The Denial of Death: The Terror of Death

As I wrote at the end of my last post on The Denial of Death:
Becker is going to explore the relationship between the idea of heroism, which he considers to be the driving force of human activity and social life, and the fact of death.
In the second chapter of the book, Becker's first step is to try to show that one of the motive forces of heroism is humankind's fear of death:

[O]f all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. ... [H]eroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death[.] [p. 11]

Becker goes on to describe (p. 12) how one of the primary functions of religion - and of philosophy - was to cope heroically with death. It seems a bit much to sum up all religion, or philosophy, for that matter, as nothing more than a reaction to death, but we'll let it pass for now. We can at least agree with Becker that, whatever else it may do, religion has historically 'addressed [itself] to this... problem of how to bear the end of life. [p. 12]'

Becker points out two general trends in scientific (largely psychological) literature with regard to death: the 'healthy-minded' and 'morbidly-minded' views of how humans cope with the reality of death.

Nothing stands out for comment, in my view, from what Becker has to write about the 'healthy-minded' argument, which is basically that the human fear of death is largely a product of bad experiences in infancy and childhood, or that such experiences exacerbate latent fears of annihilation. It is worth pointing out that children do not comprehend death until they are about seven or eight years of age.

On the other side:
[There are those who] claim that... the fear of death is natural and present in everyone, that it is the basic fear that influences all others, a fear from which no one is immune, no matter how disguised it may be. William James... called death "the worm at the core" of man's pretensions to happiness. ... I [Becker] frankly side with this... school - in fact, this whole book is a network of arguments based on the universality of the fear of death, or "terror" as I prefer to call it, in order to convey how all-consuming it is when we look it full in the face. ... [Psychoanalyst Gregory] Zilboorg says that most people think death fear is absent because it rarely shows its true face; but he argues that underneath all appearances fear of death is universally present:

For behind the sense of insecurity in the face of danger, behind the sense of discouragement and depression, there always lurks the basic fear of death, a fear which undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways. [...] We make take for granted that the fear of death is always present in our mental functioning.

... Zilboorg points out that this fear is actually an expression of the instinct of self-preservation, which functions as a constant drive to maintain life and to master the dangers that threaten life... the fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function.

If the fear were as constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort. We know very well that to repress means [...] to maintain a constant psychological effort to keep the lid on and inwardly never relax our watchfulness.

And so we can understand what seems like an impossible paradox: the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life:

Therefore in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death [... ][.] The affect of fear is repressed.

