Culture Magazine

Death, Terror Management, and Nationalism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
In Beethoven’s Anvil I cited Kierkegard, Ernst Becker and Franz Borkeneau in asserting (p. 90): “Our intelligence allows us to know that we will die, and the rituals though which we mark death are among the most important and intense we perform. I suggest that without such rituals, death threatens to become a psychological trap for the living. Periodic participation in ritual musicking reduces one’s sense of isolation and attaches one to the group, as Freeman has suggested, making one’s individual fate a matter of less concern.“
I’ve just learned that there is a body of theory more or less devoted to arguing that culture is primarily a device for dealing with our fear of death, Terror Management Theory. Here’s the opening of the Wikipedia entry:
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.
At roughly the same time I came across an article with a very long title: Philip T. Hoffman, Why was it that Europeans conquered the rest of the world? The politics and economics of Europe’s comparative advantage in violence (PDF). The article argues that while it is not clear, in general, just when “Western Europe first forged ahead of other parts of the world,” it is clear that in one area, the ability to wage war, Europe had “an undeniable comparative advantage well before 1800...” While the whole argument is interesting, I’m interested in one sentence, from page 11: “In an era before nationalism motivated troops, armies had to be centralized, for if soldiers (many of whom were mercenaries) were scattered across a country, desertions would soar.”
There it is, our old friend death. Nationalism made a difference in how states could motivate their troops. Nationalism is one of those cultural inventions that distances us from death.

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