Thursday, May 15, 2008


"The problem of heroics is the central one of human a codified hero system,... a living myth of the significance of human life...Every society is...a 'religion'..."

-- Ernest Becker (September 27, 1924 - March 6, 1974)
The Denial of Death (1973, p. 7)


(3/5 of the way down you'll find the full quote under the heading "The Denial of Death )

Of Ernest Becker's Pulitzer-prize winning The Denial of Death, Elizabeth Kubler Ross writes:

"It puts together what others have torn to pieces and rendered useless. It is one of those rare masterpieces that will stimulate your thoughts, your intellectual curiosity, and last but not least your soul..."

In what I have written here, I hope you will be able to vicariously experience how Kubler-Ross's "prediction" became fulfilled in the life of at least this one writer -- though I personally know of many others.

© Copyright 2008, 2009

Introduction: Simulations of Immortality

I write this to share gleanings that have moved, challenged and inspired me deeply from reading and reflecting on Ernest Becker's ideas. I am sharing my investigation of Becker's inter-disciplinary methodology of combining psycho-analytic, social science and existentialist monotheistic theology to the challenges of everyday cosmic heroism. I explore how these perspectives relate to and illuminate my own life and also my work in research and teaching. Reading Becker I have at times gasped aloud as if seeing for the first time what was always there in front of me. Like our experience after the Copernican revolution, we still see and speak of a "sunrise," but we also know a deeper dimension: the earth's rotation creates our "sunrises" and "sunsets."

And reading Becker is a responsive task. You have to bring something to the table: an experience of someone's dying and how you walked with that person and experience, best even, your own experience of this, and your pursuit of what Becker would call a "cosmic immortality project." How closely you have come to face death provides important tools for working with these questions.

Whether or not reading and reflecting on Becker results in change, this experience is certainly transforming. The difference is neatly summarized by Ron Leifer: "Transforming yourself means relating to yourself and your life differently." (Vinegar into Honey. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Press, 2008, p.25) From reading Becker, change may follow, but certainly transformation will begin.

In the first part of this article I explain Becker's insights into our unique human challenge as the beings who uniquely possess the foreknowledge of death and who, in the face of death, try to deny death. We do this by creating simulations of immortality in our lives through symbolic acts -- and therefore non-physical -- constructions in language, the arts, and our vocations. Becker looks especially deeply into our pursuits and our attachments to heroes, and our own efforts to be heroic, and the possibility of being a hero one's self, which he calls "cosmic heroism."

Becker faces squarely both love and death, both immortality and mortality. Fully expressed, Becker's vision culminates in a deep recognition of how the fulfillment of being human requires love and a relationship to a transcendent God. But as you will see the path he takes to reach that insight begins with a hard and realistic look at our situation as it is especially riddled with anxiety, particularly anxiety about our inevitable deaths.

Religion, Sacrifice & the Sun-Man

Explaining Religion in terms of heroism and sainthood, Becker describes the way religion addresses both truths of our creatureliness and our spirituality:

"Religion as unrepression would reveal both truths about man: his wormlikeness as well as his godlikeness. Men deny both in order to live tranquilly in the world. Religion overcame this double denial by maintaining that with God everything is possible. What seems to man to be fixed and determined for all time, beyond human wormlike powers, is for God free and open, to do with what He will.

"This [Religion] gave the possibility of a new heroism, the heroism of sainthood. This means living in primary awe at the miracle of the created object -- including oneself in one's own godlikeness. Remember the awesome fascination of St. Francis with the revelations of the everyday world -- a bird, a flower. It also meant unafraidness of one's death, because of the incomparable majesty and power of God. And so religion overcomes the specific problems of fear-stricken animals, while at the same time showing them what empirical reality really is. If we were not fear-stricken animals who repressed awareness of ourselves and the world, then we would live in peace and unafraid of death, trusting to the Creator God and celebrating His creation. The ideal of religious sainthood, like that of psychoanalysis, is thus the opening up of perception: this is where religion and science meet." (Escape from Evil, p. 163

Writing of the ritual altar in a way that aids to understanding the practice of Vedic sacrifice, Becker observes:

"In both periods (pre-Enlightenment; post industrial) men wanted to control life and death, but in the first period they had to rely on a nonmachine to do it: ritual is actually a preindustrial technique of manufacture, it doesn't exactly create new things, Hocart says, but it transfers the power of life and it renovates nature. But how can one we have a technique of manufacture without machinery? Precisely by building a ritual altar and making that the locus of the transfer and renewal of power (Denial of Death, p. 6

Becker argues that pre-industrial people served to ritually renew their societies so that everyone was cosmic creator:

"We can really only get 'inside' primitive societies by seeing them as religious priesthoods with each person having a role to play in the generative rituals...We don't know what it means to contribute a dance, chant, or a spell in a community dramatization of the forces of nature -- unless we belong to an active religious community...If rituals generate and redistribute life power, then each person is a generator of life. This is how important a person could feel, within the ritualist view of nature, by occupying a ritual place in a community. Even the humblest person was a comic creator. (Escape from Evil, pp. 14-15

Later in a cd from Professor Sheldon Solomon, "Why Settle Down," he expands this theory. (In addition to the cd being available for purchase from the Ernest Becker Foundation, a review is available at the the "lectures" link on the Ernest Becker Foundation web-site.

Solomon argues(based on evidence from both anthropologists and archeologists) that humans formed communities not to farm (hunter-gatherers were "importing" goods from the outside), but instead to sing, dance, tell stories and pray. In other words people settled in part to establish and participate together in rituals of religion and culture by which they asserted their attempts at achieving immortality projects -- or at least the heritage of a tradition.

Speculating on social rank and the introduction of money, Becker offers a new financial and social anthropology echoing Quinn's novel Ishmael::

"...Why did people go from an economy of simple sharing among equals to one of pooling via an authority figure who has a high rank and absolute power? The answer is that man wanted a visible god always present to receive his offerings, and for this he was willing to pay the price of his own subjection. .... The Jews were mocked in the ancient world because the had no image of their God, he seemed more like a figment of his imagination." (Escape from Evil, pp. 52-53

In this paragraph, Becker's selection of the term "Sun King" coordinates successfully with understandings of various historical figures, from divinely-ordained kingship to and Christ and the Avatar:

"With the technique of of ritual offerings man sought to bring the invisible powers of nature to bear on his visible well-being. Well, the divine king sums up this whole cosmology all in himself. He is the god who receives offerings, the protagonist of light against dark, and the embodiment of the invisible forces of nature -- specifically the sun. In Hocart's happy phrase, he is the 'Sun-Man'....We know about the genuine mana [power that extends from the invisible or supernatural] that surrounds presidents and prime ministers: look at Churchill and the whole Kennedy family... (Escape from Evil, pp. 54-55

"In a word, the act of sacrifice established a footing in the invisible dimension of reality; this permitted the sacrificer to build a "mystical, essential self that had superhuman powers. Hocart warns us that if we think this is so foreign to our own [i.e., Christian] traditional ways of thinking we should look closely at the Christian communion. By performing the prescribed rites the communicant unites himself with Christ -- the sacrifice -- who is God, and in this way the the worshiper accrues to himself a mystical body or soul which has immortal life. Everything depends on the prescribed ritual which puts one in possession of the power of eternity by union with the sacrifice." (Escape from Evil, p. 21

In pursuing three graduate degrees in sociology, theology and counseling, Daniel Liechty, one of Ernest Becker's most distinguished interpreters and editors, has read many hundreds of books and perhaps everything read by and written about Becker. Liechty knows from reading Becker's letters that as a spiritual practice Becker read the Psalms everyday for years. And Liechty knows both Becker's works of art as well as his art of thinking. Liechty brings to bear on Becker's thought the perspectives of the orthodox, catholic and monastic Christianity of the Holy Roman Church and Protestant, even post-Liberal Christian theologies. And thus Daniel Liechty writes:

