Anthropologist Ernest Becker dedicated his life to validating a simple hypothesis: awareness of one’s death collectively drives a vast majority of social phenomena across all humans societies.

Becker’s lifelong project, the 1974 treatise “The Denial of Death” presented incredibly thorough evidence (psychiatric, sociological, anthropological, and historical) that, in order to function, humans must either deny death or adopt a system of cosmic heroism.

Becker starts from a simple syllogism:

  1. As any higher animal, man possesses powerful innate instincts to preserve his own life
  2. Unlike any other animal, man comes to realize inevitability of his own death
  3. 1 and 2 combine to produce debilitating persistent uniquely human angst that he seeks to relieve

Humans go to great lengths to deny their mortality. In most societies, physiological functions such as excretion and sex have become shameful because they equate us with mortal animals and finite unstable physical matter. I particularly enjoyed the citation of a tribe whose members did not publicly recognize the practice of defecation. They used anal plugs at all times and defecated only in secret. [TODO: look up tribe]. Man must explain his biologically motivated actions in terms of more significant cosmic events to deny death. Romantic love, for example, helps us conceive of sex and procreation as a cosmic force beyond ourselves.

Becker goes on to explain that more than our finiteness, we fear our insignificance. Therefore, humans have developed systems of heroism (Becker’s term for significance). Such a system of significance must provide two essential elements:

  1. a structure or endeavor that provides a sense perpetuity and/or cosmic significance
  2. a role for the person in which she can apply herself within that system

People may construct such systems deliberately or such systems may emerge and evolve spontaneously over time fueled by common anxieties.

Becker’s well illustrated examples of such systems included pursuit of wealth and consumerism, patriotism, Nazism, Communism, religions, science, art, and political power, among others. Anything that threatens our system of significance we call evil. Cues and emblems associated with our systems of cosmic significance give us a rush of euphoria and we will defend them to the death of others, ourselves, and our loved ones.

A person who does not adopt such a system commonly experiences social death — loss of meaning, feeling, and motivation, or aggression to make oneself meaningful at any cost (e.g. mass shootings).

War and genocide owe their existence to conflicting systems of significance.

A person’s system of significance may become more valuable to him or her than their own life or the lives of countless others. An attempt to deconstruct such a system by argument and reason, no matter how substantial, will meet the most vehement resistance.

Many crusaders for reason such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins attempt to convince people by evidence and reason of the deceptions in their faiths in mythological gods. Yet they seem oblivious to the life-sustaining role that these systems play for their adherents. Educators would better serve the public by building up systems of significance that fulfill their two roles while leaving behind violent irrational systems of significance.

To my greatest delight, I recently discovered a documentary (wikipedia) based on Becker’s work. The following preview provides a glimpse:

“Flight from death” succinctly captures the essence of Becker’s work although without the hundreds of examples and references in his books. Even after reading several of Becker’s books (“The Denial of Death”, “Escape from evil”, “The birth and death of meaning”), the movie still made an unexpectedly resonant impression on me.

Both the book and the movie get somewhat dire in the middle. If you realize that constructs that give you a sense of belonging and purpose, do so only to help you subconsciously overcome your sense of insignificance, how should one exist? But the book and the movie both provide an optimistic outlook. Accepting one’s physical nature, vulnerable body, physiology, sexuality, mortality, and finiteness, free from systems of significance that lie and kill, one can find or make more transcendent, genuine, universal, and cognizant life.

Somewhat metaphorically, Ernest Becker died at age 49 just before the publication of “The Denial of Death.” Sam Keen recounts with great emotion and compassion his last interview with the dying philosopher:

Becker’s writings inevitably lead to introspection. Which model do you follow? Do you simply deny death and your insignificance? Or have you adopted or created a system of cosmic significance for yourself? How did you choose your system? How does it motivate you? Does it ever fail to give you meaning?