Humans seek to transcend nature via culture
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement.--Yates
“What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”—Tolstoy
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker suggests that we all create an artificial world to avoid confronting the hopelessness of the human condition.
The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.
Meaning is number ONE. What wo/man fears most is extinction, which includes insignificance.
Wo/man wants assurance that their life has somehow counted; if not for her or his self then at least within the overall scheme of things. If there is some kind of “judgment day” then I want to be in ‘that number’ that matter. While alive I want to know that “I am somebody”.
Religion is our primary means for responding to that basic need to be somebody. Otto Rand says that all religions spring up “not so much from…fear of natural death as of final destruction.”
“It is culture itself that embodies the transcendence of death in some form or other, whether it appears as purely religious or not…culture itself is sacred, since it is the “religion” that assures in some way the perpetuation of its members.”
Our dichotomy of sacred and secular aspects of social life is an egregious error. There is no such thing as a distinction between sacred and secular in the symbolic affairs of sapiens. Sacred is that which transcends the natural world while secular is that which is of the natural world. In the world of symbolic affairs such distinctions do not hold.
“As soon as you have symbols you have artificial self-transcendence via culture. Everything cultural is fabricated and given meaning by the mind, a meaning that is not given by physical nature. Culture is in this sense “supernatural” and all systemizations of culture have in the end the same goal: to raise men above nature, to assure him that in some ways their lives count in the universe more than merely physical things count.”
Self-transcendence, i.e. transcending nature via culture, does not provide a simple means to deny the primacy of death; the terror of death still lurks beneath the veneer. We have shifted the fear of death onto a new level of anxiety; we must “now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which we live…a new kind of instability and anxiety are created.”
In our attempt to deny evil, i.e. death, we bring a new and grotesque form of evil. “It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter fate.” Wo/man has, through ingenuity, heaped great evil on the world; far greater than could ever be created by our animal nature.
Quotes from Escape from Evil—Becker