The Ernest Becker Foundation
|Paul Tillich and Ernest Becker: Cultural Meaning and the Encounter with Death - Becker's Theory|
|Tuesday, 28 July 2009 11:55|
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Becker’s analysis of the human condition begins with evolutionary theory and the Darwinian assumption that we share with all other life forms a basic biological predisposition towards survival in the service of reproduction. We got here through the combined effects of random mutation and natural selection over millions of years. Our distinctive adaptive feature is the development of large brains. We are not particularly strong, fast, or impressively enfanged. Our large brain adaptation enabled elaborate behaviors, like coordinated hunting and food sharing and “behavioral flexibility in response to the demands of specific stimuli.”4 It also generated the capacity for self-consciousness. That is, homo sapiens are aware of their consciousness, and “of themselves as potential objects of their own subjective inquiry.”5 And here is the rub, for it is our capacity for self-consciousness that also makes us aware that we will die one day. As Becker puts it in The Denial of Death, “Man emerged from the instinctive thoughtless action of the lower animals and came to reflect on his condition. He was given a consciousness of his individuality and his part-divinity in creation, the beauty and uniqueness of his face and his name. At the same time he was given consciousness of the terror of the world and of his own death and decay.”6
However we might bracket the problem, some part of us knows that death is on the way, and it may arrive at random. One of Becker’s best commentators, Sheldon Solomon, lays out our predicament in these words: We’re stuck with being “corporeal creatures – sentient pieces of bleeding, defecating, urinating, vomiting, exfoliating, perspiring, fornicating, menstruating, ejaculating, flatulence-producing, expectorating meat – that ultimately may be no more enduring than cockroaches or cucumbers. The continuous awareness of these circumstances within which we live, faced with inevitable death, compounded by the recognition of tragedy magnified by our carnal knowledge makes us humans vulnerable to potentially overwhelming terror at virtually any given moment. Yet people rarely experience that existential terror directly.”7
What saves us, Solomon goes on to say in his summary of Becker, is the creation of culture. In other words, the same brain – from reptilian stem to frontal lobes – that got us into this mess in the first place is also awash with the capacity to generate meaning. The human animal that perceives the abyss below itself – thereby giving rise to dread – can deploy its intelligence to construct and maintain culture. From this angle, culture is a humanly created set of collective beliefs about the nature of reality, and a primary function of culture is to reduce the anxiety associated with the awareness of death. Cultures do this by providing us with world views, that is, “humanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that are shared by individuals in a group that function to mitigate the horror and blunt the dread caused by knowledge of the human condition, that we all die.”8
The world views endemic to culture provide formative narratives, creation stories not least of all. In tandem with these master, determining stories, cultures furnish hero-systems, and, implicitly or explicitly, the means for gaining and maintaining self-esteem. As Becker puts it in The Denial of Death, “It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”9
In our day, it is easy to see how fundamentalist belief systems around the globe meet the longing for literal afterlives that true believers seem to assume is their due – 72 virgins in heaven, say, for a martyred terrorist male. But we can also see how cultures found all over the planet provide more symbolic ways for obtaining a sense of immortality. The fear of simply passing into a void can be assuaged, for example, by producing children and works of art that people hope will outlive them. In the modern world, where we are hardly limited to religions that practice immortality, we can contribute to science, or to the enlightenment project, or, more concretely, or we can build commanding skyscrapers and the like. One can also get along far more modestly by following a strong leader or “by making some small but lasting contribution to ongoing life.”10 In short, human cultures furnish social roles and provide prescriptions for conduct which, when met, establish the means for obtaining self-esteem, the overarching sense that one really is a person of value living in a world infused with meaning.
If culture performs a death-denying function, it should be possible, in carefully conducted observations, to detect such denial at work. That, at least, is the premise behind a new wave of research led by Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg. Inspired by Becker, these three scholars have spent over two decades conducting social scientific experiments to illustrate how awareness of death can provoke worldview defense. They have shown how what they call “mortality salience” – literally, thoughts about death – can trigger a range of emotions that affect people’s view of other races, religions, and nations. In more extreme situations, these researchers have shown, it is apparent that fear of death leads to the flagrant scapegoating of those who are different. One result of these extensive cross-cultural investigations, which have received support from the American Psychological Association, is that Becker’s The Denial of Death has re-emerged and is again receiving attention after two and a half decades of relative obscurity.11
Becker on Otto Rank
"Rank goes so far as to say that the 'need for a truly religious ideology is inherent in human nature and its fulfillment is basic to any kind of social life.' Only in this way, says Rank, only by surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest, least-fetishized level, can man conquer death. In other words, the true heroic validation or one's life, lies beyond sex, beyond the other, beyond the private religion-all these are makeshifts that pull man down or that hem him in, leaving him torn with ambiguity."
-From Denial of Death, Chapter 8
more on Otto Rank here