"Closely related to the work of the human soul and spirit is the ability to love. (Becker 1964b). Giving and receiving love is the zenith of human creativity. In love, [people most clearly express themselves as a unit of body, soul and spirit. I(t is through love that personal energies can most powerfully be directed., so that individual works of creativity are lifted up and invested with meaning and significance far beyond what a material analysis of those works could convey. It is from this that humans gain their sense of being special in the material world. There is no other species that seems to possess this ability for transcending in love in any degree approaching that of human beings." (Daniel Liechty, Transference anbd Transcendence, , p. 75)

Liechty describes Becker's spiritual reading and mystical experiences in these terms:

"Becker was already [by 1965] reading Paul Tillich by the time he met Bates and was reading Kierkegaard at least by August of 1965. He also read Reinhold Niebuhr. Most interesting is Becker's revelation that he reads the Psalms on a daily basis.
"There is clear record of spiritual growth in this correspondence, and much of Becker's own spiritual development is expressed in his reaction to the Psalms. He becomes increasingly mystical and increasingly matter-of-fact about his belief in God and his renewed interest in Jewish High Holiday and other services, which he had abandoned for many years. By 1967, Becker notes that he is being drawn by the Psalms of faith and praise rather than the Psalms of questioning and doubt." (Daniel Liechty, Abstracts of the Complete Writings of Ernest Becker (Self Published. 1996, p. 36) Available for sale at The Ernest Becker Foundation Website Store:

After this introduction to Becker's thinking, an earlier blog entry (from May 7, 2008) follows that includes "A Prayer for the Lived Truth of Creation," in which I use some of Becker's quotes from the end of Denial of Death as an affirmative prayer and spiritual testimony. "Cosmic heroism" and "the lived truth of creation" are both concepts Becker explores and discusses in his conclusion to The Denial of Death.

Next, I consider Becker's interpretation of Christianity in the light of the Japanese Catholic novelist Sushako Endo's A Life of Jesus. Then I review Leo Tolstoy's 84-page novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich in light of Ernest Becker's ideas. I find Endo and Tolstoy's writings vividly complement and illustrate Becker's ideas. But first:

In the beginning...

My journey began in late March 2008 when my colleague Professor Merlyn Mowrey convened at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, a conference on "Terror at the Voting Booth," centered around the work of Ernest Becker and based on the work of subsequent scholars who had devoted themselves as psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and experimental researchers (among scholars from many fields) to developing, applying and empirically testing and proving the ideas of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker.

My introduction to Becker was a fortunate one. Twice that week I watched Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick's award-winning documentary on Ernest Becker's ideas: Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality (2006, 86m). Viewing this film, I was not only moved by Ernest Becker's vision, and its articulation by scholars from various fields, but also witnessed actual film footage of empirical experiments by social psychologists that proved Becker's ideas. Three of these experimental researchers were interviewed at length: Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. Listening to Greg Bennick's and Sheldon Solomon's presentations at the conference were for me what Zen masters call, "the finger pointing to the moon."

In addition to resonating with Becker's ideas intellectually and spiritually, I have one other important personal point of access to them: One Saturday morning, July 13, 1985, while standing on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 27th Street, I was mowed down and run over by an out-of-control car, dragged under it for 2/3 of a (long) Park Avenue city block and really thought I might die. For those moments, I squarely faced the possibility that I might not survive, that I might be about to die, that this could really be my last moment. While I was being dragged, I looked to see if I could do anything, and called out loudly, "God help me!" four times. Other than that, my wife and my three-month old son stood vividly at the center of my attention.

My youngest brother Sait, died at age 16 in an accident trying to get some firecrackers off a New York City window sill. It was hell to lose a brother and watch my father cry over his dead son. It etches a deeper pathos into tragedy. Seven years later my mother died. It's the handfuls of dirt at over the funeral clothes wrapped around the her corpse that evoke image of finality.

Social Psychologist Sheldon Solomon calls this kind of event a "mortality salience induction." These are sophisticated words for the stark reality we can speak in this direct question: "How close up did death get in your face?" I have been able to personally witness the way this encounter with death transformed my life and focused my intentions and energies, especially in my work. So I understand how, not so much even fear of death (although it was frightening), but a direct encounter with death generates a desire to engage in projects of lasting significance, what Becker calls, "immortality projects."

Our first mortality salience induction is likely to be the death of a grandparent or aunt or uncle. The death of my mother was tragic and literally disorienting. My seventy-year old grandfather died, blind with diabetes. Losing my mother was a pivotal mortality salience induction. At one moment i realized that I had just lived the first moment in which i could think this bizarre unprecedented thought: my mother does not exist. I could only feel her answer that she will always be in the background of my life, even if that only means the memories I carry to subdue the floodtide of death's assertion of mortality.

My mortality-salience experience, a non-supernatural, but vividly real, near-death encounter, allows me to deeply appreciate Daniel Liechty's observations on what he distinctively values in the literature on near-death experiences. Liechty considers the harvest of these experiences in our continued lives as providing greater value than the comforting "assurance of an afterlife:" Liechty writes:

"I have been more impressed with the testimonies of such people to the real changes in living that their death encounters have produced. Many of these people have genuinely made death awareness an ally in life. This has produced for them changes in values, in what they see as important, and in how they allocate their time and resources." (Transference and Transcendence [1995, p. 165])

"We shall know our ends by our beginnings:" Becker on God and love

In my travels, I've always liked knowing my destination. Where are we headed? So since Becker's path begins with reflecting on our anxieties about death, let's see if I can make this otherwise demanding journey somehow enticing by beginning at the end with Becker's conclusive -- and effusive -- statements on God and love.

As Becker builds toward a rhapsodic crescendo in the praise of dedicating ones life to God, he begins with a model of four "levels of power and meaning." Near the conclusion of his The Birth and death of Meaning Becker describes these "four levels of power and meaning:"

(1) Personal,
(2) Social,
(3) Secular (i.e., institutions), and
(4) the Sacred.

Sally A. Kenel has observed that each of these four levels rests on an essential dyad of human experience:

(1) Personal: self-body
(2) Social: relation-isolation
(3) Secular : sociality-alienation
(4) Sacred: autonomy-creatureliness

(Sally A. Kenel, Mortal Gods, 1988.)

Of the fourth level, the Sacred, Becker writes: "The fourth and highest level of power and meaning we would call the Sacred: it is the invisible and unknown level of power, the insides of nature, the source of creation, God." (2nd ed. 1971, p.186)

Before reaching his crescendo, Becker reflects on what he sees as "the main question of [one's] life: 'What is my unique gift, my authentic talent?' " Here we find Becker emphasizing that theme at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita, svadharma, (What is one's own dharma, duty, nature, essence, destiny, calling, vocation, etc.)

How vividly that question came to life in the early days following that fateful Saturday morning when I was run down by a car and faced death. Suddenly this "main question" presented itself before me as if it was a separate voice calling me into a dialogue and not merely another thought in the everyday mental thought-stream. The questions came in a quadrant, each one separately (following this sequence in distinct steps is essential), one at a time:

(1) What do you want to do?
(2) What have people told you you are good at?
(3) Will it be of service to people? and
(4) Can you earn a living through that work?

Part of what Becker means by "cosmic heroism" is to resolve that "main question" as one's living project. So in my case, I resolved to be serve and work as a teacher and scholar and to also sustain my artistic practice of music. So I answer to the muse of the intellect and the muse of the music of the soul. Becker situates that "cosmic heroism" to which each of us is called: Becker relates "cosmic heroism" to the fourth, i.e., the Sacred, level of power and meaning. Now Becker emphatically extols the beauty, nobility and authenticity of living for God.

