The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker

According to Ernest Becker, the wellspring of human action is the fear of death: correction, the denial of the fear of death. In his Preface, he actually says that the “prospect of death . . . is the mainspring of human activity” (my italics). He makes short work of the real fear of real death, that natural and necessary instinct which man shares with the other animals. He mentions it right at the start, to make his point that man is driven by the notion of heroism, whose invariable purpose, he claims, is to deny one’s own fear of death. In this denial, he claims, spring all the world’s evils—crime, war, capitalism and so on. He reckons evolution made a creative leap in producing man, a huge leap riddled with defects. From birth we are beset with traumas and impossible demands. The only way we can cope with life and especially our imminent death, is through repression of our real feelings, that is, our terrors. (And if we argue with him, we prove him right, for we have repressed so well that we are unaware of our repression. So there!) For example, the fear of death can be repressed by heroism, proving that one is not afraid at all; or by personal distinction, proving one is superior to the others and attaining thereby a kind of immortality.

By way of support for his ideas, he quotes throughout from Freud, Ferenczi, Rank, Adler, Perls, William James, Jung, Fromm, Maslow, Kierkegaard and himself. Now, who is the odd one out in this list? Kierkegaard, you may say. He’s the only one who’s not a psychologist. Wrong! Becker has a chapter entitled “Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard”, despite the obvious fact that Kierkegaard never had any patients to analyse. So the odd one out is Becker himself, for he was certainly not a psychologist by trade. This doesn’t stop him writing a chapter entitled “The problem of Freud’s character, Noch Einmal [once again]”. Becker hero-worships Freud one minute; in the next he demonstrates his own superior understanding, or sometimes the definitive understanding of all the Freudian problems which, by the early nineteen-seventies, the best minds have finally achieved. This alternation, Freud-right, Freud-wrong, Freud-heroically-almost-right, provides a leitmotif throughout the book. Indeed, I’d suggest that it’s more of a topic than the title-theme. Becker’s heroic discovery about the denial of the fear of death, which is the cause of all the evil in the world, is merely the stick which he uses to beat the ghost of the late Sigmund Freud, to show who’s the new alpha-male. In my head, I keep calling him Boris Becker, not Ernest: recalling the men’s singles final at Wimbledon in 1985.

Ernest B. was actually Professor of Cultural Anthropology in a Vancouver university. Wikipedia says “Because of his breadth of vision and avoidance of social science specialization, Becker was an academic outcast in the last decade of his life.” But reading The Denial of Death I see tunnel vision, not breadth. It’s more likely he was an academic outcast for playing in the wrong court and refusing to admit it: a sort of John McEnroe of the professorial tournament. Wikipedia also calls him a “scientific thinker and writer”. There is no evidence in the book of scientific work done by Becker, or even a scientific approach. At best the book may be evidence that he thinks about the scientific work of others and reaches his own conclusions. But when you look more closely, you see that he reaches his conclusions first and then uses the quoted opinions of others as support. This allows him to be selective and choose some wild speculations, based on lifetimes of clinical work done by Freud and others, but none by Becker himself. He’s just the armchair detective who knows better than the real ones who pound the streets.

For Becker, every age in the human lifecycle is full of impossible conflict, confusion and agonising trauma, all based on Freudian notions of sex, Oedipus complex, repression, transference etc, which he updates in accordance with more recent thinking. He likes comparing man with the other animals. For the latter, it’s simple: you follow your instincts, and then you die. For man, you are driven by the demands of a mind which lives in symbols, by which means it can climb the highest peak, be infinite, rule the world, coruscate in glory; apart from the unfortunate physical reality: you are stuck with a body which excretes, and sex, which is almost as messy. And then you die.

It’s a little comical that in his preface Becker says “mainspring” because a mainspring is man-made, has to be wound up; but ultimately runs down. A wellspring (surely the word he actually meant) is created by Nature, and symbolises “a source or supply of anything, esp. when considered inexhaustible” ( As a Freudian slip it’s more sad than comical. Becker published The Denial of Death a year before his own death at 49 from colon cancer. I don’t know how long the interval might typically have been, in the early Seventies, between knowing one was ill and dying of cancer; but I wonder if it’s more than coincidence that his Preface starts with these words: “The prospect of death, Dr Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind.”

I look through the entire volume for any personal note, any indication of Prof. Becker’s more-than-professional interest in his topic. But he hides behind the academic convention that the text is about the observed and not the observer. The closest he gets is when explaining why he has added yet another book to the great pile of literature: “Well, there are personal reasons, of course: habit, drivenness, dogged hopefulness. And there is Eros, the urge to the unification of experience, to form, to greater meaningfulness.”

I start to form a picture in my mind, of Becker himself as the unacknowledged subject of his own book: Becker the denier of his own imminent death; the ostracised academic; the upstart Oedipus whose idea of the erotic is to challenge Daddy Freud and mate with Mother Evolution, to beget offspring which will correct the great mistake; the pioneer in the eventual destruction of evil. Sadly, it is he who’s confused; who can’t see the difference between religion and psychology, Kierkegaard and psychoanalysts, morbid and healthy psychology.

