Author: Liechty, Daniel Source: Death Studies 23, no. 8 (Dec 1999): p. 757-760


The Denial of Death Revisited

A review of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. New York: The Free Press, 1974/1997 Free Press Paperbacks Edition with Foreword by Sam Keen. xxii + 314 pp. ISBN 0-684-83240-2. $12.00.

After receiving a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Syracuse University, Ernest Becker (1924-1974) taught in various departments at Upstate Medical College of New York, University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State College, and Simon Fraser University. He published 10 books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects related to mental health and social science. In 1967, Becker began to develop a thesis that conscious and unconscious reactions to death anxiety could function as a unifying principle for the social sciences. This thesis was explored particularly in his last three books, The Birth and Death of Meaning (1971), The Denial of Death (1973), and Escape From Evil (1975). Although Becker's work was entirely theoretical rather than clinical, his work has been widely read and cited in the literature associated with the burgeoning field of death and dying. . . .

 Many readers of this journal are already very familiar with Ernest Becker's book, The Denial of Death. In this work, Becker drew especially on Otto Rank, Soren Kierkegaard, and Norman 0. Brown to recast the major categories of Freudian psychoanalysis in broadly existential terms. Becker demonstrated that the repressed psychological energy seething under the surface of the subconscious was not primarily sexual, aggressive, material, or conformity drives. These drives were all specific contextual manifestations of an even deeper anxiety, the anxiety of death and mortality, itself the result of an evolutionary clash between, on the one hand, the "natural narcissism" of every successful species' will to survive, and, on the other hand, the peculiar survival strategy of our particular species (intelligence) that reveals to each individual relatively early the ultimate futility of that survival urge. Becker's synthesis was especially important for thanatologists exploring the intersection of death and dying with psychology, philosophy, and religion, because it clearly pointed toward a transcendent source as the only realm from which real answers to the human dilemma might come.

Ernest Becker died in 1974, the same year that his book won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. The insights Becker set forth in this book were clearly stunning to readers, so stunning that it was not always clear what to do with them in professional work. Nevertheless, a steady stream of people from a broad range of disciplines have been quietly applying these insights to their own particular fields of interest. Because of Becker's untimely death, there will never be a new and updated edition of this important book. Fortunately, The Free Press has provided the next best thing, a new printing with an extremely useful and concise introductory foreword, written by philosopher and lecturer Sam Keen. . . .

To best evaluate Becker's existential recasting of psychoanalysis, it is necessary to place it in the context of his broader philosophy. As a summary statement of this philosophy, Keen's introductory foreword is as masterfully terse as could be asked. Keen identifies four major strands of emphasis.

The world is a terrifying place. Becker was not simply morbid. He presented his views as a corrective to easily optimistic versions of evolutionary philosophies that would posit some sort of Omega Point of perfection as our natural inheritance. As to teleology, Becker thought we must plead humble ignorance. We simply can't know what the Life Force is up to. What we do know is that we are inextricably bound up in what must be seen as a nightmarish system in which living organisms sustain themselves only by ingesting other living organisms. For all but a very few of its organisms, this is a system of constant terror, not equanimity. Recent anthropological literature suggests that is especially true for humans--that the transition from prey to predator took place only very recently in our evolutionary history. According to this literature, we must assume that the rumblings of a prey animal's terror, as well as the perhaps exaggerated fascination with power and weaponry that resulted from this recent transition from prey to predator, remain very present in the collective unconscious of the species.

The basic motivation for human behavior is the need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. The most basic anxiety is not sexuality or aggression but the terror produced in an animal that has attained self-awareness and knows that it will die. Though at the time Becker's theories were not widely accepted by specialists, hypotheses derived from these theories have been proving themselves amazingly resilient when subjected to rigorous empirical testing.

Because the terror of death is so overwhelming, we conspire to keep it unconscious. Death anxiety is not simply uncomfortable. It does not simply make us uneasy. It has to be positively repressed. Individual and social character emerge from a dynamic unconscious that must expend an enormous amount of energy in this positive repression of the terror of death from conscious awareness.

Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Because it remains unconscious and repressed, human beings will displace and scapegoat the terror of death almost willy-nilly. We are able to focus on almost any perceived threat, whether of people, political or economic ideology, race, religion, and blow it up psychologically into a life and death struggle against ultimate evil. We lose the very faculties that would cause us to place limits on the violence we will use against this perceived threat. This is the dynamic of spiraling violence that characterizes so much of human history.

Becker's mature theory does not place us in an easily optimistic position. If the ultimate struggle is an unconscious fight against mortality itself, ergo doomed to repeated defeat, it is hard to see how the spirals of violence could ever be ended. On the other hand, if we are able to recognize the true nature of our struggles against evil, this may assist us in demythologizing the real threats posed by "evil empires" and other perceived enemies. This may give us some handle of rationality for setting controls and limits on our violence.

Keen calls Ernest Becker "the great spiritual cartographer of our age and a wise physician of the soul." A close (re)reading of The Denial of Death will more than adequately vindicate that judgment.


Keen, S. (1974). The heroics of everyday life: A theorist of death confronts his own end. Psychology Today, 7(11), 71-80.