Throwing the first stone: “mimetic contagion” in action

I’m currently reading René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, in which Girard summarises the two key concepts in his thought (see also this previous post):

  • mimetic desire: the idea that human desire is not innate, but learnt from our neighbour, whom we observe and imitate. This in turn leads to mimetic rivalry, because if I am imitating my neighbour’s desires, then this means we end up desiring the same thing. Girard argues that mimetic rivalry can escalate through a process of “mimetic contagion” until a society is almost torn apart by rivalry, leading to…
  • the single-victim mechanism: a society torn by mimetic rivalry is brought back into unanimity by identifying a single, arbitrary individual against whom the group unites in an act of violent expulsion, restoring order and calm for the group as a whole.

To illustrate these processes, Girard describes “the horrible miracle of Apollonius of Tyana” as recounted by Philostratus (see first account here). Philostratus describes 2nd century Ephesus as suffering from an epidemic, and the Ephesians turn to the celebrated pagan sage Apollonius for help. Apollonius asserts that an old blind beggar is to blame for the epidemic, and calls on the crowd to stone him. The crowd is reluctant to engage in an act of such shocking brutality, but Apollonius eventually persuades them:

And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognised that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.

Afterwards, the beggar’s bloody remains are found to be those of a dog the size of a lion. The epidemic immediately ceases, and the grateful Ephesians erect a statue to Heracles over the spot.

As Girard observes, the mythical details put only the thinnest veneer over a story whose underlying (and entirely non-miraculous) reality is only too obvious to us: the transformation of a civilised crowd into a violent mob, who release their rage against an outsider and then convince themselves afterwards that he must have deserved it (“he was a demon!”).

Girard contrasts this story with the account in John’s gospel of the woman taken in adultery. Here we have the reverse situation: an angry crowd who have to be talked out of stoning the woman, rather than a peaceful crowd talked into stoning the beggar. What unites the two stories is “the problem of the first stone“, a problem made explicit in Jesus’ famous statement in John 8:7:

“Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast at her the first stone.”

By placing the words “the first stone” at the end of his statement, Jesus is “prolonging its echo as long as possible, one might say, in the memory of his hearers”. And while “casting the first stone” has become a proverb, there is nothing proverbial in Jesus’ use of it – nor in Apollonius’ parallel (though implicit) understanding of the importance of the “first stone”, as he tries to cajole the Ephesians into stoning the beggar:

And finally the guru succeeds. He obtains what he desires: the first stone. Once it is thrown, Apollonius can take a nap or whatever, for now violence and deceit are bound to triumph.

As Girard continues:

Not purely rhetorical, the first stone is decisive because it is the most difficult to throw. Why is it the most difficult to throw? Because it is the only one without a model.

In contrast, when Jesus responds to the crowd, “the first stone is the last obstacle that prevents the stoning”:

In calling attention to it, in mentioning it expressly, Jesus does all he can to reinforce this obstacle and magnify it. The more those thinking about throwing the first stone perceive the responsibility they would assume in throwing it, the greater the chance that they will let their hands fall and drop the stone.

So in each account we see “mimetic contagion” in action. In Ephesus, once the first stone is thrown:

the second comes fairly fast, thanks to the example of the first; the third comes more quickly still because it has two models rather than one, and so on. As the models multiply, the rhythm of the stoning accelerates.

In contrast, Jesus’ saving the adulterous woman “means that he prevents the violent contagion from getting started”:

Another contagion in the reverse direction is set off, however, a contagion of nonviolence. From the moment the first individual gives up stoning the adulterous woman, he becomes a model who is imitated more and more until finally all the group, guided by Jesus, abandons its plan to stone the woman.

Jesus’ saying about “the first stone” not only saves this woman, but “permits him to point to the true principle not only of ancient stonings but of all crowd phenomena, ancient and modern”: the dynamic of “contagious imitation”, of a mimetic snowballing of violence (or nonviolence).

Or as we call it today: “Trending Topics”…

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One Response to Throwing the first stone: “mimetic contagion” in action

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Christus Victor: the biter bit

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