Escape 28: What is the heroic society?
So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon. In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society? It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion.
In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws. He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life. Now what? How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’? We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.
In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course. I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life. After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction. Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses. So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]
Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history. It’s…
From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.
If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life. We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148)
The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about.
We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really. Note what the Ugandan government has just done. The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed. Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians. They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values. Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them. As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149)
Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come. Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.
You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians. They are vulnerability categories in their world! They need to be eliminated. Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful. What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error? Now that’s a heroic thing to do.
In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.
Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others. Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151)
Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind. For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil. Becker doesn’t buy that. For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)
The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…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.
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, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.
And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders. Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt. He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’ This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism. Follow orders and you will be saved. The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order. It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance. In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume.
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.