Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Ernest Becker

American-Canadian Cultural Anthropologist and Interdisciplinary Scientific Thinker and Writer

"Man transcends death by finding meaning in his life... It is the burning desire for the creature to count... What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance."

"A second way of crossing the line into clinical neurosis follows naturally from everything we have said. Rank asked why the artist so often avoids clinical neurosis when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination, his openness to the finest and broadest aspects of experience, his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create—the "artiste-manque," as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an ex­ternal, active, work project. The neurotic can't marshal this creative response embodied in a specific work, and so he chokes on his in­troversions. The artist has similar large-scale introversions, but he uses them as material.17 In Rank's inspired conceptualization, the difference is put like this:"

"After all, Kierkegaard was hardly a disinterested scientist. He gave his psychological description because he had a glimpse of freedom for man. He was a theorist of the open personality, of human possibility. In this pursuit, present-day psychiatry lags far behind him. Kierkegaard had no easy idea of what "health" is. But he knew what it was not: it was not normal adjustment—anything but that, as he has taken such excruciating analytical pains to show us. To be a "normal cultural man" is, for Kierkegaard, to be sick—whether one knows it or not: "there is such a thing as fictitious health."38 Nietzsche later put the same thought: "Are there perhaps —a question for psychiatrists—neuroses of health?" But Kierkegaard not only posed the question, he also answered it. If health is not "cultural normality," then it must refer to something else, must point beyond man's usual situation, his habitual ideas. Mental health, in a word, is not typical, but ideal-typical. It is something far beyond man, something to be achieved, striven for, something that leads man beyond himself. The "healthy" person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the "real" man, is the one who has transcended himself."

"All a child has to do is to learn to abandon ecstasy, to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can he act with a certain oblivious self-confidence, when he has naturalized his world. We say naturalized but we mean unnaturalized, falsified, with the truth obscured, the despair of the human condition hidden"

"An animal who gets his feeling of worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn't come off second-best. Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express man's tragic destiny: he must des­perately justify himself as an object of primary value in the uni­verse; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible con­tribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else."

"And so the arrival at new possibility, at new reality, by the de­struction of the self through facing up to the anxiety of the terror of existence. The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate itself to powers beyond itself. It has to thrash around in its finitude, it has to "die," in order to question that finitude, in order to see beyond it. To what? Kierkegaard answers: to infinitude, to absolute transcendence, to the Ultimate Power of Creation which made finite creatures. Our modern understanding of psycho-dynamics confirms that this progression is very logical: if you admit that you are a creature, you accomplish one basic thing: you demolish all your unconscious power linkages or supports. As we saw in the last chapter—and it is worth repeating here—each child grounds himself in some power that transcends him. Usually it is a combination of his parents, his social group, and the symbols of his society and nation. This is the unthinking web of support which allows him to believe in himself, as he functions on the automatic security of delegated powers. He doesn't of course admit to himself that he lives on borrowed powers, as that would lead him to ques­tion his own secure action, the very confidence that he needs. He has denied his creatureliness precisely by imagining that he has secure power, and this secure power has been tapped by unconsciously leaning on the persons and things of his society. Once you expose the basic weakness and emptiness of the person, his help­lessness, then you are forced to re-examine the whole problem of power linkages. You have to think about reforging them to a real source of creative and generative power. It is at this point that one can begin to posit creatureliness vis-a-vis a Creator who is the First Cause of all created things, not merely the second-hand, inter­mediate creators of society, the parents and the panoply of cultural heroes. These are the social and cultural progenitors who them­selves have been caused, who themselves are embedded in a web of someone else's powers."

"And so, the question for the science of mental health must be­come an absolutely new and revolutionary one, yet one that re­flects the essence of the human condition: On what level of illusion does one live? We will see the import of this at the close of this chapter, but right now we must remind ourselves that when we talk about the need for illusion we are not being cynical. True, there is a great deal of falseness and self-deception in the cultural causa-sui project, but there is also the necessity of this project. Man needs a "second" world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. "Illusion" means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal. To lose the security of heroic cultural illusion is to die—that is what "deculturation" of primitives means and what it does. It kills them or reduces them to the animal level of chronic fighting and fornication. Life becomes possible only in a continual alcoholic stupor. Many of the older American Indians were relieved when the Big Chiefs in Ottawa and Washington took control and prevented them from warring and feuding. It was a relief from the constant anxiety of death for their loved ones, if not for themselves. But they also knew, with a heavy heart, that this eclipse of their traditional hero-systems at the same time left them as good as dead."

"Anthropological and historical research also began, in the nine­teenth century, to put together a picture of the heroic since primi­tive and ancient times. The hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive. He had his descendants in the mystery cults of the Eastern Mediterranean, which were cults of death and resurrection. The divine hero of each of these cults was one who had come back from the dead. And as we know today from the research into ancient myths and rituals, Christianity itself was a competitor with the mystery cults and won out—among other reasons—because it, too, featured a healer with supernatural powers who had risen from the dead. These cults, as G. Stanley Hall so aptly put it, were an attempt to attain "an immunity bath" from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it. All historical reli­gions addressed themselves to this same problem of how to bear the end of life. Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming not to want what you really want most."

