Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist, philosopher, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Denial of Death. The thesis of that book comes down to the following:
(1) Humans are unique as the only species which knows of its finitude and inevitable death, leading to existential anxiety and terror.
(2) The most powerful response to the terror of death is ‘heroism’ – a self-deceptive view of oneself as having a unique value to the universe (the ‘vital lie’ of ‘cosmic heroism’).
(3) Culture exists as the arena for a fictitious heroism of its members and thrives only to the extent it succeeds in this purpose.
(4) Flawed heroism leads to failure in dealing with the terror of death causing neurosis or psychosis and evil in the world.5
Insightful and challenging as this cultural critique is, my immediate interest is in Becker’s analysis of what makes for authentic heroism in a mature, well-adjusted person against the background of society’s fabricated versions. I will reorder his thoughts while using as much of his superb prose as possible.6
It begins with recognition of the basic truths above and accepting that for humans, “not everything is possible.” Maturity is seeing the balance between our tragic limitations and real possibilities. A certain amount of self-imposed repression related to the terror of the existential facts is necessary: “Repression is not falsification of the world, it is ‘truth’ – the only truth that man can know, because he cannot experience everything…calling us back to…a stoical acceptance of the limits of life, the burden of it and of ourselves.”
further continued next post)
5Becker offers many examples, but an excellent one is Hitler and Nazism whose heroic self-image included their distorted conception of racial superiority and sociopathic motivation – if we can’t create like gods, at least we can kill like them.
6Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6, pages 255-283.