An excerpt from “The Art of Being” by Erich Fromm

Haven’t transcribed on here in a long time. Found my copy of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Being (1989) today and so feel like sharing a bit from it, beginning on page 84:

However, stressing the One in man must not in an undialectical fashion lead to the denial of the fact that man is also an individual; that, in fact, each person is a unique individual not identical with anyone ever to be born (perhaps with the exception of identical twins). Only paradoxical thinking, so much a part of Eastern logic, permits expression of the full reality: Man is a unique individual—man’s individuality is sham and unreal. Man is “this and that” and man is “neither this nor that.” The paradoxical fact is that the deeper I experience my own or another’s unique individuality, the clearer I see through myself and him the reality of universal man, freed from all individual qualities, “the Zen Buddhists’ man without rank and without title.”

These considerations lead to the problem of the value and dangers of individualism and, related to it, the psychological study of the individual. It is very apparent that, at present, individuality and individualism are highly esteemed and widely praised as values and as personal and cultural goals. But the value of individuality is very ambiguous. On the one hand, it contains the element of liberation from authoritarian structures that prevent the autonomous development of a person. If self-knowledge serves to become aware of one’s true self, and to develop it rather than to introject a “foreign” self, imposed by the authorities, it is of great human value. In fact, the positive aspect of self-knowledge and psychology are so widely emphasized that it is scarcely necessary to add more to this phrase.

But it is extremely necessary to say something about the negative side of the cult of individuality, and its to relation to psychology. One reason for this cult is obvious: The more individuality disappears in fact, the more it is exalted in words. Industry, television, habits of consumption pay homage to the individuality of the persons they manipulate: There is the name of the bank teller in his window and the initials on the handbag. In addition, the individuality of commodities is stressed: The alleged differences between cars, cigarettes, toothpaste, which are essentially the same (in the same price class), serve the purpose of creating the illusion of the individual man or woman freely choosing individual things. There is little awareness that the individuality is, at best, one of insignificant differences, for in all their essential features commodities and human beings have lost all individuality.

The apparent individuality is cherished as a precious possession. Even if people don’t own capital, they own their individuality. Although they are not individuals, they have much individuality, and they are eager and proud to cultivate it. Since this individuality is one of small differences, they give the small, trivial differences the aspect of important, meaningful features.

Contemporary psychology has promoted and satisfied this interest in “individuality.” People think about their “problems,” talk about all the little details of their childhood history, but often what they say is glorified gossip about themselves and others, using psychological terms and concepts instead of the less sophisticated and old-fashioned gossip.

Supporting this illusion of individuality through trivial differences, contemporary psychology has a still more important function; by teaching how people ought to react under the influence of different stimuli, psychologists become an important instrument for the manipulation of others and of oneself. Behaviorism has created a whole science that teaches the art of manipulation. Many business firms make it a condition for employment that their prospective employees submit to personality tests. Many books teach the individual how to behave, in order to impress people of the value of their own personality package or of the value of the commodity they sell. By being useful in all these respects, one branch of contemporary psychology has become an important part of modern society.

While this type of psychology is useful economically and as an illusion-producing ideology, it is harmful to human beings because it tends to increase their alienation. It is fraudulent when it pretends to be based on the ideas of “self-knowledge” as the humanistic tradition, up to Freud, had conceived it.

The opposite to adjustment psychology is radical, because it goes to the roots; it is critical, because it knows that conscious thought is mostly a fabric of illusions and falsehood. It is “salvific,” because it hopes that the true knowledge of oneself and others liberates man and its conducive to his well-being. For anyone interested in psychological exploration it is necessary to be intensely aware of the fact that these two kinds of psychology have little more in common than the name, and that they follow contrary goals.

Stopped on page 86.

A bit irritated that my blog’s theme has reset itself and insists on italicizing everything, showing no distinctions even where I apply font changes. Grrr..  Ah well. Ya’ll can read a print version to see where he placed emphasis. Sorry about that.

“Feminine Psychology and Masculine Ideology” — an excerpt from the book “Beyond Psychology”

Been wanting to transcribe more from Otto Rank’s book Beyond Psychology (1941), picking back up on page 235 at the beginning of chapter 7 titled “Feminine Psychology and Masculine Ideology”:

It has become a truism that man from time immemorial has imposed his masculine way of life upon woman, both individually and collectively. Traditions, likewise, seem to agree that woman not only willingly submitted to any man-made ideology which happened to prevail but was clever enough to assimilate it and use it to her own advantage. Less obvious, though of greater importance, is the complementary process, namely, that man, while imposing his mentality on woman, usurped some of her vital functions and thus unwittingly took on some of her genuine psychology, differing fundamentally from his own masculine ideology. Herein lies the most paradoxical of all psychological paradoxes: that man, who was molding woman according to his own sexual will, should have taken over into his ideological philosophy the love-principle so deeply rooted in woman’s nature. The conception of Agape, as we have seen, revived the vital principle of woman-love which had been lost in Antiquity, particularly in Greek civilization, where the original mother-goddess was finally replaced by the masculine ideal of the self-created hero.

This gradual replacement of an original mother-culture by the masculine state-organization appears reflected in the development of ancient religion, especially in the Near East, that is, in Asia Minor. Of particular interest to us is the recent study, already referred to, of such development which, documented by Biblical tradition, enables us to follow the successive steps, leading from the one form of social organization to the other. The material in question concerns the story of Petra, known from Biblical sources as “the Rock City of Edom,” which, from the time of Moses and possibly before that, controlled, for many centuries, a great transit route. In its early days of matrilineal succession, the deity was a goddess who, by acquiring a son first for the role of consort and later father, finally became masculinized herself in the form of a god.

Such development, characteristic of all early religions of civilized peoples, seems to reflect the gradual emergence of our later conception of family-types from an undifferentiated mixture of biological facts and supernatural ideologies. Yet, in a sense, this symbol of an original bisexual mother-goddess reveals to us the real story behind the mythical conception of the “first” man, as presented in later Biblical tradition. In order to be impregnated by man, woman had first to give birth to that man as her son, who, when matured, could become her mate and thus a father. The Biblical story presents, as it were, the end-phase of this development in a masculinized reversion of the fact that man is born of mortal woman. Primitive religion, on the contrary, abounds in pictures of a self-sufficient or (later) hermaphroditic goddess who originally creates life without the aid of man before creating man, who in turn creates her in his own image. Such speculations about the origin of man necessarily lead to an incestuous beginning, which, however, does not reflect biological facts but expresses an ideological need in man to blot out the mother-origin in order to deny his mortal nature. Herein is to be found the dynamic drive for man’s religious, social and artistic creativity through which he not only proves his supernatural origin (religion) and capacity (art) but also tries to translate it into practical terms of social organization (state, government).1


[Footnote] 1 A German scholar, Ernst Bergman, designates these two antagonistic tendencies of human civilization in terms of the difference of the sexes as “Erkenntnisgeist und Muttergeist” (Breslau, 1931), meaning the spirit of knowledge as against the spirit of motherhood. He even speaks of a sexualization of woman by man.


The primaeval mother-goddess, later associated with her son-lover who eventually as father usurped her place, seems to have been the prototype of the “Heavenly Queen” characteristic of all Near-Eastern religions, in which invariably a mother-goddess appears sexually related to a son. From Babylonian and Egyptian to Persian and Greek tradition we find this same pattern symbolized in the relationship of Istar-Tammuz, Isis-Horus, Maja-Agni, Tanit-Mithra, Kybele-Attis, Astarte-Adonis and Aphrodite-Hermes. Even in Christian tradition, traces of a similar relation of Christ to Mary can be detected as Robertson1 has suggested on the basis of an earlier myth of a Palestinian God—probably named Joshua—who appears in the alternate relations of lover and son to a mythical Mary. It is important, however, to bear in mind that Christianity does not represent a mere parallel to those ancient conceptions but rather a revival and re-interpretation of the original mother-concept which had given way to the masculinization of Eastern civilization. For in Christianity, this incestuous relationship is interpreted as a symbol of spiritual re-birth. This conception is expounded in Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question as to how a man can be born when aged? Is it possible for him to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again? Christ’s well-known answer to this tricky question bears out his spiritual interpretation of the ancient tradition.


[Footnote] 1 Robertson, John Mackinnon, Pagan Christs. N. Y., Truth Seeker Co.


The gradual masculinization of human civilization, in my opinion probably the most enlightening clue to history, is borne out by mythical and religious tradition as well as by the development of social concepts and artistic creation. Mythologically, it is epitomized in the transition from an original moon-goddess characteristic for all early religion to the masculine sun-god who obliterates the moon. The transition—paralleling the above-mentioned religious concept of a mother-son relationship—is found in the widespread tradition of an originally female moon-goddess who was first supplemented by a masculine counterpart, a moon-god, in the role of son or brother, with a later development to husband and father. “These mythological traditions of all civilized and most primitive races have their sociological counterpart in the fact that the remains of the moon-cult also point to primitive conceptions of society, in which the woman still played a greater part than that which we find allotted to her in the patriarchal organization of high cultures with their sun-cult.”1 The best documented example of such masculinization, implying the denial of woman’s importance, is to be found in Egyptian tradition with its violent suppression of the moon-cult epitomized in the ancient Isis-religion by the sun-cult of Ra forcibly introduced by the heretical king Tutankamon. According to the original moon religion in ancient Egypt, the child was named after the mother, a matrilineal rule still reflected in the legend of Moses, the fatherless child. In this, as in all other traditions of the myth of the birth of the hero, the father was not eliminated, as Freud saw it in the light of his patriarchal philosophy, but was unimportant if not altogether unknown.


[Footnote] 1Art and Artist, Alfred A. Knopf, N. Y., 1932, p. 125.


