The true heroism stands on the truth of the human condition.


Ernest Becker provides the most sustained, and extraordinary, account of human ‘heroism’ of any writer in the late 20th century.

He frames heroism existentially, interpreting Kierkegaard’s work as the first, and in many ways still the best, account in depth of the human condition, including our vulnerability to neurotic avoidance of ‘existential birth.’ He is sharply critical of humanism, and self-realisation [he dismantles Jung’s ‘individuation’], as well as dismissing Freud’s theories on infantile sexuality, though he thinks Freud’s description of the neurotic mechanisms by which we ‘get rid of’ uncomfortable truths about our precarious position in existence to be very crucial.

Paradoxically, neurosis is the attempt to run away from a challenging truth, and when it fails, that truth is indirectly manifested in the symptoms of the dis-ease; neurosis is the buried truth exposed. The repressed returns, to wreak havoc on our lives– until we accept the truth from which we are fleeing.. Normality, by contrast, is the lie successfully covered over; its defense mechanism is ‘denial.’

Neurotic people are closer to the truth – it has them in its existential jaws – than normal people. Becker is scathing about the phoney ‘hero script’ that modern cultures indoctrinate into their citizens= you must earn a lot of money, you must earn high status, you must keep busy and never let existence pose you the ‘unanswerable questions’ lest you have a bad hair day. The neurotics are adrift in, and tormented by, deeper currents which they cannot come to terms with; normals are happy, safe, secure, and confident, in the shallows. They master the superficial, and so remain ‘undisturbed.’ But the depths trouble their false equanimity at the margins of their life, and suddenly can come closer, the unwelcome ghost at the feast.. Then normality rapidly unravels, revealing its lack of inner resources to weather the outer storms of existence.

Becker’s most powerful argument, coming from his perspective as an anthropologist, a student of human culture, is the assertion that without religion, there can be no heroism. This claim is almost unique in our post-modern age. Becker contends there are very powerful and elemental reasons – very good reasons – why no culture can recommend and sustain heroism for its members without religion. Religion operates in culture, its deeply-lodged rationale is not just to spark but also to substantiate human heroism. Religion gives the only back-story profound enough to keep heroism going in the face of all the existential exactions.. If ‘true religion’ departs from a culture, then ‘true heroism’ also departs. This is what is so visible in the modern West.

Clearly, Becker is not speaking of the well documented phenomenon of using religion as either a comfort blanket [maternal], or as a moral tyrant to boss over us and thereby take away our own responsibility for choice [patriarchal].

But, there is a kind of religion that faces the contradictions and uncertainties of existence, and despite this, indeed precisely because of it, calls the human being to heroism. Only religion can motivate and promote existential heroism.

This is, in some ways, a new kind of religion, the religion of the future, the religion that will come more strongly in the future, though as Becker shows, it has roots in the extreme past, in religion oriented to tradition, especially that of indigenous peoples.

This reframing of ‘depth psychology’ as existential leads Becker to regard Otto Rank as the most important psycho-analyst. Rank’s account of the birth trauma, of creativity in the adult, and of the conflict in the child between regression and progression, is of fundamental significance for understanding the hazards of existence the hero faces, and overcomes, when he comes from an existential religious ground.

Becker, in his own way, is speaking of the heroism, and tragedy, inherent to passion. The religion he commends is Daemonic.

Some quotes from two of Becker’s books..

[a] Ernest Becker, ‘The Denial of Death’ [1973]

“Our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic” [p 1].

“It is natural for man to strive to be a hero. Nowadays the heroic seems too big for us or we too small for it” [p 4].

The mythical hero occupies a realm “in which people serve to earn a sense of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakeable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value= a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a sky scraper, a family that spans three generations” [p 5]. What all this cultural creativity amounts to is= we hope that what we create in society will outlast death and decay, that man and his products count.

Hero= highest generosity and self-sacrifice.

We admire most the courage to face death. When we see a man bravely facing his own extinction we see the greatest victory. Our ancestors deferred to the extra powerful and courageous.

