Conformism and Crowd Violence: When the Majority is Really a Mob

In the final weeks of the fall semester 2013 I asked the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” course to read René Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning (2001), which with The Scapegoat (1981) is one of the best portals to the man’s thinking.  I lectured a good deal on Girard’s text and in order to illustrate its theses, I brought in items of extracurricular material to examine in class.  One item, selected on an impulse, was Seneca’s Epistle VII.  I remembered reading it long ago, possibly in my first try at an undergraduate degree, but concerning it I had only a general recollection, namely that in it Seneca took as his topic the moral toxicity of crowds.  The vague memory proved accurate, as far as it went, but it failed to prepare me for the wealth of insight and detail in Seneca’s remarkable discussion.  Before I address Seneca’s observations, however, I would like to devote some words of commentary to Girard’s work in general and as well to I See Satan Fall specifically, a book that I recommend to anyone who feels curious about its author, who having been born in Avignon in 1923, celebrates his ninetieth birthday this year.


Girard devotes the first chapter of I See Satan Fall to a reading of the Tenth Commandment of the Decalogue.  Ordinarily, one tends not to think of a list of prohibitions as a textual object of literary criticism, but Girard has never been the ordinary sort of literary critic.  In his first book, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (in English [1962] as Deceit Desire & the Novel, but better translated as Romantic Mendacity and Novelistic Truth), where he made the discovery of what he calls mediated desire, he distinguished between narratives of aesthetic narcissism that extol the supposed originality of the author or the protagonist and narratives of ascetic self-criticism that seek the truth about human nature whether it flatters anyone or not.  The narratives of ascetic self-criticism arrive at more or less the same conclusion: Modern people have been engaged in auto-sycophancy since the late Eighteenth Century, claiming title to, and praising themselves for, absolute uniqueness of individuality, propriety over absolutely unique desires, and absolute sovereignty in the matter of realizing those desires – but none of these claims withstands inspection.

“In the popular zombie-movie tradition … the zombie-bite swiftly transforms the prey into a predator; in the recent World War Z, it takes only ten seconds for the prey to turn zombie – or as one might say, ‘go over to the majority.’ ”

On the contrary, as Girard observed in Mensonge romantique, these claims dissimulate the actual purpose of disguising what Christianity, which the narratives of aesthetic narcissism invariably revile, calls sin.  The individual’s desires are rarely original.  The individual has usually simply borrowed or stolen this or that desire from another person who in turn has borrowed or stolen it from someone else.  The proposition does not lead into iteration ad infinitum because desires in any social setting are few and stereotyped and they circulate.  Yet in their very fewness they provoke convergent desire, the collision of desiring egos, and out of those collisions social crises great and small.  That such phenomena had religious implications, involving the categories of the sacred, Girard argued positively in Violence and the Sacred (1966); and that Christianity, the culmination of Hebrew morality, consisted partly in the rejection of the sacred – hence also of sacrifice – he argued in The Scapegoat (1981).  Between 1962 and the present, Girard has written something like twenty books.  I See Satan Fall functions rather like a refined and succinct recapitulation of the authorship at the fin-de-siècle.

Hence the first chapter on the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor.  You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or his ass, nor anything that belongs to him.”  In commenting, Girard deals immediately with a point of language that prevents modern readers from appreciating the text in its fullness, the verb to covet and the related noun covetousness.  Girard writes: “The verb ‘covet’ suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for the hardened sinners.  But the Hebrew term translated as ‘covet’ means just simply ‘desire.”  The Tenth Commandment differs from the other nine in two important ways.  The other nine items of the Decalogue are ordinary imperatives, short and simple.  The Tenth Commandment approaches discourse.  It forbids, not “a marginal desire reserved for a minority,” but rather “desire as such.”  The Tenth Commandment also singles out the neighbor as the provocateur of desire, but at the same time it exonerates the neighbor, placing all blame on the desiring subject.  Why?

Girard reasons as follows: “If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations.  The rivalry, if not thwarted, would permanently endanger the harmony and even the survival of all human communities.”

Since desire is, as Girard writes, mimetic, it is also a source of undifferentiation.  When some model has designated some object as conspicuously desirable, crowds begins to form in which everyone one grasps after the same fascinating allurement.  Each constituent person, once he joins the crowd, becomes less individuated than he previously was; he is concomitantly less able to exercise individual judgment against the pressure of the crowd.   One reason then that the Tenth Commandment prohibits desire is that it seeks beyond that to stymie the snowballing process by which crowds generate themselves, for the clash of crowds threatens the community even more seriously than the clash of individuals.  Now the Tenth Commandment invites attention in another way, not so much for how it differs from the other commandments, but for how it stands apart from the universal pre-Biblical response to violence.  The pre-Biblical means for dealing with violent social breakdown was sacrifice or scapegoating.  Thus the Biblical suppression of desire communicates with the Biblical revelation of the scapegoat-victim in his arbitrariness and innocence.

