Saintly Mimesis, Contagion, and Empathy in the Thought of René Girard, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil

By W, Ann | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Saintly Mimesis, Contagion, and Empathy in the Thought of René Girard, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil


W, Ann, Shofar


"Empathy" and "contagion" are semantically related in their common reference to the suffering of infectious disease, spiritual and physical. How exactly do they differ as interpersonal phenomena? René Girard establishes a link between mimetic behavior and the contagious transference of emotion that spreads through groups of people, resulting in victimage. Jewish philosophers Edith Stein and Simone Weil distinguish such an emotional transference from genuine empathy, which involves a different, ethical stance and a saintly imitation. Empathy for the afflicted individual, in fact, makes one immune to the contagion that too often results in scapegoating.

There is a startling difference, Paul Ricoeur observes, between the attractive goodness and beauty that gathers people together, one by one, in saintly discipleship and the evil that spreads division through the masses: "For the transmission of evil, the only model we have is borrowed from biology; we think of contamination, infection, epidemic. None of that is of the order of Nachfolge [a German expression for the imitation of Christ that is literally a "following after" him]."(1) Discipleship, unlike mimetic contagion, involves "the communicability by means of extreme singularity; [whereas] in evil there is no equivalent to the iconic augmentation performed by the beautiful [and the good]."(2) René Girard makes a similar observation. Pointing to God and Satan as "the two supreme models" of all human imitation, he writes: "Like Jesus, Satan seeks to have others imitate him, but not in the same fashion and not for the same reasons...and he is certainly easier to imitate than Christ."(3)

Among contemporary thinkers, arguably no one has better explained the scandalous contagion of evil than Girard. Among twentieth-century philosophers, none has addressed the questions of saintly empathy with a profundity to match that of Edith Stein (1891-1942) and Simone Weil (1909-1943), two women mystics, at once Jews and Christians, whose lives were marked by an extraordinary compassion for others, both of whom died prematurely in the violent tide of the Shoah.(4) In what follows I triangulate Girard's treatment of contagion with Edith Stein's important, phenomenological reflections on the problem of empathy and Simone Weil's writings on decreation and affliction. At issue is the precise difference between the sympathy or empathy that contributes to the spread of pathological illness in society and the saintly compassion that heals divisions, forestailing violence. Stein's understanding of empathy anticipates current discussions of simulation in the fields of empirical psychology, the philosophy of mind, and ethics, as exemplified in the work of Robert M. Gordon, and it corroborates Girard's mimetic anthropology. Weil's kenotic "decreation," in turn, explains the possibility of a vivifying compassion and a non-rivalrous, saintly discipleship. Girard himself has credited Weil with having anticipated his anti-sacrificial understanding of biblical anthropology.(5) This essay considers why and how that is so.

Mimesis and Contagion

In linking saintly mimesis with contagion, I inevitably call up images of medieval and modern "saints" (Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example),(6) who devoted themselves to the care of people stricken with literally infectious diseases. A story from Raymond of Capua's Life of St. Catherine of Siena illustrates the point. Called by Christ to leave her contemplative seclusion in the home of her parents, Catherine Benincasa (+1380) nursed the sick and fed the hungry. She tended to a leprous woman, who spread calumnies about her, and to another woman with a disfiguring disease, who reviled her. In order to overcome her physical revulsion to the sights and smells of these diseases, Catherine immersed herself in them, going so far as to drink pus. She caught leprosy, the initial signs of which appeared on her hands, and she had to defend herself against the malicious gossip that linked such infections with fornication, declaring, "I am a virgin. …

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