"Better guilt than the terrible burden of freedom and responsibility."

"But we can also see at once that there is no line between normal and neurotic, as we all lie and are all bound in some ways by the lies. Neurosis is, then, something we all share; it is universal.4 Or, putting it another way, normality is neurosis, and vice versa. We call a man "neurotic" when his lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him and he seeks clinical help for it—or others seek it for him. Otherwise, we call the refusal of reality “normal" because it doesn't occasion any visible problems. It is really as simple as that. After all, if someone who lives alone wants to get out of bed a half-dozen times to see if the door is really locked, or another washes and dries his hands exactly three times every time or uses a half-roll of toilet tissue each time he relieves himself—there is really no human problem involved. These people are earning their safety in the face of the reality of creatureliness in relatively innocuous and untroublesome ways."

"Civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible."

"Ecological devastation is the excrement, so to speak, of man's power worship."

"Erich Fromm wondered why most people did not become insane in the face of the existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98¢."

"For all organisms, then, opposing and obliterating power is evil – it threatens to stop experience. But men are truly sorry creatures because they have made death conscious. They can see evil in anything that wounds them, causes ill health, or even deprives them of pleasure. Consciousness means too that they have to be preoccupied with evil even in the absence of any immediate danger; their lives become a meditation on evil and a planned venture for controlling it and forestalling it."

"For man, maximum excitement is the confrontation of death and the skillful defiance of it by watching others fed to it as he survives transfixed with rapture."

"Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem."

"Guilt results from unused life, from the unlived in us."

"His whole argument now becomes crystal clear, as the keystone of faith crowns the structure. We can understand why anxiety "is the possibility of freedom," because anxiety demolishes "all finite aims," and so the "man who is educated by possibility is educated in accordance with his infinity."46 Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith. It is an intermediate stage between cultural conditioning, the lie of character, and the opening out of infinitude to which one can be related by faith. But without the leap into faith the new helplessness of shedding oneÂ’s character armor holds one in sheer terror. It means that one lives unprotected by armor, exposed to his aloneness and helplessness, to constant anxiety. In KierkegaardÂ’s words:"

"How does one transcend himself; how does he open himself to new possibility? By realizing the truth of his situation, by dispelling the lie of his character, by breaking his spirit out of its conditioned prison. The enemy, for Kierkegaard as for Freud, is the Oedipus complex. The child has built up strategies and techniques for keep­ing his self-esteem in the face of the terror of his situation. These techniques become an armor that hold the person prisoner. The very defenses that he needs in order to move about with self-con­fidence and self-esteem become his life-long trap. In order to transcend himself he must break down that which he needs in order to live. Like Lear he must throw off all his "cultural lendings" and stand naked in the storm of life. Kierkegaard had no illusions about man's urge to freedom. He knew how comfortable people were in­side the prison of their character defenses. Like many prisoners they are comfortable in their limited and protected routines, and the idea of a parole into the wide world of chance, accident, and choice terrifies them. We have only to glance back at Kierkegaard's con­fession in the epigraph to this chapter to see why. In the prison of one's character one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one's life, a ready justification for one's action. To live automatically and un­critically is to be assured of at least a minimum share of the pro­grammed cultural heroics—what we might call "prison heroism": the smugness of the insiders who "know.""

"I have reached far beyond my competence and have probably secured for good a reputation for flamboyant gestures. But the times still crowd me and give me no rest, and I see no way to avoid ambitious synthetic attempts; either we get some kind of grip on the accumulation of thought or we continue to wallow helplessly, to starve amidst plenty. So I gamble with science and write."

"I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow. How do we know ... that our part of the meaning of the universe might not be a rhythm in sorrow?"

"If we put this whole progression in terms of our discussion of the possibilities of heroism, it goes like this: Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism; he destroys the character lie that had him perform as a hero in the everyday social scheme of things; and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the pos­sibility of cosmic heroism, to the very service of God. His life thereby acquires ultimate value in place of merely social and cul­tural, historical value. He links his secret inner self, his authentic talent, his deepest feelings of uniqueness, his inner yearning for absolute significance, to the very ground of creation. Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance, for cosmic heroism. This invisible mystery at the heart of every creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. This is the meaning of faith. At the same time it is the meaning of the merger of psychology and religion in Kierkegaard's thought. The truly open person, the one who has shed his character armor, the vital lie of his cultural conditioning, is beyond the help of any mere "science," of any merely social standard of health. He is absolutely alone and trembling on the brink of oblivion—which is at the same time the brink of infinity. To give him the new support that he needs, the "courage to renounce dread without any dread . . . only faith is capable of," says Kierkegaard. Not that this is an easy out for man, or a cure-all for the human condition—Kierkegaard is never facile. He gives a strikingly beautiful idea:"

"If you get rid of the four-layered neurotic shield, the armor that covers the characterological lie about life, how can you talk about “enjoying” this Pyrrhic victory? The person gives up something restricting and illusory, it is true, but only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair. Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else's power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the power­lessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? Luis Buimel likes to introduce a mad dog into his films as counterpoint to the secure daily routine of repressed living. The meaning of his sym­bolism is that no matter what men pretend, they are only one ac­cidental bite away from utter fallibility. The artist disguises the incongruity that is the pulse-beat of madness but he is aware of it. What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab­surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a "useless passion" because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is a serious game, the defense of one's existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?"

