Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist born on September 27, 1924 and died in March 6, 1974. He wrote several books studying human nature, specifically trying to understand why man acts the way he does. He posthumously was award the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death which was published just months before his death. Today, it is widely used in university courses from psychology, anthropology, and other fields.
Ernest Becker’s works were well known for their clarity and interdisciplinary nature where Becker drew upon multiple fields from sociology to philosophy to child development. He felt there was a deep schism between academic disciplines, and it was necessary for some foundational synthesis in order for human knowledge and research to once again help solve human problems rather than seek knowledge solely for its own sake.
Ernest was an army private in World War II and has been said to been involved in rescuing a concentration camp. Not only would it have been frightening to be one of the first outsiders to see a concentration camp, Becker also had a Jewish family background. This experience along with the surrounding zeitgeist of post WWII undoubtedly shaped Becker’s later intellectual and life works.
After World War II, Becker eventually went on to Syracuse University to get his Ph. D. in cultural anthropology. It’s said that Becker choose anthropology naively because anthropology means the “study of man”. Afterward, he taught at several universities and was well liked by his students. However, his views and beliefs at the time often went against university administrators. During these years, he wrote several books which culminated in his masterpiece The Denial of Death.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says the main motivational force for human beings is the denial of one’s own mortality and seeking to overcome one’s death through an immortality project. Thus, we focus our life around certain projects to transcend our physical death whether it’s our family or our accomplishments. These projects are the “vital lies” which allow us to function day to day without the crippling awareness of our impending death. This is going against other thinkers such as Freud who argued our unconscious sexual desires dictated our lives. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker is directly drawing on psychologist Otto Rank and explicitly states if nothing else, he hopes his book will inspire readers to pick up Otto Rank’s works. Otto Rank was one of Freud’s students who did not receive as much attention as his peers such as Carl Jung or Alfred Adler.
by P Park