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Book Summaries Psychology

Chapter 2: The Terror of Death (The Denial of Death)

One of the main things that move man is the fear of death and heroism is a direct response to this modern rediscovery.

Our primate ancestors ignored the cowardly and deferred to those who were extra-powerful.

Man has elevated animal courage into a cult.

The ceremonies of Christ’s rise form the death is a symbolic representation of the victory over death. Hinduism and Buddhism performed the brilliant trick of not wanting to be reborn, which is the negation of what they truly want. And since philosophy took over from religion, death became the real “muse” of philosophy since the ancient Greeks through to Heidegger.

The Healthy Minded Argument

Some people claim that the fear of death is not natural, that men are not born with it, since children only acknolwedge their own mortality at the age of 4 or 5. This is not surprising since the world of children is so far removed from the world of abstract ideas?

But those who think that fear of death is not natural think that a healthy upbringing alleviates these fears. This  school of thought says that society and parental upbringing constricts the freedom of the child to be expansive and to explore. and so the child rebels. The movement towards unrepressed living, an abandonment of shame and guilt is a response to the societal prerogative to keep people in submission.

Further, there are people who are generally sour in their disposition, or they have gone through tragic experiences that has embedded this fear into their psyche. But under normal conditions, people ought not to have a fear of death – this is the “healthy minded argument.”

The Morbidly Minded Argument

The other perspective, and the one Becker subscribes to, acknowledges that upbringing may affect a person’s level of anxiety, but also that the fear of death is a basic instinct. It argues that self-preservation would not exist if there was no fear of death that it could oppose. But if this fear was constantly conscious, we wouldn’t be able to function, so it must be repressed if we are to live with any level of comfort.

The Darwinians proposed that early men who were the most afraid of death were most realistic about their situation, and this realism had a high survival value – thus emerged man as we know him, the hyperanxious animal who creates reasons to be anxious even if they do not exist.

The psychoanalytic argument is less speculative and should be taken more seriously, it shows us that the child’s inner world is more filled with terror the more the child different from other animals. The child is naturally programmed with a fear response, but they are confused by the cause-effect relationships they see.

For example, when they feel hungry, they mumble and then magically, a warm, soothing figure feeds them. But when this need is not met, the child directs anger towards the parents. This is only one of many cause-effect relationships that the child cannot understand or properly master, and since the child has a weak ego and no way of organizing their perceptions of the world, they feel terror – they live with a sense of inner chaos that is alien to other animals.

The Disappearance of the Fear of Death

For most people, the fear of death is taken care of by repression. But this does not mean that the fear was never there.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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