The Problem of Death for Human Maturity: Ernest Becker
There are very few texts so offensive as Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. So penetrating and all-embracing is his thesis that once it has been encountered, it is simply not possible to look at one’s life in the same way again. A world of meaning and action that once seemed so perfectly normal, so obvious and natural all at once appears exposed as a farce. What once seemed as as the pinnacle of human virtue and strength appears through Becker’s lens as weakness, dishonesty, and worst of all, motivated by fear.
This fear is so ubiquitous and all-pervading that no single name can capture it, but Becker goes quite a long ways by centering his analysis on the fear of death. Becker, an anthropologist by training, puts himself into conversation with an existential interpretation of psychoanalysis that seeks to uncover the deepest source of what motivates human action. He concludes that, at its root, it is the fear of death that ultimately moves us. Beneath all the appearances that our lives are well organized and relatively calm, there simmers a primal terror. Becker shows how everything we do, say, think, and hope for can be shown to ultimately issue from our attempts to deny death. From our national allegiances and devotion to a political cause, to charismatic people with whom we chose to identify, to the employment we adopt, to the religion we advocate, to our hobbies and passions, to the very person we describe when we answer the question: “tell me, who are you?” all of it is masterfully designed to stave off the cruel fact that we are little animals who get sick, vomit, shit, and die.
As a brief aside, it is worth noting here that the reason profanity is profane stems from the association of these words with our frail creaturely nature. Nearly all profanity is drawn from the realms of defecation, illness, and sex. The intermingling of these terms with religious words pulls the realm of our highest ideals down from heaven. We use these terms to “take others down a notch,” as if to say “You are nothing but a pathetic animal that will soon die and rot.” Such words are therefore offensive because they cut against the grain of our typical death denying self-perception.
We can’t tolerate thinking of ourselves in these terms. Nobody answers a request for a self description by identifying as a little, dying animal. Instead we search for more symbolically lofty means of describing who we are. The reason, Becker will stress, is that we can’t bear to face the true nature of our situation. This is exemplified in all our anal efforts to hide the baseness of our animal nature. And it is this ultimately futile, but always maintained struggle that leads us to giggle Montaigne’s aphorism that even “on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse.”
Humanity’s Existential Paradox
It is crucial, when coming to terms with Becker, that we understand what he means by “death,” and what it is that he thinks we are so afraid of losing. Becker’s thinking on this point can only be understood once we get in view his reliance on the notion of humanity’s existential paradox, what Erich Fromm put succinctly as the fact that “humanity is half animal and half symbolic.” This view, introduced by Kierkegaard into modern psychoanalysis, recognizes that death for human-kind is not merely a matter of the cessation of biological functioning, or the process of corpse making. It is that, but what makes death such a problem for humanity is our ability to mentally transcend the merely given nature of our environment. We are able to remember the past and envision the future. We have the ability to create, and participate in, not just particular states of affairs, but in universals, in meanings. And here we have the form of death that is peculiar to our status as humans. We fear the death of our meanings. There is biological death, but more importantly for humanity is this symbolic death, especially as it pertains to our “self-esteem.” After all, history is filled with examples of those who will sacrifice their biological life to preserve their sense of unity with a higher significance.
Along with this ability to move in the realm of of meanings comes the capacity that (of all life that we know) humanity alone possesses. We not only die, but we know that we will die. Death is thus more than an atomized event; it becomes a symbol for us. It carries meaning, namely, the end of our personal meaning. It is this, our greatest capacity, that gives rise to our greatest horror, a horror from which there is no escape. Thus, our typical strategy is an endless array of death denial strategies, most of which lie well below the level of our conscious awareness. In our more honest moments we can, from the standpoint of the present, envision a future that unfolds in which we eventually cease to be a participant. It seems a cruel state of affairs, like being given a brand new bicycle with the caveat that it will be taken from you within the span of an hour and given, forever, to your little brother and his friends. Enjoy.
Our inability to bear such a thought lies behind the drive to keep the thought from ever occurring. The way this is done, Becker identifies as the heroic, for it is the hero that faces death, and yet lives. To this idea I will turn in my next post.
Ultimately my engagement with Becker will be towards explicating the self that must die in the process of human maturation and shedding light on why growth is so difficult for us. In the following posts I will continue describing Becker’s approach. Feel free to click here for a link to the table of contents for all my dissertation free-writing posts.
 In contrast to what he sees as Freud’s myopic focus on the sexual and biological.
 Becker, 1997, 31.
 Becker, 1997, 26.