Ideally, of course, the two books should be read side by side in order to give the integrated and comprehensive picture that the author himself has or imagines he has ; but each book stands on its own and can be read without the other. There are a lot of excellent points Becker makes that reflect some of the ideas of Gurdjieff about "man is machine" and the problem of the System 1 versus System 2 , with the former generally ruling our lives until we somehow wake up from the control of our physiology and begin to grow and develop true consciousness.
This book and Becker's The Denial of Death would ensure the reader to get a much better - and more accurate - idea of what really drives people.
Retrieved from " https: Navigation menu Personal tools Log in. We are not evil because we have an "instinct" to be, as Freud said, but because we're the only animal on this planet that knows it's going to die. And so we engage in "immortality projects", including clobbering people who don't subscribe to our view of the world, all in the name of "purity" and goodness. A closer look at the specific question of why humans do such awful things. Sep 30, Jafar rated it liked it.
This book is a continuation of The Denial of Death. While that book greatly impressed me, this one made me pause.
Too much reflection and armchair philosophizing based on dubious psychoanalytical principles can end up giving you an odd perspective of evil. It seems that to Becker everything is about trying to transcend death and give meaning to life and make the world as perfect as the one in our imagination; it's all heroism and symbolism. I'm sure this is not what Becker wanted to say, but you This book is a continuation of The Denial of Death. I'm sure this is not what Becker wanted to say, but you get the impression that evil is almost noble because man resorts to it in his effort to overcome his mortality and insignificance.
Well, as Hannah Arendt said, evil can often be quite banal. Evolutionary psychology seems very unsophisticated compared to the highbrow ideas in this book, but it's the sort of common sense analysis that escaped Becker in his high-mindedness. It's not all heroism and symbolism and transcending death. It can be as banal as amassing resources and power to have a more comfortable life and gain access to more food and mates.
Sep 21, ehk2 rated it really liked it Shelves: No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that specialness is so much a fight to the death He dies when his little symbols of specialness die. It is an all-consuming activity to make the world conform to our desires Man is an animal who has to live in a lie in order to live at all" p.
Jul 22, Matt rated it it was amazing Shelves: I love Ernest Becker. I believe he offers a perspective on social justice, and our own mortality that is intimately connected to our times. In Escape from Evil he examines the ways which Evil occurs in the world. He believes that evil occurs because one is attempting to be great, to be powerful, and to transcend their mortality by investing in the larger collective good, a good that requires heroes.
It is a penetrating analysis, and I believe is very timely as the US begins to hopefully have ongoing discussion of income inequality. Personally, I do not believe that we can make lasting and significant strides towards true social justice without understanding and embracing Becker's ideas. Dec 02, Wayne rated it it was amazing. It seems that the experiment of man may well prove to be an evolutionary dead end, an impossible animal - one who, individually, needs for healthy action the very conduct that, on a general level, is destructive to him. It is maddeningly perverse," Humanity is caught in the greatest goof of all time.
Reading Becker is a gut-punch - but a necessary one! Oct 28, Peter LaCombe rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: So well informed, lucid and readable that it seems unbelievable. Oct 17, Trey marked it as to-read. Added to the to-read list for this quote from it: Aug 05, Nathan Leslie rated it it was amazing.
This is right in my sweet spot--a dark, philosophical examination exhortation of human nature. Reminiscent of Nietzsche and E. Cioran in particular, Becker's text takes humanity to task. Make sure to have a fuzzy animal handy whilst reading, for this is a nightmare tale of the highest proportions. Great read during the holidays, for those sick of fakey-fake cheer and hope. Tons of great one-liners.
Why am I just now discovering Becker? I want to retroactively sue my undergraduate profs for s This is right in my sweet spot--a dark, philosophical examination exhortation of human nature. I want to retroactively sue my undergraduate profs for shortchanging my mind. Sep 05, Robert Kramer rated it it was amazing.
