Another excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book Escape From Evil (1975), beginning on page 149:
So we see that as an organism man is fated to perpetuate himself and as a conscious organism he is fated to identify evil as the threat to that perpetuation. In the same way, he is driven to individuate himself as an organism, to develop his own peculiar talents and personality. And what, then, would be the highest development and use of those talents? To contribute to the struggle against evil, of course. In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theater for heroism, and his life as a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil. Each person wants to have his life make a difference in the life of mankind, contribute in some way toward securing and furthering that life, make it in some ways less vulnerable, more durable. To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death. One knows that his life has had vital human meaning if it has been able to bring real benefits to the life of mankind. And so men have always honored their heroes, especially in religion, medicine, science, diplomacy, and war. Here is where heroism has been most easily identifiable. From Constantine and Christ to Churchill and De Gaulle, men have called their heroes “saviors” in the literal sense: those who have delivered them from the evil of the termination of life, either of their own immediate lives or of the duration of their people. Even more, by his own death the hero secures the lives of others, and so the greatest heroic sacrifice, as Frazer taught us, is the sacrifice of the god for his people. We see this in Oedipus at Colonus, in Christ, and today in the embalmed Lenin. The giants died to secure mankind; by their blood we are saved. It is almost pathetically logical how man the supremely vulnerable animal developed the cult of the heroic.
But if we add together the logic of the heroic with the necessary fetishization of evil, we get a formula that is no longer pathetic but terrifying. It explains almost all by itself why man, of all animals, has caused the most devastation on earth—the most real evil. He struggles extra hard to be immune to death because he alone is conscious of it; but by being able to identify and isolate evil arbitrarily, he is capable of lashing out in all directions against imagined dangers of this world. This means that in order to live he is capable of bringing a large part of the world down around his shoulders. History is just such a testimonial to the frightening costs of heroism. The hero is the one who can go out and get added powers by killing an enemy and taking his talismans or his scalp or eating his heart. He becomes a walking repository of accrued powers. Animals can only take in food for power; man can literally take in the trinkets and bodies of his whole world. Furthermore, the hero proves his power by winning in battle; he shows that he is favored by the gods. Also, he can appease the gods by offering to them the sacrifice of the stranger. The hero is, then, the one who accrues power by his acts, and who placates invisible powers by his expiations. He kills those who threaten his group, he incorporates their powers to further protect his group, he sacrifices others to gain immunity for his group. In a word, he becomes a savior through blood. From the head-hunting and charm-hunting of the primitives to the holocausts of Hitler, the dynamic is the same: the heroic victory over evil by a traffic in pure power. And the aim is the same: purity, goodness, righteousness—immunity. Hitler Youth were recruited on the basis of idealism; the nice boy next door is the one who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima; the idealistic communist is the one who sided with Stalin against his former comrades: kill to protect the heroic revolution, to assure the victory over evil. As Dostoevsky saw, killing is sometimes distasteful, but the distaste is swallowed if it is necessary to true heroism: as one of the revolutionaries asked Pyotr Verhovensky in The Possessed, when they were about to kill one of their number, “Are other groups also doing this?” In other words, is it the socially heroic thing to do, or are we being arbitrary about identifying evil? Each person wants his life to be a marker for good as his group identifies it. Men work their programs of heroism according to the standard cultural scenarios, from Pontius Pilate through Eichmann and Calley. It is as Hegel long ago said: men cause evil out of good intentions, not out of wicked ones. Men cause evil by wanting heroically to triumph over it, because man is a frightened animal who tries to triumph, an animal who will not admit his own insignificance, that he cannot perpetuate himself and his group forever, that no one is invulnerable no matter how much of the blood of others is spilled to try to demonstrate it.
Another way of summing up this whole matter is to contrast Hegel’s view of evil out of good intentions with Freud’s view, which was very specifically focused on evil motives. Freud saw evil as a fatality for man, forever locked in the human breast. This is what gave Freud such a dim view of the future of man. Many eyes looked to a man of his greatness for a prophecy on human possibilities, but he refused to pose as the magician-seer and give men the false comfort of prediction. As he put it in a late writing:
I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation. . . .
This is a heavy confession by one of history’s greatest students of men; but I am citing it not for its honesty or humility, but because of the reason for its pathos. The future of man was problematic for Freud because of the instincts that have driven man and will supposedly always drive him. As he put it, right after the above admission and at the very end of his book:
The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent [it] . . . will succeed in mastering . . . the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.
