Ernest Becker on The Denial of Death and Heroism

“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax. . . What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

This passage comes from Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death in which he puts forth and defends the thesis that the fear of death is the primary motivating factor behind much of human behavior. Or as Becker puts it:

“. . . 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 men.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

Humans, unlike any other animal, are aware of their own mortality. This awareness when reflected on, according to Becker, elicits levels anxiety and fear that can be so debilitating that to properly function one must repress, or deny, their mortality.

The way that Becker suggests humans go about denying death is by striving for the heroic, or in other words taking part in activities which lead one to believe they are part of something more than their physical body, something that will live on past their physical death and so grant them a form of immortality.

It is easy to grasp how an artist or writer can achieve this type of immortality through the creation of a great work which they know will continue to effect people long after their death. But it is more difficult to see how the masses of mediocre people, incapable of personally achieving the heroic like an artist, are able to fulfill their urge to heroism. Becker’s answer is that society acts as the vehicle in which the vast majority of people act out their urge for heroism. As he put it:

“In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it. Tell a young man that he is entitled to be a hero and he will blush. We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

In other words, most people “deny death” by becoming fully absorbed in their social role and striving for whatever one’s society deems as most desirable; in our time this seems to be money, fame and status. As a vehicle for the masses to act out their urge for heroism, Becker went as far as to characterize society as a “codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”

In addition to explaining how humans deny death, Becker also spends time explaining why it is so essential for one to do so. In brief, Becker claims that the denial of death and associated urge for heroism is so integral to human existence because a failure to deny death through heroic achievement results in debilitating levels of stress, anxiety and depression which can potentially drive one mad.

“It was [Alfred] Adler who saw that low self-esteem was the central problem of mental illness. When does the person have the most trouble with his self-esteem? Precisely when his heroic transcendence of his fate is most in doubt, when he doubts his own immortality, the abiding value of his life; when he is not convinced that his having lived really makes any cosmic difference. From this point of view we might well say that mental illness represents styles of bogging-down in the denial of creatureliness.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

Becker’s thesis that the fear of death is the mainspring of human activity, has proved to be quite influential and led to the development of “terror management theory”. This theory has taken Becker’s thesis about the denial of death and attempted to show its compatibility with the theory of evolution. Given the continued interest and development of Becker’s theory, the quality of his writing style, and the fascinating nature of Becker’s claim, The Denial of Death is a highly recommended read.

For more information on the ideas of Becker check out our videos on him here and here.