One point I’d forgotten is Girard’s use of the commandment(s) against covetousness as a cornerstone for his argument that human desire is mimetic: that is, that our desires come not from our autonomous, independent wills (as we like to tell ourselves), but through imitating the desires of our neighbours. As James Alison puts it, summarising Girard’s thesis: “We desire according to the desire of the other.”
In his opening chapter, “Scandal Must Come”, Girard observes that the tenth commandment (or, in Roman Catholic and Lutheran numberings, the ninth and tenth commandments) tackles the root cause of the forms of inter-human violence forbidden in the preceding four commandments (murder, adultery, theft, false witness): covetousness. However (Girard argues), it is wrong to see the word “covet” as meaning only a perverse or wrongly directed desire: in the original Hebrew, the word used is simply “desire”. It is desire as such that the commandment against covetousness has in view.
The commandment reads:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17)
Girard observes that it is almost as if the lawgiver had begun by trying to make a list of all the things that people fight over. However, “he quickly perceives that the objects are too numerous: he cannot enumerate all of them”. It is not any particular objects that we desire, but “anything that belongs to your neighbour”. Thus:
If the objects we desire always belong to our neighbour, it is clearly the neighbour who renders them desirable.
As a result:
What the tenth commandment sketches, without defining it explicitly, is a “Copernican revolution” in our understanding of desire.
Far from desire being, as we tend to assume, either objective or subjective – that is, either inherent to the desirable object itself, or arising subjectively within us – in reality what makes the object desirable is the value it has in the eyes of our neighbour. Thus:
To maintain peace between human beings, it is necessary to define the prohibition in terms of this crucial observation: our neighbour is the model of our desires. It is this that I call mimetic desire.
I agree with Girard that this is an observation of fundamental importance to our understanding of how human beings work – truly a “Copernican revolution” (“révolution copernicienne”), in which the autonomous individual is removed from the centre and replaced by the neighbour. And this has untold consequences for many social and political questions, where the answers usually given today are predicated on the autonomous and self-generated nature of human desires and choices.