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Colloquium On Violence & Religion

Innsbruck 2003 - Topic


Conference Topic

Passions play an important role in economy, politics and the media. Recent discussions of the economy, for instance, do no longer hesitate to stress the importance of a passion like envy functioning as a driving force in this field. The Swiss economist Ernst Fehr has given empirical proof of how envy significantly influences economic behavior. Also the world of advertising illustrates the importance of passions in the economy. Modern forms of politics, on the contrary, seem to be detached from passions relying solely on rationality. Recent developments since the end of the cold war, however, have clearly challenged this self-understanding of modern politics. Politics, too, cannot escape the world of passions. Debates on nationalism, identity, fundamentalism or terrorism are all ultimately dealing with passions. Nobody would doubt, for instance, that terrorism is fueled by passion. But also political or military actions to counter terrorism need to mobilize passions in order to prevail. In our days, both the economy and politics depend on the media, another example of a highly passionate realm. According to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, it is the media who build a political body by creating an emotional unity. He refers, for instance, to Marshall McLuhan's insight into the role of the press as a builder of nationalism. Today we can closely observe how terrorism and the fight against it are first of all media events.

Passions also have an important religious dimension. At the center of all great religions we can find a special way how to deal with passions. Whereas the great Eastern religions tend to overcome passions by recommending a life without any desire the Biblical religions have a more complex view of passions addressing their good and bad sides. On the one hand, even the Biblical God himself becomes involved in passions (e. g. God's incarnation in Christianity). On the other hand, the Biblical religions focus on the distinction between the desires for eternal goods that unify human beings and those desires for worldly things which easily lead towards rivalry and war. We can observe this distinction in the Ten Commandments. Whereas the first commandment recommends the love of the only true God the ninth and tenth commandments prohibit the coveting of all those things that belong to our neighbors. It was Augustine who systematized this biblical view into a core concept of Western Christianity that distinguishes between the eternal goods that people should "enjoy" (frui) and all temporal good which should be "used" (uti) only. With the help of this distinction Thomas Aquinas was able to separate a good emulation from bad envy. Linked to a passionate longing for eternal goods emulation was seen by traditional Christianity as a necessary and benevolent part of human life. Is the modern breakdown of the distinction between eternal goods and temporal goods contributing to the problems of our contemporary world, in which an "envious competitive vanity" and an "insatiable desire for possessing" (Kant) fuels the engine of economic life?

René Girard's mimetic theory should help to enable this interdisciplinary dialogue between social and economic scientists, philosophers, literary critics and theologians. Mimetic theory seems to be a suitable tool for this task. With its focus on mimetic desire - human desire imitating the desire of the other - it contributes to a better understanding of passions in economy, politics and the media. It explains the important role mimetic behavior plays in these fields and also helps to understand the dangers coming along with a world more and more relying on competition. Mimetic theory systematizes the relationship between passions and religion, too. According to Girard, human desire always longs for God or for those temporal goods that have turned into idols after the believe in God has died. This side of mimetic theory explains religious dimensions of capitalism, the contemporary return of religion in politics and the religious aspects going along with modern mass media.