The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death is a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Ernest Becker, and a must read for anyone interested in understanding the deep motivations underlying human behavior. Becker argues convincingly that the fear of death is a primary motive force within humans, and gives rise to the universal drive for heroism. He also explains the idea that all societies are essentially religious “hero-systems”, which provide opportunities for individuals to deny death through the achievement of heroism.

Key Passages

“What does it mean to be a self conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. 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, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food? Cynical deities, said the Greeks, who use man’s torments for their own amusement.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

“It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, the matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make men count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.”(The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

We always knew that there were something peculiar about man, something deep down that characterized him and set him apart from the other animals. It was something that had to go right to his core, something that made him suffer his peculiar fate, that made it impossible to escape. For ages, when philosophers talked about the core of man they referred to it as his “essence”, something fixed in his nature, deep down, some special quality or substance. But nothing like it was ever found; man’s peculiarity still remained a dilemma. The reason it was never found, as Erich Fromm put it in an excellent discussion, was that there was no essence, that the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic. (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)