature of desire and the scapegoating mechanism, are organically linked. And then how the third dimension of his insight is a subversion from within of the entire anthropological package which characterizes us. This is the dimension that is evidenced principally, but not uniquely, by the Hebrew and Greek texts that we call the Bible. For these texts do something apparently impossible. They gradually detach “God” from anything which promotes “order” at the expense of victims, making it ever clearer, until it is blindingly clear in the Gospel texts of the Passion, that there is no violence at all in God, whose only icon, or image, among us, is as one who is blameless but cast out. 

I’ll repeat that since it so much more of an anthropological shock than we are used to, owing to our tendency to talk “religiously” about it. The Gospels show the Jewish and Roman authorities coming together in a mob-confused way to crucify Jesus. Thus the only true icon of who God is, is not analogous with even the best religious law of the time, and not analogous with even the best civil law of the time. Neither throne nor altar are icons of God. The icon of God is the one whom those powers treat as a seditious blasphemer. God is strictly analogous with the one whom those authorities, despite themselves, throw out. And it is because of this that the whole of human self-understanding and meaning has been transfigured by the texts which bear witness to this event. 

To jump my argument a little: in terms of humility, either Jesus was being absurdly arrogant, out of his mind with overwhelming pride in hinting or saying who he considered himself to be. In which case he was indeed a ridiculous and tragically seditious blasphemer. Or else he was occupying with deliberate realism, knowing what he was doing, the ultimately humiliating space into which we place such people. In that case he was the fully human enactment of a power which puts all our notions of order, righteousness, and divinity into a constant series of shocks. The original rolling crisis of our entry into symbolicity is having its software retrofitted by a subversion from within of its key symbol, that relating to death, so as to enable us to become attuned to reality. Whether we are caught in pride or are developing humility will always look identical at any key point, and will only become visible according to whether over time we are found to have been acting in a way that sustains the sacred order of our initial symbolicity, or whether we are allowing ourselves to be caught up in something much more original (and originary) than that: by this I mean the Creator’s desire, inscribed in our very bodies, that the human ape collective learn to flourish together, achieving all the fruits of cooperation, without relying on the short cut of easily accessible victims that seems to work so well.

Girard was above all a reader of literary texts, and not a theologian. He points to the influence of certain texts in history which reveal what is really going on, and which make the initial “miscognition” we saw earlier impossible: something which once seen can’t be unseen. In a nutshell, he traces the route by which what we might wish to call “sacrifice” gets to be called what it is: murder. For what it is to be human is altered in the degree to which we become aware of the innocence of the victims we are inclined to throw out; and of our lack of innocence in depending on any scheme which relies upon cast-out others. If we can no longer cast out “inconvenient others” in good conscience, then we are going to have to unlearn what seems like our default programming and learn victimless ways to find and maintain group unity, the peace which is so necessary for any sort of human flourishing, industry, agriculture, commerce and so on.


And so to humility. If I have taken time to get here it is because what I have described offers us the chance to intuit humility as something other than an unchanging essence. It clearly isn’t unchanging. In a winner-take-all society, as Christopher Bellitto shows in the case of Alcibiades, humility can only be described as a form of abasement, whether of birth or of subjection. For the Roman Empire “Vae victis” or “Woe to the vanquished” gives an idea of how they viewed those of lowly state.

So, rather than see humility as an unchanging essence, I suggest that we see it as a quality which emerges on the interface of the shift in human self-understanding as we learn not to sacrifice: as we come to suspect that the wicked other may be just like us; that we have met our enemy and it is ourselves; and when we then engage in attempting to build groups, security, togetherness without the cheap fuel of a necessary enemy. Without, in fact, any “over against another” at all.

The first step therefore in sensing what humility might be about is the recognition that, whether we adhere to it or not, the major religious tradition in our formation clearly depicts God as a loser. Even if its principal ministers and adherents far too often find apparently decorous ways round what still appears an unpalatable fact.

