By focusing primarily on Greek tragedy, "primitive" religions, and psychoanalysis, Rene Girard attempts to show the inextricable link between violence and the sacred. Mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and sacrifice produce a system in which unrestrained violence can be controlled. Through the sacralization of these elements, religion becomes a way for the community to maintain internal peace and harmony and prevent the recurrence of reciprocal violence.
Because violence is self-propagating, if uncontrolled, it will overflow and flood the community. Against tradition, Girard holds that sacrifice is not meant to appease a deity. Rather, it is a means to restore harmony within a community, by protecting the community from its own violence. Without sacrifice, violence does not have an outlet and would devastate the whole community. The only way to rid the system of violence is to deflect it onto a sacrificial victim. The sacrificial victim must resemble, yet remain different from, the community, and the victim must lack a champion: the community can strike down the victim without fear of reprisal. Because violence is seen as impure and religion is concerned with ritual impurity, the sacrificial victim must be considered pure of the contagion of violence. The function of ritual then is to purify violence.
The first link to impure violence is the sacrificial crisis. The sacrificial crisis occurs when both cathartic rites and the difference between purity and impurity disappear. The sacrificial crisis can then be defined as the dissolution of natural differences or distinctions, which effects cultural disorder. Social values, order, and peace erode leaving fertile ground for reciprocal and unrestrained violence. Understanding the crisis caused by the disappearance of differences helps understand the terror caused by the birth of twins in primitive societies: the physical similarities caused by twins is problematic - there is no distinction between the two children. The theme in Greek tragedies of "enemy brothers" belies this principle. Two antagonists, like twins, are represented without a degree of difference producing a mythic rivalry.
Seeking the mechanism that solves the sacrificial crisis, Girard investigates Oedipus the King for further implications. Each protagonist (Oedipus and Tiresias) seeks to quell violence, but both eventually succumb to it. These enemy brothers symmetrically oppose the other, dissolving differences, and both enter into an interdependent duality, in which violence becomes reciprocal. Patricide and incest also suggest the disappearance of differences, and the plague signifies the collective nature of the disaster. At this point, Girard presents the surrogate victim, or scapegoat. If the community is to free itself from the sacrificial crisis, then the reciprocal violence must be deflected onto some individual. Put another way, the community, fallen victim to unrestrained violence, searches for a scapegoat - one arbitrarily chosen - to pin responsibility for the violence therein. In destroying the scapegoat, the community unanimously rids itself of the present violence and restores order and tranquility.
If these hypotheses are correct, religion is implicated, and Girard seeks to examine the origins of myth and ritual. By putting and end to the destructive cycle of violence, sacrificial rites also initiates a constructive cycle. Adherents of sacrifice strive to produce both a replica of the previous crisis and the unanimous victimization of the scapegoat. In doing so, the ritual victim, whether human or animal, represents the original surrogate victim and transforms maleficent violence into beneficial violence, moving the system from disorder to harmony. As such the "original act of violence is the matrix of all ritual and mythological significations" (113). Overtime these rituals become diverse in meaning and presentation. According to Girard, because of the human desire to transform bad violence into good, coupled with the mystery of this transformation, humanity is predisposed to ritual.
Religious festivals also have their origins in sacrifice. The beneficial character of the unanimous violence is projected into the past, and the happy ending results in jubilation. An antifestival, on the other hand, is similar but celebrates the unanimous violence negatively, with asceticism, fasting, and mortification. As such, the festival and the antifestival serve as replacements for sacrifice. The gradual loss of the structure of the sacrificial rite, compounded with the increasing misunderstandings of the purpose of the rite, produce these replacements. The festival and antifestival eventually lead towards a new sacrificial crisis as they cease to be preventative measures for violence, as seen in Euripides' The Bacchae.
The role of mimetic desire and the monstrous double provide the foundation of the sacrificial crisis. With in the sacrificial crisis, both subject and rival desire the same object: violence. Rivalry does not occur because both rival and subject have the same desire, "rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject ... in regard to desires" (145). This mimetic desire serves as the catalyst of the sacrificial crisis, eventually leading to conflict. In tragedy, these antagonists eventually become indistinguishable, but the disappearance of difference happens in oscillation. The oscillation of differences accelerates until the antagonists jointly perceive a monstrous double - a projection of their unity - which serves as a scapegoat upon which they unanimously agree.
Girard next examines the process of divine sacralization. The metamorphosis of maleficent violence into beneficent violence elicits public veneration. The marriage of the beneficent and maleficent within the monstrous double and surrogate victim becomes an incarnation of sacred violence. The term `sacred' respects the duality of life, both positive and negative elements (i.e., urges toward both destruction and peace). The sacred is present in violence, seen in the destructive power of reciprocal violence and in the positive effects of cultural restoration. This union of violence and the sacred, the basis of religion, jars traditional thinking, but humanity's inability to grasp this union perpetuates its effects. At this point, Girard completes his theory on the surrogate victim and sacrifice. Because sacrifice expels and appeases violence, violence can be viewed as a god who is appeased with the sacrifice: again, violence is sacred. Finally, the sacrificial victim, in order to be effective, needs to both represent the community yet be differentiated from it.
In his final chapter, Girard shows how the surrogate victim unites all rituals. Cultures that employ cannibalism rely on the surrogate victim, and rites of passage provide a surrogate victim to leave the community in one stage of life in order to enter another stage - a pattern that recurs in all rites of initiation. The realization that the surrogate victim pervades all of human culture and unites mythology and ritual, leads Girard to see the surrogate victim in other cultural forms: political power, legal institutions, medicine, theater, philosophy, and anthropology.