As the repressed mother-cult is presented in such fragments of an earlier civilization, so we may find in other relics of ancient tradition further evidence for the once universal veneration of female creativity which was denied by man’s need of an immortality of his own. How far-reaching and in what unexpected directions such a search may lead can be illustrated by a suggestion of Dr. Murray’s, which she presents in connection with her discussion of this change of sex in the early religion of Petra. She points out that among the gods whose images—often merely oblong stones—have been found at or near Petra were several who were also honored at Mecca in the “Days of Ignorance.” This conjecture makes it likely that the “Holy Carpet” which covers the Kaaba was once the outward image of a goddess, which therefore had to be decently veiled. Such interpretation would explain the ceremonial circumambulation of the Kaaba during the ceremonies of the Haj as a relic of the ritual dances long ago, when pagan Arabs capered-round it naked and priests of Baal leaped up and down before the altars of a god who required human sacrifices. Both through their racial relatedness to the Arabs and the religious influence from Babylonia the Jews seemed to belong to this same cultural development to which they also appear geographically bound. Petra, which during its long history had changed hands frequently, was always snatched from earlier settlers by one of the many Arabic desert tribes attracted by its riches. In the Bible it is known as Edom because in its early days it was occupied by the Edomites, descendants of Esau and kinsfolk of the Jews. They had captured it from the Horites, who in turn had taken it from the Kenites under whom it was first known. The Biblical sources from which most of Petra’s history is drawn provide many examples showing how primitive and crude the Jews were in the day of their power.

There is one incident recorded from a later period which is completely out of place as far as religious ceremonial is concerned and which seems to have preserved in it another relic of an original mother-cult among the Jews, whose monotheism appears as the result of a long struggle against foreign gods who still betrayed the earmarks of an earlier mother-goddess. The episode referred to is King David’s dance before the Torah, an unheard-of sacrilege not only in the times before the building of the first temple but even in the early days of the Golden Calf—another mother-symbol. In the light of Dr. Murray’s suggestion about the original “sex” of the Kaaba it seems quite possible that the Torah which guided the nomadic Jews through the desert represented an original female symbol, a relic of the great Asiatic Mother-Goddess who had been replaced by Jehovah through the man Moses, in whom appears epitomized the transition from the mother-cult of ancient Egypt to the father-cult of monotheistic religion. The Torah proper, containing the new masculine Law of Moses, was—not unlike the Kaaba—carefully covered by the rich vestments inside of which it rested invisibly.

Christianity not only openly restituted the early importance of the mother-cult but likewise did away with its highly masculinized substitutes in Jewish religion and Roman statecraft. By spiritualizing the Oriental mother-cult, the Christian religion extended this genuinely biological conception into a universal love-ideology applicable alike to man and woman. We have shown how this spiritual love-conception of Agape gradually became contaminated with earthly, that is, sexual love-desires—a confusion of the two principles culminating in the romantic love-emotion. This semi-religious development precipitated what one might call a feminization of our Western world, resulting in our psychological type of man. The will-ful Eros and the yielding Agape were translated into psychological terms of “wanting” (will) and “being wanted” (loved), a moral re-evaluation which not only brought about a change of personality types but a change in the general mores of modern times.

This change of psychology in modern man calls for a new evaluation beyond our moral classification of masculine and feminine which shall take into account the more fundamental difference concerning the functioning of the will in the personality of the two sexes. Whereas man’s will in its free expression is simply “wanting,” in woman’s psychology we meet the paradoxical will-phenomenon of wanting to be wanted. Such reversal in the expression of the will raises the question as to whether we are to see it in another perversity of human nature or a genuine expression of woman’s natural self. This latter assumption would then presuppose that there always was and still is a woman-psychology, which has not only remained unrecognized throughout the ages but has been misinterpreted religiously, socially and psychologically in terms of masculine ideologies. First and foremost, through this confusion of the feminine Agape and the masculine eroticism, the religious conceptions of good and evil have been interpreted in sexual terms of “masculine” and “feminine”; that is to say, our social standards and values concerning masculine and feminine traits have become inextricably bound up with our moral notions of good and bad. According to this moral code, which Western man set up by interpreting nature in moral terms, masculinity became identified with strength, power, if not creativity—in a word, goodness; whereas femininity designates silliness, weakness, if not wickedness—in a word, badness.

In view of our previous discussions, it becomes obvious that what we meet in those moralistic qualifications is the age-old struggle of the rational self against its irrational nature. From the point of view of man’s rational psychology, “feminine” traits of emotionalism appear “irrational,” whereas in reality they represent human qualities of a positive nature. Since modern psychology is not only masculine but derived from our neurotic type of man, a great deal of its terminology originated from a misinterpretation of woman in terms of man’s sexual ideology. Such misinterpretation, as shown for example in the psychoanalytic conception of masochism, is not a modern invention but is deeply rooted in human language. For language, which originated as a free expression of the natural self, gradually developed into a rational means of communication voicing the predominant ideology. Thus, in contrasting masculine ideology and feminine psychology we have to guard against becoming involved in the intricacies of linguistic confusion inherent in human speech. In other words, we must first step beyond language in order to remain “beyond psychology,” made up as it is from a language already sexualized. Contrary to common belief, human language did not emerge like the love-call of birds and other animals as an expression of the male’s sexual urge for the female. True, language is masculine, but only in the sense that it was created by man to be used as a most powerful instrument with which to produce a world of his own by interpreting the existing world in terms of his masculine sexology.

The creation of the universe through Jehovah’s word, as the Old Testament presents it, gives testimony to man’s presuming to re-create the natural world in his own words. The Biblical story called “The Tower of Babel” epitomizes man’s ambition to change language from a means of self-expression into a tool for universal communication. The moral of this parable seems to imply a warning against man’s presumptuous attempt to “understand” everything by putting it into words. The fallacy of such an undertaking betrays itself in the vicious circle created by man who first named things in his own language, only to use the same language afterwards by which to “explain” them. Thus it seemed easy to prove—be it in religious, sociological or psychological terms—that this man-made universe was right. In reality, however, this creative ambition of man has produced ever-increasing confusion since the time of Babel, until in our day the world is actually at war about the meaning of words. Terms like communism, fascism, democracy seem to evade any clear definition, because it is not so much their semantic meaning which counts as the way they are used and the means they are used for.1


[Footnote] 1 Soon after the German occupation of Czecho-Slovakia, Berlin sent a daily radio-hour to Prague in order to explain the political terminology of the Third Reich to its new subjects.


In trying, at least temporarily, to keep out of this ideological word-war, we go back to the undeclared war on the border of the two sexes, that is, masculine versus feminine ideology. Here, because the only terminology which psychology furnishes us with which to explain woman is a masculine one, we find ourselves confronted by the same difficulty concerning human language. While the story of the Tower of Babel impresses upon us the linguistic confusion between man and nature in terms of national differences, here we encounter a more fundamental difference in the language used in traffic between man and woman. There actually are two different languages characteristic of man and woman respectively, and the woman’s “native tongue” has hitherto been unknown or at least unheard. In spite of her proverbial chattering, woman is tacit by nature; that is, she is inarticulate about her real self. Man, in his creative presumption, took upon himself the task of voicing her psychology—of course, in terms of his masculine ideology. This fundamental misunderstanding between the two sexes, speaking as it were different languages, appears in Biblical tradition at the beginning of things when Adam listens to the voice of the serpent, speechless by nature, and simply understands it his way. Mark Twain, an unsurpassed master of language, expresses this dualism in human speech when, in his “Diary of Adam,” the first man constantly complains about Eve’s interfering with his joyful task of naming things by suggesting different names for them.

The question as to whether or not this aboriginal dualism of verbal expression in man and woman is reflected in the two genders of various languages has become a source of heated debate among linguistic scholars. In approaching the problem from a new angle, that of man’s creative urge, I was disposed to assume, in conformity with the general view adopted in this book, that what we have to deal with is not a growth of language out of sex-acts or sexual activity but a comparatively late sexualization of language as a manifestation of the human creative urge which gradually usurps the parenthood of everything by bringing sexual connotations into its nomenclature. This sexualization of language is itself, then, a metaphorical way of expressing a “just-like”; that is, it gives name-forms to everything that man creates, “just as if” they were produced by him as the child is.2 It is very tempting, of course, to adduce the existence of genders in almost all modern languages as evidence of the sexual origin of languages; but such a conclusion is so superficial that most scholars, even when attempting to prove the sexual origin of languages, scorn it as unscientific. A really scientific approach proves for our living languages what Powell had already established as a result of his thorough investigation of Indian languages, when he says: “The student of linguistics must get entirely out of his head the idea that gender is merely a distinction of sex. In the North American Indian languages (and probably in the Bantu and the Indo-European also) gender is usually a classification method.” We find the classification of “higher” and “lower” beings, that presently became one of “male” and “female,” in the Semitic languages, which, even thus early, breathe the moral outlook of the East. Here, too, the primitives disclose to us the deeper sources, for (according to Powell) the main principle of their classification is to divide animate and inanimate objects.


[Footnote] 2 A rather curious example is provided in the famous “Indian Bible,” as the first translation made in the colonies was called. Some scholars claim that the translation by the Rev. John Eliot was so faulty that the Indians could not understand it. But recently Prof. S. E. Morison came to the rescue of the translator by pointing out some of the difficulties under which Eliot labored. “Throughout the Bible, wherever the word ‘virgin’ occurs, Eliot uses a word that means ‘a chaste young man.’ That was because chastity was accounted a masculine virtue. They had a word for ‘virgin,’ but seldom any occasion to use it. No doubt it seemed much more suitable to the Indians to have the bridegroom met by ten ‘chaste young men.'”