Jesus asks his followers to imitate only Him, and He for his part imitates only the Father; Jesus’ way is that of attenuating mimesis and it entails separation from worldliness.

In the fourth chapter of I See Satan Fall, entitled “The Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana,” Girard attends to a text ignored by modern criticism, the episode in Philostratus’ hagiography of the First Century AD pagan guru where Apollonius delivers the city of Ephesus from a plague.  Summoning the citizens to the theater, a most public place, designed to accommodate a crowd, Apollonius reveals that an old beggar, whom previously the Ephesians had secured by daily charity, is a plague-demon in disguise and he urges that stoning him will banish the pestilence.  It takes Apollonius some egging to get the first party to throw his stone, but swiftly the single missile became a barrage and the victim lies dead under the lapidary heap.  The pestilence withdraws.  The Ephesians set up a statue of Heracles in the theater in honor of their deliverance.  Pointing out that in antique literature plagues and social crises are largely indistinguishable, Girard evaluates the Philostratic narrative about Apollonius as quite candid: The guru, a community organizer before his time, finds Ephesus in a fit of disintegrative strife; he reconsolidates the community by arranging that en masse and unanimously, the whole people should relieve its bile at the expense of the putative demon.

In I See Satan Fall, Girard puts the Philostratic narrative in comparison with its Gospel counterpart from Saint John’s story of the Woman Taken in Adultery.  Where Apollonius foments the stoning, Jesus prevents it, by shaming and disarming the crowd.

Gladiators (from the Zliten mosaic, Libya).
Gladiators (from the Zliten mosaic, Libya).

Seneca, a Stoic, stands apart morally from his contemporary Apollonius, an early variety of Gnostic mystagogue.  Apollonius needed crowds – he was a community organizer.  Seneca, a bit like Jesus, regarded crowds with suspicion.  It was more than instinct.  Seneca had a theory of crowds, and he had at least one embarrassing personal experience on which to draw, to support it.  Seneca’s letters, in the custom of antiquity, are essays in the form of missives addressed to a correspondent.  The addressee, having studied law, has come to Rome to be a lawyer and to find his way into politics.  Seneca advises him and sees to the enlargement of the philosophical side of his education.  In Epistle VII, Seneca takes for his topic moral hygiene, that is, the relation of the upright man to the vulgate – to mobs and crowds.  To associate with mobs and crowds, even to go casually in the streets where they congregate, is to expose oneself to the miasma of their grossness and perversity.

He who sleeps with dogs, as the old saying puts it, wakes up with fleas.

Seneca in addressing Lucilius comes straight to his point: “You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid.  My answer is this – a mass crowd.”  One who entrusts himself to a crowd incurs positive “risk.”  Speaking for himself, Seneca writes, “I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with; something or other becomes unsettled where I had achieved internal peace, [and] one or [another] of the things I had put to flight reappears on the scene.”  The crowd for Seneca is synonymous with the spirit of agitation that undoes the philosopher’s discipline of suppressing his base desires.  It follows from the precept that anyone who by necessity has regular business in the forum will suffer regular contamination and “indisposition,” which can become “prolonged sickness” that makes of the sufferer an “invalid.”

For that reason elsewhere in his letters (LXXXVI) Seneca counsels periodic rustication.  In Epistle VII he writes, “Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful” because “there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it.”

Seneca’s vocabulary anticipates many an observation that Girard makes about the category of the sacred, first that, being collective, the sacred belongs to the mob (that is to the lynch mob) and next that it is contagious.  “From the outset of this study,” Girard remarks in Violence and the Sacred, “I have regarded violence as something eminently communicable.”  Taking antique discourse seriously where the modern mentality sees it merely as mythic, Girard notes that “at times it is impossible to stay immune from violence.”  Again: “The sacred consists of all those forces whose dominance over man increases or seems to increase in proportion to man’s efforts to master them.”  From Seneca’s perspective the size of the crowd correlates with its infectiousness, a large crowd being indicative of an especially virulent infection.  Rubbing elbows with the vulgate, as Seneca writes, leaves one “bedaubed” by its toxicity.  But does Seneca, foreshadowing Girard, associate crowds and violence?  The answer is yes and in investigating it we shall see how Seneca’s discourse differs from Philostratus’ discourse when they both write about theaters and theatrics.

