“…mankind’s common instinct for reality…has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism” – William James1
In on our ongoing journey to understand the purpose of civilization, we have looked briefly at the thoughts of some of the ancients, a few Enlightenment thinkers, and last time from George Santayana. Society it seems can be seen as functioning to maintain order and human decorum, to provide basic necessities, to maintain natural rights, and to increase or maximize access to a good life, happiness, and a variety of experience. Today we delve deep into the human psyche to locate perhaps the most subtle of the purposes civilized society serves for the individual. Our guide is Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote three amazing books revealing profound psychological and philosophical insights into the human condition: The Denial of Death, The Birth and Death of Meaning, and Escape from Evil.
Becker argues that a defining feature of Homo sapiens is the knowledge and fear of death. Self-preservation is transformed in our species into the desire to “avoid extinction with insignificance.”2 This requires that one’s life counts for something in the “larger scheme of things.”3 Thus the survival instinct manifests in humans as the denial of death, and the quest for significance and self-esteem. In the words of Alfred Adler, “The supreme law [of life] is this: the sense of worth of the self shall not be allowed to be diminished.”4 Becker thinks this self-value for humans is derived from symbols and internalized social rules of behavior – in effect, artificial, linguistic contrivances which are the foundation of culture.
However self-transcendence through culture is not a simple solution; each of us requires sufficient prestige and power to believe we can achieve real significance, in other words a conception of ourselves as heroic. Culture is the arena where this symbolic heroism takes place. People in every epoch want a way to transcend their physical fate; culture provides them with the immortality symbols or ideologies they seek – literally the structure of immortalization. Culture, it turns out, is a “hero system,” a sacred entity which promises victory over evil and death. In his words, “culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness.” 5
It is worth noting that Becker appears agnostic or doubtful on the ability of civilization to fulfill this emergent function for us, rather he is making a scientific observation about the our use of social structures and symbols in remaining sane in face of our seemingly pointless finitude. He offers philosophical remedies to our dilemma, but those must wait to a later section.
1Quoted by Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning, The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 75.
2Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil. The Free Press, New York, 1975. Page 4.
4Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 65.
5Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6, page 159.