Thus the inclusion of primitive languages within the scope of our study has shown this phenomenon of grammatical genders to be but a part of a much wider and more complex system of classification; and this makes it all the more interesting to follow the phenomena of transition. Opposed to the two-gender system of the Indo-European, we have the Indian classification that we have just been discussing, based chiefly on the distinction of “soul” and “no-soul” (living and non-living), though, to be sure, there attaches to this a certain valuation as “personal” and “impersonal,” which reappears in the distinction of “masculine” and “feminine.” Most interesting of all are the transitional languages, which show the beginning of sexualization side by side with the old basis of classification. According to Meinhof, the developed system of the Bantu languages has more than twenty classes with special prefixes; and between them and our two-gender system we have, for instance, the Hamitic Ful, in which, above the old classification of nouns, is an overlying new system with only four headings: persons, things, big and small, whence, as the big pass into the class of persons, and the small into that of things, a twofold system is developed, corresponding to our division into masculine and feminine. This gives us a glimpse into the valuation-principle which eventually identifies persons, living, big and important things with man, and non-living, small and unimportant things with woman. This provides a striking parallel to the primitive’s belief regarding the immortality symbols (i.e.. the shadow) of man or woman respectively, stressing the immortality claim of man’s soul as against woman’s mortality, and subsequently assigning values to everything by dividing the world into things animate and inanimate, i.e. good and bad. The only problem here is: why does woman always come into the class of the evil, dangerous, and less valuable? This, as I have explained, arises from man’s urge to eternalize himself personally, an urge threatened by sexual propagation, of which woman is the representative; and so woman passes into what I have called the Not-I class, which includes dangerous as well as unimportant (and neutral) things.

This brief summary of the origin of human speech bears out man’s utter egocentricity, which can be supplemented by the fact that among the first things he named were the parts of his own body. Centuries before the Greeks formulated this basic egocentricity in the slogan of their whole civilization: “Man is the measure of all things,” it operated naively in primitive man. Starting from his own body as his “first field of experiment in his efforts to solve the problem of the ego and to discover its relation to the surrounding world,” man divided the visible universe, as it were, into two categories, the “I” and the “not-I.” The things he accepted, liked or needed he classified as belonging to the I-class, relegating everything else to the not-I class. By virtue of his belief in personal immortality, in which woman as the bearer of sexual mortality did not participate, she automatically became identified with the not-I class (wo-man—no man). Hence, all not-I things, which later formed the neuter class in European languages, were first considered feminine. Thus language, like all other basic human inventions, originated from the supernatural worldview and not from practical motives or rational considerations. Such origin explains the powerful role of words in magical practice, whereby the knowledge of the right word, kept as a secret in priestly tradition, could call a person or thing into being as well as destroy it.

While this genuine magic of words still echoes in our political and scientific slogans, language, which was at first religious, gradually became secularized. Hence is explained why any profanation of language was forbidden, and still is, for that matter, until language itself in its every-day use became profane. This process of deteriorization, known to linguists as “change in the meaning of words,”1 ultimately also led to the sexualization of language as a part of the whole masculine interpretation of the world.


[Footnote] 1 In the process which reflects the changing mores, words tend towards a baser standard. Examples of such “moral degradation” of words can be amply found in every modern language. Not being sufficiently familiar with the history of the English language, I am taking a few examples from a letter to the New York Times. Mr. Jacques W. Redway, of Mt. Vernon, N. Y., writes on June 21, 1938: The opposite process, the covering up of a bad meaning by a nice word known as “euphemism,” applied essentially to everything which has to do with the two basic “unmentionables,” sex and death. Examples abound here, too, for every category; so we will just mention one which, having found expression in law, definitely characterizes the social philosophy of our times. The good old English word “bastard,” which is avoided in ordinary speech has been formally banned in New York by a statute approved April 9, 1925, and for it is to be substituted in all legal documents the term, “child born out of wedlock.”


[Bolded mine. Some footnotes were omitted.]

Stopping for today on page 247. It’s proven to be an interesting book to read, though I won’t claim to have formed a strong opinion about all of its content. It’s interesting food for thought to take in and swish around with the rest. Though I am fairly familiar with arguments about the masculine origin and slant of language, Otto Rank adds an interesting perspective into the mix.

I intend to transcribe more from this book at a later date.

Sex role evolution, love, and neuroticism — an excerpt from Otto Rank’s “Beyond Psychology”

Today I’ll be transcribing a portion of Otto Rank’s book Beyond Psychology (1941), beginning on page 181:

Herein is anchored the true democratic ideology of Christianity, promising every man equality before God, that is, in his own self, whereas our political democracy, praiseworthy as it may be, always remains an unattainable ideal of the heavenly kingdom on earth. Interestingly enough, early Christianity proves to be more realistic in that respect than later periods of social planning. By proclaiming that man is not fundamentally bad, Christian doctrine simultaneously claimed that things were bad and had to be changed. While the Jew was constantly blaming himself for not meeting the ideal requirements of his God, the early Christians with Paul as their leader were keenly aware of the need for a change of order.

This change of order, which finally precipitated the collapse of the ancient world, was, however, brought about first by the change of the type of man through the new idea of love. This new ideology, purely conceived of as being loved by God with the meaning of accepting one’s own self as fundamentally good, was bound to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused in the course of time until we find it in our day thwarted and twisted in the neurotic type who is either fighting it willfully or giving in to it too “masochistically.” But, in one way or another, this genuine need of the human being to be loved became the strongest motive for the molding and building of personality-types. Yet, while the curse of the evil was overcome by being loved, meaning, being good, the trouble with this humanized love-ideology was that not being loved made the individual bad. In a word, the moral integrity of the personality became so utterly dependent upon the other person’s love that the individual either had to deny it willfully or submit to the insecurity of a personal God.

This humanization of the spiritual love-principle reached its climax in an era known as the Romantic period, which left its imprint on modern relationship in an ideology called Romanticism. This eighteenth century philosophy of love was prepared for in the Renaissance, which, as a cultural movement, evolved a new conception of love entirely original and quite different from that of the Middle Ages. While the ancients considered love a pleasure whereby human beauty was accepted as a mere aspect of nature’s beauty, for the Middle Ages it had been sin, and feminine beauty was looked upon as a temptation by man who no longer saw woman as a means of pleasure but as a cause of perdition. During the Renaissance, however, feminine beauty as its all-powerful stimulus became, together with a new conception of love, the object of philosophic speculation and the admitted source of poetic inspiration. In the synthesis, not entirely heathen and not fully Christian, which Renaissance culture represents, love was considered sensuous as well as spiritual, and woman was looked upon as fully equal to man, that is, endowed with gifts of mind as well as body. Contrary to the thought of the Middle Ages, love was no longer considered subordinate to virtue, or beauty denounced as a source of peril. In a word, the conception of original sin changed to the conception of original love. Love, that is to say, was appreciated not because it was a means of becoming good, but because it was good, which means not only pleasurable but beautiful, that is, part of nature.

In the Romantic period which flourished in Germany, this free philosophy of love could not be accepted. There it was not the beautiful woman who was appreciated and thus loved; it was woman as a group or class who became idealized. The leading intellects of that period, shaken in their fundamental selves by the repercussions of the French Revolution, saw in fully developed womanhood the perfect, that is, emotional expression of the true self. In a period of collectivistic ideologies glorifying folk-traditions, folk-lore and folk-art, woman became, so to speak, collectivized as the carrier of racial continuity. The challenge to love no longer appears epitomized in sheer beauty but in an abstract notion called the “beautiful soul.” Although this idea was taken over from Plato’s “Banquet,” the actual love-life of the poets in the Romantic period was anything but “platonic.” In fact, Wieland, to whom is credited the romantic conception of the “beautiful soul,” indulges in erotic phantasies bordering on the pornographic; whereas his English predecessors, the philosopher Shaftsbury and the novelist Richardson, had given the “beautiful soul” a moral connotation.1


[Corresponding footnote:] 1Schiller, in his famous poem, “Anmut und Wuerde” (1793), defined the beautiful soul as the perfect balance between moral feeling and physical emotion.


In his idealization of woman we recognize a reaction against her moralization brought about in the Middle Ages by the Church, which, in the obsession of witchcraft, had identified her with the evil symbol of mortality—sex. Through this about-face of romanticism man suddenly lifted woman into the role of representing the immortal soul-principle hitherto usurped by him. This role of the soul-bearer, in primitive conception, had been ascribed to her religiously in the soul-belief of totemism and socially in the institution of matriarchy. There, the man could still preserve his personal immortality in his belief of self-perpetuation, whereas in the romantic conception of the woman-soul he actually renounced his better self to her. She became the beautiful soul of the man, his eternal, immutable, immortal side as against the mutability and transitoriness of his individual self. This we saw struggling during that same period with the bad, condemned ego epitomized in the persecuting double.

Thus, in romantic love, the Christian love-ideology, as applying alike to both sexes, became divided up between the two sexes and thereby created a confusion under which we still labor in our sexual psychology. While during the Middle Ages man had made woman the symbol of evil, now by virtue of representing the beautiful soul she was supposed to make him good by allowing him to love her. This reversal of the moral evaluation had two far-reaching results. Through the collective ideology of the beautiful soul applied to her, the woman became, so to speak, “collective,” that is, promiscuous, as borne out by the not so “romantic” but highly sensual relationships among the leaders of the romantic movement, who may be said to have introduced the modern divorce vogue into our sex life. Secondly, this promiscuity, together with the freedom of emotional expression permitted her, gave women a decidedly masculine appearance, which basically was determined by her having been made the bearer of man’s soul-ideology.

As the woman was allowed so much freedom and encouraged to play the role of soul-saver for the man, he soon felt too dependent upon her; she threatened to dominate his whole life and even the hereafter. Thus in his eyes she became bad again. This change of attitude found expression in literary fashions and types, such as “The Fatal Woman,” or “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” which can be traced right to our own times in the writings of Oscar Wilde, André Gide and Gabriele D’Annunzio. In those man-made literary fashions which were instrumental in creating corresponding types in life, the woman not only appears unwomanly but hard and cruel in a masculine manner. Here we first meet the types of sadistic-masculine woman and masochistic-feminine man, who, although in their time they were accepted, indeed, highly estimated types, in our day have been diagnosed as “neurotic.” Their strange behavior started the first psychological speculations about the basic difference of the two sexes.1 Just as this difference, in view of nature’s bisexuality, does not imply any clear-cut distinction, so is there no sharp line to be drawn between sensual pleasure and pain as we find those sensations coupled in romantic sado-masochism. While this sexual terminology has actually been derived from two outspoken perverts, the psychological relation between pleasure and pain expresses a deep-rooted bond based on the duality of the life-principle itself. As sex naturally implies death in the surrender of the individual to the collective life-principle, we meet in romantic love a moralization of this very life-principle whereby man became submissive and created the picture of the fatal, cruel, in a word, sadistic woman. Side by side with this type, we encounter as a reaction to it, the satanic and diabolical man in the literature of the same period. This type is epitomized in the notorious Marquis de Sade and his “sadistic” writings, which influenced all modern writers up to the rank of such authors as Flaubert, Baudelaire and Swinburne.