The most that men can seem to do is to put a veneer of civilization and reason over this instinct; but the problem of evil is “born afresh with every child,” as Freud wrote three years earlier, in 1927, and it takes the form of precise instinctual wishes—incest, lust for killing, cannibalism. This was man’s repugnant heritage, a heritage that he seems forever destined to work upon the world. Kant’s famous observation on man was now not merely a philosophical aphorism but a scientific judgment: “From the crooked wood of which man is made, nothing quite straight can be built.”
Yet today we know that Freud was wrong about evil. Man is a crooked wood all right, but not in the way that Freud thought. This is a crucial difference because it means that we do not have to follow Freud on the exact grounds of his feelings for the problematic of the human future. If, instead, we follow Rank and the general science of man, we get a quite different picture of the oldest “instinctual wishes.” Incest is an immortality motive, it symbolizes the idea of self-fertilization, as Jung has so well written—the defeat of biology and the fatality of species propagation. For the child in the family it may be an identity motive, a way of immediately becoming an individual and stepping out of the collective role of obedient child by breaking up the family ideology, as Rank so brilliantly argued. Historically, the brother-sister marriage of ancient kings like the Pharaohs must have been a way of preserving and increasing the precious mana power that the king possessed. Cannibalism, it is true, has often been motivated by sheer appetite for meat, the pleasures of incorporation of a purely sensual kind, quite free of any spiritual overtones. But as just noted, much of the time the motive is one of mana power. Which largely explains why cannibalism becomes uniformly repugnant to men when the spirit-power beliefs that sustained it are left behind; if it were a matter of instinctual appetite, it would be more tenacious. And as for the lust of killing, this too, we now know, is largely a psychological problem; it is not primarily a matter of the satisfaction of vicious animal aggression. We know that men often kill with appetite and excitement, as well as real dedication, but this is only logical for animals who are born hunters and who enjoy the feeling of maximizing their organismic powers at the expense of a trapped and helpless prey.
This much evolution and some million years of prehistory may have given us; but to talk about satisfying one’s appetites for purity and heroism with a certain relish and style is not to say that this relish is itself the motive for the appetite. Freud thought it was man’s appetite that undid him, but actually it is his animal limitation as we now understand it. The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Man is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms or programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on. This means that men have to artificially and arbitrarily restrict their intake of experience and focus their output of decisive action. Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from. This means that their noblest passions are played out in the most narrow and unreflective ways, and this is what undoes them. From this point of view the main problematic for the future of man has to be expressed in the following paradox: Man is an animal who must fetishize in order to survive and to have “normal mental health.” But this shrinkage of vision that permits him to survive also at the same time prevents him from having the overall understanding he needs to plan for and control the effects of his shrinkage of experience. A paradox this bitter sends a chill through all reflective men. If Freud’s famous “fateful question for the human species” was not exactly the right one, the paradox is no less fateful. It seems that the experiment of man may well prove to be an evolutionary dead end, an impossible animal—one who, individually, needs for healthy action the very conduct that, on a general level, is destructive to him. It is maddeningly perverse. And even if we bring Freud’s views on evil into line with Hegel’s, there is no way of denying that Freud’s pessimism about the future is just as securely based as if man did actually have evil motives.
But it does influence the whole perspective on history, which I am sketching here. History and its incredible tragedy and drivenness then become a record of understandable folly. It is the career of a frightened animal who must lie in order to live—or, better, in order to live the distinctive style that his nature fits him for. The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system. Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence. History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies. We can ask about any epoch, What are the social forms of heroism available? And we can take a sweep over history and see how these forms vary and how they animate each epoch. For primitive man, who practiced the ritual renewal of nature, each person could be a cosmic hero of a quite definite kind: he could contribute with his powers and observances to the replenishment of cosmic life. Gradually, as societies became more complex and differentiated into classes, cosmic heroism became the property of special classes like divine kings and the military, who were charged with the renewal of nature and the protection of the group by means of their own special powers. And so the situation developed where men could be heroic only by following orders. Men had given the mandate of power and expiation to their leader-heroes, and so salvation had to be mediated to them by these figures. In a primitive hunting band or a tribe the leader cannot compel anyone to go to war; in the kingship and the state the subjects have no choice. They now serve in warfare heroism for the divine king who provides his own power in victory and bathes the survivors in it. With the rise of money coinage one could be a money hero and privately protect himself and his offspring by the accumulation of visible gold-power. With Christianity something new came into the world: the heroism of renunciation of this world and the satisfactions of this life, which is why the pagans thought Christianity was crazy. It was a sort of antiheroism by an animal who denied life in order to deny evil. Buddhism did the same thing even more extremely, denying all possible worlds. In modern times, with the Enlightenment, began again a new paganism of the exploitation and enjoyment of earthly life, partly as a reaction against Christian renunciation of the world. Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock-market prices, more profits, more goods moving—all this equals more heroism. And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.
