SUMMARY - The Denial of Death - Ernest Becker



Here is a summary:

  • Becker explores the psychological concept of the denial of death and how the unconscious fear of mortality influences human behavior and society.

  • People engage in "hero systems" like accumulating wealth, building empires, religious beliefs etc. to feel a sense of immortality or lasting significance. These provide symbolic ways to deny one's inevitable death.

  • Cultural conflicts arise from competing "immortality projects" as different groups pursue different paths to symbolic immortality. Organizations may be driven more by unconscious motives of mortality denial than their stated goals.

  • By projecting guilt onto enemies, heroic projects aimed at destroying evil paradoxically bring more evil and fuel conflicts. This forms the basis of Becker's "science of evil."

  • Becker argues becoming aware of our unconscious motivations driven by death denial can help curb excessive harm caused by immortalizing ourselves through conflict with supposed enemies. More constructive solutions involve compassion and combating suffering directly.

  • Reviews found the book profoundly influential, stimulating and courageously synthesizing ideas from different fields to explain human psychology and behavior in light of the universal, unconscious fear of mortality.

    Here is a summary:

The passage discusses the psychological roots of anxiety and how people use various defenses and coping mechanisms to avoid facing it directly. Some key points:

  • Children naturally feel anxious due to their vulnerability, dependence on caregivers, and inability to understand the world. They repress this anxiety to maintain a sense of security.

  • Anxiety ultimately stems from our awareness of mortality, helplessness, and the terrifying nature of reality that we cannot fully comprehend or control.

  • People develop character traits, beliefs, relationships, and other coping strategies to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths and feelings of vulnerability. This allows functioning but relies on denial.

  • Psychoanalysis revealed how personalities are essentially defensive armor that protects self-esteem at the cost of facing life's difficulties realistically.

  • While anxiety can be a motivating force, most people avoid its true sources and seek relief through non-confrontational means rather than psychological growth. Maintaining illusions is prioritized over self-knowledge.

So in summary, it discusses the innate and existential roots of anxiety and how repression and defense mechanisms allow coping but ultimately rely on avoiding uncomfortable realities.

Here is a summary of the key points:

  • For Kierkegaard, the existential terror of being a self-aware but mortal creature is the defining paradox of the human condition. This creates deep-seated anxiety.

  • To avoid this anxiety, people develop "character defenses" like denial, repression, conformity to shield themselves from confronting their true existential situation.

  • Kierkegaard identifies various character types that represent different ways people avoid fully developing their self and confronting reality - from psychosis to neurotic conformism.

  • True self-realization requires acknowledging freedom and limits through "the school of anxiety" - facing one's vulnerability and mortality head on.

  • However, this exposes an infinite void that can only be bridged through a "leap of faith" - relating oneself to a higher eternal power for meaning and purpose beyond the mortal self.

  • Faith thus provides reprieve from the constant terror unleashed by fully confronting the paradoxical nature of human existence as conscious yet finite beings.

So in summary, Kierkegaard analyzed humanity's existential dilemma and the psychological defenses it spawns, advocating authentic self-confrontation through faith as the pathway to overcoming paralyzing anxiety.

Here is a summary:

  • Freud wrestled with existential questions about the meaning of life, human nature, and the tensions between rationality and spirituality. While rejecting traditional religious beliefs, he was still fascinated by these deeper issues.

  • He saw psychoanalysis as his path to achieving a form of "this-worldly" immortality and securing his legacy, in the absence of an afterlife. It gave his life and work immense purpose and meaning.

  • Freud asserted human agency and the power of the mind/will against a view of nature as indifferent. Through psychoanalysis he aimed to establish human self-authorship ("causa sui") and compel nature to acknowledge the products of the "mysterious mind."

  • However, he still grappled with the fragility of human meanings and significance in the face of mortality. Psychoanalysis became his private "secular religion" through which he sought significance, but doubts remained about the mind's importance to nature.

  • Freud struggled with balancing independence and control with inevitable dependencies. Psychoanalysis allowed him to maintain authority over his identity and meanings while avoiding complete reliance on intimate relationships or cultural norms.

    Here are the key points:

  • Sexual intimacy can provide temporary relief from self-consciousness and guilt about the body. However, it does not provide a lasting solution to existential anxieties.

  • Pleasure in the moment masks deeper fears and emptiness surrounding mortality, aloneness, and inadequacy. Sexual fulfillment cannot solve these fundamental human problems.

  • The body is inevitably aging, decrepit, and mortal. No amount of sexual or romantic achievement can change this basic fact of human existence. One remains finite and separate no matter what.

  • Attempts to overcome aloneness and find wholeness through another ultimately fail, as each person remains an "island." True intimacy is impossible given our existential isolation.

  • Underlying anxieties of death and meaninglessness therefore persist despite sexual or romantic relationships. One is left returning to face oneself as a lonely individual in an indifferent universe.

In summary, the passage argues that while sex may provide temporary relief, it does not solve deeper existential fears around mortality, separateness, and the frailty of the human body and condition. True solutions to these anxieties remain elusive.