Nevertheless, the texts of the apostolic witness make clear that their authors understood God-being-a-loser in a rather specific way. Let me set out first how they did not understand it, since it will be easier to show how they did by contrast with an easily grasped imaginary account. That imaginary account runs like this: the apostolic authors had undergone experiences which led them to believe that they had finally been given the definitive word about how to be losers. Dwellers in a loser outpost of a magnificent Empire, born amid a loser people whose basic narrative was one of escape from slavery at the hands of an earlier magnificent Empire followed by repeated failure to resist the powers of subsequent encroaching empires and the allure of their idolatries. According to Nietzsche they only suppress their anger, indignation, shame, and envy toward their oppressors, dressing it up in a maudlin’ appeal to universal love. Thus, they both foment and disguise a resentment that would eventually lead to an odious semi-triumph over all that is “good, noble, virile, heroic, insouciant about the need to trample down the little people in order to be a fine human”. A massive project of making lemons into lemonade.

By contrast, the texts witness to an understanding that the point of God having manifested as a loser was that the power to be able to lose is infinitely greater and more creative than the power to have to win. That the losing came from a huge spaciousness of heart concerning the dehumanizing effect of human culture having acquired the scapegoating short-cut to unity and for that to have become our fallback position. By turning the sign of the loser into the sign of a far greater and more creative power, the way is open for the subversion from within of every element of human culture into something much more than itself as we are given new patterns of desire. And that new pattern of desire in us shows its greatness and power by being able to lose peacefully, and without resentment in the midst of the “powers” of this world, thus transforming what seemed like powerful meaning to something quite else.

The power to lose gracefully is not even on the same scale as “the power needed to win”. The need to win is because losing would put you into a position where you would be either dead or living resentfully subjected to the winner. If that latter need for power runs you, then the fear of the shame of living resentfully is what really drives you all along, and the winner is only cosmetically different from the loser.  And of course, here I am talking both about things that are usually talked about in theological language, and also those that aren’t. It was reported by both surviving inmates and guards at Auschwitz that something changed in the ambience after Maximilian Kolbe died, two weeks after having offered to take the place of a man who was due for execution but had a living family. Even Camp officials in the ultimate “might is right” institution, unsettled in part by the time it took Kolbe to die, sensed that a power had manifested, quite other than the one which they wielded. But the same dynamic can be seen at work in far less drastic examples. There is a video, currently circulating on YouTube, of Tucker Carlson interviewing Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian. In it you see Bregman being straightforward, calm, smiling, reasonable, and perfectly prepared to lose to Tucker, never to be invited again to appear on Fox, just repeating his analysis quietly. This deranges Tucker completely because of his need to win. It is no accident that Fox did not run this clip, for it reveals how someone who is prepared to lose gracefully to what he knows is a power overwhelmingly greater than he, can render null one of the most significant media power brokers in the world.

I hope that I’ve established “the ability to lose gracefully” as the lubricant involved on the interface between humanity run by the power of scapegoating, in which humility is no virtue at all, and shame is the ultimate horror; and, on the other hand, humans daring to imagine ways of being together in which shame is held with tenderness rather than with humiliation. Now I’d like to look at some of the more detailed ways in which Girard’s thought opens up how we might live that as an approach to reality.


Let me start with a central element of Girard’s thought: mimesis. Girard used this word rather than the more usual English word “imitation” because we tend to think of imitation as something somewhat conscious, relatively unimportant at least for stable adults, and in any case something that can be turned on and off. By mimesis Girard means something much more fundamental and deep-rooted: that it is our long-precognitive imitative capacity, one fired into activity from at least birth onwards by significant adult others, that gradually brings us into being. We learn by imitation to make gestures and sounds, repeat them incessantly, and then combine them into words, and eventually into the beginnings of a narrative. It is memory produced by repetitive imitation which generates a “self” being brought into being as a highly malleable act of ever more confident negotiation in the midst of the “we” that massively precedes it.

Mimetic realism means a certain acceptance that we are hyper-imitative creatures all our lives long, and that this is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the more we are able to accept the wonderful advantages which accrue to us as we become better and better imitators of someone, recognizing them as a model like whom we want to be, rather than someone from whom we should distinguish ourselves so as to be really original, the more excellent we shall be. Indeed, truly great artists are maybe those who are least ashamed of how much they absorb constantly from those they imitate, who don’t mind critics telling them they’re derivative, and eventually do produce things which seem entirely original. My favourite composer, Rossini, said about Mozart that he was “the inspiration of my youth, the frustration of my middle years, and the consolation of my old age”. Yet by the age of 35, when he retired from operatic composing, Rossini had opened up a markedly different musical world than the one his 35-year-old model bequeathed him on his death, three months before Rossini was born. There is something humble about a genius who can recognize that his model had become an obstacle for him, and yet who had been able to step back from that rivalry and enjoy that other genius without emotional disturbance.

