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ERNEST BECKERS

THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF MEANING


A PRCIS SUMMARY
Anil Mitra PhD, 1986, Revised February 2013,
Reformatted January 2015
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OUTLINE

Introduction to the Summary


Preface and Objective
Chapter One

The Man Apes: A Lesson for Thomas


Hobbes

Chapter Two

The Origins Of Mind: The Mechanics of


The Miraculous

Chapter Three

The Distinctively Human: Ego,


Language and Self

Chapter Four

The Inner World: Introduction to the


Birth of Tragedy

Chapter Five

Socialization: The creation of the Inner


World

Chapter Six

The New Meaning of the Oedipus


Complex: The Dispossession of the Inner
World

Chapter Seven

Self Esteem: The Dominant Motive of


Man

Chapter Eight

Culture and Personality: The


Standardization of Self-Esteem

Chapter Nine

Social Encounters: The Staging of the


Self-Esteem

Chapter Ten

Culture: The Relativity of Hero-Systems

Document Status

ERNEST BECKERS
THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF MEANING

INTRODUCTION
INTRODUCTION TO THE SUMMARY
The Birth and Death of Meaning is a synthesis - from
psychology, anthropology, sociology and psychiatry - on the
problem of man on existential problems, meaning,
freedom

I wrote this summary to learn and I learned much from


Beckers work
However, this is not an endorsement of Beckers work and I
note, especially, Beckers unbalanced emphasis on negative
factors in human motivation
SUMMARY OF ERNEST BECKER: THE BIRTH AND
DEATH OF MEANING
PREFACE AND OBJECTIVE
Purpose
To explain what makes people act the way they do [-results
from-] Learning from the disciplines of psychology,
anthropology, sociology and psychiatry exciting,
personally and politically liberating discoveries: We are
today in possession of an excellent general theory of human
nature.
Mission
Knowledge of the positive and the dark side of his nature will
give man a better chance to achieve something vital
Outline
Start with what is vital in Freud: The universality of the
human slavery and blindness that we call neurosis, The
universal mechanism of development [implantation] of guilt
[conscience], Humanization is itself the neurosis, The
price of freedom from anxiety is the limiting of
experience and action, The mechanisms of this freedom
are the defenses denial, projection, repression are the
techniques of self deception [pp. 54-57]

Develop Freudian psychology into an organic part of the


general movement of ideas, tying it into the work of William
James, Mark Baldwin, John Dewey This got the human
organism back into the working of mind unifying early
functional psychology and psychoanalytic and existential
psychology into a whole. [The major names in this
development are Erich Fromm who is central to Beckers
ideas and development, and Otto Rank who is brilliant.
Others are: Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Reich, Kurt Goldstein,
Harry Sullivan, Karen Horney, Ludwig Binswanger, Medard
Boss, F. Buytendijk, Viktor Frankl, Ronald Laing, and
Frederick Perls. To these Becker acknowledges a debt.]
What emerges [from Freud, Fromm, Rank]: A rounded
picture, the potentially good largely shaped by society good / bad, actually / potentially; but there is, potentially, a
dark side having origins in animal fears, deep anxieties about
death and impotence, about being overwhelmed by and
absorbed into the world [-leads to-] a drivenness and
desperation and obsession with meaning and significance of
life and self This is not to negate Rousseau [noble savage:
man is essentially good but corrupted by society], and the
Enlightenment hopes [unbounded reason, order, recapturing
primitive innocence], but to show that that program is much
more difficult than Rousseau dreamed. Hence, the mission is
to achieve knowledge of the dark and the light sides of
human nature
CHAPTER ONE. THE MAN APES: A LESSON FOR
THOMAS HOBBES
Theme: co-development of brain / mind, interpersonal
sensitivity, society and tradition, artifact, symbolism and
cognition in response to the needs of survival and
superiority of the hunters
The basic idea is that there is no single thing that is uniquely

human. The factors above all developed and stand together as


interdependencies. These developed in response to
opportunities [and hence need] for appetite, survival and
freer adaptation. The thesis of modern anthropology is that
this occurs, at least originally, in the hunt and then in the
opportunities provided by emerging social and ecological
organization
Outline: Australopithecines, the transitional man-apes,
appeared first a million years ago in the grasslands of
Southern and Eastern Africa. They were roamers with upright
posture, free hands for rudimentary weapons and food.
Groups hunted and enjoyed animal flesh. Anatomically, they
were like Homo s, but their brain was one-half the size of
ours. Insights into our evolution - the distinctively human are based on a taste for meat. We became men by fashioning
and hunting in groups. To develop as efficient hunters, new
forms of social organization were needed. The large brain is a
late development in a picture of progressive development in a
cycle of adaptation: efficient hunting [-results from-] new
forms of social organization [time for hunt] [-results from-]
intersensitivty [-results from-] preparation and planning;
forms of social organization and value: sex codes, selfesteem in providing for the group; intersensitivty: emotionalcognitive; preparation and planning: cognitive-symbolic.
Food sharing and group problem-solving [the other primates
do not do this] = society = provision of sustenance and
coming of age of members [-results from-] shrewdness and
complexity of planning and development [-results from-]
stimulus of the social conventions themselves to further
development [-results from-] self-restraint and patience and
planning, [-results from-] richer symbolisms, [-results from-]
independence [-results from-] celebration of self and society
[-results from-] reinforcement of success
Hunter [-leads to-] agrarian [-leads to-] towns

[centralization, trade] [-leads to-] modern


Origin of Sexual Codes
Becker asks: How did the sexual organization come about?
and gives us the views of Otto Rank and Norman O. Brown.
According to them, highly sensitive early men made
themselves conform to degrees of regulation because of their
myriad fears of an overwhelming world of spirits and strange
powers; that is, there were spiritual motives. Certainly, it is
my view, that such fears maintain present social structure at
least to some degree, and fear in general is a significant
factor. Becker emphasizes the fact that in the theory, selfregulation was not imposed because of survival needs
However, this does not rule out the rule of survival - there is
a sort of social evolution going on, with spirituality [and
other factors] being the source of change [mutation] and the
interactive and external environment the selective force
CHAPTER TWO. THE ORIGINS OF MIND: THE
MECHANICS OF THE MIRACULOUS
Common themes to chapters two and three: Origins of
interpersonal sensitivity, symbolic language, ego, self.
Intimations of tragedy in the dualism-split of self and body
Theme to chapter two: growth of mind and symbol as a
response to interpersonal sensitivity
1. The precise origin of symbolic language is a mystery.
Some of the groundwork for the birth of symbol in man
occurred at much earlier levels of evolution. Charles
Sherrington: Amoeba exhibit stimulus --- response deriving
reactive meaning. [Is this concept validly used?] This is the:
Simplest level: direct reflex

Next level: condition reflex; direct reflex and learning. The


conditioning becomes a stimulus or sign for something else, a
liberation from the environment and an enrichment of the
world to include signs
Third level: relation between objects in a visual perceptual
field and decision to act on them. Unusual autonomy:
chimpanzee
Highest level [of reactivity meaning [valid concept here?]]:
symbolic behavior - coin a designation and react to that
designation. Becker reports these designations as arbitrary. A
synthesis of lower levels and more
The development of mind is a progressive freedom from
reactivity [delay and processing of information] [-leads to-]
arriving at freedom from intrinsic properties of things. Mind
culminates in the organisms ability to choose what it will
react to.
2. Vertebrate backgrounds to the growth of mind. The young
of mammals are born in an immature state with farreaching consequences. The close dependence meant the
young had a model for learning some of their behavior - for
which they had a wider repertory and choice. Evolution
ceased putting a premium on instinct. This needed the young
to have a heightened sensitivity to individuals of their own
species. The more complex the animal, the longer the
period of dependence of the young; monkeys have seventypercent brain size at birth - infant humans achieve this at
three months. Inside the head of a human infant a brain is
being incubated; ape and human infants are remarkably
like in form, but the adults are different - humans retain a true
primate appearance The great surge of human evolution
was made possible by the social inventions of
australopithecines [man-ape] who in turn owed their
complexity to their mammalian heritage, to their long

