Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Denial Of Death, Earnst Becker


Like the NY Times reviewer, this was the 2nd time through the book for me, with the other being long ago. The book was published in 1973 when it was still permissible to claim homosexuality, gender dysphoria, coprophilia, pedophilia, and necrophilia as "perversions" rather than "identity".  Even in 1982, when the review was done, such a book was allowed to be published and used in college classes, as it was in my philosophy class.  Surprisingly,  it is still available on Kindle, and even hardcover on Amazon if you are willing to part with $621! How long before it is banned?

Becker knows that the problem of life is death, thus the necessity of  the  "causa-sui" (self caused) project. Most people try to deny death by distraction with work, pleasure, drugs, other nostrums and addictions. Some choose art or beauty. Page 33, "The ultimate horror for Swift was the fact that the sublime, the beautiful, and the divine are inextricable from basic animal functions."  

in one of Swift's poems, a man in love with a beautiful woman laments: 

No wonder how I lost my wits; 

Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!

Another common way of putting this regular reminder that we are physical beings with ugly smelly bodily functions is as Montaigne put it; "On the highest throne in the world, man sits on his ass". 

Mr. Becker asks us to be, or to try to be, heroic, and while this is a large order, it can be argued that we are constitutionally pointed in that direction. Also, it would seem that life is hardly worth all the anxiety, the frustration and the inevitable humiliation unless there is a hope of glory. Our movement toward glory may be a response to what Mr. Becker calls the "suction of infinity",  which I take to be a rather sophisticated substitute for the traditional notion of heaven.

So, somehow we need to deal with this most truly existential of problems.  Kierkegaard followed the Augustinian/Lutheran tradition said that education is facing up to this fact. Luther said, "I say die - taste death as though it were present". 

Becker is writing a secular supposedly "scientific" work, so he can't quote the bible, and I can: 

Romans 6:4-9:

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.

8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:

9 Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
"Science" denies the possibility of the metaphysical, which is why the book is a history of at best partial attempts to supposedly "deny" the stark fact of death. 

On 151, Becker says; "As philosophers have long noted, it is as though the heart of nature is pulsating in it's own joyful self-expansion". Indeed, J. Scott Turner has written a marvelous book on the reality of "nature pulsating in it's own joyful self-expansion" -- it is better known as LIFE! 

On page 198, we see Beckers summary of Kierkegaard's conclusion: "If neurosis is sin and not disease, than the only thing that can "cure" it is a world-view, some kind of affirmative collective ideology in which the person can perform the living drama of his acceptance as a creature". 

To put it more simply, we are BOTH saints(spiritual beings) and sinners (material beings). What we seek is transcendence -- once provided in the west by having and practicing Christian faith. Now tragically attempted by worshiping false gods of material possessions, wealth, political "wokeness", academic degrees, "science". etc 

On 215, we see; "A constant danger in science is that each gain risks abandoning ground that was once securely annexed. Nowhere is this more true than in the "role theories" of mental illness threaten to abandon the Freudian formulation based on bodily facts". 

"Bodily facts" = materialism. The assertion that everything, including us, is ONLY "stuff", the only thing to worship is the idea of "progress" -- it is getting "better" every day until ultimately the sun becomes a red giant and the earth becomes a cinder, or somehow we move to space and only cease to exist when the universe cools to absolute zero, or compresses to a mathematical point in the "big crunch". I have faith that if/when one of those things happen, I'll have no less time in heaven than the day I died. 

On 25, he paraphrases Kierkegaard and states; "faith is the hardest thing; he placed himself between belief and faith, unable to make the jump. The jump doesn't depend on man at all - there's the rub; faith is a matter of grace." 

Luther would agree. It is a GIFT from God through the fully human and fully God person of Jesus. 

For non-Christians, the book will ultimately be a disappointment. It is impossible for a human to succeed on their own to deny the fact of death. They can CLAIM that they are OK, but even in the case of Freud that results are bad -- irrational phobias, rage, mental illness,  addictions, etc  

The last sentence of this causa-sui(the search for immortality) project for a secularist is: "The most that any of us can seem to do is to fashion something - an object or ourselves and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak. to the life force". 

Order or chaos, God or the Devil. Choose you this day whom you will serve! It is the ultimate eternal "choice". 

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