Ernest Becker & Joseph Campbell -Man’s Tragic Destiny

Man’s Tragic Destiny

According to Ernest Becker modern man finds himself in a problematic situation. It can be argued that we have become too ‘smart’ or that our societies have become too ‘developed’ to satisfy one of our most important human needs, the need to be a hero. Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, observed that it is a part of ‘man’s tragic destiny’ that he or she “must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.” (p.4) Ernest Becker describes man’s struggle as follows: “An animal who gets his feeling of worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn’t come off second-best.” (Ibid)


Ernest Becker indicated that everyone wants to be hero, to provide one with self-worth and prove to the world that he or she counts. However, even though everyone desires to be a hero, nobody openly admits to this desire: “When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution, how openly he shows it as a child, then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need.” (Ibid)

               According to Ernest Becker, in our current age, we still try to satisfy this need, albeit it in less obvious ways: “We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank boot […] Or by having only a little better home in the neighbourhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of a smaller scope.” (Ibid)

Society as a Hero System

According to Ernest Becker each society is a hero system “The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behaviour, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.” (p.4) Even though many cultures and societies differ in these rules and customs they all serve the same purpose. Whether a culture or society is ‘primitive’, religious, or scientific does not matter. As indicated by Ernest Becker, they serve the same purpose:

“It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.” (p.5)

Although every society is set up with the same purpose, they differ in the extent to which they succeed in satisfying the human need for heroism. Ernest Becker indicated that the societies that we consider to be ‘primitive’ are more successful in this regard. Ernest Becker questions whether our current society can still adequately provide us with meaning: “The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problem of their lives and times. We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect of our social life.” (p.6)

               This development can be characterized by an increase in the rise of political activism, more extreme political viewpoints, the rise of anti-heroes and a negative view towards traditional religions. Ernest Becker concludes his discussion on heroism by observing that: “Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society thus is a “religion” whether it thinks so or not: Soviet “religion” and Maoist “religion” are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer “religion”.” (p.7)

               The question that we can now ask ourselves is what we can do to solve this crisis in our society. In order to do so we must first examine how our society differs from societies in the past. As indicated previously, Ernest Becker argues that societies that we today call ‘primitive’ managed to satisfy our need for heroism in the past. If we can identify how these societies differ in this regard to our present-day societies, we might be able to recognize what we lack in our current societies. If we know what we lack, we might be able to find out how we can fill this void.  

Heroism; Past and Present

How is it possible that societies in the past managed to satisfy this need for heroism inherent in humans while our modern societies lack this ability? To answer this question, we can turn to Joseph Campbell, who argued that myths and mysteries played an important role in satisfying this desire in the past.

               In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell indicated that nature used to be an important source of mystery that created a sense of heroism for mankind: “For the primitive hunting peoples of those remotest human millennia when the sabretooth tiger, the mammoth and the lesser presences of the animal kingdom were the primary manifestations of what was alien – the source at once of danger and sustenance – the great human problem was to become linked psychologically to the task of sharing the wilderness with these beings.” (p. 336)

               According to Joseph Campbell this resulted in an ‘unconscious identification’ with these beings, which became apparent in the myths and rituals of these communities. Similarly, Campbell indicated that cultures supporting themselves on plant-food based their rituals around the plants: “the life-rituals of planting and reaping were identified with those of human procreation, birth, and progress to maturity.” (Ibid)

               According to Joseph Campbell these rituals resulted in a cohesive society: “The animals became the tutors of humanity. Through acts of literal imitation – such as today appear only on the children’s playground (or in the madhouse) – an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organization.” (Ibid) However, as human society continued to ‘progress’, the animal and plant worlds started to lose their mystery: “Both the plant and the animal worlds, however, were in the end brought under social control. Whereupon the great field of instructive power shifted – to the skies – and mankind enacted the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hierarchic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres.” (Ibid)

               Similarly to the animals and plants, the moon and the sun have also lost most of their mystery: “Today all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche.” (Ibid) We can no longer achieve a feeling of heroism by struggling with the great forces of nature, however, as indicated by Ernest Becker, we still desire such a struggle. As a result, we try to fulfil these desires by acquiring riches, building huge skyscrapers, or writing posts about it on a blog.

