THE FIFTH COLUMN (1/2)

Note: The Fifth Column is a regular, independent column
written by Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

For this issue, Dr. Schaler has invited his colleague,
Dr. Ron Leifer, to contribute to the PsychNews as a guest

Opinions and comments are invited. Please send them to the
PsychNews Int'l mailbox: pni@badlands.nodak.edu


Ron Leifer, M.D.

Ernest Becker died on March 6, 1974 at the age of forty nine
in Vancouver, British Columbia, an American intellectual in
exile. He had been fired from three American universities and
resigned in protest from one. Two months after he died, he
was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for "The Denial
of Death" (Becker, 1973). The reviewer for The New York
Times, Robert J. Lifton, loved the book, but had never heard
of Becker. He wondered who Becker was and where he had been
hiding. Today, more than a decade later, Becker has become an
enigmatic, shadowy cult figure, whose readers are stunned by
his profound insights into the human experience (Editors
note: See for example

I had the good fortune to know Ernest well, and I am happy to
have this opportunity to share some memories of my beloved
old friend. In these few pages, I would like to recall two
features of Ernest's character which motivated his work and
shaped his fate. They are rare qualities, but I believe they
are essential for the survival of the human species.  The
first is that Ernest was driven by a passionate and sincere
desire to understand himself and his world. The second is
that he believed in the inseparability of knowledge and
values and sought to embody his discovered truths in moral

I first met Ernest in July of 1960. I was a third-year
resident in psychiatry and he was a freshly ordained Ph.D.
from Syracuse University joining the Department of Psychiatry
as instructor in anthropology. We were drawn to each other by
similar intellectual interests, shared sensuous enjoyments
and a common ethnic heritage. We became the closest friends,
comrades in arms who shared the excitement of intense effort
in what we believed was a noble venture. When I finished my
residency, I joined the faculty as instructor in psychiatry.
For four years, Ernest and I had adjacent offices on the
third floor of a creaky wood frame house in which the
Department of Psychiatry was then quartered. Here we both
worked on our own projects for long hours into the night,
meeting periodically to pose questions, share thoughts and
try out ideas on each other. We attended seminars together,
ate together, visited each other at our homes, constantly
talking, trying to decipher the enigmas of human nature and

Becker was driven by a passionate and sincere search for
truth. It was the guiding mission of his life, what he called
his "oedipal project."  He was the son of Eastern European
Jews who emigrated to the United States at the turn of the
century. In 1942, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the army
and served in a second-line infantry battalion that liberated
a Nazi concentration camp. After the war, he lived in Paris,
working as an intelligence attache for the State Department
but he became bored with the job. After a long period of
reflection, he decided while walking in the Toulerise Gardens
one day, that he wanted to devote his life to understanding
himself, the human condition and the meaning of life. He
decided to study anthropology--naively, he said, because the
term literally means "the study of man" (Leifer, 1969).

Ernest's passion for knowledge was his dominant quality. He
referred to himself as "a man of knowledge," not immodestly
implying that he had achieved a summit of wisdom, but
programmatically, as his life's calling. He asked everyone
whose intellect he respected for a list of the books which
had most influenced their thinking. He was impatient for key
ideas by which to understand not only the unhappy souls who
became psychiatric patients, but also himself and the human
condition.  When he heard of an author he had not read, he
headed immediately for the library, checked out a pile of
books and retired to his office for a marathon of reading and
note-taking which did not end until he had digested the ideas
of the newly discovered author.

In his years at Syracuse, the strongest intellectual
influence for Becker was Dr. Thomas Szasz. Szasz is best
known for his critique of psychiatry, (Szasz, 1961).

Szasz came to Syracuse at the invitation of Marc Hollender
who became chairman of psychiatry in 1956. Becker was
introduced to Szasz by his teacher at Syracuse University,
Douglas Haring, who was adjunct professor of anthropology at
the Department of Psychiatry. One of the reasons Ernest came
to the medical school was to study with Szasz.  Ernest
attended all of Szasz's lectures, seminars and clinics, and
became part of a small circle of intellectuals who gathered
around Szasz for fascinating discussion of psychoanalytic
theory, the sociology of psychiatry and the history of ideas.
This period at Syracuse was the Camelot of Ernest's life.