"By making your hero-system the service of your Creator, you have the distinction of making a gift of your life no matter what the special quality of that gift is: as you last out your life with courage, forbearance, and dignity you affirm your divine calling by simply living it out. Your Creator will make good your service, whether He makes it good to you in any personal way, say, by way of spiritual immortality, or by way of being initiated into still unknown dimensions of cosmic life to serve equally there, in some kind of embodiment, or whether He makes it good in His own way, by using the sacrifice of your life to glorify and aggrandize His own work, His own design on the universe, whatever that may be: at least you have lived your life truly and not foolishly, if you die for good you at least die well." (1971, p. 189)

Becker's statement is certainly a much more affirmative vision than Pascal's wager, even as much as we may recognize some of Pascal's wager under its surface. Throughout this essay, you will read a sufficient quantity, variety, and quality of Becker's thoughts about God to confirm that Becker's conclusion of his penetrating inquiry into the pivotal role of death-anxiety as a generative force for both culture and violence, leads him to acknowledge and affirm the role of God as the ultimate "Thou," as Martin Buber puts it, the ultimate being to whom we address ourselves and stand in relation to.

We will return to Becker's vision of a life lived for God as the solution to our death-anxiety again later on. And later on we will explore Becker's incisive insights on the differences between agape and eros On the subject of love, one of Becker's finest interpreters, Daniel Liechty has written:

"Becker also wrote rapturously about love as that which transcends the body/spirit dualism of human experience. he wrote movingly on love in a number of places, referring to love as a 'primary need' (1964b [The Revolution in Psychiatry: The New Understanding of Man, p. 141), as the ideal and goal of 'aesthetic longing' (1964b, p. 241), as the one 'counter-fictional' element in life (1964b, p. 250), as that which 'enriches the world' (1968b [The Structure of Evil: An Essay on the Science of the Unification of Man], p. 186), as the source of human liberation (1968b), and as the 'highest way" (1973 [the Denial of Death], p. 233)" (Daniel Liechty, Transference and Transcendence: Ernest Becker's Contribution to Psychotherapy [Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995 ISBN: 1-56821-434-0])

Being Human: Death, Symbols, Heroism and Immortality

Ernest Becker proposes that the fact of death and our anxiety about it is the pivotal point around which we spin and weave a world of symbols. We implement symbolic systems because this uniquely human realm of symbolic construction seems to grant us the potential to outlast our physical mortality -- to defy and transcend our fate as mortal physical bodies that will die.

Becker maintains that we create symbols, "symbolic action systems," and "immortality projects," all to experience what Steen Halling and Merleau-Ponty call an "everyday transcendence" over our physical fate to die. Our symbolic world represents our freedom and our possibilities which we use to suppress the necessity and fatality of our animal body's fate of death. Becker suggests the ultimate symbolic system, the quintessential immortality project or ideology is religion.

Four Chief Features of Becker's Ideas

Becker introduces the very basic idea that we humans uniquely share (what I enumerate in Becker's thinking as) four distinguishing features:

(1) Foreknowledge of our own deaths: We can contemplate our own death, and we do sometimes contemplate -- and especially try to deny -- our death;

(2) Symbolic action systems: We can create symbolic realities of thought and action that in a sense construct an "everyday transcendence." That "everyday transcendence" situates us in a realm beyond our bodily-animal existence and creates possibility and freedom, in contrast to the body's limits of fate-toward-death. Through our use of symbols we can create a lasting contribution, a legacy, a heritage, an "immortality project."

(3) Immortality Symbols, Projects and Ideologies: We project and perpetuate symbolic realities of thought and action to create systems that will outlive -- in an everyday sense "transcend" -- our physical mortality; i.e., we want to symbolically live on and some of us succeed in doing so (a major point at the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh); and

(4) Cosmic Heroism and Heroic Transference: Through projection and transference, and in order to feel we are participating in realities that transcend death, we latch onto heroes of all kinds, whether they be religious (Prophets, Gurus, Messiahs, saints), or cultural (writers, actors, musicians), or athletic (sports heroes and teams). At our best we ourselves become and act as heroes.

Becker's Typology of Heroes

In Escape from Evil, Becker describes three types of heroes:

(1) Artists,
(2) Knights, and
(3) Saints

These broad categories provide a heuristic to include all kinds of heroes. For example, political heroes are modern day "Knights." So, by extending the military metaphor of many sports, are athletes. And holy people and clergy of all sorts at least aspire to, or at least represent, if not fulfill, the heroic role of "saint." Our idolized movie stars and rock stars belong to the categories of artist. And these categories are not mutually exclusive. A political hero like President Barack Obama represents a modern-day "knightly" hero, but as a sterling orator, shares also in the category of artist. And given the way his religious practice received rigorous media and popular attention, he at at times found himslef being measured in the heroic category of "saint."

We see here the type of heroes that many people live through vicariously, movie stars (notice they used to be called idols of the silver screen) and rock stars, athletes and sports teams, and politicians and business people and other leaders. Kierkegaard (who is the subject of chapter five of Denial of Death contrasted the authentic heroism of "the singular life" with the "Philistinism," as he called it of mediocrity.

Along similar lines, this definition of heroism by Werner Erhard complements Kieregaard's vision:

"Heroes are ordinary men and women who dare to see and meet the call of a possibility bigger than themselves. Breakthroughs are created by such heroes, by men and women who will stand for the result while it is only a possibility—people who will act to make possibility real." (Werner Erhard)

The Fall from Eden: The Symbolic Self Meets the Body

Assessing the meaning of the Fall by building on Kierkegaard's ideas, Becker writes:

"But the real focus of dread is...the result of the judgement on man: that if Adam eats of the fruit of the tree of kowledge God tells him 'Thou shalt surely die.' In other words, the final terror of self-consciousness is the knowledge of one's own death, which is the peculiar sentence on man alone in the animal kingdom. This is the meaning of the Garden of Eden myth and the rediscovery of modern psychology: that death is man's greatest anxiety." (pp. 69-70)

Building up toward his explication of the symbol of the hermaphrodite (which appears on pp. 224, 234) Becker interpets the Garden of Eden myth in terms of his sense of the tension between the inner symbolic self and the physical animal body.

"The foundation stone for Kierkegaard's view of man is the myth of the Fall, the ejection of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. In this myth is contained...the basic insight of psychology for all time: that man is a union of opposites, of self consciousness and of a physical body. Man emerged from the instinctive thoughtless action of the lower animals and came to reflect on his condition. He was given a consciousness of his individuality and his part divinity in creation, the beauty and uniqueness of his face and name. At the same time he was given the consciousness of the terror of the world and of his own death and decay." (pp. 68-69"

Although I cannot prove this, I sense underneath this passage about the face and name as traces of our divinity some of martin Buber's philosophical anthropology of the I-Thou and the "life of dialogue."

Ultimately, Becker like Kierkegaard and Buber (whose ideas he frequently reflects upon along with the thought of Otto Rank and Paul Tillich) calls us to become our own heroes. Becker acknowledges and celebrates that some of us rise to the occasion, 'raise the bar,' so to speak and live our lives as our own kind of heroes. This is a life that Becker calls "cosmic heroism." For Becker, because death-anxiety is the pivot around which all symbolic action turns, i.e., because death generates the motivation for the symbolic construction of "immortality projects," society is essentially "a codified hero system" and every society is in the sense that it represents itself as ultimate, at its heart a religious system. (Denial of Death, , pp. 7-8.

I would qualify this by noting that while I agree that society or culture certainly provide models of heroism, they can also provide models of mediocrity as highlighted Thoreau's famous line, "The mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation." Such persons seem to gravitate toward vicarious heroism: idolizing stars, following leaders, and projecting all virtue and sanctity on God, prophets, saints, and pastors, in lieu of engaging in spiritual heroism oneself, the heroism Becker called "cosmic heroism."

Becker both critiques and validates our need for projection and transference because these are at times "life-enhancing" (p. 158) and "creative projections" that contribute to our relationships (here he cites Buber). Becker also writes exquisitely as you will have a chance to experience when I present quotations later on. He is more than a pleasure to read -- he is an inspiration.

