A Longreads Member Exclusive: 
The Nature of Social Evil

Our latest Exclusive comes from writer and Longreads Member Maria Bustillos, whose own work has been featured on Longreads in the past. She's chosen Chapter 8 from Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker's 1975 book Escape from Evil.
Maria explains:
"I don't remember when I first read Escape from Evil, the magnum opus of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, but I think about this book nearly every day, or maybe even every day. It explains how the fear of death is the central motivating force and organizing principle of the human experience, in the life of each individual, and throughout human societies. Becker organizes his material along psychological lines, mostly—he draws a lot from Otto Rank—but there's so much more to this slender, complex, life-altering book. He is wonderful on Nietzsche ('morality is fundamentally a matter of power'), on Hannah Arendt, on Marx and on Norman O. Brown. Potlatch, consumerism, human sacrifice, heroism, the Oedipal project, cannibalism, the meaning of gold: at first you can't imagine how so many disparate ideas and theorists could possibly be gathered together meaningfully, but on the other hand, admit it—aren't you feeling a certain tug of recognition right now, just on reading that list?
"Becker won a Pulitzer for his previous book, The Denial of Death, but this one, published posthumously and building on ideas from that earlier work, is far, far better, to my mind, more compact, more advanced, more compelling. This book is pragmatic synthesis of multiple disciplines in the science of man, the place where humanities and science collide. Theories about Becker's work abound, but for me his great gift was the way he seemed to have led us to the threshold of a new enlightenment, clear-eyed, undeceived, ready to take the next step. It's a step the reader may be able to intuit, and perhaps even gain, and make practical use of in his or her own life: '[W]e have to take a full look at the worst in order to begin to get rid of illusions. Realism, even brutal, is not cynicism.'
"Chapter 8, 'The Nature of Social Evil' describes how men are driven to expiate their fear of death by sacrificing others, and explains that the mechanism for this expiation is culture itself: 'Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death.'"
"I've turned a lot of people onto this book, and all of them, including even my husband—a notoriously picky reader—have loved it, so far. I therefore recommend it to you unreservedly, with the greatest confidence and pleasure."


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The Nature of Social EvilBy Ernest Becker  |  Free Press | 1975 |  52 minutes (12,899 words)

Courtesy Library of Congress

Nor can we deny that we all eat and that each of us has grown strong on the bodies of innumerable animals. Here each of us is a king in a field of corpses.

-Elias Canetti
We have seen with Otto Rank that the driving force behind evil in human affairs stems from man's paradoxical nature: in the flesh and doomed with it, out of the flesh in the world of symbols and trying to continue on a heavenly flight. The thing that makes man the most devastating animal that ever stuck his neck up into the sky is that he wants a stature and a destiny that is impossible for an animal; he wants an earth that is not an earth but a heaven, and the price for this kind of fantastic ambition is to make the earth an even more eager graveyard than it naturally is.
Our great wistfulness about the world of primitive man is that he managed willy-nilly to blunt the terrible potential destructiveness of the drama of heroism and expiation. He didn't have the size, the technological means, or the world view for running amok heroically. Heroism was small scale and more easily controlled: each person, as a contributor to the generative ritual, could be a true cosmic hero who added to the powers of creation. Allied to this cosmic heroism was a kind of warfare that has always made military men chuckle. Among the Plains Indians it was a kind of athletic contest in which one scored points by touching the enemy; often it was a kind of disorganized, childish, almost hysterical game in which one went into rapture if he brought back a trophy or a single enemy for torture. Anyone was liable to be snatched out of his hut at daybreak and on mountainous islands like those of Polynesia groups lived in continual fear of those just over the ridge or across the lagoon; no one was ever safe from capture and sacrificial slaughter. This is hardly the ideal of altruism, and there are very few today who have a romantic image of primitive man's peaceful nature; one look at the blunt stone sacrificial slave-killing knives of the Northwest Coast Indians is enough to set the record straight. Since we do not experience the terror of the occasional victims of primitive raids, we can look back nostalgically at the small numbers consumed at random, and compare them with those who died in one day at Dresden or one flash at Hiroshima.
Rousseau had already wistfully observed the comparatively low toll of life that primitive warfare took and a whole tradition of social analysts including Marx agreed with him. Recently, when Lewis Mumford put the crown on a lifetime of brilliant work, he reaffirmed this perspective on history. Today we are agreed that the picture looks something like this: that once mankind got the means for large-scale manipulation of the world, the lust for power began to take devastating tolls. This can be seen strikingly at the rise of the great civilizations based on divine kingship. These new states were structures of domination which absorbed the tribal life around them and built up empires. Masses of men were forged into obedient tools for really large-scale power operations directed by a powerful, exploitative class. It was at this time that slaves were firmly compartmentalized into various special skills which they plied monotonously; they became automaton objects of the tyrannical rulers. We still see this degradation of tribal peoples today, when they hire themselves out for money to work monotonously in the mines. Primitive man could be transformed, in one small step, from a rich creator of meaning in a society of equals to a mechanical thing.
Something was accomplished by this new organization of labor that primitive man never dreamed of, a tremendous increase in the size of human operations: huge walled cities, colossal monuments, pyramids, irrigation projects, unprecedented wars of booty and plunder. Mumford's contribution of insight into all this was to call it a "megamachine." The amalgam of kingship with sacred power, human sacrifice, and military organization unleashed a nightmare megamachine on the world—a nightmare, says Mumford, that began at Sumer and that still haunts us today, with our recent history of megamachines in Warsaw, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. This is the colossus of power gone mad, a colossus based on the dehumanization of man that began, not with Newtonian materialism, Enlightenment rationalism, or nineteenth-century commercialism, but with the first massive exploitation of men in the great divine kingships of the ancient world. It was then that man was thrown out of the mutualities of tribalism into the cauldron of historic alienation. We are still stewing there today because we have not seen that the worship of the demonic megamachine has been our fate, and we have willingly perpetuated it and even aggravated it until it threatens to destroy the very world.

From Escape from Evil by Ernest Becker. Copyright © 1975 by Marie Becker. Reprinted with permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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