The anthropologist Ernest Becker is well-known for his thesis that individuals are terrorized by the knowledge of their own mortality and thus seek to deny it in various ways. Correspondingly, according to Becker, a main function of a culture is to provide ways to engage successfully in death denial.
Becker was born on September 27, 1924, in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrants. His first publication, Zen: A Rational Critique (1961), was a version of his doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University, where he pursued graduate studies in cultural anthropology before becoming a writer and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He authored nine books, with the last one, Escape from Evil, appearing after Becker's untimely death in March 1974. Escape from Evil is an application to the problem of evil of ideas Becker exposed in The Denial of Death (1973), a book for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Becker considered the two books to be an expression of his mature thinking.
The Denial of Death emerged out of Becker's previous attempts to create a unified "science of man" that he hoped would provide an understanding of the fundamental strivings of humans and the basis for the formulation of an ideal type of person—one who, being free from external constraints on freedom, might attain "comprehensive meaning" (Becker 1973). In the second edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning (1971) and, more elaborately, in The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, Becker presents the more pessimistic view that the quest for meaning resides not outside but inside the individual. The threat to meaning is created by a person's awareness of his or her own mortality.
The change in Becker's view happened under the influence of the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who viewed the fear of life and death as a fundamental human motivation. Becker used the idea of a "character armor" (taken from another psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich) as "the arming of personality so that it can maneuver in a threatening world" and enlarged it with the concept of the society as a symbolic hero system that allows the practice of "heroics" (Becker 1973). By fulfilling their role in such a society—"low heroics"—or by pursuing and realizing extraordinary accomplishments—"high heroics"—humans maintain a sense of self-esteem.
In The Denial of Death, Becker presents examples of low and high heroics in the normal individual, the creator, and the mentally ill. For example, he portrays the schizophrenic as incapable of conforming to normal cultural standards and is thus incapable of death denial. To substantiate his thesis regarding the universality of the death terror, Becker employed arguments from biology, from psychoanalytic theory, and from existential philosophy, especially Kierkegaard. For example, Freud's Oedipus complex is reinterpreted to reflect the existential project of avoiding the implications of being a "body," and thus being mortal. The boy is attracted to his mother in an effort to become his own father, thereby attempting to transcend his mortality through an imagined self-sufficiency.
Notwithstanding his emphasis on death terror as a mainspring of human activity and as a foundation for human culture, Becker does not ignore the tendency of human beings to grow. This tendency has the form of merging with the cosmos (the Agape motive) or of development beyond the present self (the Eros motive). The psychoanalytic concept of transference, as identification with an external object, corresponds to the first motive. While life expansion forces coexist with the fear of death, it is the latter that imbues them with urgency. Transference, for example, reflects both fear of death and possibility for "creative transcendence." In both cases transference involves "distortion" or "illusion." The problem of an ideal life becomes the problem of the "best illusion," the one that allows maximum "freedom, dignity, and hope" (Becker 1973, p. 202). Only religion, with God as an object of transference, can satisfy these criteria. However, this is a religion that emphasizes an awareness of limits, introspection, and a confrontation with apparent meaninglessness.
Becker's academic career suffered enormously because of his intellectual courage and because of the skepticism of "tough-minded" social scientists toward his ideas. Becker's writings continue to influence psychotherapeutic, educational, and theoretical work, especially as regards the pervasiveness of the fear of death in governing individual and social behavior into the twenty-first century.
Becker, Ernest. Escape from Evil. New York: Free Press, 1975.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.
Becker, Ernest. The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York: Free Press, 1971.
Becker, Ernest. Angel in Armor. New York: George Braziller, 1969.
Becker, Ernest. Beyond Alienation. New York: George Braziller, 1967.
Kagan, Michael A. Educating Heroes. Durango, CO: Hollowbrook, 1994.
Leifer, Ron. "Becker, Ernest." In David L. Sills ed., The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 18: Biographical Supplement. New York: Free Press, 1979.
Liechty, Daniel. Transference & Transcendence. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995.
Leifer, Ron. "The Legacy of Ernest Becker." Psychnews International 2, no. 4 (1997). Available from www.psychnews.net/2_4/index.htm .