Chapter XIX in Book One of Florio’s Translation of Montaigne’s Essays is entitled “That To Philosophize Is To Learne How To Die.” While dying appears to be an act that doesn’t need to be learned since it’s going to happen eventually whether we want it to or not, what Montaigne was actually referring to was the understanding of life prepares a person for all aspects of it including its end, death.
Professor Simon Critchley teaches philosophy at the New School in New York City. Here in his latest work, he provides a fascinating and humorous overview of the history of philosophy by coming at it from the perspective of the deaths of 190 or so philosophers and their writings on the subject, when applicable. Beginning in the pre-Socratic period of the sixth century B.C. with Thales, who “died at an advanced age of heat, thirst and weakness while watching an athletic contest,” the book chronicles the philosophers by the year of their birth and traverses through time and disciplines, ending with Dominique Janicaud, a former teacher of Critchley’s, who died in August 2002 “from a cardiac arrest after a swim.” As the book moves forward in time, the specifics of the deaths are better recorded.
Critchley’s good sense of humor exhibits itself on the page. In revealing that John Scottus Eriugena was stabbed to death by his students with writing “styli,” Critchley points out it is “further proof…that the pen is mightier than the sword.” He also chronicles the sense of humor of God, Fate, or whatever term fits your worldview. Marxist György Lukács did not care for the idealistic writings of Franz Kafka, but when the Soviets moved into Hungary, Lukács was arrested and imprisoned in a castle. He wasn’t told whether he would be released or held forever, and as the legend goes, his reaction was, “So Kafka was a realist after all.”
It’s interesting to see the natural schism between Christian and atheist philosophers from their writings about life and death. Hegesias from the 300s B.C. stated that the “only human concern was the avoidance of pain.” He was an advocate of suicide, although there’s no record if he was a practitioner as well. St. Augustine offered a very interesting perspective about the grief he felt for his mother’s death. He saw a part of himself lost in her death, yet his pain was compounded with guilt from the realization that it “shows how far he is still in the grip of human feelings and not sufficiently attached to God.” St Gregory of Nyssa is the only entry whose death is not covered. Instead his section deals with “his writings about the life and death of St. Macrina, his sister.”
In the “Michel Foucault” section, Critchley states, “It has been an ambition of this book to show that often the philosopher’s greatest work of art is the manner of their death.” This is certainly not always the case as Xenocrates, a philosopher of the third century B.C. and a pupil of Plato’s, died at the age of 82 by tripping over an unidentified bronze utensil during the night.
At the beginning of the first millennium Seneca wrote, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Critchley proves the point with the introduction, which contains three short essays, two about dying and one about the book. The writing is dense and not very engaging in contrast to all that follows. I was filled with trepidation, as if I had signed up for a course with boring professor, that the book was going to be a tough read, but my fears were quickly alleviated as the book proper began.
The Book of Dead Philosophers is an enjoyable read and reference book. It also disarms some of the mystique and stuffiness associated with philosophy, making a great entryway into the field. Like other great works of art, what makes the book so compelling is that it can be returned to many times over, whether in small increments or reread completely, and different perspectives can be taken away each time. Similar to Heraclitus’ idea that “you can’t step into the same river twice,” the reader won’t enter the same book twice as they are drawn back to it.