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Book review: Escape From Evil, by Ernest Becker

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Immortality, the desire for a perfect world, Becker argues that these desires compel humans to do most of the evil they do, not only to each other but also the earth. Beginning with hunter-gather man, Becker explains how in precivilized cultures, the concepts of sacrifice and scapegoating were used to try to appease the gods. These were man's earliest attempts at controlling nature and coercing it to do what man wanted. Eventually, some would take on the role of shaman, or chief, and be the conduit for the villagers to seek the god's blessings.

Escape From Evil book cover
Escape From Evil

Sprouting from ancient shamans and chiefs; kingship, religious states, and eventually money, all took turns in being in the service of man's attempts to fend off death. Becker looks at genocide as the technological amplification of ancient scapegoating--sacrificing the lives of some to appease the gods. He elaborates on how modern society still clings to those who they see as heroes to save them from their fears and the threats of death.

Becker summarizes his points most concisely in the leading paragraph of his conclusion:

If I wanted to give in weakly to the most utopian fantasy I know, it would be one that pictures a world-scientific body composed of leading minds in all fields, working under an agreed general theory of human unhappiness. They would reveal to mankind the reasons for its self-created unhappiness and self-induced defeat; they would explain how each society is a hero system which embodies in itself a dramatization of power and expiation; how this is at once its peculiar beauty and its destructive demonism; how men defeat themselves by trying to bring absolute purity and goodness into the world. They would argue and propagandize for the nonabsoluteness of the many different hero systems in the family of nations, and make public a continuing assessment of the costs of mankind's impossible aims and paradoxes: how a given society is trying too hard to get rid of guilt and the terror of death by laying its trip on a neighbor. Then men might struggle, even in anguish, to come to terms with themselves and their world.

When Becker speaks of expiation, he is speaking of the guilt that he believes many feel for the very act of existence. He argues throughout the book that people have sought to alleviate this guilt many ways, through blood sacrifices, scapegoating, and projection. Becker argues that men do not kill out hate, but out of heroic bloodlust. It is because men kill with lust that he believes the evil that men do is less likely to be corrected.

It's because humans cannot accept their animal nature, their insignificance, and oblivion after death that so much evil comes into the world. As he says, "man is not human." Examine the war on drugs, its desire to create a utopian society with no perceived weakness by a reliance on substances, and the subsequent effects. It has left a wake of shattered lives and no progress has been made at all.

Consider the appeal of Trump, a man who truly embodies the hero system Becker wrote about in his book. As the hero for the downtrodden in America, Trump represents a strongman who can vanquish evil from the lands. With his demonization of outsiders, and reckless promises we see parallels of when Becker wrote about the need to "fetishize evil," to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. With Trump evil is in the Mexicans, the Muslims, Hillary Clinton, and the media. Here, Trumps’ supporters feel that now evil can be located, named and vanquished and Trump is the hero to do it. Becker's book, written before his death in 1974, argues that it's this very process that results in most of evil in world.

"Men defeat themselves by trying to bring absolute purity and goodness into the world." This can be levelled as criticism of the left as well: their purity tests, thought policing, and other extreme measures being used in the service of purity and goodness. The left has killed millions in the past to achieve these ideological aims, and no doubt they will again. No matter which side you look at, when people take violence into their hands "to make the world a better place," they will continue to perpetuate the evil they claim to be eliminating.

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