Spinoza and Mimetic Desire
When I first proposed to link the psychological theories of Spinoza and René Girard, I met with some resistance among the scholarly community.
Spinoza, I was told, holds a theory of individual desire: what we desire is determined entirely by our inner nature and character, not by the influence of others. This is what Girard refers to disparagingly as the “Romantic lie” in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel:
The romantic vaniteux always wants to convince himself that his desire is written into the nature of things, or, which amounts to the same thing, that it is the emanation of a serene subjectivity, the creation ex nihilo of a quasi divine ego. Desire . . . is rooted in the subject; it is certainly not rooted the Other.
Against this, Girard advances a completely opposing view: almost all human desire is mimetic. What we desire, we desire because we imagine that somebody else desires it. This, for Girard, is the fundamental truth of human psychology, which the great novelists, playwrights, and poets recognised and to which the philosophers and social scientists were blind.
Thus Spinoza and Girard, I have been told, are as different as night and day when it comes to explaining desire.
The best evidence that Spinoza held the ‘Romantic’ theory of desire comes from Propositions 6–9 of Part 3 of the Ethics. Proposition 6 tells us that it is something like a law of nature that “each thing, insofar as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.” The Scholium to proposition 9 tells us that, in the human case, this striving is called appetite and that appetite plus consciousness of it is desire. It also tells us that appetite “is nothing but the very essence of man, from whose nature there necessarily follow those things that promote his preservation”.
Spinoza thus appears to treat desire as arising from a fundamental tendency — common to humans and all other things — for self-preservation. It appears to be a metaphysical version of Hobbes’s mechanical theory of human action, in which all the “voluntary motions” we observe in humans are the mechanical result of the “vital motions”, whose sole purpose is to preserve the living organism.
As a psychological theory this doesn’t sparkle with plausibility. Is a subject’s desire for malt whiskey and cigarettes really to be explained purely in terms of her striving to persevere in being? At any rate it seems worlds away from Girard’s theory of mimetic desire; it seems to suggest that desire emanates from the individual nature of each human subject rather than being acquired from outside influences.
There is, however, a crucial passage in Violence and the Sacred, in which Girard explains why it is that human desire should be mimetic:
Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, the object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being.
The subject’s desire for ‘being’ cannot itself be mimetic, otherwise Girard’s explanation would be circular: the desire for being is what explains mimesis; it can’t also be explained by it. Thus Girard does not, as commonly supposed, believe that all desire is mimetic.
Girard, in his way, thus also endorses the theory that humans strive after being. We might fixate on another apparent difference: Girard speaks of the subject’s striving to acquire being, whereas Spinoza speaks of a striving to persevere in being.
But Spinoza is clearly using “persevere” in a strange way. If his “conatus ad perseverare in suo esse” were merely an inertial principle: a striving to remain as one is, it would not serve at all as the basis for a psychological theory. It could only explain one activity: that of lying perfectly still.
When a person seeks to escape from danger, we call this “self-preservation”, but it isn’t a mere tendency to remain in the state one is in. It is a tendency to move or return to some state that the subject has privileged in preference to others — the “suo” in “suo esse” is very important. A middle-aged man might start exercising out of “the instinct for self-preservation”. He is not seeking to remain the same; he is seeking to become something that he wasn’t before (healthy).
What we seek to be is not what we already are; it is some idealised version of ourselves. To describe this as a striving to “persevere in being” sounds misleading and even paradoxical, akin to Nietzsche’s famous injunction to “become what you are”.
It is less confusing to describe it, as Girard does, as a desire for being — not for mere existence of course: philosophers from Aristotle onwards have shown the concept of “mere existence” to be an empty one ( this is the thesis of Anscombe and Geach great book, Three Philosophers). Rather, it is a striving for existence under a particular description, the description matching some conscious ideal of what it is we think that we ideally are.
From where do we acquire this conscious ideal? It is hard to deny that at least in many cases we acquire it from others, whom we admire and take as our models. Much of Girard’s work is dedicated to explaining this process. But so, I would argue, is much of Spinoza’s. He calls it “emulation” — “the desire for a thing which is generated in us from the fact that we imagine others like us to have the same desire” (Ethics, Part 3, Proposition 27, Scholium).
Some Spinoza scholars have ignored emulation or dismissed it as an interesting appendage to Spinoza’s theory of desire, far from the core. I believe that the similarity between Spinoza’s theory and Girard’s is too great to warrant that dismissal.