dependence, to their sensitivities to one another The basis


for this sensitivity / alertness is probably laid down in the
dominance-subordination hierarchies of vertebrate society, of
fish, reptiles, wolves, baboons. The sensitivity allows each
animal to be cognizant in some way of the part he is to play
in the life of the group. So mans acute sensitivity to his
fellows was foreshadowed in the earliest development of
vertebrate stimulation and with primates there is a new
development. The primates are in sexual heat all the time
instead of the usual diphasic division into reproductive and
nonreproductive phases of lower vertebrates
The picture that emerges is unique in the animal kingdom: a
great variety of animals in various stages of development with keen sensitivity to the aggressive and erotic barometers
of one another - are to gather in one group. The result is an
extremely complex jumble of status to which they must
adjust - This, again, puts a premium on plasticity and against
instinctual rigidity, since nothing is as unpredictable as other
living organisms. This continuing need for adjustment
provides part of the stimulus for emergence of a largerbrained animal Primate living laid the basis for the
nervous complexity of man
3. On the humanoid level the problem of adjustment to the
organismic environment is crucial. A way was necessary to
give an ordered simplification to the interindividual
environment. Among the lower primates the answer is
strength and energy differences; for man, a schematization
that is symbolic and psychological - by means of status and
role role, correctly. This is why status and role are central
in sociology: they describe part of the essence of human
behavior and emotion in subhuman primates to permit in turn
a new ordering by the man-apes
CHAPTER THREE. THE DISTINCTIVELY HUMAN:

EGO, LANGUAGE AND SELF


Theme: nature and origin of ego and self as based in
language
4. The distinctively human. Western culture has for the most
part set a great distance between itself and nature; language
helps in this Speculations on the origin of language
include: [Charles Hockett] the hunt; [Weston La Barre]
infant-mother sensitivity. There is no agreement on the
origins, but there is on the role of language in making man
human It has to do with the ego and its linguistic basis
Nature and Origin of Ego
Mans large cerebral cortex seems to aid man feed
consciousness from within and serve as a control for reaction
to the environment. The brain is an internal gyroscope that
keeps the organism in hand and the environment at a distance
and well sorted out. The ego is the unique process of identity
and central control in a large-brained animal. In normal
function it keeps the organism independent of immediate
environmental stimuli: to wait and delay response, to hold in
awareness several conceptual processes and stimuli at one
and the same time, imagine outcomes without immediate
action; it makes a reasoned choice possible [decision making]
[ego = design and problem solving - individual level]; it
allows the organism a freedom unknown in nature The
study of the development of the ego is one of the great and
lasting contributions of psychoanalysis
Freuds Discovery of the Ego came partly from focus on the
id, it = the unconscious instinctive functioning without
conscious control and mastery, from which ground the
perceptive I, ego springs and grows The id is a world
of pictures, emotions, sensory meanings in confusion,
timeless. The lower animals are almost entirely idbodies

bound by instantaneous reactivity to a world of sensation,


incapable of holding reactions and urges in abeyance - beds
of sensation without delaying, central control. The id is
reactive life, the ego, the human organ develops in
controlling the reactivity; ego creates time by binding and
organizing images in memory, allows man to live in a
symbolic world of his own creation. When the cerebral cortex
became a central exchange for the regulation and delay of
behavior, the stage for consciousness of self and of precise
time was set and a controlled-time stream could come into
being Lower animals live in a continuous now troubled,
perhaps, by sensory [as against symbolic?] memories over
which they have little or no control. The uncontrolled picture
thinking that probably occurs in the prehuman primates is an
intrinsic symbolization in which the individual cannot assign
himself a very definite place In sleep the I gives up its
differentiated alertness and control of anxiety and defense
mechanisms [Preface and Chapter 6], and sinks to bed in the
id. [Freuds theory of dreams is based on this idea that ego
gives up direction of the individuals perceptions and
everything that the ego has chosen not to be aware of, in
order to continue its mastery over sensation, may surface things the ego cannot or will not admit.]
Ego and Anxiety Control. For delay of sensation, control of
function, ego must be an alert sentinel - to control anxiety.
Freud discovered this as one of the egos main functions.
[Comment: As the individual learns to resolve the stimuli
causing anxiety, by controlling the anxiety while cognitively
resolving it, he becomes less responsive to the stimulus. An
aspect of neurosis may be the denial of essential anxiety.
However, the original basis of the anxiety remains.] The ego
handles anxiety by saying: this is not me, my conduct, etc.
But of course, first a differentiated concept of me is
essential. Freud thought that the nots, the alien things, were
in the id in the form of guilt and threatening desires, but most

modern psychologists no longer hold this view as the source


of anxiety
Anxiety Control and Origin of Thinking. Main ego function
[-leads to-] delay [-leads to-] scan memory thought for
alternate approaches and choose; therefore, anxiety control
central to time-binding, action delaying, and cerebral
functions of humans
Intrinsic Symbolic Processes. Rudimentary ego and intrinsic
symbolic processes seem to exist on a subhuman level =
existence of consciousness. But this is not enough for full
development of ego and symbolic communication
For true ego need, a symbolic rallying point, a personal and
social symbol I; the ego builds up in a world in which it
can act with equanimity largely by naming names. Objects
are designated good, bad, and indifferent. [A lack of such an
ego explains why an apes emotional motor is always
idling - an apt way to describe an animal whose brain is
large enough to provide anxiety-provoking sensory memories
and whose environment is complex and threatening, yet an
animal who does not have controlled symbols to distance
himself from his immediate internal and external
environment
Speech is essentially human. Every language has, effectively,
I, you, and me without which there can be no ego. The
I is the rallying point for the already existing rudimentary
ego of the subhuman primates. Further, The I is not airy. It
is bolstered by a name. A whole marvelous organic
existence can be predicated on a mere sound, as in Nobody
can do that to Fred C. Dobbs.
6. Self and Self Objectification. The price of control given by
the I is that it does so initially by taking away control: the
human animal is an organic instinctive center and in learning

the social I, it partly loses its instinctive center within itself


and becomes split against itself We first understand me,
then I. This means that the child begins to identify himself as
an object of others [me] before he becomes an executive
subject [I]. This is self objectivity: I can think of me.
Man may be the only object in the universe that sees himself
as an object - with experiences and fate.
The Process of Self Objectification
Beings and objects have insides and outsides. The child
initially experiences itself as inside and others by outside.
[Without initially making a distinction - necessarily] He
only learns about his outside by taking the attitude of others
toward himself. The self cannot come into being without
using the other as lever. As sociologist Franklin Giddings
said, It is not that two heads are better than one, but that two
heads are needed for one.
Consciousness is, therefore, a fundamentally social
experience. Symbolic action is also learned from outside in:
as a child imitates the language of adults, this becomes a
signal to him A self-reflexive animal gets the meaning of
his acts by observing them after they have happened and by
observing the responses of others. This is how mind grows
and how self-reflexivity gives depth of experience at the cost
of directness of experience
The Self vs. The Body
Hence, from above, there is a real dualism in human
experience. The social identity is largely symbolic but the
experience of ones powers is at first organic. The sense of
self builds up thought symbols as well as energetic
movement, perceptions, and excitement. The child has selfexperience when his actions have been blocked and he takes
the role of other to see what his act means. The more the

blockage, the more the sense of self is symbolic If a


persons social identity is undermined in later life, he always
has his organism to fall back on; this is the basis for all
psychotherapeutic change as well as for spiritual selfrealization. If the child has been allowed to gain an
organismic identity by relatively free actions and selfcontrolled manipulation of his world, he has more strength
and resilience toward the vagaries of social symbol systems
The total striving organism is greater than the particular
world view imposed on it. Often, under severe stress, an
individual saves his sanity by learning to fall back on his
body, to rely on it. He learns to trust nature and stops the
interference of his mind - the fears that act back on his body
and undermine it This is why progressive educators from
Rousseau to Dewey and Reich have made self-directed
activity by the child a basic cornerstone of mental health
CHAPTER FOUR. THE INNER WORLD:
INTRODUCTION TO THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY
Theme: the structure of human anxiety [beyond immediate
physical anxiety] and its basis in the dualism of symbolic /
physical; that is, self / body; that is, inner / physical
Recall the vital dualism
of experience [the inner and the outer worlds] - It is one of
the great mysteries of the universe, the basis of the belief in
souls and spirits Gustav Fechner, one hundred years back
[from 1970s], tried to prove there is an equal part of soul for
every particle of matter. He said all objects have interiority,
even trees - Why not say the tree soaks water because it is
thirsty? Even rocks have interiority if only the idling of the
atoms. These thoughts help introduce the problem of
mans distinctive interiority. At the scale of man the great
dualism of naturepoignant for human beingis carried to
its furthest extreme. The child quickly learns to cultivate the

