The Denial of Death
The Denial of Death (1973) by Ernest Becker was his last published work while he was still alive. Months after his early death, the book won the Pulitizer prize for general non-fiction. Becker’s Escape from Evil was the last work that he was working on and was published after his death.
Classifying The Denial of Death would be like trying to classify Ernest Becker. It’s rather difficult, if not impossible. Is it a philosophical work? Psychology? Anthropology? All of the above. Like any great profound piece of writing, it transcends all divisions and speaks to the most existential problems to human life. In many ways, I consider it an accessible version of existential philosophy. The primary motivation for Becker’s work was to understand human nature and thus understand human evil. Why do we act the way we do? How to harness the wealth of scientific and academic knowledge to bring about a unified, clear understanding of human beings?
If I were a Freudian, I would analyze Becker’s fixation on human nature, lies, and evil based on Becker’s facticity or conditioning due to his times. Becker’s parents were Jewish immigrants (Ernest Becker Biography), and he had been involved in the European theater in World War II. The post-WW2 era was one of overwhelming nihilism. It is no surprise then that Becker would have a lifelong mission to understand human beings and the lingering fears throughout his works. By understanding human beings, Becker’s hope was that we could build better societies rather than the dangerous states of the early 20th century.
As Becker clearly states himself, The Denial of Death was to “fix” Sigmund Freud with the help of the lesser known, once disciple of Freud, Otto Rank. Whereas Freud explained the motivations and neuroses of human nature to unconscious instinctual drives, Becker and Rank see man’s problems based on his basic split between his limited body and his limitless mind. This basic dualism is a universal form that can be seen throughout history in all works. Sartre’s being-in-itself and being-for-itself. Descartes’s division between mind and body. So on and so forth.
Victor Frankl would write in Man’s Search for Meaning (1956) humans live on meaning. Likewise, Becker analyzed the ways that man seeks his own heroism or meaning in the world. To find and sustain an immortality project that transcends one’s own life and lives on forever. In this light, Becker saw all of civilization, family, and religion as vehicles for man’s immortality projects. Yet, all things in the world are conditional, arise, and vanish. We seek to become Gods, to be unconditional…or at least seek someone or something that can be God. Whether it’s science, a lover, a skill, or a religion. One of the underlying themes of the book is a double exposure of reason, science, and psychotherapy. On one hand, they have brought about wonderful changes, but on the other hand, they shall never make us into Gods and help to fuel our mania.
Socrates once wrote that philosophy is practicing the art of dying. So, Becker would write, “…to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life” (11). Becker believed that each of us carries a “vital lie”, that which gives our life meaning, and we would do anything to protect that lie. Becker’s hope was that by becoming conscious of the vital lies that we live by, we could by some degree be free from them. We, as a society, could choose better vital lies to live by such as the principles of freedom, truth, and peace. Ultimately, Becker wrote that the fullest achievement of man was his self-transformation, submission to being the creature that he is. We are neither animal nor god, only human. He understood religion in this light, as the presence of a transcendent that we submit our individuality for something greater than ourselves.
As a contemplative person myself, I appreciate Ernest Becker’s works a great deal. I was introduced to The Denial of Death in a college philosophical course on Death and Dying. It was easily one of the most influential undergraduate books on my thinking. Yet, there is one great piece of the puzzle missing from the text.
The very last sentence of the Denial of Death book is “The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something – an object or ourselves – and drop it into the confusion, make an offering to it, so to speak, to the life force”.
What a strange, enigmatic sentence. Is he speaking in despair, jest, cynicism, or hope? Perhaps, all of the above. This book does a wonderful job of starting the original philosophy project of self-reflection, know thy self. For the first time reader though, one is left with a sense of emptiness, as if the ground and meaning of your life had been suddenly put into serious jeopardy. Then what?
What I believe Becker ultimately failed to understand was that uncovering one’s vital lies only leads to madness, nihilism, or a stronger vital lie. The true project of philosophy was to reflect thereby understand. But understanding the need for a vital lie does not remove the need itself. One must dig deeper to understand and uproot the need for vital lies in the first place and thereby be free from them.