Even more powerful than The Denial of Death, from which it was extracted. Ernest Becker, like Otto Rank, is one of the intellectual and spiritual giants of the 20th century. What makes Becker truly great is that he recognized Rank's genius and distilled Rank's books, virtually all out of print at the time, into this lyrical masterpiece. Becker's facility with language is what Rank, sadly, lacked.
Yet Becker got all of Rank almost as if he were channeling h Stunning. Yet Becker got all of Rank almost as if he were channeling him from the Beyond. To be able to read a genius like Rank requires a genius like Becker. Jan 18, Jessica added it. Ever wonder why human nature is so destructive?
What is behind all those different religions? This is the book to read. It is straight anthropology. Take notes while you read and review, and then read it again. I started this book in , and finished in A complimentary read is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. May 28, Zinnia Zhang is currently reading it Recommends it for: The Devil's Advocate Morris West.
Aug 14, Jacob rated it it was amazing. I cannot recommend Ernest Becker's three main books enough. They are quite certainly some of the most important books I've ever read. Have been and will continue to keep going back to them. After his first two, of course. Feb 15, Hom Sack rated it liked it. Still an awkward read after 35 years. It is not as good as the prequel. Feb 28, Wasiq Saeed rated it it was amazing.
Joy really comes in small pieces, so I finally got my hands on this beauty "Escape from Evil" by Ernest Becker, this is sort of a completion of his work from "Denial of Death" which is considered as one of the most influential books of the last century. I think I have just rarely reassembled myself from the effects of absorbing the previous one.
Both books could be read independently though. This particular one is absolutely an amazing piece of analytical study on the nature of man, discussing a Joy really comes in small pieces, so I finally got my hands on this beauty "Escape from Evil" by Ernest Becker, this is sort of a completion of his work from "Denial of Death" which is considered as one of the most influential books of the last century.
This particular one is absolutely an amazing piece of analytical study on the nature of man, discussing and critiquing ideas from Marx, Rousseau, Freud, Rank and others and then presenting his own thesis in a very brutally blunt manner; accommodating almost many of the major point of views inside the theoretical framework he creates. The book was published after Becker's death contrary to his wishes.
Escape from Evil by Ernest Becker
The thing about this beautiful social scientist is that he critically touches each and almost every domain of knowledge connected to the nature of this self-conscious animal and his sense of reality. His arguments have the capacity to vibrate and even shatter the ontological concepts you carry about human nature and the society as a whole and send a chill down to your spine.
In some cases, too, a noted hunter would claim as his special hunting preserve a piece of land that was common property of the tribe. Besides, there is little agreement on how exactly class society came into existence. There is general agreement on what preclass society was, but the process of transformation is shrouded in mystery.
Many different factors contributed, and it is impossible to pull them apart and give them their proper weight. Also, the process would not have been uniform or unilinear — the same for all societies in all areas. If we add psychological factors to materialist ones, we must also now add ecological and demo- graphic factors such as population density and scarcity of re- sources. So I would like to sidestep the argument while still remaining focused on what is essential, which, I think must lie in human nature and motives.
The vital question, then, it seems to me, is not exactly how it happened but why it was allowed to happen, what there was in human nature that went along so willingly with the process. The answer to this question seems to me remarkably straight- forward. I have said that primitive man recognized differences in talent and merit and already deferred to them somewhat, granted them special privileges. Because obviously these qualities helped to secure life, to assure the perpetuation of the tribe. Ex- ploits in the danger of hunting and war were especially crucial. Because in these activities certain individuals could single themselves out as adept at defying death; the tokens and trophies that they displayed were indications of immortality power or dura- bility power, which is the same thing.
If you identified with these persons and followed them, then you got the same immunities they had. This is the basic role and function of the hero in history; he is the one who gambles with his very life and successfully defies death, and men follow him and eventually worship his memory because he embodies the triumph over what they fear most, ex- tinction and death. He becomes the focus of the peculiarly human passion play of the victory over death.
Man never was free and cannot be free from his own nature. He carries within him the bondage that he needs in order to continue to live.