inner, private, life because it puts a barrier between him and


the demands of the world. By the time we grow up we
become masters at dissimulation, at cultivating a self that the
world cannot probe, but we pay a price. We find ourselves
hopelessly separated from everyone else Only during one
period do we break down the barriers of separateness:
preadolescent chumship One reason youth and elders
dont understand one another is that they live in different
worlds: youth trafficking in their insides which elders
have long since submerged. The parent himself now has
difficulty making contact with his own inner feelings, hopes,
and dreams. He wonders who is really inside his fleshy
casing What do the blue eyes, the wrinkles mean? The
face is a lie for an animal who really feels himself to be
somewhere in his own interior; We find ourselves in the
ironic situation of having to transact with others with the part
of ourselves - our exteriors - that we value the least. And we
are all placed in the position of having to judge others on this
least important aspect
The Protean Self
The self is not physical. It is symbolic. It is [usually] in the
body but rarely completely in the body A person is where
he believes his self to be; or, more technically, the body is an
object in the field of the self. It is one of the things we
inhabit. William James eighty years ago said a mans
me is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his
body and his mind, but his clothes and house, his wife and
children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works,
his lands and horses, his yacht and bank account. [Yes, the
self men identify with things that are not essential - either
through a mistake in judgment or an acceptance of judgment
of others.] This is important for an understanding of the
bitter fighting between social classes for social status. We
see grown and healthy organisms being jerked off balance by
their symbolic extensions Becker cites examples of

symbols of individual and group status


You get a good feeling for what the self looks like in its
extensions if you imagine the person to be a hollow cylinder
in which is lodged his self. Out of this cylinder the self
overflows and extends into the surroundings as a kind of
huge amoeba, pushing its pseudopods to a wife, a car, a flag,
a crushed flower in a secret book. The picture you get is of a
huge invisible amoeba spread out over the landscape with
boundaries very far from its own center or home base. Tear
and burn the flag, find and destroy the flower in the book and
the amoeba screams with pain Usually we extend these
pseudopods not only to things we hold dear, but also to silly
things We call precisely those people strong who can
withdraw a pseudopod at will from the trifling parts of their
identity, or especially from important ones. This flexibility
of self is real power and the achievement of it rare maturity.
In technical language, we say the person is well centered
and has control of his ego boundaries. Centering of the ego
boundaries under ones control is one of lifes principal tasks
and few achieve it. The origin of the difficulties is in
childhood when the child has no control over his self. His
awarenesses are not really his own: he has identified with his
parents. His own feelings of warmth about himself will
exclude areas that cause anxiety to the parents. He may not
have control over his own feelings in certain areas [or even
awareness of this fact - either through explicit repression or,
subtly, by assuming it to be the natural order of things.]
This simplified discussion of the ego and its boundaries takes
us to the heart of psychoanalytic theory, to one of its truly
great and lasting discoveries: the mechanisms of defense,
which have largely to do with where and how [the child]
stakes out the contents and extensions of his self. In his
symbiotic relationship with his mother, the child absorbs part
of her and her worldview, automatically and unthinkingly introjection; or the child places his thoughts and desires out

into other persons - projection. Each of us is in some ways


a grotesque collage of injected and ejected parts over which
we have no honest control. We are not aware that we carry
such a burden of foreign matter in our amoebic pseudopods,
nor do we know where the heart of our self really is, or
clearly what images and things compose it so we spend
our lives searching in mirrors to find out who we really are
Finally, the Protean character of self helps us understand
another great fruit of psychological and psychoanalytic
investigation: the character types People spread
themselves differently, derive their sense of value from
different activities. The narcissist, or phallic-narcissist,
character, for example, has highly charged his sensuality with
a sense of himself. The sadist, or anal-sadist, is sensitive to
the dualism of self and body and prefers the physicalness of
body to the symbolism of self. Physical expressions of the
body are more important than symbolic expressions of the
mind; an example, the torturer who tries to expose the self
and show its impotence in the face of physical power [or, on
the opposite side, the victim, or saint, who asserts the priority
of the inner self even though the body dies in the process].
Here is not only a character [the sadist] who has made a
peculiar kind of investment in the dualism of self and body,
but also a type of animal who must establish and universalize
his characterological preferences into a philosophy of
existence. The drama of the sadist is particularly interesting
as an attempt to assert the victory of human powers over the
insides of nature. It is in these interiors that lies the secret
vitality that man cannot fathom, that seems to mock all his
efforts at order and control with indeterminacy and
disruption. Little wonder that the scientific revolution in the
West has given such an ascendancy to the sadistic character
type
Becker now turns to the question: What is the origin of the
inflexibility of ego boundaries - what is at stake in the world

of the self?
Note to Chapter Four: Phantom pain
Phantom pain, relation to referred pain, is an intriguing
aspect of the dualism of body / self It helps us understand
something about the historical dualism of soul and body, and
also of the deep rooting of one in the other. What is the
mechanism of pain and the way it is assigned a location; or of
the assignment of any perception? Phantom pain is the pain
an individual feels in a part of a body after it has been
amputated There must have been amputations and
phantom pain far back into prehistory, and so the traditional
beliefs of an invisible but sentient soul could have some
empirical basis. In other words, the idea of the soul is the
peculiar gift of a self-reflexive animal to the data of existence
CHAPTER FIVE. SOCIALIZATION: THE CREATION
OF THE INNER WORLD
It is not our parents' loins, so much as their lives that
enthralls and blinds us: Thomas Traherne, c. 1672
Theme: origin of human anxiety in the socialization process
in which the self appears in the body
One of the two most important facts about children
everywhere - their need for closeness, fondling and warm
praise! [Due to the basic need for interpersonal sensitivity
and due to natural needs expressed, indirectly, through
Mom.] The childs ego or sense of self at this time of
merger and identification with his mother must be one of
pure pleasure - the psychoanalysis have aptly named it the
purified pleasure ego Socialization refers to the training
of the child and to the process of disentanglement from
Mother in order to function as a member of a social group.
The child comes to realize that he has to abandon the idea of

total uninterrupted excitement in the physical and then


social worlds, if he wants to keep a secure background of
love from his mother. This is what Alfred Adler meant when
he spoke of the childs need for affection as the lever of his
education. The ambivalence of the process is the conflict
between:
Anxiety at Lost Control
Independence Anxiety
Need for Need for Development of
Sensitivity Conflict Independence Ego
Loves Contact
Socialization
The Fundamental Role of Anxiety in Child Development. [[leads to-] Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis]: Anxiety
pervades the organism when it feels completely powerless to
overcome a danger. Except in small doses it is overwhelming.
Kurt Goldstein has observed: the ability to withstand anxiety
is heroic. Probably it is the only genuine heroism given to
man. [Heroism is the ability.] The origin and exact nature of
anxiety is still unclear [Becker]; Kierkegaard - a basic
response to mans condition - his finitude; Darwin - grew up
in evolution, a stimulus to growth of intellect, had survival
value; modern - anxiety is a part of the alertness that
characterizes all life and derives from protoplasmic
irritability; Freud - all the higher organisms have anxiety - a
universal reaction of the organism to danger
For the child, because of his utter helplessness, anxiety
comes to be naturally associated with the threat of
abandonment - The infant has no way of knowing he will not
be abandoned to his helpless pain except by continual contact

and relief of that pain


Freuds contribution to the theory of ego development: the
psychoanalytic theory of neurosis - how the child comes to
control anxiety. We saw [Chapter 3] ego as central control of
reactivity. Ego delays response to permit richer reaction;
therefore, if ego must overcome the most overwhelming
stimulus of all: anxiety of abandonment! How? By becoming,
said Freud, the site of anxiety, by producing it at will and
proclaiming its supreme independence of the environment in
this vital area of adaptation Freud understood this process
of ego taking over anxiety as a sort of vaccination of the
total organism. And a good many of the childs first anxieties
are those of his trainers and so the child obtains his own
control by a fundamental adaptation to his social world
Freuds theory of the ego and Meads theory of the self merge
to give us a thorough understanding of the external source of
the childs inner world
The Great Debate over Freuds View of Anxiety: The merger
of the psychoanalytic and sociological theories of
humanization was not smooth because Freud was never
very clear about the nature of anxiety for the child. In Freuds
early writing, there were two major sources of anxiety for the
child: the trauma of birth; that is, the childs discovery of its
own helplessness, and the fear of castration awakened by the
childs own sexual urges. Evolution had decided the childs
fate by building into him strong instincts of destructive
aggression. His [the childs] major anxiety, over the loss of
the protective and loving mother, is a problem stemming
from his relentless search for pleasure. Freud could not get
away from his instinct theory and so could never get away
from the idea that anxiety was due to social frustration
Because Freud was a phylogenetic thinker, his thought
lingered on events that happened way back in evolution.
Freud postulated a hypothetical event in the dim recesses of