And even as a matter of infant psychology, babies and small children imitate constantly without being aware that it is this that is bringing them into being. When occasional fits of pique, rage, and indignation cause them to go into (helpless and futile) rivalry with their adult guardians the very fact of their comparative weakness leads them to lose gracefully, quickly forgetting whatever row it was, thus being able to receive a huge amount of identity in an entirely functional way. It is only as childhood turns into adolescence, and the person comes to equal size and strength with their adult guardians, that we start to catch ourselves imitating our parents, become ashamed of it, go into rivalry with them, and become ever better at being run by the desire of our peers as hormones do their work.

In this process, pacific, and largely unconscious, imitation can very easily turn rivalrous. I may get hold of something my model has indicated as something (or someone) desirable before my model does. They are then a bit miffed that I have it before them. I respond by saying “Well, how could I have known that. I’ve always wanted (X)”, even when I half know that it was they who had made (X) desirable to me in the first place. I claim that my desire was original to me, and thus enter into rivalry with them which makes me seem somehow different to, independent of, and superior to them. This is the beginning of the end of our friendship. It is where I start to seem different to my model, because I want to stress how unlike me they are. While everyone else can see how like my model I am, even though we are locked into a particularly diminished version of each other. This situation can only be rescued by my climbing down from my rivalry and saying “Yes, you’re right, it’s because I so love you and want to be like you that I cheated and got (X) first”. In other words what the lubricant called humility looks like in practice is keeping alive the childishness of not being ashamed of imitation, and returning to it when it is threatened by rivalry. In this instance, and maybe more widely, the power of the loser is the power to let go of rivalry whenever it threatens cooperation and thus greater access to reality.

From this, I hope it is clear that because of the sheer power of our mimesis, we are the creatures for whom we are all much more similar than we are different. When imitation becomes rivalrous, then we start to look for differences by which we make ourselves special, and other people dangerous. Humility is the route back to perceiving the vast shared sameness as prior to any differences, a route which will involve learning to let go of rivalry. Pride will make of differences a source of fake superiority: I am not like them. Humility will make of gratefully perceived sameness the source of endlessly peaceful diversity.  Because our bodies are genuinely different – by place and date of birth and many other specificities, but our pattern of desire is the same. Which is why Shakespeare’s treatments of desire and envy can be understood anywhere in the world, and two films called respectively The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai (the former unashamed to imitate the latter) can cast the same narration in entirely different drag and be as truthful in the one as in the other.


The second element of Girard’s thought, the scapegoat mechanism as structuring human meaning, and more recently its undoing from within into which anyone at all can enter, has a related effect on our understanding of humility. When rivalry breaks out, violence escalates by revenge: you kill two of mine, I’ll kill ten of yours, and so on. This leads inevitably to the threat of the “all against all”. In this dynamic, the only story that can really be told is that of the hero. Whether the hero people or the individual hero. But the story is one of victory over a wicked other of incredible power, deceptive virtuosity of camouflage, and flexibility of weapons. The “I” is a heroic victor over the wicked “they”. In this world, there really is no story of the victim, the victim’s voice is silenced, and not even recognised as a victim. Accusations from the hero’s story are met with the harsh-muted aphasia of guilty death.

The novelty of the world in which the Biblical revelation of the innocence of the victim has begun its work is that we start to hear the voice of the victim. Once the cast-out one begins to be recognised as the voice that was telling the truth about what was going on, all sacred accounts of how right we were to put them in that place start to crumble. And eventually, we get to where we are now, where the place of the victim is the privileged place from which to narrate a story. This is true both on a political and cultural level, and within the personal narratives of all of us. For all of us are in some spheres inclined to tell the story of how I stood up heroically and defeated the wicked “they”, and in other spheres of our life tell the story of how I am the innocent victim of a wicked “they”, so downtrodden that I am a unique source of truthfulness.

So suddenly, the “victim” story is as powerful as that of the “hero”, or even the more powerful of the two. But please notice what has happened: almost the moment something true begins to emerge from beneath the violence of the old story, the old story brilliantly reacts by co-opting the tiny advance into its own pattern of desire. So, the victim story gets set up as one in rivalry with the hero story, but within the same struggle for power as the old hero story. This is not a subversion from within of the old story, but an inversion. Which means the power dynamic has not really changed. A change of instrument plays the same old tune: the story which we tell of ourselves and which we very easily find attractive, which Girard calls the “Romantic lie”, for ultimately it is one of envy and revenge.