But death is ‘denied’ when we try to make ourselves immune from it.. This is precisely what ‘cultural normality’ is all about= a pseudo immunisation against death; pretending death will never happen, pushing away the reality of death as not just the end of every person’s story, but a constant and ongoing part of every person’s story. All forms of the ‘wound of existence’ are banished to the margins..

Cultural programming gives a pseudo confidence [p 23]. “To live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun filled days..” [p 27]. The social world seeks to deny this= “social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same” [p 27].

“..standardized cultural denials of the real nature of experience” [p 63].

“[Man] doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him.”

“This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods” [p 51]. Maslow on Freud= “We protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defences, which are essentially techniques by which we avoid becoming conscious of unpleasant or dangerous truth” [p 52].

Maslow continues= “the essential Freudian discovery is that the cause of much of psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself– of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny. …fear of knowledge of oneself is very often.. parallel with fear of the outside world” [pp 51-52]. Maslow= “this kind of fear is defensive in that it is a protection of our self-esteem, of our love and respect for ourselves. We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or make us feel inferior, weak, worthless, evil, shameful..” [p 52].

Becker discusses the burdens on the growing child in fitting into the adult society= “Man.. must repress his smallness in the adult world, his failures to live up to adult commands and codes. He must repress his own feelings of physical and moral inadequacy, his guilt and his evil intentions” [p 52].

But worse than all this Adlerian ‘striving for superiority out of the feeling of inferiority’ are the looming existential threats. Even Freud, later on, recognised these hazards as carrying the greatest jeopardy= “human perplexity in face of nature’s dreaded forces”, “the painful riddle of death”, “our anxiety in the face of life’s dangers”, “the great necessities of fate against which there is no remedy” [Freud, ‘The Future Of An Illusion’, 1927, ch.s 3 and 4]; and Freud’s description of ‘the fear of death’ as “the state in which the person feels forsaken or deserted by the protective parents, abandoned by the power of destiny, which puts an end to security against every danger” [Freud, ‘The Problem Of Anxiety’, 1926, p 67].

These existential phrases of the older Freud are all referring to the human dread toward the Daemonic.

Because of death haunting every step we take ‘out’ into existence, so we become neurotically fearful of living.. We shrink away from ‘real living’, lest we lose our own life.. Otto Rank= ‘the neurotic cannot embrace the loan of life because they will not pay the debt of death.’ E.G. Howe= in running from the real crucifixion inevitable to existence, our evading becomes a restricted life, a curtailed life, a meanly guarded life, a ‘shadow crucifixion.’ He who rejects the real crucifixion is condemned to the shadow crucifixion. Only if we accept death can we really live life to the fullest.

Early experience is an attempt by the child to overcome the anxiety of his emergence from the mother, his fear of losing her necessary original support, of standing alone, and he needs the father as a mentor to strengthen him in his steps into an unknown future.. But, existential birth is more radical. It jettisons all parental aid. Its freedom, its aloneness, its responsibility, is radical.

The child does not want to be helpless and afraid. Thus, says Becker [p 54], the child’s character, his style of life, is his way of using the power of others, the support of the things and the ideas of his culture, to banish from his awareness the actual fact of his natural impotence. Out of this ‘borrowing’ of the standardized supports of the culture is normality built. But, families that are socially broken, and individual lives of children broken early on, become neurotic or psychotic because they have no such recourse to ‘borrowing.’ Existential Reality invades too early. Psychological birth and existential birth become confused and converged. You are fighting for your life from the off.. In effect, the neurotic or psychotic have no clothes to wear to go to the party everyone normal attends dressed to the nines.

However, for every human being, leaving the parents and existential birth into this world means truly facing ‘not only his impotence to avoid death, but also his terror of standing alone, firmly rooted in his own powers’ [p 54]. That we cannot change death means we are frightened of standing alone in the face of death, and so we do not trust to rely on the fragility of our own powers. Thus do we become paralysed in choosing, and taking responsibility for our choices.

When this impotence toward death and terror of trusting oneself in the face of it is denied, by the acquisition of cultural borrowings, then our life becomes the cultural Game= ‘a way of life that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself’.. He thinks himself in control.

