Franz Anton Mesmer, René Girard, and the Mimetics of Attraction

People are mesmerized with other people due to a force of human psychology that is similar to the force of gravity in physics

Luke Burgis
10 min readJun 13, 2022


Franz Anton Mesmer practicing his unique approach to therapy in the late 1700's.

An Untold Story

Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician who practiced medicine shortly after Sir Isaac Newton, was fascinated by the corollary between the psychological ‘movements’ he observed in the world and the physical effects Newton described in his theory of gravity. Could there by a relationship between the two, he wondered?

In his Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum inflex, written in 1766, he remarked: “One must grant to Newton the greater praise, because he has clarified to the highest degree the reciprocal attraction of all things.”1

Thinking of mimetic desire — and desire in general — as a movement of desire that is influenced by the mass and proximity of models (not objects) in an analogous way to a gravitational pull is one of the most helpful mental models that I have ever run across in 7+ years of studying mimetic theory seriously.

Mesmer (whose name is where the English word “mesmerize” comes from) intuited that there was some psychological principle at work that accounted for the attraction to or between certain people — but he made the mistake of thinking that it must be due to some invisible substance in the body which was affected by the gravitational pull of the planets and the interaction of the substance in the bodies of other people.

He called his theory “animal magnetism”, and he devised ornate therapeutic rituals to cure people of various ailments. A person was placed into a trance-like state and physically manipulated by Mesmer (the ritual sounds much like the ‘tarantismrituals in southern Italy, which began in the Middle Ages) — to try to manipulate the flow of this invisible fluid in a person and bring it back into balance.

Here’s a fascinating description of one of Mesmer’s sessions (they eventually attracted the attention of King Louis XVI himself):

His patients were received with the air of mystery and studied effect. The apartment, hung with mirrors was dimly lit. A profound silence…



Luke Burgis

Author of “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” Find more at