I interpret Becker as saying that if we face the reality of our death, we garner more power to consciously create our symbolic immortality and become "cosmic heroes." Becker has joined in my mind, for original break-through thinking the ranks of Martin Buber, Gregory Bateson, and Kenneth Burke (whom he often cites). Interestingly, Becker and Bateson share a similar non-medical model of schizophrenia in which in related ways interpret schizophrenia as a problem in language, symbolic understanding, and the practice of social behavior codes. I hope to return to this theme at some point in the future.

You can also watch some excellent YouTubes by searching under Becker, Sam Keen, & Sheldon Solomon. Sheldon Solomon is among a team of social psychologists who have empirically tested and validated Becker's ideas.

Immortality Symbols and God

Becker thinks that we especially engage in creating symbolic "immortality systems" by transferring and projecting onto another person (or symbolic figure) our noblest and most heroic ideals. (Often this process drives romantic love, but it certainly shapes religious experience: people effect transference & projection onto figures such as God, the Buddha, Muhammad, Husayn, Gandhi, Christ, etc.). Becker admits and argues for the fact that acts of transference can be constructive, or as he calls them "creative projections," so that even if it includes elements of illusion these acts of projection constitute at least what he calls a "life-enhancing illusion" (Denial of Death, p 158).

During his own death-bed interview, Ernest Becker told Sam Keen: "But I don't think one can be a hero in any really elevating sense without some transcendental referent like being a hero for God, or for the creative powers of the universe. The most exalted type of heroism involves feeling that one has lived to some purpose that transcends oneself. This is why religion gives him the validation that nothing else gives him...." ("Beyond Psychology: A Conversation with Ernest Becker (1974)," in The Ernest Becker Reader, p. 221Ernest Becker [Originally published as "The Heroics of Everyday Life: A Conversation with by Sam keen," Psychology Today April [1974: 71-80] )

Further on Becker speaks about his understanding of serving a divine purpose in life:

"I would say that the most important thing is to know that beyond the absurdity of one's life, beyond the human viewpoint, beyond what's happening to us, there is the fact of the tremendous energies of the cosmos
that are using us for some purpose that we don't know. To be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused, this is the thing that consoles. I think of John Calvin when he says: 'Lord, thou bruises me, but since it's You, it is alright." (The Ernest Becker Reader:226)

Then he proceeds to explain what awakened him to the idea of God and his relationship to God:

"I came out of a Jewish tradition but I was an atheist for many years. I think the birth of my first son, more than anything else, was the miracle that woke me up to the idea of God...But I don't feel more religious because I'm dying. I would want to insist that my awakening to the divine had to do with loss of character armor [Earlier in the interview Becker defines character armor: "...[W]e build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death. Each of us constructs...a character armor, in a vain attempt to deny the fundamental fact of our animality. [1974, p. 219])...When you finally break through your character armor and discover your vulnerability, it becomes impossible to live without massive anxiety unless you find a new power source. And this is where the idea of God comes in." (1974, p. 227)

Facing Death and Embracing Life

Sam Keen wrote an illuminating and compelling foreword to the 1997 publication of Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death.
(The video on YouTube "Sam Keen on Ernest Becker," in which Keen shares his memories of his 1974 death-bed interview with Becker is very moving. )

In his Foreword to Becker's Denial of Death Keen observes:

"Gradually reluctantly, we are beginning to acknowledge that the bitter medicine [Becker] prescribes -- contemplation of the horror of our own death -- is, paradoxically, the tincture that adds sweetness to mortality." (p. xii)

Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist also interviewed in Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortaltity has called our death anxiety, "the mother of all religions." (Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (San Francsco: Jossey-Bass, 2008, p. 3)

Daniel Liechty expresses this beautifully in a skating metaphor:

"Human beings are meaning-creating animals. Because this meaning always skates on thin ice above a lake of anxiety, it is very fragile and tentative." (Daniel Liechty, Transference and Transcendence (1995, p 64)

Sam Keen comments on the complementarity of the synchronous contributions of Ernest Becker and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:

"At the same time that Kubler-Ross gave us permission to practice the art of dying gracefully, Becker taught us that awe, fear, and ontological anxiety were natural accompaniments to our contemplation of the fear of death." (p. xii)

As Sheldon Solomon puts it in an interview in the film Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality: "Death denial is central to all human cultures."

In a definition that differentiates what a society is from merely a mass of people, Becker wrote that a society is a "symbolic action system." (Denial of Death, p. 4. Society, understood as a "symbolic action system" comprises "a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism." (p.4) This sense of a real life dramatism complements, illuminates and matches perfectly with Kenneth Burke's pentadic dramaturgical model of action: act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. In the following passage, Sam Keen highlights Becker's observation that cultures and religions function in a fundamental and salient sense as "hero systems" and "immortality projects and ideologies:"

"Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars." (p. xiii)

Mirroring the analysis of Becker's Escape From Evil, Keen points out the paradoxical backfiring of our attempts to suppress or eliminate evil:

"Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles -- my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man's animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst." (p. xiii)

The film, Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, illustrates our strategies for coping with the threat that we experience (especially as catalyzed by our death anxieties provoked by mortality-salience inductions)in our confrontations with those we perceive as distinctively "other" than ourselves.

The four stages of strategies to diminish the threat of an alternative world view follow this sequence:

(1) derogation,
(2) assimilation,
(3) accommodation, and
(4) annihilation

Daniel Liechty has made a number of important observations about this list of strategies. First, he suggests identifying between 3 and 4 the strategy of segregation. Here the "other" is distanced and discriminated against. I would include as possible examples the religious phenomena of shunning and renouncing the world. Liechty points out that the sequential logic flows as follows: the strategies progress from "unengaged" (derogation) to "engaged" "(assimilation" and "accommodation" to "disengaged" (segregation
and annihilation. (e-mail correspondence with Daniel Liechty, May 29, 2008)

At first we resist or deny the threatening other and their difference from ourselves. Then, we derogate. If derogation fails, we may attempt to assimilate or accommodate the threatening phenomenon. We may then segregate those who practice or represent this unwanted threat. But if the threat is undiminished and remains, we may proceed to annihilation, usually resulting in violence leading even to extermination. In an interview in the film,Social Psychologist, Jeff Greenberg uses the example of our reactions to the hippies in the 1960s and the ultimate mainstreaming and modifying of their culture, manifest in the ubiquity of wearing blue jeans, the emergence of designer jeans and multiple-ingredient designer granola bars. One could add examples such as the almost complete integration after 1979 of rock music into the production of television commercials, the emergence of the Green movement and the honoring of Earth Day. The preceding is a very rough sketch of the theory which I plan to clarify and elaborate.

An article describing these four stages and documenting the empirical research studies that prove Becker's theories was published by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, "Tales from the Crypt: On the Role of Death in Life." Zygon . Vol. 33/no. 1, March 1998, pp. 9-43)

As Sam Keen reflects on Becker's work, he draws us into Becker's invocations of Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Wilhelm Reich. Here we are introduced to the salubrious advantages of confronting our own death:

Socrates, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard and Muhammad

Sam Keen writes: "Becker, like Socrates, advises us to practice dying. Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armor [as in Wilhelm Reich's work], and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror. The existential hero who follows the way of self-analysis differs from the average person in knowing that he/she is obsessed. Instead of hiding within the illusions of character, he sees his impotence and vulnerability. The disillusioned hero [the existential hero] rejects the standardized heroics of mass culture in favor of cosmic heroism in which there is real joy in throwing off the chains of uncritical, self-defeating dependency and discovering new possibilities of choice and action and new forms of courage and endurance. Living with the voluntary consciousness of death, the heroic individual can choose to despair or to make a Kierkegaardian leap and trust in the 'sacrosanct vitality of the cosmos,' in the unknown god of life whose mysterious purpose is expressed in the overwhelming drama of cosmic evolution." (pp. xiv - xv)

This might remind one of how much more integrity and humility the protagonist of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich experiences and exemplifies when his confrontation with death slaps him awake out of his miserable and compromised bureaucratic bourgeois life, and his miserable marriage, and catapults him into a life with real depth and meaning, even if he must also endure pain, humiliation and sadness. It is at least an authentic life. And in Tolstoy's narration, Ivan Ilyich as he is bathed in light, proclaims, "There was no fear, because there was no death." (Chapter 12)

Glenn Hughes has reflected on Socrates's art of practicing dying, "The Denial of Death or the Practice of Dying (or: 'Tasting Death')," published on line, but in 2008 withdrawn. Hughes takes the quoted idiom of "tasting death" from Martin Luther. This is a very important essay since it focuses on a tangible dimension of Socrates life that underscores the reality of Socrates's teaching. Some Sufi lineages include Socrates among the great teachers of Sufism. Hughes's essay complements and expands on the Prophet Muhammad's hadith (prophetic saying): "Die before you die." ("Mutu qabla an tamutu.")

