A man leans over a white picket fence, looking at the grass on the other side
Luke Burgis

A walkthrough of the (frankly compelling) philosophy of René Girard, specifically that of mimetic desire. A truly interesting way of looking at the world, and powerful at explaining a number of modern phenomena.

"Girard discovered that most of what we desire is mimetic or imitative, not intrinsic. Humans learn through imitation to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules. Imitation plays a far more pervasive role in our society than anyone had ever openly acknowledged"

Part 1: the power of mimetic desire

Our desires are derivative. We are part of a wider ecology of desire. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is too neat; above our basic needs, it's more like a complex and messy world of desires.

We build mental models of how we think about the world. The ones we overlook, though, are usually our models of desire: the people through whom we understand what we want. These models of desire, however, are so hard to see that few ever ask what they are, or seek them out.

Hidden models

"Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things." (Page 21)

Where do models get their desires from? Well...unfortunately, it's models all the way down. As for our own personal models, they dictate the size and shape of our desires.

Children, even infants, possess the ability to mimic the movements of others shortly after being born. They are also able to understand what they want and, if able, help them to realise this.

As we grow, rather than learning what others want simply to help them get it, we learn what others want so that we can compete against them for it.

We model our desires when buying stocks, choosing to buy Pepsi instead of Coke, cars, locations for houses, and it forms the basis of advertising and branding.

"The motivational speaker Simon Sinek advises organizations and people to "start with why" (the title of one of his books), finding and communicating one's purpose before anything else. But that is usually a post hoc rationalization of whatever it is we already wanted. Desire is the better place to start." (Page 26)

>>> Tactic 1: name your models. That is, those who influence your negative and positive buying decisions, career choices, fashion, romance, fitness, and so on. With a clear sense of the model known, you have a better chance of understanding what's going on.


Distortions are caused by two categories of model:

  • Distant models: called "external mediators of desire" by Girard, these are celebrities, titans of industry, who are separated from us by time, space, and status. Because there is no threat of conflict with these models, they are freely and openly imitated. "External mediators of desire ... influence desire from outside of a person's immediate world. From the perspective of their imitators, these models possess a special quality of being." (Page 48)
  • Proximate models: called "internal mediators of desire" by Girard, these are our peers, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. Our mimetic desires here have the ability to make and break relationships. We may get into running at the same time and spend more time together, but mimetic rivalry can upend things entirely. "There are no barriers preventing people from competing directly with one another for the same things. Between social media, globalization, and the toppling of old institutions, most of us are living nearly our entire lives in [proximity to these models]." (Page 51)

Our proximate models are harder to identify, and our relationships with them are more likely to be negative than the ones with distant models. They create distortions in three key ways:

  1. Metaphysical: we don't want the thing that someone else has, we want to exist in the world that the ownership of that thing symbolises to us. This desire is therefore not literal, but metaphysical. "If someone falls under the influence of a model who mediates the desire for a handbag, it's not the handbag they are after. It's the imagined newness of being they think it will bring." (Page 53)
  2. Cult of experts: we no longer have any culturally agreed-upon models anymore. There are no fixed points of reference: no saints, no priests, no politicians, no academics that we all agree on anymore. Life grows more complex, too, so we turn to experts in every conceivable field, no matter how niche, to tell us what to do. "There's a model for everyone—someone ready to impart the specific knowledge needed to be happy and make people feel that they have escaped the fate of the masses. But any model who bills themself as this kind of expert is a charlatan" (Page 57)
  3. Reflexivity: this is when the perception of a thing changes how we interact with a thing. Done en masse or individually, this changes the reality of the thing. Think meme stocks, crypto, and NFTs. It is a self-fulfilling circularity. "People worry about what other people will think before they say something-which affects what they say. In other words, our perception of reality changes reality by altering the way we might otherwise act. This leads to a self-fulfilling circularity." (Page 59)

>>> Tactic 2: get wisdom from non-mimetic sources. If someone calls themselves an expert, or if a crowd calls them an expert, be sceptical. A thing is true or not true regardless of the number of people that believe it or don't.

>>> Tactic 3: set boundaries. If you find yourself in a damaging mimetic rivalry with someone, and you don't want to be in it anymore, you need to cut yourself off from them and any information about them.