"In other words, it is not so much a question as to whether we are able to cure a patient, whether we can or not, but whether we should or not."

"In seeking to avoid evil, [humanity] is responsible for bringing more evil into the world than organisms could ever do merely by exercising their digestive tracts. It is [our] ingenuity, rather than [our] animal nature, that has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate."

"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."

"It is not so much that man is a herd animal, said Freud, but that he is a horde animal led by a chief."

"Kierkegaard's torment was the direct result of seeing the world as it really is in relation to his situation as a creature. The prison of one's character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one's creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you. But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man's anxiety, the anxiety that re­sults from the human paradox that man is an animal who is con­scious of his animal limitation. Anxiety is the result of the percep­tion of the truth of one's condition. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food? Cynical deities, said the Greeks, who use man's tor­ments for their own amusement."

"Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level."

"Man has a basic narcissism built into himself, which naturally comes with self-esteem."

"Man is a robustly active creature; activity alone keeps him from going crazy. If he bogs down and begins to dwell on his situation, he risks releasing the neurotic fear repressed into his unconscious – that he is really impotent and will have no effect on the world. So he frantically drives himself to see his effects, to convince himself and others that he really counts.."

"Man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with atowering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever."

"Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness."

"Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We donÂ’t understand it simply because we donÂ’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons. What are we to make of creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types - biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into oneÂ’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out - not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in natural accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organismÂ’s comfort and expansiveness."

"Mother nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates."

"No mistake about it: the curriculum in the "school" of anxiety is the unlearning of repression, of everything that the child taught him­self to deny so that he could move about with a minimal animal equanimity. Kierkegaard is thus placed directly in the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition. Education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death.42 As Luther urged us: "I say die, i.e., taste death as though it were present." It is only if you "taste" death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die."

"Not everyone is as honest as Freud was when he said that he cured the miseries of the neurotic only to open him up to the normal misery of life."

"Now the dread of possibility holds him as its prey, until it can deliver him saved into the hands of faith. In no other place does he find repose . . . he who went through the curriculum of misfortune offered by possi­bility lost everything, absolutely everything, in a way that no one has lost it in reality. If in this situation he did not behave falsely towards possibility, if he did not attempt to talk around the dread which would save him, then he received everything back again, as in reality no one ever did even if he received everything tenfold, for the pupil of pos­sibility received infinity. . . ."

"Obviously, all religions fall far short of their own ideals."

"Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, of real freedom. This is Kierkegaard's mes­sage, the culmination of his whole argument about the dead-ends of character, the ideal of health, the school of anxiety, the nature of real possibility and freedom. One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one's very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one's true insignificance, weakness, death, one's existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force. Again and again throughout his writings Kierkegaard repeats the basic formula of faith: one is a creature who can do nothing, but one exists over against a living God for whom "everything is possible.""

"People cannot endure [their] own littleness unless [they] can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level."

"Rank calls this a paradoxical but deep insight into the essence of neurosis, and he sums it up in the words we have used as an epigraph to this chapter. In fact, it is this and more: it absolutely shakes the foundations of our conceptualization of normality and health. It makes them entirely a relative value problem. The neu­rotic opts out of life because he is having trouble maintaining his illusions, about it, which proves nothing less than that life is possible only with illusions."

"Relationship is thus always slavery of a kind, which leaves a residue of guilt."

"Right away we can see the immensely fertile horizon that opens up in all of our thinking on mental health and "normal" behavior. In order to function normally, man has to achieve from the begin­ning a serious constriction of the world and of himself. We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. What we call neurosis enters precisely at this point: Some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them, and the techniques that they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality."

"Some people are more sensitive to the lie of cultural life, to the illusions of the causa-sui project that others are so thoughtlessly and trustingly caught up in. The neurotic is having trouble with the balance of cultural illusion and natural reality; the possible horrible truth about himself and the world is seeping into his consciousness. The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is the truth, the unshakable, durable truth. He can earn his immortality in and under the dominant immortality ideology, period. It is all so simple and clear-cut. But now the neurotic."

"The best existential analysis of the human condition leads directly into the problems of God and faith"

"The first thing we have to do with heroism is to lay bare its under­side, show what gives human heroics its specific nature and impetus. Here we introduce directly one of the great rediscoveries of modern thought: that of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. After Darwin the problem of death as an evolutionary one came to the fore, and many thinkers immediately saw that it was a major psychological problem for man.2 They also very quickly saw what real heroism was about, as Shaler wrote just at the turn of the century:3 heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be. When we see a man bravely facing his own extinction we rehearse the greatest victory we can imagine. And so the hero has been the center of human honor and acclaim since probably the beginning of specifically human evolution. But even before that our primate ancestors deferred to others who were extrapowerful and courageous and ignored those who were cowardly. Man has elevated animal courage into a cult."

"The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act. ... What would the average man (sic) do with a full consciousness of absurdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror."

"The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count."

"The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man."