Ernest Becker


American-Canadian Cultural Anthropologist and Interdisciplinary Scientific Thinker and Writer

Author Quotes

Erich Fromm wondered why most people did not become insane in the face of the existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98¢.

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.

Some people are more sensitive to the lie of cultural life, to the illusions of the causa-sui project that others are so thoughtlessly and trustingly caught up in. The neurotic is having trouble with the balance of cultural illusion and natural reality; the possible horrible truth about himself and the world is seeping into his consciousness. The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is the truth, the unshakable, durable truth. He can earn his immortality in and under the dominant immortality ideology, period. It is all so simple and clear-cut. But now the neurotic.

To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.

For all organisms, then, opposing and obliterating power is evil – it threatens to stop experience. But men are truly sorry creatures because they have made death conscious. They can see evil in anything that wounds them, causes ill health, or even deprives them of pleasure. Consciousness means too that they have to be preoccupied with evil even in the absence of any immediate danger; their lives become a meditation on evil and a planned venture for controlling it and forestalling it.

Man has a basic narcissism built into himself, which naturally comes with self-esteem.

The best existential analysis of the human condition leads directly into the problems of God and faith

We are gods with anuses.

For man, maximum excitement is the confrontation of death and the skillful defiance of it by watching others fed to it as he survives transfixed with rapture.

Man is a robustly active creature; activity alone keeps him from going crazy. If he bogs down and begins to dwell on his situation, he risks releasing the neurotic fear repressed into his unconscious – that he is really impotent and will have no effect on the world. So he frantically drives himself to see his effects, to convince himself and others that he really counts..

The first thing we have to do with heroism is to lay bare its under­side, show what gives human heroics its specific nature and impetus. Here we introduce directly one of the great rediscoveries of modern thought: that of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. After Darwin the problem of death as an evolutionary one came to the fore, and many thinkers immediately saw that it was a major psychological problem for man.2 They also very quickly saw what real heroism was about, as Shaler wrote just at the turn of the century:3 heroism 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. But even before that our primate ancestors deferred to others who were extrapowerful and courageous and ignored those who were cowardly. Man has elevated animal courage into a cult.

We consult astrology charts like the Babylonians, try to make our children into our own image with a firm hand like the Romans, elbow others to get a breath-quickening glimpse of the queen in her ritual procession, and confess to the priests and attend church. And we wonder why, with all this power capital drawn from so many sources, we are deeply anxious about the meaning of our lives. The reason is plain enough: none of these, nor all of them taken together, represents an integrated world conception into which we fit ourselves with pure belief and trust.

Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem.

Man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with atowering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.

The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act. ... What would the average man (sic) do with a full consciousness of absurdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror.

We have become victims of our own art. We touch people on the outsides of their bodies, and they us, but we cannot get to their insides and cannot reveal our insides to them. This is one of the great tragedies of our interiority-it is utterly personal and unrevealable. Often we want to say something unusually intimate to a spouse, a parent, a friend, communicate something of how we are really feeling about a sunset, who we really feel we are-only to fall strangely and miserably flat. Once in a great while we succeed, sometimes more with one person, less or never with others. But the occasional break-through only proves the rule. You reach out with a disclosure, fail, and fall back bitterly into yourself.

Guilt results from unused life, from the unlived in us.

Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.

The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.

We now know that the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death... Heidegger brought these fears to the center of his existential philosophy. He argued that the basic anxiety of [humanity] is anxiety about being-in-the-world, as well as anxiety of being-in-the-world. That is, both fear of death and fear of life, of experience and individuation.

A second way of crossing the line into clinical neurosis follows naturally from everything we have said. Rank asked why the artist so often avoids clinical neurosis when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination, his openness to the finest and broadest aspects of experience, his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create—the "artiste-manque," as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an ex­ternal, active, work project. The neurotic can't marshal this creative response embodied in a specific work, and so he chokes on his in­troversions. The artist has similar large-scale introversions, but he uses them as material.17 In Rank's inspired conceptualization, the difference is put like this:

His whole argument now becomes crystal clear, as the keystone of faith crowns the structure. We can understand why anxiety "is the possibility of freedom," because anxiety demolishes "all finite aims," and so the "man who is educated by possibility is educated in accordance with his infinity."46 Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith. It is an intermediate stage between cultural conditioning, the lie of character, and the opening out of infinitude to which one can be related by faith. But without the leap into faith the new helplessness of shedding oneÂ’s character armor holds one in sheer terror. It means that one lives unprotected by armor, exposed to his aloneness and helplessness, to constant anxiety. In KierkegaardÂ’s words:

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We donÂ’t understand it simply because we donÂ’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons. What are we to make of creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types - biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into oneÂ’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out - not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in natural accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organismÂ’s comfort and expansiveness.

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.

We said that the point was that even with the highest personal development and liberation, the person comes up against the real despair of the human condition. Indeed, because of that develop­ment his eyes are opened to the reality of things; there is no turn­ing back to the comforts of a secure and armored life. The person is stuck with the full problem of himself, and yet he cannot rely on himself to make any sense out of it. For such a person, as Camus said, "the weight of days is dreadful." What does it mean, then, we questioned in Chapter Four, to talk fine-sounding phrases like "Being cognition," "the fully centered person," "full humanism," "the joy of peak experiences," or whatever, unless we seriously qualify such ideas with the burden and the dread that they also carry? Finally, with these questions we saw that we could call into doubt the pretensions of the whole therapeutic enterprise. What joy and comfort can it give to fully awakened people? Once you accept the truly desperate situation that man is in, you come to see not only that neurosis is normal, but that even psychotic failure represents only a little additional push in the routine stumbling along life's way. If repression makes an untenable life liveable, self-knowledge can entirely destroy it for some people.

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American-Canadian Cultural Anthropologist and Interdisciplinary Scientific Thinker and Writer