[Corresponding footnote:] 1On this subject, one of the most famous scientists of that period, Wilhelm von Humboldt, wrote an essay, “Ueber den Geschlechtsunterschied,” 1795.


For the “beyond” of psychology it is particularly important to realize the order in which those types surviving in our sexual psychology appear in romantic literature: first, the masochistic man in bondage to the merciless woman, and only afterwards the sadistic man in an attempt to liberate himself from this self-imposed submission. The sadistic type, the creation of a decadent male, has produced another artifice of our psychological wax-cabinet—the masochistic woman. This invention followed when the man had again to divest the woman of the masculine characteristics he had bestowed on her. By making her “masochistic,” that is, completely submissive to him, he had to picture and thus make her womanly in an extreme fashion. True, this submissiveness is her basic self, but submitting to nature, not to the man. Such natural “sacrifice,” in fully accepting her biological role, is different from the woman’s artificially “sacrificing herself” for the man, which she can do only in true “masochistic” fashion. This sacrificial tendency, which might be conceived of as an exaggerated form of Agape, is deeply rooted in woman’s nature and not just a masochistic perversion in the sense of our psychology. As long as it satisfies the individual’s desire for happiness, we have no right to stigmatize it as “neurotic” or “perverse” just because we are not capable of understanding its vital significance. The Christian martyr can be as little explained by being labeled “masochistic” as, for example, can the Japanese soldier for whom sacrifice and self-sacrifice represents one of the highest virtues. The Freudian concept of “self-punishment,” derived from his masochistic interpretation of sacrificial tendencies, has been erroneously explained as the neurotic’s perversion to gain pleasure from pain. The pleasure derived from suffering has to be ascribed to the triumph of the individual will over pain, which thus ceases to be inflicted and becomes self-willed.

The masochistic submissiveness of modern woman reveals itself in the light of those moralistic ideologies as less neurotic than the narrowing psychoanalytic viewpoint makes it appear. Basically, such submissive attitude is an essential part of woman’s biological nature; its exaggeration and subsequent exploitation, however, is man-made and betrays the influence of man’s ideologies on woman “psychology.” Not a few women act masochistically, i.e. as if they derived pleasure from pain, for two admitted reasons: first, from a desire to give the man they love pleasure, if he is insecure enough to need their masochism to boost his ego; secondly, in order to be changed, that is, to be made submissive to their own nature, which has been distorted by masculine ideologies. Those classical cases of masochism which have been described not only in fiction but even in textbooks, belong to the same kind of romantic literature which produced the original type. In reality, those women were “masochistic” only once in their lives, i.e., in relation to one person; at other times they can be quite will-ful and resistive. Their “masochism” represents a period in their lives when they permit themselves to submit to one particular person so completely that only their volition to do so makes it possible. In this sense, their “masochism” becomes a will-ful, instead of a natural, acceptance of their feminine submissiveness. It is here, in this area of non-acceptance of the self, where the neuroticism of this type lies, and not in masochism, which merely represents an attempt to counteract its original selfish nature. The only justification I can see in labeling the masochistic woman “neurotic,” is in the unreality of the type itself.

All our neurotic terminology and ideology, in fact, originated from the unreality of personality behaviour and patterns, the reality of which has been lost. For example, the outstanding women of the Romantic epoch, which produced this type, were not considered neurotic but just strong personalities, at least, stronger than woman had formerly been allowed to be; sufficiently strong, at any rate, to scare the man into his sadistic psychology. This sado-masochistic ideology of the male, which still confuses psychoanalysts, sprang from an attempt on the part of the romantic type to extricate himself from his own conflict between dominance and surrender. The solution he found by dividing the two kinds of love—represented in Eros and Agape—between the two sexes led to our sexual psychology created from man’s need to justify himself and uphold his age-old prejudices.

The first prejudice, namely, that the sexual act is necessarily pleasurable, is obviously contradicted by nature herself. We have only to look at the animal kingdom to be convinced that as a rule it is a painful struggle, to be avoided, if possible; one which the human being had to idealize in order to accept it at all. Closely related to this widespread illusion is another assumption taken too much for granted, that every human being wants to live as long as possible, or for that matter wants to live at all. To risk death, or even to seek it, is not necessarily an unbiological gesture. There are people who want to die, without justifiably being diagnosed as “suicidal.” Especially when death comes suddenly and painlessly, it need not represent an escape but can be real deliverance, particularly when one’s life has been fulfilled or is to be fulfilled by dying. Last, but not least, is the prejudice which includes all others, namely, that everyone’s happiness is the same. For this assumption causes us to designate as “neurotic” any other whose ideas of happiness do not coincide with ours. Herein lies the greatest sin of psychology: that it sets up absolute standards derived from a rational interpretation of one prevailing type by which to judge not only our fellow men but also to interpret personalities and behaviour of the past.

In the realm of our own discussion we have only to take one of the greatest saints, Catherine of Siena, in order to illustrate the difference between psychological reality and unreality. In spite of her amazing asceticism, we could not call her “masochistic,” nor, despite her single-handed fight against the mighty Pope, could she be classified as a megalomaniac. In his recent study of Catherine, Joh. Jorgensen points out that her vast assumption of authority is the very reverse of egotism, springing as it does from complete self-surrender. The core of Catherine’s teaching is the need for absolute renunciation of self: it is St. Francis’ doctrine of poverty under a transcendental aspect. Here again is shown how man’s and woman’s nature and behaviour differ—even where saintliness is concerned. Being a woman, Catherine was able to completely identify her will with the will of the Church, which, representing the Bride of Christ, made Catherine the same through the mystical marriage. Thus she could become the conscience of Christendom, not because she was so presumptuous as to aspire to it but because she had emptied herself so completely of self-will that she felt the divine conscience working through her.

Experiences like this, and others in the past, could manifest themselves as powerful realities just because they were spiritually real. Not that these personalities were “neurotic,” but that they had, besides their neurosis, something else which enabled them to be creative in spite of it; in truth, they experienced really in themselves what we may only allow to remain a shadow or sham experience, that is, a neurotic one. In other words, it is not what the individual experiences, but how he does it, which makes our true conception of neurosis independent of any content, i.e., a matter of attitude. In this sense, the woman is not neurotic because she is “masochistic,” but is neurotic, one might almost say, because she is not really submissive and wants to make believe that she is.

The same holds good for the masculine counterpart, sadism, which we characterized as a self-assertive reaction against the presumable dominance of the woman. From a human study of the Marquis de Sade, the father of sadism, it clearly follows that it is not an original perversion exaggerated to pathological proportions by a neurotic personality. It is no sexual problem at all, in fact, but a problem of the man’s ego, thwarted by his hatred of women and mankind in general. He was as full of hate for the whole world as Catherine was full of love for God, but with both of them it was a real experience. The “psychology” of de Sade can only be understood from his fundamental hatred, which means it is at bottom a moral problem of good and evil, not merely a sexual aberration. As a matter of fact, the problem of love itself cannot be fully comprehended without the phenomenon of hatred. The simple observation that love so frequently changes into hatred when the individual feels disappointed or hurt indicates a deep-seated relation between the two emotions. Of course, love does not simply “change” into hatred, but both are manifestations of two opposite life-forces: the tendencies toward unification and separation respectively, that is, toward likeness and difference. This explains why hatred appears not infrequently as the result of a heightened love-emotion which carries the individual too far away from his own self to an over-identification with the other.

[All emphasis his. Footnotes omitted except the two cited.]

Stopping on page 190.

This whole book has provided a great deal of food for thought stretching back through human history. I hope to transcribe further portions of it going forward.

Otto Rank was an Austrian psychoanalyst who, for a couple decades, had been a close friend of Sigmund Freud before branching off to go his own unique way in trying to make sense out of human life.

One critique of the Political “Right” and its fascist potential (part 3 of my inquiry into “Leftists” vs. “Rightists”)

In continuing my look into the American Political “Left” vs. “Right” concern, today I’m offering up an excerpt from Chris Hedges’ book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006), in which at the beginning he includes a segment written by Umberto Eco titled “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”:

In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

.    .    .

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition. Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counterrevolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but it was born in the Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of the faiths indulgently accepted by the Roman pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little-known religions of Asia.

This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice;” such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and although they seem to say different or incompatible things, they all are nevertheless alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge—that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshipped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon blood and earth (Blut under Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Hermann Goering’s fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play (“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” and “universities are nests of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is to appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the United States, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers of Ur-Fascism must also be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. Thus, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such “final solutions” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people in the world, the members or the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Spanish Falangists was Viva la Muerte (“Long Live Death!”). In nonfascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirely have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of humans can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

Because of its qualitative populism, Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as the official language of what he called Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

.    .    .

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s worlds of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

[All emphases his, both the bolding and the italics.]

That was basically included as a forward in this book by Chris Hedges that goes on to critique the Christian Right and how it’s manipulating American citizens, most notably those within the working class since they feel especially disenfranchised at this point in history. And this new Christian Right movement is nowadays being headed and/or funded by major corporate entities and the wealthy families who derive wealth through them and who also tend to be very well politically-connected. That all matters and is a huge concern worthy of examination, no question.

