Summary of Ernest Becker’s, The Denial of Death

The Denial of Death is a work by Ernest Becker which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974, a few months after his death. (In the above scene Woody Allen buys the book for Diane Keaton in the Academy Award-winning movie “Annie Hall.”)

The book’s basic premise is that human civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge that we will die. Becker argues that humans live in both a physical world of objects and a symbolic world of meaning. The symbolic part of human life engages in what Becker calls an “immortality project.” People try to create or become part of something which they believe will last forever—art, music, literature, religion, nation-states, social and political movements, etc. Such connections, they believe, give their lives meaning.

And Becker believed that mental illness, especially depression, results when we don’t believe we are connected to some meaningful project. Furthermore, lacking such a project reminds us of our mortality. He also argued that schizophrenia results from not having defense mechanisms against mortality, causing sufferers to create their own reality. (These ideas remind me of Viktor Frankl’s claim, in Man’s Search for Meaning, that mental illness most often results from a lack of meaning.)

Moreover, Becker believed that conflicts between contradictory immortality projects, especially religious ones, are the main cause of wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism. Our particular immortality projects are so important to us, that we can’t tolerate others suggesting that our beliefs are misguided. But, Becker argued, religion no longer offers convincing arguments for immortality or the meaning of life. Unfortunately, for most people, science doesn’t fill the void either.

In response, Becker suggests that we need new comforting “illusions” to give life meaning. He doesn’t know what these new illusions will be, but he hoped that having them might help us create a better world. Still, deep in our bones, we know that we are mortal. As Becker put it:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

3 thoughts on “Summary of Ernest Becker’s, The Denial of Death

  1. I think Becker is definitely on the right track in his book. We as humans definitely seem to feel the need to “matter” after we are gone, to leave a lasting legacy as it were. It would seem that having a family is in this very same vein. Your children being your genetic legacy to the world (whether that is for the good or the bad is up to debate depending on your kids I suppose!).

    His arguments for mental illness being brought about due to an inability to defend oneself against the onslaught of reality are superficial and been proven incorrect:

    I do enjoy the way he describes nations, religions etc as “immortality projects” thought. It’s pretty darn accurate, and silly when you think hard about it!!

    All in all I can get behind this work, wish we had more time to cover some of this type of material in school.

  2. Why are “immortality projects” more important or more meaningful than taking into account (the fact of) mortality. “Forever is our today” (Who wants to live for ever, Queen).

    In another sense the (enforcement of) “immortality projects” along with its superstitious parts, deny the everyday happines and meaning that life can provide to people. This furthermore acts as a justification for unnecesary suffering and exploitation. This renders them susceptible and obedient. And this also brings forth the suppression of questioning the whole edifice which includes among others, vague notions like “mental illness” (see, for example, history of madness, meaningless tags used in manuals and so on), which have the purpose of social control (what is contemporarily criticised as the “medical model of society”, for example).

  3. @Brian Wilson
    When your say “ His arguments for mental illness being brought about due to an inability to defend oneself against the onslaught of reality are superficial and been proven incorrect”, you have made the same error that Becker has warned against in the starting pages of chapter 10. The medical science link that you have provided understands schizophrenia from its chemical signature in the body and traces back the life conditions of the sufferers. It does not do the reverse that is, derive how a person can get schizophrenia given his life conditions, because it is not within its domain of inquiry, precisely what Becker called the imbecility of specialization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.