Kagan notes on Ernest Becker's Birth and Death of Meaning, second edition (New York: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1971)

Warning: These notes are meant to function as minimal highlighting commentary on Becker's text. Comments, additions, and corrections are welcome. Please send them to

Michael Kagan
Le Moyne College Department of Philosophy
Syracuse, NY 13214
Email: KAGAN@lemoyne.edu 

For a fairly current and extended interpretation and evaluation of Becker's work, see my Educating Heroes: The Implications of Ernest Becker's Depth Psychology of Heroism for Philosophy of Education (Durango, Colorado: Hollowbrook Publishing, 1994), available in the Le Moyne library. (It should be on reserve.) I also recommend Sally Kenel's Mortal Gods: Ernest Becker and Fundamental Theology (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), also in our library's collection.

Note: For Arija Liepkalnietis’ translation of this page into Latvian, see


For TTH sections discuss Ernest Becker's life and work, and chapters 1-3

For MW sections review chapters 1-3, (food sharing, cooperation; primates perpetually "in heat"; development of the ego to and the ability to ward off anxiety and develop the I while discovering the body.

Ch 4: Discuss how according to Becker we are the victims of our own art, the pseudopodal self.

Ch. 5 Discuss Anxiety and socialization

Ch 6 Oedipus Complex reconstructed as the dispossession of the internal world and restriction of experience. Discuss the Zen circles and the broken dish on p. 60. Reminder about Becker's early work on Zen.

Ch 7. Discuss the Inner Newsreel (p. 68) in terms of self-esteem maintenance and in terms of constructive behavior.

Chapters. 8 and 9 the standardization and staging of self esteem. Discuss the issue of face (p. 89) and face saving (e.g., p. 102). The terror of Goffman; the haunting potlatch and body counts. The replacement of the unseen with that which neatly piles up in to measurable stacks.

Ch. 10. The 6 problems. P. 114. Review and Discuss. P. 199 the invisible world; p. 123 the mission to earth. P. 125 the function of culture. P. 125, ft., the present problem. P. 126, the BIG question. Which fictions are closer to truth and allowing us to experience more.

Ch. 11. Abnormality as spoiling the show . P. 153 the Highest standard in terms of the real and recognizing one's own cultural fictions (154).

Ch 12. The Science of anthropos. p. 158, Our own cultural system as blinders. 159, Our limits. 160-- the challenges of slavery stupidity and fear. 164-174 the ways we go wrong. 174 -Human nature as an ideal (remember Confucius here). The bearer of tensions and supporter of contradictions.

Ch. 13, Religion as the quest for this ideal heroism. P. 186, 13 the 4 levels of self P. 193 a test for religious authenticity. Authentic religion challenges persons to overcome their idolatry, recognize their own heroic quest, and face the terror of true human heroism.


Bringing Becker to bear on the problem of education. Discuss the solution of Educating Heroes in terms of Becker's work and the example cultures. The heroic status of true student as bearer of contradictions, apprentice scholar, and future ruler.

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