Cycles of mimetic desire

There are two cycles of mimetic desire:

  1. Positive: this is a creative cycle, which leads to good things
  2. Negative: this is a destructive cycle, which leads to bad things
"Mimetic conflict is contagious. It can lead to a social environment in which everyone is reacting mimetically to everyone else. This dynamic keeps people locked in cycles of endless conflict, bound to one another through mimesis, unable to go anywhere." (Page 67)

>>>Tactic 4: imitate to innovate. trying to be 100% innovative is innovation for the sake of it. Take what works first, as a first step, then innovate from there.

>>> Tactic 5: start positive cycles of desire. What is a core desire of yours? Map out a system of desire that allows you to make that core desire a reality.

>>> Tactic 6: have a clear hierarchy of values. This will act as an antidote against mimetic conformity. Knowing what is most important makes decisions easier to make: it's not based on the ebb and flow of the strength of what you mimetically desire, and take from models.

"A hierarchy of values is especially critical when choices have to be made between good things. If values are all equally important, or if there isn't a clear understanding of how they relate to one another, mimesis becomes the primary driver of decision-making." (Page 95)


"René Girard saw that for thousands of years humans have had a specific way of protecting themselves in a mimetic crisis: they converge, mimetically, on one person or group, whom they expel or eliminate. This has the effect of uniting them while providing an outlet for their violence. They protect themselves from what they want-—from their mimetic desires, which have brought them into conflict with one another—by directing their desire to vanquish their rivals to a single fixed point: someone who has become a proxy for all of their enemies. Someone who is unable to fight back. A scapegoat." (Page 100)

Girard saw mimetic desire as the cause of conflict and violence. We, as humans, mean to impose our will on our fellow man. This will escalate through mimetic rivalry. However, the "scapegoat mechanism" allows a community to discharge its anger onto a single group or individual instead of the whole group simply tearing itself apart.

Scapegoats started with literal goats during Yom Kippur in ancient Israel. One was sacrificed, the other was sent out into the wilderness loaded up with the sins of the community. Similarly, the ancient Greeks would torture a person, then push them off a cliff to their death.

All ancient civilisations had something like this, it turns out.

>>> Tactic 7: arrive at judgments in anti-mimetic ways. Secret votes are preferable in decision-making. They upset the ability for mimetic behaviour to form.

The significance of the gospels

The story of the crucifixion is radically different because Jesus, set up as scapegoat, should have caused a unanimous reaction that settled the matter. Instead, it causes widespread and total division.

"In the crucifixion of Jesus, the reader is meant to identify with the crowd, but also to see the folly of the crowd and to move beyond it—to finally, for the first time, grasp the truth about human violence." (Page 126)

We also see mimetics at work in the story of Christ and the woman taken in adultery. His actions upset an otherwise accelerating cycle of mimetic rage:

"The thrower of the first stone, often acting in a violent rage, gives the crowd a dangerous model to follow. As we saw earlier in the story of Apollonius and the Ephesians, once the first stone is thrown, the second stone becomes easier to throw. It is always easier to desire something-even, and maybe even especially, violence when it has been desired by someone else first." (Page 117)

Part 2: the transformation of desire

Become anti-mimetic

"The obsession with goal setting is misguided, even counterproductive. Setting goals isn't bad. But when the focus is on how to set goals rather than how to choose them in the first place, goals can easily turn into instruments of self-flagellation." (Page 136)

Where do we even get our goals from in the first place? These come primarily from mimetic systems, e.g.:

  • School (grades, exam results, etc.)
  • University (2:1, 1st Class, etc.)
  • Career (graduate scheme, promotion, titles, etc.)

Social media also thrives on mimesis. Twitter encourages and measures imitation through retweets, views, likes, and bookmarks.

>>> Tactic 8: map out the systems of desire in your world. Every industry, school, and family, has systems of desire. Ask: what are the boundaries of my current world of wanting and how is this created by the systems within it?

>>> Tactic 9: put desire to the test. Extrapolate forward to your deathbed. Which option do you feel more consoled by? Choose that.

Disruptive empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and act toward someone without wanting to become like them, or becoming like them at all.

Empathy therefore has the ability to disrupt a mimetic cycle. Sympathy, however, can be hijacked by mimesis.

Thick and thin desires

Thin desires: retire, drive a sports car, buy the latest fashion

Thick desires: spend more time with family, live a life with purpose

Burgis on what he calls "fulfillment stories":

"The storytelling process that I use involves sharing stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. Today it's one of the first questions that I ask in any job interview because it helps cut through the thin stuff and goes straight to the essence of the person. "Tell me about a time in your life when you did something well and it brought you a sense of fulfillment," I ask. I have seen this simple question transform interactions between individuals and entire communities. When stories are shared between two people who know how to listen well, the experience transports both the storyteller and the listener to a time when desire leads to extraordinary fulfillment. That's why sharing those stories is a joyful experience." (Page 163)

A fulfillment story has three parts:

  1. Must be an action you actively took
  2. Must be something you believe you did well (where you say, for example, "I nailed that")
  3. Gave you a deep sense of fulfillment that lasted long afterward

These stories "reveal something critical about who we are."