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As Rank so well taught us, Rousseau simply did not understand human nature in the round: It penetrates to the heart of the human condition and to the principal dynamic of the emergence of historical inequality. The first class distinction, then, was between mortal and immortal, between feeble human powers and special superhuman beings. Once things started off on this footing, it was only natural that class distinctions should continue to develop from this first im- petus: The anthro- pologist Robert Lowie was a specialist on those most egalitarian of all primitive peoples, the Plains Indian tribes.
Even these fiercely independent Indians, he tells us, gave up their equalitarian attitudes of everyday life on raiding parties. A Crow Indian would organize a raid only when prompted by his supernatural guardian spirit, and so all those who followed him deferred to him and to his spirit. Again, the overlordship of the invisible world as embodied in cer- tain human personages made temporary slaves of their fellows. No one was more cautious than Lowie about making general state- ments on primitives, yet when it came to speculating about social evolution he made a very straightforward choice: I suggest that the awe which surrounded the protege of supernatural powers formed the psychological basis for more complex political de- velopments.
In our society power resides in technology, and we live and use the artifacts of technology so effortlessly and thought- lessly that it almost seems we are not beholden to power — until, as said earlier, something goes wrong with an airplane, a generator, a telephone line. The idea seems very strange to most of us today, but for the primitive it was often the dead who had the most power.
In life the individual goes through ritualistic passages to states of higher power and greater importance as a helper of life. For many primitives death is the final promotion to the highest power of all, the passage into the invisible world of the spirits and the ability to use and manipulate the visible world from their new abode. Some tribes fear the dead for only a little while immediately after death, and then they are thought to become weak. Some tribes fear especially those spirits who repre- sent unfinished and unfulfilled life, spirits of persons whodied prematurely and would be envious of the living, and so on.
Radin offers a frankly inter- actionist point of view by saying that the dead are feared because they can- not be controlled as well as when they were alive. Grove Press ,. Only if he learns this can he be sure of surviving; he has to learn very minutely what powers he can count on to facilitate his life and what powers he has to fear and avoid in order to protect it. So power becomes the basic category of being for which he has, so to speak, a natural respect: Little wonder, then, that primitive man had right away to conceptualize and live according to hierarchies of power and give them his most intense respect.
The study of life, people, and the world, then, broke down into an alertness for distributions of power. The more mana you could find to tap, the more taboo you could avoid, the better. But power is an invisible mystery. It erupts out of nature in storms, volcanoes, meteors, in springtime and newborn babies; and it returns into nature in ashes, winter, and death. The only way we know it is there is to see it in action. And so the idea of mana, or special power erupting from the realm of the invisible and the supernatural, can only be spotted in the unusual, the surpassing, the excellent, that which transcends what is necessary or expected.
From the very beginning, the child experiences the awesomeness of life and his problems of survival and well-being in other people; and so persons come to be the most intimate place where one looks to be delighted by the specialness of mysterious life, or where one fears to be overwhelmed by powers that he cannot understand or cope with. It is natural, then, that the most immediate place to look for the eruptions of special power is in the activities and qualities of persons; and so, as we saw, eminence in hunting, extra skill and strength, and special fearlessness in warfare right away marked those who were thought to have an extra charge of power or mana.
They earned respect and special privileges and had to be handled gently because they were both an asset and a danger: He invented the specialty of entering into the world of the dead and coming back from it unharmed; he went on these supernatural trips and per- sonally carried out whatever business the tribe or members of it had in the powerful world of the spirits; he went to see a dead soul safely to the other side, to harangue the invisible spirits and make them let go of a sick person, etc. And so for all these reasons primitive man saw the epileptic shaman as a natural hero, a source of fear and respect.
In his view primitive society was from the very beginning a struggle by individuals and groups for special privileges — who would get the best meat, the easiest access to women, some leisure and security. The elders always tried to arrange these for their own benefit, and so did the shamans. On the simplest levels of culture they were already or- ganizing themselves into an exclusive fraternity so as to get and keep maximum power.