Becker dismisses the cultural Game as a Lie= “Man can strut and boast all he likes but he draws his courage to be from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a flag, the fetish of money and the size of the bank balance.” Becker asks= “What would the average man do with a full consciousness of [Kierkegaardian] 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 thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory= to be smug about terror” [p 59].

Becker concludes= “to see ‘the world as it is’ is devastating and terrifying. It makes routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible [p 60]. It makes ‘thoughtless living impossible.”

We want our world “safe for delight”, and want “to blame others for our fate” [p 60].

Existential birth= to become, for the first time, subject to the paradox of the human condition= a god-worm.

We cannot be cured from existence, as many existentialists point out. Thus our healing from neurosis, and/or our shedding the false clothing of normality, means embracing angst and letting it school us; to live with courage, and humility, is the mark of existential maturity. We give up something restricting and/or illusory, and we embrace something awful. This proves paradoxical. It disables everything false and empowers everything true.

Through David in the Psalms, God says to humanity= ‘I have made you like gods, but you will die like men, and fall like princes.’

[b] Ernest Becker, ‘The Birth And Death Of Meaning’ [1962/71]

“ lives a series of paradoxes on which his distinctive humanity is based. So much so, we can say that his fate is to live in the teeth of paradoxes. ..what would his distinctive strength be? It would have to be the ability to support contradictions, ambiguities, since his own distinctive nature is based on them and is rife with them. Power for man.. is the ability to support contradictions, nothing less..” [p 177].

We need contact with the Invisible World, for it is this realm that sends us on a ‘mission’= “Life seems an accident, its span useless, death unfair. But this is largely because we live only in the vision dimension; our lives are an intensified self-seeking for fulfilment and possessions, largely because we believe there is nothing else, and life itself is so precarious” [p 128].

“..the function of culture is to provide the individual with a sense of primary heroism.. He must be able to answer the question= how the dignity, control, bearing, talent and duty of my life contribute to the fuller development of mankind, to life in the cosmos?” [p 29]

This is the key question, and only religion can answer it. Not by giving some stock easy answer, but by embracing the pain of it, and passing through it. True religion states, simply, that the power to carry on in the only mission with ultimate meaning – our heroism that seeks to contribute to the world process – comes from the Invisible spiritual domain. It does not come from, and will not continue on the basis of, anything secular, anything merely human, anything well intentioned, nice, decent, rational or moral, derived from human ideas or strengths, on their own. It needs help, and this help comes from beyond us, and our world, narrowly and precisely ‘defined.’

The power to become, and remain, heroic is spiritual– and whether this is consciously recognised or not makes no difference. Victor Frankl points to humanity’s ‘unconscious religiousness’ which is, in some respects, altogether more trust-worthy than his conscious religiousness [‘The Unconscious God’, 1975]. It is often far more sincere, and honest. It is less contaminated by social conditioning..

The power that makes a hero is the Daemonic, but this power needs no name to operate in human affairs.

However, Becker’s subtle and perceptive point, as anthropologist of culture, is unless a culture openly acknowledges the mysteriousness of the origin of the power needed to spark and move heroism, the members of that culture on the ground will gradually retrench more and more into the belief in the merely visible origin of everything, and in such retrenchment they will in actuality lose what mysteriously ‘empowers’ heroism. On the ground, over time, people will in practical and existential terms, in their action, become more and more ‘risk-aversive’ cowards.

This descent from nobility into ignobility accompanies, and is the direct result of, true religion ceasing to do its job in a culture– calling people out, by telling them to trust the invisible, the unknown, the non-definable, the ‘other world’ spiritual basis for their deepest goodness, generosity, bravery, sacrifice, of heart. Art cannot do this job; the Romantics are foolish.

Science cannot do this job; the positivists like Richard Dawkins are childish. Politics cannot do this job. Economics cannot do this job. Family life, however healthy, cannot do this job. Having friends cannot do this job. Lovers and spouses cannot do this job. Only religion, true religion, can do this job.