Tying up his preliminaries, with the principle that “nothing is more ruinous to one’s character as sitting away one’s time at a show,” Seneca turns to an autobiographical instance.  Once in a moment of noontime weakness, Seneca entered a circus hoping to catch a brief vaudeville, “some light and witty entertainment,” such as the purveyors of spectacle inserted between the main events, “for the purpose of affording people’s eyes a rest from human blood.”  The sagacious man had badly mistimed his visit.  In fact, he sat down to the sanguine finale compared with which “all the earlier contests were charity [and] what we have now is murder pure and simple.”  Modern people know of gladiation through the movies, which, increasingly gladiatorial themselves, trivialize and sanitize that horrible institution by adding it to a repertory of Technicolor clichés.

A relief showing gladiators being attacked by wild animals.
A relief showing gladiators being attacked by wild animals.

The power of Seneca’s description unhackneys the image.  “The combatants have nothing to protect them; their whole bodies are exposed to the blows; every thrust they launch gets home.”  The situation is at the behest of the crowd, for “a great many spectators prefer this to the ordinary matches and even to the special, popular demand ones.”

If, as Seneca writes, “in the morning men are thrown to the lions and bears,” then it would be “the spectators they are thrown to in the lunch hour.”

Seneca emphasizes the vehemence of the crowd, which must have worried the impresarios that not delivering what the customers demanded might put their own lives in danger.  “The spectators insist that each on killing his man should be thrown against another to be killed in turn; and the eventual victor is reserved by them for some other form of butchery.”  Seneca records the shouts from the audience: “Kill him! Flog him! Burn him!”  The bloodthirstiness of the crowd reinforces itself; it even finds reasons to justify brutality: “But he was a highway robber, he killed a man.”  The Roman arena where Seneca witnessed these enormities (they presumably went on all day every day) is the scene of public executions that resemble one after the other the therapeutic execution of the pestilential demon in the Ephesian theater, around the same time; the Roman audience casts no stone, but, as Seneca’s commentary suggests, it participates in the killings almost as directly.

Since the spectators are habitués moreover they make up in long-term diligence for the slightly less immediate character of their violence.

What does the crowd desire?  It desires what it feels itself to lack – power.  The crowd vicariously overpowers the one whom the magistrates have declared guilty of transgressing – that is to say, of overpowering – the law.  As the formula panem et circenses testifies, gladiation functioned as an instrument of social policy in the Imperium; it redirected class resentments, healed factiousness, and pacified urban environments that even so tended to erupt periodically in bread-riots and other forms of violent lawlessness.  It can only have been, however, a two-edged sword.  The institution that kept a lid on the ebullition of resentments also coarsened people morally and made apology for brutal mores.

Seneca serves up a summary, in a slightly paradoxical iteration, which he directs hypothetically at the vocal members of the crowd: “Give thanks to the immortal gods that the men to whom you are giving a lesson in cruelty are not in a position to profit from it.”

Having set out the details of the empirical scene, Seneca commences his philosophical commentary.  “When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right,” he postulates, “it must be rescued from the crowd,” lest it “go over to the majority.”  It belongs to human nature that it suffers an “inability, even as we perfect our personality’s adjustment, to withstand the onset of vices when they come with… a mighty following.”  Reverting to the contagion-theme, Seneca warns that “a single example of extravagance or greed does a lot of harm,” so much so that “a companion with a malicious nature tends to rub off some of his rust even on someone of an innocent and open-hearted nature.”  Mimesis, to borrow Girard’s Aristotelianism and to place it in Seneca’s Stoic context, is unavoidable.  Therefore it is best, Seneca tells Lucilius, to “retire into yourself as much as you can” and “associate with people who are likely to improve you.”

One should neither “hate nor imitate the world.”  Rather, one should “shun both courses… neither [becoming] like the bad because they are many, nor [being] an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.”

Four hundred years after Seneca, gladiation still belonged centrally to the Roman urban scene, as Saint Augustine records in his autobiographical Confessions.  The toxicity of crowds remained as evident to Augustine as it had to Seneca.  In a misspent youth in his native Thagaste and later on in neighboring Carthage, Augustine had devoted much stolen leisure to pub-crawling, whoring, and attendance at theatricals.  He knew the gutter well.  The ruddy allure of the arena figures in an episode in the Augustine’s autobiography involving his friend and co-catechumen Alypius during the time when the two of them with several others had formed a household society dedicated to their withdrawal from the world as they made their approach to Christian conversion.  Alypius, slightly younger than Augustine, also hailed from Thagaste, and had attended Augustine’s courses in Carthage.  Augustine admired him in those days for his “great towardliness to virtue, which was eminent enough in one of no greater years” (Book VI).  But even then Alypius was “with madness enthralled”; he was, that is, an enthusiast of the games or as Augustine calls it, “that infection.”