... Animals in order to survive have had to be protected by fear-responses, in relation not only to other animals but to nature itself. They had to see the real relationship of their limited powers to the dangerous world in which they were immersed. Reality and fear go together naturally. As the human infant is in an even more exposed and helpless situation, it is foolish to assume that the fear response of animals would have disappeared in such a weak and highly sensitive species. It is more reasonable to think that it was instead heightened[.] [pp. 15-7] Becker's assertion, following Zilboorg, is that, biologically, our fear of death is an evolutionary response to our environment. The instinct for self-preservation is stimulated (goaded, if you will) by the terror of being extinguished by an organism's exterior environment. This terror (assuming Becker is right) would only be plausible to assert of higher organisms capable of emotional response. But it raises the question as to whether animals such as dogs or apes, which are capable of emotional response, actually repress feelings. One wonders whether there is a field of zoopsychology to which one can look for an answer. Moreover, in order for us to function, we must repress the terror of death. So for Becker, we are, biologically, caught in a vicious circle: we need the fear of death in order to respond appropriately to our environment, and so survive, but in order to function we must repress that fear, because it would kill us if we were aware of it all the time. Assuming the fear of death is an evolutionary development for the purpose of aiding survival (although it is worth asking whether it really is at the back of our instinct for self-preservation), then it is innate to all human life; indeed, all organic life capable of feeling, well, feelings.
So much for the biological argument for an innate and pervasive fear of death. Becker next goes on to discuss psychoanalytic support for the idea.
[Psychoanalysis] showed us something about the child's inner world that we had never realized: namely, that it was more filled with terror, the more the child was different from other animals. We could say that fear is programmed into the lower animals by ready-made instincts; but an animal who has no instincts has no programmed fears. Now, what is unique about the child's perception of the world? For one thing, the extreme confusion of cause-and-effect relationships; for another, extreme unreality about the limits of his own powers. The child [really] lives in a situation of utter dependence; [but] when his needs are met it must seem to him that he has magical powers, real omnipotence. If he experiences pain, hunger, or discomfort, all he has to do is to scream and he is relieved and lulled by gentle, loving sounds. He is a magician and a telepath who has only to mumble and to imagine and the world turns to his desires. [pp. 17-8] Now, I don't know enough about psychoanalysis and the study of how children think, but it is interesting to note that in a number of the theories of stages of development, such as those developed by Piaget or Fowler (the latter's with regard to religious belief or faith), the earliest stage is, more or less, of magical thinking (as the video's title suggests, young children are unable to grasp the law of conservation). My editorial alterations were to highlight the discrepancy between appearance and reality. It appears to the child that (say) his every need is met because of his power; but what is really happening is that he has loving parents who want what is best for him (and, it must be said, are prompted in part by biological instincts to care for the young) and who respond to his cries. Obviously it would be impossible for children to express their understanding of life in terms of 'omnipotence' or 'magic'.
In a magical world where things cause other things to happen just by a mere thought or a look of displeasure, anything can happen to anyone. When the child experiences inevitable and real frustrations from his parents, he directs hate and destructive feelings toward them; and he has no way of knowing that malevolent feelings cannot be fulfilled by the same magic as were his other wishes. No? What about the result that his parents are not destroyed by his destructive feelings toward them? That would lead to another problem which Becker addresses, but in the event, we cannot say that children have 'no way of knowing' that the bad magic they wish on those who frustrate them doesn't work, because they immediately see for themselves how it doesn't work. Psychoanalysts believe that this confusion is a main cause of guilt and helplessness in the child. ... The child is too weak to take responsibility for all this destructive feeling, and he can't control the magical execution of his desires. ... [T]he child doesn't have the sure ability to organize his perceptions and his relationship to the world; he can't control his own activity; and he doesn't have sure command over the acts of others. He thus has no real control over the magical cause-and-effect that he snese, either inside himself or outside in nature and in others[.] ... The forces of nature are confused, externally and internally[.] ... [E]ven when the child makes out real cause-and-effect relationships they become a burden to him because he overgeneralizes them. One such generalization is what the psychoanalysts call the "talion principle." The child... comes to know something about the power relations of the world but can't give them relative value... when the father gets a fierce glow in his eyes as he clubs a rat, the watching child might also expect to be clubbed, especially if he has been thinking bad magical thoughts. [pp. 18-9] It is well known that children blame themselves when their parents separate or become divorced, and this magical thinking is often the source of feelings of responsibility for the divorce: 'if I hadn't been angry with Mommy and Daddy, they wouldn't have broken up', goes the line of thinking. The child's expectation of blame is made worse, of course, when he or she does not receive unconditional acceptance from both parents and reassurance that he or she is not to blame. To be fair to children, sorting out cause and effect is difficult most of the time. I wonder to what extent play is how children make sense of and sort the world; play is, as it were, the philosophy and science of children. It is interesting that Becker pays no attention to play, although as the focus of his book is not on children, this should not be a point against him; his point is to try to demonstrate that children are ultimately afraid of, if not death, then, perhaps of the threat of magical annihilation(!).
Becker winds up the argument for the fear of death being innate and pervasive by tying the fears children have with the fear of death:

[I]t is important to show the painful contradictions that must be present in [the child's world] at least some of the time and to show how fantastic a world it surely is for the first few years of the child's life. Perhaps then we could understand better why Zilboorg said that the fear of death "undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways." Or, as Wahl so perfectly put it, death is a complex symbol and not any particular, sharply defined thing to the child:

... the child's concept of death is not a single thing, but it is rather a composte of mutually contradictory paradoxes ... death itself is not only a state, but a complex symbol, the significance of which will vary from one person to another and from one culture to another.