First reading this book by Hedges probably back around 2008 or 2009, but now re-skimming it for blogging purposes, I have to say that the excerpt I transcribed above does give me pause, because I can clearly see how it presents a “Leftist” slant in its attempt to critique those considered supportive of the Political “Right.” So that presentation bias hasn’t escaped me here. Especially #13 where I must wonder what Mr. Eco expects people to do when we are in fact confronting the reality of a corrupted parliament that does not adequately represent the voices of many of us out here. How are we to engage in the public discourse if our concerns in that arena are viewed as evidence of us being “fascists” in our own right?

That right there leads me to question what isn’t fascism by this stage in the game. Because by that man’s estimate, we’re all potential fascists, and then the word winds up losing its meaning. According to that author, the traditionalists and anyone who could be said to belong to some sort of “cultish” group are all fascists, as are those who are critical of the so-called “liberal intelligentsia” and the current state of our political system. Hmm…  I don’t like that. That’s far too ambiguous to do us much good here. Plus, it gives the impression that the “liberal intelligentsia” nor our politicians are truly deserving of serious scrutiny, when surely that can’t be what the author had in mind. It’s almost as if that assumes that fascism is a “Rightist” phenomenon specifically, whereas I see this trend occurring in both the Political “Right” and “Left.” Neither can claim a monopoly on this tendency.

A deeper question is what isn’t fascistic in this day and age. What could counter fascism; what are its real alternatives?

I’d like to eventually provide more excerpts from Chris Hedges’ book when I feel up to it, because he later on does make some good points that help illuminate the “Right’s” version of this phenomenon. My view has become that both the Political “Right” and “Left” actually share a great deal in common, at least in terms of both supporting the rise of Corporatism and in creating a political atmosphere in this country where ongoing warfare is tolerated and deemed necessary to bolster our own economy. Plus, they share in their desire to engage in what we can refer to as our “culture war” where both sides like to believe they will eventually dominate and subdue those who disagree with their own ideals and preferences. It promises to be an ongoing affair due to irreconcilable differences, though neither side seems interested in accepting this is indeed the fate they’re pushing for.

How does a “culture war” like what we have in the U.S. ever come to an end? What would it take? Would one side have to criminalize and possibly even eradicate the other for it to claim to have won? That presses us eerily closer to the notion of genocide if either side gained enough political power, though I do not think what’s on the horizon will simply be a repeat of what came before back in the WWII era. I doubt this will devolve into trench warfare or even a bonafide civil war — no, I get the impression that this time around technologies will be employed in much more subtle ways that allows for plausible deniability on the part of the offending political camp in question. That might sound odd to some, but that’s where my imagination has been taking me over the last few years. And I personally assume that it will likely be the Political “Left” that winds up “winning out” in this domestic battle, because they hold claim to being more “progressive” than their “traditional” foes, the former holding a great deal more appeal to people of today.

But I’ll keep unraveling my thoughts on this as time goes on.

On heroism and seeking meaning in life (an excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book “Escape From Evil”)

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:

Also conduct a search on here to find his other excerpts, including those from a previous book titled Denial of Death.

Fromm on Spinoza, Marx and Freud, in relation to determinism vs. choice of alternatives and the nature of good and evil

Beginning on page 181 in Erich Fromm’s book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil (1964):

Hitler had a real possibility of winning the war—or at least, of not losing it so disastrously—if he had not treated the conquered populations with such brutality and cruelty, if he had not been so narcissistic as never to permit strategic retreat, etc. But there were no real possibilities outside of these alternatives. To hope, as he did, that he could give vent to his destructiveness toward the conquered populations, and satisfy his vanity and grandiosity by never retreating, and threaten all other capitalist powers by the scope of his own ambitions, and win the war—all this was not within the gamut of real possibilities.

The same holds true for our present situation: there is a strong inclination toward war, caused by the presence of nuclear weapons on all sides and by the mutual fear and suspicion thus engendered; there is idolatry of national sovereignty; a lack of objectivity and reason in foreign policy. On the other hand, there is the wish, among the majority of the populations in both blocs, to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear destruction; there is the voice of the rest of mankind, which insists that the big powers should not involve all others in their madness; there are social and technological factors which permit the use of peaceful solutions, and which open the way to a happy future for the human race. While we have these two sets of inclining factors, there are still two real possibilities between which man can choose: that of peace by ending the nuclear arms race and the cold war; or that of war by continuing the present policy. Both possibilities are real, even if one has greater weight than the other. There is still freedom of choice. But there is no possibility that we can go on with the arms race, and the cold war, and a paranoid hate mentality, and at the same time avoid nuclear destruction.

In October, 1962, it seemed as if the freedom of decision had already been lost, and that the catastrophe would occur against everybody’s will, except perhaps that of some mad death-lovers. On that occasion mankind was saved. An easing of tension followed in which negotiations and compromises were possible. The present time—1964—is probably the last time at which mankind will have the freedom to choose between life or destruction. If we do not go beyond superficial arrangements which symbolize good will but do not signify an insight into the given alternatives and their respective consequences, then our freedom of choice will have vanished. If mankind destroys itself it will not be because of the intrinsic wickedness of man’s heart; it will be because of his inability to wake up to the realistic alternatives and their consequences. The possibility of freedom lies precisely in recognizing which are the real possibilities between which we can choose, and which are the “unreal possibilities” that constitute our wishful thoughts whereby we seek to spare ourselves the unpleasant task of making a decision between alternatives that are real but unpopular (individually or socially). The unreal possibilities are, of course, no possibilities at all; they are pipe-dreams. But the unfortunate fact is that most of us, when confronted with the real alternatives and with the necessity of making a choice that requires insight and sacrifices, prefer to think that there are other possibilities that can be pursued; we thus blind ourselves to the fact that these unreal possibilities do not exist, and that their pursuit is a smoke-screen behind which fate makes its own decision. Living under the illusion that the non-possibilities will materialize, man is then surprised, indignant, hurt, when the choice is made for him and the unwanted catastrophe occurs. At that point he falls into the mistaken posture of accusing others, defending himself, and/or praying to God, when the only thing he should blame is his own lack of courage to face the issue, and his lack of reason in understanding it.

We conclude, then, that man’s actions are always caused by inclinations rooted in (usually unconscious) forces operating in his personality. If these forces have reached a certain intensity they may be so strong that they not only incline man but determine him—hence he has no freedom of choice. In those cases where contradictory inclinations effectively operate within the personality there is freedom of choice. This freedom is limited by the existing real possibilities. These real possibilities are determined by the total situation. Man’s freedom lies in his possibility to choose between the existing real possibilities (alternatives). Freedom in this sense can be defined not as “acting in the awareness of necessity” but as acting on the basis of the awareness of alternatives and their consequences. There is never indeterminism; there is sometimes determinism, and sometime alternativism based on the uniquely human phenomenon: awareness. To put it differently, every event is caused. But in the constellation previous to the event there may be several motivations which can become the cause of the next event. Which of these possible causes becomes an effective cause may depend on man’s awareness of the very moment of decision. In other words, nothing is uncaused, but not everything is determined (in the “hard” meaning of the word).

The view of determinism, indeterminism, and alternativism developed here essentially follows the thought of three thinkers: Spinoza, Marx, and Freud. All three are often called “determinists.” There are good reasons for doing so, the best being that they have said so themselves. Spinoza wrote: “In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which also has been determined by a cause, and this last by another cause and so on to infinity.” Spinoza explained the fact that we subjectively experience our will as free—which for Kant as for many other philosophers was the very proof of the freedom of our will—as the result of self-deception: we are aware of our desires but we are not aware of the motives of our desires. Hence we believe in the “freedom” of our desires. Freud also expressed a deterministic position; belief in psychic freedom and choice; he said indeterminism “is quite unscientific. . . . It must give way before the claims of a determinism which governs even mental life.” Marx also seems to be a determinist. He discovered laws of history which explain political events as results of class stratification and class struggles, and the latter as the result of the existing productive forces and their development. It seems that all three thinkers deny human freedom and see in man the instrument of forces which operate behind his back, and not only incline him but determine him to act as he does. In this sense, Marx would be a strict Hegelian for whom the awareness of the necessity is the maximum of freedom.

Not only have Spinoza, Marx, and Freud expressed themselves in terms which seem to qualify them as determinists; many of their pupils have also understood them in this way. This holds particularly true for Marx and Freud. Many “Marxists” have talked as if there were an unalterable course of history, that the future was determined by the past, that certain events had necessarily to happen. Many of Freud’s pupils have claimed the same point of view for Freud; they argue that Freud’s psychology is a scientific one, precisely because it can predict effects from foregoing causes.

But this interpretation of Spinoza, Marx, and Freud as determinists entirely leaves out the other aspect in the philosophy of the three thinkers. Why was it that the main work of the “determinist” Spinoza is a book on ethics? That Marx’s main intention was the socialist revolution, and that Freud’s main aim was a therapy which would cure the mentally sick person of his neurosis?

The answer to these three questions is simple enough. All three thinkers saw the degree to which man and society are inclined to act in a certain way, often to such a degree that the inclination becomes determination. But at the same time they were not only philosophers who wanted to explain and interpret; they were men who wanted to change and to transform. For Spinoza the task of man, his ethical aim, is precisely that of reducing determination and achieving the optimum freedom. Man can do this by self-awareness, by transforming passions, which blind and chain him, into actions (“active effects”), which permit him to act according to his real interest as a human being. “An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a distinct and clear picture thereof.” Freedom is not anything which is given to us, according to Spinoza; it is something which within certain limitations we can acquire by insight and by effort. We have the alternative to choose if we have fortitude and awareness. The conquest of freedom is difficult and that is why most of us fail. As Spinoza wrote at the end of the Ethic:

I have thus completed all I wished to set forth touching the mind’s power over the emotions and the mind’s freedom. Whence it appears how potent is the wise man and how much he surpasses the ignorant man who is driven only by his lusts. For the ignorant man who is not only distracted in various ways by external causes without ever gaining the true acquiescence of his spirit, but moreover lives, as it were, unwitting of himself, and of God, and of things, and as soon as he ceases to suffer [in Spinoza’s sense, to be passive], ceases also to be.