Becker was influenced by Szasz in many important ways. Szasz
created the opportunity for Becker to become a skilled
psychiatric diagnostician and theoretician. Szasz published
"The Myth of Mental Illness" in 1961 and it became the
intense focus of critical discussion at Syracuse. In this
classic work, Szasz developed a distinctive, non-medical
approach to mental illness which he called "problems in
living." Szasz encouraged Becker to see patients at the local
state psychiatric hospital and develop his own ideas. Few
social scientists in academic psychiatry have been blessed
with such an authorized opportunity.

There is an inner symmetry between Becker's "new science of
man" and Szasz's concept of the myth of mental illness.
Szasz's first book, "Pain and Pleasure" (1957), approached
the problem of psychosomatic disease from the perspective of
modern philosophy on the mind-body problem.  Szasz's former
teacher, Franz Alexander was, like Freud, a Cartesian dualist
who believed mind and body are two different essences which
can interact. Szasz was critical of this belief. Following
Russell, Ryle and the analytic philosophers, Szasz argued
that mind and matter are not two essences, but two categories
of language and logic which are known through two different
sets of methods and techniques. Matter, including the human
body, is known by means of the mensurational methods of the
physical sciences. Mind and conduct are known by means of
language, communication, observation and interpretation.

Szasz's argument that mental illness is a myth does not deny
the existence of mental and emotional suffering and
disability, as some of his more obtuse opponents believe.
Rather, it asserts that mental illness belongs to a different
logical category than physical illness, in the same way that
mind, or meaning belong to a different logical category than
material objects or bodies. A myth is a metaphor. For
example, the term "fiery temperament" is a metaphor for the
predisposition to anger. It does not mean that the person
literally catches fire. In the metaphor, the qualities of
fire are used analogically (without logic) to describe
qualities of mind.

Similarly, "mental illness" is a metaphor which employs
qualities of the physical body to describe qualities of mind
and conduct. Physical illness and mental illness are similar
in that both are undesirable states which may lead to
suffering, disability or death. The difference between them
is that physical illness refers to undesirable states of the
body and is studied and treated by the methods of the
physical sciences. Mental illness refers to undesirable
states of mind, mood and behavior and is studied and treated
through language, communication, interpretation, evaluation,
persuasion and social manipulation.

The confusion of categories of language and logic results in
false ideas, metaphors taken as facts--myths. Every society
in history has believed as true, myths which other societies,
of different places or time, regard as wishful beliefs, fairy
tales, or superstitions.  Primitive myths depict natural
events as manifestations of supernatural spirits (mind).
Modern myths depict mind as a manifestation of brain
physiology. Primitive and modern myths are basically similar.
They both confuse logical categories. The difference between
them is just that they move in opposite directions.
Logically, the belief that mental illness is fundamentally
similar to physical illness is like believing that hurricanes
are caused by angry gods, or that a person with a fiery
temperament actually bursts into flame.

Becker's early psychiatric education was based on Szasz's
critical analysis of psychiatric thought and practice. Becker
agreed with Szasz that the concept of mental illness is a
modern myth which, like all social myths, functions as an
ideology, in this case, to facilitate and justify an extra-
legal system of social evaluation and control. But Becker was
more interested in the clinical and theoretical implications
of Szasz's concept of the linguistic and logical duality of
body and mind. As Becker saw it, if mind and matter are
different logical categories, then the experience of being
human is contradictory at its core.

This idea was not entirely new to Becker. He had studied Zen
Buddhism in graduate school. His first book, "Zen: A Rational
Critique" (Becker, 1961), was based on his doctoral
dissertation which was entitled "Zen Buddhism, 'Thought
Reform' (Brainwashing) and Various Psychotherapies" (1960).
In the book, Becker criticizes the authoritarian structure of
Buddhist master-disciple relationships from the combined
points of view of the psychoanalytic concept of transference
and the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the European
Enlightenment. But he knew about the Buddhist diagnosis of
human suffering as caused by samsaric ignorance--the illusion
of the reality of the dual substances, mind and matter.
Becker now looked at this problem freshly, through his new
psycho-anthropological lenses. How does this contradiction
become manifest in human thought, feelings and conduct, and
how does the human individual attempt to resolve it?