I don’t know what family he left behind by his untimely death. I mean no disrespect to those who hold his memory and his books in high regard. In fact, I write this review only because Raymond Sigrist talked admiringly about the book. Will you forgive me, Raymond? But in the year of his death, 1974, The Denial of Death won the Pulitzer Prize.

You may also discover that there is an Ernest Becker Foundation, which would like your donation to enable it to “apply [Becker’s] principles to the mitigation of violence and suffering”. So, posthumously, he has his own cult: evidence of a crank, I think, rather than a researcher. Never mind, he succeeded in repressing death himself, by attaining personal distinction, proving superiority to the others and attaining a kind of immortality. What else is a Pulitzer Prize?


19 thoughts on “The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker

  1. So you don't like the book, and think Becker was a crank. But what about the stated premise: that lots of human doing and striving is spurred on by the desire to deny, transcend or create meaning in the face of death? Do you think that's true?


  2. I do actually find the book fascinating.

    As for the stated premise, it's clear that lots of readers have found that it resonates in some way for them, so who am I to argue with that?

    But it goes against my experience, so much so that I could argue with almost every sentence he writes.

    Yes, I do think that some (an unquantifiable amount) of human doing and striving is spurred on by the desire to deny, transcend or create meaning in the face of death.

    In fact his book is a good example of the phenomenon.

    But the premise you set out is almost self-evident. One can see it happening in others to a certain extent. One can see it by introspection to a certain extent.

    His book goes a lot further than that.


  3. > the premise you set out is almost self-evident.

    But isn't the self-evident thing often the hardest thing to notice? =)

    > His book goes a lot further than that.



  4. That is a brilliant, and fascinating, and funny, review.

    I won't be rushing out to buy a copy, being more interested in what you have to say about both Becker and his theme than in what he has to say about it. Unfair of me.

    Maybe you will expand on your own viws further in this regard, leaving Becker respectfully behind?

    I wonder what the Pulitzer judges were thinking?


  5. o my! What a delight to read this! I've left Becker behind by now, and no longer even remembered that he'd won a Pulitzer. But my well-thumbed paperback copy of his book was read many, many times in my 20's, and I agreed with him fervently. It seemed like master insights – although I was troubled even then by his small boy taunt “If you don't agree, that PROVES I'm right” never, in my mind, a respectable argument.

    Reading this now I wonder how much of my depression was caused by Becker, Kierkegaard and the like, vs how fervently I read them because I was already depressed, and this material provided me with an intellectual framework within which my depression could be comprehended. Within which, in fact, I could be right, with superior perception than a world that thought everything was just hunky dory!

    When one sees the world bleakly it is some consolation to be able to think of those who see it brightly as fools. Which brings us back, doesn't it, to your questions about his own mental balance as his life wound down.


  6. “The only way we can cope with life and especially our imminent death, is through repression of our real feelings, that is, our terrors”

    I do not agree with Becker. There is another way we cope with death by discovering that this life is only one in a series and death is merely when a soul changes the clothing of the body for a new one. When that belief is strengthened by glimpses of past lives one stops suppressing the imminent fact of death.


  7. Hayden, that's right. It seems to me that the non-psychiatrist Becker falls in love with what I would call morbid psychology, as apparently expounded by Kierkegaard and Freud for example, with their strong assumption that the neurotic tendencies they describe are the norm, and that anyone who purports to be happy and healthy is repressing stuff, unless they have turned to God in a particular way (Kierkegaard) or been psychoanalysed (Freud).

    So I can well imagine that Becker could have been unhealthy reading for a young impressionable person. In my case, I think it was unhealthy to read about Buddhism, even though it was almost entirely Zen which interested me.


  8. Ashok, may I ask you a personal question, or rather, will you give me a personal answer?

    Never mind “one”. What about you? If there were no reincarnation in the sense that you envisage it (“soul changes the clothing of the body for a new one”), or if you somehow stopped believing it, would that mean you would fear death? Would that affect the way you live your life? Would your fear be continuous and how would it manifest?

    I know these are difficult questions because if you believe in reincarnation you may not be able to imagine no longer believing in it (unless believing it is something that requires continuous effort, for example it requires you to try and convince others that it is true).

    So let me ask you another question. Given that you do believe in reincarnation, does this eliminate all fear of death from you? If there is still a fear, what form does it take? For example, if a robber breaks into your house and holds a knife to your throat, I presume you would have a fear of death in that moment.

    These are personal questions and you of course need only answer if you want to.


  9. Gentleeye, I’ve been thinking a lot about your challenge “to express your own views further in this regard”. You are right about leaving Becker respectfully behind.

    However, there is a topic which he touches on but doesn’t really develop, which I would like to write about, if the Muse favours the enterprise. It’s the idea of perfectibility, and how it continues to flourish in a flawed world.


  10. Vincent, thinking of your response to Ashok, I'd like to respond to it personally, since I well remember how I felt when I was reading Becker.