Alypius did indeed wean himself, but in Rome “he was [again] carried away with an incredible eagerness after the shows of gladiators.”  Augustine tells how one day old friends met Alypius in the street and hauled him away, despite his protests, to the amphitheater.  Alypius said to them: “Though you hale my body to that place, and there set me, can you force me also to turn my mind or my eyes to those shows?  I shall then be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them.”  They determined to test whether this would prove the case.  Augustine continues: “When they were come thither… [Alypius,] closing the passage of his eyes, forbade his mind to range abroad after such evil; and would [that] he had stopped his ears also!  For in the fight, when one fell, a mighty cry of the whole people striking him strongly, overcome by curiosity, and as if prepared to despise and be superior to it whatsoever it were, even when seen, he opened his eyes, and was stricken with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to behold, was in his body.”

In the popular zombie-movie tradition, where the contagion-theme also plays an essential role, the zombie-bite swiftly transforms the prey into a predator; in the recent World War Z (Summer 2013), it takes only ten seconds for the prey to turn zombie – or as one might say, “go over to the majority.”  Augustine’s description of how the shout in the coliseum transformed Alypius would fit any horrific scene from World War Z or The Walking Dead: “For so soon as he saw that blood, he therewith drunk down savageness; nor turned away, but fixed his eye, drinking in frenzy, unawares, and was delighted with that guilty fight, and intoxicated with the bloody pastime.  Nor was he now the man he came, but one of the throng he came unto, yea, a true associate of theirs that brought him thither.”  Indeed, Alypius now set as his zealous goal “to draw in others.”

It is worthwhile, with Seneca’s anecdote in mind, to meditate on the architecture of gladiation – the amphitheaters, hippodromes, and coliseums in which blood-sport took place.  Especially in the case of the classical coliseum, as typified by the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome built during the reigns of Vespasian and Titus, the structure itself has unavoidable prophylactic implications.  The concentric rings function, obviously, to contain the crowd, to concentrate it, but also, perhaps less obviously, to contain both the violence and the crowd’s violent response to it.  The Flavian Amphitheater or any arena or coliseum is designed to isolate the catharsis, or purgation, that takes place when the crowd unanimously and vicariously participates in the ritualized killing of the victim or victims.  The design was imperfect, however.  Once the show was over, the crowd surged forth from the vomitoria, carrying their debasement with them, amplifying the corruption in the general environment.

Are modern people less prone to degrading mimesis than the ancient Ephesians or Romans?  Are they less fixated on the sacred than their ancient counterparts?  In what have they acquiesced since 1950 and in what do they acquiesce in 2013?  In many shameful things.  Modern, global (that is, Western) society boasts of being the most “mediated” society ever; its instantaneous communications technologies are used daily, hourly, and every few minutes, by billions of people worldwide.  The gadgets are, themselves, super-mediated objects-of-desire, which exercise perpetual fascination over those who possess or covet them.  Mass production of goods probably does, in some degree, ameliorate the problem of covetousness, or defer its outburst; but if, as Aristotle and Girard assert, Man were the mimetic animal par excellence, then covetousness and resentment would not be eradicable and the devices of mediation would have the effect of propagating them.

In I See Satan Fall, Girard writes of the modern dispensation, invoking indeed the name of “Antichrist,” that it “boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver.”  The same modern dispensation “locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions,” a notion that “acquires a semblance of credibility in the limited domain of consumer goods, whose prodigious multiplication, thanks to technological progress, weakens certain mimetic rivalries.”  While, as Girard writes, “the weakening of mimetic rivalries confers an appearance of plausibility,” it only does so “on the stance that turns the moral law into an instrument of repression and persecution.”  Girard refers to that “most powerful anti-Christian movement,” the one namely “that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it.”  Thus “what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return of all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.”

Girard’s judgment never implies the total wickedness of the old paganism – but on the contrary, Girard would recognize, I believe, that Seneca, for example, was participating in the refinement of ethical consciousness begun by the Biblical revelation of the scapegoat.  Girard might remark that in Augustine’s story of the moral recidivism of Alypius, the story-teller and holy man’s first concern is for the spiritual well-being of his comrade; not, it should be said, for the butchered limbs of the poor wretch whose bloody death in the arena has occasioned the spectator-mob’s bloodcurdling and irresistible shout.  The degradation of the actual victim has spiritual implications too.  Seneca and Augustine remain nevertheless more morally perspicacious than most modern, secular people, more especially than those who participate in what passes nowadays for entertainment.

The contemporary Cineplex crowd pays to see and hear the same things that its ancient counterpart paid to see and hear.  Do the modern cineastes really indulge their base desires, as Girard writes, “without real victims”?  Or do they not gush forth from the vomitoria alarmingly coarsened and debased?

Alas – for our condition!

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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