The Denial of Death: Ernest Becker

Clifford Williams

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity College of Trinity International University
Deerfield, IL 60015

A presentation at Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July 1, 2005

Ernest Becker lived from 1924-1974. His book, The Denial of Death, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1974. His later book, Escape from Evil, unpacks some of the themes in The Denial of Death. His main claim in these books is that the fear of death motivates much human activity. In what follows I shall present the ways in which he works out this claim and raise questions about our stance toward death.

The terror of death: “Of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death” (DD, 11).* “This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax” (DD, 87).

Death with insignificance: “What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man want to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning. And in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way. Or, if there is to be a ‘final’ tally of the scurrying of man on earth—a ‘judgment day’—then this trace of one’s life must enter that tally and put on record who one was and that what one did was significant” (EE, 4).

Mainspring of human activity: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else: it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man” (DD, ix).

Immortality projects: To counteract the fear of death with insignificance, we engage in immortality projects. An immortality project is an activity that we engage in with the intention of counteracting our mortality. By it we think we become a “hero”: one who will live forever with significance. Nearly everything we do is designed to make us heroes in this sense, even the ordinary. This is true of both individual and cultural projects. It is what makes what we do, both individual and cultural, religious.

“Heroism is the first and foremost reflex of the terror of death” (DD, 11). “Our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic” (DD, 1). “Power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance” (EE, 81). “In its power to manipulate physical and social reality money in some ways secures one against contingency and accident” (EE, 81). “Money gives power now” (EE, 84). “Modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life” (EE, 85). “We live in a different power world than did the primitives. For us, motors, guns, electric circuits embody power” (EE, 76-77). “No wonder men go into a rage over the fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die” (EE, 64). “It all boils down to this: the work of art is the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation” (DD, 172). “One has to be a hero in the best and only way that he can . . . ‘if only for his skill at the pinball machine’” (DD, 217). “Societies can be seen as structures of immortality power” (EE, 63). “Culture itself is sacred, since it is the ‘religion’ that assures in some way the perpetuation of its members” (EE, 4). “Man has become dependent on social symbols of prestige that single him out as especially worthy of being remembered” (EE, 84). “Almost everyone consents to earn his immortality in the popular ways mapped out by societies everywhere, in the beyonds of others and not their own” (DD, 170).

Romance and heroism: “He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things. . . . If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him, as Rank saw, was the ‘romantic solution’: he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object” (DD, 160). “In case we are inclined to forget how deified the romantic love object is, the popular songs continually remind us. . . . The point is that if the love object is divine perfection, then one’s own self is elevated by joining one’s destiny to it” (DD 161). “What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain” (DD, 167).

Human character as a vital lie: “The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way” (DD, 133). “The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character” (DD, 56). This despair he avoids by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death . . . that he is somebody” (DD, 55). “A vital lie: It is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation” (DD, 55).

Repression: “Repression takes care of the complex symbol of death for most people. But its disappearance doesn’t mean that the fear was never there” (DD, 20). “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing” (DD, 284).

Fear of too much life: The Jonah Syndrome: “the evasion of the full intensity of life” (DD, 48). “It all boils down to a simple lack of strength to bear the superlative, to open oneself to the totality of experience” (DD, 49). “Most of us—by the time we leave childhood—have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation. We have closed it off” (DD, 50). “What really bothers the child: . . . life is really too much for him. . . . he has to avoid too much thought, too much perception, too much life” (DD, 53). “Two great fears: the fear of life and the fear of death (DD, 53).

Rebirth: “To see reality one must die and be reborn” (DD 57). “It was not until scientific psychology that we could understand what was at stake in the death and rebirth: that man’s character was a neurotic structure that went right to the heart of his humanness. As Frederick Perls put it, ‘to suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy.’ And it is not easy precisely because so much of one has to die” (DD 57). “What does it mean ‘to be born again’ for man? It means for the first time to be subjected to the terrifying paradox of the human condition, since one must be born not as a god, but as a man” (DD 58). “The best sign of the genuineness of that cure is that he lives with humility” (DD, 58).

Christianity and heroism: “Primitive Christianity is one of the few ideologies that has kept alive the idea of the invisible dimension of nature and the priority of this dimension for assuring immortality. Thus it is a threat to any one-dimensional immortality ideology. . . . Early Christian radicalism rumbles under the one-dimensional obsessiveness of modern industrial life” (EE, 86). “This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took creature consciousness—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism” (DD, 160).

The Pharisee and the tax collector: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:9-14).

Justification: “Existence is simply too much of a burden; object embeddedness and bodily decay are universally the fate of men. Without some kind of ‘ideology of justification’ people naturally bog down and fail” (DD, 217).

Grace: “Faith is a matter of grace” (DD, 258). “In the game of life and death no one stands taller than any other, unless it be a true saint. . . . Sainthood itself is a matter of grace and not of human effort” (DD, 259).

*All quotations are taken from Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973) and Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1975).

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