“The tragic bind that man is peculiarly in — the basic paradox of his existence — is that unlike the animals he has an awareness of himself as a unique individual on the one hand; and on the other hand he is the only animal in nature who ‘knows he will die.’ pole gives him a feeling of overwhelming importance and the other gives him a feeling of fear and frustration” [L. Perls, 1970, p 128]. Becker comments= “..he is an emergent life that does not seem to have any more meaning than a non-emergent life — in fact, that seems ‘all the more senseless’ to have emerged at all, since it is equally mortal. And so despair and the death of meaning are carried by man in the basic condition of his humanity” [p 143].

“The problem of despair can be met only in one way= by being a cosmic hero, to make a..[real] contribution to world-life ‘even though one may die.’ [This] is the only rationale one has, the only bulwark against the despair that is.. inherent in man’s condition.. [This is why] there lurks constantly on the fringes of heroism the doubt and discredit of that heroism” [pp 143-144].

The child “does not want to be obliterated and abandoned, or remain small and helpless” [p 144]. But the adult facing up to existence, and venturing heroic action towards its abyss, struggles with an ultimate despair. Kierkegaard said despair is not wanting to be a self, it is a repudiation of our having a unique, personal ‘heart.’ In despair, we despair of the heart, and throw it away. We turn against our passion, as it is called out, and want to kill it for trusting the summons of fate. This turning against the heart is very painful in the heart.

To change — to become in actuality not in theory or vainglorious imagery — more heroic, we must renounce the kind of ‘comfort and rescue’ that has become woven in with the entrenched values which are in the muscles and nerves of our organism.

Becker distinguishes, ala Kierkegaard, real despair from neurotic despair.

‘Neurotic despair’ is triggered by losing the protection of one’s life style, and all the identifications that go into it. ‘Real despair’ is the existential cutting edge that is make or break for heroism.

We have to shed neurotic despair, and struggle truthfully with real despair, to resolve our life creatively, in freedom.

To accept existential reality, we must die and be reborn.

Becker approvingly quotes from Fritz Perls, who spoke of this dying and rebirth as a protracted process [‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim’, 1969, pp 55-56]. People living on the surface of existence resort to glib cliché, but as the Daemonic becomes their ‘undoing’, so they reach impasse, and feel empty and lost– the very feelings the ‘character defences’ of normal people try to banish. We must come to our authentic core, a raw nakedness without sham, without pretence, without disguise, without defences.. This process is hard. It makes us tremble. It makes us scream, and cry, and then reduces us to silence.

Becker does not necessarily grasp all of the spiritual elements in the dying and rebirth process needed to reach existential maturity, and the possibility of heroism, yet he is astute on all the phoney social and cultural props we must lose in this pained transition of radical change. It is “..the going through hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where one throws off the lendings of culture, the customs that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as one’s self– a trembling animal” [p 147-148].

You cannot be an existential adult unless you go through the hell of the banishment of your self-respect= the disintegration of the self-esteem that maintains one’s character. Becker calls this ‘a suicide crisis’, because ‘one has no strength left, no root in a sustaining source of power.’ “When a person has thrown off his cultural lendings, he is as weak and helpless as a new-born babe” [p 150]. The wire is unplugged from all the false power supplies; there is a hiatus, a gap, between unplugging and re-plugging into the true power supply. The unplugged state is hard to bear.. It is the true powerlessness of the human, subject not only to all the childish complexes that come roaring back, but the sober existential sufferings..

Without this dying, we are doomed to play the Cultural Game, to act out the culture script as our only [pseudo] heroism, for the rest of our life.

What Becker terms ‘cultural scripts’ reflect the particular style that a society adopts to deny despair ever getting into awareness, the particular ways it lies to itself about the nature of reality. The false religion shores up this lying; the true religion attacks it, and counsels the integrity of wrestling with despair. ‘With God, all things are possible.’ But to experience the truth of that existentially, we must go the place where all possibility runs out. Few people travel that road to its end.

Eric Fromm, another existentially oriented psycho-analyst who broke from Freud, called playing the Cultural Game by its rules the “pathology of normality.” Everyone lives the same lies about the same things– so there is no one to call them liars. They jointly establish their own sanity and call themselves ‘normal’ [p 152].

