Ernest Becker (September 27, 1924 – March 6, 1974) was an American cultural anthropologist and interdisciplinary thinker and writer. He wrote several books on human motivation and behavior, most notably the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Denial of Death. In it, he argues that “the basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.” (Keen 1973). Becker suggested that a significant function of culture is to provide successful ways to engage in death denial.
Becker also noted that the root of evil lies in the selfishness of human beings seeking to protect their own existence in the face of their mortality, which he regarded as an essential aspect of human nature. Recognizing such evil within human beings gave Becker concern about the future of human society.
A “Science of Man”
Becker’s The Birth and Death of Meaning, written in 1962 and revised in 1971, was Becker’s first attempt to explain the human condition. Its title derives from the concept of humankind’s move away from the simple-minded ape into a world of symbols and illusions. Becker argued that it is language that sets human beings apart from other animals, and that through language that self-awareness and freedom from instinctive behavior became possible.
In The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker sought to reconcile the fundamental human contradiction between mind and body. He described the human being as a creature of meaning, who “unlike any other natural creature, lives in two worlds: The natural and the supernatural, the world of matter and the world of meanings, suspended halfway between the animal and the divine” (Leifer 1997).
In the revised version of The Birth and Death of Meaning published in 1971, he included his understanding of human fear of mortality. He argued that human beings, like all living creatures, have a physical body that is born and dies. The fear of death that humans experience, though, lies not so much in the death of the body but in the death of meaning, for it is meaning that defines the human self and society.
Becker believed that the social sciences erred when trying to model themselves after the natural sciences. He regarded the use of the scientific method as self defeating, since its goal of controlling the experimental situation removed the human elements that should be the concern of the social sciences. He also argued that there was no universal individual for whom a “science of man” could be constructed. Every personality is formed within a particular culture and the symbols of that culture are incorporated within each person’s identity. Thus, a true understanding of human behavior requires a “science of man within society,” in other words, it must include the social and cultural environment within which people live.
The Denial of Death emerged out of Becker’s attempt to create this “science of man.” Influenced by Otto Rank’s view that the fear of life and death is a fundamental human motivation, Becker pursued his quest to understand human motivation in the context of mortality. Escape from Evil (1975) developed the social and cultural implications of the concepts explored in the earlier book and functions as an equally important second volume.
The Denial of Death
Becker’s The Denial of Death was published in 1973. He received the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction posthumously in 1974, two months after his death. The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of mortality. Since human beings have a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we can transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving the symbolic half.
Becker describes human pursuit of “immortality projects” (or causa sui), in which an we create or become part of something that we feel will outlast our time on earth. In doing so, we feel that we become heroic and part of something eternal that will never die, compared to the physical body that will eventually die. This gives human beings the belief that our lives have meaning, purpose, and significance in the grand scheme of things.
Still, for Becker, the only suitable source of meaning is transcendent, cosmic energy, divine purpose:
But I don’t think one can be a hero in any really elevating sense without some transcendental referent like being a hero for God, or for the creative powers of the universe. The most exalted type of heroism involves feeling that one has lived to some purpose that transcends oneself. This is why religion gives him the validation that nothing else gives him. … When you finally break through your character armor and discover your vulnerability, it becomes impossible to live without massive anxiety unless you find a new power source. And this is where the idea of God comes in (Keen 1974).
From this premise, mental illness is most insightfully extrapolated as a difficulty in one’s hero system(s). When someone experiences depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being constantly reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result. Schizophrenia is a step further than depression in which one’s causa sui falls apart, making it impossible to engender sufficient defense mechanisms against their mortality. Thus, schizophrenics must create their own realities in which they are better heroes. Becker argued that the conflict between contradictory immortality projects (particularly in religion) is a wellspring for the violence and misery in the world caused by wars, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since immortality projects that contradicts one another threaten one’s core beliefs and sense of security.
Becker also made the point that humankind’s traditional “hero-systems,” including religion, or are no longer convincing in the age of reason. Becker never believe that science could solve the human problem. He declared that people need new convincing “illusions” that enable them to feel heroic in the grand scheme of things, a form of symbolic immortality. However, he provided no definitive answer, mainly because he believed that no perfect solution exists. Instead, he hoped that gradual realization of innate human motivations can help to bring about a better world, producing worldviews that offer opportunities for non-destructive heroism.
- Evans, Ron. 1992. The Creative Myth and the Cosmic Hero: Text and Context in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0820418452.
- Kagan, Michael Alan. 1994. Educating Heroes: The Implications of Ernest Becker’s Depth Psychology of Education for Philosophy of Education. Durango, CO: Hollowbrook Publishing. ISBN 978-0893417390.
- Keen, Sam. 1974. A conversation with Ernest Becker. Psychology Today (April 1974): 71-80.
- Liechty, Daniel. 1995. Transference and Transcendence: Ernest Becker’s Contribution to Psychotherapy. Aronson. ISBN 1568214340.
- Liechty, Daniel (ed.). 2002. Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker. Praeger. ISBN 0275974200.
- Liechty, Daniel (ed.). 2005. The Ernest Becker Reader. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295984708.
- Liechty, Daniel. n.d. Biographical Sketch. Ernest Becker and the Science of Man. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
- Leifer, Ron. 1997. “The Legacy of Ernest Becker” Psychnews International 2(4).
- Leifer, Ron. 1979. “Biography of Ernest Becker” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Volume 18. New York: The Free Press.
- Martin, Stephen W. 1996. Decomposing Modernity: Ernest becker’s Images of Humanity at the End of an Age. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. ISBN 0761805362.
- Pyszczynski, Tom, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg. 2002. In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington DC: APA Press. ISBN 1557989540.
- Szasz, Thomas.  1984. The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0060911515.
This article was edited and re-written based upon the New World Encyclopedia entry, Ernest Becker. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation, including EBF Vice-President, Daniel Liechty.