How does one get maximum power in a cosmology where ritual is the technics that manufactures life? These experiences are more or less characteristic for all epileptics. Very early the elders and the religious personages tried to get control of the ritual. And so the puberty and the death rituals came to be surrounded by the greatest importance, wherein lay the greatest possibilities of bun- gling.
Radin makes the fascinating point that over and beyond the frankly religious and psychological nature of these passages, there is a social-economic purpose to them — or rather to the control of them by certain groups. Talking about puberty rites of the Austral- ian aborigines he says: They put closure on the very beginnings of the modern debate on the origins of in- equality. As we would put it, the frail human creature tries to change his position from one of insignificance in the face of nature to one of central importance; from one of inability to cope with the over- whelming world to one of absolute control and mastery of nature.
Each organism is in a struggle for more life and tries to expand and aggrandize itself as much as possible. This is what Hobbes meant with his famous observation that evil is a robust child. But this is just what Hobbes was driving at, that the organism expands itself in the ways open to it and that this has destructive consequences for the world around it. What Radin did was to bring all this up to date with an acute understanding of personality types and interpersonal dynamics and a frankly materialistic perspective on society.
This is already the makings of a union of Marx and Freud. What else could it be, what else are human objects for? The central question of such a sophisticated Marxist philosophy of history would be. Who has the power to mystify, how did he get it, and how does he keep it? We can see how naive the traditional Marxist view of simple coercion is: There is no other accurate way-to speak. What began in religion remains religious. All power is, as Brown says, sacred power, because it begins in the hunger for immortality; and it ends in the absolute subjection to people and things which represent immortality power.
And so Brown could offer his own biting criticism of Rousseau: And if sacredness is embodied in persons, then they dominate by a psychological spell, not by physical coercion. If we left this idea unadorned, it would still need explaining: The bind is explained by one idea, the truly great idea that emerged from psychoanalysis and that goes right to the heart of the human condition: They follow these figures with passion and with a trembling heart.
But there is no way of avoid- ing the fatality of it: If anything is false about it, it is the fact that thousands of human forms feel inferior and beholden to an identical, single human form. The Free Press, The Origin of Inequality 51 domination; that is real enough and we know it. But there can never be a way of relieving or eliminating the domination of struc- tures of power without coming to grips with the spell of power, a spell that explains voluntary self-alienation whether it deals with spirits or with Soviets.
Men are literally hypnotized by life and by those who represent life to them, which explains the passion of submission that Melville summed up so brilliantly in Moby Dick, in the quarterdeck scene when Ahab consecrates the harpoons. In other words, Marxism has to come to grips with the conservative argument: We can sum all this up in one sentence that presents to narrow Marxism the most fundamental challenge it has faced: What is the shape of a revolutionary philosophy of history that would begin to take full account of that?
Why did people go from an economy of simple sharing among equals to one of pooling via an authority figure who has a high rank and absolute power? The answer is that man wanted a visible god ahvays present to receive his offerings, and for this he was willing to pay the price of his own subjection. The Fijians had invisible gods, sometimes present in the priest or in an animal; they preferred a god always present, one they could see and speak to, and the chief was such a god.
Hocart explains this as a circular process; the wealthier tribes were more energetic, and so they rose among their neighbors. Again we come back to the natural genius of primi- tive man, who provided himself with what man needs most; to know daily that he is living right in the eyes of God, that his worka- day action has cosmic value — no, even that it enhances God Him- self! Men lean on increase and creation ritual especially when times are bad; it is then that their spiritual technology has to work.
So if they got along without a king in good times, they would want one when times got bad. Besides, says Hocart, if you are without a king you are in a position of inferiority in relation to your neigh- bors; when others parade their visible god, and their favor in his eyes, how can you stand being shown up as having no god of your own? The Jews were mocked in the ancient world because they had no image of their god, he seemed like a mere figment of their imagination; next to the visible splendor of the Pharaoh, the God of Israel seemed like a phantom of a deluded mind.
