The Denial of Death

I’ve long believed fear of death is the driving force behind almost everything we do, particularly Culture-writ-large. And when it comes to culture, the magnitude of that driving force is proportionally related to how sublimated that fear of death is.

In many ways, I came to such a conclusion (as I’m sure many of us have) by myself. I have read Ernest Becker’s wonderful The Denial of Death, still a relevant classic from 1973, and have been greatly intrigued by anti-natalism (e.g., Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race).

The question of falsifiability, or lack thereof, is — from a certain perspective — a problem for the idea that fear of death drives culture, personal ambition, and the like. In “Death Denial“, Marc Parry profiles three guys behind the quasi-formation of “terror-management theory“:

Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski have now spent a quarter-century studying how the fear of death shapes human affairs. The result is an empirical behemoth built on the foundation of a few simple propositions. One, that our awareness of death creates tremendous potential for anxiety or terror. Two, that we learn to manage that terror by embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability. Three, that we gain and maintain psychological security by sustaining faith in that worldview and living up to the values it conveys. By the researchers’ tally, more than 500 studies, in more than 25 countries, have supported hypotheses derived from this theory…

One voice that appears over and over is Becker’s. “Although the idea that humans dread death and are preoccupied with transcending it has been floating around since antiquity in both religious and philosophical thought,” Solomon writes, “Becker seized readers by the throat in 1973 with his powerful articulation of this notion in The Denial of Death.” Becker’s book plumbed the depths of everyday human motivation. His analysis boiled down to the problem of death: We’re animals driven to keep living, but unlike other species we know that we’re going to die. Becker viewed this as a unique psychological burden. We wouldn’t be able to function if we faced it fully. So the fear of death, he argued, impels us to try to feel that we’re significant beings in a meaningful world. We do that by living out our lives in a symbolic reality in which we will somehow continue on beyond our physical death. We might believe in an immortal soul. Even if we don’t, we still believe in our identity.

Of the trio’s empirical findings, I found this one fascinating:

A slew of studies followed, many showing in one way or another how death reminders lead people to criticize and punish people who oppose or violate their beliefs and praise and reward those who support or uphold them. In one study, Christians who were reminded of death liked fellow Christians more and Jews less, while in a control condition they didn’t discriminate between them. In another, participants were asked to rate pro- and anti-American comments by professors purportedly interviewed in a political-science journal. People reminded of death rated the pro-American interviewee much more positively and the anti-American much more negatively. Another study found that students reminded of death were more aggressive toward people who disagreed with their political beliefs.

In general, and with respect to the general fear-of-death thesis explored in philosophy and literature, the Germans and similar ilk (figures such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jung, etc.) have been a 100 years ahead of everyone else.

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