Novelist Tom Robbins, in his preface to Jitterbug Perfume (1984) quotes and comments on Becker in this way:

"The distinctive human problem from time immemorial has been the need to spiritualize human life, to lift it onto a special immortal plane, beyond the cycles of life and death that characterize all other organisms." - Ernest Becker (Denial of Death, p. 231)

To include Becker's next sentence that ends this same paragraph from which Robbins selected his quote would take us into the arena of Becker's analysis of human sexuality, a topic I hope to expand on here in the future. Becker provides a convincing analysis of why humans so deeply need to engage in sex only in the context of love. Becker's central point seems to be that when love is the context for sex, we don't feel like or act like animals. Love brings humanity and "everyday" transcendence to what would be otherwise an animal act. As a starting point, I'll present that next sentence, especially since it reflects the context of Becker's quote that Robbins selected:

"This is one of the reasons that sexuality has from the beginning been under taboos; it had to be lifted from the plane of physical fertilization to a spiritual one." (ibid., p. 231)

Sex, Eating, and Sleeping: The Human Symbolic Self and the Animal Body as Implied in Becker's Work"

Sex is more consistently and highly pleasurable than other mammal bodily bodily functions which humans and animals share. We share with animals other pleasurable functions, especially: eating and sleeping. The fact of the pleasure these experiences bring does not contravene the fact that we share these functions with animals. Further, eating is also socially and culturally structured with recipes, cuisines, and table settings to elevate and distinguish it from animal feeding. Humans prefer to sleep in made-up beds. And although eating, sleeping, and sex are usually pleasurable, some people struggle with these experiences in their lives, sometimes physically and sometimes psychologically.

Although sex is an activity we share with animals, it provides us with a means to achieve immortality through bearing children, what Robert Lifton calls “biological immortality.”

We conduct our sexuality with some measure of privacy (like other animal-like activities).

Human beings typically give meaning to sexuality to elevate and distinguish it from a mere animalistic activity. Most people prefer to share their sexuality with people with whom they have made a personal commitment. We can see this in the long history of the social and legal categories of marriage and adultery. Like eating and sleeping, sex is an animal function we practice with another person. On the other hand, we practice sex semi-privately. Because sex is performed by a couple, this gives sex a degree of sociality shared with only one other animal function -- eating. Thus sex is at the midpoint among the spectrum of animal bodily functions we do privately and eating which we do publicly. As a context of meaning for sex, some people even go so far as to introduce role-play (symbolism) into their sexual activity. The shadow side of this dynamic leads to pornography. The symbolic self is interested in giving meaning to sex in ways (or to a degree) not usually given to the animal bodily functions (except in cases of extreme and strange fetishes). As David Loy advances, the symbolic self is socially, linguistically, and psychologically constructed. These three variables – social, linguistic, and psychological -- belong not only to the private domain, but especially to the social domain.

The experience of sex also puts us in awe of nature in ways that match or surpass the other functions. Eating and sleeping can also put is in awe of nature as well. But ultimately that experience of awe is mediated by a symbolic construct, i.e. the awe is interpreted and continues as an experience of meaning, or as part of one’s personal narrative. In this sense sex and eating belong to Robert Lifton’s category of “the [immortality] mode of nature” – the experience of immortality given in experiences of nature. (see Lifton's list of immortality modes below) One of the most cultivated forms of this reverence is tantra – a sexual model of the divine.

SUMMARY: Sex, eating, and sleeping, as bodily functions are activities we share with animals that become transformed as they are shared in a personal and social context of meaning that animals cannot replicate.

Definition of a “symbol: something that stands for something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance, esp: a visible sign of something invisible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) The self is a symbolically-based phenomena, socially, linguistically, and psychologically constructed.

Tom Robbins, Descartes and Benjamin Cheever

Tom Robbins comments:

"Many other anthropologists have used this framework as a context for analyzing and understanding uniquely human constructs such as religion and love. Some, for instance, hold that religion has been but a societal mechanism for engendering control and internal stability. Still others go further and believe that religion was created to fill some hole in our sense of self in relation to the world and the heavens. In other words, that religion creates a false sense of connectedness to that which is ephemeral and beyond comprehension, in turn easing the pain in coming to terms with what Becker describes as the human need "to lift it [human life] onto a special immortal plane." (citation needed)

Ernest Becker firmly maintained that human beings are unique because we are the only creatures who can contemplate our death and create, share, and preserve symbolic thoughts and acts. Then Becker linked these together. He said our uniquely human plight of contemplating our death drives us to create symbolic realities, in terms of what he calls "heroic systems," and "immortality projects" and "immortality ideologies." In other words why do we blog, aim to write the "great book," create buildings and monuments, become teachers, create projects, etc? Becker maintains that our fear of death drives us to create something lasting, to 'leave a legacy.'

Becker's view on these aspects of human life are completely compatible, even if not identical with Descartes' distinction that human beings are unique because we are rational. (But after all these high-tech wars I wonder about Descartes' choice of category and see Becker's choice of "symbolic action systems," and as Sam Keen put it warring "Immortality ideologies," as more befitting our times.) Becker would include Descartes proposal that humans are distinctively "rational" within his view of humans as uniquely symbol-constructing beings (and Becker would also interpret Descartes's work - like yours or mine -- as the construction his own death-defying "immortality system.") Each of us in his or her own way creates an immortality system, even if most people do it by identifying with various kinds of heroes, whether through projection or transference onto religious figures, charismatic leaders, or Gurus, or Hasidic Rebbes, or rock stars, movie stars, media personalities, athletes and their sports teams, etc.

So here's a "celebrity endorsement:" In a recent book titled, Books that Changed My Life (eds. Coady & Johannessan. Gotham ISBN: 1-592-40210-0), the novelist Benjamin Cheever
selected and wrote on Ernest Becker's main book, The Denial of Death (Free Press, 1973). His entry appears on pages 37-38 of the book. (I do not have it available to quote here.)

Reading the Qur'an: Symbols and Instruments of Immortality

Here is how I read the famous chapter of the first revealed verses of the Qur'an informed by Becker's writing: The first five verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 were placed at the beginning of (Surat 'Iqra, ("Read") Sura 96. The imperative verb ('Iqra means to "read," to "proclaim," and to "recite," stemming from the same root that gives us the word Qur'an ("The Reading; The Recital"). Here is that first revelation the Prophet Muhammad received from the Angel Gabriel:

In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most merciful
Proclaim! (or Read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher Who created --
Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is most bountiful --
He Who taught the use of the Pen --
Taught man that which he knew not.

(Qur'an 96: 1-5, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)

These five verses include among their many meanings that we should "read" (i.e., interpret) by the power God has given human beings to observe, the "sign" (a technical term in Qur'anic and Islamic discourse carrying the double meaning of "a rightly perceived and interpreted phenomenon and a "verse" of the Qur'an), inscribed in the realm of nature,of the miraculous intelligence by which an "embryo" ("a [mere] clot of congealed blood") develops, evolves and advances in form.

