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Fear of Death and Aggression PDF Print E-mail

given by Cara Ghassemian

1 Introduction

My talk will consider the thesis that the main source of human anxieties and fear is the fact that we all subconsciously know that we are mortal, that our experiences of loss remind us of this on a subliminal level at least and yet we deny our own mortality in our daily lives. My talk is about how such metaphysical anxiety leads to sociological problems such as aggression and fundamentalism as well as depression. So in a roundabout way my talk is about the relevance of philosophy to our daily lives.

2 Why accept our own deathSocrates and Plato believed that “moral maturity” and “purification of motives” are partly possible by accepting mortality through “practicing death”.Chuang Tzu said “Man’s thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present”. According to Buddhist philosophy life is a serious opportunity and a “precious and fragile” gift. The omission to constantly acknowledge death erodes this sense of preciousness and fragility. Yet we human beings, perhaps westerners in particular, have instead a “ defensive, controlling and fearful” quality, avoiding the “nakedness" of our souls and our vulnerability to decaying and death.This talk will focus upon the views of Ernst Becker, Pulitzer Prize winner, who discussed the sociological consequences of this denial of our own death.

3 The link between not accepting our own death and anxiety and aggressionThrough the study of cultural anthropology, Becker was interested in finding the psychological motives of man’s deeply rooted violence and aggression. He argued that on a personal level the motives stem from our awareness of our mortality. He further postulated that this awareness is the source of our anxiety.Failing to openly acknowledge our mortality and our vulnerability, leads to a sense of falsehood of the self. As the philosopher Heidegger asserted “only in moments of dread and the certainty of death are we sometime aware that to live authentically and be(,) must come from recognizing our inauthenticity".On the social level there is a strong urge to have “ immortality systems” - as Becker refers to them.These immortality systems include religious groups, “political affiliations” and cultural beliefs. These immortality systems also give an “ inflated” sense of meaning, truth and the feeling of righteousness that human beings crave. These value systems become very valuable to us and need to be protected at all costs. As a result, there are clashes of different meaning. Examples include; capitalism vs communism, Arabs vs Jews, Khmer Rouge vs intellectuals, Spanish Inquisition vs Heretics, Catholics vs Protestants. The most recent one is terrorism vs modernity/west/civilization. In all these there is a strong urge for the "untruth" to be defeated at all costs leading to aberrant acts of violence and aggression as people defend their "immortality system". This is what Becker claims to be the birth of Evil.

Fromm on the other hand, in his book “The Art of Loving” saw these affiliations of meaning as an attempt to overcome our sense of separateness from our world and from each other. In other words, these affiliations are an attempt to overcome our existentialist anxiety that we have by reason of our self-awareness arising from when we were expelled from paradise and became aware of not really our own nakedness, but rather our separateness from each other. Or to put it another way, these affiliations are our way of overcoming that lack of unselfaware connectness enjoyed by animals with our world. But at the same time Fromm also acknowledges that this desire to overcome separateness, which involves the desire to know the secret of man, can be through love but it can also result in an urge to power over another, with terrible cruelty and violence and physical violation as a result. Much like a child who in curiosity pulls the wings off a butterfly.

4 I now want to talk about a possible link between Becker’s ideas about the denial of death and depressionBut it is not only in defence of immortality systems that the denial of death leads to negative social phenomena. In his bestselling book ("Dark Nights of the Soul") Thomas Moore writes that at one time or another, most people go through a period of feeling sad or of loss because for ex of the ending of a relationship, the death of a loved one, that is so disturbing and long- lasting that it can be called a "dark night of the soul". He claims that today our modern society labels these experiences as "depression.”I am of the view that the experiences of loss to which Moore refers lead to a state of melancholy because of, firstly, attachment and secondly, because the experiences of loss are a dim reflection or reminder to each of us, on a subconscious level, of the ultimate loss, that is to say, of our own death. Anxiety effects that result are therefore occasioned by a loss and our own attachment to what we have lost, but also because of the reinforcement those experiences give to the reality of our creatureness and the fact that we die, in contrast to the western tendency to banish the idea of death.

6 So what to do · Be self aware of the "deaths" or losses that we have experienced, · Acknowledge our latent self-awareness of our own impending death, · Acknowledge our "immortality systems"· Appreciate the connection between our latent awareness of our own death and our defence of our "immortality system" and avoidance of our creatureness to both our anxieties, and, if relevant, to the manifestation of those anxieties in various deviant behaviour affects. In this way we can crystallise in our own mind the "strings, pulleys and levers" affecting our behaviour; and thus give ourselves the capacity to take control. In this way we can achieve psychological self-determination. Further reframe the experience of loss as a "rite of passage" and face rather than avoid, what such rites of passage echo: our own passing.Given the resistance of consciousness - particularly in the West where the subject is largely taboo - to an open acknowledgement of death as a personal reality; what I propose represents a serious challenge to each of us.

7 Another theory on the source of aggressionThere are a range of theories about the causes of anxiety and deviant behaviours, other than Becker's theory about the denial of death. Freud for example, says the individual's tendency to individualising aggressivity (what we might label "deviant behaviour") is "normal", "natural" and observable in human beings from a very early age. According to Freud in "Civilization and its Discontents", it is only because of the intervention of community/society, which needs to undermine individualising tendencies - such as the intimacy occasioned by sexual relations between two individuals and the tendency to aggression - that sexual and aggressive impulses are delegitimated and, in the case of aggression, internalised to become "guilt". (Freud, S, p 74). In other words, the logical follow-on from Freud's theory is that in responding to the aberrant behaviours of individuals by bringing them back to each individual's fear of her own death, we may actually be part of the civilising process to which Freud refers. But if that is correct, so what? The problem with Freud's theory about the nature of violence of human beings, and one which is aptly highlighted by Becker's discussion on "immortality systems" is that it is readily observable that aggression is often carried out on behalf of value systems, rather than objective self-interest. If one accepts this, then such a factor is more consistent if not empirically, then at least logically and intuitively to an assertion of self in the face of a particular anxiety that those value systems protect, that is, the fear of annihilation, not only socially but in every way, through death.

One final endnote if I may: When talking about the origins of aggression it is important as Fromm does in another of his books “the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness” to define firstly the kind of aggression about which we are speaking. Aggression in the service of self-interest which is the kind of aggression to which Freud seems to be referring is quite a different thing from aggression in the pursuit of pleasure obtained from cruelty and torture, a form of aggression which is unique to man. And possibly cats, although Fromm says that such an observation is just our anthropomorphism in operation.

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