Book Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death - the best explanation of the human condition I have ever come across.
The Denial of Death – the best explanation of the human condition I have ever come across.

I’ve had my share of angst. Perhaps more than others. I always knew that there wasn’t much a human could do to get peace. Self knowledge seems to be an ever deepening pit of bad news. When I picked up The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, I was searching for answers. Hoping to be wrong and looking for some way to cushion the terrifying realization that I’m going to die, that everything is meaningless, that my life has the same value as that of a grasshopper and that in the end I might as well have never been born. Instead of answers, I merely got a confirmation of my deepest fears. There is no salvation. No solution. Mankind is screwed.

I did however, understand a lot more. I think it’s only now at the age of 31 that I can begin to get a real understanding of Ernest Becker’s masterpiece. Doubtless my self knowledge will grow with time. Because if there’s one thing I value more than my happiness, it’s the truth. I would not be happy if ignorance is the price. Even thinkers like Freud and Otto Rank commented that they were sometimes torn about whether or not they should help a patient overcome their neurosis, because these problems were shielding their patients from the more terrifying truth about life.

I was even able to diagnose myself and find a minor neurosis of my own – my obsession with retirement and my hatred of work. It turns out that it’s a problem I’ve created myself in order to get distracted from the very real terror of the human condition. I no longer worry about work. I also got a few other valuable insights into myself. The explanatory power of this book is very potent.

That said, this is not for everyone. I’m coming to realize that our illusions are necessary to maintain our sanity. Our world views, our character, our devotions and attachments…they’re all defenses against the overpowering fear of both life as well as death. Becker explains in painful clarity the issues of transference, fetishization and the perversions and demonstrates that we all display these propensities. They become clinical only when the patient is unable to function normally in “society”. So called “society” is itself a shared illusion. Madmen create their own religions – a religion with just one follower.

I make it a point to never re read books. But this one I’m going to keep close to myself on my Nook. I’m already going over some of the sections to get a deeper understanding of myself. Fascinating stuff. But beware – there be dragons in these pages! I don’t mean this sarcastically or as a means to entice you into reading it. There are no solutions here, no hope of transcendence, no “feel good” answers, no brilliant way out of life’s (and death’s) problems. This is not a book to live by. It’s only a book to understand. If you (like me) value self knowledge above all else, above your own happiness, then this is for you. If not, it’s no shame to maintain your illusions and be happy in them.

There’s no moral superiority here. We’re all just shuffling along to our graves as best we can.

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker”

  1. And then they say Truth is all powerful and beautiful!

    I find analysis of life and death and how it is seen by those who have taken pains to ‘understand’ death – somehow comforting (for want of a better word).


  2. I personally believe in practicing this…..

    (Desiderata is the famous poem written by Max Ehrmann meaning “things that are desired.” It urges people to see the beauty and troubles of the world through wise, hopeful and compassionate eyes. The Desiderata poem has touched countless people since it was written in 1927)


    Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
    and remember what peace there may be in silence.
    As far as possible, without surrender,
    be on good terms with all persons.

    Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others,
    even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

    Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious
    to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others,
    you may become vain or bitter, for always
    there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
    Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
    it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

    Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
    But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
    many persons strive for high ideals,
    and everywhere life is full of heroism.

    Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
    Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment;
    it is as perennial as the grass.

    Take kindly the counsel of the years,
    gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

    Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
    But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings
    Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

    Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
    You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
    you have a right to be here.

    And whether or not it is clear to you,
    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
    Therefore, be at peace with God,
    whatever you conceive Him to be.

    And whatever your labors and aspirations
    in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


    • In reply to suneetha

      Alas, I wish I were able to have a list of things to do that would make me happy! But this poem begs a number of questions. Like what is the goal of doing them? What does one do when there IS no god? Why even bother going on living?

      I find this line particularly interesting:

      many persons strive for high ideals,
      and everywhere life is full of heroism.

      One of Becker’s main points is that all heroism is an illusion – a fantasy created so that we can cover up our insignificance. The question is…do we want to pretend to be heroic, or do we simply accept the small meaningless creatures that we are?


