The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man
New York, The Free Press, 1962, 1971.
This book, a totally revised edition of Becker’s 1962 volume by the same title, represents the first of his final trilogy, what can be considered his mature theoretical work. In this book, Becker begins his presentation of what he confidently feels is a unified and well rounded general theory of human nature. He also has come to terms with Freud and Freudian theory, meaning that he is now able to deal appreciatively with what psychoanalysis has contributed with this general theory of human nature. It is also important to note that Becker also announces in his Preface that he now recognizes the fact that in his earlier work, he had slighted the underside of human nature. That is, as a social scientist in the tradition of Rousseau, he was dedicated to the view that human nature is essentially neutral or good and that it is corrupted by the social environment. The theory presented now in his mature work has come to a more clear understanding of the element of the darker side, the side of human nature which is evil and vicious. This considerably sobers his earlier optimism about human possibilities and potentials, guided by an actively engaged social science. As is clear, however, Becker’s recognition of the element of human viciousness and evil does not push him toward cynicism or despair.
The Denial of Death
New York, The Free Press, 1973; 1997 printing recommended.
This work is, according to Becker’s own estimation, his ‘first mature work.’ It is a book of eleven chapters, divided into three parts. Part I, ‘The Depth Psychology of Heroism,’ contains chapters two through six. Part II, ‘The Failures of Heroism,’ contains chapters seven through ten. Part III, ‘Retrospect and Conclusion: The Dilemmas of Heroism,’ contains chapter eleven. This work focuses almost entirely on an issue which was hinted at in the 1971 edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning, that human beings have a vital need to act out scenes of heroism in their lives. In order to see this urge toward heroism in the round, Becker was led to another extremely important point, that the idea of death, the conscious but mostly subconscious fear of death, haunts human beings like nothing else. This fear of death is a mainspring of human activity, and heroism is nothing less than a way to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for humankind.
Escape From Evil
New York, The Free Press, 1975.
This Becker’s final book, was in progress at the time of his death. It extends the thesis presented in The Denial of Death, that the terror of death is the root motivation for individual behavior, into the social and cultural life of human beings. It is thus in a very real sense a companion volume to the earlier work. However, the book is somewhat uneven, in that some of the chapters are full-length and quite polished, while other chapters are just a few pages and quite sketchy. Because the book was never brought to completion by Becker, in a very real sense many chapters in this book are themselves abstracts of what would have been the finished volume. It is composed of ten chapters. One of the original chapters Becker pulled and published as the journal article ‘Toward the merger of animal and human studies,’ (1974).
Zen: A Rational Critique
New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
This is Becker’s first book, based on his doctoral dissertation in the field of cultural anthropology, written at the University of Syracuse during 1959, entitled Zen Buddhism, Thought Reform, and Various Psychotherapies. This work was not well received or reviewed kindly in any quarter, neither by Sinologists, Orientalists, Zenists, or psychotherapists. Becker was treading on a lot of toes with this work, which was perhaps unwise for a doctoral dissertation, particularly a dissertation in anthropology not based on field work. Suffice to say that this is not Becker’s finest work, although it must also be said that the dismissive reviews which appeared in some journals were transparently self promotional and were not based on a careful attempt to understand Becker’s argument. In terms of the corpus of Becker’s work, this book is mainly of interest because in it, Becker is already beginning to formulate an expanded view of transference that will later come to fruition in The Denial of Death (1973).
The Revolution in Psychiatry: The New Understanding of Man
New York, The Free Press, 1964.
This book continues the line of inquiry Becker began in his previous book, The Birth and Death of Meaning. Both books are centered on the concept of self-esteem maintenance as a springboard for human action. This book is focused on the individual. Becker hopes with this book to provide a compelling rational basis for moral action. He sees this book as an outline of a theory of mental illness rooted in John Dewey’s transactional philosophy.
Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy
New York: George Brazillier, 1967.
With this book, Becker hopes to present “…a unified, universal college curriculum…that provides modern man with the necessary unitary, critical world view that will give him maximum strength, flexibility, and freedom for solving the basic problems of human adaptation.” In previous works, Becker consistently argued that in the psychosocial perspective, problems of mental health are above all else problems of education. Human beings are educated by anxiety during the Oedipal transition to view the world in certain more or less fixed ways. While this is necessary at the time, these more or less fixed ways of viewing the world continue on as the content of the individual unconscious long after they continue to be useful. This leads people to a crippled ability to encounter new situations for what they really are, with all of the possibilities for freedom inherent in the novel. We rather continue to see in the novel all of the fears, consternations, dread and trepidations of earlier situations. The psychiatric solution to this problem is the reeducation of individual analysis. But this takes too long and is too expensive to ever be a social policy solution. The social policy solution is a public education program which schools people to recognize as much as possible the restrictions they have imposed upon themselves and others through habitual ways of looking at human possibilities. This is Becker’s freedom curriculum, which is the educational extension of his program of a moral social science.
The Structure of Evil: An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man
New York, George Brazillier, 1968.
This book was written mainly during the 1963/64 school year, which Becker spent in Italy. A revision took place in 1966. There were obviously some problems in getting this work published. Becker himself expected that it would be published in 1965 under the title ‘The New Unified Science of Man: A History and Theory,’ although his reference to the work at that time did not list a publisher. The book is divided into four parts. Part I, ‘The Science of Man as a Moral Problem–A Brief History,’ contains chapters one through four. Part II, ‘The Science of Man as Anthropodicy–The Convergence of the Disciplines in a Synthetic Theory of Alienation,’ contains chapters five through ten. Part III, ‘The Ideal Type–The Individual and the Community,’ contains chapters eleven and twelve. Part IV, ‘The New Science of Man–Retrospect and Conclusion,’ contains chapters thirteen through sixteen plus an epilogue and an appendix.
Angel in Armor: A Post-Freudian Perspective on the Nature of Man
New York: The Free Press, 1969.
This book is a collection of shorter essays, lectures and reviews written between 1962 and 1968.
The Lost Science of Man
New York, George Brazillier, 1971.
This book is composed of two essays. The first was originally written as a biographical contribution to a sociological reference work. Though commissioned by the editors, it was rejected after Becker submitted it. The second essay was delivered at a professional meeting of anthropologists. The significance of these essays, and especially Becker’s decision to publish them under the title, The Lost Science of Man, is that they signal Becker’s awareness and acceptance of the fact that his hoped for program of a unified moral and social science would not be accepted in his lifetime. These essays track Becker’s attempts to understand this rejection based on the histories of academic sociology and anthropology.