Most of all, one always knew how one stood with the visible god, but the Israelis were never sure how they stood with their invisible one — the whole thing must have seemed sick. To speak of the Pharaoh is to sum up the whole process: And we can see in one swoop why ancient man so willingly embraced his new alienated status under divine kingships, as tbe chiefless tribes of Fiji eagerly chose a chief with all the troubles this meant. It all goes back to our discussion in Chapter One about macro- and microcosmization, processes whereby man entwined his own destiny with that of the cosmos by bringing the heavens into human affairs and by blowing himself up as the center of concern of the universe.
We also saw that ritual was an enactment of the struggle between the forces of light and life and those of darkness and death. With the technique of ritual offerings man sought to bring the invisible powers of nature to bear on his visible well-being. Well, the divine king sums up this whole cosmology all in himself. He is the god who receives offerings, the protagonist of light against dark, and the embodi- ment of the invisible forces of nature — specifically, the sun.
After all, man does act at a distance by means of the light and sound waves that emanate from him. And when they had made that most wonderful invention of all, a living em- The Evolution of Inequality 55 bodiment of prosperity, a Sun-Man, how expect them not to fall into eager thralldom?
Like the reactor, too, he reflected back energy-power on those around him: At this point we might be tempted to get up on our high horse and proclaim that the simple fact is that the atomic theory of power is true, and the Sun-Man theory false. We know about the genuine mana that surrounds presidents and prime ministers: Caesar could not have hoped for more. The political leader only becomes suspect when it is thought that he has no special powers, or has lost them.
This is a direct continuation of the tradition of weighing the Aga Khan in diamonds. It went like this: The king of ritual principal was in charge of the sacred objects of the group and had to hold the prescribed ceremonies by a strict observance of the customs of the ancestors. This made him a repository of custom, an authority on custom. It is the physics, medicine, and mechanics of primitive society. Imagine our trying to fight a plague with faulty chemicals, and you can under- stand that custom equals life. The authority on custom, then, is the supreme regulator of certain departments of nature.
But this regula- tion is so useful to the tribe — in fact it is life itself — that it naturally comes to be extended to all departments. Again, I think an analogy to modern life may convey some of the flavor: If your invisible mechanics works in one area, there is no reason why it should not work in another, you have only to try it. And you try it by extending your ritual prerogative to cover the case: It seems like a benign and harmless enough process, one you might never even notice and in fact might want to happen — but what is happening is the complete entrenchment of social inequality.
Hocart sums it up in a nutshell: Fijian chiefs were great sticklers for etiquette. They were quick to resent offences against their dignity and unseemly behaviour in their The Evolution of Inequality 57 precincts. These may seem petty matters; but they are fraught with great possibilities. The Fijian chief has only to extend his precincts and interpret widely the traditional rules of ceremonial behaviour in order to acquire a criminal jurisdiction, and increase his interference with the life of his subjects.
By sanctifying anything they [the chiefs in Polynesia] brought it within the sphere of ritual, that is their own sphere. This was certainly not done suddenly, but by persistently extending the applications of taboo [sacred powerj, as we shall see our English kings extend their peace. The more successful a king, the more prerogatives he could enjoy: Another large step in the evolution of inequality seems to me to be summed up here. To us a police force is a part of life, as inevitable, it seems, as death and taxes; we rely on the police to punish those who hurt us.
In simple egalitarian societies there is no police force, no way to settle a wrong except to do so yourself, family against family. But if there is no police force to enforce the law, there is also none to coerce you for any reason. You have to stay alert, but you are also freer. A police force is usually drawn up temporarily for special occasions and then disbanded. Among the Plains Indians, for example, these special occasions were the buffalo hunt, mass migrations, war parties, and major festivals; it was then that the police had to maintain order and harmonize and synchronize activities so as to ensure a maximum buffalo kill, etc.
