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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What’s It All About, Diogenes?

Heraclitus, who believed that everything was in a state of flux, died, according to one account, of drowning in cow dung. The philosopher Francis Bacon, that great champion of the empirical method, died of his own philosophy: in an effort to observe the effects of refrigeration, on a freezing cold day he stuffed a chicken with snow and caught pneumonia.

As a philosopher dies, so he has lived and believed. And from the manner of his dying we can understand his thinking, or so the philosopher Simon Critchley seems to be saying in his cheekily titled “Book of Dead Philosophers.”

Mr. Critchley has taken as his thesis Cicero’s axiom “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” That is, to understand the meaning of life the philosopher must try to understand death and its meaning, or possibly its lack of meaning. And for Mr. Critchley you cannot separate the spirit of philosophy from the body of the philosopher. As he says, “The history of philosophy can be approached as a history of philosophers that proceeds by examples remembered, often noble and virtuous, but sometimes base and comical.” He adds, “The manner of the death of philosophers humanizes them and shows that, despite the lofty reach of their intellect, they have to cope with the hand life deals them like the rest of us.”


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