This is hardly a complete catalogue of culturally codified heroics, but it is a good representation of the ideologies that have taken such a toll of life; in each of the above examples masses of human lives have been piled up in order for the cultural transcendence to be achieved. And there is nothing “perverse” about it because it represents the expression of the fullest expansive life of the heroic animal. We can talk for a century about what causes human aggression; we can try to find the springs in animal instincts, or we can try to find them in bottled-up hatreds due to frustration or in some kind of miscarried experiences of early years, of poor child handling and training. All these would be true, but still trivial because men kill out of joy, in the experience of expansive transcendence over evil. This poses an immense problem for social theory, a problem that we have utterly failed to be clear about. If men kill out of heroic joy, in what direction do we program for improvements in human nature? What are we going to improve if men work evil out of the impulse to righteousness and goodness? What kind of child-rearing programs are we going to promote—with Fromm, Horney, et al.—in order to bring in the humanistic millennium, if men are aggressive in order to expand life, if aggression in the service of life is man’s highest creative act? If we were to be logical, these childhood programs would have to be something that eliminates joy and heroic self-expansion in order to be effective for peace. And how could we ever get controlled child-rearing programs without the most oppressive social regulation?
The cataloguing of maddening dilemmas such as these are, for utopian thought, could probably be continued to fill a whole book; let me add merely a few more. We know that to be human is to be neurotic in some ways and to some degrees; there is no way to become an adult without serious twisting of one’s perceptions of the world. Even more, it is not the especially twisted people who are the most dangerous: coprophiliacs are harmless, rapists do not do the damage to life that idealistic leaders do. Also, leaders are a function of the “normal” urges of the masses to some large extent; this means that even psychically crippled leaders are an expression of the widespread urge to heroic transcendence. Dr. Strangelove was surely a psychic cripple, but he was not an evil genius who moved everyone around him to his will; he was simply one clever computer in a vast idealistic program to guarantee the survival of the “free world.” Today we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the nineteenth-century hero system of unrestrained material production. This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind. Still there are no “twisted” people whom we can hold responsible for this.
I know all this is more or less obvious, but it puts our discussion on the proper plane; it teaches us one great lesson—a pill that for modern man may be the bitterest of all to swallow—namely, that we seem to be unable to approach the problem of human evil from the side of psychology. Freud, who gave us the ideal of the psychological liberation of man, also gave us many glimpses of its limitations. I am not referring here to his cynicism about what men may accomplish because of the perversity of their natures, but rather to his admission that there is no dependable line between normal and abnormal in affairs of the human world. In the most characteristic human activity—love—we see the most distortion of reality. Talking about the distortions of transference-love, Freud says:
. . . it is to a high degree lacking in regard for reality, is less sensible, less concerned about consequences, more blind in its estimation of the person loved, than we are willing to admit of normal love.
And then he is forced to take most of this back, honest thinker that he is, by concluding that:
We should not forget, however, that it is precisely these departures from the norm that make up the essential element in the condition of being in love.
In other words, transference is the only ideality that man has. It was no news to Freud that the ability to love and to believe is a matter of susceptibility to illusion. He prided himself on being a stoical scientist who had transcended the props of illusion, yet he retained his faith in science—in psychoanalysis—as his particular hero system. Thus us the same as saying that all hero systems are based on illusion except one’s own, which is somehow in a special, privileged place, as if given in nature herself. Rank got right at the heart of Freud’s dilemma:
Just as he himself could so easily confess his agnosticism while he had created for himself a private religion, it seems that, even in his intellectual and rational achievements, he still had to express and assert his irrational needs by at least fighting for and about his rational ideas.