At these times the police force enjoyed absolute authority, even the power of life and death; and yet among the Plains Indians this foundation for autocracy never hardened into permanent form. So Lowie concluded that the religious figures command more respect than the military ones, and Fried thinks that the emergence of the economics of redistribution is much more significant than military organizations.
But the result, alas, is not as innocent as it must have seemed to people living during these transitions. What they were doing was bartering away social equality and a measure of personal indepen- dence for prosperity and order.
Escape from Evil
There was now nothing to stop the state from taking more and more functions and prerogatives into itself, from developing a class of special beings at the center and inferior ones around it, or from beginning to give these special beings a larger share of the good things of the earth. Once you went from an economy of simple sharing to one of redistribution, goods gradually ceased to be your natural right. Again a logical, almost forced development.
His exploration is a fascinating one and opens up a whole new vista to the student, whether Hocart proves to be describing a universally true phenomenon or not cf. The Evolution of Inequality 59 with later stages of social evolution. What we see is that private interests became more and more separated from public interests — until today we hardly know what a public interest is. Students who look for the point at which economic activity and social morality begin to pull apart usually focus on the potlatch: As the power figures got more and more ascendancy vis-a-vis the group, they could take a fixed portion of the surplus with less involvement in the life of the people.
The classic potlatch, as practiced, say, among the Kwakiutl, was a redistribution ceremonial pure and simple. It embraced the twin urges talked about in Chapter Two, heroism and expiation. The more goods one could amass and give away, the greater a coup of oneupmanship one pulled off, the more power one could generate, the bigger the personal victory.
The object was to humiliate rivals, to stand out as tall as possible as a big man, a hero. At the same time, the grander was the expiation before the community and the gods to whom the goods were offered. Both the individual urge to maximum self-feeling and the community well-being were served. But this classic social ceremonial had to change with the gradual development of hereditary privilege, so that the chiefs became the principal takers and destroyers of goods. In this way a feudal struc- ture could naturally develop.
Again, it is only natural that once the god became visible in the person of the king, his powers became those of this world — visible, temporal powers in place of invisible, eternal ones. He would come to measure his power by the piles of things he actually possessed, by the glory of his person, and not, as before, by the efficiency of the ritual technics for the renewal of nature. In the old totemic world picture individuals did not stand out as much.
Out of the invisible world of spirits life tumbled in an endless cycle of embodiments and returns. The individual got his sense of self-expansion and protection by sharing in the collectivity of social and animal souls, in the clan and its totems. What is certain is that spirit beliefs permeated primitive society and with them the sense of some kind of mystical participation with animals and nature, a participation for the purposes of the control and renewal of life. The individual got a sense of organismic durability by identifying with the fund of ancestral spirits.
We might put it this way: Certainly this was often true, but we also know that primitives could be very casual and even cruel with animals. Hocart throws an interesting light on this by point- ing out that once man got enough power over the world to forgo the old totemic ritual identifications, he became more and more eager to disclaim any relationship with animals. Hence the eclipse of animal identification historically. This would ex- plain why, once man got more secure control over the visible world, he found it easy to dissociate himself entirely from animals. Otto Rank has discussed brilliantly the change from Egyptian to Greek art as the gradual defeat of the animal by the spiritual principle, the climax of a long struggle by man to liberate himself from his animal nature.
See Hocart, K, p. Knopf, , pp. The Evolution of Inequality 61 of power figures into feudal structures, the generation of wealth as moral power for the community became a caricature. Nowhere is this better seen than in the ancient world: But we know that these givers amassed and passed on more than they gave; their gifts were only a sop to the com- munity, more public relations than expiation; they gave to the eyes of men and not to the gods.
We see the final evolution of this empty potlatch practiced in the western world, our cities, parks, and universities carrying buildings with the names Carnegie, Rockefel- ler, Hearst, Macmillan-Bloedel — men who grabbed millions from the labor and lands of others and offered back to the public a pittance.
