Monday March 16th, 2009

Don’t Fear the Reaper

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley
Vintage, 304 pp., $15.95

Of the nearly 200 philosophers in Simon Critchley’s surprisingly lively catalog of how the world’s deepest thinkers have coped (or failed to cope) with the idea of death, Epicurus most artfully summarizes the problem: “Against other things it is possible to obtain security,” he said. “But when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city.”

Critchley doesn’t promise security, but he does think that philosophy can provide a useful alternative to what he considers our two most common ways of confronting mortality: willfully ignoring it or holding religious faith in an afterlife. In his introduction, he writes: “. . . it is my belief that philosophy can teach a readiness for death without which any conception of contentment, let alone happiness, is illusory. . . . My wager is that in learning how to die we might also be taught how to live.”

We’ll put aside a verdict on that wager until later, and focus instead on the morbid pleasures afforded by this collection of brief biographies. (The book is arranged more or less chronologically, and more or less by philosophical school, and many of its subjects receive only a paragraph or two of attention.) With a title like The Book of Dead Philosophers, you might be prepared for a dry trip, but it’s about as placid and free of incident as an account of a Spinal Tap tour. Noted philosophers have died of beheadings (Thomas More), fatal stabbings by secretaries (Siger of Brabant) and students (John Scottus Eriugena), opium poisoning (Avicenna), and botched self-administered enemas (Avicenna again, sadly for him). The book is also a litany of intentional, sometimes stupendously stupid behavior. Men hailed for their brilliance have died by jumping into a volcano (Empedocles), holding their breath (Diogenes), and covering themselves in cow dung (Heracleitus, who believed it might cure his dropsy). Critchley: “Now, there are two stories of Heracleitus dying . . . In the first story, the cow dung is wet and the weeping philosopher drowns; in the second, it is dry and he is baked to death in the Ionian sun.” Whichever version is correct, he briefly outlived his dignity.

Often caricatured as overly sensitive souls detached from reality, the evidence in Critchley’s book suggests that philosophers should consider becoming even further detached from reality. When they venture out of doors, tragedy tends to ensue: John Stuart Mill “caught a chill after a fifteen-mile walk” and died four days later. Thoreau contracted a fatal case of bronchitis after “a typical late-night excursion to count the rings on tree stumps during a rainy night.” William James’ habit of “vigorous hiking in the mountains” is thought to have caused the heart condition that killed him. St. Thomas Aquinas died after banging his head on a tree.

If there is a lesson in the book — besides “Stay inside” — it’s the democratic indignity of death. As great a thinker as Voltaire, more than 60 years after he died, had his remains stolen by a royalist religious group and “dumped in a garbage heap.” Camus “once said that he couldn’t imagine a death more meaningless than dying in a car accident.” If you don’t know how he died, you can guess. This is to say nothing of Jeremy Bentham, whose head was used as a soccer ball on the campus of University College London. (Bentham comes in for some of the blame here, having dictated that his preserved remains be publicly displayed in a glass case on the school’s grounds. There’s a philosophical rightness to his noggin’s fate, too, since Critchley reports that Bentham wanted his corpse exhibited “in order to maximize the utility of his person.” Well, there were no other soccer balls around.)

The book’s pleasures mostly accrue in this way, as a punchy gathering of facts and anecdotes, but Critchley does allow himself a few lengthier, satisfying digressions. These include three full pages on Zhuangzi, a classical Chinese philosopher, and a thoughtful consideration of the right to suicide, inspired by the arguments of the obscure Italian philosopher Count Alberto Radicati di Passerano. Critchley’s only glaring flaw is a penchant for groan-inducing wordplay. We learn the story of how Thomas More “nearly became no more,” and how John Rawls “slipped behind the veil of ignorance after heart failure.”

But what of the book’s larger aim? In his profile of Montaigne, Critchley revisits his thesis, writing that, “Philosophy is the way in which a human being can prepare him- or herself for death.” This is on page 114, by which time I thought the author might have taken a clue from the cavalcade of idiocy and tragedy and stopped playing that note as heavily. After all, as Roland Barthes in particular can tell you, it’s difficult to prepare for being struck by a laundry van.

If intellectual heavyweights are as easily rope-a-doped by death as the rest of us, one wonders if we shouldn’t also look further afield for insight. What about comedians, for instance? Their attitude of laughing at death is equally effective at warding it off. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen said. “I want to achieve it through not dying.” (Allen may have been inspired by Denis Diderot, who wrote, Critchley tells us, “The object of my desires is not to live better, but not to die.”) Chris Rock would also warrant inclusion, for his dismal astrological predictions: “Here’s a horoscope for everyone: Aquarius, you’re gonna die; Capricorn, you’re gonna die . . . Leo, you’re gonna die.” I imagine Rock would have a laugh at the expense of Demetrius, whose entire life is reduced to five words by Critchley: “Fatally bitten by an asp.”

Sure, the Stoics advised us to be . . . stoical in the face of death. And Eastern philosophers have posited our big finale as just another mystery to be accepted. But how are these schemas different from the balm offered by religion, if they too allow people to live with less dread without actually changing the facts of death? The religious are often ridiculed for believing in fairy tales in order to soothe their mortal fears, but do philosophers lead us to a substantively different peace? To accept the finality, absurdity, and possible grace of death, one might do best to memorize the words of John Locke, whose tombstone bears an epitaph that he wrote:

Near this place lies John Locke . . . contented with his modest lot [. . .]. His virtues, if he had any, were too slight to serve either to his own credit or as an example to you. Let his vices be interred with him.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.