07/02/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

The One Percent and Mimetic Desire

I do not know how many times I have read the Parable of the Fool in the Gospel of Luke. It's the one where the rich man has a huge harvest, a surplus, and he says to himself that in order to keep it all he will destroy his barns and build bigger ones.

Once the bigger barns are built, he figures, "I'll say to myself ... you have many goods stored up for many years; take your ease: eat, drink and be merry." In response to this, God says, "You fool! Tonight you are going to die and then whose will those things be which you have provided?"

The context of the parable has Jesus more or less provoking a large number of people who have gathered around him. He is telling them not to worry, and to not be afraid of persecution and death. He has pronounced woe on religious leaders and the lawyers who serve them.

From the crowd, someone who seems to be not really listening, perhaps a leftover cast member from a Monty Python movie, asks him for a favor. "Tell my brother to divide the inheritance," he says.

The man obviously assumes he deserves part of the inheritance, and that he does not deserve his present circumstance. He is hoping Jesus, who is showing himself as authoritative, will step in and be both a religious leader and lawyer on his behalf. Jesus declines to do so, and he tells the man, "Beware of covetousness. Your life does not consist in the abundance of the things you possess."

The Christian philosopher Rene Girard bases much of his work on the word "covetousness," which may be rendered as "desire." Jesus warns against desire as the locomotion of acquisitiveness. Girard takes it to the next step and elaborately shows through his oeuvre that we not only desire an abundance of things, but we desire to have the particular things that belong to others.

We see other people fulfill or seek to fulfill their desires, and a kind of craving is born for the same object the other wants. This is why television advertising works. Desire is born from a concrete witness. In the Old Testament vernacular, God commands that we not covet or desire the neighbor's ox, or ass, or wife. The type of covetousness brought to the fore here is one that borrows or replicates desire from one's neighbor; therefore Girard names it mimetic desire. It apes or mimes the desires one sees that his neighbor has fulfilled, and because my neighbor wants, I also want.

Mimetic desire, per Girard, is the source of the conflict that leads to scapegoating, violence and war. Girard elaborates on the story of Cain and Abel and shows that because Abel acquired something that Cain did not have, the blessing of God, Cain's desire for what Abel has leads him to commit the first human murder.

In the case of the brother who wants Jesus to coerce a division of an inheritance, we see mimetic desire play out as if on cue -- not unlike in the story of Cain and Abel. But instead of murdering his brother, he comes to Jesus and asks him to be a judge in the matter. The answer that Jesus gives does not address whether or not the inheritance should be fairly split. Nor does he address what the man actually deserves in legal terms, but rather, he speaks directly to the man's desire, his covetousness.

Interestingly, when Jesus says, "beware of covetousness" the words seem to echo the words God speaks to Cain in Genesis, telling him that sin lies at his door, but that he should overpower it. What would such a sin be except the desire to have what his brother has, which he does not have and which causes him to be angry and downcast?

Jesus proceeds with the parable. Rather than share his surplus with others, the fool decides to hoard it, even though he can't contain it. No problem; he'll just build bigger barns. St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on poverty and wealth, says there is no need for us to build bigger barns, that we already have all the barns that we need, "the stomachs of the poor."

Mimetic desire plays a significant role here as well, when those who have, see the desire of those who do not. Even though the fool already owns all that he needs, we may surmise that he apes the desire of others to have what he has and in competition clings to his own possessions even more.

The interior contrast that Jesus is driving at here is stark. We can attach ourselves to what we have to the point where it drives us to a kind of madness in which we begin to accumulate even more things, driven by desire, and put off being happy until later; or we can be grateful and content with what we have - eat, drink and be merry, and recognize that all that we have belongs to others as well. St. Ambrose writes poignantly to this conflict, "The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die."

Rather than denoting a morbid austerity, however, the parable also implies the rich possibilities of entering one's own life. It connotes liberation from a final dependence on things or perfect circumstances. The implication of the fool's decision cuts both ways. We can appreciate what we have, including the the gift of each moment. The gift does not need to be draped in the best possible circumstance in order for us to receive it.