Whereas the wise man, in as far as he is regarded as such, is scarcely at all disturbed in spirit, but, being conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, never ceases to be, but always possess true acquiescence of his spirit.

If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result, seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Spinoza, the founder of modern psychology, who sees the factors which determine man, nevertheless writes an Ethic. He wanted to show how man can change from bondage to freedom. And his concept of “ethic” is precisely that of the conquest of freedom. This conquest is possible by reason, by adequate ideas, by awareness, but it is possible only if man makes the effort with more labor than most men are willing to make.

If Spinoza’s work is a treatise aiming at the “salvation” of the individual (salvation meaning the conquest of freedom by awareness and labor), Marx’s intent is also the salvation of the individual. But while Spinoza deals with individual irrationality, Marx extends the concept. He sees that the irrationality of the individual is caused by the irrationality of the society in which he lives, and that this irrationality itself is the result of the planlessness and the contradictions inherent in the economic and social reality. Marx’s aim, like Spinoza’s, is the free and independent man, but in order to achieve this freedom man must become aware of those forces which act behind his back and determine him. Emancipation is the result of awareness and effort. More specifically, Marx, believing that the working class was the historical agent for universal human liberation, believed that class-consciousness and struggle were the necessary conditions for man’s emancipation. Like Spinoza, Marx is a determinist in the sense of saying: If you remain blind and do not make the utmost efforts, you will lose your freedom. But he, like Spinoza, is not only a man who wants to interpret; he is a man who wants to change—hence his whole work is the attempt to teach man how to become free by awareness and effort. Marx never said, as is often assumed, that he predicted historical events which would necessarily occur. He was always an alternativist. Man can break the chains of necessity if he is aware of the forces operating behind his back, if he makes the tremendous effort to win his freedom. It was Rosa Luxemburg, one of the greatest interpreters of Marx, who formulated this alternativism thus: that in this century man has the alternative of choosing “between socialism and barbarism.”

Freud, the determinist, was also a man who wanted to transform: he wanted to change neurosis into health, to substitute the dominance of the Ego for that of the Id. What else is neurosis—of whatever kind—but man’s loss of freedom to act rationally? What else is mental health but man’s capacity to act according to his true interest? Freud, like Spinoza and Marx, saw to what degree man is determined. But Freud also recognized that the compulsion to act in certain irrational and thus destructive ways can be changed—by self-awareness and by efforts. Hence his work is the attempt to devise a method of curing neurosis by self-awareness, and the motto of his therapy is: “The truth shall make you free.”

Several main concepts are common to all three thinkers: (1) Man’s actions are determined by previous causes, but he can liberate himself from the power of these causes by awareness and effort. (2) Theory and practice cannot be separated. In order to achieve “salvation,” or freedom, one must know, one must have the right “theory.” But one cannot know unless one acts and struggles. It was precisely the great discovery of all three thinkers that theory and practice, interpretation and change are inseparable. (3) While they were determinists in the sense that man can lose the battle for independence and freedom, they were essentially alternativists: they taught that man can choose between certain ascertainable possibilities and that it depends on man which of these alternatives will occur; it depends on him as long as he has not yet lost his freedom. Thus Spinoza did not believe that every man would achieve salvation, Marx did not believe that socialism had to win, nor did Freud believe that every neurosis could be cured by his method. In fact, all three men were skeptics and simultaneously men of deep faith. For them freedom was more than acting in the awareness of necessity; it was man’s great chance to choose the good as against the evil—it was a chance of choosing between real possibilities on the basis of awareness and effort. Their position was neither determinism nor indeterminism; it was a position of realistic, critical humanism.18

This is also the basic position of Buddhism. The Buddha recognized the cause of human suffering—greed. He confronts man with the choice between the alternative of retaining his greed, suffering, and remaining chained to the wheel of rebirth, or of renouncing greed and thus ending suffering and rebirth. Man can choose between the two real possibilities: there is no other possibility available to him.

We have examined man’s heart, its inclination for good and evil. Have we reached the ground that is more solid than we were on when we raised some questions in the first chapter of the book?

Perhaps; at least it may be worthwhile to sum up the results of our inquiry.

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state, and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. Yet evilness is not only human, but tragic. Even if man regresses to the most archaic forms of experience, he can never cease being human; hence he can never be satisfied with evilness as a solution. The animal cannot be evil; it acts according to its built-in drives which essentially serve his interest for survival. Evilness is the attempt to transcend the realm of the human to the realm of the inhuman, yet it is profoundly human because man cannot become an animal as little as he can become “God.” Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them, to feed his evil imagination.19 The idea of good and evil expressed here corresponds essentially to the one expressed by Spinoza. “In what follows, then,” he says, “I shall mean by ‘good’ that which we certainly know to be a means of approaching more nearly to the type of human nature which we have set before ourselves [model of human nature, as Spinoza also calls it]; by ‘bad’ that which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in approaching the said type.” Logically, for Spinoza, “a horse would be as completely destroyed by being changed into a man, as by being changed into an insect.” Good consists of transforming our existence into an ever increasing approximation to our essence; evil into an ever increasing estrangement between existence and essence.

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes man an enemy of life, precisely because he cannot leave the prison of his own ego. Living this way is living in “hell.”

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil. If both inclinations are still in some balance he is free to choose between alternatives which in themselves are determined by the total situation in which he finds himself. If, however, his heart has hardened to such a degree that there is no longer a balance of inclinations he is no longer free to choose. In the chain of events that lead to the loss of freedom the last decision is usually one in which man can no longer choose freely; at the first decision he may be free to choose that which leads to the good, provided he is aware of the significance of his decision.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to choose for his own action. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate, and often a rationalization for the authorities’ desire to punish him. Precisely because evil is human, because it is the potential of regression and the loss of our humanity, it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. It always remains man’s heart. We all are determined by the fact that we have been born human, and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices. We must choose the means together with the aims. We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good—but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved by the distress of another human being, by the friendly gaze of another person, by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass. If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good. Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his “life” will be ended. If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members, then the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.

[Footnote 18: The position of alternativism described here is essentially that of the Hebrew Bible. God does not interfere in man’s history by changing his heart. He sends his messengers, the prophets, with a threefold mission: to show man certain goals, to show him the consequences of his choices, and to protest against the wrong decision. It is up to man to make his choice; nobody, not even God, can “save” him. The clearest expression of this principle is expressed in God’s answer to Samuel when the Hebrews wanted a king: “Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit ye protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.” After Samuel has given them a drastic description of Oriental despotism, and the Hebrews still want a king, God says: “Hearken to their voice and make them a king” (I Sam. 8:9, 22). The same spirit of alternativism is expressed in the sentence: “I put before you today blessing and curse, life and death. And you chose life.” Man can choose. God cannot save him; all God can do is to confront him with the basic alternatives, life and death—and encourage him to choose life.]

[Footnote 19: It is interesting to note that the word for the good and evil impulse is Jezer, which in biblical Hebrew means “imaginings.”]

[Italicized emphases his; bold mine. Original footnotes included.]

Stopping on page 195 (end of book).

Since my internet went down for a few days, I used my spare time to do some transcribing, this being the first excerpt out of two completed.

On why we create enemies and victims — an excerpt from the book “Escape From Evil”

Tonight I decided to read a portion of Ernest Becker’s book Escape From Evil (1975), and I will now transcribe that portion (since the audio quality didn’t turn out too good and I won’t claim to be great at reading aloud). Beginning on page 114 under the section titled “The Science of Man after Hitler”:

Burke recognized that guilt and expiation were fundamental categories of sociological explanation, and he proposed a simple formula: guilt must be canceled in society, and it is absolved by “victimage.” So universal and regular is the dynamic that Burke wondered “whether human society could possibly cohere without symbolic victims which the individual members of the group share in common.” He saw “the civic enactment of redemption through the sacrificial victim” as the center of man’s social motivation.32

Burke was led to the central idea of victimage and redemption through Greek tragedy and Christianity; he saw that this fundamentally religious notion is a basic characteristic of any social order. Again we are brought back to our initial point that all culture is in essence sacred—supernatural, as Rank put it. The miraculousness of creation is after all magnified in social life; it is contained in persons and given color, form, drama. The natural mystery of birth, growth, consciousness, and death is taken over by society; and as Duncan so well says, this interweaving of social form and natural terror becomes an inextricable mystification; the individual can only gape in awe and guilt.33 The religious guilt, then, is also a characteristic of so-called secular societies; and anyone who would lead a society must provide for some form of sacred absolution, regardless of the particular historical disguise that this absolution may wear. Otherwise society is not possible. In Burke’s generation it was above all Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini who understood this and acted on it.

If there is one thing that the tragic wars of our time have taught us, it is that the enemy has a ritual role to play, by means of which evil is redeemed. All “wars are conducted as ‘holy’ wars”34 in a double sense then—as a revelation of fate, a testing of divine favor, and as a means of purging evil from the world at the same time. This explains why we are dedicated to war precisely in its most horrifying aspects: it is a passion of human purgation. Nietzsche observed that “whoever is dissatisfied with himself is always ready to revenge himself therefore; we others will be his victims. . . .”35  But the irony is that men are always dissatisfied and guilty in small and large ways, and this is what drives them to a search for purity where all dissatisfaction can come to a head and be wiped away. Men try to qualify for eternalization by being clean and by cleansing the world around them of the evil, the dirty; in this way they show that they are on the side of purity, even if they themselves are impure. The striving for perfection reflects man’s effort to get some human grip on his eligibility for immortality. And he can only know if he is good if the authorities tell him so; this is why it is so vital for him emotionally to know whether he is liked or disliked, why he will do anything the group wants in order to meet its standards of “good”: his eternal life depends on it.36 Good and bad relate to strength and weakness, to self-perpetuation, to indefinite duration. And so we can understand that all ideology, as Rank said, is about one’s qualification for eternity; and so are all disputes about who really is dirty. The target of one’s righteous hatred is always called “dirt”; in our day the short-hairs call the long-hairs “filthy” and are called in turn “pigs.” Since everyone feels dissatisfied with himself (dirty), victimage is a universal human need. And the highest heroism is the stamping out of those who are tainted. The logic is terrifying. The psychoanalytic grouping of guilt, anality, and sadism is translatable in this way to the highest levels of human striving and to the age-old problem of good and evil.

