One lives one's death, one dies one's life. —Jean-Paul Sartre.
In his paper of 1943, A Theory of Human Motivation, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings had a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs have been met.
Maslow called the bottom four levels of the pyramid ‘deficiency needs’ because we do not feel anything if they are met, but become anxious or distressed if they are not. Thus, physiological needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are deficiency needs, as are safety needs, social needs such as friendship and sexual intimacy, and ego needs such as self-esteem and recognition. On the other hand, he called the fifth, top level of the pyramid a ‘growth need’ because our need to self-actualize enables us to fulfill our true and highest potential as human beings.
Once we have met our deficiency needs, the focus of our anxiety shifts to self-actualization, and we begin, even if only at a sub- or semi-conscious level, to contemplate our bigger picture. However, only a small minority of people is able to self- actualize because self-actualization requires uncommon qualities such as honesty, independence, awareness, objectivity, creativity, and originality.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been criticized for being overly schematic and lacking in scientific grounding, but it presents an intuitive and potentially useful theory of human motivation. After all, there is surely some truth in the popular saying that one cannot philosophize on an empty stomach, or in Aristotle’s observation that, ‘all paid work absorbs and degrades the mind’.
Many people who have met all their deficiency needs do not self-actualize, instead inventing more deficiency needs for themselves, because to contemplate the meaning of their life and of life in general would lead them to entertain the possibility of their meaninglessness and the prospect of their own death and annihilation.
A person who begins to contemplate his bigger picture may come to fear that life is meaningless and death inevitable, but at the same time cling on to the cherished belief that his life is eternal or important or at least significant. This gives rise to an inner conflict that is sometimes referred to as ‘existential anxiety’ or, more colourfully, ‘the trauma of non-being’.
While fear and anxiety and their pathological forms (such as agoraphobia, panic disorder, or PTSD) are grounded in threats to life, existential anxiety is rooted in the brevity and apparent meaninglessness or absurdity of life. Existential anxiety is so disturbing and unsettling that most people avoid it at all costs, constructing a false reality out of goals, ambitions, habits, customs, values, culture, and religion so as to deceive themselves that their lives are special and meaningful and that death is distant or delusory.
However, such self-deception comes at a heavy price. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, people who refuse to face up to ‘non-being’ are acting in ‘bad faith’, and living out a life that is inauthentic and unfulfilling. Facing up to non-being can bring insecurity, loneliness, responsibility, and consequently anxiety, but it can also bring a sense of calm, freedom, and even nobility. Far from being pathological, existential anxiety is a sign of health, strength, and courage, and a harbinger of bigger and better things to come.
For theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), refusing to face up to non-being leads not only to a life that is inauthentic but also to pathological (or neurotic) anxiety.
In The Courage to Be, Tillich asserts:
He who does not succeed in taking his anxiety courageously upon himself can succeed in avoiding the extreme situation of despair by escaping into neurosis. He still affirms himself but on a limited scale. Neurosis is the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being.
According to this outlook, pathological anxiety, though seemingly grounded in threats to life, in fact arises from repressed existential anxiety, which itself arises from our uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness.
Facing up to non-being enables us to put our life into perspective, see it in its entirety, and thereby lend it a sense of direction and unity. If the ultimate source of anxiety is fear of the future, the future ends in death; and if the ultimate source of anxiety is uncertainty, death is the only certainty. It is only by facing up to death, accepting its inevitability, and integrating it into life that we can escape from the pettiness and paralysis of anxiety, and, in so doing, free ourselves to make the most out of our lives and out of ourselves.
Some philosophers have gone even further by asserting that the very purpose of life is none other than to prepare for death. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates, who is not long to die, tells the philosophers Simmias and Cebes that absolute justice, absolute beauty, or absolute good cannot be apprehended with the eyes or any other bodily organ, but only by the mind or soul. Therefore, the philosopher seeks in as far as possible to separate body from soul and become pure soul. As death is the complete separation of body and soul, the philosopher aims at death, and indeed can be said to be almost dead.
Adapted from the new edition of The Meaning of Madness.
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1. Maslow AH (1943): A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50(4):370-96.
2. Aristotle: Politics, Bk. 8.
3. Sartre JP (1943): Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology.
4. Tillich P (1952): The Courage to Be.
5. Plato: Phaedo.