We could understand, too, why children have their recurrent nightmares, their universal phobias of insects and mean dogs. In their tortured interiors[!] radiate complex symbols of many inadmissable realities - terror of the world, the horror of one's own wishes, the fear of vengeance by the parents, the disappearance of things, one's lack of control over anything, really. [pp. 19-20] So, how many of you with children thought you were signing them up for this? I wonder how much of this sort of thing explains, for example, why children need dollies or stuffed bears or toy friends, or blankies, and why they develop irrational fears (I was afraid of the dark; rather, I was afraid of what I imagined might be lurking in the dark). Becker seems to be arguing that death, once children become aware of it, crystallises within itself the feelings, experiences, and internal struggles which were before confused, misdirected, and pervasive. I omit some of Becker's discussion of the observeable disappearance of this kind of psychic turmoil in children as their control over themselves and their understanding of cause-and-effect improve. Perhaps this occurs because death becomes the symbol which contains all that other stuff within it. I don't know.
For the 'morbidly-minded', however, comes the problem that children (who are already unaware of death qua death) observeably become less fearful. Becker approaches it thus:
[W]e are back again to the beginning of our discussion, to those who... think that [the fear of death] is a neurotic exaggeration. ... [H]ow [else] explain that so many people... seem to survive the flurry of childhood nightmares and go on to live a healthy... life, untroubled by death? As Montaigne said, the peasant has a profound indifference and a patience toward death... and if we say that this is because of his stupidity, then "let's all learn from stupidity." Today... we would say "let's all learn from repression" - but the moral would have just as much weight: repression takes care of the complex symbol of death for most people.
     But its disappearance doesn't mean that the fear was never there. The argument of those who believe in the universality of the innate terror of death rests its case mostly on what we know about how effective repression is. The argument can probably never be cleanly decided: if you claim that a concept is not present because it is repressed, you can't lose; it is not a fair game, intellectually, because you always hold the trump card. This type of argument makes psychoanalysis seem unscientific to many people, the fact that its proponents can claim that someone denies one of their concepts because he represses his consciousness of its truth. C. S. Lewis, for example, would have a thing or two to say about Freudian psychoanalysis. I believe he has written an essay or two on the subject, which I don't have at hand, but, in one essay I have, '"Bulverism" Or, The Foundation of 20th Century Thought', for example, Lewis argues that psychoanalysis is very often used to 'disprove' assertions, when in fact all it can really do, in the kinds of situations Lewis is thinking of, is show why people have mistaken views, once it has been established on other grounds that their views, ideas, or assertions are in fact mistaken (God in the Dock, my edition published by Eerdmans, 1970).
     But repression is not a magical word for winning arguments; it is a real phenomenon, and we have been able to study many of its workings. This study gives it legitimacy as a scientific concept and makes it a more-or-less dependable ally in our argument. ...
     [E]ven more important is how repression works: it is not simply a negative force opposing life energies; it lives on life energies and uses them creatively. I mean that fears are naturally absorbed by expansive organismic striving. ... On the most elemental level the organism works actively against its own fragility by seeking to expand and perpetuate itself in living experience[.] ... Also, it does one thing at a time, avoiding needless distractions from all-absorbing activity; in this way, it would seem, fear of death can be carefully ignored or actually absorbed in the life-expanding processes. ... [E]veryone enjoys a working amount of basic narcissism[.] ... We might say that [the] repression of the idea of [our] own death is made easy for us [when we] are fortified against it in [our] very narcissistic vitality. ...
     But I want to be careful not to make too much of natural vitality ... . ... I don't believe that the complex symbol of death is ever absent, no matter how much vitality or inner sustainment a person has. Even more, if we say that these powers make repression easy and natural, we are only saying the half of it. Actually, they get their very power from repression. [Becker argues briefly that the more 'inner sustainment' we have, usually due to good childhood experiences, the better we are able to repress the complex symbol of death. Becker also introduces what he will be discussing in the rest of the book, namely, social mechanisms to enable repression of the fear of death] ... This is the deeper reason that Montaigne's peasant isn't troubled until the very end[.] ... Besides, the peasant mentality is far less romantic than Montaigne would have us believe. The peasant's equanamity is usually immersed in a style of life that has elements of real madness, and so it protects him: an undercurrent of constant hate and bitterness expressed in feuding, bullying, bickering, and family quarrels, the petty mentality, the self-deprecation, the superstition, the obsessive control of daily life by a strict authoritarianism, and so on. As the title of a recent essay by Joseph Lopreato has it: "How would you like to be a peasant?" As an aside, this is an interesting look at the price we pay to repress our fear of death. This portrait of a peasant could stand in for all kinds of people, really: lifetime menial workers, low-ranking bureaucrats, indeed, everyone to one extent or another, save, perhaps, the rarest saints. ...
     I think we have reconciled our two divergent positions on the fear of death. The "environmental" and the "innate" positions are both part of the same picture; they merge naturally into one another; it all depends from which angle you approach the picture[.] I admit... that whatever angle you use, you don't get at the actual fear of death; and so I reluctantly agree with Choron that the argument can probably never be cleanly "won." Nevertheless, [what] emerges [is that] there are different images of man that he can draw and choose from. [pp. 20-4] The reference to Choron comes from early in this chapter; Becker writes (p. 15): 'Jacques Choron goes so far as to say that it is questionable whether it will ever be possible to decide whether the fear of death is or is not the basic anxiety.' I found this chapter to be rather insightful, even if it sometimes felt that what Becker said about childhood appeared as fantastic as the world children live in. Do children really experience all that? One begins to wonder whether there is not sound psychological reasons why we experience early childhood amnesia (by whatever name it is called officially); that is, we all usually forget most of our lives up to about three or four years of age. On the other hand, one wonders whether it is necessary to postulate a single, basic anxiety which really motivates all activity. Nevertheless, given what we know of the psychological mechanism of repression, of evolutionary biology and instinctive drives, of the magical thinking of children and how children of healthy and unhealthy homes alike share behaviours in common (e.g., what appears to adults to be irrational fearfulness, fixation with a stuffed toy or other object), it is at least plausible to claim that the fear of death is, more or less, universal.
So much, then, for the terror of death as innate and pervasive.