Here is a summary:

The passage discusses Otto Rank's critique of modern psychology. While psychology aims to understand human behavior and relieve suffering through examining early experiences and interpersonal relationships, Rank argues it is incomplete. It cannot fully address existential questions about the meaning of life, purpose, redemption and death.

Rank sees psychology as just a "partial ideology" - it explains part of human unhappiness caused by early conditioning, but does not provide a comprehensive worldview. This can exacerbate feelings of isolation and introspection.

Rank draws parallels between Freudian concepts of neurosis and Kierkegaard's ideas of sin - both reflect individuals trying to manufacture their own purpose and meaning when cut off from larger communal or spiritual contexts.

For Rank, traditional religions once absorbed people's quest for immortal meaning and redemption. But in the modern age where these have faded, psychology remains incomplete as it does not replace these overarching explanations for human existence. Understanding early influences is important, but modern man still yearns for existential answers that psychology does not fully address.

Here is a summary:

  • Early traumatic experiences with one's own body, such as injury, illness or medical procedures, can cause lasting anxiety about physical vulnerability and mortality.

  • Witnessing bodily decay, injury or the "primal scene" shatters the illusion of parental or bodily perfection and invulnerability that children hold. This reveals the frailty and impermanence of physical form.

  • Greater anxiety about one's body develops from such experiences. Later in life, this anxiety may manifest as fetishes, hypochondria or other perversions as coping mechanisms.

  • Rather than emerging from sexual drives alone, perversions often serve an existential function - to overcome or gain mastery over the limitations, vulnerabilities and decays symbolized by the physical body.

  • The body becomes a source of dread, and fetishes provide an illusion of control or stabilization against the terrors of physical impermanence, frailty and mortality that were brought to the fore by early trauma related to one's own or others' bodies.

In summary, the passage explores how early traumatic experiences with the physical body can seed greater existential anxiety, which later in life may be unconsciously channeled into perversions as a means to cope with underlying dread about mortality and corporeal impermanence.

Here is a summary:

The passage critiques the idea that modern science and medicine could eliminate the fear of death through significantly extending human lifespan. Some key points:

  • While advances may prolong life, they do not change the essential fact that humans are mortal beings. No amount of prolonging will make us truly immortal.

  • Prolonging life could paradoxically increase anxiety and angst by drawing out the experience of aging and decay over more years. Death would still be inevitable, just further in the future.

  • Facing our mortality is what gives meaning and urgency to human culture, relationships, creative works, etc. Removing the shadow of death could undermine what makes us distinctly human.

  • Gaining years may actually magnify the "weight of life" by increasing responsibilities and societal/family obligations over time. This could generate more pressure rather than less.

  • Utopian promises to defeat death through science are unrealistic and do not address existential anxiety, which is rooted in our consciousness of being creatures with limited time rather than any specific life expectancy.

The passage is skeptical that extending life through medicine can truly eliminate the existential fears tied to our mortality as finite beings or resolve what makes us human. Confronting death may be intrinsically valuable.

Here is a summary of the key points:

  • Freud initially had an ambivalent view of religion, seeing it as both an illusion based on infantile wishes and fears, but also recognizing it fulfilled important psychological needs.

  • Rank disagreed with Freud's view of religion as illusion and had a more positive perspective, seeing the roots of religion in actual human experiences of birth, life and death rather than infantile needs.

  • Other psychoanalysts like Pfister tried to find a middle path between Freud's antagonism toward religion and an uncritical acceptance, seeing potential for dialogue between psychoanalysis and religion.

  • Rank's view that religion stems from actual human experiences influenced other thinkers and provided a framework for understanding religious ideas and experiences on their own terms rather than reducing them to infantile roots.

  • Critics argued Freud failed to adequately account for religious experiences and phenomena like conversion that could not be reduced to infantile origins or neurosis, showing the limitations of his perspective.

  • Rank developed a more existential approach that took seriously human anxieties around death, guilt and meaning, providing an alternative to Freud's infantile-driven view of religion.

    Here is a summary of the key points:

  • Freud introduced concepts like the Oedipus complex, anality, castration complex, and the primal scene to interpret dreams and understand beliefs about life and death instincts.

  • Jung focused on the collective unconscious and archetypes. He disagreed with some of Freud's sexual interpretations.

  • Kierkegaard discussed existential concepts like anxiety, despair, authenticity vs inauthenticity, and analyzed religion, sin, and neurosis.

  • Rank interpreted Freud and focused on birth trauma, the hero myth, religion, art, and the refusal to mature beyond infantile needs.

  • Transference and neurosis reflect themes of life/death, courage, early relationships, and the limits of modern ideologies.

  • Mental illnesses discussed include depression, schizophrenia, and sexual perversions. Mental health involves accepting existential realities.

  • Connections are made between psychology, religion, heroism/narcissism, and the human desire for immortality and omnipotence. Integration of science and religion is proposed.

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