The Weakness of Heroism: Exposing Our Quest for Self-Esteem
This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.
From Death to Death
There is an obvious sense in which we all know that we are going to die. For this reason Becker’s thesis that it is efforts to deny death that ultimately drive human action is easy to brush off as being embarrassingly out of touch. However, Becker’s analysis cuts much deeper than the obvious and agreed upon understanding that “we’ve all got to die someday.” What Becker realizes and what the commonsense view fails to see is the element of the heroic built into all our reflections on death. The element of the heroic is the often unstated conviction that even upon the death of our body we will really, in some important sense, live. This is a blanket assertion by Becker for which he leaves no exceptions (and thus includes himself in the analysis). From relatively concrete images of a new life in heaven beyond death, to participation in a nation that will last for generations, to a more abstract identification with lofty ideals, or even identifying with the courage to live on in a world deemed devoid of transcendent meaning, Becker’s anthropological training made him keenly aware of all the various ways people earn a sense of the heroic.
The heroic drive is thus a drive to go through death and yet to live on. This is a difficult idea to state briefly, since obviously the examples I have just listed do not lend themselves to ordinary understandings of “life after death.” To help clarify the meaning and to more fully understand Becker’s concept of heroism we need to move beyond Becker the anthropologist to his engagement with psychoanalysis. In this realm, heroism is a union of the psychoanalytic concepts of narcissism and self-esteem as they reflexively react to the prospect of death. This way of defining heroism is value neutral. Becker’s heroism includes the popular notion of the hero who risks their life to save others, but it would also identify a dictator who sacrifices thousands of lives on the battle field as enacting heroism.
Narcissism and Self-Esteem
Getting the concepts of narcissism and self-esteem more clearly in view will help us to understand in what “important sense” the self is thought to live on. We will begin with the concept of narcissism. At most basic level, narcissism is the life process of self-preservation and self-extension as it happens in a self-aware creature. One of Freud’s enduring contributions was the discovery that we are “hopelessly absorbed with ourselves.” And that “[I]f we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all.” This is not meant to imply any special deviousness on the part of humanity. Becker states that humanity “does not seem able to ‘help’ [its] selfishness; it seems to come from [its] animal nature.” Though it may be possible to displace this self-centered focus, it goes so deep into our basic biological constitution, that it is far more likely to fall into forms of self-deception than achieving true selflessness.
This capacity for self-deception hints at the final ingredient to human narcissism. As we have noted, humanity is capable of transcending its immediate environment and forming abstract meanings. We have the capacity for language, tools, and the creation of images. In humanity, then, natural self-preservation and self-extension is able to be displaced from our concrete biological nature and centered on a self-image. What in the protoplasm is merely organismic self-integration and extension, becomes in humanity symbolic self-preservation and extension.
Here we move from the narcissistic focus on one’s self-image to the image itself, and in doing so we arrive at the idea of self-esteem. Self-esteem is, at root, “a basic sense of self-worth,” and in humanity, as we have noted, this sense of worth is constituted symbolically. It is for this reason that people can almost reflectively cast their biological life aside in the service of an image of themselves as committed to a more transcendent ideal. The symbolic constitution of self-esteem allows humanity to, in Becker’s words, “take eternity into itself even as it gaspingly dies.” We can think here of giving their lives for honor or solidarity with their fellow soldiers, as well as suicide bombers giving their lives in service to their god and country.
This all may sound a bit too dramatic. One might think, “perhaps some disturbingly imbalanced people hanker after a form of heroism, but surely not the average people I’m familiar with.” Yet the fact is that most of us most of the time are simply ignorant of our own heroics. Since human heroism is a reflex against the terror of death, to look at our heroics would be to expose ourselves to what it is our heroics are designed to protect us from. The whole matter is really quite humiliating for adult consciousness, but for children it is a different story; their drive toward heroism is on full display. Becker’s words on this point are worth quoting in full.
In childhood we see the struggle for self-esteem at its least disguised. The child is unashamed about what he needs and wants most. His whole organism shouts the claims of his natural narcissism. And this claim can make childhood hellish for the adults concerned, especially when there are several children competing at once for the prerogatives of limitless self-extension, what we might call ‘cosmic significance.’
Becker sees the antics of sibling rivalry as openly expressing humanity’s tragic destiny. We “must desperately justify [ourselves] as an object[s] of primary value in the universe; [we] must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that [we count] more than anything or anyone else.” Words like these are, once again, offensive to us. Much like Peter, as Jesus foretells his denial, we want to say “Perhaps everyone else, but surly not me!” It is somewhat ironic, then, that the part of us that resists having our heroic urges pointed out is exactly our heroic urge itself! To admit all the ways that we are working to gain our sense of self-esteem is rightly identified by Becker as the main self-analytic problem of life. “Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about [humanity] revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn [their] self-esteem.”
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In my next post I will briefly extend this idea into the realms of culture and religion, before moving on to address the key to my engagement with Becker: his analysis of character as the structure of our personal heroism. There is a paradoxical nature to all of Becker’s work that I wish to draw out. On the one hand our character formation is necessary, natural, and without guile. But on the other hand, Becker pessimism is relentless. Character is a mask we live in because of our weakness. It is a narrowing down, and a shutting out of reality. It is a lie and illusion; for that reason it craves the lies and illusion that culture and religion makes for it. And yet, in Becker’s eyes, there is no life free from these repressions. In the coming posts I will seek to solidify this conflict, for as long as we can find a way out, the paradox cannot do its work.
 The image Becker uses to convey this idea is well placed. “The protoplasm itself harbors its own, nurtures itself against the world, against invasions of its integrity. It seems to enjoy its own pulsations, expanding into the world and ingesting pieces of it. If you took a blind and dumb organism and gave it self-consciousness and a name, if you made it stand out of nature and know consciously that it was unique, then you would have narcissism. In man, physiochemical identity and the sense of power and activity have become conscious.” Becker, 1997, 2-3.
 Sebastian Moore points to Alexander Lowen and his argument “that the narcissistic personality is one who has been in the habit, since the earliest and pre-remembered childhood, of thinking of him/herself not as ‘feeling this’ or ‘feeling that’ but as ‘the person I think of myself as’.…to the displacement of my own spontaneous, firsthand, feeling-response to what happens around me.” Moore, 1985, 17.