From which we have to conclude that men have been the midwives of horror on this planet because this horror alone gave them peace of mind, made them “right” with the world. No wonder Nietzsche would talk about “the disease called man.”37 It seems perverse when we put it so blatantly, yet here is an animal who needs the spectacle of death in order to open himself to love. As Duncan put it:

. . . as we wound and kill our enemy in the field and slaughter his women and children in their homes, our love for each other deepens. We become comrades in arms; our hatred of each other is being purged in the sufferings of our enemy.38

And even more relentlessly:

We need to socialize in hate and death, as well as in joy and love. We do not know how to have friends without, at the same time, creating victims whom we must wound, torture, and kill. Our love rests on hate.39

If we talk again and shockingly about human baseness, it is not out of cynicism; it is only to better get some kind of factual purchase on our fate. We follow Freud in the belief that it is only illusions that we have to fear; and we follow Hardy—in our epigraph to this book—in holding that we have to take a full look at the worst in order to begin to get rid of illusion. Realism, even brutal, is not cynicism. As Duncan so passionately concluded his Nietzschean and Dostoevskian exposition of the terrifying dynamics of purity and love “. . . we cannot become humane until we understand our need to visit suffering and death on others . . . The sociology of our time must begin in [such an] anguished awareness . . .”40  It has already begun in the work of Burke, Duncan, Mumford, and Lifton; but its theoretical formulations were already plentifully contained in the neglected work of Rank. From the point of view of such a sociology, the great scientific problems of our time have been the successful and grand social cohesions, especially of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Burke and Duncan have amply described the religious horror drama of Germany under Hitler, where the dirty and evil Jews were purged from the world of Aryan purity by the Nazi priesthood.41  […]

Leaving off there and then picking back up on page 118:

It took Stalin’s purge trials to show us that the highest humanistic ideals of socialist revolutionaries also have to be played out in a religious drama of victimage and redemption—if one is to have a pure and cohesive socialist society at all.42 The Russians exiled religious expiation but could not exile their own human nature, and so they had to conjure up a secular caricature of religious expiation. And they are still doing it: the magician-priests who give absolution to the clean communist masses now wear the white coats of hospital psychiatrists who transform dirty dissident victims with the latest techniques of “secular” science. It is grotesque, but Burke had warned us to always watch for the “secular equivalents” of the theological formula of victimage and redemption; the scapegoat is not a ” ‘necessary illusion’ of savages, children, and the masses,”43 but now an achievement of the “most advanced” socialist society.

[Italicized emphases his. Bold mine.]

That’s what I decided to read aloud today, though I don’t know how well it will be understood without first reading his arguments and explanations leading up to that portion, but I thought it could stand alone on its own and at least perhaps entice others to consider reading the entire book for themselves. Click to read another excerpt posted from this book.

Thanks to the books of Ernest Becker and his frequent mentioning of the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, I recently decided to purchase one of the latter’s books titled Beyond Psychology and look forward to delving into it in due time.

For further reading on these and related subjects, you may want to look into Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death (considered a companion book to this one — see excerpts 1, 2, 3 and 4) and works produced by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (which I’ve also transcribed bits of on here and intend to do more in the future).

A historical analysis of guilt, pride, and primitive economics (an excerpt from the book “Escape From Evil”)

Today I’m transcribing from Ernest Becker’s book Escape From Evil (1975), beginning on page 28:

How could traders, missionaries, and administrators understand something that often eluded anthropologists themselves: that primitive man did not act out of economic principles, that the process of freely giving and receiving was embedded in a much larger, much more important cosmology, that since the white man had destroyed the old gods and replaced them, he had to give freely just as the gods had done. Primitive life was openly immersed in debt, in obligation to the invisible powers, the ancestors, the dead souls; the group lived partly by drawing its powers from the non-living. Unlike us, primitives knew the truth of man’s relation to nature: nature gives freely of its bounty to man—this was the miracle for which to be grateful and beholden and give to the gods of nature in return. Whatever one received was already a gift, and so to keep things in balance one had to give in return—to one another and, by offerings, to the spirits. The gods existed in order to receive gifts. This helps us understand why primitive society seems so “masochistic” to us in its willing submission to nature and to dead spirits. It had found the perfect formula for keeping things in balance:

In the archaic consciousness the sense of indebtedness exists together with the illusion that the debt is payable; the gods exist to make the debt payable. Hence the archaic economy is embedded in religion, limited by the religious framework, and mitigated by the consolations of religion—above all, removal of indebtedness and guilt.5

And this explains too the thing that has puzzled thinkers since the beginning of the study of man: why weren’t natives content to live in the primitive “paradise,” why couldn’t man simply relax and consume nature’s bounty, why was he driven from the very beginning to develop a surplus beyond basic human needs? The answer is that primitive man created an economic surplus so that he would have something to give to the gods; the giving of the surplus was an offering to the gods who controlled the entire economy of nature in the first place, and so man needed to give precisely in order to keep himself immersed in the cosmology of obligation and expiation. The ceremonial destruction of mountains of precious food was just that: a ceremonial religious act. The painstaking fabrication of charms or the dangerous hunting down of rare objects like whale’s teeth represented the sweat of one’s brow for the most vital motive man knew: to keep the cycle of power moving from the invisible to the visible world. When man gives, “the stream of life continues to flow,” as Van der Leeuw so beautifully summed it up in his classic study of primitive ideas.In order to understand this, we have to abandon our own notions of what a gift is. It is not a bribe by one who is a stranger to you and simply wants to “get in good” with you, or by a loved one who wants to draw close to you or even selflessly give you pleasure.

Economics as Power

In the first place, for the primitive the gift was a part of the stream of nature’s bounty. Many people today think that the primitive saw the world more under the aspect of miracle and awe than we do, and so he appreciated elemental things more than we do. In order to recapture this way of looking at nature, we moderns usually have to experience a breakdown and rebirth into naive perception. So, for example, when Hamann was asked what Christianity meant to him, he said it was a search for the elements of bread and wine. But we don’t need to romanticize about the primitive (whether truly or not) in order to understand his valuation of nature’s bounty. We saw that the main organismic motive was self-perpetuation; it is logical that when self-perpetuation became a conscious problem at the level of man he naturally tended to value those things that gave him the power to endure, those things that incorporated the sun’s energy and that gave warmth and life. Food is a sacred element because it gives the power of life. The original sacrifice is always food because this is what one wants from the gods as the basis for life. “Give us our daily bread. . . .” Furthermore, if food contains power, it is always more than itself, more than a physical thing: it has a mysterious inner essence of spirit. Milk is the essence of the cow, shark’s teeth are the essence of the shark’s vitality and murderousness, etc. So when primitive man gave these things as gifts, he did not give a dead thing, a mere object as it appears to us—but a piece of life, of spirit, even a part of himself because he was immersed in the stream of life. The gifts had mana power, the strength of supernatural life.

This is what made the bond and allowed the stream to flow between giver and receiver: to give and then to counter-give kept the motion going, preserved the cycle of power. This is how we are to understand the potlatch giving and oneupmanship, the destruction of quantities of goods: the eternal flux of power in the broad stream of life was generated by the greatest possible expenditure; when man wanted that stream to flow as bountifully as possible.It then became hard to distinguish who gave and who received, since all were bathed in the power of the movement: everyone participated in the powers that were opened up—the giver, the community, the gods. “I give you power so that you may have power.” The more you give, the more everyone gets.

This feeling of expenditure as power is not strange to us moderns either. We want to keep our goods moving with the same obsessive dedication—cars, refrigerators, homes, money. We feel that there is health and strength in the world if the economy moves, if there is a frenzy of buying and trading on the stock market, activity in the banks; and this is not only because the movement of goods piles up money in the bank, but actually reflects, I think, the sense of trust and security that the magical free-enterprise powers are working for us so long as we continue to buy, sell, and move goods. The Soviets are experiencing the same thing: the sense of exhilaration and self-celebration in the movement of production and consumption of goods. Like the primitive, modern man feels that he can prosper only if he shows that he already has power. Yet of course in its one-dimensionality this is a caricature on the primitive potlatch, as most of modern power ideology is; it has no anchor in the invisible world, in the deference to the gods. Primitive man gave to the gods. Hocart sees this as the origin of trade: the fact that one group made offerings to the gods of their kinsmen and vice versa. This led to the exchange of different stuffs between different groups, and in it we see the direct motive of the creation of a surplus for exchange. The exchange of offerings was always a kind of contest—who could give the most to the gods of their kinsmen. We can see what this did for a person: it gave him a contest in which he could be victorious if his offerings of surplus exceeded those of the other clan. In a word, it gave him cosmic heroism, the distinction of releasing the most power in nature for the benefit of all. He was a hero in the eyes not only of the gods but also of men; he earned social honor, “the right to crow.”8 He was a “big power” man. Thus we can see in gift giving and potlatch the continuation of the triumph of the hunter, but now in the creation and distribution of one’s own fabricated surplus. Róheim very aptly called this state of things “narcissistic capitalism”: the equation of wealth with magic power.9   And so all this seemingly useless surplus, dangerously and painstakingly wrought, yields the highest usage of all in terms of power. Man, the animal who knows he is not safe here, who needs continued affirmation of his powers, is the one animal who is implacably driven to work beyond animal needs precisely because he is not a secure animal. The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness; the amassing of surplus, then, goes to the very heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude.