The second sign we are asked to reflect on is the nature of the "pen" that -- among its many other symbolic meanings -- serves as an instrument by which we can leave behind a legacy of thought in writing that transcends our mortality. In these verses, the pen represents at least a sign of knowledge, and also I propose, a symbol of immortality. The pen serves as an instrument of our symbolic simulations of immortality because by writing with a pen, we can create a lasting symbolic trace of ourselves that can outlast our deaths. It is fitting then that the Prophet Muhammad said in a validated hadith (report) that the inventor of the pen was the Prophet Idris. Idris (like Enoch and Hermes Trismegistus with whom Idris is often associated) is generally held to be an immortal who did not die, but was raised up to heaven (Qur'an 19:56-57; 21:85). The Qur'an might have mentioned many other instruments that can serve us in constructing immortality symbols, but the pen is perhaps one of the few egalitarian instruments and symbols of immortality. Compared to the act of writing, all other materialized immortality projects are costly and not readily and equally available to all people.

Becker, Buber, Rank and Tillich

Becker frequently brings up one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Martin Buber. While Becker refers more often to Otto Rank, Paul Tillich and Soren Kierkegaard, Buber holds a place of prestige in shaping Becker's view of the value and authenticity of human relationships. Becker absolutely affirms the I-Thou relationship as part of what he calls, in describing becoming what one is called to be as an authentic and full being, "cosmic heroism." "Cosmic heroism" may not be exactly synonymous with "I-Thou" but it is very compatible. One instance Becker cites through Kierkegaard is the case of Abraham. To use a computer analogy, Becker definitely "runs" Buber "software" in his program.

Daniel Liechty introduces a commentary and compatible supplementary model that parallels and extends some of Becker's ideas. Robert J. Lifton, in his book The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (N.T.: Simon and Schuster, 1979) wrote of Becker's work:

"While the denial of death is universal, the inner life experience of a sense of immortality, rather than reflecting such denial, may well be the most authentic psychological alternative to that denial." (Robert Lifton, quoted in Daniel Liechty, Transference and Transcendence, p. 173)

Lifton outlined five basic levels of symbolic immortality with which people can develop either healthy or unhealthy relationships. Here I quote Daniel Liechty's synopses of the model Lifton outlined in The Broken Connection as Liechty presents it in Transference and Transcendence, pp. 173-4:

"(1) The biological mode 'epitomized by family continuity, living on through, psychologically speaking, in one's sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, with imagery of an endless chain of biological attachment.' (Lifton, p. 18)

"(2) The theological or religious mode, which 'may include a specific concept of life after death' (Lifton, p. 20)

"(3) The creative mode, experienced 'through great works of art, literature, or science, or through more humble influences on people around us.' (Lifton, p. 21)

"(4) The mode of nature itself, 'the perception that the natural environment around us, limitless in time and space, will remain.' (Lifton, p. 22) and

"(5) the mode of experiential transcendence, a psychic state 'so intense and all-encompassing that time and death disappear. This state is the classical mode of the mystic."

If we understand the mystic as one who in Evelyn Underhill's phrase is engaged both in the "art of union with reality" and in the "Science of Love," as she puts it in her book Practical Mysticism, then it is time to turn to talk of love:

Agape and Eros: Why It's So hard to Choose

Becker concisely and incisively describes the the gains and losses we feel when we choose to follow either of these paths of love:

"If he gives into Agape, he risks failing to develop himself, his active contribution to the rest of life. If he expands Eros too much he risks cutting himself off from natural dependency, from duty to a larger creation; he pulls away from the healing power of gratitude and humility." (1973, p. 153) agape and eros , Becker writes:

"You can see that man wants the impossible. He wants to lose his isolation and keep it at the same time. He can't stand the sense of separateness, and yet he can't allow the complete suffocating of his vitality. He wants to expand by merging with the powerful beyond that transcends him, yet he wants while merging with it to remain individual and aloof, working out his own private and smaller-scale self-expansion. But this feat is quite impossible because it belies the real tension of the dualism. One obviously can't have merger in the power of another thing and the development of one's own personal power at the same time..." (p. 155)

Daniel Liechty elaborates on Becker's description poetically:

"The agapic love expressed in self-surrender! To take the existential burden of living and place it at the feet of that overwhelming power that transcends the self! What a blissful and oceanic relaxation that brings!

"The erotic love expressed in self-expression! To assert one's own personal strength and value in the face of that overwhelming power that transcends the self and deflates the ultimate meaning of subjectivity! What a sense of intense vitality and energy this brings!" (Daniel Liechty, Transference and Transcendence, pp. 148-9)

Commenting further on this struggle between Eros and Agape, Becker reflects on the role of these two loves in the life of the artist:

"In the creative genius we see the need to combine the most intensive Eros of self expression with the most complete Agape of self-surrender." (1973, p. 173)

In his abstract of Becker's Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy (New York: George Braziller, 1967), Daniel Liechty provides this summation of Becker's emphasis, in chapter nine of that book, on love:

"The theological dimension answers the question of how to help men become and remain free...To keep action meaningful under this kind of horizon, people must turn to the object of highest contemplation and meaning -- God. God alone can make sense of a free horizon of meaning. Without God, such a horizon is absurd. Human beings believe either in God or in idols. There is no third course open. For God is the only object who is not a concrete object...God is...liberating...Humanity achieves its highest freedom when energies are allied with the unconditioned cosmic process...Love of God is the highest love because it is the only way human beings have of attributing the most significance to life and thus making the whole universe come alive." (Daniel Liechty, Abstracts of the Complete Writings of Ernest Becker (1924-1974) Daniel Liechty, 1996, pp. 58-59. Liechty's Abstracts is available from the Ernest Becker Foundation. Their website:

The Denial of Death and the Dominion of Evil

Sam Keen comments on the potentially realizable contribution that Becker's work may produce:

"If, in some distant future, reason conquers our habit of self-destructive heroics and we are able to lessen the quantity of evil we spawn, it will be in some large measure because Ernest Becker helped us understand the relationship between the denial of death and the dominion of evil." ("Foreword" to The Denial of Deathp. xv)

Sam Keen, Daniel Liechty, Daniel Goleman, Jerry Piven, Steen Halling

Keen also wrote a stunning essay, "The Enemy as Enemy of God: Psycho-Spiritual Processes in the Ritual Transformation of the Enemy," pp. 231-236 in Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker, ed. Daniel Liechty(Westport: Praeger, 2002). Daniel Liechty introduces the volume with a concise and comprehensive overview of the value of Becker's work as a foundation for thinking, researching and experimentation in the humanities and social sciences. In this same volume Daniel Goleman also contributes an essay in which he discusses defense mechanisms, character armor, and the psychological type he calls the "Detective," with references to Sherlock Holmes, whom he describes as a "hyperalert" person who sees the subtle, obscure, hidden meanings and misses the obvious. Such a person, Goleman implies is in pursuit of that signature of Becker's critique of human nature, the "immortality project."

Religion, Forgiveness and Transference

Another essay in that book that moves me deeply is the contribution by Steen [sic.] Halling, "Forgiveness: From Heroic Illusion to Homecoming." In an essay on "Transference as Religious Solution," Philospher Jerry Piven examines what I call Becker's 'two-sided coin' conception of the religious life. Piven warns against the illusion and fantasy of religion and the double-edged sword of transference of self onto what or whom is perceived as a greater power such as God. Piven concludes by calling us to stand authentically in our own art of living as a genuine act of relating to the sacred. This essay bears rereading, which is partly also my way of saying that I am not satisfied with or certain of this precee and critique of Piven's essay I have offered here. Stay posted and watch this paragraph evolve.

