Escape from Evil Paperback – 1 Mar 1985
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About the Author
Dr. Ernest Becker (1924-1974) taught at the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State College, and Simon Fraser University, Canada. He is survived by his wife, Marie, and a foundation that bears his name -- The Ernest Becker Foundation.
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Top Customer Reviews
I recommend Rudy Rucker's book, the Forth Dimension, as a counterweight to nihilism. After all, nihilism is only this sensory reality we live inside. There is another World!
On watching the interviews of devotees of indian God-men on You Tube, you at first think 'brainwashed'. The people speaking are mostly middle aged, suit and tie, and highly cerebral. But some seem as they have had ingested an ecstatic drug, like MDMA.
These very intelligent Western men and women are talking in an excited manner. It is this excited fast talk that seems at odds with their middle class outer appearance.
Some are CEO's and scientists and psychiatrists, so this can't be a case of deluded, or brainwashed, men and women, right?
Ernest Becker wrote the Denial of Death as a diagnostic manuel for these people. But it isn't that we deny death. Modernity has taught us all that we will die and there is nothing beyond. Becker writes that our behaviour is moulded by this melancholy conviction that life is indeed meaningless. It is all unconscious. No matter how much we try and convince ourselves, we hold the smart phone in our hands and the science which invented the smart phone has also convinced us that life has no meaning.
The trouble with Becker is that he thinks we deny death when in fact we have unconsciously embraced death. This is a new phenomenon. For thousands of years people acted very differently to modern people.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"Since men must now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which they live, onto the immortality symbols which guarentee them indefinite duration of some kind, a new kind of instability and anxiety are created. And this anxiety is precisely what spills over into the affairs of men. In seeking to avoid evil, man is responsible for bringing more evil into the world than organisms could ever do merely by excercising their digestive tracts. It is man's ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate (pg. 5, Becker)."
From this point, Becker attempts to define how man's ingenuity, hopes, and desires have lead to an incredible amount of trouble in the world. Becker is at once cultural analysist, religious scholar, and social psychologist. "Escape from Evil" is an amazing inquiry, exploring the frightening needs of diverse social groups, looking into the deep inner fears of man, explaining Hitler and the origin of guilt, delving into the meaning of culture and the origins of inequality. These are not small subjects and they will challenge the ideas of any reader.
His writing is precise and he integrates important thinkers into his work with the greatest of ease. Ernest Becker is a must read, and "Escape from Evil" is a good place to start. It will deconstruct the mind and then rebuild it again, leaving the reader feeling both enlightened and confused.
No two books have affected my beliefs and thoughts any more than have Becker's 'Escape from Evil' and 'The Denial of Death'. I read the latter in college and have since read it again on several occasions. I read 'Escape from Evil' nearly as a sequel to 'Denial of Death' and recommend it as a companion work.
I would in retrospect probably read 'Escape from Evil' before 'Denial of Death.' But to say that is of course quantum mechanics. I've already performed the experiment the results of which I've measured but whose effects have now altered my 'quantum state' of thinking. My opinion might have been the reverse had I read 'Escape...' first. C'est la vie.
So read them as you will, but please, do read them. The language is somewhat dated, his statements are at times prone to the same errors of logic that most of us are prone to and he focuses on only those authors and works that support his thesis, but it is very likely 'Escape from Evil' will crack the shell of your beliefs about your world as well as our shared world and will change the way you think, perhaps, even hopefully, for the remainder of your life.
Like "The Denial of Death," "Escape From Evil" (EFF) too is an analysis of how man has tried to grappled with his own confusing and often paradoxical existence, and in the process, it is additionally a story of how, as a byproduct, he also invented evil. And then it is also about how man's pursuit of his own cosmic theater of heroism required scapegoats to close the circle and complete his own immortality project, the most obvious fallout of which has been the evolution of evil itself.
The book thus, is not only about how the formula for evil in man's activities evolved, but also about how it can be resolved. And as is usual for Becker, EFF is intellectually robust and complete: we get the full story of man's attempt to come to grips with his world, from beginning to end. When the dust finally settles and the parts are pulled together in the last chapter, the reader is left with a panoramic view of what makes man tick.
As is typical for him, Becker begins with a series of questions that require a proper probing and interrogating of history and psychology in order to find, not just the correct, but the best synthesis. The over-arching question that animates this work is: What is it in man's psychological nature that propels him towards evil? Becker answers this question by saying that man comes into the world free, but becomes un-free later, and does so willingly, giving up his freedom in exchange for safety and a feeling of redemption.