Where then is humility in all this? It is in something which Girard calls “Novelistic truth” for he traced its workings in great novelists like Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, as well as in Shakespeare. It emerges in something like a slow and penitential loss of the “wicked they” who had sustained my heroic or victimary “I”, and the realisation that there are only others like whom I am. Humility is the route in my life from letting go of a tale of hero and victim, to being able to tell one in which I am a sister or a brother, in which “they” are like “me”, may even have given me being and space, and I am grateful for them and able to contribute to them. Only others can pick up how well we are on the way to being outside ourselves with appreciation for the other, no longer run with hidden forms of passive aggressive envy and desire for revenge: people who have become creative rather than reactive. It is, incidentally, one of the quietly remarkable facets of René Girard’s personal life, delicately captured by Benoît Chantre’s book “Les derniers jours de René Girard” which appeared very shortly after Girard’s death, how resolutely he fled any insinuation of either heroism or of victimhood when talking about his youth and adolescence in Vichy France.


This second dimension of Girard’s thought, the undoing from within of the scapegoat narrative, has an historical element that I would like to bring out. When an innocently sacrificial society, one which has not been faced with the mirror of what it is doing when it casts someone out, is faced with a sense of disorder, then it can come together and cast someone out, and life starts up again. But when the mirror of the innocence of the victim has become a significant cultural factor, societies can no longer do that in good conscience. This does not mean that those societies suddenly become good. It means that those societies, which have produced our own, are constituted by rolling sacrificial crises. Attempts to sort things out the old-fashioned way are then contested, since unanimity over against someone, or some group, is automatically suspect, and thus cannot be achieved, doesn’t work. So nothing is resolved. And this persistent non-resolution provokes a constant shift evidenced in the way the “we” of the group constitutes and is constituted by the “I”s which it throws up, and which negotiate our way through life. Authors like Larry Siedentop[3] and Charles Taylor[4] give fascinating accounts of the process of how the modern self, or the modern individual, were, and continue to be forged.

To cut a long story short, I suggest that what we see is a slow but constant movement towards the democratization of the unresolved sacrificial crisis. Such that it now plays out not only on big public stages of politics and wars, but within every family and every group, and increasingly within every individual from a younger and younger age onward. Key for this, as you would expect, have been the ever-faster changes in means of communication technology. For this means ever faster and better vectors for mimesis. If the “I” of any of us is formed by the relationship with the “we” that brings us into being, then the changes to the “in between” which brings both “I” and “we” into being, altered by technology, produce changes in both the “we” and the “I”. And those changes can be highly toxic reproductions of the scapegoat mechanism, as well as ever more knowing attempts to undo it from within. This means that learning to see sameness, to detect where imitation becomes rivalrous, to lose gracefully, and to let go of belonging in order to become sane before finding a new circle, can be, and are, issues with which any social media user now wrestles regularly from pre-adolescence onwards.

All of which is to say that what might have been a monastic virtue in the way prescribed by St Benedict in the context of a single community for life, or talked about by St Teresa of Ávila within an early modern community with different accesses to power and influence, now needs perhaps to be recast among people none of whom belong in mono-cultural groups, and the malleability of whose “self” is increasingly apparent. Here, where the world of winners and losers, and the pathologies which accompany them with sometimes incoherently violent and armed outcomes, has been so democratized, that the democratization of humility as the graceful loser’s way into reality may in any case be ahead of those of us who praise it. Every dimension of the scapegoat scenario, every pattern of desire associated with it is now astonishingly alive and visible as involving everyone[5]. As is the possibility of losing gracefully and subverting it from within.


The final approach to humility from Girard’s thought which I would like to bring out here is one from which some of you might have thought I should have started. The relationship between humility and God. And it was indeed the first in my own understanding. The very first formulation of Girard’s understanding of desire is that “We desire according to the desire of the other.” This means the social other, in the form of the couple whose intercourse brought me into being as well as every conceivable form of social, linguistic, climatic, geological, sanitary, political, agricultural, industrial, and educational reality that gave them the stability to give me life, health, safety and eventual viability as an adult. All of this is massively prior to my viability as a “self”. But this means that “I” am a massively secondary reality. Much closer to being a symptom of the protagonism of another than any sort of prime originator.