prehistory - the famous primal-horde theory about the


crisis in the humanoid horde, when the young males, tired of
being deprived of females by the dominant male, turn on him
and kill him, and take possession of the females - their own
mothers. Freud sometimes wrote as though the primal-horde
theory was an actual prehistorical event and the memory of it
was passed down in evolution, in our genes as a racial
inheritance of indelible feelings. This complex of feelings
and the related suppression and guilt - suppression of the
patricidal urge and guilt over both the patricidal urge and the
incest instinct - these Freud called the Oedipus complex
But the child must abandon this attitude and learn to satisfy
himself by controlling himself with social symbols and a new
kind of mastery, instead of biologically. In Freuds view, this
is how the Oedipus complex is resolved and how the
superego or sense of conscience is implanted: the parents
values become the touchstone for the childs conduct. As
Alfred Adler put it, the early training process awakens a
person who has social [symbolic] interests rather than
personal [body] interests
Freuds Error. The errors in Freuds theory of anxiety can be
pinpointed. Decades of observation and research have led to
a general agreement that the infant is not driven by instincts
of sexuality and destructive aggression: the man-apes took a
step away from baboons by making new social inventions
over sexuality and aggressive competition
The major revision of Freudian thinking, then, is a complete
carrying out of what Freud failed to accomplish fully:
abandonment of phylogenetic thinking in favor of general
developmental and interpersonal thinking
This transition can be seen as a shift from genetic
determinism to genetic determination of potential, in the
sphere of personality. Anxiety is based on the childs
helplessness, but this is not a helplessness in the face of the

instincts of his own id, but in the childs life situation and in
his social world. All this is actually in Freuds work, but he
never made the development complete and clear cut One
reason that the world of Alfred Adler is still contemporary is
that he saw what was really at stake in the early training
period more clearly than did Freud. Adler insisted that the
Oedipus complex as such was rare. The child does not bring
to the relationship with his mother any dark desires that have
to find their outlet at body orifices. Rather, he brings a
generalized need for physical closeness and support. If the
family dramatizes this closeness and support while lingering
on any one orifice, then we can say that this child is perverted
by the adult; or better, in the context of a certain kind of
relationship. Freuds term polymorphous perverse
should be changed to polymorphous pervertible
Yet infantile sexuality is observed, but what is it if it is not an
autochthonous drive? We see that after a few years children
do masturbate pleasurefully and enjoy rubbing against the
bodies of their parents. But it is now understood that the issue
is not what adults would be experiencing, but rather the
childs experience of the stimulating contact The
appendages of the body are secondary compared to the
emotions of the inner self urges for all kinds of experience
and maintenance of boundless parental love Sexual
functioning is subservient to ego functioning, to problems of
identity and freedom. Paradoxically, sex does not dominate
the child as sex, even if it shows itself as sex, as Rank
reasoned in his Modern Education. The main anxieties of the
child are frankly existential from the beginning. We know
now that a child becomes passive and oral, not because of a
rigorous weaning from the breast, but because of a whole
atmosphere that undermines his initiative and selfconfidence. A child becomes tense, mechanical and anal,
not because of strictly scheduled toilet-training or meticulous
bodily cleanliness and orderliness, but because of a lack of

joy and spontaneity in the childs environment, anxieties


about life which are communicated to him, and which cause
him to shut up within himself and to try extra hard for basic
security. [This simple account does not do justice to the rich
variations in each case and to the childs own natural
ambivalence about his body, but it gives a feeling for adult as
perverter.] The adaptation a child makes to his early
training is a kind of standardized confusion about what the
world wants from him and what is possible for him in it
At the center of the confusion is the fact that the child has
only his body. He is not yet a fully symbolic animal. He has
no coin other than his body to establish himself as a loved
object. He doesnt understand big words, long sentences,
monologues on the nature of reality. Does the mother
value his body - him - or not? Only if we understand how
basic and natural this question is, can we also see why harsh
and loveless training regimens are the most harmful to the
child. They deprive him of his first and only secure footing
and make his feel secondary to symbols. He develops a
symbolic style of achieving his sense of self without having
had a secure physical sense of himself. This is why
psychoanalysts have been concerned about facts that seem
trivial: time of weaning, sphincter training, severity of the
training, etc. These questions should not be understood as
narrow questions of body zones or routine matters of child
discipline that are completely forgotten in a few years or are
irrelevant to the hard facts of adult life The atmosphere of
love and support that surround all the childs body
transactions with his mother is what sustains his sense of
self-worth and distinguishes between those who are able to
face challenges and those who shrink from them
We can understand why Freud said that the Oedipus was
universal - but again, not for his phylogenetic reasons.
Rather, the very fact that there has at all been frustration,
confusion between the body and symbols, in a hypersensitive

affection-hungry animal, leaves an undigested residue. The


child is a museum of antiquities, of nervous conditionings
and archaic messages that are unrelated to the straightforward
experience of the adult world
CHAPTER SIX. THE NEW MEANING OF THE
OEDIPUS COMPLEX: THE DISPOSSESSION OF
THE INNER WORLD
Theme: the fundamental contribution of Freud. How the
conscience is implanted: the dynamics of neurosis
The flexibility of the self is an achievement of rare maturity:
The ability to relinquish objects, reorganize boundaries of
self and ego, extending and withdrawing at will it seems
simple. Why not just do it?
We cannot easily, and few can fully. The reason lies in the
development of the ego itself. Freud saw that the ego grows
by putting anxiety under its control as it finds out what
anxiety is for the organism, and then chooses to avoid it by
building defenses that handle it. Freud put it: The ego
vaccinates itself with small doses of anxiety, and the
antibodies that the organism then builds up become its
defense [mechanisms] - Denial: This is not happening to me;
projection: that person is thinking these vulgar thoughts;
repression: that did not occur But now the freedom from
anxiety is bought at a heavy price: the restriction of
experience - The ego develops by skewing perceptions and
limiting action. The ego banishes from its own organization
that which threatens the safety of the organism; rules
established in interaction with parents [authority ] The
mechanisms of defense are par excellence techniques of self
deception This is the paradox called neurosis: the child
becomes human by his autonomy, by accepting social values,
by developing a conscience. As Freud said: The child
becomes humanized and social and says You no longer have

to punish me, Father; I will punish my self now I am a


social person because I am no longer mine; I am yours. The
[terrible] conclusion we draw from Freuds work is that the
humanization process itself is the neurosis: the limitation of
experience, the fragmentation of perception, the
dispossession of genuine internal control
Freuds theories will continue, into the future, to hold an
awesome fascination and a feeling of terror [not because of
reference to childhood instincts of sexuality and destructive
aggression but] because of the universality of the human
slavery and blindness we call neurosis. This is Freuds
durable contribution and the real meaning of the universality
of the Oedipus. Freud himself prevented us from seeing this
because he was not clear about the sources of anxiety
Freud, at the very beginning of his career, set out to discover
the nature of conscience, why man everywhere feels guilty,
what he feels guilty about, his deep underlying motives. Kant
believed conscience was a miracle implanted by God. Freud
wanted to show that it was the reflex of frustrated desire.
What was the truth in this? Freud was wrong about the
Oedipus complex, about the motives of the human condition.
Motives were not inherent as Freud thought they were - the
instincts of sexuality and destructive aggression. They
developed within a child in interaction with his parents and
were as diverse and complex as a set of a persons
perceptions and interactions. Freud did not discover the
universal conscience of man, but, instead, the universal
mechanism of implantation of conscience. His theory of ego
and anxiety laid bare the reason that the sense of conscience
was so deeply rooted, even in the face of experience and
aging. When the child says, Ill punish myself now, he is
affirming that he has control over the anxiety of his whole
sense of being, of life and death. Ones motives reside in
ones skewed perceptions. That they are buried deep in
unconscious, does not mean that they are buried in the