  1. I wonder how this book has changed the way you perceive you life purpose. After reading it, I'm still trying to put the pieces together. What should we do? Attempt the (supposedly) futile task of bringing the knowledge of death into our consciousness, or give it up totally and dive into an illusion - any illusion - of deathlessness through symbolic systems?

    1. Hi gcG, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      It may be because I have, as you put it so well, dove 'into an illusion... of deathlessness through symbolic systems', but I have not, I think, perceived a fundamental change in how I view the purpose of life in general, or of mine in particular.

      Not being familiar with the critical literature, I don't know how well Becker's line of argument has withstood subsequent inquiry. Although I am aware of a school of psychology which applies what is known as 'terror management theory' - I presume in line with Becker's own conclusions about just what it is we can, in fact, do about awareness of mortality - so far as I can tell it is not a dominant or mainstream theoretical school.

      Possibly this is because, I am led to understand, that death (or our awareness of it) is, in a sense, only one of many things that the human mind quite naturally represses, so that the kind of primacy Becker argues for; its repression as symptomatic of the central (and tragic) contradiction of the human condition; is, perhaps, an over-statement.

      I suspect, although without further research, I cannot confirm, that Becker himself has shared the fate of the great psychoanalysts whose work he so finely criticises, such as Freud, Jung, Fromm, Adler, or Rank (although The Denial of Death is very much a defense of Rank's position); that is, he is in his own right a seminal figure in psychology, and his work contributed immensely to enlarging the scope of psychological inquiry, but many of his specific findings have since been found to be inadequate or erroneous, although at the time being cutting-edge.


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