The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker


“What is the meaning of life?” is a question everyone asks. It goes hand in hand with the questions “What is our motivation in life?”, “What is it that drives us through life?”, “Why do we do the things we do?” Ernest Becker believes that the majority of things we do comes from our denial of death: “of all things that move man, one of the principal one is his terror of death”.

Right from the introduction, we are easily persuaded that he is right. He claims that man’s natural drive is to go for heroism: “Man has elevated animal courage into a cult”. Right from our childhood, we notice that other children are favoured and we tend to wish to be favoured as well; we are selfish. Humans’ desire to be special, to achieve something in life is part of our natural urge for heroism. It is natural for us to want to be heroes. Heroism is part of human nature, and if we are not convinced about this, then we deny this very natural wish. Our urge for heroism comes from our effort to raise our self-esteem. Becker notices that there is a “cultural hero system” which changes in time: “[…] the crisis of society is, of course, the crisis of organized religion too: religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it.”

What is a hero? “Anthropological and historical research also began, in the nineteenth century, to put together a picture of the heroic since primitive and ancient times. The hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive.”

Becker believes in “the universality of the fear of death”. Anxiety neuroses, phobias, schizophrenia all demonstrate the presence of the fear of death. Self-preservation is a reaction against the fear of death. However, fear of death is repressed so that we can function, so that we can maintain some level of comfort.

The question of how man is different from animals has been there for centuries. What sets him apart is that he is above nature, due to his power to create, to reason, etc. but also in it, due to death. What does this mean? “everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation […]”


Becker’s book tries to provide for us both answers and questions, as well as analyses of Freudian theories and not only. Becker interprets literary and philosophical works in the light of his questions and theories. Readers will be kept attentive throughout his book as it is all about questions and aspects which concern us all in our lives. We hope to find a better understanding of the world and of ourselves by the time we finish reading Becker’s book. Or, at least, we are offered a possible perspective to set us reflecting over such issues, if we choose to take Becker’s argument with a pinch of salt.

The Denial of Death won the Pulitzer prize in 1974. Becker (1924-1974) is a cultural anthropologist and interdisciplinary scientific thinker. Buy this book from here!

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