recesses of evolution; but instead that they are veiled by


ignorance of ones self. Freud discovered conscience as
limited vision and dishonest control over ones self
The Basic Dynamics of Neurosis
Dishonest control is a neurotic style of living. It shocks us to
learn that our innermost sense of right and wrong is [nothing
more than] the distillation of a simple learning process. To
admit that neurosis is merely a process of interference with
simple animal movement, of the blocking of the forward
momentum of action But the work of Adler and Reich and
more recently the extension of the work in the Gestalt
psychology of Frederick Perls, has made this abundantly
clear
Socialization is characterized by one fundamental and
recurring fact: the childs natural urge to move freely
forward, manipulate, experiment, and exercise his own
assimilative powers is continually blocked. Some blockage is
good: for safety and learning self-control and mastery, but
much is because of parents fears, irritability, etc., in Perls
view, after the childs attempt to carry through satisfying
action is blocked by the parent. The energy must then find
outlet in the process of adapting to the parent and his
commands and the child thus incorporates the image of his
parent and of his parents values and makes them slavishly
and uncritically his own - because he does not have the
ability or power to criticize. In this process of frustrated
blockage and the associated ambivalence, the mechanisms of
defense take root with all the dishonesty about oneself and
ones real satisfaction that they represent. The child is
coerced into adopting a fictional pleasure, the symbolic one
that he does not understand, instead of his own authentic
pleasure. The process is insidious; traumas are not important
in the causation of neurosis The contest of power that
represents the socialization of a child is not necessarily a

contest of blatant power, but more generally a contest of


benign and disguised power. Psychologists have put it in the
simplest, most biting formula: the avoidance of external
conflicts [with the parents] creates internal conflicts [the
neurotic de-centering, fragmentation and cluttering up of the
self with alien images]. There is another sense in which the
child loses governance over himself, the polar opposite of the
excessive interference: not being interfered with enough.
Free movement for the [mature] individual is not crippled
movement, but neither is it fluid accommodation: it is
movement under the aegis of the mover. Freedom is a sense
of personal potency. And so the mother who does not permit
the child to cultivate this aegis by wisely teaching him the
limits of his powers, the rights of others, the natural difficulty
of experience, is preventing him from becoming an
individual
What Freud did Not do
In order to set up the next development, Becker now turns to
consider what Freud did not achieve. If Freud did not
discover the nature of conscience, but only the mechanism of
its implantation, he could not be correct about why people
feel guilty. Freud thought that conscience [motivation] was
laid down as early as the recesses of evolution as biological
memory
Today we understand that guilt is due to the human condition,
to the sense of being bound, overshadowed, feeling
powerless. Guilt is understood as the sense in which the body
is a drag on human freedom, on limitless ambitions of
movement and expansion of the inner self. This is natural
guilt. Further, as existentialists have taught us, a person can
feel guilt about the blockage of his own development: that he
has not had the experiences or realized the urgings that
seemed his natural right. Generally, mans social
experience can lead to an immense increase in his natural

guilt. If neurosis is the result of benign blockage of free


movement, guilt can be as superficial as interference with
action, as natural a thing as a young animals dumb
perceptions of the totality of his power world. The
perceptive genius of Kafka could instruct Freud on the nature
of guilt. If we take what is durable in the work of the two
men, we can understand how simple, how inevitable, how
peculiarly human and tragic, is the dispossession of man
Freuds Contribution
Becker implies that it is too early for a complete inventory,
but that the general contents can be now identified: it would
have to include everything in Freuds work which revealed
the individuals blindness and dishonest self-control: his
findings on the ego, anxiety, the mechanisms of defense, the
character types, the importance of dreams as the royal road to
the unconscious. If we omit all the phylogenetic referents and
all the misemphasis on the sexual symbolism, we are still left
with a staggering corpus of insight into why people act the
way they do. [William James predicted that the future of
psychology was with Freuds work. The credit to names in
the Preface is surely the natural development of the mainline
of this psychology. An excellent appreciation and
development is in Fromm, The Heart of Man [1964.]
CHAPTER SEVEN. SELF ESTEEM: THE DOMINANT
MOTIVE OF MAN
The supreme law [of life] is this: the sense of worth of the
self shall not be allowed to diminish, Alfred Adler
Themes
Self esteem as the natural homeostasis of the psyche, as
mans essential social motive and as a natural continuation
of early ego efforts to handle anxiety

Relationship of self esteem to psychoanalytic characterology


and its continuation by Diltheys followers, the modern
existentialists, and the data of anthropology. That this gives a
fairly complete cosmography of the inner worlds of men
This change is central to the theme / development of the
book. It culminates the development of human social
motivation and personality analysis. It leads into interaction
of personality and culture [Chapter 8], personality dynamics
[Chapter 9], cultural stage for personality plays and relative
nature [Chapter 10], universals [Chapter 11] synthesis of
universals in psychology, sociology and anthropology to
form a complete science of man [Chapter 12], possible
directions for development of self and society [Chapter 13]
Freud did not explain motives [conscience, guilt], but how
they are implanted. This is the main reason Alfred Adler is
still contemporary. Adler broke very early with Freud on this
problem when he strongly proclaimed that the basic law of
human life is the urge to self-esteem. Once this break with
Freud is made, a new world of understanding opens up.
Mans motive has been laid bare, which is what Freud set out
to do This is why the clinical theories of Adler as well as
Sullivan, Rank, Fromm, Horney and a growing number of
young and undogmatic Freudians give us such rich and true
explanations of what really makes people act the way they do
- what they are really upset about
Self-esteem maintenance begins for the child with the first
infusion of mothers milk and is a natural and systemic
continuation of the early ego efforts to handle anxiety. It is
the durational extension of an effective anxiety buffer. The
words self-esteem are at the very core of human adaptation.
The qualitative feeling of self-value is the basic predicate for
human action, precisely because it epitomizes the whole
development of the human ego

Socialization: the entire early training period in which the


child learns to switch modes of maintaining self-esteem. He
cannot earn parental approval or self-esteem by continuing to
express himself with his body - It comes to be derived from
symbols The change is momentous. The childs sense of
self-value, of human worth, has been largely artificialized,
largely a linguistic contrivance. He has become the only
animal in nature who vitally depends on a symbolic
constitution of his worth
The Inner Drama
Everyone runs an inner newsreel, even if it does not record
the same symbolic events. Always it passes in review the
peculiar symbols of ones choice that gives him a warm
feeling about himself. When the drama records a negative
image, we immediately counter with a positive one While
we are asleep the ego is not working and has no conscious
control over the messages. Our deeper experience may have
on record that we are really worthless, helpless, dependent,
mediocre, inadequate, finite: this is our unconscious
speaking; and when the ego cannot oppose any positive
images to counteract these negative ones, we have the
nightmare, the terrible revelation of our basic uselessness
This balancing of positive and negative images of self-worth
begins very early Self-esteem depends on our social role
and it is always packed with faces - it is rarely in the nature
of documentary
Comments: Although the self-esteem may be central [it is
confused with survival] - [1] we are dependent on others for
survival, [2] the boundary between survival, status, comfort,
etc. is never clear, in part because of social lies, and [3]
very often approval is [at least apparently] prerequisite to
warmth
The Psychoanalytic Characterology