The true religion must tell normality it is lying, and in the process, distorting our humanity. The job of religion is to “tell us why a society [is] not realizing its fuller humanity” [p 180]. True religion cannot endorse, or go along with, the ‘normalised’ social lying that kills off a culture’s true potentiality to serve and enhance the world process. True religion ought to encourage people ‘to reject the fixations of everyday life= preoccupations about what to eat, what to wear, how to succeed in society, preoccupations that debase us.’

The aim is an erect and dignified standing. We must separate every form of deception from the truth that proves itself in the living.

Our world is an open air lunatic asylum. It has gone mad with the mechanical, the external, the trivial, the illusory. We value mechanism over ‘life.’ This scientific positivism and technical obsession has led to a tyranny worse than any old religious tyranny, the new “tyrant who tries to stamp all humanity out of a mould and turn humans into manipulated objects.”

The true religion demands we stop this exploitation, and using, of humans. Each human is a sacred centre, a free spark of spirit not measurable by any material yardstick.

The free person — free of illusions — is the new human being who can introduce newness into the world through his own inspiration and action. Ultimate Reality lives and breathes in such a person. It is necessary to see the Invisible God in other visible people. This too is true religion.

Anything less than the emergence of new sparks of active love in the world is the stagnation of humanity [p 162].

But today, in the West [and elsewhere influenced by its amoral lack of real values], where true religion is gone, and true heroism has disappeared with it, the human person “blindly follows.. his unconscious urges in the frantic activity of daily life, and gets his satisfaction and his self-esteem. He fits himself into the bureaucratic—industrial machines of our day and gives his uncritical allegiance to the [depersonalised] forces that run these machines. He is part of an objectified structure, an ant doing his small part.. He follows orders, keeps his nose clean.. And so the …most ‘natural’ intentions work the great historical evil that we have seen in our time. ..the renewing forces have to break through the crust of character armour that the frightened and obedient homo sapiens has bottled himself into” [pp 183-184].

The question this raises= “To what powers has a man given himself to solve the problem of his life? On what kind of objective structure has he strung out his meanings and fenced off his own free energies?” [p 184].

Cultural conditioning creates for us a highest god, the most powerful unconscious idol to which we give our uncritical allegiance. So long as we continue to do this, we remain a slave, yet think we are living freely, creatively, lovingly. Idols hide the reality of the despair of our human condition. “All the frantic and obsessive activity of daily life.. is a defence against self-consciousness. It is this fundamental falseness at the heart of human striving that makes our world dance so frenziedly to such drowning-out music” [p 192].

Wrestling with existential despair has to face letting this god, this idol whom we are unconsciously glued to, be totally smashed. This is the un-bearable loss, the loss of our life, and all its hopes. For, once this god, this idol we worship as our guiding force, is gone, we are indeed left naked, and indeed must contend with despair with no lendings, no supports, no protective and elevating clothes.. It comes down to despairing over heroism, in its leap, or trusting it.

If we cannot die and be reborn existentially, then most of our life becomes a rationalisation for existential failure= failure to find our own unique heart, failure to go with its personal passion, failure to be undone and redone in the fateful fires of existence. ‘This world is a fire pit. With what attitude of mind do you think you can avoid getting burnt?’ We are existentially born, we die and are reborn, to go through the getting burnt.

We live in a world of idols unless we attain genuine heroism. “Do I ring true? I want to ring true..”

Becker concludes= “..true heroism for man could only be cosmic, the service of the highest powers, the Creator, the meaning of creation” [p 187].

By serving our Creator, we make a Give Away of our life. This is sacrifice. The heart’s Give Away of its life to all other life, for the future, for what matters finally.

The hero lives with courage, forbearance, dignity. We need to accept a last ‘not knowing.’ The Creator makes good our service.

If we die for this, we die well.

Becker arrives at a stunning conclusion.

The calling to heroism “can only be formulated mythically because it encroaches on what man can never know= where the help for his despair is to come from and how it is to come” [p 193].

“Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem” [p 196].

What calls us out is Invisible; what empowers us is not Secured, not Guaranteed.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the doing of our heart action, this paradox is lived, suffered terribly and profoundly, and resolved by trusting it beyond hope, and trusting it beyond despair.

Passion goes on where both hope and despair end.