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 his closing remarks to Chapter 1. So far he has established clearly that we are animals and that our animality must be considered if we wish to construct a model of humanity’s time on this planet. We must eat and procreate, both activities that require certain types of organization for a species that is as social as ours. In fact these activities are so important to us that we elevate them to lofty heights creating elaborate symbol systems around them including what we call morality. We seek to control life and death although we can’t in any fundamental sense but we try just as primitive man did. We do it with science, engineering and technology. The primitives did it with ritual altars. They weren’t happy with just creating life, of course, they wanted it to last for an eternity. So, they invented immortality ideologies or projects with the requisite ritual organization so as to convince themselves that immortality is possible. This wasn’t easy. Becker writes:
…man quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment and had to conceive ways to qualify for immortality. In this way the simple food quest was transmuted into a quest for spiritual excellence, for goodness and purity. All of man’s higher spiritual ideals were a continuation of the original quest for energy-power. Nietzsche was one of the first to state this blatantly, and he shocked the world with it: that all morality is fundamentally a matter of power, of the power of organisms to continue existing by reaching for a superhuman purity.
I haven’t mentioned in previous posts Becker’s thoughts on what he calls macrocosmitization and microcosmitization. These unwieldy terms refer to the primitive’s tendency to ‘humanize the cosmos’ with the zodiac or think that reading entrails or engaging in any number of other similar rituals could bring us in touch with the heavens.
By opposing culture to nature in these ways, man allotted to himself a special spiritual destiny, one that enabled him to transcend his animal condition and assume a special status in nature. No longer was he an animal who died and vanished from the earth; he was a creator of life who could also give eternal life to himself by means of communal rituals of cosmic regeneration.
Obviously to primitives, nature was being controlled by forces beyond their capacity to understand sensually so they had to imagine what these forces might look like and not surprisingly, they came to look surprisingly like humans, special humans, of course, but human in look and with superheated capacities. These forces were the ones who created life and took it away, often, it seemed on a whim. How to control such capricious forces? By giving them what they trucked in, life. Sacrificing life to the invisible forces so that they would give up life and not take it away so casually. Hence, Becker’s comment:
Man has always casually sacrificed life for more life.
And of course we’re still into that. The Rwandan massacre of 1994 was just this kind of sacrificial ritualistic search for purity with a concomitant cleansing of unpure, evil ‘others’. Historical examples abound of our attempts to control life by sacrificing life.
Each organism preens itself on the specialness of the life that throbs within it, and is ready to subordinate all others to its own continuation. Man was always conceited; he only began to show his destructive side to the rest of nature when the ritual technology of the spiritual production of animals was superseded by other technologies. The unfolding of history is precisely the saga of the succession of new and different ideologies of organismic self-perpetuation – and the new injustices and heightened destructiveness of historical man. Let us now turn to this.