Pathos: In humanization we exchange a natural sense of


worth for a symbolic one. Then we are constantly forced to
harangue others to establish who we are. We no longer
belong to ourselves: our character has become social. Alfred
Adler saw with beautiful clarity that the basic process in the
formation of character was the childs need to be somebody
in the symbolic world, since physically, nature had put him
into an impossible position. He is faced with anxieties of his
own life and experience as well as the need to accommodate
the superior powers of his trainers; and from all this to
salvage his sense of superiority and confidence He can do
this by choosing a symbolic action system in which to earn
his basic feeling of self-worth: examples, superiority through
the Don Juan approach through physical attractiveness; by
superiority of their minds; by being generous and helpful;
making superior or beautiful things, money; by being devoted
slaves; by serving the corporation or the war machine and so
on
The great variation in character is one of the fascinations and
plagues of life: it makes our world infinitely rich and yet we
rarely understand what the person next to us really wants,
what kind of message he is addressing to us, what kind of
confirmation we can give him of his self-worth. The
reason scenarios of self-esteem seem so opaque even in our
closest relationships is embarrassingly simple: we ourselves
are largely ignorant of our own life-style, our own way of
seeking self-esteem, more or less unique, formed in early
training, beginning in presymbolic roots. As a result we have
no way of getting on top of this process of conditioning, no
way to grasp it, because as children we did not know what
was happening to us. The psychoanalytic characterology is
the study of efforts that the child makes to salvage an intact
self-esteem from this confusion. If this were merely a
matter of finding out what symbol-system one had
unwittingly adopted in order to get on top of all the burdens

of his early situation, we could all fairly early get selfknowledge. But the sense of right and wrong, our way of
perceiving the world, our feelings for it and who we are not
merely a mental matter - they are largely a total organismic
matter, as Dewey saw long ago, and Frederick Perls has
recently reminded us. We earn our early self-esteem not
actively but in large part passively, by having our action
blocked and reoriented to our parents pleasure. This triggers
introjection of parents images without digesting them - part
of our honest control So the self is largely a confusion
of insides, outsides, boundaries, alien objects and it is decentered and split off from the body in some measure. This is
what makes the study of character difficult and fascinating.
Even the person himself cannot know completely what his
experience and feelings mean because it is largely
presymbolic and unconscious
What makes the psychoanalytic corpus so compelling from
the scientific point of view is that it has mastered the general
problem of character by finding the current types, outline
groups, into which everyone more-or-less fits: aggressive,
passive, sadistic, narcissistic [or oral-aggressive, oral-passive,
anal-sadistic, phallic-narcissistic], and so on. We can rarely
know the unique character a person has, but his mode of
earning self-esteem is more or less identifiable in terms of the
basic psychoanalytic characterology. If we merge it with the
characterology developed by Diltheys followers, the modern
existentialists, and the data of anthropology, we have a fairly
complete cosmography of the inner worlds of men
CHAPTER EIGHT. CULTURE AND PERSONALITY:
THE STANDARDIZATION OF SELF-ESTEEM
We are born to action; and whatever is capable of suggesting
and guiding action has power over us from the first, Charles
Horton Cooley

Mankinds common instinct for reality has always held


the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism, William
James
Theme: how culture and personality dovetail to provide selfesteem and heroism; why? In order to take care of
individual self-esteem and safety of the individual and of
society: as the function of hero systems. The cost in
individual freedom
Comment: Chapters 8 and 9 show an important link between
the individual [who needs a personality] and society
[which provides a cultural based hero system or system of
roles and status]
Self-esteem must be the dominant social motive of man for:
when people do not have self-esteem, they cannot act. When
the inner drama begins to run consistently negative images
of ones worth, the person gives up Anthropologists have
long known that when a tribe of people loses the feeling that
their way of life is worthwhile, they may stop reproducing, or
in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full
of fish The self-esteem is vital: it is wrong to say that man
is a peacock, if we mean thereby to belittle his selfglorification. When the child poses the question, Who am I?
What is the value of my life?, he is really asking something
more pointed: that he be recognized as an object of primary
value in the universe. Nothing less. He wants to know What
is my contribution to world-life? Where do I rank as a
hero?
This is the unique human need, the logical and inevitable
result of the symbolic constitution of self-worth in an
unbelievably complex animal with exquisitely sensitive and
effusive emotions. Self-preservation, physico-chemical
identity, pulsating body warmth, a sense of power and
satisfaction in activity - all these tally up in symbolic man to

the emergence of the heroic urge. Freud saw the psychic


nature of these facts, and he tallied them under the label of
narcissism. It was a truly brilliant formulation. Freud saw the
universality of narcissism, and revealed the clinical liabilities
of it. Adler, too, studies the neurotic overemphasis of the
will to power and made the idea a central part of his
formulations; but it was Nietzsche, earlier, who saw the
healthy expression of the will to power and glory, the
inevitable drive to cosmic heroism This is why we still
thrill to Emerson and Nietzsche, because they saw that
heroism was necessary and good Sibling rivalry is not
mere competitiveness or selfishness. It is an expression of a
childs need to be an object of primary value
Culture and Personality
Culture provides a heroic-action system in which individuals
can realize their ambitions. This symbolic system is what we
call culture. In this way the ego earns the vital self-esteem
that is a buffer against anxiety: culture provides just those
rules, customs, and goals of conduct that place right actions
automatically at the individuals disposal. One crucial
function of culture is to make self-esteem possible Its task
is to provide the individual with the conviction that he is an
object of primary value in a world of meaningful action.
Morality is merely a prescription for choice; and meaning
is born as the choice is carried into action. Physiology
often provides the most direct cues to action and the cultural
drama is a succession of performances based on the age and
sex differences; also, size, race, ability Status and role
provide basic prescriptions for action, personality typings,
what an individual should do in a particular situation, and
how he should feel about doing it Culture cannot provide
its members with a feeling of primary value in a world of
meaning unless it provides a prescription for meaningful
action on the part of all. Status and role serve further to make

behavior predictable
One of the great insights into the nature of society is that it is
precisely a drama. In sociological terms, status is something
that everybody has, a formalized cue. Culture has the most to
gain [?] from the resulting predictability
Sometimes status cues can be extremely complex [you and
thou, etc. - the Balinese have seventeen gradations of status
language]. Why complicate thus? Because there is a
challenge to ego mastery and a denial of meaninglessness. It
makes heroism possible. This is its function on a symbolic
level
There is also the physical aspect: Culture has to provide man
with safety as well as self-esteem and the area of least
dependability in social life is other people. As Sartre said,
Hell is other people. Status cues and role prescriptions for
behavior take care not only of self-esteem and the vital
matter of interpersonal safety; culture, society and nature also
provide for in other areas of physical safety: needs. More on
this later
The Paradox of Hero-Systems
Culture and personality neatly dovetail into one coherent
picture. If self-esteem and primary heroism is the vital need,
culture provides it through the hero system. The action
resulting from the provision of cues provides stability. [Not
every system will work; selection eliminates nonviable
ones [but the meaning of viable must be adaptive].] We raise
our children within a codified hero-system that will permit us
to survive and thrive according to our own peculiar needs
But there is a negative aspect to these arrangements: the cost
in freedom that they represent. This was seen by
anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.

Benedict even spoke of the megalomaniac and paranoid


styles of cultures
The child is shaped to follow certain rules in a world which
automatically follows those rules. Socialization in this sense
is a kind of symbolic instinctivization which represents the
same hardening of behavior as thought found among lower
animals. So people willingly propagate whole cultural
systems that hold them in bondage, and since everybody
plays the same hero-game, nobody can see through the farce.
For every simplified ordering of mans world and most of
all for the expression of his unique humanness, there is a
tragic paradox
Comments on Change
Since it is the avoidance of anxiety that keeps an individual
bound to a certain personality, change must involve exposure
to anxiety
CHAPTER NINE. SOCIAL ENCOUNTERS: THE
STAGING OF THE SELF-ESTEEM
Society is organized on the principle that any individual
who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right
to expect that others will value and treat him in a
correspondingly appropriate way He automatically exerts
a moral demand upon others obliging them to value him.,
Erving Goffman
Themes
Chapter 7 formulated the centrality of self-esteem in
personality development
Chapter 8 showed the dovetailing of culture and heroic
roles by which self-esteem is expressed and maintained