The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973)

Ernest Becker introduces The Denial of Death by writing:

"The prospect of death, Dr. Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. The main thesis of this book is that it does much more than that: 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 overcome the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying it in some way that it is the final destiny fr man. "

Becker situates his project in a lineage of Kierkegaard, Freud, and especially, Otto Rank.

"One of the main things I try to do in this book is to present a summing-up of psychology after Freud by tying the whole development of psychology back to the still-towering Kierkegaard. I am thus arguing for a merger of psychology and mythico-religious perspective. I base this argument in large part on the work of Otto Rank, and I have made a major attempt to transcribe the relevance of his magnificent edifice of thought....Frederick Perls once observed that Rank's book Art and Artist was 'beyond praise.' " (p. xix)

Becker explains the everyday transcendence that shapes all human endeavor as a "hero system" that is ultimately religious.

Here is the full version of the opening quote I abridged at the beginning of my essay:

"What I have tried to do in this brief introduction is to suggest that the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child's need for self-esteem as the condition of his life. 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 is thus a 'religion' whether it thinks so or not...[I]t was Otto Rank who showed psychologically this religious nature of all human cultural creation; and more recently...Norman O. Brown in his Life Against Death and by Robert Jay Lifton in his Revolutionary Immortality." (Denial of Death, pp. 7-8)

Robert Jay Lifton was interviewed extensively in Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick's documentary on Ernest Becker's theories and subsequent social psychology experiments that validated them scientifically, Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality.

An article describing and documenting these empirical research studies was published by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, "Tales from the Crypt: On the Role of Death in Life." Zygon . (Vol. 33/no. 1, March 1998, pp. 9-43)

In Escape from Evil (1975) Becker re-expresses this by introducing his term "mystification," by which he in a neutral sense means, projecting, sustaining or incorporating mystical symbols and systems:

"Since there is no secular way to resolve the primal mystery of life and death, all secular societies are lies. And since there is no sure human answer to such a mystery, all religious integrations are mystifications. This is the sober conclusion to which we seem to be led. Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death...For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can victory mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society then is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (p. 124, italics in the text)

Heroism, Chivalry and Imam Husayn

I love this next passage and used most of it in an article I wrote on chivalry in the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's second grandson Imam Husayn at Karbala in 681:

"[H]eroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be. When we see a man bravely facing his own extinction we rehearse the greatest victory we can imagine. And so the hero has been the center of human honor and acclaim since probably the beginning of specifically human evolution." (p. 11-12)

I would apply Becker's observation on transference as an insight into the Shi'a Muslim 'Ashura commemorations of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn during the first ten days of the seasonally-rotating first month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar's lunar (354-day)year. These 'Ashura commemorations involve re-enacting the events of Imam Husayn's martyrdom and atoning for betrayal of those who allowed that tragedy to happen. One of the slogans of this commemoration and one that permeates Shi'a Islam at all times is "Everyday is 'Ashura; everyplace is Karabala." In this sense Imam Husayn is a central heroic object of transference as well as an immortality symbol:

"We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here, yet we know it must have some meaning. What is more natural then, than to take this unspeakable mystery and dispel it straightaway by addressing our performance of heroics to another human being, knowing thus daily whether this performance is good enough to earn us eternity."

Hermeticism: Healing the Mind/Body Duality

Though Becker was a social scientist, his inclusion of a classic -- and often misinterpreted -- symbology, that of the hermaphrodit (or as he calls it "the hermaphroditic image") is a refreshing complement to the exposition of his basic insights:

"The hermaphroditic image is an idea that goes right to the heart of the human condition...The hermaphroditic symbol is no mystery...[I]t is not a sexual problem but a human problem. The self finds itself in a strange body casing and cannot understand this dualism...The hermaphroditic image represents a striving for wholeness, a striving that is not sexual but ontological. It is the desire of being for a recapture of the (Agape) unity with the rest of nature, as well as for completeness in oneself. It is a desire for the healing of the ruptures of existence, the dualism of self and body, self and other, self and world." (Ernest Becker, "The Denial of Death," (1973, 1976, pp. 224-225)

The Master-Disciple Relationship

Here's a quote I have woven into my forthcoming book on Sufism's master-disciple relationship. Becker's first book, Zen:a rational Critique, examines the sensei-gakusei (master-disciple) relationship and compares that relationship critically to the psychoanalystic relationship. I write on the Islamic Green Man, Khizr who (in the Iskandarnama, i.e., The Alexander Romance) traveled into the dark land in the north, where he found the water of life that transformed him into an immortal. That transition parallels what Becker gives here -- a description that covers the cases of many of the "green men," e.g., Tammus, Adonis and Attis:

"The hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive. He had his descendants in the mystery cults of the Eastern Mediterranean, which were cults of death and resurrection. The divine hero of each of these cults was one who had come back from the dead." (p. 12)

Mastery: "The Knight of Faith" (Kierkegaard)

Becker builds his concept of the hero from Kierkegaard's model of the "Knight of Faith. I quoted this passage in my article on Imam Husayn:"

"Kierkegaard had his own formula for what it means to be a man. He put it forth in these superb pages wherein he describes what he calls 'the knight of faith.' [Fear and Trembling, Lowrie, trans. 1954: 49ff] This figure is the man who lives in faith, who has given over the meaning of life to his Creator, and who lives centered on the energies of his Maker. He accepts whatever happens in this visible dimension without complaint, lives his life as a duty, faces his death without a qualm." (pp. 257-258)

Master-Disciple Relationship Redux: Zen Masters, Hindu Gurus and Sufi Shaykhs

And here Becker shows his precocious insight into a subject dear to my heart and perhaps clear in my own thinking and experience, the master-disciple relationship (irada in Arabic), in an excerpt from his book The Denial of Death which hearkens back to his first book, Zen: A Rational Critique:

"It is obvious from techniques like Zen that the initiation into the world of 'It' [described earlier as " 'the great void,' the 'inner room' of Taoism, the 'realm of essence,' the source of things, the 'It, the creative Unconscious..." (p. 274)]' takes place by a process of breakdown and reintegration. This process is much like Western therapy wherein the mask of society is peeled away and the drivenness is relaxed. In Zen, however, the it is the primal powers that now are supposed to take over, to act through the person as he opens himself up for them; he becomes their tool and their vehicle. In Zen archery, for example, the archer no longer himself shoots at the target, but 'It' shoots; the interior of nature erupts into the world through the disciple's perfect selflessness and releases the string. First the disciple has to go through a long process of attuning himself to his own interior, which takes place by means of a long subjection to a master, to whom one remains a life-long disciple, a convert to his world view. If the disciple is lucky he will even get from the master one of his bows, which contains his personal spirit powers; the transference is sealed in a cosmic gift. From all Hindu discipleship too, the person comes away with a master without whom, usually, he is lost and cannot function; he needs the master himself periodically, or his picture, or his messages through the mail, or at least the exact technique that the master used: the headstands, the breathing, and so on. These become the fetishized, magical means of recapturing the power of the transference figure, so that when one does them, all is well. The disciple can now stand on 'his own' feet, be 'his own person. " (The Ernest Becker Reader, pp. 274-5)

A Hasidic tale recounts that in the first generation, the students would gather with the Rebbe. In the second generation, they would tell stories of the Rebbe. And when the stories had begun to be forgotten, at least they could gather at that place. What Becker describes is certainly common in initiatic transmissions, whether Zen or Sufi or Vajrayana, etc.: one receives the practices th master does, keeps the photo of the master before one (Sufism even features a pracgtice called tawajjuh -- envisioning the face of the master as a form of meditation), reviews the master's teachings and keeps momentos (almost relics) that evoke the master's presence in one's heart and consciousness.

