This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while and when I finally got a chance to read it, I had to read it twice because it was so good. Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist whose main goal was to explore the core of human existence and behaviour. In 1973 his lifelong pursuit culminated in his book The Denial of Death that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
THE PARADOX AT THE CORE OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
Becker argues that the fundamental driver of human behaviour is a paradox that sits at the core of our very existence: we are animals like all others on the planet, but because we are self conscious of this fact, unlike other animals, we want to believe that we are special. We want to believe that the rules that apply to other animals do not apply to us. And of course what is at the core of our detest of our “creatureliness” is the fact that all creatures die and so must we. Becker says,
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–activity 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, 1973, xvii).
We are the only animals that are conscious of their own inevitable deaths, yet we try to deny it in any way we can.
We instinctively want to live forever.
Just like any animal has the natural instinct for survival, we too want to keep on living, yet we know we have to die.
According to Becker, this painful paradox lies at the heart of human condition that drives much of our behaviour.
WE ALL WANT TO BE HEROES
All of human activity, from simple family life to the founding of the great religions, is a way to deny, overcome, or forget about death. Becker calls this heroism. We are all trying to be the hero that will finally be able to defeat the big bad beast.
But because death is not something that is material, we have to defeat it symbolically.
Becker writes that humans are made of two halves, an animal self and a symbolic self.
The animal self is the one of instincts and nature, the one that will eventually end up being food for worms. Our symbolic self is the one that is conscious and attaches meaning to itself.
We have a name, a job, a favourite hobby, are part of relationships, part of a church and a hundred other meaning that make up who we are.
All of these symbolic selves are housed within what Becker calls a hero system:
Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society thus is a religion whether it thinks so or not
(Becker, 1973, p.7).
Our symbolic self tries to overcome or deny death within the preset system of symbols within society.
This means that everything in society has a symbolic meaning to you. Your bank account, your job, the size of your house, your age, your relationships all have a specific meaning to you that is largely determined by the cultural you live in–they do not actually mean anything in themselves.
We all live within some type of hero system based on our culture and upbringing that governs how we should live our lives.
But, not matter what hero system we are participating in, our symbolic selves live within a symbolic world created unconsciously to deny and overcome death.
WE DENY THAT WE ARE ANIMALS
Within this symbolic hero system there are several ways that we try to overcome the terror of death. One way we do this is we try to deny or transcend our animal nature through religion. Becker writes that religion
is an attempt to attain “an immunity bath” from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it. All historical religions addressed themselves to the same problem of how to bear the end of life
(Becker, 1973, p.12).
All of the great religious traditions speak of an everlasting blissful life that awaits us.
What better way to deny death!
We also try to deny and minimize our animal instincts.
This is why many religions are so against the sins of the flesh? These are precisely the behaviours that reveal our animal nature.
We are essentially trying to be gods by denying our “creatureliness.”
WE TAKE ON A CAUSA SUI
A causa sui is a symbolic meaning that we give to our lives or has been given to us by living in our society.
Becker says that we cannot live in full awareness of the truth of our predicament so this meaning provides a character armour that allows us to function in the world without always being in absolute terror of death at any moment.
It becomes of matter of what level of illusion we are living.
Becker says that we fetishize or narrow down the scope of our world to manageable pieces so that we do not become overwhelmed.
Some of us make our lives completely dedicated to family life while others may dedicate their lives to creating a successful business. Some of us will try to create great legacies for ourselves so that we can symbolically immortal.
This will depend on the hero system you live in.
Regardless of what form it takes, the causa sui takes up so much our time and focus that we are distracted from the terror of death.
We convince ourselves of its meaning and importance in the big scheme of things so that we become heroes who will defeat death and live forever.
WHAT I THINK OF BECKER’S IDEAS
I think Becker has hit on something profound that explains a lot of human behaviour, but I do not think it’s entirely the fear of death that drives us. Instead, I think the idea of death makes us realize that life is urgent. We must quickly figure out how to best live our lives while we are here.
His causa sui is not distracting us from death, but is what we or our culture has deemed the best way to live. Our societies, cultures, and religions provide a built in hero system so that we do not have to figure out our own best way to live.
If you realize that society and culture are reactions to the human condition rather than being something inherently truthful or important, then you can free yourself of a lot of suffering. You don’t have to be tied to society’s ideas of success, beauty, or what is a good life.
When you realize that society’s expectations and norms are completely arbitrary and relative then you can let go of the guilt of not having lived up to them. For a long time, I felt gnawing guilt that I was not good enough because I was not super outgoing. Then I realized that extroversion was a arbitrary cultural ideal without any real truth or value.
After reading The Denial of Death you become sort of like Neo in the Matrix who realizes that the world is a fabricated illusion that can be molded and shaped to your desires.