The Denial of Death

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The Denial of Death
Cover: Paperback, Free Press; 1 edition (May 8, 1997) w/ Forewoed by Sam Keen
Author Ernest Becker
Country United States
Language English
Subject philosophy/psychology
Genre non-fiction
Pages 336
ISBN 0-684-83240-2 (ISBN13: 9780684832401)

The Denial of Death is a 1973 work of psychology and philosophy by Ernest Becker.[1] It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974, two months after the author's death.[2] The book builds on the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, and Otto Rank.


The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving our symbolic halves. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an "immortality project" (or causa sui), in which a people create or become part of something which they feel will last forever; people feel they have "become" heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to their physical body that will one day die. This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, significance in the grand scheme of things.

From this premise, mental illness is most insightfully extrapolated as a bogging down in one's hero system(s).[citation needed] When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result.[citation needed] Schizophrenia is a step further than depression in which one's causa sui is falling apart, making it impossible to engender sufficient defense mechanisms against their mortality; henceforth, the schizophrenic has to create their own reality or "world" in which they are better heroes.[citation needed] Becker argues that the conflict between immortality projects which contradict each other (particularly in religion) is the wellspring for the destruction and misery in our world caused by wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since an immortality project which contradicts others indirectly suggests that the others are wrong.[citation needed]

Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity's traditional "hero-systems" i.e. religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason; science is attempting to solve the problem of humanity, something that Becker feels it can never do. The book states that we need new convincing "illusions" that enable us to feel heroic in the grand scheme of things, i.e. immortal. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of humanity's innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.


Becker's work has had a wide cultural impact beyond the fields of psychology and philosophy. The book made an appearance in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, when the death-obsessed character Alvy Singer buys it for his girlfriend Annie. It was referred to by Spalding Gray in his work It's a Slippery Slope.[3] Bill Clinton quoted it in his autobiography; he also included it as one of 21 titles in his list of favourite books.[4] Ayad Akhtar mentions it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ *Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83240-2. 
  2. ^ Pulitzer Prizes website
  3. ^ Gray, Spalding (1997). It's a Slippery Slope (Revised ed.). USA, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux Inc. ISBN 978-0-374-52523-1. 
  4. ^ Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. "Biography — William J. Clinton". Retrieved 2009-08-05. 

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