Does this make me unfree? No, it merely means that I am not a self-starter. In fact, the less I am in rivalry with all the things that bring me into being, the more I simply allow them to draw me into being, largely forgetting about them and only occasionally giving them a grateful nod, the more I am able to allow my freedom, which is always relative, to be brought into being. An insistence on my own originality marks an identity constructed over against, which means that reactivity dominates my being. The less reactive I am, the happier to be borne up in my secondarity, the freer I am to imagine, to aspire, to negotiate, and to create. I rather think that this is what is meant by the link which Aquinas makes between humility and magnanimity. The less resentful I am, the freer to imagine great things, and thus to tend to help produce them. While there is still a wicked or powerful “they” who “I” must overcome in order to be free, then I am still locked into the romantic self whose freedom is aspirational, but endlessly postponed. If I am neither a hero nor a victim, then the “they” is becoming a “we” whose negotiated capacity to produce something great is a practicable desire. Arduous, but imaginable both as to its means and its end.

This secondarity is not only at the level of the social other considered in all its sheer prior physicality – the universe, the world and everything in it. It is not only true at the level of the purely human social other: the parental and educational “they” that turned this body into a “we” as it became that viable negotiator of a narrative, partly shared, partly to be created on a path-dependent journey, which we call an “I”. It is also true at the level of my desire, which means that my very willing and wanting is always secondary to the desire of another. And this means my relationality, what the social and human other has produced in me, is constantly filtered through my reason, which is the conscious part of my negotiation. So my reason is both a symptom of my relationality, and the place where I become able to distinguish between the “others” that move me, working out what is true, what is false, what is harmful, what is dangerous. It is the place where I can ask “by whose desire am I being run?” And therefore “if I allow myself to be drawn into this pattern of desire, or that pattern of desire, this is who will run me, and this is who I will become”. What we normally call the “conscience” is the place of interpretation of desire. As I interpret, so I will become.

The other who brings us into being, the self who is brought into being, and the interpretation of “by which other” shall I be moved into becoming. If this pattern is lived out within the scapegoat pattern, then I hope you can see that this will lead to a futile self-enclosure into a repetitive but self-destructive series of attempts to shore up meaning and order. If this pattern is lived out with the humility of the graceful loser, which will mean, slowly, and gratefully, with much trial and error, then it will lead to cooperation, openness to reality not being as it had at first seemed, and the freedom which comes with not having to win.

For some, this is enough. For others, we are drawn further by the sense that behind the other that brings us into being there is Another other, in no kind of rivalry with anything that is, who will start to add a certain depth to the whole experience. Especially if that Other other has a Criterion for itself, made available to us in a human “I” who occupied the space of the loser to reveal the fullness of the friendliness and power of the Other other and something of the shape of an original project for humans beyond our ability to frustrate it. And even more so if the Other other, aware that a Criterion without an interpretation will merely leave us fighting, makes available a living dynamic Interpretation of itself and its criterion so that we will always be able to allow ourselves to be moved by a desire that teaches us new things and open us up to the real. But then we would be talking about a Creator who has revealed themselves in and as a Logos, and whose self-interpretative dynamic looks to us like a warm encouraging wind or Breath. We are taken from whatever place of enclosure we find ourselves trapped in, allowed to fall through the false identities of victimhood, as those of the false approval of victors, made into those weak losers who together might be borne on wings of seeming nothingness, protected against accusation and cruelty by an increasing ability to laugh at ourselves, led into a spacious room where a huge wave of uncomplicated approval greets us into being.

James Alison
Madrid/Los Angeles/Chicago April/May 2023

[1] For a real-life example of this, you can find on YouTube an interview with Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian author and thinker, in which he talks, in impeccable English, about how he doesn’t want to be given the Nobel Prize for literature. For some, the interview is a sign of his modesty. For others, he is playing the game of sounding modest to mask a desperate desire to win the Nobel Prize, making the prize even more desirable if he receives it, owing to his modesty, and simultaneously less shameful if he doesn’t receive it (he didn’t), for he can always modestly say “I told you so”. But it is genuinely not easy to tell which is the case. And given Borges’ written record, that may have been the point.

[2] René Girard, Avignon 1923 – Palo Alto 2015.

[3] Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Belknap, Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA 2014).

[4] Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA 1992).

[5] C.f. Tucker Carlson’s remarks, in a message revealed to the press on 3rd May 2023 in which he recognizes the temptation of being drawn into a murderous mob.