Since previous reviewers have already provided good reviews of Girard and this book I thought I might speak on a (perhaps) not minor point that has yet to be mentioned. It is little remarked, although it really should be noted more often, how well (and not without a note of admiration too!) some of the best Christian thinkers have read Nietzsche. Girard is one example, the theologian Karl Barth is another.
"Nietzsche was the first philosopher to understand that the collective violence of myths and rituals (everything he named "Dionysos") is of the same type as the violence of the Passion. The difference between them is not in the facts, which are the same in both cases, but in their interpretation." (p. 171)
Indeed, Girard goes so far as to say that, "he discovers the truth that I only repeat after him, the truth that dominates this book: in the Dionysian passion and the Passion there is the same collective violence. But the interpretation is different..."
Girard goes on to quote Nietzsche at length at this point. Later Girard observes,
"...myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.
As incredible as it may seem, no one made this simple but fundamental discovery before Nietzsche - no one, not even a Christian!" (p. 172)
Similarly, Barth (ahem) 'admires' (in a digression in the 'Church Dogmatics' that needs to be read more often) for seeing clearly (and saying loudly) the difference between a humanity in which each individual is focused on his own sovereign self and a humanity dedicated to the 'fellow-man'.
"The new thing in Nietzsche was the fact that the development of humanity without the fellow-man [...] reached in him a much more advanced, explosive, dangerous, and yet also vulnerable stage..." (Karl Barth, "Church Dogmatics", excerpted as an essay in "Studies in Nietzsche and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition", James C. O'Flaherty, editor.)
For both Barth and Girard, Nietzsche clearly sees Christianity as it is (or was) in the Greek New Testament. By speaking his opposition to it, as clearly as he did, he helped Christianity achieve a greater understanding of itself.
For Barth, Nietzsche is "...the most consistent champion and prophet of humanity without the fellow-man. It is another matter, and one that objectively considered is to the praise of Nietzsche, that he thus hurled himself against the strongest and not the weakest point in the opposing front. With his discovery of the Crucified and His host he discovered the Gospel itself in a form which was missed even by the majority of its champions, let alone its opponents, in the nineteenth century. And by having to attack it in this form, he has done us the good office of bringing before us the fact that we have to keep to this form as unconditionally as he rejected it, in self-evident antithesis not only to him, but to the whole tradition on behalf of which he made this final hopeless sally." (Barth, in above, pp. 373-374)
The 'tradition' Barth refers to is embodied in the history of the secret, but (according to Barth) true meaning of European history from the Renaissance through German Idealism. It is a line that goes from Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia through Goethe and Hegel and then reaches its highpoint in Nietzsche.
It is still too soon to tell if these 'services' Nietzsche performs for Christianity (the uncovering of the true meaning of all myth - and the opposition of Christianity to it; and the radical championing by Christianity of the helpless, the neighbor, the 'fellow-man', against the great of the world) were the first step toward a Christian reawakening or - its demise.
But this struggle between Nietzsche and Christianity is but a subset of the agon between Philosophy and Christianity. (Which is itself a part of the even greater argument between Philosophy and Religion.) In the ancient world Apollonius of Tyana was regarded as a philosopher. In his essay on him Girard calls him a sage. Briefly, Apollonius finds himself in a City in Crisis; he 'solves' this Crisis by the sacrifice (i.e., the stoning) of an innocent but unimportant man. After the stoning the City is restored to health...
To the Christian all men have intrinsic value, they are, after all, 'children of God'! Philosophy rejects this selfishness. In the final analysis to the philosophers (I should here say 'perhaps') there are no important individuals... "All that matters are the results", Nietzsche has said. With those words alone Apollonius is absolved. Indeed, one even suspects that the the philosophical 'value' of the Nietzschean Overman derives from his utility for human culture and (or) civilization. In other words, the Overman Himself is also a tool...
That is in itself interesting, but it too does not explain why so many religious people read Nietzsche with such interest. It is not merely Nietzsche's keen insight into the true nature of Christianity, to which both Barth and Girard attest, that accounts for this. Nietzsche, with his 'god' Dionysus, recognizes that there is something beyond the reach of both science and reason. And if there always is this 'Something Else', some Unknown, then Religion is the permanent recognition of (and response to) this 'Other'. Indeed, how many modern philosophers would have exclaimed "I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus -- I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence", as Nietzsche does towards the end of his "Twilight of the Idols"? Ultimately, Nietzsche is no modern atheist; if he were he would never have written his Zarathustra or spoken of Dionysus and Eternal Return.
"Have I been understood?-- Dionysus versus the Crucified..." (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Why I am a Destiny, section 9.) Yes, now we understand. Myth replaces myth, utility supplants utility. Can you say "Eternal Return of the Same"? Nietzsche, the great enemy of Christianity, has in his books covertly conceded the necessity of Religion. At bottom, it is this concession, and the fact that it is the concession of a philosopher, that continually fascinates religious minds with his thought.
This book is among Girard's best. If you have the slightest interest in Christianity it is worth reading more than once. This note of mine was concerned with the connection between Nietzsche and Christianity and I certainly do not want to leave the impression that this was all Girard has to say. He is justly famous for his explication of myth through his original work on mimetic violence. For that alone one should read this book.