This is perfect. It means that Freud, too, was not exempt from the need to fit himself into a scheme of cosmic heroism, an immortality ideology that had to be taken on faith. This is why Rank saw the need to go “beyond psychology”: it cannot by itself substitute for a hero system unless it is—as it was for Freud—the hero system that guaranteed him immortality. This is the meaning of Rank’s critique of psychology as “self-deception.” It cannot contain the immortality urge characteristic of life. It is just another ideology “which is gradually trying to supplant religious and moral ideology,” but “is only partially qualified to do this, because it is a preponderantly negative and disintegrating ideology.” In other words, all that psychology has really accomplished is to make the inner life the subject matter of science, and in doing this it dissipated the idea of the soul. But it was the soul which once linked man’s inner life to a transcendent scheme of cosmic heroism. Now the individual is stuck with himself and with an inner life that he can only analyze away as a product of social conditioning. Psychological introspection took cosmic heroics and made them self-reflective and isolated. At best it gives the person a new self-acceptance—but this is not what man wants or needs: one cannot generate a self-created hero system unless he is mad. Only pure narcissistic megalomania can banish guilt.
It was on the point of guilt, as Rank saw, that Freud’s system of heroism fell down. He admonishes Freud with the didactic mocking of one who possesses a clearly superior conceptualization:
It is with his therapeutic attempt to remove the guilt by tracing it back “causally” to the individual’s experience in childhood that Freud steps in. How presumptuous, and at the same time, naive, is this idea of simply removing human guilt by explaining it causally as “neurotic.”
Exactly. Guilt is a reflection of the problem of acting in the universe; only partly is it connected to the accidents of one’s birth and early experience. Guilt, as the existentialists put it, is the guilt of being itself. It reflects the self-conscious animal’s bafflement at having emerged from nature, at sticking out too much without knowing what for, at not being able to securely place himself in an eternal meaning system. How presumptuous of psychology to claim to be able to handle a problem of these dimensions. As Progoff has so brilliantly summed up psychology after Freud, it all culminates once again in a recognition of the magnitude of the problem of cosmic heroism.
This is what Adler meant when he summed up in a simplified way a basic insight of his whole life’s work, “All neurosis is vanity.” Neurosis, in other words, reflects the incapacity of the individual to heroically transcend himself; when he tries in one way or another, it is plainly vain. We are back again to a famous fruit of Rank’s work too, his insight that neurosis “is at bottom always only incapacity for illusion.” But we are back to it with a vengeance and with the broadest possible contemporary understanding. Transference represents not only the necessary and inevitable, but the most creative distortion of reality. As Buber said, reality for man is something he must imagine, search out in the eyes of his fellows, with their gleam of passionate dedication. This is also what Jung intimates about the vitality of transference when he calls it “kinship libido.” This means that men join together their individual pulsations in a gamble toward something transcendent. Life imagines its own significance and strains to justify its beliefs. It is as though the life force itself needed illusion in order to further itself. Logically, then, the ideal creativity for man would strain toward the grandest illusion.
The Science of Man
Well, obviously, none of this has been unimpeachable to the critics over the years. Words like “irrationality,” “illusion,” “willful and heroic dedication”—these rub many people the wrong way. They have hardly helped make our world any better, especially in modern times. Erich Fromm, for example, impugned Rank’s whole system of thought by arguing how perfectly suited it was as a philosophy for fascists. The essay in which this was done was not an essay to bring any credit to Fromm as a thinker; but it was animated in part at least by the demonic crisis of the times, by Hitlerism, and in spite of its shabbiness it did convey a truth, the need to be wary of life-enhancing illusions.
It is precisely at this point that the science of man comes in. We know that Nazism was a viable hero system that lived the illusion of the defeat of evil on earth. We know the terrifying dynamic of victimage and scapegoating all across history, and we know what it means—the offering of the other’s body in order to buy off one’s own death, the sadistic formula par excellence: break the bones and spill the blood of the victim in the service of some “higher truth” that the sacrificers alone possess. To treat the body with the same scorn that God seems to treat it is to draw closer to Him. Well, we know these things only too well in our time. The problem is what to do with them. Men cannot abandon the heroic. If we say that the irrational or mythical is part of human groping for transcendence, we do not give it any blanket approval. But groups of men can do what they have always done—argue about heroism, assess the costs of it, show that it is self-defeating, a fantasy, a dangerous illusion and not one that is life-enhancing and ennobling. As Paul Pruyser so well put it, “The great question is: If illusions are needed, how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate into delusions?” If men live in myths and not absolutes, there is nothing we can do or say about that. But we can argue for nondestructive myths; this is the task of what would be a general science of society.
