Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Book of Dead Philosophers

The Book of Dead Philosophers
By Simon Critchley
Vintage Books; $15.95, paper
ISBN 978-0-3073-9043-1

We need to study philosophy, if only to discover how to live. Simon Critchley adopts this as his thesis, writing, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” he says, quoting Cicero. And death, in Critchley’s view is just a part of life. So it is in his book about philosophers and their deaths that we get a glimpse of how to live, even as we examine the last moments of the greatest thinkers in human history.

Writers want to sell books, and Critchley seems to have selected his focus here with that in mind. However, he also manages to weave in a healthy dose of the great men and women’s views and ideas along with the story of each one’s demise. The only complaint would be that he also includes apocryphal stories that are interesting and sometimes chilling, but untrue.

He begins the book with an introduction that takes great pains to establish the criteria and parameters of his work. He quotes Montaigne regarding the preoccupation with death: “So I have formed the habit of having death continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth.” Critchley goes on to write that “the philosopher looks death in the face and has the strength to say it is nothing.” He believes that in death, these philosophers will teach us about life and more importantly, how to live.

Socrates, Critchley says, saw death as a good thing. “Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another.” He believes that the study of philosophy is not easily measured out. It cannot be “bought or sold like a commodity in the marketplace.” Although a demanding subject, the study of philosophy offers the reward of wisdom and insight. Critchley goes even further, saying philosophy is “erotic, not just epistemic.”

After the preliminaries are out of the way, we launch into the 190 or so dead guys and gals. Critchley divides the book up chronologically, beginning with the Pre-Socratics, Physiologists, Sages and Sophists, and concluding with more recent thinkers like Albert Camus, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Some, like Pythagoras (580-500 B.C.) get a brief essay. Others receive a sentence or two. But herein lies the example of the apocryphal: Critchley writes that most classical scholars assume Pythagoras never existed. So can we include a figure who is more legend than truth in this discussion? Critchley does.

He also includes figures that span several disciplines, like drama and literature, mathematics, astronomy, and religion. However, his reasoning is sound because even though writers like the Greek dramatist Aeschylus used the theatre to convey his point of view, each arguably contributed to a particular school of philosophy. This is one of the successes of the book that writers and thinkers from other disciplines are included. Critchley demonstrates the universality of thought in this inclusion; philosophy is indeed a broad canvas involving many artists.

Along the way, Critchley conveys some good stories with the great ideas. Of Maimonides, he writes “It is an irony from which the contemporary world might learn that the person whom many regard as the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time should have emerged from the Islamic world.”

He tells us that William of Ockham (1285-1347/9) never used the term for which he is best known: “Ockham’s razor.” Although Ockham did have a “predilection for empirical evidence and logical analysis as a way of cutting through the nonsense.”

Then there are the deaths, and in a book with this title, one can expect a cavalcade of departures for the netherworld. Nietzsche, who “seems to have been coprophagic, that is, to have been partial to eating his own faeces and drinking his own urine,” died after kissing a horse; Plato, quite possibly died of a lice infestation; Edith Stein, perished in a concentration camp during the Second World War; and Simone Weil starved herself to death in solidarity with the citizens of France during the occupation in the same war.

Critchley even includes himself as the last philosopher, keeping his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to the end: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

All in all, Critchley’s book is interesting and compelling. He manages to work in some of the great ideas along with the death toll. What normally would be the last chapter in the biography, we get summed up in a few lines for each thinker throughout the book.

Even though the writer strives to give us thumbnail sketch of each philosopher’s life, times, views and death, the context is still a little shallow. Really understanding how to live, how to be human, how to behave morally in a duplicitous world, that takes study and in-depth analysis. Critchley tries to give the reader the lesson by focusing on the last moments, the transition from light to dark, but he serves only to pique our interest. To truly understand and evaluate the wisdom of these sages requires a longer journey.

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