Vengeance, competition, and Christianity

Vengeance, competition, and Christianity October 7, 2015

Some time ago, I stumbled upon a discussion of Christian anthropologist Rene Girard and Pay Pal founder Peter Thiel.  It had to do with vengeance, competition, new technology start ups, and why both Girard and Thiel came to embrace Christianity.From Michael Toth,  “Competition Is for Losers” | Online Library of Law & Liberty:

Girard, the French-born literary critic and anthropologist, is the author of several books on “mimetic theory,” the notion that our deepest desires and passions are neither biologically determined nor the product of human nurturing. They are instead borrowed from others. Human beings are great imitators, Girard argues. We want what others want—be it admission at top-ranked schools, real estate in the best neighborhoods, or flowery Lilly Pulitzer swag.

The consequences of our mimetic desires are positive and negative, Girard writes. On the positive side, they are responsible for the spirit of competition that spurs economic and scientific growth. On the negative side, Girard sees violence as the product of mimetic rivalries, the tendency to imitate one’s transgressor by retaliating with hostility. Mimetic conflicts have no natural stopping point.

What Girard is talking about, in short, is vengeance. In The One by Whom Scandal Comes, a neat summary of his work published in 2014, he writes that vengeance “succeeds in spanning generations and encompassing the world.” It “transcends time and space. One should not be surprised that in the ancient world vengeance was taken to be sacred.”

Girard’s discovery of the origins of human violence led him to embrace Christianity. “Satan casts out Satan,” he notes, quoting Jesus. God takes a different approach. Rather than responding to violence in kind, Jesus commands that violent persons must be disobeyed. We must “turn the other cheek.”

According to Girard’s exegesis of this famous section of the Sermon on the Mount, the point Jesus was trying to make is that the world actively invites violence. That is why the examples that Jesus uses are so drastic. Jesus refers to someone who slaps a person without provocation and who sues a person for his tunic, which at the time was among the few articles of clothing that people owned. Conduct of that sort can only be motivated by something more than what meets the eye. What the aggressor really wants is to draw us into an endless cycle of violence. “Only the conduct enjoined by Jesus” offers an exit strategy, maintains Girard.

René Girard, now 91, may have remained an obscure figure were it not for a billionaire former student, Peter Thiel. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook, deeply imbibed Girard’s basic insight that competition is imitative. In Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future (about which John O. McGinnis and Peter Lawler have posted previously), Thiel says most business rivalries resemble Romeo and Juliet. “The two houses are alike, yet they hate each other.”

Thiel’s business philosophy is a thorough working out of Girard’s anthropology. Thiel argues, for example, that competition is most often a losing proposition for the competitors. Among mimetic rivals in business, it drives down prices and eats away profitability. And among mimetic rivals within the same company, it breeds needless jockeying for the top job.

“Competition,” Thiel wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “is for losers.”

Wanting to nip self-destructive rivalries in the bud, Thiel counsels start-ups not to mimic their competition. He reportedly advised LinkedIn to redesign its website early on to look less like Facebook. While running PayPal, Thiel gave each of his employees a singular task to avoid head-to-head conflicts. Companies are better formed, in Thiel’s view, by friends who enjoy each other’s company and share a unique idea, than by type-A loners who just want to improve upon what everyone else is already doing.

Outside of business, Thiel is a Girardian. He is currently giving talented students $100,000 each to forgo college for two years. The rationale behind the gift is that many undergraduates go off to college out of a borrowed desire to attend; they would, he thinks, be better off considering alternatives.

Also like his former teacher, Thiel is Christian, as he recently discussed in this engaging conversation with Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “God does not try to be our rival,” Thiel says elsewhere. In light of his distinctly negative take on rivalry, this statement amounts to a strong affirmation of the entrepreneur’s belief in God’s benevolence.


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