The "Birth and Death of Meaning" is Ernest's first attempt to
reconcile this fundamental human contradiction between mind
and body (Becker, 1962; see also Becker, 1964, 1969).
(Compare the first and second (1971) editions of this book to
see how he wove his mature concept of the denial of death
into his earlier work.) This book is the product of Becker's
lectures to psychiatric residents. It is a treatise on
psychiatric anthropology, but it also has a spiritual
dimension. It is Ernest's answer of that moment to his
perennial question: "Who am I?"  It describes the evolution
of the primitive hominid into the human animal, a creature of
meanings who, unlike any other natural creature, lives in two
worlds: the natural and the supernatural, the world of matter
and the world of meanings, suspended halfway between the
animal and the divine.

Becker believed that to understand oneself, one must accept
the body, accept that humans are animals, embodied creatures
of meaning, who are born and die in a dualistic world of
physical objects and evaluated meanings, and who fear the
death of meaning more than the death of the body itself. True
self-knowledge, Ernest believed, required understanding of
how self and society are woven out of the structures of

Becker asked ultimate questions. To him, they were not
abstract or theoretical, they were personal. Asking and
answering these questions was at the heart of his "oedipal
project" through which he created himself as a person. He
believed that the most worthwhile intellectual questions are
the fundamental questions of human nature, human destiny and
the meaning of life. They are the identity questions of
adolescents: "Who am I and what is my relation to the cosmos?
What is the meaning and purpose of my life and how should I
live it?"

Ernest opposed the assumption fostered by Erik Erikson's
school that the self-probing questions of adolescents are
symptoms of identity anxiety.  He rejected an ideal of human
development which suggests that fundamental doubt and
questions are symptoms of immaturity which should end by the
beginning of adult life. He believed cosmic questions are the
manifestations of a natural curiosity about the world.
Society fears fundamental questioning and represses it. Every
society programs its members with a ready-made set of
ideologies and codes of conduct which serve the dominant
social interests. Fundamental questioning is dangerous
because it could spread a contagion of doubt that would
undermine blind loyalty to social authority. Ernest did not
want to be an ideologue for society. He encouraged free
critical thinking in his students, and as a result, made many
enemies among the faculty and administration.

Ernest's passion for ultimate questions brought him into a
deadly battle with the rising tide of empiricists who were
taking over the social sciences and psychiatry. This battle
reflects a broad historical trend in the sociology of
knowledge and inquiry. The contemporary empiricists are the
philosophical descendants of the logical positivists, the
strict constructionists of science, who, in their historical
mission to invalidate superstitions, false beliefs and
authoritarian dogmas, accept only scientific facts as
authentic knowledge.

The empiricists believe that facts are pristine and supreme
in the world of knowledge. They believe that values are
separate from facts and can be neither logically nor
empirically derived from them. Like other religious fanatics,
the neo-positivists believe that they possess the only true
path to knowledge of our world and ourselves, namely,
experimentation and quantification.

Ernest belonged to the classical school of anthropology and
sociology, the "Verstehen" or "Understanding" school, which
relies on language, communication and interpretation as
methods of inquiry. Psychoanalysis belongs to this school. It
is an ancient school of knowledge, derived from philosophical
inquiry and speculation. Ernest championed a critical,
ideal-typical social science where fact and value, knowledge
and ethics are inseparable. In his battle with the
empiricists, Becker stood firmly with the American
pragmatists and the Frankfort School. During the period at
Syracuse, when Ernest wrote and published voluminously, the
three greatest influences on his thought were Sigmund Freud,
John Dewey, and Karl Marx.

The Verstehen school of social science has been on the wane
for the past two decades, while the empiricists have been on
the rise. Becker was one of the earliest casualties of this
transfer of power. As he understood it, there were two
reasons for this trend. First, social scientists imitate
physical sciences because of the glorious success of the
physical sciences in generating fantastic technologies that
improve the quality and duration of life. Science has
replaced religion as the path to truth and power. If animism
was the religion of primitive peoples, then scientism is the
religion of moderns, and social scientists and psychiatrists
are its high priests (See Leifer, 1969).

The second reason for the decline of the Verstehen school is
that classical social science theory is rich with socially
dangerous ideological possibilities, while empiricism is
ideologically self-sterilized and thus, passively supports
the political status quo. This is a significant fact, because
Becker's struggle against narrow empiricism occurred during
the revolutionary period of the sixties. His work was an
intellectual manifestation of the historical moment, linked
to the political movements and ideologies of the day. At
Syracuse, Ernest participated in civil rights and anti-war
demonstrations and was friendly with George Wiley, Rudy
Lombard, Stanley Diamond and their circles.