It was good public relations for alienated masses who understood nothing, but it was hardly expiation for public guilt; it was almost all proud heroism, the flaunting of power with very little mixture of repentance. Historical man lost something that early man had. It would take volumes to talk about the many dimensions of historical alienation, and the subject has been covered in the most complex ways. But there is a suggestive way of looking at the problem that cuts right to the heart of it, and that is from the two angles we have been using here: The family or clan is a ritual unit, which makes each person a member of a priesthood.
Often each clan has a specific function in the regeneration of nature, its own ceremonial lodge, sacred fire, ritual songs, and ceremonies which belong to it alone. It is easy enough for us to talk about a household that has its own cult and sacred fire, but can we imagine what it means to step into a hut that has a sacred fire, a hut filled with technologists who know the secret ways of rejuvenating earthly life? And historically, precisely what happened is that it was lost. Family ritual was absorbed into state ritual. Hocart sums this whole development up in a few trenchant lines: The great difference between our society and most non-European societies is that the national ritual, of which the Pope or the sovereign [president, chairman, prime minister, etc.
Hence the clan and all other ritual organizations have disap- peared. The disappearance of the intermediate groupings has left the married couple face to face with the state. Which means that it is face to face with the state but with no real powers of its own. As the modern married couple does not understand the high estate from which it has fallen historically, it can be quite content to regenerate nature in the person of a child and to renovate prosperity by working in a factory.
Needless to say, these are activities for the promotion of life which have quite different qualities and intensities, and one of the great lessons historical psychology can teach is what new ways man has had to invent for the pursuit of life after the disappearance of the primitive world picture. Hence we must look to theoretical psychology to give us the clew to its true interpretation. Karl Lamprecht 1 We can now take a step that we prepared for in the Introduction. There, remember, we saw that man wants what all organisms want: But we also saw that man — alone among all other organisms — had a con- sciousness that his life came to an end here on earth; and so he had to devise another way to continue his self-perpetuation, a way of transcending the world of flesh and blood, which was a perishable one.
This way of looking at the doings of men gives a direct key to the unlocking of history. We can see that what people want in any epoch is a way of transcending their physical fate, they want to guarantee some kind of indefinite duration, and culture provides them with the necessary immortality symbols or ideologies; societies can be seen as structures of immortality power. Two of the most brilliant and economical orderings of history from this point of view, to my mind, are those of Otto Rank and Norman O.
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Their work gave us a grip on the manifold of historical fact from an intimate psychological point of view — some- thing scholars had been seeking since the nineteenth century with- out success. In this chapter I want to take up Rank's work, which in fact came a full generation before the work of Brown. Brown; he 63 ESCAPE FROM EVIL 64 swept over the whole panorama of social-evolutionaiy thought and the mass of scholarly monographs on the primitive world and early history; this was a mountain of scholarly insight from several disci- plines that was so sprawling and technical that little general sense could be made out of it.
Rank pulled it all together with a single principle, what we might call the principle of immortality striving. It was a universal principle firmly anchored in each individual person, no matter who he was; it was present in each culture, no matter how varied its beliefs might seem, or how much mankind itself seemed to change from epoch to epoch. Beliefs were not fixed and final realities; thev varied from period to period, from one social form to another. Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have.
No wonder men go into a rage over fine points of belief: Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life becomes fallible. History, then, can be understood as the succession of ideologies that console for death. Or, more momentously, all cultural forms are in essence sacred because they seek the perpetuation and redemption of the individual life. Culture means that which is super natural; all culture has the basic mandate to transcend the physical, to permanently transcend it.
All human ideologies, then, are affairs that deal directly with the sacred- ness of the individual or the group life, whether it seems that way or not, whether they admit it or not, whether the person knows it him- self or not. What does history look like viewed from this angle? We already have seen what the primitive world looked like. The group, then, guaranteed its own self-perpetuation. Its duty was to strengthen the life force by fulfilling ritual obligations. The group alone conferred immortality — which is why the individual immersed himself so completely in its ideology, and why duty took precedence over everything else.