Since the material I work on revolves around a story that often strikes people with a sense of violence, brutality and randomness -- perceptions which are later reversed in the narrative's reframing, I find Becker's bluntly honest engagement with Zen discipline in which he compares it to the totalizing environments of mental institutions and Chinese thought-reform prison camps, while perhaps slightly brutal, also potentially fruitful. The common thread between Becker's reading of the Zen master-disciple (sensei-gakusei ) relationship and these other examples, is the destruction and replacement of the student's superego with that of the master. Describing Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the art of Archery, Becker describes Herrigel's Zen archery training as a "dominance-submission conversion." (Zen: A Rational Critique, p. 60) This contrast Becker poses between "directive" therapy (i.e., Zen) and "insight" therapy (client-centered therapy in which the client is gently guided to arrive at his own insights may present questions and models useful for thinking about master-disciple relationships in other traditions. (See Daniel Liechty, Abstracts of the Complete Writings of Ernest Becker, [Ernest Becker Foundation, 1996: 42-43 9This book can be ordered from the Ernest Becker Foundation website.])

I find this observation from Death and Denial one I would also bring to bear on writing on the master-disciple relationship:

"How wonderful and how facile to be able to take our whole immortality-striving and make it part of a dialogue with a single human being." (denial of Death, pp. 155-156)

Quoting Albert Camus, in The Fall, Becker opens chapter seven in Denial of Death where he focuses on transference with this poignant quote:

"Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence one must choose a master, God being out of style." (Becker, Denial, p. 127; Camus, The Fall, (1957, p. 133)

In Escape from Evil (posthumously published in 1975), at the end of chapter eight, Becker further comments on transference:

"Transference to a powerful other takes care of the overwhelmingness of the universe. Transference to a powerful other handles the fear of life and death." (p. 127)

Becker affirms the value of these often questioned practices of transference and projection, because of the need for, value of, and authenticity of relationship. Like Martin Buber, Becker affirms the role of relationship in constructing and defining the self. Accepting the need for transference, Becker proposes that there is a constructive "creative projection" (italics in text), which is healthy and valuable, especially because even an illusion can be "life-enhancing." (ibid. p. 158) Paraphrasing Martin Buber's concept of "imagining the real," Becker describes this as "seeing in the other person the self-transcending life process that gives to one's self the larger nourishment it needs." (ibid., p. 157)

Irvin D. Yalom, Emeritus professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University school of Medicine, a psychiatrist who has applied Becker's ideas on death anxiety in his practice, offers observations highly relevant to this theme of the master-disciple relationship:

"I believe that our need for mentors reflects much about our vulnerability and wish for a superior or supreme being. Many people, including myself, not only cherish our mentors but often credit them with more than they deserve....Each of us has a powerful desire to revere the great man or the great woman, to utter the thrilling words, 'Your Holiness.' Perhaps this is what Eric Fromm, in Escape from Freedom, meant by 'lust for submission.' It is the stuff from which religion emerges." (Irving Yalom, Staring at the Sun" Overcoming the Terror of Death [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008, pp 162-163] ISBN #: 978-0-7879-9668-0)

In Zen: A Rational Critique, Becker focuses more closely in on the phenomenon of introjection that lies at the heart of teh master-disciple relationship:

"Successful execution of the discipline is the road to enlightenment; one becomes 'like an awakened one who live and works in the primordial state.'....Indeed the master dominates the scene:

[quoting Herrigel in Zen and the Art of Archery :] Steep is the way to mastery. Often nothing keeps the pupil on the move but his faith in his teacher, whose mastery is now beginning to dawn on him...he [the master] convinces by his mere presence.'

"Thus the identification becomes progressively more complete -- the master possesses all the secrets, and there is no turning back into the old value system.

"The identification with the master is the beginning of the conversion, the rebirth; one actually becomes a devotee in a cause, using the introject of the master as an embodiment of the value system to be emulated.

[quoting Herrigal:] 'Wherever his way may take him, the pupil, though he may lose sight of his teacher, can never forget him. With a gratitude as great as the uncritical veneration of the beginner as strong as the saving faith of the artist, he now takes his Master's place, ready for any sacrifice.'

"The gratitude of personal devotion may outweigh the more philosophical aspects of the crusade, for it is a crusade: the service of Enlightenment, the opening of Buddha-nature to the beclouded, overly=cerebrated and over-individuated world." (Zen: A Rational Critique (1961, pp. 67-68)


Heeding Becker's critique of the dangers of transference and heroic systems as a potential destructive force, Merlyn E. Mowrey proposes a feminist solution that picks up where Becker left off. Mowrey envisions an alternative spirituality to what she identifies as the absolute transcendence of the patriarchical religions. Becker, she observes, conceded that such a religiosity offered at best "life-enhancing illusions" (Denial of Death, p. 157). Mowrey contributes a vision of a spirituality that is feminist (and feminine) as well as ecologically green. She argues that a more constructive and life-affirming spirituality would instead be based on the central symbol of the "Mother:"

"If one wanted an illusion that more nearly could tell the truth about life and death and empirical reality, the 'Mother' image would seem more appropriate. Empirically, she represents the physical creation of life, nurturance, interdependence, and symbolically, the power of nature. According to Becker's own analysis, she represents both the powers of life and the fact of death. In her symbolic link with nature and interdependence, the illusion of the deity as Mother also tells the truth about the human relationship to the physical environment. Becker believed that environmental destruction is one of the most urgent problems facing us, and he linked our lack of respect for nature with our enthusiasm for an increasing ability to control nature. He also believed that the notion that we can truly take control over nature is a lie. He failed to note, however, that this very lie is sustained by the religious illusion of absolute transcendence, which asserts that life, creativity, and power, come from beyond the physical world and tends to identify nature with death, finitude, and limitations.
"The interdependence of human beings and nature, the true cycle of life and death, and the consolations of new birth and rebirth, are reflected in the symbol of the Mother. Here immortality would be attained not by the destruction of those things that represent the body, nature, and finitude and the escape into an absolutely transcendent realm. Immortality would be attained by participation with an ongoing life force in which life was linked to the cycle of life to death and death to life..." (Merlyn E. Mowrey, "The Religious Hero and the Escape from Evil: A Feminist Challenge to Ernest Becker's Religious Mystification," in Daniel Liechty, ed. Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker [Westport: Praeger, 2002, pp. 269-280; quote appears on p. 279])

Preview of "A Prayer for the Lived Truth of Creation"

I present some of my other favorite Becker quotes (from the last three pages of Denial of Death, p. 282-284)in my May 7 entry "A Prayer for the Lived Truth of Creation" on this website ( ) , presented immediately below following the following list of additional resources on Becker's ideas.

Related Resources

Sheldon Solomon's introductory video on Becker (Part 1 of 9 part lecture):

Jeff Greenberg on Terror Management Theory (Part 1 of 3 part interview, about 24 m.):

John Danley performs the "Ernest Becker Boogie"
(a totally virtuoso guitar instrumental, a fun challenge to figure how its linked to Becker's ideas, which I think it is)

Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality (Shen & Bennick, 2005, 86m)
from Transcendental Media (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) (part 5) (part 6) (part 7) (part 8) (part 9)

Flight from Death: Medical Strategies (Deleted Scene)

Flight from Death -- Fox News (Interview with filmmakers Patrick Shen & Greg Bennick)

The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

Complete bibiographic citations to Becker's main works appear throughout the article. Some may be ordered from the Ernest Becker Foundation website which also offers a number of on-line essays and lectures that are most illuminating. EBF Website:

May this bless and enrich your journey, catalyze your transformation, and add to your loving and being loved.


As a symbol-constructing being, I want to share with you the striking coincidences that Becker was born on my daughter's birthday (September 27) and died on my mother's birth day, (March 6).

I am grateful to Sepanto Aguado who has shared a beautiful photo (that appears at the top right and also in my earlier Facebook version of this post). During her visit to Iran, Sepanto Aguado photographed this beautiful Zoroastrian Afarghan, a vessel that contains an eternal flame -- a fitting and beautiful illustration of what Becker calls an "immortality symbol."


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