>>> Tactic 10: share fulfillment stories. Take the structure above and ask it of others. Ask for their fulfillment stories, and share your own. Doing this, you'll discover what truly motivates you, and others.

Transcendent leadership

Transcendent leadership requires models of desire that sit outside of the current system of the here and now and draw us toward something. This means it isn't self-referential, but moves towards something beyond.

Skill 1: shift gravity

"Shifting gravity" means the ability to focus away from oneself as the leader, and toward a good that goes beyond their relationship. Beyond the leader so that it has nothing to do with them.

Skill 2: speed of truth

"The health of an organization is directly proportional to the speed at which truth travels within it." Real truth is anti-mimetic by its very nature—it doesn't change depending on how mimetically popular or unpopular it is." (Page 177)

Can you confront the truth and can it then make its way through your company without being held up and bent around the will of different individuals? Without real truth moving quickly, a company cannot change fast enough or adapt in the way it needs to survive.

"If truth is not confronted courageously, communicated effectively, and acted upon quickly, a company will never be able to adhere to reality and respond appropriately to it." (Page 177)

Skill 3: Discernment

  1. Pay attention to your heart's feeling when deciding between options
  2. Which desire is more generous and loving?
  3. How will you feel about it when you're on your deathbed?
  4. Where does your desire come from?

Skill 4: Sit quietly in a room

The space needed to actually confront and understand your desires appears when you are unable to do anything but sit and think in silence.

"Silence is where we learn to be at peace with ourselves, where we learn the truth about who we are and what we want. If you're not sure what you want, there's no faster way to find out than to enter into complete silence for an extended period of time; not hours, but days." (Page 181)

Skill 5: Filter feedback

More data does not necessarily mean better decisions. Not all feedback and information is made equal. It also doesn't show you the opportunity or truth of any given thing.

>>> Tactic 11: increase the speed of truth. How quickly does the truth move through your organisation? What are meetings like? How do people talk? How fast does something move from outside and through the organisation, and how quickly does something move within it?

>>> Tactic 12: go on a silent retreat. 3 days minimum, ideally 5. 7 would be great. Also consider a guided retreat; there, at least, the opportunity cost of pulling out is much higher.

The mimetic future

"We lack a transcendent reference point outside the system. Meanwhile, everyone is more or less imitating everyone else. Our culture is stuck because we're fighting over space in a pool, next to the ocean. Yet nobody dares to talk openly about it, this mimesis. It's the hidden force driving our cultural development, and yet it's taboo to speak about, like envy." (Page 192)

Modern liberal society is highly individualistic with a high degree of equality. And yet, there are noticeable differences between people. Society has become decadent and stagnant because we lack hope: in the future, in doing good things that are difficult yet possible. (Burgis' more Catholic conservatism pokes through here, without any evidence (if even available) for the "decadent and stagnant" comment.)

>>> Tactic 13: look for the coexistence of opposites. This is a signal of transcendence because they don't map onto how we currently view the world. They are a sign, usually pointing in the right direction.

Transforming desire

"The transformation of desire happens when we become less concerned about the fulfillment of our own desires and more concerned about the fulfillment of others. We find, paradoxically, that it is the very pathway to fulfilling our own." (Page 214)

Calculating thought vs. meditative thought. Calculating thought is seeking, plotting, choosing tactics, and figuring out purely how to go from point A to point B. This is primarily an engineering mindset, and the predominant mode of thought today.

Meditative thought is divergent rather than convergent. It's patient, slow, and nonproductive. Where the calculating brain attempts to fit things into existing models, the meditative brain seeks to create new models entirely.

>>> Tactic 14: practice meditative thought. Make a coffee and look at a tree for an hour. Ideally once a day. That's it.

The third innovation

Our 1st model was scapegoating. Our 2nd was the market economy. What will out third be? We need something new, once again, to save us from ourselves. But it doesn't exist yet, so all we can do is focus on ourselves.

>>> Tactic 15: live as if you have a responsibility for what others want. We can live either to make others want more, want less, or want things differently. We have a responsibility to model positive desires, and to defuse negative mimetic desires.

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