We see, too, as Brown says, that in the strict utilitarian sense in which we understand the term, primitive “work” cannot be economic; for instance, our “common ownership” and “collective enterprise” in which the person is a “partner” do not do justice to the multidimensionality of the primitive world. Primitive man worked so that he could win a contest in which the offering was made to the gods; he got spiritual merit for his labors. I suppose early Calvinism was an echo of this performance for the eyes of men and the gods, but without the continual giving, the redistribution of the most precious goods. “Big men” in primitive society were those who gave away the most, had nothing for themselves. Sometimes a chief would even offer his own life to appease an injured party in a quarrel; his role was often nothing else than to be a vehicle for the smooth flow of life in the tribe. (The resemblance to historical Calvinism ends abruptly at this kind of performance for spiritual merit.) This reveals a central fact about social life: primitive man immersed himself in a network of social obligations for psychological reasons. Just as Rank said, man has to have a core psychological motive for being in the group in the first place, otherwise he would not be a group-living animal. Or as Brown, who likes to call a spade a spade, put it, “man entered social organization in order to share guilt. Social organization . . . is a structure of shared guilt . . . a symbolic mutual confession of guilt.”10 And so in one sweep we can understand how primitive economics is inexorably sacred, communal, and yet psychologically motivated at the same time.

The Nature of Guilt

But this kind of picture risks putting primitive man even further beyond our comprehension, even though it seems logically to explain what he was doing. The problem is in the key motive, guilt. Unless we have a correct feeling for what guilt is, what the experience of it means, the sacred nature of primitive economics may escape us. We may even prefer our illusionless “economic man” to the “pitiful” primitives—and this result will entirely undo Brown’s thesis. But he himself is in some measure to blame. He draws partly on Nietzsche and Freud, and some of their scorn of guilt as a weakness seems to have rubbed off on him. Even more seriously, by his own admission he does not have any theory of the nature of guilt (“Whatever the ultimate explanation of guilt may be . . . “)11 even though he bases his whole argument on it. When he does offer one explanation, he makes of guilt a simple reflex of the repression of enjoyment—something for which he has already so well castigated Freud in discussing the problem of anality: “The repression of full enjoyment in the present inevitably releases aggression against those ancestors out of love of whom the repression was instituted. Aggression against those simultaneously loved is guilt.”12

This is one explanation of guilt that comes from psychoanalysis: the child in his boundless desires for gratification can’t help feeling love for those who respond to him; at the same time, when they inevitably frustrate him for his own good, he can’t help feeling hate and destructive impulses toward them, which puts him in an impossible bind. The bind is one kind of guilt, but only one aspect of the total bind of life which constitutes the immense burden of guilt on the human psyche.

One of the reasons guilt is so difficult to analyze is that it is itself “dumb.” It is a feeling of being blocked, limited, transcended, without knowing why. It is the peculiar experience of an organism which can apprehend a totality of things and not be able to move in relation to it. Man experiences this uniquely as a feeling of the crushing awesomeness of things and his helplessness in the face of them. This real guilt partly explains man’s willing subordinacy to his culture; after all, the world of men is even more dazzling and miraculous in its richness than the awesomeness of nature. Also, subordinacy comes naturally from man’s basic experiences of being nourished and cared for; it is a logical response to social altruism. Especially when one is sick or injured, he experiences the healing forces as coming from the superordinate cultural system of tools, medicines, and the hard-won skills of persons. An attitude of humble gratitude is a logical one to assume toward the forces that sustain one’s life; we see this very plainly in the learning and development of children.

Another reason that guilt is so diffuse is that it is many different things: there are many different binds in life. One can be in a bind in relation to one’s own development, can feel that one has not achieved all one should have. One can be in a bind in relation to one’s body, which is the guilt of anality: to feel bound and doomed by one’s physical appendages and orifices. Man also experiences guilt because he takes up space and has unintended effects on others—for example, when we hurt others without intending to, just by being what we are or by following our natural desires and appetites, not to mention when we hurt others physically by accident or thoughtlessness. This, of course, is part of the guilt of our bodies, which have effects that we do not intend in our inner selves. To use Rank’s happy phrase, this is the guilt we feel for being a “fate-creating” object.13 We feel guilt in relation to what weighs on us, a weight that we sense is more than we can handle, and so our wives and children are a burden of guilt because we cannot possibly foresee and handle all the accidents, sicknesses, etc., that can happen to them; we feel limited and bowed down, we can’t be as carefree and self-expansive as we would like, the world is too much with us.14

If we feel guilt when we have not developed our potential, we also are put into a bind by developing too much. Our own uniqueness becomes a burden to us; we “stick out” more than we can safely manage. Guilt makes sense in relation to evolution itself. Man is on the “cutting edge” of evolution; he is the animal whose development is not prefigured by instincts, and so he is open to becoming what he can. This means literally that each person is already somewhat “ahead of himself” simply by virtue of being human and not animal. No wonder people have almost universally feared the “evil eye” in traditional society: it expresses a natural and age-old reaction to making oneself too prominent, detaching oneself too much from the background of things. In traditional Jewish culture, for example, each time the speaker made a favorable remark about the health or achievement of someone dear to him, he immediately followed this remark with the invocation “Kein Ayin-Hara” (no evil eye), as if to say “may this good fortune and prominence not be undone by being too conspicuous.” Some individuals achieve an intensity of individuation in which they stick out so far that almost each day is an unbearable exposure. But even the average person in any society is already more of an individual than any animal can be; the testimonial to this is in the human face, which is the most individuated animal expression in nature. Faces fascinate us precisely because they are unique, because they stick out of nature and evolution as the most fully developed expression of the pushing of the life force in the intensity of its self-realization. We don’t understand why the life force is personalizing in this way, what it is trying to achieve; but we flatly know that it is personalizing because we have our heads and faces as empirical testimony, and as a burden of guilt. We might say that the development of life is life’s own burden.

I linger on these ontological thoughts for a very good reason: they tell us what is bothering us deep down. If your face is the most individual part of nature, and if its sticking out is a burden to you because you are an embodiment of the cutting edge of evolution and are no longer safely tucked into the background of nature—if this is so, then it follows that it is dangerous to have a head. And I think mankind has always recognized this implicitly, especially on primitive levels of experience. I believe Levin is right when he says that “it is a crime to own a head” in society; historically societies have not tolerated too much individuation, especially on primitive levels. And Levin may even have something when he adds that this is the simplest explanation of head-hunting.15 Well, there can be no one explanation for the widespread passion for head-hunting;16 but probably the underlying thing that the various forms of head-taking have in common is that the head is prized as a trophy precisely because it is the most personal part, the one that juts most prominently out of nature. In some sense, too, head-hunting may be a way of projecting onto others one’s own guilt for sticking out so much, so that their heads are taken as scapegoats to atone for the guilt. It is as if to say, “This will teach you to stick out so blatantly.” Certainly we feel something of this in societies in which decapitation as punishment was practiced and the heads were publicly displayed. This was a destruction of individuality at its most intensive point, and so a vindication of the pool of faces of the community whose laws had been transgressed. If we extend these thoughts one logical step, we can understand a basic psychoanalytic idea that otherwise seems ridiculous: “in the eyes of culture, to live is a crime.”17 In other words, to live is to stick out, to go beyond safe limits; hence it is to court danger, to be a locus of the possibility of disaster for the group.

If we take all this into view, we should find more palatable to our understanding what Brown meant when he said that social organization was a structure of shared guilt, a symbolic mutual confession of it. Mankind has so many things that put it into a bind that it simply cannot stand them unless it expiates them in some way. Each person cannot stand his own emergence and the many ways in which his organism is dumbly baffled from within and transcended from without. Each person would literally be pulled off his feet and blown away or would gnaw away his own insides with acid anxiety if he did not tuck himself back into something. This is why the main general characteristic of guilt is that it must be shared: man cannot stand alone. And this is precisely what Brown means when he says, “Archaic man gives because he wants to lose; the psychology is . . . self-sacrificial . . . what the giver wants to lose is guilt.”18  Or, metaphorically, “In the gift complex dependence on the mother is acknowledged, and then overcome by mothering others.”19 Society, in other words, is a dramatization of dependence and an exercise in mutual safety by the one animal in evolution who had to figure out a way of appeasing himself as well as nature. We can conclude that primitives were more honest about these things—about guilt and debt—because they were more realistic about man’s desperate situation vis–à–vis nature. Primitive man embedded social life in a sacred matrix not necessarily because he was more fearful or masochistic than men in later epochs, but because he saw reality more clearly in some basic ways.20

Once we acknowledge this, we have to be careful not to make too much of it. I mean that group living through the motive of guilt is not all humble and self-effacing. As we saw in our consideration of gift giving, not only expiation but the blatant affirmation of power is a primary impetus behind it. If guilt is the experience of fear and powerlessness, then immersing oneself in a group is one way of actively defeating it: groups alone can make big surplus, can generate extravagant power in the form of large harvests, the capture of dangerous animals and many of them, the manufacture of splendid and intricate items based on sophisticated techniques, etc. From the beginning of time the group has represented big power, big victory, much life.

Heroism and Repentance: The Two Sides of Man

If we thus look at both sides of the picture of guilt, we can see that primitive man allocated to himself the two things that man needs most: the experience of prestige and power that constitutes man a hero, and the experience of expiation that relieves him of the guilt of being human. The gift complex took care of both these things superlatively. Man worked for economic surplus of some kind in order to have something to give. In other words, he achieved heroism and expiation at the same time, like the dutiful son who brings home his paper-route earnings and puts them in the family coffer. He protruded out of nature and tucked himself in with the very same gesture, a gesture of heroism-expiation. Man needs self-esteem more than anything; he wants to be a cosmic hero, contributing with his energies to nothing less than the greatness and pleasure of the gods themselves. At the same time this risks inflating him to proportions he cannot stand: he becomes too much like the gods themselves, and he must renounce this dangerous power. Not to do so is to be unbalanced, to run the great sin of hubris as the Greeks understood it. Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself.

Okay, stopping there on page 37.

[All emphases his.]

Interesting stuff to ponder on.