Leaning heavily on the Anthropologist A.C. Hocart, and using Rousseau and Nietzsche more or less as straw men, against which he bounces his ideas, the author answers his own question by updating a notion central to his previous work: There he argued that man was basically a "self-esteem maintenance machine." Substituted here is a larger more robust concept of "man in pursuit of prosperity." It is used to update, the earlier concept. Thus, in the final analysis, it is "the pursuit of prosperity" rather than "self-esteem maintenance" that serves to answer the questions that Becker poses, and that does most of the heavy lifting for this project. It does so by expanding and greatly refining the former concept, and indeed it is this refinement that is most efficacious in demonstrating more clearly how the process of evil actually comes about.
Greatly summarized, Becker's story goes something like this: Man is inherently a "religious being" due in large measure to the fact that he is born into a hostile world naked, with only his mind and his fears with which to negotiate his survival. Ultimately it is his fears (and the guilt that they engender and the associated need for redemption) that are at the base of "socialized man." For the most part, it is the colonization of fear, guilt and the need for redemption that organizes society and culture.
The earth, which provides man with most of his sustenance, still remains a little understood cosmic force, a gift from the gods, as it were, that man imagines must be returned in kind if the life cycle, the cosmic life force and man's own prosperity and ultimately, which his very life depends on, is to continue. Thus the cosmic force is the primary source of all power in the world. And since time immemorial, man has seen as one of his primary tasks of survival: that of accommodating, or at the very least not antagonizing or offending, this invisible source of power and cosmic force.
However, whether invisible or not, returning the "offerings," became a rather complex psychological task for man. It required the bureaucratization and management on earth of an invisible or superior cosmic force. The most efficacious way of doing this was through representatives who could act openly and visibly as indirect agents of the gods. And here Becker of course means the Shamans, the Priests, the Popes, the Chiefs, the CEOs, the Presidents and Prime Ministers, and the Magicians. With primitive man (and of course in a much more sublimated sense) even with modern man, a system and process of rituals including an altar and rules, ceremonies, customs and traditions for invoking the pleasure of the gods, (and avoiding their approbations) was required in order to properly make sacrifices to them; sacrifices that would of course ensure continued prosperity.
The whole process of ritualization still amounts to a technology of social psychology; one that is co-terminus with all cultures that attempt in their own way to ensure that the sustained gifts of the cosmic force continues the cycle of life and prosperity. Ritualization as a technic of religion and of society, becomes a new sacred modality for vicariously extending the life giving forces, and thus of taming and bringing the mysterious power of the cosmos down to earth; and of course, most importantly, of making it available to ensure the continued success of man's earthly "prosperity projects."
It is axiomatic in human nature that anything that represents the gods, also represent an indirect contact with the power of the cosmic forces that the gods bestow. Such central source of power must at all times be respected. Ultimately, it is the indirect delegation of, and amplification of this power downward to the lowest levels, coupled with the personal tendencies already inherent in man's psychological makeup (to give over his power and freedom to a leader with special powers attached to the cosmic force) that is responsible for providing the motive force for the machinery of evil: Men asked to be mystified, they wanted and needed kings and leaders, and that is the great weakness in man's nature: Ultimately man is scared of operating alone within the confines of his own freedom.
Once the refracted and reflected power of the gods is delegated, bureaucratized, socialized, and eventually colonized, taken together with man's inherent tendencies towards self-subjugation, the turning of the gears towards evil has already been set fully into motion. It is but a short hop, skip and jump through history before god's designated representative's quest for personal power has irretrievably corrupted man's otherwise pristine and free nature. Without being aware of it, man has slid into an unholy "freedom stripping" quid pro quo: trading in his freedom for the comfort and the tyranny of a community invariably based on shared fears and insecurities, shared guilt and shared hopes of redemption -- all orchestrated and ruled by powerful representatives with mandates from their gods. As Becker puts it on page 51 "Men fashion un-freedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation."
In rapid evolutionary succession, personal property acquisition, inequality, greed and all other known forms of social corruption follow: First in the name of the sacred and the divine, and then in the name of the less divine: that is, in the name of ideology and eventually in the name of the state. Once it has evolved to this last stage, of the state, man has irretrievably lost all control of the corrupting machinery. From there on, his descent into evil is all but automatic. Oppressive power, corruption and inequality have always taken place in the service of the legitimate and all too often, in the service of the religious order. As Hegel has put it: Men cause evil out of good intentions not out of wicked ones."
So what is the correct route to Escape From Evil?
Becker is not so arrogant as to proffer such advice because he believes it fits into the same existential trap of other failed Enlightenment projects: It too becomes just more dead end advice from another failed hero system: psychology. But he leaves us with this important thought, put forth in part by Elie Wiesel that "Man is not human." He is just a frightened creature trying to secure a victory over his limitations, but a creature that is continually failing at this task.