Homage to Ernest Becker


One of the most interesting academics has to be Ernest Becker, an American philosopher who ended up teaching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Becker saw humans as fearful little creatures that have a relatively short lifespan and are beset with an anxiety that dominates their lives – the fear of death.

According to Becker, the key attribute that separates us from animals is our self-awareness which gives rise to awe and dread. In the words of Sheldon Solomon, an interpreter of Becker, for humans “It’s both awesome and dreadful to be here and know it.” Our self-awareness gives rise to a fear which may overcome us at any time.

According to Becker, we realize how vulnerable we are and deal with this knowledge by creating “symbolic immortality” – through myths and religions. We invent gods and “life everlasting” to satisfy our craving for continuity “beyond death.” Such myths of transcendence soothe our anxieties, but they are fictions.

We have also invented other coping mechanisms that address our fears. These include, in Becker’s words, “immortality projects” which, like monuments and gravestones that bear our names after we are gone – as if it mattered. Some people become famous in order to “outlive” their expiry date. Others have children that bear their names, as if this could immortalize the parents.

Trump Tower chicago

 One Little Man’s Eternity Project

Heroism, too, leads to a symbolic immortality. Even today we know the heroic warriors of ancient Greece, the Caesars of Rome, and the emperors of China, or the names of heroes in our families. Thus we try to outlive our brief existence because we fear the truth of our own insignificance in the cosmos.

All attempts at immortality are delusions. There is no transcendence as there is no getting past death. Becker’s message is that we should face reality, accept the inevitable, and live a moral life despite the lack of heavenly rewards. But why not just continue with business as usual?

Part of what should be life is to see things as objectively as possible, to live “authentically,” in the words of Existentialist philosophy. Only with a relatively objective vision can we act according to what needs to be done instead of acting out of subconscious drives that lead us in harmful directions.

For instance, the executives of oil companies, and other giant corporations, are acting out of subconscious motives to increase their personal wealth and egos, to the detriment of the world’s environment. They know not what they do, or they don’t know why they do it – or they just don’t give a shit. And so they continue to waste the globe, driven by a need to “assure” their own immortality.

Knowledge of death is something we ignore in order to live without it hanging over our heads. Yet we are fascinated by it enough to fill our movies with murder and mayhem. We love seeing people and things getting blown up; we enjoy a little thrill at “being killed” (or killing others) without the pain and horror associated with it.

But we also do our utmost to extend life, as though we could “conquer” it. This is another comforting illusion. If we are ever to mature as humans, we need to understand the profound truth of life and death, live to fulfill our potential, and go gracefully when the time comes. As they say in Buddhism, it matters how we die.

Awareness is the key to understanding and leading a good life. By this, we mean being mindful of the consequences of our actions, being careful in the thoughts and attitudes we cultivate. We should “review” periodically what we think, what we value, and how we behave towards others and ourselves. What is most important to you?

Many have no idea because they have never posed the question to themselves. But life is finite and can end at any time, so why not live it awake rather than beclouded with mindless activity, unsatisfactory routines, jobs that bore us to death, literally?

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