Ernest Becker 10: In debt to the gods, now and then.

We’re not quite half way through EFE yet, and, as I note in this post, he seems to be getting more impatient to get his point across. As I say, there is no substitute for reading Becker himself.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Ernest Becker 10: In debt to the gods, now and then.

So, the title of chapter 2 of EFE is: Economics as Expiation and Power. I’m going to have some difficulty summarizing Becker’s thought now because as we go along in this book it seems that Becker is feeling a sort of urgency to get his ideas out and on paper.  He’s less inclined in this chapter and in subsequent ones to elaborate or beat around the bush.  He still uses examples a lot but I tend to leave those out here because they are not necessary to the story; but do they ever help in understanding Becker.  More important, almost every sentence is quotable. So, I say again, there is no substitute for reading Becker himself.  His two most important works in my mind are Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.  His earlier works are fine…

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Ernest Becker 9: Morality is Fundamentally a Matter of Power

Yes, more Becker. Morality is also a huge topic for Emile Durkheim, the first person to actually hold a university position as a sociologist. He called sociology the science of morality. That’s the topic of another post on this blog.

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Ernest Becker 9: Morality is Fundamentally a Matter of Power

I know that I’m dealing with Becker in these posts but there was a sociologist, the first bone fide European sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1857-1917), who considered sociology the science of morality.  Morality is not what most people think it is.  It’s not some abstract universal condition that has no relationship to reality.  No, morality is fundamentally rooted in political power.  This is not the place for it (I don’t think) but sometime it would be nice for you to challenge me to prove this by announcing what you think are moral precepts and defying me to show how they are connected to the material, real world.  It would be especially fun if you think that morality lies exclusively in the realm of ideas.

In any case, I digress.  Morality underlies all of his work, but now back to Becker and…

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Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

Yesterday, I posted a note on one my own denial project. keeping busy. I have others, some idiosyncratic and some cultural that I share with you and just about everybody else in our world. I’m not exceptional nor am I immune from immortality-projects like nationalism and money. Sacrifice is the subject of this blog post. We’re constantly asked to make sacrifices to ensure the flow of prosperity. What’s that all about? Read on.

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Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

 How many times have we heard our government tell us that we have to make sacrifices now so that we can have prosperity in the future.  Sacrifice usually means putting off gratification now for pleasure and prosperity later.  Becker, along with his special ‘informants’ like Hocart, understood the nature of sacrifice.  In EFE Becker dedicates part of Chapter 1 to sacrifice.  It’s critical to his whole argument.  He writes:

 At the centre of the primitive technics of nature stands the act of sacrifice, which reveals the essence of the whole science of ritual.  In a way, we might see it as the atomic physics of the primitive world view…If he does things [performs the ritual ceremony] exactly as prescribed, as the gods did them in the beginning of time, then he gets control over the earth and creation.  He can put vigor…

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Ernest Becker 6: Today, will the Broncos hang their heads in shame?

More Becker. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Ernest Becker 6: Today, will the Broncos hang their heads in shame?

Following from yesterday’s post, primitive ritual is a tool used for the production of life.  [We get to the Seahawks and Broncos at the end of this post!] The Mayans and especially the Aztec were quite capable of ritually sacrificing scores of human beings to ensure future prosperity.  In this post I explore with Becker the consequences of our search for immortality and the means by which we pursue that search.  They vary in time and space, of course, but their aim is always the same: ensure prosperity and the good life.  Defeat anything or anyone that threatens it.

We have a great deal of faith in our way of controlling life, via science and especially engineering and technology.  So when our technology fails us, our faith is shaken.  When a plane crashes or a pipeline ruptures or…

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Ernest Becker 5: Build Me A Sacrificial Altar

As promised, more Becker. Every day, for the next month, more Becker.

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Ernest Becker 5: The Power of Ritual or Build Me A Sacrificial Altar

Becker was a master synthesizer.  He didn’t really do any empirical research himself.  His arguments are based on a careful distillation, combination, and re-combination of the work of many other writers, among them A. M. Hocart, Otto Rank, Johan Huizinga and Norman O. Brown.  In Chapter 1 of EFE, entitled The Primitive World:  Ritual as Practical Technics, Becker introduces the work of the anthropologist A. M. Hocart (1883-1939).  Hocart was a major influence on Becker and provided him with a number of basic insights upon which Becker built his elegant and provocative analysis of the thing that drives humankind to distraction…the striving for immortality.

Ritual.  As well as being creatures of habit, we are also creatures of ritual.  Human beings love ritual.  Our lives are frequently punctuated by ritual.  Becker writes:

Hocart…saw the universal human ambition as…

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Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?

As promised, more Becker. This is the fourth instalment. Short. Easy to read, I think, but a defiance. Becker writes: Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death. “Society” here could mean any group of people from a family to a country to a group of countries to business enterprise and everything in between.

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Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?

Alright, so Becker is keen on telling us that we are animals and our ‘animality’ must be considered in any analysis of what our place is on this planet.  More than that he states that like all animals we want to continue to live.  We crave life but know that it will end.  But that just can’t be!  We are such wonderful creatures, we’ve got these big brains and bodies that can give us such pleasure.  Why we must be the most intelligent things in the universe!  We can’t possibly die… Well, maybe, just maybe we don’t die.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Maybe our flesh and blood dies, but WE don’t.  Yes, disease and death are the twin evils that we face, but maybe, just maybe, that’s just a part of what we are.  Well…let’s let Becker speak now as…

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Ernest Becker 3: Not my tummy, no, not that!

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I’m going to start right off with this quotation from Becker’s EFE, pages 3 and 4.


And this brings me to the unique paradox of the human condition: that man wants to persevere as does any animal or primitive organism; he is driven by the same craving to consume…to enjoy continued experience.  But man is cursed with a burden no animal has to bear: he is conscious that his own end is inevitable, that his stomach will die. [Oh no, not my tummy!]


…As I argued in The Denial of Death, man erected cultural symbols which do not age or decay to quiet his fear of his ultimate end – and more immediate concern, to provide the promise of indefinite duration.  His culture gives man an alter-organism which is more durable and powerful than the one nature endowed him with…


What I am saying is…

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