Violent Rivalries

The Hidden Origin of Institutions and Cultures

In the introductory edition of this newsletter, I promised that subscribers would get unpublished material from my upcoming book, Wanting (out June 1st), plus a deeper dive into the material that wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for a general-interest reader.

So today I’m sharing a draft Preface to Wanting that was ultimately cut from the final edition. My hope was that by laying out the founding myth of Rome (a city where I lived for three years), we could begin to see how the fight for political power is playing out in the modern world. The story includes nearly every step in the mimetic process.

You may be familiar with it. But here it is, in my own words.

Rhea Silvia got pregnant—this, after she’d been forced to be a Vestal Virgin for thirty years by her murderous uncle. Some say it was by rape. Some say by tryst. If you asked Rhea, she’d tell you that the god Mars had visited her in a secret garden.

When Rhea gave birth to twin boys, her uncle—fearful that the boys might one day become rivals to his throne—ripped them from her arms, threw her into a cell, and ordered a servant to abandon them on the banks of the Tiber River to die.

There on the banks of the muddy Tiber, where the babies laid crying and grasping for their mother’s arms, there was a she-wolf who had recently lost her cubs. She found the babies and suckled them in a cave, protecting them from the cruel world outside.

One day, the twins were discovered and adopted by a shepherd, who brought them home to his wife. Together, they raised the boys in the area near where they had first been abandoned. The twins grew up tending their flocks completely unaware of their real identities.

They became strong young men and natural leaders. Once they became involved in the local community, they learned their true identities.

Romulus and Remus gathered an army of followers around them, took vengeance on their uncle, and restored the rightful king.

Their lives had been miraculous. They’d been rescued from the jaws of death, nurtured by a she-wolf who provided for their basic needs, exacted revenge on their enemies, and achieved the first fruits of their godly glory. What could possibly come next?

They decided to build a city. They didn’t arrive at this decision independently, each brother left to his own vision of the future. No, their desires had always been intertwined and reinforced by the other. If one brother wanted something, the other one wanted it to. 

As they stood atop one of the seven hills of Rome, Romulus expressed his wish to build the new city right there on the very place they were standing—on the Palatine Hill. Remus wasn’t pleased. He was adamant that the city should be built on the higher and more fortified Aventine Hill.

For the time in their young lives, these brothers—alike in every way—had to differentiate themselves in some way.

To solve their problem, they turned to the ancient art of auguring, or divining messages from the gods by watching birds in flight. First, Remus saw six vultures in patterned flight. Then, Romulus saw twelve. Remus claimed victory because he saw his birds first. Romulus claimed victory because he saw more.

The auguring only served to escalate the crisis. It quickly spread to the entire community. The two sides—Romulus and his followers, and Remus and his—began to resemble one another almost as much as the twins. Their differences had dissolved almost completely. The only difference between the warring sides, like the twins, was their choices of hills.

With no objective criteria to guide them, and with the gods seemingly remaining silent, they increased the loudness of their voices until their voices no longer mattered.

A fight broke out.

When the crowd dispersed, Remus was dead.

Of course, the story I just told you was a lie.

There is violence in the history of all institutions and all cultures, yet the stories we tell about violence almost always cover up and mask the truth about what really happened—and the truth about who we are.

We can’t answer the most pressing questions about humanity without unmasking that truth.

The answers to these questions are what the late French thinker René Girard called the Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

·      Is religion violent?

·      Is God violent?

·      Why does no accomplishment or acquired object ever seem to fulfill us?

·      Why do humans always fight?

·      Why does violence so easily escalate?

·      What are the foundations of culture, institutions, religion, language, and human relationships?

·      How do humans primarily differ from animals?

·      Why do humans seem to be caught in cycles of ending violence?

·      What role does truth have to play in the world, and why is it so hard to grasp?

·      Why do some people or groups seem to pay the price for other people’s sins? Why do we have scapegoats? And what is the process by which this happens?

·      How do people come to desire some things and not others?

·      What is envy? Why does it matter, and what does it say about us?

·      Where did modern individualism come from, and what dangers does it pose?

·      Why are we threatened by those who seem very similar to us?

·      What is the Apocalypse?

·      What’s the purpose behind the strange Tenth Commandment, which prohibits people from coveting (desiring is the best translation from the Hebrew) their neighbor’s goods?

If you’re interested in how mimetic theory sheds light on these things, please continue reading. Wanting will be out June 1, 2021—less than 4 weeks away. You can pre-order now, and I would be very grateful if you do so.

Premium subscribers to this Substack will get a deeper dive into all of these questions and more as we continue to build a community (both here and in the group Discord channel, which I expect to ramp up with more activity this summer.)

Thank you, as always, for reading.