Chapter 9 discusses the dynamics of self-esteem maintenance


in social encounter without basis in any specific cultural
system - what is universal in interpersonal dynamics. It
therefore goes towards answering the question what is the
detailed relation between self- esteem maintenance and
social behavior and so providing a more complete answer
to the question why do people behave the way they do
of course the heroic mold varies among cultures and this sets
up Chapter 10, and certain types of unconvincing
performance of the cultural hero-plot undermines the
precariously constituted cultural meaning from which
everyone derives sustenance - and this sets up Chapter 11
The fundamental task that every society must face is truly
monumental. Individualism must be protected at their sorest
point: the fragile self-esteem of each member. In the social
encounter each member exposes for public scrutiny and
possible intolerable undermining the one thing he needs the
most: the positive self-valuation he has so laboriously
fashioned. With stakes of this magnitude, there is nothing
routine about social life. Each social encounter is a hallowed
event
Protection of self-esteem is handled by society by a series of
intricate conventions, or face rituals [Goffman] or codes
for interaction. Two claims have to be met by the face ritual:
the social claim or right to engage the self, and the
individuals right to privacy. Factors include deportment,
dress, and bearing. These are instilled by teaching the child to
have feelings attached to himself: imagine the confusion
when the teaching is not socially correct - the feelings to
match the occasion are not the socially appropriate ones. Less
obvious than the physical qualities [deportment, etc.] are
qualities such as honor and pride Goethe said there was a
courtesy of the heart which is akin to love. The courtesy is
the delicate handling of other selves. The love is the control

of oneself so that social life can go on


The Self as a Locus of Linguistic Causality
The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan liked to use the term
self-system instead of the Freudian divisions of the psyche
and, for Sullivan, this self-system was largely a linguistic
device. Individuals who do not learn the correct responses
can be socially discounted: to present an infallible self is to
present one which has an unshakable control over words.
Dale Carnegie said, It matters not what you mean: you and
those around you become according to what you say. The
proper word or phrase properly delivered is the highest
attainment of human interpersonal power. The easy handling
of the verbal context of action gives the only possibility of
direct exercise of control over others. The English
invariably discomfort Americans because they seem to be
saying just the right thing at the right time Goethe
considered acting in ones youth an indispensable preparation
for adult life. Theatrical acting is a vicarious freedom of
acting in control of a situation. It demonstrates perfectly how
control can be gained merely by saying the right things. By
using the word ceremonial properly the individual can
navigate without fear in a threatening social world. He can
even ignore the true attitudes of farewells and so on
There is also a more subtle aspect, Becker continues: the
ability to use formulas with facility actually improves the
power to manipulate others indirectly, by providing the
symbolic context for their action
A fundamental task of culture is to constitute the individual
as an object of primary value in a world of meaning. Without
this, he cannot act. Now, the proper exercise of ritual
formulas provides just this The leader who, after a short
whispered outline plan of attack, shouts, Lets go, men,
implies that at all times and places, this is the situation in

which man should most want to be. [Again, I am having


problems. What about developed trust? What if some overall
meaning context is missing - as in Vietnam?]
As the individual exercises his creative powers in the social
encounter, he forms himself into a meaningful ideational
whole, receiving affirmations, banishing contradictions
On the other hand: if he bungles the performance, he loses
the credentials for his particular performance parts, and thus
his identity. [Another complaint. The awkwardness of the
dream. The needs of the mass. The origin of meaning. All this
is fine at a level and as a partial explanation of social
encounter, but what about the unique event? What about the
origin of conflict?] Loneliness is not only a suspension in
stimulation; it is a moratorium on self-acquaintance. It is a
suspension of the very fashioning of identity. [Still more, loss
of identity or loss of support / potency?]
Subtler Aspects of the Social Creation of Meaning
For the maintenance of self-esteem to work in social
encounter, individuals must be acutely sensitive to cues. Each
person has to assess three things about another [the
assessment of which allows one to fulfill his social human
nature]
The others general intent in the situation
The others response to himself
The others response or feeling toward me, the recipient or
observer of his action
The adept performer should be able to:
Save or maintain his own face [self-esteem]
Prepare appropriate lines that may be necessary to protect the

others self- esteem, if the other inadvertently makes a gaffe


Frame creative and convincing lines that carry the interaction
along in the most meaningful, life-enhancing fashion; or,
wanting that, try to get out of the interaction gracefully and at
the others expense
There is a creative element in every performance: by
presenting uniquely creative lines, the actor obliges his
interlocutor to cope with the unexpected, also in a creative
fashion. [Jokes are, in part, a relief from this tension.]
What can be learned of the phenomenon of natural
leadership from the fields of psychology and sociology is
interesting. A pattern of mothering feeds into the self-system
of the child a boundless self-regard. The strong self, as he
grows up, makes an effort at performance often beyond their
means and so obliges them to a careful deference. The aura of
infallibility is enforced as the performance of others
stumbles. The feeling of infallibility releases the inner
creative powers, essential to the needs of the context. Becker
de-emphasizes the physical context, but positions of
statesmanship do seem to require brilliance in physical
assessment. Undoubtedly, superior social performance and
brilliant assessment of the physical situation are mutually
reinforcing
Subtler Aspects of the Social Creation of Meaning
For the maintenance of self-esteem to work in social
encounter, individuals must be acutely sensitive to cues. Each
person has to assess three things about another [the
assessment of which allows one to fulfill his social human
nature]
The others general intent in the situation

The others response to himself


The others response or feeling toward me, the recipient or
observer of his action
The adept performer should be able to:
Save or maintain his own face [self-esteem]
Prepare appropriate lines that may be necessary to protect the
others self- esteem, if the other inadvertently makes a gaffe
Frame creative and convincing lines that carry the interaction
along in the most meaningful, life-enhancing fashion; or,
wanting that, try to get out of the interaction gracefully and at
the others expense
There is a creative element in every performance: by
presenting uniquely creative lines, the actor obliges his
interlocutor to cope with the unexpected, also in a creative
fashion. [Jokes are, in part, a relief from this tension.]
What can be learned of the phenomenon of natural
leadership from the fields of psychology and sociology is
interesting. A pattern of mothering feeds into the self-system
of the child a boundless self-regard. The strong self, as he
grows up, makes an effort at performance often beyond
others means and so obliges them to a careful deference. The
aura of infallibility is enforced as the performance of others
stumbles. The feeling of infallibility releases the inner
creative powers, essential to the needs of the context. Becker
de-emphasizes the physical context, but positions of
statesmanship do seem to require brilliance in physical
assessment. Undoubtedly, superior social performance and
brilliant assessment of the physical situation are mutually
reinforcing

CHAPTER TEN. CULTURE: THE RELATIVITY OF


HERO-SYSTEMS
If the end of all is to be that we must take our sensations as
simply given or preserved by natural selection for us, and
interpret this rich and delicate overgrowth of ideas, moral,
artistic, religious and social as a mere mask, a tissue spun in
happy hours how long is it going to be well for us not to
let on all we know to the public? William James
Themes
Anthropologists know that cultural-need systems vary much
more than there is uniformity. This points to the relativity of
cultural values, to arbitrariness and to the fictional nature of
cultural meaning. However, the idea of a hero-system is not
completely relative, for, if a cultures hero-system becomes
devalued, the people give up. There must also be some
contact with physical reality and perhaps some
representation beyond the immediate mythology which shows
a universal structure or pattern of coping and living. The
idea of universality is presented through a set of fundamental
human problems. The final section on the fictional nature of
hero-systems discusses contact with physical reality. Becker
asserts that, in the past, reality rarely tested a culture on the
salient points of outer [physical] consistency of its herosystem, but that in the future both inner consistency [because
of the emergence of world culture] and outer consistency
[because of the depletion of the environment] will be tested.
Man, if he has to survive, has to bring down to near zero the
large fictional element in his hero-systems in relation to
this there is a discussion of the invisible world and fragility
of material- based hero-systems: the technocratic state.
This sets the stage for a discussion of universals in
psychology [Chapter 11] and sociology, anthropology and
psychology / psychiatry [Chapter 12]