I have argued elsewhere that one very graphic way of looking at mental illness is to see it as the laying onto others of one’s own hyperfears of life and death. From this perspective we can also see that leaders of nations, citizens of so-called democracies, “normal men” are also doing the very same thing all the time: laying their power-expiation immunity trip onto everyone else. Today the whole world is already becoming uncomfortable with the repeated “war games” and hydrogen-bomb tests by nations on power trips, tests that lay their danger onto innocent and powerless neighbors. In a way it is the drama of the family and the Feifferian love affair writ large across the face of the planet, the “family” of nations. There are no particular leaders or special councils of elite to blame in all this, simply because most people identify with the symbols of power and agree to them. The nation offers immortality to all its members. Again, Erich Fromm was wrong to argue that psychically crippled people, what he calls “necrophilic characters,” do evil things by valuing death over life and so lay waste to life because it makes them uncomfortable. Life makes whole nations of normal people uncomfortable, and hence the serene accord and abandon with which men have defeated themselves all through history.
This is the great weakness, as we have now discovered, of Enlightenment rationalism, the easy hope that by the spread of reason men will stand up to their full size and renounce irrationality. The Enlightenment thinkers understood well the dangers of the mass mind, and they thought that by the spread of science and education all this could change. The great Russian sociologist Nikolai Mikhailovsky had already singled out the hero as the enemy of democracy, the one who causes others to yield their wills because of the safety he offers them. The thing that had to be done was to prevent society from turning the individual into a tool for the sake of social efficiency and safety. How could the infringement of individuality be overcome? Mikhailovsky answered in the same vein as modern humanist psychiatrists: by giving the individual the opportunity for harmonious development. At about the same time that other great Enlightenment man, Emerson, made his famous plea for self-reliance, for persons with full and independent insides so that they could have the stability to withstand herd enthusiasms and herd fears.
This whole tradition was brought up to date by Herbert Marcuse in a brilliant essay on the ideology of death. He argued that death has always been used by leaders and elites as an ideology to get the masses to conform and to yield up their autonomy. Leaders win allegiance to the cultural causa sui project because it protects against vulnerability. The polis, the state, god—all these are symbols of infallibility in which the masses willingly embed their fearful freedoms. There we have it: the culmination of the Enlightenment in a proper focus on the fundamental dynamics of mass slavishness. On the highest level of sophistication we know in detail what men fear and how they deny that fear. There is a single line from Emerson through Mikhailovsky up to Fromm and Marcuse.
But wait. We said that Enlightenment rationalism was too easy a creed, and so we would expect to see this weakness in all its thinkers, and Marcuse is no exception when he naively says:
. . . death [is] the ultimate cause of all anxiety, [and] sustains unfreedom. Man is not free as long as death has not become really “his own,” that is, as long as it has not been brought under his autonomy.
Alas, the fact is that men do not have any autonomy under which to bring things. This great and fundamental problem for the whole career of Enlightenment science was posed by Rank:
Whether the individual is at all in a position to grow beyond . . . [some kind of transference justification, some form of moral dependence] and to affirm and accept himself from himself cannot be said. Only in the creative type does this seem possible to some extent. . . .
But it can be said, and Rank says it: even the highest, most individuated creative type can only manage autonomy to some extent. The fact is that men cannot and do not stand on their own powers; therefore they cannot make death “their own.” Moral dependence—guilt—is a natural motive of the human condition and has to be absolved from something beyond oneself. One young revolutionary once admonished me in saying that “guilt is not a motive”; he never saw that his guilt was absorbed by submission to the revolutionary cell. The weakness of the Enlightenment, then, was that it did not understand human nature—and it apparently still does not. […]
[Bolded emphasis mine. Footnotes omitted.]
Stopping for now on page 162.
My last excerpt posted from this book by Ernest Becker: http://waywardblogging.com/2014/10/on-why-we-create-enemies-and-victims-an-excerpt-from-the-book-escape-from-evil/
Also conduct a search on here to find his other excerpts, including those from a previous book titled Denial of Death.