      • In reply to bhagwad

        It is bizarre that u hav decided to look @ life from the ‘half empty’ glass (death/inevitable end) point of view @ ur age…….wer as u hav a choice to look @ it as “haf full” too….!!! It s like u hav read a suspense thriller book from its end frst and got stuck ther….!!!! Obviously it keeps u less interested in the unfolding of the plots or thrills and frills of going thru the chapters’ emotional ups and downs…..LOL !!! In reality v all KNOW for sure that everything that s created has a definite end ….and v have no control on wen. wer and how v get born or die….V pretty much can control the journey in between the two ends….if v try and stay interested to do so…….or it may turn out to be a “tumble weed blown in the wind” kinda life….!!!
        From wat i understand…..”Life” per se is a collection of experiences……the ones that u experience with all ur bodily senses and the one u feel with ur inner soul…!!.Like the one u feel @ every fulfilling sip of ur favorite coffee /beverage….and the warmth u feel inside wen u hug , cuddle and play/ communicate with ur loved ones and doggies…….!!! a series of ripples in an otherwise placid(dead) lake /pool…!!! It is a constant depolarization and re-polarization of energy (u need positive and negative currents of it @ every individual creature’s level) to keep the circulation of energy effectively sustaining life fr the longest period of time on the planet…and whether u like it or not it wd go on until every ounce of that ‘energy’ is exhausted, burnt out, or put out……like in the ‘mars’ …..and other dead/lifeless planets….!!! It is man who has invented ( money and marriage) the concept of GOD to be his punchbag, scapegoat, blame taker or ur source of spiritual (inner) energy to carry on strongly….a figment of imaginary superman to hold on to in times of distress….!!! IN this game it doesnt matter if u are the saint or the sinner…….@ the end of the game the king and the pawns go into the same box…..none the wiser…!!! But not playing the game and lying in the box jus coz thats wer v r headed in the end….!!??? ..that wd b wasting of that life BY CHOICE…and all the energy and time it ws given to experience ‘Life” goes wasted too…..But it is the individual’s loss not the ‘creations’…!!!! It is like u r given the invite and enuf backup resource to participate in this show / or casino in which one chooses not to participate despite entering the arena….!!!??? it is fr us to figure out wat keeps us interested in the mass chaos of this show and chose to invest our interest in that till v last…!!
        It is our own responsibility to give wat ever meaning v wish to….. to our own “life”… each his own….!!! As for the heroism being an illusion …..a tiny bean seed buried under layers of soil suddenly decides to come alive and reach out to the sun light after braving layers and layers of solid wet mud, which is a lot mightier than itself … doing so it is its own ‘hero’ ….however insignificant the act is to the rest of us intellectuals……. v cant deny it its moments of glory in that achievement….!!! No body has any obligation to prove or disprove his/her worth to anybody fr that matter…….bt it wd make one helluva journey to earn as many smiles and laughter as possible and stay interested…… even if the journey is only towards a “dead end” destination….!!!


      • In reply to suneetha

        +bhagwad you’re right, as camus put it, the only important question is: should I kill myself! well, life is clearly meaningless, heroism is an illusion homo sapiens developed to endure the harsh reality. I think a logical thinker must see life the way it is, we are animals, like any others, even the existence of a god is irrelevant to us, since the way we are(physics, chemistry, soul, any thing) it is absurd to have meaning or reason, so you just live the life of the absurd man (since suicide might not be that easy for a “healthy” human, your inner heroism will always push you back) avoid pain and look for believing in illusions(every thing is the same, eternal life in heavens or hell) so, you should end your life when it gets too boring or extremely difficult
        I’m really bad with explanations


  3. Not sure if I’m going to make any sense here. But first, instead of looking at this from our own vantage points, let’s look at this from the more objective viewpoint of the universe. 99.999….999% of the universe is dead. Life, as we know it, forms a very, very miniscule part of the universe. This incredible scarcity of life tells me that ‘death’ is the natural state of this universe and that life on earth is a perversion of this natural state. So, when we die, it is just the universe trying to revert back to it’s natural state.

