It seems apposite in these trying times to review the work of Ernest Becker on the fear, and denial, of death in human beings as presented in his book The Denial of Death. The book is hardly unknown, it won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, but its subject is so important it should be much better known.
In the book Becker, a cultural anthropologist, argues that it is the fear of death that, more than anything else, drives human behaviour. He writes:
…it is a mainspring of human activity – actively designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.
Becker’s thesis has four main themes. The first is that the world is inherently terrifying. As children almost as soon as we become aware of ourselves as individuals, of our separate lives, we become aware that we will die. Everything we strive for in our life, a healthy body, character and all else will be lost.
The second theme is that we try to control our terror by denying death. This denial becomes the main concern of us all as individuals, and ultimately as a civilisation.
The third theme is that the terror of death is so overwhelming we push it into our subconscious. It is the core life influence, but we don’t really know it. We try to develop personal character (what Becker calls the ‘vital lie’) to hold it at bay, and we identify with powers that we think are more powerful than ourselves in a process of transference. Initially this is the mother and father, but it then becomes the nation-state or business firm or any other long-lived entity. Nevertheless we feel always at risk, trying to stay within the bounds set by the greater power, and paying the price of repressing our bodies and minds.
The suppression of fear leaves us vulnerable to ready manipulation by others. In the 1930s the Nazis, led by a man who was himself tortured by his own sense of worthlessness, used popular feelings of guilt and fear to take over what was thought to be the most civilised nation on the planet.
Society, Becker argues, has created a hero system to create and maintain the impression that we can carry out heroic acts – build a monument, go to war, bring up a family – that will transcend death. If any of our core projects or concepts is challenged, it evokes the suppressed mortal terror and we respond with emotional fervour, all too often blind hatred.
The fourth theme is that because of this emotional investment, we can do bad things despite having good intentions. The most horrific acts may in some real sense refer back to an attempt to do good. For instance, we may kill others simply because they disagree with us and believe in some other creed.
Some people can hold off the terror by being creative, the talented artists of the world. Some people cannot achieve any balance, and become mentally ill, basically passing on responsibility for their lives to others. Most people bumble along in the middle, trying to live out meaningful lives despite hardly knowing what they are doing, seeking distraction but all too often becoming victims to depression.
Becker argues that the death issue has been a core concern for much of modern psychology. Freud himself shifted increasingly to focus on death as he aged, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank and later Erich Fromm and Norman Brown put the subject in the foreground as well. Becker’s own work led to the development of a socio-psychological theory known as Terror Management Theory that aims at identifying the underlying problems of human life and generating ways to achieve optimal behaviour.
Ultimately, Becker argues, there is no solution in the usual forms of psychology, especially behaviourist versions, as they can only at best identify the problem. Nevertheless people have turned to this kind of psychology, as they turn to drink, drugs and shopping, to distract them from the underlying problem.