Dr. Ernest Becker (September 27, 1924 – March 6, 1974) was a cultural anthropologist, writer, and professor. Like all great thinkers, these terms seem inadequate to explain Becker for he covered a broad scope of ideas spanning anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and religion. While Becker does not necessarily break any new ground, Becker’s the clarity, ease, and profoundness of his writings are self-evident.
Dr. Becker was born in Springfield Massachusetts (located two hours west of Boston, MA) to Jewish immigrant parents. After serving in World War II, Ernest Becker went to Syracuse University. Afterward, he took on a job in the United States Embassy in Paris. Several years later, he returned to Syracuse University for a cultural anthropology graduate program. It’s said that he choose anthropology because it is the “study of man”. At Syracuse, his primary mentor was Dr. Thomas Szasa who at the time was part of a rebellion occurring within psychology. Dr. Szasa argued madness as a mass phenomenon such that those labeled mentally ill are often the ones who do not participate in our shared madness. This theme will be self-evident in Becker’s The Denial of Death. In 1960, Ernest completed his Ph.D. writing his dissertation on what would later become his first book, Zen, A Rational Critique (1961). The book can be found online in its entirety. In the book, Becker criticizes the Zen Buddhist usage of koans as a type of brainwashing to frustrate the mind and ultimately destroy rational thinking. Sadly, Becker got Buddhism wrong. This could be explained by the poor resources available at the time.
After graduating, Becker began his lifelong career as an amazing teaching professor and profound writer. Initially, Becker taught at Syracuse University for a few years before eventually being fired in 1963 for siding with his mentor Dr. Thomas Szasz in the psychotherapy disputes. This would be my quibble with those who label Becker simply as a cultural anthropologist since he spent several years working within psychiatry. In 1965, Becker got a job at the University of California, Berkeley in the anthropology program. Again, trouble ensured with the administration. At the time, thousands of students petitioned to keep Becker at the school and offered to pay his salary. The plan failed.
In 1967, he taught at San Francisco State’s Department of Psychology until January 1969 when he resigned in protest against the administration’s stringent policies against the student demonstrations.
In 1969, Becker moved to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada where he would write his best works. During the next five years, he wrote a second edition to The Birth and Death of Meaning (personally, on par or better than The Denial of Death), The Denial of Death, and Escape from Evil. In November 1972, Ernest Becker was diagnosed with cancer. His dying interview with Sam Keen (mentioned in the Foreward to Denial of Death) is available through the Ernest Becker Foundation and can also be found in Dr. Dan Liechty’s The Ernest Becker Reader.
Ernest Becker was posthumously awarded the Putilizer’s Prize for The Denial of Death which has favorably given his work due attention. Today, his work continues to influence several fields. The Ernest Becker Foundation continues to inform, expand, and enrich Becker’s works including the 2002 Flight from Death film based on Becker’s works.
A list of works of Ernest Becker along with two rarely seen items – his personal journal and a 1970 speech given to University of British Columbia can be found in the Ernest Becker Writings page.
I purposefully left out Becker’s philosophical ideas and indeed can be further found in the Ernest Becker Philosophy page.
What has never been apparent to me until writing this just now was Becker’s actual age. Becker would have only been 21 years old by the time he finished serving in World War II. There is an entire decade or more of Becker’s life that is seemingly completely unknown apart from his time at the Paris embassy. A lost 20 something year old traveling the world hoping to find truth and meaning in the world? By the time, Becker finished his doctoral degree in 1960, he would have been 36 years old. Only fourteen years later would he tragically die at the age of 49. One wonders how great an impression World War II (and helping free a concentration camp) must have had on Becker and perhaps fueled his ever present desire to understand human nature and human evil. In addition, I would wonder whether this explains the focus on the negative, dark side of human nature which even Becker’s fans such as Sam Keen have noted.
I wrote a thesis on Becker several years and read everything possible. I’m drawing upon memory a great deal here along with a few internet resources. I’ll update this when I find my notes.