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Monday, February 16, 2009

Essay: Death: Bad? Jim Holt

To be “philosophical” about something, in common parlance, is to face it calmly, without irrational anxiety. And the paradigm of a thing to be philosophical about is death. Here Socrates is held to be the model. Sentenced to die by an Athenian court on the charge of impiety, he serenely drank the fatal cup of hemlock. Death, he told his friends, might be annihilation, in which case it is like a long, dreamless slumber; or it might be a migration of the soul from one place to another. Either way, it is nothing to be feared.

Cicero said that to philosophize is to learn how to die — a pithy statement, but a misleading one. There is more to philosophizing than that. Broadly speaking, philosophy has three concerns: how the world hangs together, how our beliefs can be justified, and how to live. Arguably, learning how to die fits under the third of these. If you wanted to get rhetorically elastic about it, you might even say that by learning how to die we learn how to live.

That thought is more or less the inspiration behind Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage, paper, $15.95). What defines bourgeois life in the West today is our pervasive dread of death — so claims Critchley, a philosophy professor at the New School in New York. (He wrote this book, he tells us more than once, on a hill overlooking Los Angeles — which, because of “its peculiar terror of annihilation,” is “surely a candidate city for the world capital of death.”) As long as we are afraid of death, Critchley thinks, we cannot really be happy. And one way to overcome this fear is by looking to the example of philosophers. “I want to defend the ideal of the philosophical death,” Critchley writes.

So he takes us on a breezy and often entertaining tour through the history of philosophy, looking at how 190 or so philosophers from ancient times to the present lived and died. Not all of the deaths recounted are as edifying as Socrates’. Plato, for example, may have died of a lice infestation. The Enlightenment thinker La Mettrie seemed to have expired after eating a quantity of truffle pâté. Several deaths are precipitated by collisions: Montaigne’s brother was killed by a tennis ball; Rousseau died of cerebral bleeding, possibly as a result of being knocked down by a galloping Great Dane; and Roland Barthes was blindsided by a dry-cleaning truck. The American pragmatist John Dewey, who lived into his 90s, came to the most banal end of all: he broke his hip and then succumbed to pneumonia.


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