The Role of Science

Science can be considered the largest contributor to the end of the importance of myths and religions. Might science therefore provide us with a sense of heroism? As indicated by Albert Camus in his book the Myth of Sisyphus, science does not increase our connection with the world, instead it might even result in an ever-increasing separation from nature: “Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true.” (p.18)

              These facts, however, are impossible to grasp in the literal sense: “At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain the world to me in an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry.” (p.18) In this sense, the more we know, the more we lose touch with the world, and the less we can use the world as an inspiration. Science explains the world in an image, an image which we, as opposed to the images created by myths, cannot grasp.

Lost Connection with the World

I believe that the major difference between our current society and primitive societies in the past can be found in this connection with nature and the world in general. In the past our connection with the world and the myths and mysteries that were involved with living so intimately with nature was an important source of heroism.

             In primitive societies people were connected with the world and nature, in modern societies this is no longer the case, nature has lost its mystery, most of us can live without any knowledge of or connection with nature, and as we have seen science is not a contender for increasing our connection with the world. Instead, it can be argued that it will only remove us further away from a connection with the world.

               In another famous book, The Inner Reaches Of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell describes myths as:

“productions of the human imagination. Their images, consequently – though derived from the material world and its supposed history – are, like dreams, revelations of the deepest hopes, desires and fears, potentialities and conflicts, of the human will – which in turn is moved by the energies of the organs of the body operating variously against each other and in concert. Every myth, that is to say, whether or not by intention, is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.” (p.28)

Myths can thereby explain our role and purpose on earth and provide us with a sense of meaning. At the same time, they can be an important source of heroism because they result in a sense of value in the universe. The question that follows is what can we do to regain our sense of heroism in a world without myths and mysteries?

             According to Joseph Campbell we cannot simply go back to our old way, instead we must find a new way: “Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant.” (p.334) Joseph Campbell proposes to turn elsewhere for spiritual significance: “The hero-deed to be wrought is not today what it was in the century of Galileo. Where then there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there now is darkness. The modern hero deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.” (Ibid)

A New Myth

According to Joseph Campbell we most look for a new co-ordinated myth that can increase man’s connection with the world: “Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the sphere, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed.” (p.337)

             This ‘image’ should, as indicated by Joseph Campbell, not be based on the narrow-minded ideals of a single nation or culture, but instead on something that connects all of mankind: “for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (Ibid)

             Furthermore, although the image might be the same for all of mankind, the symbols that represent the image might differ depending on local circumstances and cultures: “Therefore it is necessary for men to understand, and be able to see, that through various symbols the same redemption is revealed. […] The way to become human is to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man.” (p.336)


From the ideas put forward by Ernest Becker and Joseph Campbell we can conclude that humans need myths and mysteries to provide us with a sense of meaning and significance, a sense of heroism. The more our societies have developed, the less we are able to receive this feeling of importance from traditional myths and mysteries. The world has lost most of its mystery.

              As a result, our society is experiencing a crisis. As indicted by Ernest Becker: “The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problem of their lives and times. We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect of our social life.” (p.6)

             As we have seen from this discussion Joseph Campbell proposes to derive a new universal image or myth from the true ‘crucial mystery’ that still exists, man himself. Joseph Campbell observes that it is up to man to create such a new image: “It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal – carries the cross of the redeemer – not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.” (p.337) Perhaps the new hero deed is to save society from its emptiness.


  1. Man’s search for meaning has been a heavily pervasive theme in his life, no matter the time period. Beyond the basic deeds we do for survival, we are frantic to stand out. i remember reading somewhere that a lot of what we do – in terms of trying to blend in or please people – often comes about because we needed to be accepted in a herd to have better chances of survival. Maybe the need to be a hero is born out of that too – who knows?
    We certainly don’t get any sense of heroism from 9-5 jobs, feeling like a cog in the machinery, as if the chores are literally stealing our souls – because where’s the heroism in that? you do what you’re told mechanically, there’s no scope of independent thought in most cases, and earn pittances. No wonder then, that we need the myths that social media creates to get us by day after day.
    At any rate, really enjoyed reading this, not only did it give me some food for thought but the way it is structured and articulated is pretty impressive.

    1. Thank you very much for reading! Do you remember where you read about ‘the need to be accepted in a herd’? It indeed seems relevant for this discussion. Thank you again!

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