Escape 30: A last gasp…
Ok, so I’ve turned a lot of bits into bytes and then into kilobytes in the last month doing this blow by blow evaluation of Ernest Becker’s Escape From Evil. After flogging humanity for its hubris, arrogance and basic failure to be nice, Becker asks in an almost doleful way, what can a science of man do to turn this thing around? He says, “Men cannot abandon the heroic.” (p. 159) Well, that’s a bummer. He goes on to argue that we need our illusions. “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 are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate into delusions?” (p. 159)
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.
Of course this implies that human action is responsive to reason. It may be in individual circumstances in a very limited way, but when it goes up against the power of a determined lie of an ideology, it doesn’t stand much of a chance. It seems we can deny evidence, we can deny effect if in doing so we continue on the road to the good life, prosperity and immortality.
The task of social theory is to show how society aggravates and uses natural fears, but there is no way to get rid of the fears simply by showing how leaders use them or by saying that men must ‘take them in hand.’ Men will still take one another’s heads because their own heads stick out and they feel exposed and guilty. The task of social theory is not to explain guilt away or to absorb it unthinkingly in still another destructive ideology, but to neutralize it and give it expression in truly creative and life-enhancing ideologies.
What might these be? Well they aren’t to be found in traditional religions, says Becker. The problem with Christianity and other churches these days is that their hero system has been eclipsed by secular society. The current pope understands that but he also knows that providing people with a bit of an opportunity for personal heroism might just get their juices flowing again. And of course it must be said that churches have and still do take sides in secular conflicts as was the case in Ireland where the Catholics were organized around labour while the Protestants were more supportive of British capital. This is a generalization, of course, but not unreasonable. In the Middle East today, the same can be said about the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim factions.
Now, Becker lays his soul bare. He wants us to buy into the notion that theory in the social science must be organized around bringing about social justice:
One of the reasons for our present disillusionment with theory in the social sciences is that it has done very little in this liberating direction. Even those intelligent social scientists who attempt a necessary balance between conservative and Marxist perspectives are amiss in this…what I am saying is that a general critical science of society that unites the best of both wings of thought is a present reality, and need not be delayed…In science, as in authentic religion, there is no easy refuge for empty-headed patriotism, or for putting off to some future date the exposure of large-scale social lies.
Of course, nobody wants their ‘large-scale social lies’ to be exposed. That’s why art, criticism, satire and science itself must be controlled. They are dangerous threats to the powers that be, the ones hiding behind the big lie of secular immortality striving.
It all comes down to this. Becker is the strong believer in reason. He knows that this belief is not entirely justified, but he’s kind of put himself into a corner where there is no way out.
So it is the disguise of panic that makes men live in ugliness, and not the natural animal wallowing. It seems to me that this means that evil is now amenable to critical analysis and, conceivably, to the sway of reason.
His ‘conceivably’ here speaks loudly that he is doubtful of what reason can do. I think that Becker in all his brilliance has based his work on a number of moral assumptions that keep making life difficult for him. One is that ‘evil’ means disease and death on the one hand, but also implies what humankind has done in efforts to try to eliminate ‘evil’ from the planet. Another is that human life has intrinsic value.
Yet another is that reason can awaken us from our slumber of denial, repression and transference. Still, there is a lot of insight in this book of Ernest Becker’s, insight that can be used to at least bring us as individuals to a place of wisdom and understanding.