Only in this way can we understand the willing self-denials of man in society; he accepts the social limitations on his appetites because the group gives expression to the most important appetite of all, the hunger for the continuation of life. Why would human beings put infants through the torture of lip plugs, subject them- selves to circumcisions and repeated subincisions, perforated nasal septums, neck rings, holes in the tongue, tom flesh, joints, muscles — why would they even willingly die — if not for the ultimate stake: And so Rank and Brown could argue that from the beginning of society and prehistory man has repressed himself, tamed himself, in a barter for greater power and durability.
Unlike Freud, Rank argued that all taboos, morals, customs, and laws represent a self-limitation of man so that he could transcend his condition, get more life by denying life. As he paradoxically put it, men seek to preserve their immortality rather than their lives. Freud said that man gives these drives up only grudgingly to society, and then only because he is forced to bv superior authority and power.
Besides, if the individual is willing to re- nounce life, to shrink back from it in order to persevere, then he would also need society to map out safe sexuality for him. Rank makes the same quasi-cynical observation on this as Durkheim had: All that these new structures had to do was to promise the same immortality, only now in different forms. It was at this time that biological fatherhood be- came of dominant importance because it became the universal way of assuring personal immortality. The institution of marriage extended from the king to his people, and every father became a kind of king in his own right, and his home a castle.
Under Roman law the father had tyrannical rights over his family; he ruled over it legally; as Rank was quick to observe, famulus equals servant, slave. This is one reason why many primitives handled their children so gently: Under the ideology of the patriarchal family, the child becomes th. But this is now the only spiritual lineage ixii which the son can perpetuate himself in turn.
Today we are shocked when we read of the ancient Greek who blinded his sons for dis- obeying him and going off to war — but their lives were literally his personal property, and he had this authority and used it. What is of great interest in this development is the intimate unnity of patriarchal family ideology with that of kingship.
The king represented the new fountainhead of spiritual power in which thie subjects were nourished. In primitive society the entire group hiad created magical power by means of the jointly celebrated ritual. B'ut with the gradual development of specialized ritualists and priests, the power to create power often fell to a special class and was no hunger the possession of the whole collectivity. Where this happened it helped to turn the average man into an impotent subject. In many agrarian societies the priests went on to develop astronomy, calen- dars, and rituals of power for the control of nature via magic, whereas previously each person had helped exercise such control via the communal rituals.
With their astronomy the priests accrued the tremendous prestige of predicting eclipses; and then they exercised the fantastic power of bringing back the sun out of the clutches of darkness. Not only did they save the world from chaos in such ways, but in some places e. Often the kings and priests were solidly allied in a structure of domination that monopolized all sacred power; this completed the development from the tribal level where the shaman would sometimes ally with the chief.
All the poor subject could do in these societies was to grovel to the king and bring food to the priests in order to get a mite of magical protective power. The fathers imitated the kings so as to reenact the divine plan in their own homes; in this way they got a reflection of the kings powers. Each city with its pyramidal temples and towers rose like a spire to penetrate the sky, the dimensions of invisible power, and to bathe itself in it.
We can still feel this in the Gothic cathedral which penetrated heaven and was bathed in the light and powers of heaven. One of the strong impetuses to the triumph of Christianity was the increasing sackings of Rome by the barbarians, which showed everyone that something was wrong with the old powers and some new magical sources had to be tapped.
The divine king in the sacred city bathing the holy empire — these were a power tool in which the fathers nourished themselves while they assured their own perpetuation in the person of their sons. We can see that this represents a new kind of unification experience, with a focal point of power, that in its own way tries to recapture the intense unity of primitive society, with its focus of power in the clan and the ancestral spirits.
The emperors and kings who proclaimed themselves divine did not do so out of mere mega- lomania, but out of a real need for a unification of experience, a simplification of it, and a rooting of it in a secure source of power. The leader, like the people, senses a need for a strongly focused moral unity of the sprawling and now senseless diversity of the kingdom, and he tries to embody it in his own person:
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