Quotes from The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker ·  336 pages

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“The road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“When we are young we are often puzzled by the fact that each person we admire seems to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a good man is, how to live, and so on. If we are especially sensitive it seems more than puzzling, it is disheartening. What most people usually do is to follow one person's ideas and then another's depending on who looms largest on one's horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. But as life goes on we get a perspective on this and all these different versions of truth become a little pathetic. Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life's limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Guilt results from unused life, from the unlived in us.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death



“People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“The man of knowledge in our time is bowed down under a burden he never imagined he would ever have: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Mother nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death



“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.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“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.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Better guilt than the terrible burden of freedom and responsibility.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“...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¢.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death



“The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Man cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn’t bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does. He uses all kinds of techniques, which we call the “character defenses”: he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out; he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him. He doesn’t have to have fears when his feet are solidly mired and his life mapped out in a ready-made maze. All he has to do is to plunge ahead in a compulsive style of drivenness in the “ways of the world.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“The neurotic opts out of life because he is having trouble maintaining his illusions about it, which proves nothing less than that life is possible only with illusions.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“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.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death



“What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consiousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would crate such a complex and fancy worm food?”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Relationship is thus always slavery of a kind, which leaves a residue of guilt.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“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.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


“Beyond a given point man is not helped by more “knowing,” but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.”
― Ernest Becker, quote from The Denial of Death


About the author

Ernest Becker
Born place: in Springfield, Massachusettes, The United States
Born date September 27, 1924
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