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Books

Girard the ‘Disturber’ Goes to War

 

Author: René Girard

 

 

Title: Achever Clausewit

 

 

Publisher: Carnets Nord, Paris 2007, pp. 365 

 

 

Achever Clausewitz (Ending Clausewitz) is a book of great worth even though it takes the form of a conversation. It has an extraordinary wealth of ideas and analyses and in it is to be found an entire philosophy, which is elaborated and deepened for the occasion – a special investigation of Clausewitz’s On War. Girard offers a new interpretation of the thought of Clausewitz in which he formulates his own philosophy on war which is deeply based upon his own philosophy tout court.

 

 

According to the most widespread interpretations, for example that of Raymon Aron, Clausewitz begins with the Duel in which is to be read the pure essence of war, he extracts from it the logic of reciprocal action and escalation, and then reintegrates the Duel into its context – to social totality with its three polarities (the political dimension, the military dimension and the people) and the totality of the faculty of the soul (pure intellect, thumos and the passions) which correspond respectively to the three parts of the City, as in Plato’s Republic. The ‘extremist’ logic of the pure Duel and of absolute war thus give way, in concrete terms, to the Duel supplemented with the popular, military and political dimension and the ‘relative’ moderation of real war. Hence the famous ‘formula’ of Clausewitz to the effect that war is politics continued by other means.

 

 

Girard argues that these interpretations fail to see ‘the central insight that this text seeks to hide’ (p. 14). Clausewitz, the author asserts, always drew back before the greatness of his own insight. The commentators were ‘braked by their own rationalism’ (p. 15). Politics should also be located in the logic of the Duel and thus does not explain the descent of absolute war into real war. Despite wars of religion, the real moderating factor of warlike violence is to be found in religion. The structure of the Duel is the profound structure of archaic human relationships. What allows a blocking, from the outset, of progression to extremes was (archaic) religion, its sacrificial and violent logic; the war of everyone against everybody was then channelled into a minimal hostility of everyone against one. But Christ broke this ‘sacrificial’ and ‘mythological’ logic and from that moment on it was Christian mysticism that blocked the race to extremes because ‘fratricide imitation became the imitation of Christ’ (p. 198). Mimetic rivals can destroy mortal imitation only by replacing it with a vivifying imitation and the only person who can be imitated without mortal danger is specifically Christ who effected this moral and religious revolution through his sacrifice – this eliminated (archaic) sacrifices. But if the archaic religious fact and Christian mysticism are both removed, the race to the extremes can no longer be stopped in any way. Only a religious interpretation of On War grasps the essential.

 

 

Modern irreligion or anti-religion (secularism), far from pacifying the human by eliminating fanaticism, allows the spread of extreme violence of mimetism which has by now been freed from the archaic religious block worked by the moral and religious revolution carried out by Christ. Thus the race to the extremes necessarily goes towards the absolute, that is to say towards the apocalypse, which becomes a rational concept. Technology, too, is in a state of extreme stress because of the mimetic race towards armaments and economic weapons – hence the ecological catastrophe. Thus we have entered apocalyptic times and these were opened up by Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Chernobyl.

 

The wish of Hobbes to halt the struggle of everyone against everyone begins, therefore, with a rediscovery of religion (the religion of Christ) in its irreplaceable pacifying role. A historical cycle, that of secularisation with a view to political pacification, here seems to be closed definitively.

 

 

Girard’s thesis is disturbing because it calls into question the option of secularity of our States, at least in its standard version as the child of Enlightenment thinkers. Girard shows that one can no longer – without running the risk of directing politics to pure violence – treat the religious fact as inessential, aberrant, private or provisional. This is a question of survival. 

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