Heroism and the Human Search for Meaning: Ernest Becker on the Hidden Root of Our Existential Longing
By Maria Popova
“What makes Heroic?” asked Nietzsche as he was emerging from depression, then answered: “To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.” And yet one of the supreme challenges of humans life is, to borrow Rilke’s lovely phrase, to “go to the limits of your longing” — to fully surrender to your suffering, to fully step into your hope and own your desire for a grand life, desire not fueled by the grandiosity of ego but aimed at the grandeur of the cosmos that betokens our longing for homecoming to the Ultimate. The ability to do that is the deepest root of heroism and our mightiest, most vulnerable means of wresting meaning from our mortality.
How to own our heroism and our cosmic longing is what the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (September 27, 1924–March 6, 1974) explores in his 1973 classic The Denial of Death (public library), published just before his untimely return to the Ultimate.
Becker — whose concept of the hero is not dissimilar to Leonard Cohen’s concept of the saint — writes:
Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.
Echoing Milan Kundera’s admonition about knowing what we really want, he considers how modern culture cauterizes the heroic impulse within us:
When we appreciate how natural it is for man* to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution, how openly he shows it as a child, then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need. In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it.
We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope. Occasionally someone admits that he takes his heroism seriously, which gives most of us a chill… We may shudder at the crassness of earthly heroism, of both Caesar and his imitators, but the fault is not theirs, it is in the way society sets up its hero system and in the people it allows to fill its roles. The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are.
The templates of heroism, Becker observes, are handed down to us by our particular culture as proscribed roles to be assumed in our struggle to give shape to the creative impulse — that supreme expression of our yearning for a counterforce to mortality:
The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system is a dramatization of earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism: from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest; the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.
It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.
And yet, half-opaque to ourselves as we are, we remain largely unconscious that much of what we do, we do to earn this feeling of heroism — an admission that would come as “a devastating release of truth,” making us demand of our culture what we most long for: “a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life.” In a sentiment of extraordinary cultural sensitivity and pertinence to the social tumult of our own time, he writes:
The minority groups in present-day industrial society who shout for freedom and human dignity are really clumsily asking that they be given a sense of primary heroism of which they have been cheated historically… But the truth about the need for heroism is not easy for anyone to admit, even the very ones who want to have their claims recognized. There’s the rub… To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.
Becker observes that modern culture has supplanted the cosmic heroism we long for with the counterfeit heroism of demagogues and the “silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges that now characterizes whole ways of life,” selling us on a simulacrum of life:
The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism, paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be. And instead of working our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standardized hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident, by family connection, by reflex patriotism, or by the simple need to eat and the urge to procreate.
Writing a decade before Lewis Hyde’s epochal manifesto for the gift of creativity, Becker considers the relationship between the heroic and the creative impulse in the singular blessing and curse of the artist:
The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men… To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve — and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type.
Throughout the book, Becker examines various hero-systems across the history of our species, all inseparable from our struggle to live with our transience. “All historical religions addressed themselves to this same problem of how to bear the end of life,” he writes, then traces how death became “the muse of philosophy” from its dawn in Ancient Greece to its golden hour in twentieth-century existentialism. With an especially keen eye to the cosmology of Kierkegaard, he considers our search for meaning and spiritual fulfillment through the lens of the heroic in us:
Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism; he destroys the character lie that had him perform as a hero in the everyday social scheme of things; and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the possibility of cosmic heroism, to the very service of God. His life thereby acquires ultimate value in place of merely social and cultural, historical value. He links his secret inner self, his authentic talent, his deepest feelings of uniqueness, his inner yearning for absolute significance, to the very ground of creation. Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance, for cosmic heroism. This invisible mystery at the heart of every creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. This is the meaning of faith… The truly open person, the one who has shed his character armor, the vital lie of his cultural conditioning… is absolutely alone and trembling on the brink of oblivion — which is at the same time the brink of infinity.
With an eye to the diversity of our gifts, he adds:
The debt to life has to be paid somehow; one has to be a hero in the best and only way that he can.
The Denial of Death is a revelatory read in its entirety. Complement these particular fragments from it with Joseph Campbell’s seminal monomyth of the hero’s journey and Walter Lippmann’s magnificent reckoning with what makes a hero in his tribute to Amelia Earhart, then revisit Kierkegaard on how to bridge the ephemeral and the eternal.
Published April 25, 2023