Here is a review I wrote about Becker’s Denial of Death. This was for a class on the sociology of death. I believe Becker was truly on to something and I feel TMT could be utilized to fix some things.
Gods With Anuses: A review of The Denial of Death
“The road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.”
― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker’s treatise on what he believes to be the strongest driving force responsible for the human condition. The human unwillingness to accept the fear of death; to accept that people are actually biological animals; human is the near god, perhaps the only self-aware organism that also shits. Becker believed in the duality of the human animal. One side is the pure biological, an animal not particularly exceptional when compared to others in the animal kingdom. On the other side is the emotional, thinking animal that requires symbols in an attempt to create some semblance of meaning in his own existence. Becker tells us that the emotional side must lie and create an illusion as a defense in order to rise above the anxiety of being a biological animal that eventually dies.
The main crux of the lie was the need to attain the heroic. Becker theorizes that the human animal strives to attain immortality through the heroic, a way to be victorious against death. This need to be a hero remains hidden in the average man. Society also tends to view those who would seek to be a hero as narcissistic thus discouraging an open an honest quest to reach the status of hero.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker develops his point by taking us through the details of various neuroses and disorders. At one end of Becker’s spectrum of disorders is the schizophrenic, a person that fails to develop the lie and therefore must face the reality of death without any type of defense. The schizophrenic is then forced to create his own illusion of reality that is so completely removed from that of society that he becomes split. On the other end is the clinically depressed, according to Becker the depressed are so bogged down by the threat of exposure of the life-lie that they give away their lives to death.
A major point is the defense of the great life lie. People will go to great lengths to defend their illusive version of reality. Their fear is increased and almost unbearable at the thought that someone else’s lie may disprove their own. This line of thinking may very well be an underlying cause of war, discrimination and many other crimes against humanity throughout the world. One might suggest that the elimination of organized religion would cure this problem; however, organized religion often becomes the scapegoat. As Becker points out any type of group belief system, such as society, is essentially a form of religion. They are belief systems that help people avoid the anxiety of death and any affront to these beliefs is akin to an act of war.
Throughout the book Becker refers to the work of Freud switching out Freud’s theories on sex anxiety with that of death anxiety. Becker also does a posthumous analysis of Freud in an attempt to show that his theory on death anxiety also applies to the father of psychoanalysis.
Becker seems to believe that a merger of religion and psychology may be able to solve the problems of death anxiety. Although typical ancient religion will not suffice post enlightenment, some form of belief in the metaphysical is possibly enough to relieve this anxiety from human so that they may be able to cope. Unfortunately I’m not confident that the average person will be able to grasp this and be accepting of the points of view of others. An example of this is the recent Boston bombings and the subsequent call for the annihilation of Czechoslovakia (a country that no longer even exists and was not related to the suspects in any way),
I learned a great deal from this book, perhaps more than I have yet fully absorbed. I am not suggesting that this book is necessarily a motivational tome but I feel that it has encouraged me to pursue my own immortality project without apology. I also learned that I possess a minutia of knowledge in reference to psychology. I look forward to reevaluating this book after reviewing the works of Freud and Rank.
In reading what others have said of The Denial of Death some reviewers have found a nihilist slant. In my understanding of nihilism this label simply does not fit. While Becker does essentially tell us reality is a lie, he also tells us it is a necessary lie. I don’t get any feeling of hopelessness from the book.
I should note that I have only read through this book one time thus far. I believe it is worthy of at least an additional critical reading and fairly certain that my opinions and understanding may change to some extent. I think Becker’s own immortality project has been quite successful. I believe that Terror Management Theory, based On The Denial of Death, has the potential to alleviate a great deal of suffering in the world.
I would selectively recommend this book. I feel it would primarily be of interest to those with a more than passing interest in philosophy, psychology, sociology or theology. Although I do believe it could be of benefit to others if they were to read it with an open mind. I attempted to discuss the ideas presented with various people and was generally met with one of two responses. Either that it sounded like psychobabble mumbo-jumbo or it elicited a bit of anger from others. One person in particular was appalled at the idea that our fear of death was a driving psychological force in our lives. I’m not sure that everyone is willing to accept that at least part of reality for the human animal is a lie.