The Denial of Death

The Denial of DeathThe Denial of Death

The Denial of Death is a philosophy and psychology literary work by Ernest Becker, which was published in 1973. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction two months after Becker’s death in 1974.

Death is not an easy topic to write about, especially when the one writing it is knocking on death’s door. However, Becker seemed determined to explore the complexities of death before his demise, as evidenced in the book. The book is extremely complex, and may need more than one read through to fully grasp its ideas. Also, some concepts might prove to be controversial to some people, who might find it hard to swallow some of the harsher truths stated in the book.

For example, the main premise of the book is that death is something humans want to avoid and not deal with. Understandable yes, but then again death is inevitable. Realizing this, humans have come up with several defense mechanism to alleviate the somberness and finality of death. One such defense mechanism is the concept of heroism.

Becker states that people go into acts of self-fulfillment and heroism was so they can transcend death in some shape or form. Even if their physical body dies and decays, their memory and works live on.

This would mean that the primary drive for people’s philanthropist acts and their hunger for success if their way to escape death in one form or another. They spend their lives building up their symbolic selves so that they will be remembered long after they are gone. However, the book states that this creates a lot of conflicts. True, if the goal is to be remembered there is no guarantee that the path a person chooses to attain immortality would be the righteous path.

The concept is scandalous to some people, and understandably so. If we go by the book’s logic would it mean that people’s underlying purpose for charity and goodwill is for self benefit. Does that explain all of man’s behaviors? Do people do what they do because they want their lives to have a purpose? That each action comes with a subconscious desire to want to be remembered and have a significance in the grand scheme of things?

The book is even more controversial as it criticizes both religion and science. According to the book, religion is an outdated hero system because we are now in the age of reason. To achieve immortality through religion is not viable in the modern times.

Today, it is easy to remember great scientists and the like as their advancements and discoveries have made an impact in people’s lives. However, Becker states that science might not be the perfect path to immortality despite the fact that many people, himself included, have gained symbolic immortality through science.

If you read in between the lines it seems the Becker himself does not know the perfect immortality project. In fact, it seems that he wrote the book so people will realize that all their actions are caused by one innate motivation – fear of death, and stop their quest for heroism.

The book borrows concepts from Soren Kierkegaard, Otto Rank and even Sigmund Freud. With Rank and Kierkegaard, Becker seems to adapt their way of thinking and agree with most of their concepts on the heroic nature of man. With Freud, it’s a different matter as Becker gives us mixed signals. Sometimes it seems like Becker is borrowing some of Freud’s concepts but other times, Becker criticizes Freud.

Overall, it seems like Becker is fond of Freud’s general way of thinking and the framework of his philosophies, but is not a fan of the sexual theory. Actually, Freud and Becker are similar in a lot of aspects. If Freud associates man’s behavior with his sexual identity, Becker associates man’s behavior with his fear of death.

Becker himself said that humans have a physical self and symbolic self. Does that mean the book might have a symbolic self as well? Indeed, the concepts can apply to more than just death. If you look at the book in a broad spectrum, it can explain man’s actions in relation to things that are finite and limited.

This gives the book a whole new meaning, which is always great for discussion. While this is a great book for those in the field of psychology and those interested in existential thought, it is not a happy book. The concepts, theories and even the tone of writing are bleak, which is to be expected when someone writes about death in a very academic manner.

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