Escape 16: Promises, empty promises of immortality.
A group that doesn’t promise its members immortality doesn’t exist for long. Of course promises of immortality in a secular society are hard to figure out, but we manage. If your group has power and its proven it over and over again by military action and by delivering prosperity to most of its members then you’d be crazy to cross it. We get locked into group ideologies precisely because our group delivers on its promises of prosperity. We resent dissenters, we think protesters are fools and ingrates. Not only that,
[man] accepts the social limitations on his appetites because the group gives expression to the most important appetite of all, the hunger for the continuation of life. (p. 65)
We’ve given over our power to the state sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gleefully but we do it because of the power we feel and see everyday exercised around us. Of course, there are police, the military, the courts, and virtually the whole apparatus of the state to ensure its continuity. And, of course, there’s our complicity. As we saw earlier, be barter away our freedom for promises of immortality. We don’t ever get immortality if we think of ourselves only as physical things but we do if we think of ourselves as being symbolic creatures as well as physical ones and who or what controls the symbols in our lives? The groups in which we are born, learn language (an ultimate symbol system), and the values we live by, that’s who. The groups I refer to here can be as small as a nuclear family or as large as ‘Western Civilization’. We often relate to our countries as our group, but they aren’t necessarily so. In fact, there is increasingly a global power emerging to challenge the nation-state. The era of the nation-state is coming to an end, but slowly, bit by bit. We hardly notice it, really, until we lose our job because the company we work for has decided to manufacture in Malaysia the products it sells. How it will continue to sell product to unemployed workers is besides the point. It’s anarchy out there. There is no global economic planning, just economic activity that increasingly jumps borders. People normally stay put, capital need not. It moves freely anywhere for the most part. So it could be that our nation-states, our secular gods, are losing their gloss. The poor poll ratings of most ‘Western’ leaders is an indication that the tarnish is rubbing off on them too.
Primitives knew that very powerful invisible forces ruled the world and that they had no control over them unless, just maybe, by engaging just the right sacrificial ritual at just the right time, those forces might just sit up and take notice. Better still, pick a special person in the group and make them a representative of the invisible forces. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Then go one step further and give that person or his proxies ongoing power as a reward for bringing prosperity to the group.
Now, though, as Becker points out following Rank, we have entered a new era, what Rank called the ‘era of the son’ and it carried with it a new development.
It took the form of a new kind of scientific individualism that burst out of the Renaissance and the Reformation. It represented a new power candidate for replacing all the previous ideologies of immortality, but now an almost completely and unashamedly secular one. This was a new Faustian pursuit of immortality through one’s own acts, his own works, his own discovery of truth. This was a kind of secular-humanist immortality based on the gifts of the individual. Instead of having one hero chieftain leading a tribe or a kingdom or one hero savior leading all of mankind, society would now become the breeding ground for the development of many heroes as possible, individual geniuses in great numbers who would enrich mankind.
…But alas it has been our sad experience that the new scientific Faustian man too has failed.
We haven’t created equality for one thing nor have we learned the Truth. The Truth might have made us real gods, but we haven’t learned much. As Becker so wryly notes:
…[man] is actually ruining the very theater of his own immortality with his own poisonous and madly driven works; once he had eclipsed the sacred dimension , he had only the earth left to testify to the value of his life.
Ironic, isn’t it?