Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ernest Becker on Power & Human Nature

Some Sunday reflections from Ernest Becker's The Birth and Death of Meaning, pp. 178, 197:
Power for man, as the genius of Hegel saw, is the ability to support contradictions, nothing less. It is amazing how we misread reality, how we see power in all the wrong places, all the wrong forms, forms which have nothing to do with our distinctive problems. We think we see power in the people with sure beliefs, unshakable convictions, smug self-confidence. Yet these are psychological weaknesses on a planet which is fluid and full of surprises. We think we see power in the ability to dominate and coerce others. Yet history has taught us that such power inevitably makes a slave of and destroys the manipulator whether it be a man or a nation. We think we see power in numbers, in the deafening chorus of mass enthusiasms and the solid wall of shared opinions. Yet history daily teaches us that nature has no respect for even unanimous misperception of reality, and she has the coldest equanimity for the enthusiasms that carry whole populations into rapture. Nature could only respect the power that typifies a nature, and for man this must be the power to live and endure the paradoxes of his own.

Such power for man must be, of course, an ideal, and an unattainable one -- yet the whole sense of a human life is a struggle in that direction. Human nature is, in a word, an ideal. This is what makes the argument between the "romantics" and the "cynics" or "realists" so difficult and so sticky: it can never really be settled on empirical grounds alone: it all depends what you want to build toward and can achieve....

To believe that one has a higher reason to take human life, to feel that torture and murder are in the service of a divine cause is the kind of mandate that has always given sadists everywhere the purest fulfillment: they are free to remain on the level of the body, to pillage real flesh and blood creatures, to transact lives in the service of the highest power. What a delight. It is the perfect absolution of human degradation and sadists everywhere have hungered for it and reveled in it.


Anonymous said...

Imagined sanction from a "higher power" for engaging in coercion and killing, you say, is the defining human illusion, at which Nature simply laughs? Wow... Human history certainly has been one long pageant of (tragic-) comedy then, hasn't it? But if the climate-change folks are right, it looks like Nature is finally getting rather bored with the show and is getting ready to turn off the floor lights.

Valtin said...


"Human history certainly has been one long pageant of (tragic-) comedy then, hasn't it?"

Yes, you could say that. I tend to prefer Engels comment that human progress has been driven onwards over a mountain of skulls.

Or James Joyce: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

Search for Info/News on Torture

Google Custom Search
Add to Google ">View blog reactions

This site can contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my effort to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.