    Don’t ask me how this relates to your post or to Ernest Becker, but since death is inevitable and since humans are painfully aware of their own mortality, it follows that the only way we can get through life with any semblance of sanity is to be distracted enough from constant thoughts of death. You are right in that anything and everything that is not a biological need is purely there for the purpose of distraction…whether it is religion or books or movies or sports or friends or whatever.

    Our search for any sort of ultimate happiness is doomed to fail because death is just round the corner. There is no meaning to our lives other than the meanings we ourselves impart to it. If you does not impart any meaning to your actions beyond life or death, then you will find your actions meaningless.

    I also agree with your point about the insignificance of human lives in the greater scheme of things. The entire human race has existed for less than a blip of the universe’s lifetime so far. And the universe will continue to function for eons and eons after the last human being has died out. That is not very flattering for anyone who considers human beings to be central to the universe.

    In the book, The Man-Eaters of Eden, the author looks at hundreds of incidents of lions killing and eating Mozambique refugees and comes to the humbling realization that as far as the lions are concerned, humans have no significance to them except as food. Humans with all their achievements in art, architecture, science, music etc are lower than gazelles or warthogs from the viewpoint of the lions.

    So, from our own viewpoint, we may feel we should be more significant than a grasshopper. But from the viewpoint of the universe, we are pretty much just as insignificant. What can we do about it…nothing except distract ourselves

    I may not made a lick of sense, but I hope at least the below videos provide a little distraction


    • In reply to Satish

      I agree completely. Except that “death” as a concept only makes sense when compared with life. Instead of saying that death is the natural state of the universe, I would say that “non consciousness” is the natural state of the universe. I too feel that “life” as such is an abnormality – there’s no other way of looking at it. Especially self aware life that also has an ego. It’s terrible.

      I remember a line from “The Matrix” where Smith says “The purpose of life…is to end”.


      • In reply to bhagwad

        I too didn’t think ‘death’ was the right term when talking about the universe. Like you mentioned, death is an aftereffect of life. Where there is no life, there can be no death. But calling the universe as ‘dead’ seemed to bring out the asymmetry of the situation…

        Anyway, that’s a good line from The Matrix…I believe it has spawned an actual religion of it’s own…Matrixism :)


  4. Well gentlemen, your analysis is correct within the context of the position we find ourselves. But you neglect some simple facts. Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, in layman terms, has established for all time we essentially know nothing and can’t know anything beyond our limited perspective because we can’t get outside ourselves and view the totally of “existence”. Quantum physics has also established that we don’t even know how many dimensions exist outside of the 4 we are familiar – and time is a complete and total mystery. This means that there are endless possibilities for what constitutes “total reality”. Who knows, after you die you may remerge within another life form. Who knows, perhaps something drives all this. who knows, perhaps we are like leaves on a tree – we are conscious at a leaf level but we are really part of the tree. I’m not saying these things are true, I’m saying they are some examples of endless possibilities. So you have a choice – choose to believe life is meaningless because you can’t find the meaning or choose to believe it is meaningful but we simply aren’t in a position to figure it out. Either way, you will have no idea if you are right or wrong. So, you can think you have it figured out, but neither you nor anybody else has.


  5. I am 8. And l already feel there’ s nothing logical in so called society. Religion and science are just facades, immortality projects. And it’s horrible to see to what extent people can go to full fill their hero vision. I guess being a normal person would have been great. But now I don’t want to be included in other people’ s hero
    projects. But I am not quite sure what my hero project would be. I keep crying at night and tried finding counter arguments to the points made in the book. But yes, we are just organisms . I can’t find any other answer. My exam is approaching. So when I study l keep my parents near so that I don’t feel overwhelmed or get lost in thoughts. Maybe my dream would be to create a society where people are atleast aware of their hero projects. What are your hero projects?


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