http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_DeathThe basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since man has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, man is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving his symbolic half. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an "immortality project" (or causa sui), in which he creates or becomes part of something which he feels will last forever, man feels he has "become" heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to his physical body that will die one day. This, in turn, gives man the feeling that his life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.
From this premise Becker argues that mental illness is most insightfully extrapolated as a bogging down in one's hero system(s). When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result. Schizophrenia is a step further than depression in which one's causa sui is falling apart, making it impossible to engender sufficient defense mechanisms against their mortality; henceforth, the schizophrenic has to create their own reality or "world" in which they are better heroes. Becker argues that the conflict between immortality projects which contradict each other (particularly in religion) is the wellspring for the destruction and misery in our world caused by wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since an immortality project which contradicts others indirectly suggests that the others are wrong.
Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity's traditional "hero-systems" i.e. religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason; science is attempting to solve the problem of man, something that Becker feels it can never do. The book states that we need new convincing "illusions" that enable us to feel heroic in the grand scheme of things, i.e. immortal. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of man's innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.
This makes so much sense to me that my only surprise is that someone won a Pulitzer for writing a book about it forty years ago, and that I haven't heard of it until now.
Is this already old news to everyone else here?