Two centuries of anthropological work have found that there


are any number of ways and patterns in which individuals
can act and in each pattern they possessed a sense of primary
value in a world of meaning However, one of the main
reasons that cultures can be so directly undermining to one
another is that, despite their many varieties, they all ask and
answer the same basic questions: there are only a handful of
such vital points or common human problems and one
of the great advantages of being able to boil the human
situation down to the same questions the world over is that it
partly lifts the screen that divides people and their ways of
life. The screen can never be lifted entirely, yet there is what
anthropologists have long recognized as the psychic unity of
mankind You can understand strange premises and see
sympathetically why people do not act as we do
The Six Common Human Problems
Becker identifies six common problems which I identify as
three. Roman numerals are for my three, Arabic for Beckers
six
I. What is the Relation of Man to Nature?
This is Beckers first problem
This is the fundamental question of human life, of course,
and must be answered in order for man to survive physically.
It is the question of mans relation to his environment; it
includes material nature as well as spiritual-emotional
connection [and is so related to Common Problem III] In
Western society nature came to be looked upon as a grab bag.
Nature was physical, not spiritual; neutral and self-renewing.
Man takes and deserves what he gets For the primitive
who engaged in potlatch and gift exchange, the artifacts that
were passed from hand to hand have a richness of
experiences that we cannot imagine. A tree that has been

sacrificed remains a presence


II. What is the Relation of Man to Man?
This makes up three of Beckers questions:
2. What are the innate predispositions of man? The question
of personality, how to navigate in the social world
3. What types of personality are most valued? The basic
question of status. The answer reveals the hierarchy of heroes
in the cultural plot
4. What are the modes of relating to others? This is the basic
question of role. The answer reveals what we should do with
our social lives, how we chart the worlds of friendship,
kinship, career
Also important, although Becker does not include this: What
is the relation of man to himself? This is in part the inner
mirror for all other questions
III. What is the Relation of Man to the Universe?
This set is more metaphysical than the others since man does
not have immediate day-to-day experience of it [Western,
material man, that is]. Becker says that Problem 2 is also
metaphysical, but I think not. Question 1 does have
metaphysical interpretations and does develop Question III,
but is no more metaphysical, intrinsically, than Question II.
This set includes some of the eternal questions
5. In what kind of space-time dimension does human action
take place?
Even the time and space of physics is not the simple object
once imagined [Newton.], having many modifications such
as closedness [relativity,] granularity [quantum theory,]

possible cyclicity [ergodic theory] and so on. To the


Australian aborigine the World of Dream, legendary past and
waking present blended inextricably into one synthetic
experience - he lived in these worlds at once. For him the
land was sharply marked out with sacred places mixed in
with everyday space. Gods were reborn in sacred spaces and
a mythical being dwelled there: you could pass them on the
way to the hunt. For Western secular man, space and time
have the same properties everywhere. Obviously this
question touches on all the others
6. What is the hierarchy of power in nature, society and the
cosmos and where does the individual fit into it?
This is the question of most direct concern. It is probably the
one we would first put if we woke up on a strange planet
If we dont get this question right, we fail right away in all
others A persons whole sustenance comes to be based in a
power source unknown or unacknowledged to himself. One
of lifes most shattering and self-revealing experiences is to
have divulged to oneself the unconscious sources of his
power: mother, the boss, money, the Pentagon, the heroes of
the free-enterprise system, Marx and Lenin, humanity, the
Church, ones spouse, his guru, or his guns
One of the principle aspects of the relativity of cultures is that
there are very diverse hierarchies from which one can draw
his power, his heroism Let us look at one striking change
that has occurred in history, in the perception of power and in
the sources of power to draw on. It will make intelligible our
whole discussion
The Invisible World
Probably for a half-million years mankind has believed that
there were two worlds, a visible one in which everyday

action took place, and a greater, much more powerful world the invisible one, upon which the visible one depended, and
from which it drew its powers The problem of life, in such
a dual universe, is to control and tap the powers of the
invisible, spirit world. From the earliest times this has been
the function of the religious practitioner, that he had the
talent of bridging the two worlds: the pontifex, as the
Romans called him. In the West the belief in a dual
universe lasted right up until the Enlightenment and the
nineteenth century, and then gradually faded away for the
most part. Today we imagine that all real experience, all valid
data, exists on the level of the visible world alone; and, as we
might expect, we feel a real superiority in this belief over the
ancients. Besides, the old view is a half-million years old, the
new one a mere hundred fifty. This makes it modern and
scientific. Modern science, however, demonstrates that the
commonsense post-Enlightenment view of reality is not the
truth. There is, empirically, an invisible nature of
microcosmic and cosmic levels and the stuff of existence is in
many ways ephemeral. Our bodies are an organization of
ephemeral, changing entities
All of this seems to make the ancients less childish in their
beliefs. The tribal peoples who ashamedly renounced their
traditional superstitions to adopt the Western worldview
now appear to have been too hasty. We are learning that the
Bantu peoples possessed an ontology, a philosophy of
existence, as sophisticated as any we can think up today - in
fact, need to think up to explain the whole of experience.
Once you train yourself to imagine an invisible dimension of
experience, you begin to understand what the ancients meant
by heaven, the realm of timeless entity
The major lesson of the dualism of worlds, the relative
psychologies that result from these beliefs, is somewhat as
follows. For believers in the dualism, the invisible world has
more power and authority than the visible one. So, the people

in the visible world can renew and augment the powers of the
invisible one by proper ritual observances. Their major duty
in life is to the invisible spirits and gods. Put this baldly, it
sounds humanly demeaning - a tyranny of the departed
spirits. This tyranny was a real one in life under the great
dualism; but there was an important, positive side. In
traditional and primitive societies, the family was essentially
a religious group, a priesthood, because of its sacred ritual
duties to the departed ancestors. This is hard to grasp today
everything a person did was done, in other words, partly
in heaven. This is the meaning of Pascals beautiful, primitive
prayer which went something like this: Lord, help me to do
the great things as though they were little, since I do them
with Your powers; and help me to do the little things as
though they were great, because I do them in Your name
The visible world was like a stage The individual pops
into the physical embodiment from the entrance, comes to the
center of the stage, plays out his role in life
Becker continues: We can now understand why the problem
of heroism, or self-esteem, is so acute in modern life A
main function of culture - men together finding, making
meaning - is to provide the individual with a primary sense of
heroism to answer the question, How does the dignity,
control, bearing, talent, and duty of my life contribute to the
fuller development of mankind, to life in the cosmos? We
can see that primitive and traditional hero-systems provide a
clear-cut answer to precisely this question, and we can also
judge that modern society provides no easy answer if it
provides any at all. The allegiances of modern man are
material and limited to a single lifespan [and this, as observed
above, has no basis in experience - only in a highly distorted
view of experience]. These are easily undermined, and when
they are, the heroic is undermined with them. What is more,
whole masses of men are deprived of these allegiances, of a
meaningful place in the material culture hero-systems, and

they have lost belief in their traditional systems as well. They


live on the margins of society The crisis of middle- and
upper-class youth in the social and economic struggle of the
Western world is precisely a crisis of belief in the vitality of
the hero-systems [self-contradictory / self-love nature of
material culture] that are offered by contemporary materialist
society. Of course these hero-systems are by no means
extrinsically necessary. They are intrinsically and
circumstantially perpetuated by the mutual reinforcement of
personality, culture and stability. Alternative systems entirely
compatible with the essential truths of modern [and ancient]
knowledge are available and are more centering and more
consistent with our awareness of eternal possibility
The Fictional Nature of Human Meanings
Some consequences of the empirical facts about the basic
change in worldview [material / invisible dualism [-leads
to-] materialism] that has been developed in history: First - a
striking sketch of the relativity of hero-systems, and if this
leaves the matter open to argument and debate, good, because
mans answers to the problem of his existence are in large
measure fictional. His notions of time, space, power, the
character of his dialogue with nature, his venture with his
fellow men, his primary heroism - all these are embedded in
a network of codified meanings and perceptions that are in
large part arbitrary and fictional. This begins early in
childhood In the symbolic world limitations are overcome.
Here the child can grow to enormous size as the child /
individual identifies with giants, gods, heroes of myth, and
legend, or historical figures of a particular culture The
ego, or self, becomes indistinguishable from the cultural
worldview because the worldview protects the ego against
anxiety. The ego now feels warm the mind flies out of the
limits of the puny body and soars into a world of timeless
beauty, meaning and justice

This is already a shocking conclusion to symbolic animals


who pride themselves on living in a real world of intense
experience But can it all be a fiction, a mirage, a tissue
spun in happy hours as James put it? Ludwig von
Bertalanffy wrote [1955] that evolution would soon have
weeded man out, if his cultural categories of space, time,
causality, etc. were entirely deceptive. Anthropology has
taught us that when a culture comes up against reality on
critical points of its perceptions and proves them fictional,
then that culture is eliminated by what we would call natural
selection

DOCUMENT STATUS
I maintain this document because I learned much from it
and, therefore, in case I need occasional reference to it
but not because I am in agreement with the content
The chapters after the tenth are omitted. The sense of those
chapters, for me, is presaged in the earlier ones
No action needed for Journey in Being
The document may be useful if I return to write on the topics
I maintain no claim to originality or copyright on the material
of this document. However, the document formatting is my
property
Anil Mitra, January 6, 2015