    I wasn't able to shake the fear that reincarnation might be true. If I had been, If I had been free of the THREAT of living again, I wouldn't have been afraid of death. I would have chosen it.

    It wasn't that my life was so horrible, but that all life seemed unbearably futile. The problem with his thesis is that it diminishes, destroys all possibility of the Good; all nobility, all altruism. For me, it wasn't death itself that was the worm in the apple, but the concept that fear of death underlies all action.

    If death is the end (I felt then and would feel today, if I could 'un-believe' for a moment) it seems to me that it's nothing to fear. We all love falling into a deep, dreamless sleep. The idea of death-without-end seems like that to me.


  11. Vincent, I can say what my attitude would have been if I did not beleive in reincarnation but that turns my mind to the age of six when I pondered over some of these questions (this is absolutely true and the memory is clear) and now I think in childhood one can continue to ponder over thoughts that have occupied ones mind in an earlier life. At that time I though that one need not worry about death since it would mean moving into nothingness like deep sleep. Since then my views have advanced and now I know that will not happen because of reincarnation.

    Most certainly I am scared of a robber, because that death if any would onvolve pain, and also sometimes worry that death may be preceded by pain evern otherwise. I do hope it is sudden or one is allowed to choose it if the need be.

    I have come close to death ( several times during mid 2007) and I agree that at the last moment there is a need to avoid it, and a desire to prolong life, and some sort of fear, but nothing serious no more than the fear say on a difficult roller coaster ride.


  12. “I wasn't able to shake the fear that reincarnation might be true. If I had been, If I had been free of the THREAT of living again”

    Hayden this is the attitude that many mystics and particularly Buddhist mystics have. They fear death because of their belief in reincarnation. The Buddhist philosophy as well as some Hindu one provides methods fo escaping the cycle of rebirths by attaining union with universal onsciousness.

    However am not yet looking for that but wish to experience more of this universe hopefully soon as a young person again when one is more energetic.


  13. ashok, thank you for that. I never put those pieces together before. I was either in love with life and confused about the drive to escape the wheel, or in despair and fearful I might have to continue, but somehow wasn't making the connection with eastern philosophies at the right time to really understand.

    nice, even all of these years later, to learn that those fears of mine weren't as isolating as I thought they were at the time.

    For now, for myself, I look forward to each day I'm here, and I look forward to a long, ecstatic hiatus between incarnations when this one is done!


  14. The guy has certainly got us all tied up…if we argue, according to Becker, we prove his point, if we don't, we don't disprove anything, or do we tacitly agree with him…… Oh well, what's to be said then.


  15. Great thread. My own opinion is that Becker is spot on. The problem is that he offered no solution for the ailment. He hinted that a form of mysticism might solve it, but did not tell us what that is. The best thing I have found so far is an exploration of what I call “the transcendental placebo.” In this method one discovers how it is possible to enjoy life for no rational reason. “Sans nul pourquoy” as Marguerite put it.


  16. I read this book recently, first on Google books, till I got to the bits where Google books starts to omit relevant pages, so I walked down to my library, it’s the next block from where I live, got a copy and read the tome.

    I’ve done the psychology and sociology thing at college in the 1970’s so I’m familiar with this type of ‘published for peers’ type of work and the ‘language’ used therein. Still, I found it tedious and well, after a while, managed to finish it left me wondering where the ‘Pulitzer’ was in what I had read.
    I like the way modern contemporary scientists talk. Granted the medium is now the documentary format, In particular I like professor Brian Cox and the way he expounds on the physical universe. Stuff like the universe was the size of a grain of sand before the big bang and following the second law of thermodynamics and especially entropy, the whole place will eventually all cool down and come to a complete stop, it may take a while, but the law is the law and it will all stop. Now imagine a Brian Cox lecture on the denial of death, in that unique Oldham accent!

    Why did I pick up upon this book? Two reasons I think, my first was when I was asked to repair and retouch an old photograph showing the workers of a Clydeside shipyard take around 1890, in it, the workers consisted of small boys to old men. Then quite unexpectedly came the realisation for me that as I looked upon the photograph, no one in it was alive any more.

    The second realisation of my mortality was from the 1993 film ‘The Little Buddha’ One quote stuck in my mind, something to the effect, look around you, everyone here in this world today, in 100 years will not be here. Fair point.

    My one fear, I must confess, is not so much, that death comes to us all, I’ve been able to man up and accept that, rather that there’s nothing after that event, consequently, bad people do not get their comeuppance as succinctly shown in the film “Ghost” where the hooded creatures take the bad guy and drag him down to wherever down might be. No justice then, bummer!

    In bygone times religion seemed to make it all bearable. “Worry not son, thy rewards await thee in the afterlife” then came the age of reason and the enlightenment, add travel to that and finding that other faiths and beliefs too have large followings, it becomes disingenuous to harp that old phrase ‘we are right they got it wrong’. (an ingrouper/outgrouper way of seeing things).

    As long as we remember the book was written then. Today is now, we should read today’s works as well.


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